Archive for the ‘19th Century’ Category

The Declaration of Sentiments

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

This sounds quite familiar, and yet, something in that sentence is not quite “right”.

Just one word. One word is enough to makes this quote not the famous quote from the Declaration of Independence, but a different one. That extra word is the word “women”.

On 20 May 1848, a group of women - and men- approved a Declaration at a convention convened at Seneca Falls, New York on 19 and 20 May 1848 to discuss the rights of women.

Over 300 women and men met and debated the text of a Declaration, which is known as the Declaration of Sentiments.

Two women were the driving force behind this declaration, Elizabeth Cady Stanton who drafted the text and Lucrecia Mott. The two had met eight years earlier, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

Lucrecia Mott had traveled to England with her husband, a Quaker minister, and a staunch abolitionist. They had been chosen to serve as delegates to the Convention because of their abolitionist activities. Such activities included refusing to use the product of slave labour, cotton and cane sugar in particular, as did other Hicksite Quakers. But the Motts also traveled to advocate for abolition, and they sheltered runaway slaves.

At the London convention, no seats were made available to women delegates. It is then that Lucrecia met Elizabeth, who was attending with her husband Henry. Both decided the time had come for a convention to discuss the rights of women.

Born in a wealthy New York family, Elizabeth had managed to convince her father that she needed to go to college, where she studied philosophy and logic.

It is thanks to that education that she was able to draft the Declaration of Sentiments. But it took eight years before the convention could be held.

And it took over eighty years for the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution - granting the right to vote to women - to be proposed in 1919, and ratified on 18 August 1920.

Another Harriet

Monday, June 28th, 2010

As Ghana is the only African country left in the World Cup competition, now seems like a good time to honour the other 19th Century Harriet who, like Harriet Beecher-Stowe, fought for the freedom of slaves in the United States.

Harriet Tubman, Peekskill

Harriet Tubman remembered, Peekskill, NY

Although little is known of Harriet Tubman’s origins, including the actual year of her birth, it is said that her maternal grandmother Modesty - who arrived in America on a slave ship - was of Ashanti origin, and was probably captured in what is now Ghana.

Born a slave in Maryland, Harriet Tubman escaped to eventually become one of the main conductors of the Underground Railroad, a nurse and a spy during the Civil War, and a suffragist.

In 1849, as was frequently the case following the death of a slave’s master, Harriet was going to be sold and separated from her family. A fighter who had learned from her mother the power of action, rather than passively waiting for that fate to become hers, Harriet chose to escape. A runaway notice published two weeks following her escape describes her as being about 27 year old, of a chestnut color, fine looking, and about 5.2 feet high.

The same notice also described her two brothers, Harry and Ben who escaped with her. A $100 reward was promised to whoever would help capture any one of the fugitives. Shortly following the issue of that notice, Ben had a change of heart, having left behind a young wife and a new-born. But he could not return alone, so the three siblings went back to Maryland.

It did not take long before Harriet escaped again, setting out on foot. This time she was alone and entrusted her fate to the various agents, conductors and other activists who all played a role in supporting the Underground Railway. The Maryland Quaker community was quite involved in helping runaway slaves. Harriet would walk by night, and rest during the day, and eventually arrived in Philadelphia where she could live as a free person.

There, Harriet started working and saved every penny she could. That money was to help accomplish her goal: go back to Maryland and help her family escape.

And back to Maryland she did go, not just once, but a few times. Each trip made her braver and more determined. Each trip, she escorted family members on the road that would lead them to freedom. Brothers Ben, Harry and their families were among those she helped. When family members decided not to go, she found volunteers to take their place.

Harriet had become one of the Underground Railroad conductors - the conductors were the ones who would escort runaway slaves - and as such was known as Moses. For eleven years, Harriet led slaves to freedom, encouraging and directing them, showing them the way, and when necessary using the threat of a convincing pistol to dissuade any slave who wanted to turn around and go back. There was no going back. She is said to have made the trip up to 13 times, and helped more than 60 slaves to escape, including her family members.

They would prefer the winter months as chances of meeting people walking around at night were much less likely. They would also usually escape over the weekend, as it gave the fugitives two days before their escape could be reported in the newspapers.

As more and more slaves escaped, Harriet’s fame grew and the possibility of her being recognized became a real concern. But she knew how to respond to emergencies. Once, when sitting next to someone who could have recognized her, she just picked up a newspaper, and pretended to read. She was publically known as illiterate. Her reading made her a different person.

10 years following her escape, Harriet had not only guided over 60 slaves to freedom, she had also managed to put away enough money to buy a piece of land in Auburn, New York. The land became a refuge for the family and runaway slaves.

The Civil War brought Tubman back south, where she became a nurse in Port Royal, South Carolina. She also led a group of scouts and help map the terrain around Port Royal, and in June 1863 led an armed assault on a group of plantations along the Combahee River Raid. As a result of that raid, more than seven hundred slaves were rescued.

In the 1890’s, Harriet joined the cause of women’s suffrage, and became a regular speaker during meetings advocating the right to vote for women.

African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Peekskill, NY

African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Peekskill, NY

A banner in Peekskill, NY, serves as a reminder that the town was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Many a fugitive who reached Peekskill would look for McGregory Brook, which they knew they would need to follow upstream to arrive at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. A network of AME Zion Churches quickly had developed following the establishment of the first Church in Philadelphia in 1816 by former slave Richard Allen. Church members made it their mission to assist runaway slaves.

The Peekskill AME Zion Church, established in 1852, still stands on Park Street, but the original building is now occupied by the Church of the Comforter, while the AME Zion Church congregation moved to the building next door, the former St. Peter and Paul’s Church. According to the Peekskill banner remembering Tubman, Harriet is said to have been a member of the congregation, although she settled with her family further North, in Auburn, NY.

Bringing the President to the people

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Lincoln Freight Depot, Peekskill, NY

Lincoln Freight Depot, Peekskill, NY

An enclosed yard in the vicinity of the Peekskill train station protects the historical spot where President-elect Abraham Lincoln made a whistle-stop on February 19, 1861.

A statue represents Lincoln as he addressed the crowd that came to meet him that day, when he stopped in Peekskill, en route from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C.

Contemporary accounts of the event describe a very tall, neatly dressed and tired man as Lincoln stepped from the rear car onto the platform prepared to receive him.

He looked jaded, fatigued, as if just aroused from a nap, but when he commenced speaking, his whole countenance lighted up.

More than 1,500 people greeted him, representing half of the town’s population. The welcoming address was delivered by Peekskill attorney William Nelson, who had invited the President-elect to stop in the Westchester town. Nelson had served in the House of Representatives and had become friends with the Representative from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. They shared political views, in particular anti-slavery convictions.

Abraham Lincoln, Peekskill, Westchester

Abraham Lincoln, Peekskill, NY

In response to Nelson’s address, which mentioned the difficulties ahead for the President-elect, Lincoln gave a short speech, no longer than 140 words, and stated:

I will say in a single sentence, in regard to the difficulties which lie before me and our beloved country, that if I can only be as generously and unanimously sustained as the demonstrations I have witnessed indicate I shall be, I shall not fail.

The train conductor concluded Lincoln’s brief statementt with a Time’s up! shout. And off the train moved with a bowing President-elect, hat in hand.

The whole event cannot have lasted more than 30 minutes, the time it took to refill the water tanks and load up on wood.

Stops had to be short: an abolitionist President was not welcome by the secessionists and a number of Southern States had already withdrawn from the Union. Assassination attempts were a distinct possibility and all necessary security measures had been taken. Lincoln is said to have had to sneak through Baltimore at night, while his wife who was following in a separate train was met there by an outright hostile crowd.

It was just over eleven years before the event that the Hudson River Railroad had arrived in Peekskill, in September 1849. By using this new mode of transportation while at the same time meeting his constituency, Lincoln inaugurated what for years has been a staple of any American electoral campaign. To honour a predecessor he admired, President-elect Obama followed in Lincoln’s track by taking a pre-inaugural whistle-stop train trip from Chicago to Washington D.C. in January 2009.

For centuries, trying to bring leaders closer to their constituency has been a concern. There was a time when once a year - if not once in a decade - elaborate ceremonies during which a country leader would make an appearance in full regalia would suffice to keep the people satisfied. His very presence attested to the physical reality of his existence, however distant the leader may have been from the crowds.

Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue

Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue, Rome

Formal processions, from Cleopatra’s slave-pulled floats to Queen Elizabeth’s annual progresses would ensure the people would get a glimpse of their sovereign, thereby contributing to ensure continued devotion to their ruler. There seemed to have been no fear for that leader’s security.

The tangibility of the ruler’s physical presence was reassuring and the security risk limited. On a more regular basis, minted coins bearing the leader’s head - such as the gold English sovereign, first issued in 1489 for Henry VII of England - would popularize the image of the sovereign, and help in asserting his power. Imposing, larger than life, representations of the leader, such as equestrian statues, would also be placed on cities main squares as a  reminder of the might of this leader. Marcus Aurelius, Louis XIV or Peter the Great’s equestrian statues are famous examples of these monumental images.

It is said that, during the famous flight to Varennes when Louis XVI of France tried to escape from Paris with his family, disguised as servants, he was recognized because his face appeared on money. Some stories mention the revolutionary banknotes, assignats, while others evoke gold coins.

The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century have resorted to similar oversize representations of their leaders, from fascist Italy to Nazi Germany, to communist Russia and China. Equally important was the actual participation of the leader in elaborate ceremonies where he could be recognized as a small spot in the distance. Trust played an important part in these ceremonies as the leader’s presence was an essential element of the well-oiled propaganda machinery. Charles Chaplin has played with this in the movie The Dictator where a Jewish barber, a look alike of the totalitarian leader of the country, takes the dictator’s place and sends his own, and different, message of hope to a cheering crowd. The mesmerized crowd is no longer able to think and will cheer any speech, regardless of the message.

Beyond trying to limit the time during which a leader would be exposed, as was the case for Lincoln’s train trip, ensuring security of the leader in public appearances has become a major issue in a world now only too accustomed to political assassinations. The 19th and 20th centuries have seen a number of world leaders falling victims of assassins as their views or programmes were controversial.

Lincoln was the first American President to be assassinated, only four years following his Peekskill visit. In April 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate spy, jumped into the state box at the Ford Theater and killed the President.

Other American historical leaders have perished victims of their political opponents. Two Kennedy brothers were assassinated in the 1960’s. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed first, and died in his third year in office, in November 1963, while being driven in an open car procession, in Dallas, Texas. His brother, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while running for President, in June 1968, as he took a short-cut through a hotel kitchen. Following his death, all US Presidential candidates have been assigned Secret Service protection.

A little bit earlier that year, in March 1968, Civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martin Luther King was also assassinated. During a visit to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking workers, he was shot while standing on the balcony of his motel room.

Other famous 20th century leaders were assassinated by political opponents during public appearances. On 30 January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was killed by a Hindu nationalist as he was walking to address a prayer meeting.

In an ever increasing escalation of violence, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was killed during a political rally in 2007. After she was shot, a suicide bomb detonated, killing Bhutto and an estimated 23 other people.

Before the 19th century, rarer have been historical assassinations that targeted country rulers. Two famous ones however took place during the religious wars at a time when the Reformation was dividing Europe.

Willem of Orange, the Dutch stadtholder, a defender of religious freedom, perished a victim of a French Roman Catholic fanatic. Born a Lutheran, and educated as a Roman Catholic, in July 1584, Willem was assassinated by Balthasar Gerard in his Delft home, in the Prinsenhof.

Plaque marking the spot where Henry IV was killed, Rue de la Ferronerie, Paris

Plaque marking the spot where Henry IV was killed, Rue de la Ferronerie, Paris

Gerard had gained access to the house under false pretense, and killed Willem with two bullets at close range.

A contemporary of Willem, Henry IV of France, the Protestant king who converted to Catholicism, had signed the Edict of Nantes that recognized freedom of religion in the kingdom of France, and the co-existence of two religions. The Edict brought an end to decades of religious wars. On May 14, 1610, he too was assassinated by French Roman Catholic fanatic Ravaillac as he was passing in his carriage through Rue de la Ferronerie.

Plaque to Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Geneva

Plaque to Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, Geneva

The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th were also marked by a number of political assassinations. Reformer Russian Czar Alexander fell victim to an assassination plot, on March 13, 1881, marking the end of civil liberties and the reform effort.

On September 10, 1898, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria was stabbed and killed by anarchist Luigi Lucheni, who wanted to kill a royal. Elisabeth was walking on the promenade next to Lake Geneva, and was about to board a steamship to Montreux.

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo, were shot dead as they were riding side by side in an open car. The double assassination led to World War I, one month later.

Abigail, Lydia, Amanda, Elizabeth and Sara

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Abigail, daughter of Hazard and Mary Field.

Lydia, Old Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, NY

Lydia, wife of David Knapp.

Amanda  M., wife of Hiram Williams and daughter of the late Jordan McCord.

Our mother, Elizabeth Hart, daughter of Samuel Hart, wife of Martin Brown.

Abigail died in 1874, aged 66 years, 5 mo. & 10 d.s. Lydia also died at 66 in 1853, and Amanda at 28 in 1832. Elizabeth was 52 when she died in 1849. 

Sara Fochee Huisvrouw, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, NY

 

Earlier tombstones sometimes have been engraved in Dutch, such as the one of Sara in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery: Sara Fochee Huisvrouw Van John Enters Geboren Den 20 October 1717 Gestorven Den 26 December 1769… Sara, John Enters’ wife, was therefore 52 year old when she died in 1769. 

Tombstones in American cemeteries reflect the extent to which women of the 18th and 19th centuries were subject to the rules of a patriarchal society.

Elizabeth Hart, mother, daughter, wife, Old Baptist Church Cemetary, Yorktown, NY

Elizabeth Hart, mother, daughter, wife, Old Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, NY

Their identity is always defined in relation to a man: a husband, a father, or their children. Elizabeth Hart’s tombstone is sacred to the memory of our mother, daughter and wife, but is fortunate enough to have her maiden name mentioned. 

Lydia’s tomb stands just next to her husband’s. David Knapp however is remembered as himself, with no mention of his wife deemed required.

Stone Family Tombstones, Sleepy Hollow Cemetary, NY

Stone Family Tombstones, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, NY

Dudley and Mother, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Maybe even more striking is an ensemble of tombstones in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery erected to the memory of the Stone family. Next to Lawrence, Frederick, Sydney and Dudley is a nameless Mother, who will forever rest in anonymous peace next to her identified male relatives.

Women then did not have the right to vote, did not have the right to own property, had no reproductive rights, nor legal rights over their children, but could be taxed. As evidenced by the social testimony borne by their tombstones, they did not have a right to be remembered as individuals either.

If the comparison can be made, one century later, an Eleanor, who did not have to chose to retain her maiden name and is remembered as one of the staunchest advocates of human rights, is honoured on an equal basis to her husband.

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Hyde Park, NY

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Hyde Park, NY

Abolishing the transatlantic slave trade

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Portraits of Amistad former captives

Portraits of Amistad former captives

It took all of twenty indefatiguable years for William Wilberforce to succeed in his battle to convince the British Parliament to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

While Wilberforce, the best known of the British anti-slavery campaigners, offered his first motion in May 1787, it is only on 23 March 1807 that the Parliament finally passed An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The Act entered the statute books on 25 March, and it is the bicentennial of that later date which was commemorated three years ago. The 2006 movie Amazing Grace tells the story of the long fight to abolition.

The Act made the capture, transport, and trade of slaves illegal, but slavery remained legal. It would be another 15 years before slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire, with the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

Other countries however were participating in the transatlantic slave trade. Brazil, then a colony of Portugal, was the first to bring slaves from Africa to the New World, around 1550. The Spanish colonies followed suit. Relying heavily on slaves to work in the sugar cane plantations, and then in the gold, diamond and silver mines of Minas Gerais, Brazil was also the last country to ban the Atlantic slave trade, in 1831.

Amistad, 1839
Amistad, 1839

In spite of the ban, slaves continued being trafficked as illustrated by the famous Amistad mutiny. In 1839, a Portuguese slave ship, the Tecora left West Africa for Havana, Cuba. Onboard were 500 kidnapped Africans. Some of these men were then transported from Cuba to Puerto Rico, on the Amistad, a ship on which were no slave quarters. The captives managed to free themselves, killed the captain and seized the ship. The Amistad was later captured off the coast of Long Island by the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Ensued a long court case, the court having to decide to either return the captured men as slaves to Cuba or to Africa as free men. The case was finally referred on appeal to the Supreme Court which ruled in favour of a return to Africa.

Abolition of slavery in the United States came as the result of a long civil war: it was enacted by the 13th amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. In Portugal, the Marques de Pombal abolished slavery on the mainland in 1761, but it is in 1888, more than sixty years after Brazil became independent, that slavery was finally abolished by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil. 

Remember the ladies: last Monday was International Women’s Day

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Today’s post is dedicated to a friend, a long-time advocate of women’s rights, who just passed away this Thursday. When I visited her in Boston last fall, she took me to Faneuil Hall and told me about Lucy Stone.

March 8. For some, the date will immediately evoke formal ceremonies of all kinds, big panel discussions about the rights of women, or maybe images of women receiving flowers. At least, this is my experience, having been exposed (treated?), on that very day for a number of years, to the presentation of a rose handed by a beaming male colleague from one of the former Soviet Republics.

For others, the 8th of March is just another day. On Monday, I jokingly wished a male colleague “Happy Women’s Day” and was met with a totally blank stare. “What is she talking about (again)?”

March 8 is International Women’s Day (IWD). When dit it start? What does it mean?

Right to vote, New York City

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Originally observed as a Socialist party event, the day has been marked since the early 1900’s. A National Woman’s Day was observed across the United States on 28 February 1909. A year later, at an International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen, German Social Democrat Clara Zetkin proposed that the day be marked internationally on the same day.  The first official IWD was honoured in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March with rallies advocating the rights of women to work, vote, vocational training, and hold public office.

Less than a week later, on 25 March, in New York, 140 working immigrant working girls lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The tragic event has been commemorated during subsequent IWDs and led to more attention being given to labour legislation and working conditions in the United States.

In 1913-1914, women rallied for peace in Russia and all over Europe, and the date retained to mark IWD was 8 March. With more than two million soldiers dead in the war, Russian women in 1917 started a strike for bread and peace, which four days later resulted in the Czar’s abdication. The provisional government established to run the country immediately granted women the right to vote.

Until the 1960s, IWD was mostly observed in Socialist Europe, when it was revived in the West with the rise of feminism. The United Nations has been officially marking the day since 1975 to recognize the struggles of women worldwide to be granted political and civil rights.

Such struggles have taken many forms. With her famous Remember the ladies, Abigail Adams in 1776 invited her husband, John Adams, one of the Massachussets delegates to the Continental Congress, to take into account the interests of women, when drafting the American Declaration of Independence, or else…

…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

In last year’s post on IWD, in addition to Abigail Adams, I also mentioned Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft. This year, I would like to feature another early day suffragist: Lucy Stone. 

Lucy Stone, Faneuil Hall, Boston

Lucy Stone, Faneuil Hall, Boston

The first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree (in 1839), Lucy Stone is also the first American woman to retain her maiden name after marriage, leading to the late 19th Century term a “Lucy Stoner”. An abolitionist and a suffragist, Lucy Stone spent her life fighting for women’s rights. She is also the only woman to be honoured in Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

In 1858, to protest taxation without representation, she refused to pay property taxes on her home. On the 100th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, in December 1873, she called for a New England Women Tea Party in Faneuil Hall in Boston and told the crowd that attended the meeting:

We are taxed, and we have no representation. We are governed without our consent. We are fined, imprisoned, and hung with no jury trial by our peers. We have no legal right to our children, nor power to sell our land, nor will our money.”

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Almost a century and a half after  the New England Women Tea Party, one decade into a new millennium, where do we stand? This week, a text was given to me by a 23-year old for posting on Rights from the Start.  It is included below and provides a young European woman’s perspective on the status of women’s rights today.

Women’s day.

Today is the 8th of March. Does it mean anything to you? Well, I must admit that it also took me a few years to realize that this was a very special event as it is… International Women’s day!

And every year I ask myself why there has to be a special day to remind the world that women have to be treated equally to men.

In 1791, French activist Olympe de Gouge wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women. Her purpose in writing such a text was not only to affirm that women had/have the same rights as men (article 1) but also to fight to obtain new ones.

This was 219 years ago, and yet it’s impossible to affirm today that women’s rights are respected.

From an historical perspective, we can distinguish between two categories of women in this world. The ones lucky enough to be born with a set of rights recognized to them and the ones that
still have to fight for those rights. But in the end, both categories are threatened.

If the last generations gained many powerful rights, such as the right to vote, to own a bank account, divorce, abortion, birth control or just work, new generations have to fight to retain these rights. This is true for the lucky women category. The other category still has a long way to go. The opportunity to study and work is still a luxury for a number of women. And, being able to represent themselves is to this day only a dream for many others.

What frightens me the most today is not the fact that there’s still a lot to do, because fighting to gain something is always a positive motivation to obtain new opportunities; it is more that we might lose all the chances that we had to fight for over so many years.

Let’s take the right to abortion for instance. If it took a long time to obtain, and mostly to accept, it’s not a given any longer. In Italy, if women can freely ask for an abortion, the physician is always entitled to a « droit de regard » and can refuse to perform such an act if it is against his/her convictions. And I’m absolutely devastated when I hear politicians (and most of the time women politicians) saying that abortion should be prohibited again. Here, I cannot help myself from thinking that, it’s not homo homini lupus but women who are dangerous to women.

When will we stop religion beliefs to influence our choices? When will we be entirely free to dispose of our body?

As for the right to vote or to work, if it is absolutely obvious nowadays, women are still underrepresented, not only in politics but also in the work place. And, when women succeed in reaching higher responsibility jobs they will always be submitted to higher pressure than their male colleagues. Not only should we be clever and efficient, we should also be beautiful, a good mother, a good wife when we shouldn’t also be a good cook or house hostess! And all this without even being guaranteed to have the same salary as our dear males.

But, you got it, this is for group number one, the shiny group. Our second group, as I said, has a long way to go. The right to be educated should be the priority for everyone in this world. This is our only way to have wings and to be able to progress not only in the public but also in the private arenas.

Every woman in this world should have the possibility to be educated, to study, to work, to be a mother, to refuse to be one, in one word: to gain independence. Choice shouldn’t be a luxury.

And for all of these reasons, we cannot use the 8th of March as the only day to claim and fight for our rights. Every single day has to be a fight for freedom and equality.

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

The first stone

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Stiffelio, Metropolitan Opera, January 11, 2010

Stiffelio, Metropolitan Opera, January 11, 2010

Stiffelio, a lesser known opera by Giuseppe Verdi, tells the story of a Protestant minister and his adulterous wife, Lina.

It also features Lina’s father who, in what is today described as an honour killing, reclaims his damaged honour by successfully using his sword against his daughter’s seducer. 

In a final sermon, the initially enraged Stiffelio is pushed to compassion and forgiveness by being directed to read from the Bible. The book opens on the story of Jesus and the adulteress, and when Stiffelio reads ”Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, Lina is forgiven.

Interestingly, the opera in the version it was played tonight has been rescued from the censors. Following its premiere, Stiffelio was heavily criticized by the Catholic Church, and most of the plot had to be transposed to eliminate any religious allusion. As a result, Verdi decided to find and destroy all the printed scores; it is only in the 1960s that an autograph version was finally discovered, which allowed for the restoration of the original text and music.

Beyond being the victim of censorship, Stiffelio is about a magnanimous husband but it also tells the story of a woman who is a victim. Lina has little choice in her actions or indeed freedom, between a father, a husband and a seducer. A number of other opera heroines are victims of their male relatives’ decisions. One of the most famous may be Lucia di Lamermoor, who, because she is forced to marry someone she does not love, and rather than being unfaithful to her true love, succumbs to madness and kills her husband on her wedding night.

Stiffelio’s Lina, the victim of a seducer, fares better and is forgiven by a compassionate and religious husband. This tale of redemption and forgiveness takes increased relevance at a time when honour killings are practiced on a too regular basis, and when world media still report news of adulterous women and men being stoned to death.

The most iniquitous of all taxes

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Sea salt

Sea salt

Salt started being taxed in China, around 300 B.C. Salt being essential to daily sustenance, the proponents of taxation argued that people would be willing to pay a higher price to ensure this vital commodity would remain available.

Revenues derived from the salt tax at one point represented half of the State income, and over the years were used to build armies, as well as defensive structures including the Great Wall. In 9th Century Canton, the main sources of revenue were the duties on tea and salt.

In Ancient Rome, the Via Salaria, Salt Road, was built to ensure that a constant supply of salt could be transported to the soldiers and horses of the Roman armies. According to many sources, that are now disputed, salt was also used to pay soldiers, and the latin word sal is at the origin of the English word salary, the French word solde, from which the word soldier is derived. Rather than taxing salt, the Romans actually subsidized it so that it would be available to plebeians.  

India had an ancient tradition of salt making and trading. The West Coast Gujarat marshland is famous for its solar-evaporated sea salt, while two kinds of salt are found in Orissa, on the East Coast: the naturally evaporated kartach and the much sought after panga, a salt produced by the malangis (salt labourers) by boiling salty soil in sea water. Orissa salt had a large market in neighbouring Bengal.

Salt taxation existed in India from early on, with differences in the way it was imposed. In Bengal, during the time of the Mughals,  it was not uniformally applied: while Muslims paid a 2.5% tax, Hindus were imposed at 5% of the cost.  

Starting in 1759, the British East India Company repeatedly tried to derive income from salt and to bring its trade under the Company’s control. Orissa salt was in high demand, including to manufacture gunpowder that was necessary for the British army. 

In 1780, a new tax system was introduced. The malangis would sell their salt to Agents, who managed Agencies, under which the salt works were now placed. The buying price was set at two rupees a maund, while a maund would in turn be sold with an additional tax of 1.1 to 1.5 rupee per maund. With the new tax, the Company saw its revenue increase from 80,000 rupees in 1780 to over 6 million rupees for the period 1784-1785. The tax was later further raised to bring the price of a maund to about 4 rupees.

Meanwhile, in Cheshire, England salt was also being produced in large quantities and new markets had become necessary. There was however no comparison between the Cheshire salt and the higher quality and cheaper Orissa salt: to ensure a market for the Cheshire product, the British banned Orissa salt from Bengal. Smuggling of the better salt ensued, which eventually resulted in 1803 in the annexion of Orissa by the British. The goal was to control smuggling, and on 1 November 1804, Orissa salt became a British monopoly. Salt could only be sold by the government at a fixed price.

With no direct source of income, malangis had no choice but to work for the British authorities who would pay them in advance for future salt production. Paying their debt became a heavy burden for the malangis, many of whom ended up leaving.

Custom checkpoints were established throughout Bengal to stop smuggling activities, and gradually, a thick thorn hedge was built. This eventually grew into the Great Hedge of India, covering more than 2,500 miles and guarded by close to 12,000 men.

It had become illegal to engage in any activity related to salt: even scraping salt for private consumption was considered a punishable offence.

The British Raj took over administration of the salt trade, which by 1880 was bringing in seven million pounds, representing close to 10% of the nation’s income. 

Indian rupees and sea salt

Indian rupees and sea salt

In 1878, it was decided to impose a uniform salt tax of two rupees and eight annas to the whole of India, resulting in certain cases in a decrease.

The taxation on salt had a serious impact on the health of the population of India, who for the most part could not afford the high price of the iodine rich commodity. More than in other countries, the high temperatures that can be reached in India made it imperative for people to increase their salt intake.

Protest against the salt tax started in India with a mention during the first session of the Indian National Congress, in 1885 in Bombay. In February 1888, the first public meeting to protest the salt tax took place in Cuttack. From 1888 forward, the tax was discussed in various sessions of the Congress.

It is while he was in South Africa,  in 1891, that Mohandas Gandhi wrote first against the salt tax: according to him, ”salt is an essential article in our diatery. It could be said that the increasing incidence of leprosy in India was due to the salt tax.”

Thanks to Gandhi, protest against the salt tax became part of the Indian National Congress strategy in its fight for independence. On 31 December, 1929, in Lahore, the Indian National Congress had raised the flag of India, and on 26 January, 1930, the Congress issued the Purna Swaraj, a Declaration of Independence from the British Government. “We believe that it is the inalienable right of the Indian people, as of any other people, to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil and have the necessities of life, so that they may have full opportunities of growth.” 

As a sign of independence, a symbolic act of civil disobedience had to be planned. Gandhi suggested to target the Salt Act, in a nonviolent protest, the Salt Satyagraha, which was based on his previous attempts at using strength through nonviolence.

In a highly publicized campaign, which reached out to the world, Gandhi prepared a 23-day march that was to leave from his ashram on March 12, pass through 48 villages and reach the coastal village of Dandi, in his native Gujarat.

Gandhi gave ample time to the British authorities to grant his 11 demands, one of which was the abolition of the salt tax. He would stop the march were his demands to be met. Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, ignored Gandhi’s letter.

On March 12, as scheduled, Gandhi left his ashram. He was accompanied by 78 male satyagrahis: the decision had been made not to include women, as the risks were too high. He was met on the way by growing crowds, and by the time they reached Dandi, thousands had joined the march, including women, and thousands more were waiting for them.

International media coverage was sustained throughout the march. Gandhi was well aware of the impact such coverage would mean for their cause, and as the satyagrahis were about to reach Dandi, he declared: “I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might.”

Gandhi, Union Square, New York

Gandhi, Union Square, New York

On April 6, Gandhi walked to the sea and picked up salty mud from which he produced illegal salt. He then asked his fellow Indians to follow his example. Millions listened to him who made or bought illegal salt. The movement was rapidly joined by women of all ages, a turning point in the fight for independence.

By the end of April, the British authorities had arrested over sixty thousand people. The salt satyagraha then turned into a mass campaign of civil disobedience, with British goods, including cloth, being boycotted, and Indians refusing to pay taxes all over the country. The Indian National Congress was declared illegal.

As part of Gandhi’s plans, the fight against the salt tax was to continue with a raid on the Dharasana Salt Works in Gujarat. Again he informed Lord Irwin who this time reacted by having him arrested on May 4. Gandhi’s arrest did not stop the plans, even though more leaders - including Gandhi’s own wife, Kasturba - were arrested on the way to Dharasana. The march was then led by a woman, Sarojini Naidi, who reminded the marchers that they were neither to resist nor to try to protect themselves. Marchers were repelled by British soldiers armed with steel tipped wooden clubs.

From Dharasana again, the world media reported on the protest. The British authorities unsuccessfully tried to censor United Press Webb Miller’s story, which got picked up in 1,350 newspapers around the world. Time Magazine compared Gandhi’s Dandi march “to defy Britain’s salt tax as some New Englanders once defied a British tea tax” with the Boston tea party.  

The British authorities finally gave in to the civil disobedience campaign, and in early 1931, Gandhi, along with all other political prisoners, was released from prison and invited, as the sole representative of the ndian National Congress, to attend a conference in London. They were to discuss the issue of Indian independence.

It took close to another 17 years before India would become independent following World War II, on August 15, 1947. The salt tax was only abolished in October 1946 by the Interim Government led by Jawaharlal Nerhu.

The Little Lady who Started a Big War

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

First Series of Uncle Tom's Cabin in The National Era, June 1851

First Series of Uncle Tom's Cabin, The National Era, June 1851

In June 1851, the first serial issue of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or Life Among the Lowly was published in The National Era, an anti-slavery journal. One year before, the Fugitive Slave Act had been enacted: while helping runaway slaves had been illegal since 1790, the 1850 law required for everyone to help catch fugitives and fined those who assisted runaway fugitives.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852

Uncle Tom

By describing the dark, inhumane reality of the living conditions of slaves in the United States, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped raise awareness across the nation, which led to increased support for the abolitionists’ fight, and eventually to the Civil War.

Boston publisher John P. Jewett published the book in 1852, even before the end of the  series in The National Era. Uncle Tom’s Cabin quickly became a best-seller, with 10,000 copies being sold in the first week. In one year 300,000 copies sold in the United States, and 1.5 million in Great Britain. Three newspapers in Paris published it simultaneously and French writer George Sand said that Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s author had “no talent, only genius.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

In England, a petition was signed by half a million women, praying for the abolition of slavery. It was presented to the author of the book: Harriett Beecher, daughter of Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher, and wife to Calvin Ellis Stowe. Her husband had advised Harriet to retain a maiden name that identified her as one of the famous Beecher family, and - although she later published under the pen name of Christopher Crowfield -, she signed the series Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Mrs. H. B. Stowe, and the book, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Lyman Beecher was a liberal who had spoken out against slavery and encouraged all of his children to be educated. Harriet’s brothers became prominent ministers, and her two sisters also achieved fame: Catherine as a visionary educator who ran Hartford Female Seminary, and Isabella as a fervent advocate of women’s rights and a suffragist.

Reward given to help capture runaway slaves, 1852

Reward given to help capture runaway slaves, 1852

While the Stowes lived in Ohio, in support of the Underground Railroad, they helped fugitive slaves from neighbouring Kentucky, hiding them in their house. Harriet met a slave named Eliza Buck who described for her how brutal the system was. On an Ohio river wharf, she had seen a married couple being separated by a slave-trader.

It is after they had moved to Brunswick, Maine, where Calvin had obtained a teaching position at Bowdoin College, that the Fugitive Slave Act was proclaimed.

Calvin’s sister suggested to Harriet to protest the Fugitive Slave Act. “If I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is…” As a man and a minister, Harriet could have preached to her congregation; as a woman and an author, Harriet preached against slavery to the nation.

She later explained: “I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken, - hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonour to Christianity - because as a lover of my country, I trembled at the coming day of wrath.”  

The success of the book brought Harriet fame and the Stowes good money: the first royalty check was for $10,000. It also brought controversy.

Little Lady, Big War, Beecher Stowe and Lincoln in 1862

Little Lady, Big War, Beecher Stowe and Lincoln in 1862

Southerners reacted and there were a few attempts to paint a different picture, such as Aunt Phyllis’ Cabin: or Southern Life as it is, written by Mrs. Mary N. Eastman and published in Philadelphia in 1852. Harriet chose to respond rapidly with A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded, published in 1852 by Jewett. 

Believing that “there is more done with pens than swords”, Beecher Stowe helped spark a debate that became a national cause. The characters Harriet depicted had finally given faces and names to the victims of slavery. Images such as Eliza and her baby crossing the river over masses of ice were reproduced and widely distributed, helping to build stronger support for the abolitionists.

When Harriet met Abraham Lincoln in 1862, Lincoln is said to have told the 4′11 Harriet: “So you are the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war?”

From slavery to trafficking in persons

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Blue Hearts against human trafficking

Blue Hearts against human trafficking

Alright, so it had been decided practically universally that slavery was a no-no. Practically universally. Meaning that in most parts of the world, the act of selling a person for a sum of money, on a public market, had become a thing of the past.

Toussaint Louverture had won. William Wilberforce had won. Victor Schoelcher had won. Harriet Beecher-Stowe had won. Abraham Lincoln had won.

Slaves being freed, Jose Maria Sert

Slaves being freed, Jose Maria Sert, detail

As proof of their victory, places and objects have been preserved, a testimony to what once happened. In various parts of the world the old slave quarters, the old slave markets can still be visited.

Fragments of chains that held them, parts of ships that transported them, tools they used, baskets they weaved, pots in which they cooked, bowls in which they ate, all are kept and displayed as evidence of this crime of a not so distant past.

The fact that evidence is collected should be proof enough that slavery is gone, that the slave trade has been abolished and declared illegal, that slaves have been emancipated. A not so distant past, but still the past. The 19th century is the determining moment in history when little by little abolition happened, costing a nation a civil war.

And then… And then came new, contemporary forms of slavery. Then came the sweat shops, and the forced labour, and the sexual exploitation, then came new ways for human beings to exploit the bodies of other human beings. Then came what the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) calls the crime that shames us all: human trafficking, or trafficking in persons.

Trafficking may include the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons. The goal of trafficking is exploitation, and the exploitation can include prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery - an indication that it has then not been totally abolished -, and the removal of organs.

Women and men who are smuggled across borders to get a job as house servants, in houses from which they cannot escape, are the victims of human trafficking. Young girls and women who are offered a plane ticket to take a well-paying job in another country to find out upon arrival that the job is nothing better than prostitution, and who cannot escape until they have reimbursed the investment that was made in them, are the victims of human trafficking.

Join the Blue Heart Campaign against human trafficking!

Blue Heart Campaign Against Human Trafficking

UNODC Blue Heart Campaign Against Human Trafficking