Archive for the ‘Slavery’ Category

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.

Sugar, coffee, cotton, rice and tobacco, silver and gold, cocoa… and slavery

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Tea, coffee, rice, salt, silver, gold, cotton, cocoa

Tea, coffee, rice, salt, silver, gold, cotton, cocoa

Sugar, coffee, cotton, rice and tobacco, silver and gold, but also tea, salt and diamonds, and today cocoa.

For many of us, all of these commodities are part of our regular daily life. The early history of their production is however a somber one. To extract, grow, or harvest each of these products, slave labour has been and sometimes continue being used.  

In 1926, the Slavery Convention (article 1.1) defined slavery as “…the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised….” In 1930, the definition was expanded to include forced or compulsory labour.

The main reason for the Transatlantic Slave Trade was the need for a cheap labour force that could be put to work in the sugar cane, rice, cotton or tobacco plantations, or in the diamond, silver or gold mines.

Pelourinho in Mariana, Minas Gerais

Pelourinho in Mariana, Minas Gerais

Conditions in the plantations of the new world were harsh, and a tight control was exercised over the slaves. Attempts to rebel or escape were severely punished. And punishment had to be public in order to serve as an example that would discourage any such attempt. The most frequent punishment for re-captured slaves was public flogging and branding. To this day, evidence of this harsh treatment has survived and is being displayed in museums and other institutions commemorating the history of slavery.

In Brazil, in addition to the sugar cane plantations that required a high number of slaves endured to hardship, slaves also were put to work to extract precious metals from the mines. Minas Gerais started playing a central role in the economy of the Portuguese colony after gold, silver and diamonds had been discovered there.

Traces of the slave presence can still be found in various parts of Brazil. To bear testimony to this phase of the national history, Mariana, one of Minas Gerais colonial cities, decided to restore its pelourinho, the pillory where slaves were punished. In most cities, including in Salvador and its famous Pelourinho neighborhood, this somber reminder has been removed.

On one of Mariana’s most picturesque squares, flanked by two churches of competing orders, stands the pelourinho. At the base of the pillory, under a scale and a sword symbolizing justice and force, the chains to which slaves were attached while receiving punishment can still be seen.

Chico Rei old gold mine, Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais

Chico Rei old gold mine, Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais

There were a number of reasons for a slave to be punished. In some cases, in the mines, slaves would hide small flakes of gold in their hair. If found, the punishment would be certain. A few churches in Minas Gerais and other parts of Brazil were built by slaves with the gold they were able to bring out for themselves. These churches, far less decorated than the rich churches open to the upper strata of society, were places where they could worship, as they were not allowed in the other churches in this heavily structured and segregated society.

Some of the Brazilian slaves were able to claim their freedom. Chico Rei is one of them. According to the tradition, around 1740, Congolese tribal leader Galanda was captured with many other members of his tribe. The authority he had over his fellow tribesmen awarded him the nickname of Chico Rei (small king). Working in the Minas Gerais gold mines, he managed to hide enough flakes of gold to buy his son’s freedom and then his own. In Ouro Preto (then Vila Rica), he bought a gold mine the profits of which were used to buy other slaves’ freedom.

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. 

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

Happy 200th birthday, Mr. President

Monday, February 16th, 2009

Februrary 12, 2009, last week, marked the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, but Presidents’ Day 2009 is celebrated today. A good time to put a quick post together.

Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation, Jose Maria Sert, Palais des Nations, Geneva

Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation, Jose Maria Sert, Palais des Nations, Geneva

Even the Liberia President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has been asked by The New York Times to contribute an op-ed about how Liberia remembers Lincoln.

Established in 1847 by freed American slaves, Liberia adopted a red, white and blue flag and named its new capital, Monrovia, after James Monroe.

But it was 15 years before an American administration recognized Liberia as a sovereign nation. As president, Lincoln did what his predecessors had refused to do for fear of offending Southern States…

Whether or not they were inspired by the personal example of Lincoln, it was the belief he embodied - that the greatest challenges cannot be left to future generations - that empowered our people.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln becomes the Great Emancipator. The fight for the abolition of slavery in the United States had been a long one and was still going to continue until the end of the Civil War. Slavery is abolished by the 13th amendment in December 1865.

Lincoln had long been advocating for the abolition. In July 1854, in a famous argument, he demonstrated the weakness of the justifications for slavery.

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B. — why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?- You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?–You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own. But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

The same year, in an inspired speech delivered at Peoria, on October 16, Lincoln affirmed the rights of the black man to natural rights.

If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that `all men are created equal;’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another. (http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/biography6text.html)

And with two executive orders, Abraham Lincoln becomes the Great Emancipator. The first order is issued on September 22, 1862, granting freedom to slaves from the Confederated States.  The January 1, 1863 order named the specific states where the order applied, and is known as the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the Palais des Nations in Geneva, a mural by Spanish artist José Maria Sert shows Abraham Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation. The decoration of the room, donated by the Spanish Government in 1936, is dedicated to the ideas advocated by Francisco de Vitoria, the Spanish Dominican who, in the 16th Century, invented international law, and fought for the rights of indigenous Indians in the Spanish colonies.

The painting, entitled Social Progress, represents Abraham Lincoln with his back to us, and coming out through huge gates the newly liberated slaves. The four totems represents the state of being slave to superstition.

Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Jose Maria Sert's mural

Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Jose Maria Sert

Adding the time dimension to the human rights debate

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Historical Account of Guinea by Anthony Benezet (London, 1788)

Historical Account of Guinea by Anthony Benezet (London, 1788)

Once I started looking at whether human rights were recognized in different parts of the world, the next question that came up was: had the perception of human rights evolved over the centuries?

In the same way, the Amnesty International campaign was questioning the perception of what constitutes a human rights violation in differents parts of the world, I was intrigued at how the modern concept of basic human rights had been perceived at different periods in time, and how this may be reflected today.

A good example was the 1999 movie Mansfield Park, an adaptation of the 19th century novel by Jane Austen. As was the case in most recent adaptations of the famous writer’s novels, a great attention had been paid to period details, with intensive research being done to ensure accuracy of sets, costumes, and dialogues.

The Canadian director, Patricia Rozema, decided to go beyond the actual text of the novel, and updated the plot to make it more relevant to a late 20th century audience. The novel takes place in 1806, and while references to an Antigua plantation are made, nowhere in the novel is the theme of slavery mentioned. In her adaptation, Rozema makes it a recurrent theme and one of the plot’s determining moments. As a child, on her way to a new home, a long sequence shows Fanny Price looking at a slave ship, while as a young woman, her discovery of a sketchbook describing with lurid details the fate of slaves employed by her uncle becomes a pivotal moment in the plot.

Rozema’s decision to modernize the novel created quite a bit of debate and controversy among Jane Austen’s many followers. Was she right to introduce a dimension that may have been likely, but was certainly not even suggested as a main point of the novel. While the slave trade was abolished in England in 1807, following an almost twenty-year  battle led among others by William Wilberforce, political developments are seldom mentioned in Austen’s works.

One wonders then whether the director - rather than being period-accurate - was not trying to be 20th century-PC. By making slavery such a leit-motiv of the movie, and endowing Fanny with strong abolitionist convictions, she made a similar type of transposition - in time - as that used by Amnesty international. With this PC approach, Fanny Price and the movie were becoming more interesting to Rozema’s modern audience, in the same way as Vanity Fair’s readership would be more likely to react to Protestant American victims.

Why rights from the start

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Amnesty International 2000 Campaign - Vanity Fair

Amnesty International 2000 Campaign - Vanity Fair

Last week, in Albany, NY, dozens of Protestants were forced from their church at gunpoint by local authorities. Three ministers and 23 others were executed and buried in a mass grave a few miles west of town. Thousands more were forced to abandon their homes and leave the state or risk execution.

The surprising news, published in January 2001 in Vanity Fair, must have come as a shock to the magazine readership, more used to the latest from Hollywood or the world of fashion.  Both text and layout looked like the beginning of a regular article. The second paragraph immediately reassured the potentially alarmed reader.

This didn’t happen in Albany. Or Chicago. Or Tucson. But what if it did? How would you feel? What would you do? Horrible acts against human rights are committed all over the world every day. This one actually happened in East Timor in 1999 to 26 people including women, children and three Catholic priests. They were seeking sanctuary in their church from anti-independence militia units organized by the Indonesian military. Tens of thousands who fled the region to save their lives remain trapped in refugee camps.

What can you do to help? Write a letter. Write an e-mail. Write a check. Become one of Amnesty International’s one million members today… Human rights violations can happen anytime, anywhere - even here.

Such acts are violations of human rights, whether they happen in the United States or elsewhere. And similar events actually happen in other parts of the world, and sometimes are part of daily life for citizens of some countries. Once this reality established, Amnesty International reveals itself and calls for support. If the news were reported as happening in country where these may be daily almost ordinary occurences, it is likely that they would have attracted less attention. For the reader to  perceive them as extraordinary, the facts were transposed to a context where they are going to be truly shocking : as part of the advocacy campaign, the events were transposed from East Timor to Albany, NY.

A single word was sufficient to make the events even worse: Protestant. In an American context, the alleged victims had to be Protestant. Why was this change of religion necessary: would Catholic victims not have been considered as equally worthy of compassion?

This necessary double transposition of the facts, location and religion, started me thinking  about the universal recognition of human rights. And I decided to look at the extent to which human rights concepts are recognized in every part of the world, by different cultures and religions, and also whether - if recognized - human rights were to be applied across the board, without any discrimination.