Archive for March, 2010

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

On gold, toothpullers and attempted revolutions

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010
 

Inconfidência Museum, Ouro Preto

Inconfidência Museum, Ouro Preto

 While a number of people will know that July 1789 marked the beginning of the French revolution, fewer may be aware of the Inconfidência Mineira (the Minas Gerais conspiracy), a rebellious movement which attempted to proclaim a Brazilian republic in February, that same year. 

Following the landing of Pedro Alvares Cabral at Porto Seguro in April 1500, Brazil became a Portuguese colony. Sugar rapidly ranked first of the colony’s exports, but once gold was discovered in Minas Gerais some time around 1693, gold mining soon replaced sugar as the main economic activity. A number of towns were built around this activity, such as Vila Rica, known today as Ouro Preto.

The extraction of gold was totally controlled by the Portuguese Crown. It was allowed on the condition that a payment of one fifth (the quinto) would be made to the colonial government. To ensure better control over the gold production, goldsmiths were driven out of the region, and foundries where established where the gold was cast into bars, and marked with the royal seal. Gold could only circulate in that form. As happened in other parts of the world, the heavy control and taxation eventually led to rebellious movements, such as those we have seen in the case of tea or salt.

A first rebellion took place in 1720: the Levante de Vila Rica (the Vila Rica uprising) demanded the relaxing of the drastic measures. The movement was fiercely repressed by the Governor, who ordered the arrest of the leader, Felipe dos Santos, and the burning of hundreds of houses in Ouro Podre where he owned many houses. The hamlet is now called Morro da Queimada. Dos Santos was eventually sentenced to death, hanged and his body quartered.

Tiradentes, proto-martyr

Tiradentes, proto-martyr

More than sixty years later, inspired by the 1776 American independence from yet another colonial power, as well as by the French philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, the Inconfidência Mineira took place in 1789, also in Vila Rica. While books and other publications were being banned in the colony, the Inconfidência Museum in Ouro Preto displays clandestine editions of forbidden books, including a Recueil des loix constitutives des Etats-Unis, 1788, which is known in Brazil as Tiradentes’ book.

As gold mining was decreasing in the Minas Gerais captaincy, the Crown had asked for an additional tax on gold, the derrama. The plan was to start the rebellion on the day the derrama was to be instituted. The movement brought together a number of liberal thinkers who wanted to create a Republic, open harbours to stimulate trade with other nations, create a university.

Tiradentes, Brasilia

Tiradentes, Brasilia

The movement lacked cohesion however, with some of the members being republicans, while others were monarchists. Members of the conspiracy eventually denounced the proposed uprising. A long trial ensued in Rio de Janeiro. Joaquim José da Silva Xavier decided to assume responsibility of leader of the movement.

Here was his head..., Ouro Preto

Here was his head..., Ouro Preto

A dentist, he was given the nickname of Tiradentes (toothpuller) during the trial. While 11 of the conspirators, including famous Brazilian poet, Tomás Antônio Gonzaga, were banned to Mozambique and other Portuguese colonies in Africa, Tiradentes was sentenced to death. He was hanged in Rio de Janeiro in 1792, and his body, like Felipe dos Santos, quartered. To ensure proper publicity to the strong reaction of the Portuguese Crown to any rebellion, Tiradentes’ body parts were displayed in several towns. His head was placed in Vila Rica, while his house was torn down and salted.

Praca Tiradentes, Belo Horizonte

Praca Tiradentes, Belo Horizonte

Minas Gerais State flag, Tiradentes' house, Ouro Preto

Minas Gerais State flag, Tiradentes' house, Ouro Preto

Tiradentes has survived his execution to become a symbol of the struggle for Brazilian independence. The anniversary of his death is a national holiday and many Brazilian cities, including Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, or Ouro Preto have named a square after him, or display his statue.

The members of the Inconfidência Mineira had planned for a whole new way of life after independence, and had even designed a flag, which has since been adopted by the State of Minas Gerais. The motto reads: Libertas Quae Sera Tamen (Freedom, even if it be late).