Archive for June, 2010

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.

The right to kvetch

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Going through the rights included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one may not immediately find the right to kvetch.

Freedom of expression as represented by an Haitian schoolchild

Freedom of expression as represented by an Haitian schoolchild, 2001

It is there, though not maybe quite in those terms: but one can definitely identify it as an expansion of freedom of expression, or freedom of speech. As I was discussing my previous post on the right to privacy (Article 12 of the UDHR) with a friend, we joked about the right to kvetch.

Well, granted kvetching’s definition (complaining persistently and whiningly) may fall a bit short of the concept of freedom of expression, but the right to freely express one’s opinion is one of the civil and political rights recognized by Article 19 of the UDHR.

Expressing one’s opinion is actually a fundamental right, and one that was exercised quite early on. Its recognition has maybe taken some more time, but people have persistently fought to ensure that this right be recognized.

If one ignores the whiningly part of the definition of kvetching, it could be argued that complaining persistently when one’s condition is unfair is a true exercise of freedom of expression.

Historically, a number of human rights activists, before human rights were even known, have defended their right to expressing the opinion that their condition was unfair. Repeatedly, brave slaves have stood up, and at the risk of losing their lives, protested their loss of freedom. Spartacus is famous for having led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic, which the 1960 Stanley Kubrik movie has immortalized with the I am Spartacus affirmation repeated one by one by all of the slaves, in an act of disobedience and freedom of expression.

Zumbi dos Palmares, O lider negro de todas as racas, Salvador de Bahia

Zumbi dos Palmares, O lider negro de todas as racas, Salvador de Bahia

Lesser known is Zumbi dos Palmares, who spoke up and led a slave rebellion against the Portuguese in Brazil. Born a free man but captured at the age of six, at 15, he escaped to the Quilombo dos Palmares, a fugitive slave settlement. When the Portuguese offered freedom to the Palmares leader, Zumbi argued to not accept freedom when others remained slaves and became Palmares’ new leader. After 15 years, the Portuguese used artillery to attack the Quilombo, and Palmares fell. Zumbi escaped again but was eventually betrayed and captured in 1695, and beheaded there and then.

At the end of the 18th century, freed slave Toussaint Louverture led Haiti to independence from France, making it the second nation in the Americas to become a Republic. His fight started when he traveled from plantation to plantation and addressed slaves, advocating that freedom could be achieved.

It is through impassioned speeches that these leaders were able to rally their fellow slaves and convince them to act, but the circulation of revolutionary ideas was also advanced through the writings of various thinkers.

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century accelerated the dissemination of the work of theologians and philosophers. Fairly quickly, governments reacted and established controls over printers throughout Europe. Punishment for propagating heretic ideas was severe: French scholar and printer Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in 1546, charged as an atheist.

In England, John Milton argued for the right to freedom of expression, publishing in 1644 Areopagitica, a protest against the re-introduction by the British Parliament of government licensing of printers.

With the Pennsylvania Gazette, started in 1729, Benjamin Franklin established a reputation for using his right to freedom of expression and openly speaking his mind. The Gazette was followed in 1733 by the Poor Richard’s Almanach. Proud of the impact his ideas were beginning to have, Franklin took to signing his written production as B. Franklin, Printer, even as he became one of the leaders of American Independence.

Le Patriarche de Ferney: Voltaire's statue in Ferney-Voltaire, France

Le Patriarche de Ferney: Voltaire's statue in Ferney-Voltaire, France

In France, Voltaire is famous for having been victim of his free speech: to avoid being sent to the Bastille, several times he had to chose exile, first to England, and later to Geneva and Ferney. Many other French philosophers suffered similar treatment, and the Bastille has come down in history as having been home to a number of free thinkers.

Then, if it was not the Bastille, it was another prison. The Vincennes fortress hosted Diderot for a few months, where he had been sent after having published his Lettre sur les aveugles, just as he was about to embark on what was to become his life’s project: l’Encyclopedie. An example of freedom of expression, more than twenty years in the making, the various instalments of the Encyclopedia were met with censorship and numerous police raids.

Rousseau, who visited Diderot daily when he was imprisoned in Vincennes, contributed a number of articles to the Encyclopedia. But it was for Emile, his essay on education in which he gave his views on religion, that Rousseau was banned and his books were banned and burned. Rousseau escaped to Neuchatel, and then to England. The protectors who helped him flee also ensured that his banned books would continue being circulated under cover.

Rousseau's birthplace, Geneva

Rousseau's birthplace, Geneva

La faute à Voltaire, la faute à Rousseau: the ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and the Encyclopedists have been credited for having helped spark the French Revolution. They certainly contributed to raising awareness about social justice and paved the way to the revendication of human rights.

In the midst of a deep financial crisis accompanied by a famine, protest movements started all over France in the late 1780’s. In early 1789, the people of France were invited to draft their lists of grievances in the Cahiers de Doléances, an open invitation to kvetch as much as the French would care to. And kvetch they did in the more than 50,000 Cahiers that were presented to King Louis XVI during meetings of the Etats Generaux. The Cahiers authors complained repeatedly about the unfairness of the tax system, which was hitting more heavily the underprivileged in the nation. Most impopular among all of the taxes was probably the infamous gabelle, the iniquitous tax on salt that made it mandatory to purchase a given amount of salt which was sold as a State monopoly at a fixed price.

The end of the 18th Century saw the beginning of a number of rights being granted in the United States and in France. Finally, in spite of censorship, police raids, imprisonments or losing their lives, the kvetchers prevailed and the right to freedom of expresssion is now a recognized right.