Abigail, Lydia, Amanda, Elizabeth and Sara

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

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

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

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

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

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).

Twice condemned for not believing in the Trinity

January 30th, 2010

Geneva Servetus memorial

On a quiet spot on the outskirts of Geneva, just above the neighbouring bustle of the hospital, stands a memorial, between Beausejour and Roseraie. The Roseraie inscription says “On 27 October 1553, Michel Servet de Villeneuve d’Aragon died on the stake” while the Beausejour side reads: ”We, respectful and grateful children of Calvin, our great reformer but condeming an error that was that of his century, and deeply attached to freedom of conscience… built this expiatory monument, on 27 October 1903.”

The infrequent passer-by is unlikely to pay too much notice. It is only for those who know about Servetus that this atonement memorial may mean something. A near-by street also honours him, the sign reads: Michel Servet (1511-1553, Spanish physician).

Quite by chance, I had discovered the memorial a few years ago, while a Geneva resident. Sufficiently intrigued by the double reference to Calvin and to freedom of conscience, I had researched the fate of the Spaniard. 

This time around, on a visit to Geneva, I was deliberately looking for the memorial, the location of which I only vaguely remembered. I ended up having a bit of a hard time finding it. Assuming Rue Michel Servet would be a logical spot, I walked up and down the street, explored the Plateau de Champel, as Champel is generally indicated as the place where Servetus was burnt at the stake, along with his books. No mention of the execution was to be found on the Plateau.

Rue Michel Servet, Geneva

Rue Michel Servet, Geneva

From there I walked again along the Michel Servet street which winds it way down from the Plateau to the Geneva hospital.

After a little more exploring and walking back and forth, on a side street, I finally spotted the memorial, inaugurated on the 350th anniversary of the Spaniard’s death.

Servetus’ execution marked the end of a long theological dispute between him and Calvin, at a time when autodafes, and the burning of heretics, were the order of the day throughout Europe.

The Spanish physician was the first to describe and publish about pulmonary circulation. A true humanist, in addition to his medical pursuits, Servetus’ studies and research ranged from astrology, geography, jurisprudence to theology.

Born in Villanueva, Aragon, the son of a Catholic notary and a mother whose Jewish ancestors were conversos, Miguel Serveto early on studied Greek, Hebrew and Latin and later went to the University of Toulouse to study law.

After having worked in the service of a Franciscan monk, Quintana, who became Charles V’s confessor, Servetus joined the Protestant reformers in Basel, then moved to Strasbourg. There, by the time he was twenty, he published De trinitatis erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity), which was followed by two more essays in which Servetus, based on his direct readings of the Bible, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Servetus also thought that the Trinity dogma made it more difficult to Jews and Moors to convert Christianism.

The books were confiscated. The Spanish Inquisition ordered that he be questioned while warnings were issued against him in several Protestant towns. Servetus fled to Paris where he entered medical school under the name of Michel de Villeneuve. There he met Jean Calvin, a fellow student. Both started engaging in long theological debates, which continued through correspondence after Calvin had to flee Paris, as he was suspected of promoting reformist ideas.

When Michel de Villeneuve was given the position of physician to Archbishop of Vienne Pierre Palmier, he settled in the French city, south of Lyons. While he practised medicine, he also continued his theological research and wrote his major work: Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity). Servetus sent the book to Calvin who responded by sending a copy of his own book: Institutio Christianae Religionis (Institutions of the Christian Religion), which Servetus returned covered with annotations. After a few more exchanges, Calvin stopped the correspondence.

Meanwhile, in Vienne, Michel de Villeneuve was suspected of being the author of the Restitutio and denounced as a heretic. Once his correspondence with Calvin had been produced as evidence, he was soon identified as Servetus. He was arrested by the Roman Catholic authorities in April 1553, and escaped from prison three days following his arrest. On 17 June, the French Inquisition convicted him of heresy and he was sentenced to death by slow burning. The same day, in Vienne, his effigy and his books were burned in abstentia. 

Calvin and the Reformers, Parc des Bastions, Geneva

Calvin, Farel and the Reformers, Parc des Bastions, Geneva

While fleeing to Italy, Servetus stopped in Geneva where he was soon recognized and arrested. Following a consultation with four other Swiss cities, the Protestant authorities condemned him: there too he was sentenced to be burned at the stake. Calvin unsuccessfully tried to convince fellow Reformer Farel that the sentence should be executed through decapitation. On 27 October 1553, Servetus perished in the flames, his books attached to his body by a chain.

While many Protestants approved of the execution, some in Basel and other parts spoke against the decision to put heretics to death. The most vocal of them was theologian Sébastien Castellion who in 1562 said: Killing a man is not defending a doctrine, it is killing a man.

Miguel Serveto’s legacy has become emblematic of the fight for freedom of thought and freedom of conscience.

It is only at the very beginning of the 20th century that monuments were raised to commemorate Servetus. The Champel memorial was inaugurated in 1903 in the presence of representatives from France. The Geneva memorial being deemed insufficient by the Comite du monument Michel Servet, in 1908, a statue was commissioned, but the Geneva authorities did not authorize its installation. It was then decided to donate the statue to the town of Annemasse, in France, just on the other side of the border.

Thanks to an international fund-raising effort, another monument was inaugurated in 1911 in Vienne. An October 22, 1911 New York Times article describes how Americans and “delegates from every civilized country of the globe” attended the inauguration of yet another statue to commemorate the victim of intolerance.

Servetus’ story continues as, at the request of the Vichy Government, the Annemasse monument was destroyed in 1941. The French resistance later organized a wreath-laying ceremony dedicated to Michel Servet, the first victim of fascism. The monument was finally re-erected in 1960.  On the pedestal, an inscription reads:

“The arrest of Servetus in Geneva, where he did neither publish nor dogmatize, hence he was not subject to its laws, has to be considered as a barbaric act and an insult to the Right of Nations”. Voltaire

In Geneva, the 2009 official commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth did not mention Servetus…

The first stone

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

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

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?”

Sugar, tea and sweet liberty

November 7th, 2009

In some countries, it was salt - the French Cahiers de doleances famously illustrated the unpopularity of the gabelle tax, which eventually contributed to sparking the French Revolution -, in others it was sugar, in some it was tea. 

The Boston Tea Party is equally famous for having signalled the beginning of the American Revolution. To better understand the importance of the event - which involved the destruction of many crates of tea in the Boston harbour on Thursday, December 16, 1773 - it is useful to look back at how the taste for tea developed, and at the relationship between a scarce product and heavy taxation.

Interestingly, since both played a role in a revolution, salt and tea have had a similar history. According to an Arabian traveler, duties on salt and tea were the main sources of revenue in 9th Century Canton, China. After having established a trading port in Macau, in 1557, the Portuguese discovered and reported the existence of a Chinese drink called “chá”, but it is only in the early 17th century that a Dutch East India Company ship returning from China brought back the first green tea leaves to Amsterdam - an event which eventually contributed to the development of the tea culture in Europe.

Chinese and English teapots, 18th Century

It was a Portuguese princess, Catarina de Bragança, who, when she married King Charles II of England in 1662, brought to the English court the habit of drinking tea. Promoted as a medicinal beverage or a tonic, tea rapidly gained popularity in aristocratic circles.

Back in China, the tea trade was controlled by two monopolies: the Chinese Hongs and the British East India Company. Trade between Britain and China was going strong, but ships bringing English-made fabrics to India and China were returning only partially full. Tea had obvious potential and the East India Company initiated a campaign that popularized tea throughout Britain, making it a viable return cargo.

Sugarbowl, 18th Century

Sugarbowl, 18th Century

While the tea trade rapidly grew in England between 1690 and 1750, the cane sugar trade was facing a similar increase. A sweetened tea cup quickly became a daily necessity, resulting in rival companies being established to import tea from the East Indies.

In 1698, the East India Company was granted monopoly over tea importation, while the British colonies were required by a 1721 Act  to exclusively import their tea from Great Britain, thereby ensuring a steady source of income through the duties imposed on tea. This income was however challenged by smuggled Dutch tea which was serious competition to the highly-taxed legal tea.

Looking for additional revenue, the Parliament decided to enact a law allowing direct taxation on the colonies, including on tea. Colonists did not have direct representation through elected Parliament members: taxation without representation was rapidly perceived as unfair. Protests and boycotts started, with many colonists pledging to abstain from drinking British tea, while alternatives were being sought.

In spite of protest, additional tax legistlation was passed, including the 1767 Townshend Revenu Act: it was repelled in 1770, with the exception of duty on tea. Tea imports continued and Boston quickly became the largest colonial importer of legal tea: meanwhile the smuggled tea trade was also flourishing.  

A 1772 change in taxes brought yet another burden on the tea trade, with a new Tea Act, enacted on 10 May. With that, the market value of legally imported tea had become cheaper than smuggled tea by one penny per pound. The Act called for a system of consignees, colonial merchants who received tea on consigment and would sell tea for a commission, who were appointed in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Charleston. Monopoly of the tea trade was given to the East India Company.

A protest movement, led by Whigs - who sometimes called themselves the Sons of Liberty -  quickly developed against the Tea Act, and in Philadelphia and New York, consignees were forced to resign, while tea shipments were being returned to England.

Samuel Adams in front of Faneuil Hall, Boston, MA

Samuel Adams in front of Faneuil Hall, Boston, MA

In Boston, however, Governor Hutchinson convinced consignees, two of whom were his sons, not to resign. Samuel Adams, a Whig leader, convened a mass meeting at Faneuil Hall on 29 November 1773. The meeting called for the Captain of the tea-carrying Dartmouth and two other ships to go back to England without delivering the tea and paying the import duty, which normally would have to be paid within 20 days of arrival. The Governor forbade the Captain to leave without paying the duties. On December 16, the issue was resolved when, following another meeting convened by Adams, a group of men - some of whom were disguised as Mohawks - boarded the ships and dumped the tea in the harbour.

Punished with the closing of the Boston harbour and the passing of the Coercive Acts, the event served to unite all parties in Britain against the colonies. Meanwhile, the reaction in the colonies varied: while Benjamin Franklin suggested that the value of the destroyed tea be repaid, others rallied around the fight for independence, which eventually led to the adoption in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence.

Paul Revere teapot, milk pot and spoons, 1773

Paul Revere teapot, milk pot and spoons, 1773

Famous patriot and silversmith Paul Revere, the son of French Huguenot Apollos Rivoire, produced for Bostonian wealthy families numerous silver services that included teapots, milk pots, tea spoons and tea tongues. Interestingly, in the portrait of Revere painted by his friend John Singleton Copley in 1768, it is a teapot that Copley decided to feature as the most emblematic of the silversmith’s craft, while that year, in support of the tea boycott, Revere only crafted one teapot. 

It is only in 1778 that the Tea Act was repealed with the Taxation of Colonies Act.

The Boston Tea Party is one of the more famous episodes of the fight against unfair taxation. In 1930, following the Indian salt protest campaign, Gandhi used duty-free salt to remind the British Viceroy of the Massachusetts event.