Posts Tagged ‘Slavery’

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.

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?”

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.