Posts Tagged ‘United States’

Abolishing the transatlantic slave trade

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Portraits of Amistad former captives

Portraits of Amistad former captives

It took all of twenty indefatiguable years for William Wilberforce to succeed in his battle to convince the British Parliament to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

While Wilberforce, the best known of the British anti-slavery campaigners, offered his first motion in May 1787, it is only on 23 March 1807 that the Parliament finally passed An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The Act entered the statute books on 25 March, and it is the bicentennial of that later date which was commemorated three years ago. The 2006 movie Amazing Grace tells the story of the long fight to abolition.

The Act made the capture, transport, and trade of slaves illegal, but slavery remained legal. It would be another 15 years before slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire, with the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

Other countries however were participating in the transatlantic slave trade. Brazil, then a colony of Portugal, was the first to bring slaves from Africa to the New World, around 1550. The Spanish colonies followed suit. Relying heavily on slaves to work in the sugar cane plantations, and then in the gold, diamond and silver mines of Minas Gerais, Brazil was also the last country to ban the Atlantic slave trade, in 1831.

Amistad, 1839
Amistad, 1839

In spite of the ban, slaves continued being trafficked as illustrated by the famous Amistad mutiny. In 1839, a Portuguese slave ship, the Tecora left West Africa for Havana, Cuba. Onboard were 500 kidnapped Africans. Some of these men were then transported from Cuba to Puerto Rico, on the Amistad, a ship on which were no slave quarters. The captives managed to free themselves, killed the captain and seized the ship. The Amistad was later captured off the coast of Long Island by the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Ensued a long court case, the court having to decide to either return the captured men as slaves to Cuba or to Africa as free men. The case was finally referred on appeal to the Supreme Court which ruled in favour of a return to Africa.

Abolition of slavery in the United States came as the result of a long civil war: it was enacted by the 13th amendment to the Constitution in December 1865. In Portugal, the Marques de Pombal abolished slavery on the mainland in 1761, but it is in 1888, more than sixty years after Brazil became independent, that slavery was finally abolished by Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil. 

The Little Lady who Started a Big War

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

First Series of Uncle Tom's Cabin in The National Era, June 1851

First Series of Uncle Tom's Cabin, The National Era, June 1851

In June 1851, the first serial issue of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or Life Among the Lowly was published in The National Era, an anti-slavery journal. One year before, the Fugitive Slave Act had been enacted: while helping runaway slaves had been illegal since 1790, the 1850 law required for everyone to help catch fugitives and fined those who assisted runaway fugitives.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852

Uncle Tom

By describing the dark, inhumane reality of the living conditions of slaves in the United States, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped raise awareness across the nation, which led to increased support for the abolitionists’ fight, and eventually to the Civil War.

Boston publisher John P. Jewett published the book in 1852, even before the end of the  series in The National Era. Uncle Tom’s Cabin quickly became a best-seller, with 10,000 copies being sold in the first week. In one year 300,000 copies sold in the United States, and 1.5 million in Great Britain. Three newspapers in Paris published it simultaneously and French writer George Sand said that Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s author had “no talent, only genius.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

In England, a petition was signed by half a million women, praying for the abolition of slavery. It was presented to the author of the book: Harriett Beecher, daughter of Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher, and wife to Calvin Ellis Stowe. Her husband had advised Harriet to retain a maiden name that identified her as one of the famous Beecher family, and - although she later published under the pen name of Christopher Crowfield -, she signed the series Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Mrs. H. B. Stowe, and the book, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Lyman Beecher was a liberal who had spoken out against slavery and encouraged all of his children to be educated. Harriet’s brothers became prominent ministers, and her two sisters also achieved fame: Catherine as a visionary educator who ran Hartford Female Seminary, and Isabella as a fervent advocate of women’s rights and a suffragist.

Reward given to help capture runaway slaves, 1852

Reward given to help capture runaway slaves, 1852

While the Stowes lived in Ohio, in support of the Underground Railroad, they helped fugitive slaves from neighbouring Kentucky, hiding them in their house. Harriet met a slave named Eliza Buck who described for her how brutal the system was. On an Ohio river wharf, she had seen a married couple being separated by a slave-trader.

It is after they had moved to Brunswick, Maine, where Calvin had obtained a teaching position at Bowdoin College, that the Fugitive Slave Act was proclaimed.

Calvin’s sister suggested to Harriet to protest the Fugitive Slave Act. “If I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is…” As a man and a minister, Harriet could have preached to her congregation; as a woman and an author, Harriet preached against slavery to the nation.

She later explained: “I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken, - hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonour to Christianity - because as a lover of my country, I trembled at the coming day of wrath.”  

The success of the book brought Harriet fame and the Stowes good money: the first royalty check was for $10,000. It also brought controversy.

Little Lady, Big War, Beecher Stowe and Lincoln in 1862

Little Lady, Big War, Beecher Stowe and Lincoln in 1862

Southerners reacted and there were a few attempts to paint a different picture, such as Aunt Phyllis’ Cabin: or Southern Life as it is, written by Mrs. Mary N. Eastman and published in Philadelphia in 1852. Harriet chose to respond rapidly with A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded, published in 1852 by Jewett. 

Believing that “there is more done with pens than swords”, Beecher Stowe helped spark a debate that became a national cause. The characters Harriet depicted had finally given faces and names to the victims of slavery. Images such as Eliza and her baby crossing the river over masses of ice were reproduced and widely distributed, helping to build stronger support for the abolitionists.

When Harriet met Abraham Lincoln in 1862, Lincoln is said to have told the 4′11 Harriet: “So you are the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war?”

Chesapeake, George Calvert and Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Free to be Catholic, Annapolis

Free to be Catholic, Annapolis, December 2008

Visiting Chesapeake recently was another opportunity to verify that discrimination based on religious belief has been a reality for many centuries.

As one reads up about the early days of American history, it quickly becomes very clear that a large number of the early discoverers and settlers wished to lead a life where they would be free to practice their religious beliefs.

The history of Maryland has been shaped by settlers and people who stood up for their rights. The similarities between two men who deeply influenced the future of the State - George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton - were a seredenpitous discovery. Thanks to a royal charter, the first Lord Baltimore - named after Baltimore, Ireland - basically created Maryland. By fighting on the side of independence from the British crown, Charles Carroll played a pivotal role in ensuring that Maryland became one of the 13 founding States. Both men were Catholic, and both men were subject to laws discriminating against Catholics.

This heritage may explain the Free to be Catholic sign which was on display on a religious building close to Charles Carroll of Carrollton’s house in Annapolis, in early December 2008.

Annapolis Church

Annapolis Church

George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, came to the New World in the hope of finding a refuge for English Catholics. After establishing Avalon, on the island of Newfoundland, he looked for a gentler climate and obtained a royal charter to settle the region that is now Maryland.

In England, Calvert’s family had had to suffer from two penal laws, enacted during the reign of Elizabeth I. The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity of 1559 required that any citizen wishing to hold a high office would need to pledge an oath of allegiance to the Queen. The oath included a denial of the authority of the Pope over the church.

As a child, George was subjected to many forms of interference in the religious life of the Calvert family: they were compelled to attend church, one of his tutors having been denounced as popish, he and his brother were sent to a Protestant tutor. Catholic servants were banned, and the family was forced to purchase and display an English Bible. In 1593, his mother Grace was committed to the custody of an official responsible for prosecuting Catholics, a “pursuivant.”

After graduating from Oxford, Calvert occupied several positions that led him to becoming one of the two principal Secretaries of State of King James in 1619. As a member of a commission, Calvert in 1613 had to recommend for Catholic schools to be suppressed in Ireland.

Early on, Calvert demonstrated interest in the exploration of the New World, and he invested money in the Virginia Company and the East India Company. When he obtained the position of Commissioner of the Treasury, with rights on the duties collected on imported raw silk, his fortune was secured. In 1620, Calvert purchased a tract of land in Newfoundland.

In 1625, shortly after he resigned his Secretariat position, his conversion to Catholicism became public knowledge. He had retained his place on the Privy Council, a position he had to also abandon when King Charles I required all privy councilors to take the oaths of supremacy and allegiance.

After having moved to Ireland, Calvert decided to pursue his interest in Avalon, the colony he had established in Newfoundland  where he promoted free religious worship, allowing  Catholics to worship in one part of his house and the Protestants in another.

One winter in Avalon was enough to convince him that the rigorous climate was not suited for his colony, and he moved to Jamestown in Virginia, where he knew tobacco could be grown. Upon his refusing to sign the oaths of supremacy and allegiance there, he had to leave and go back to England where he fought for a charter granting him rights over a piece of land on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay. The charter was finally granted on 20 June 1632, five weeks after his death, and Maryland became a refuge for British Catholics, who emigrated to settle tobacco plantations.

A century and a half later, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. The son of a wealthy plantation owner of Irish descent, he was born in 1737 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Plate to Charles Carroll of Carrollton in front of his house, Annapolis, Maryland

Plate to Charles Carroll of Carrollton in front of his house, Annapolis, Maryland

At the age of eight, he was sent to France where he studied at a college run by English Jesuits in Saint-Omer, and then in Paris, at Louis le Grand. Having started to study law in Bourges and Paris, in 1757, he moved to London to complete his legal education and returned to Maryland in 1765.

Under laws of the British Colonies - similar to those that forced Calvert to resign his Cabinet position - as a Roman Catholic, Carroll was deprived of political rights, including the right to vote.

After the passage of the Stamp Act, and the exorbitant taxes imposed by Maryland Governor Eden, Carroll  became actively involved politically and started writing in the Maryland Gazette, under the name The First Citizen, defending the colonies rights to control their own taxation, and arguing for a return to natural law.

A member of the Annapolis Convention, in early 1776, he was sent to Canada by the Continental Congress along with Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase. Their mission was to persuade the Canadian colonies to relinquish their allegiance to the British crown, and join the American colonies in their fight for independence.  Although the mission to Canada failed, Carroll became instrumental in convincing a reserved Maryland Convention to vote for independence.

On July 4, 1776, he was elected to the Continental Congress, and while he was too late to vote for it, he signed the Declaration of Independence, which was officially signed by all members of Congress on an engrossed on parchment version, on August, 2, 1776.

Signing the Declaration entailed a risk for all the signers - as they exposed themselves to confiscation of their properties - but maybe more so for Charles Carroll, considered to be the colonies’ wealthiest individual. Recognizing this, he made sure to add of Carrollton to his signature to ensure that he would be properly identified.

Carroll died at 95 in 1832, two centuries after Calvert, and at the time of his death, as the longest living signer of the Declaration, was regarded with veneration by the American people.

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