Friday, March 23, 2007

Am I not a man and a brother?

“He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” - Exodus XXI, 16.
The title of this post was stamped onto coins that all those who wished to express sympathy and fellow-feeling for the Abolitionists would carry about their person. Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings, the TV tie-in to his book on the abolition of the slave trade and the shoddy establishment of colonies by the British in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, airs tonight on BBC2 at 9pm.

During the War of Independence, many slaves were attracted to fighting on the side of King George against the revolutionary forces, due to the fact that British law (by this time) stated that ‘no man could be the property of another’. Eventually, after General Dunmore suffered defeat after defeat and, having to think of something to give the former slaves in return for their service, a hastily dreamt-up colony in Nova Scotia was handed over. Hmm, a freezing cold, boulder-strewn wasteland (apologies to any current residents, but that’s what it was back then), the colony was eventually abandoned and a new, independent state was offered to the former slaves: Sierra Leone, back in Africa. You gotta love how the British felt it was okay to hand around bits of the planet they had decided that they now ‘owned’. Charming lot...

Freetown (the capital of Sierra Leone) was, during the reign of James Clarkson, a place of wondrous novelty. The first occurrence of a white man being whipped legally by a black man, the first place black people were allowed to vote and the first place on planet Earth that women (regardless of colour) were allowed to vote. Bite down hard on that, all you nations who think you’re so terribly progressive...

Sadly, Clarkson’s successors were not cut from similar moral cloth, and their vicissitudes brought the fledgling state of Sierra Leone to its knees, made more bitter and poignant by such a hopeful birth.

Though there is undoubtedly going to be a tidal wave of slavery-related media offerings (quite rightly too), many will be of questionable quality and accuracy. Schama, though capable of being an irksome presenter, is certain to offer many challenges to the perceived caricatures of noble slave, morally righteous abolitionist, sybaritic British governor, benevolent founding father and demonic white slaver. Whether his adopted country of the last 20 years takes kindly to a view of history that doesn’t support vainglorious monuments to overblown historical figures remains to be seen.

There follows an excerpt from John Greenleaf Whittier’s Our Countrymen in Chains, 1834. Apologies for cutting it down to a slightly more manageable size. A quick Googling should reward the persistent reader with the full version, one of many voices raised at the time of a bleak period in our history...
OUR fellow-countrymen in chains!
Slaves, in a land of light and law!
Slaves, crouching on the very plains
Where rolled the storm of Freedom’s war!
A groan from Eutaw’s haunted wood,
A wail where Camden’s martyrs fell,
By every shrine of patriot blood,
From Moultrie’s wall and Jasper’s well!

What, ho! our countrymen in chains!
The whip on woman’s shrinking flesh!
Our soil yet reddening with the stains
Caught from her scourging, warm and fresh!
What! mothers from their children riven!
What! God’s own image bought and sold!
Americans to market driven,
And bartered as the brute for gold!

Shall Belgium feel, and gallant France,
By Vendome’s pile and Schoenbrun’s wall,
And Poland, gasping on her lance,
The impulse of our cheering call?
And shall the slave, beneath our eye,
Clank o’er our fields his hateful chain?
And toss his fettered arms on high,
And groan for Freedom’s gift, in vain?

Oh, say, shall Prussia’s banner be
A refuge for the stricken slave?
And shall the Russian serf go free
By Baikal’s lake and Neva’s wave?
And shall the wintry-bosomed Dane
Relax the iron hand of pride,
And bid his bondmen cast the chain
From fettered soul and limb aside?

Shall every flap of England’s flag
Proclaim that all around are free,
From farthest Ind to each blue crag
That beetles o’er the Western Sea?
And shall we scoff at Europe’s kings,
When Freedom’s fire is dim with us,
And round our country’s altar clings
The damning shade of Slavery’s curse?

Go, let us ask of Constantine
To loose his grasp on Poland’s throat;
And beg the lord of Mahmoud’s line
To spare the struggling Suliote;
Will not the scorching answer come
From turbaned Turk, and scornful Russ
“Go, loose your fettered slaves at home,
Then turn, and ask the like of us!”

Up, then, in Freedom’s manly part,
From graybeard eld to fiery youth,
And on the nation’s naked heart
Scatter the living coals of Truth!
Up! while ye slumber, deeper yet
The shadow of our fame is growing!
Up! while ye pause, our sun may set
In blood, around our altars flowing!

Rise now for Freedom! not in strife
Like that your sterner fathers saw,
The awful waste of human life,
The glory and the guilt of war:
But break the chain, the yoke remove,
And smite to earth Oppression’s rod,
With those mild arms of Truth and Love,
Made mighty through the living God!

Down let the shrine of Moloch sink,
And leave no traces where it stood;
Nor longer let its idol drink
His daily cup of human blood;
But rear another altar there,
To Truth and Love and Mercy given,
And Freedom’s gift, and Freedom’s prayer,
Shall call an answer down from Heaven!

Sobering, yet inspiring stuff.


At 10:57 am, Blogger Alex said...

This program will most definitely be watched in our household. Both the subject matter and the presenter are of interest to us both (granted, the presenter sometimes a bit more than the subject matter, but not much)

Mr. Schama caught our eye when he did his enormously entertaining and educational 'History of Britain' series a few years ago. It certainly opened up my eyes to some parts of British history I didn't know about and fuelled Amanda back into collecting and reading the Kings and Queens on England series of books.

I must say that I also really liked his programs recently on master works of painters, and especially the one on Vincent van Gogh. Being Dutch I felt some patriotic pride of course, but I also thought the performance of Andy Serkis as Van Gogh was very emotional and haunting.

I'm looking forward to this program I must say. I might not be in the mood to watch it immediately tonight, but tanks to the Sky+ technology, it will be watched at some point this weekend I'm sure.


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