Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Lord Mansfield's Slave Neice Named Dido

From the UK Telegraph, "Slave girl who changed history," by Anita Singh, Arts and Entertainment Editor, on 26 April 2014  -- The remarkable relationship between an 18th century English judge and his cousin's illegitimate black daughter that lay at the heart of the abolition of slavery is to be turned into a film

Earlier this year, the film 12 Years A Slave — a searingly brutal account of the helplessness of 19th-century slaves in America’s Deep South — swept the “best picture” category at the leading Hollywood award ceremonies.

Now, a new film made in Britain will tell the story of the remarkable relationship that may have lain at the heart of the abolition of slavery on this side of the Atlantic.

It centres on the 1st Earl of Mansfield, the most influential Lord Chief Justice of the 18th century, and the woman he helped to raise — Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a black slave woman.
The film was inspired by a portrait of Dido that shows her with her playmate, Lady Elizabeth Murray, a great-niece who was also in the care of Lord Mansfield.

At first glance, the picture, which hangs in the Mansfield family seat of Scone Palace in Scotland, appears simply to show a young English lady and her slave.

Yet it is the fine taffeta gown and jewels of the dark-skinned girl that tell a different tale and provide the merest glimpse of Dido’s extraordinary role in history.

Dido was born in 1761 as the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy captain, John Lindsay, and a black slave woman brought to England on board his ship.

When Lindsay returned to sea, he placed the little girl in the care of his childless uncle, Lord Mansfield.
Dido was raised amid the splendour of Kenwood House in Hampstead, north London, Lord Mansfield’s weekend retreat. Remarkably for the times, when Georgian England was dominated by rules on class and colour, Dido was treated almost as one of the family.

The film, Belle, makes the striking claim that Lord Mansfield’s fondness for Dido helped to shape both his views on race and legal rulings that paved the way for the abolition of slavery.

The director, Amma Asante, said: “I think it would be disingenuous to believe her presence in the house didn’t have some impact on him. It makes for a fascinating story to think that his love for this child opened his eyes.” Belle stars Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson as Lord and Lady Mansfield. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who played Ophelia opposite Jude Law in an acclaimed production of Hamlet, has her first starring role, as Dido.

“When people think of ‘dual heritage’ they think it’s a modern concept, but really it’s not. Dido’s story needs to be known,” the actress said.

Dido was taken in as a playmate for Lady Elizabeth Murray after her mother’s death. The girls were constant companions and received a similar education, but Dido’s position in the household was complex. She was dressed in the same fine silks as Elizabeth but not allowed to eat with the family at formal occasions.

Nevertheless, her presence at Kenwood shocked society. One visitor, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, noted in his diary: “A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies, and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other.

“[Lord Mansfield] calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for shewing [sic] a fondness for her.”

Lord Mansfield commissioned the portrait of Dido and Elizabeth, attributed to Johann Zoffany, the royal artist, in 1779.

The screenwriter Misan Sagay was inspired by the painting when she came across it in Scone Palace. It came to the attention of the producer, Damian Jones, who was fascinated by the subject matter. “I was astonished to see this completely ambiguous portrait,” he recalled. “Were they friends? Were they sisters? Was one a servant? You couldn’t tell.

“I think it’s fair to say most portraits of the period do not feature black people, unless they’re obviously servants or slaves.”

Lord Mansfield ruled on two landmark cases that were to change history.

In 1772, when Dido was 11, he ruled that it was illegal for a British owner to forcibly take his slave abroad as “property”. Thomas Hutchinson wrote that slave owners believed Lord Mansfield was determined to set slaves free because “he keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family”.

Nine years later, he ruled on one of the darkest episodes in Britain’s colonial history. The crew of the Zong slave ship threw more than 100 African slaves overboard in order to claim insurance for “jettisoned cargo”. But in a blow to the slave traders, Lord Mansfield threw out the claim.

The case provided fuel for the anti-abolitionist cause, which succeeded in ending Britain’s slave trade in 1807. It was abolished in 1833.

Dido married her father’s legal apprentice, and moved to Pimlico.

Lord Mansfield’s will contained the note: “I confirm to Dido Elizabeth Belle her freedom.”

Dido’s last traceable descendant, Harold Davinier, died in 1975 — a white South African living in the era of apartheid. (source: UK Telegraph)

"Slaves to Prejudice" by Maureen Dowd

From the New York Times, "Slaves to Prejudice," by Maureen Dowd, on 26 April 2014 -- WASHINGTON — WHEN a cranky anarchist in a cowboy hat starts a sentence saying “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” you can be dang sure it’s going downhill from there.

The unsettling thing about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s ugly rant on the Virgin River on Saturday, The Times’s Adam Nagourney told me, was that there was no negative reaction from the semicircle of gun-toting and conspiracy-minded supporters who had gathered round to hear it. The oblivious 67-year-old Bundy, who has refused for 20 years to pay for his cattle to graze on our land, offered a nostalgic ode to slavery.

Recalling that he saw African-Americans sitting on the porch of a public-housing project in North Las Vegas who seemed to have “nothing to do,” Bundy declaimed: “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?”

The man hailed as a “savior” and “folk hero” by Fox News doubled down Thursday, declaring: “Cliven Bundy’s a-wondering” if the black community was happier during slave days when “they was in the South in front of their homes with their chickens and their gardens and their children around them and their men having something to do.”

By Friday, he was saying that all Americans are slaves to the government and comparing himself to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Just another dark-ages bigot who goes nuts at the idea that whites are losing clout in an America run by a New Age black president. What’s the use of being white, after all, if you can’t be king of the hill — even if the hill really belongs to the government?

Conservatives saw no hypocrisy in rallying around Bundy for breaking the law, refusing to pay between $1 and $2 a month per cow to graze on federal land, while they refuse to consider amnesty for illegal immigrants committing Acts of Love.

Rand Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky who wants to be the Republican presidential nominee, took almost a day to distance himself from the self-immolating Bundy. Paul was so worried about alienating the segment of the party that will decide the nomination, he couldn’t even respond quickly to say the most simple thing on earth: Racism is bad.

As BuzzFeed reported, Chris McDaniel, a G.O.P. state senator mounting a strong challenge to Thad Cochran in the Mississippi Republican primary, has written blog posts blaming the “welfare dependent citizens of New Orleans” for not finding higher ground during Katrina, charging that “Mexicans” entering the country are hurting “our culture” and calling racial profiling of Muslims a “victory for common sense.”

From cockfighting rallies to online gun sweepstakes to cracks about “wetbacks” to waxing nostalgic about slavery, the Republican fringe has gone mainstream. When the younger stars of the G.O.P. race to embrace a racist anarchist lionized by Sean Hannity, it underscores the party’s lack of leadership or direction.

After making noise about reaching out to women (even as Senate Republicans unanimously blocked a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act and Republican legislatures around the country pass more abortion restrictions), the G.O.P. now has the delightful Det Bowers out there doing marital counseling. Politico reported that the wacky 62-year-old evangelical minister, who is challenging Lindsey Graham in the South Carolina G.O.P. Senate primary, once asserted that 95 percent of broken marriages are caused by women giving more attention to their children than to their husbands. “He did run off with some other woman, and you packed his bags,” Bowers said, adding: “You just ran him off. You paid more attention to your children than you did to him. ‘Oh, he doesn’t need me?’ He needs you more than they do. He chose you, they didn’t. An abominable idolatry.”

It’s a measure of how hallucinogenic conservatives are that they are trying to re-litigate slavery during the second term of the first African-American president.

Earlier this month, Jim DeMint, Tea-Party godfather and president of the Heritage Foundation, bizarrely told a Christian radio station that it was not “big government” that freed the slaves, but “the conscience of the American people” and Abraham Lincoln, a Republican. (Umm, wasn’t he big government along with his hundreds of thousands of troops?)

In another case of inexplicable foot-dragging, Rand Paul was reluctant to cut loose Jack Hunter, his social media director and co-author on a Tea Party book, after the media wrote about his past life as a shock jock named the Southern Avenger who advocated secession, wore a Confederate flag mask, toasted John Wilkes Booth, and complained that whites are “not afforded the same right to celebrate their own cultural identity” because anything “that is considered ‘too white’ is immediately suspect.”

At Harvard’s Institute of Politics on Friday, Paul said that “The Republican Party will adapt, evolve or die.”

He might want to listen to his own advice. (source: The New York Times)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty

As reviewed in the UK Guardian, in an article entitled, "The Empire of Necessity: The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty; Michael Moorcock on a tale of revolt on board a slave ship that explores the interdependency of liberty and slavery in the US," by Michael Moorcock, on 16 April 2014 --  On 20 February 1805 in the remote bay of an uninhabited island off the Chilean coast, Captain Amasa Delano from Massachusetts, reduced to seal-hunting for a bad living, anchored his ship the Perseverance to take on fresh supplies of water and fish. Suddenly another ship, the Tryal, flying the Spanish flag, lumbered out of the morning mist. She was in desperate condition, her rigging ragged, boats missing, her complement reduced to a handful of half-starved sailors and with a cargo of unchained west African slaves.

The Empire of Necessity: The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty
by Greg Grandin

When Delano boarded the Tryal he found her half-mad captain, Benito Cerreño, supported on the arms of his Muslim body-slaves Babo and Mori. The Spaniard sobbed out a fragmented story of losing hands, boats, passengers and cargo to sickness and the elements. He appealed to the good-hearted American for help. Astonished by the lack of discipline aboard, which he attributed to Cerreño's poor health and seamanship, Delano swiftly sent his longboat back to the Perseverance for supplies. An abolitionist, Delano was nonetheless impressed by the apparent devotion of the two slaves, father and son, who refused to be separated for a moment from their master.

Only as Delano left the ship did the charade collapse. Stumbling to the rail Cerraño leapt recklessly into the American's departing boat babbling of his capture and torture by the Africans. The slaves had revolted, killing most whites aboard, including the trader who owned them. Under threat of death, Cerreño and the others were forced to play out a charade for Delano. As soon as he returned to his own ship the Yankee organised pursuit of the rebels. Ultimately they were caught, and the ringleaders hideously punished. The main cargo of salvaged slaves were put up for sale, whereupon they and the ship became subject to a prolonged legal battle between the two captains as to their ownership. All this was recorded in Delano's memoirs, published in 1817 after his return to Boston and relative poverty. Soon after the publication (and commercial failure) of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville used Delano's account as the substance of his powerful novella "Benito Cereno", published in Putnam's Magazine in 1855. The story almost certainly appealed to the author as a parable examining the extraordinary relationship between slavery and liberty. As Greg Grandin points out in this remarkable book, the Age of Liberty and the Age of Slavery were the same. One simply could not have existed without the other.
The interdependency of apparent opposites fascinated Melville as it did a number of 19th-century American writers, including the superbly civilised transcendentalists (such as Emerson and Thoreau). The lives of settlers revealed this tangled truth on a daily basis and reflected their fascination with nature in the raw. Perhaps not entirely consciously, Melville understood Delano's story to be a metaphor for his young nation.

The American conscience has always been troubled by its relationship to genocide and slavery and, as Grandin points out, Melville throughout his writing life examined the anomalies by which people lived, dependent on death to sustain life and on slavery to sustain freedom. The American revolution was financed in great part by slavery and the young American state probably could not have continued without it. Of all the chief South and North American nations, only Canada remained attached to the original colonial power, and only Canada's economy did not depend on slavery. Indeed, the relatively small number of slaves in that country were mostly natives, captured and owned by other natives in the pursuit of inter-tribal war. By remaining attached to the mother country, Canada also seems to have resisted anything like mass genocide and remains the most equitable of the North American nations.

Melville took Delano's account and increased its narrative tensions, changing it only a little, but building up a dark, terrifying atmosphere as Delano gradually begins to realise something is wrong, and yet is unable, through his natural Yankee amiability, to determine what makes him so uneasy as black mothers sing a sinister dirge and west African carpenters clash axes they are apparently cleaning. His questions are answered mysteriously by Captain Cereno, so that the American suspects rudeness and social inadequacy in the Spaniard. Only in the dramatically improved ending, with Cereno and his men risking their lives in the sea and the enraged slaves pursuing them, does it dawn on him that those "rude blacks" he believed incapable of such subterfuge were actually the masters, and that his own prejudices allowed him to play into the hands of Babo and his rebels.

In a superbly argued and richly detailed account of the interdependencies of slavery and revolution throughout the Americas, as well as the religious traditions of Protestantism, Catholicism and Islam (many of the west Africans were educated Muslims), Grandin brings to vivid life the realities of the period, pointing out that, of the estimated 12,500,000 Africans carried to the Americas between 1514 and 1866, at least half were boarded after 4 July 1776. Many slaves were expert craftspeople; many, educated in madrasas, were literate; and some even owned or traded in slaves themselves. The slave trade boomed when it was liberalised by the Spanish crown after Spain failed to control the smuggling of black Africans. Numbers increased after 1800 as the US economy became increasingly reliant on slavery. The butchery of fur- and oil-bearing mammals on land and sea supplied the money to buy the slaves working the mines and fields of the New World, just as genocide of indigenous people supplied the land and precious metals. One person's freedom was all but impossible without another's servitude.

Melville, coming from a New England abolitionist tradition, did not make an obvious allegory out of Delano's account, and his black slaves are not shown to be particularly sophisticated or subtle – with the exception of Babo who, in a tense and sinister scene, insists on shaving the man he pretends is his master while Cereno, terrified, submits to his ministrations. When the truth is revealed the Africans become the savage, insensate force shown in DW Griffiths's film Birth of a Nation, but even here we can imagine that such a howling, furious mob can easily represent the form the guilt-ridden white unconscious most expects retribution to take.

Terrified by the Haitian revolution, republican France did all it could to suppress the first black state in the Americas. That revolution affected the imaginations of other imperial powers, as well as those beginning to emerge from under the European heel. Events on the Tryal symbolised a great deal to even the most liberal whites, and continued to offer subject matter to writers other than Melville. Both Pablo Neruda and the Uruquayan experimental novelist Tomás de Mattos were attracted to the topic, depicting Babo as far more of a hero than did Melville. Grandin's skill is that, as in his recent Fordlandia, a study of American utopianism through the dreams of Henry Ford, he can find metaphors that subtly reflect the vital dichotomies that pervade the American psyche.  (source: The UK Guardian)


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