Posts in Uncategorized
Freeing too few slaves

T.S. Eliot says the last temptation is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Which brings me to the first mass emancipation of slaves in North America.

It happened on November 7, 1775, in Virginia. Which is 156 years too late, as slavery began in Virginia in 1619 in the same place and same year, in bitter irony, as the first representative legislature in the New World. But we’ll take it, right?

Well, not this way. The problem is, royal governor John Murray, a.k.a. Lord Dunmore, issued his proclamation under duress, offering freedom to any slave who fought for the British. It is hard to think of a less promising moment or setting, including by making emancipation seem like a threat to the freedom of the white inhabitants.

It would have been far better had the British gently encouraged and facilitated growing sentiment for abolition in the northern colonies before 1776, instead of actively opposing it (to the point that Thomas Jefferson, in a monumental act of gall, included an indictment of George III for encouraging the slave trade in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence).

Dunmore’s proclamation didn’t free every slave because slavery was wrong. It made it conditional, and conditional on something difficult and dangerous that not everyone could do. Despite which hundreds, possibly as many as 2,000 slaves did indeed join the royalist forces… who lost anyway. Indeed Dunmore himself had to pull out of Virginia in 1776, taking about 300 ex-slaves with him and leaving the rest in the lurch, if they hadn’t already died of the smallpox epidemic that ravaged his forces.

In 1779 General Sir Henry Clinton issued a more general emancipation decree, freeing slaves owned by revolutionaries throughout the colonies whether or not they enlisted. But even there, the counsel of pseudo-prudence that left humans in bondage if their owners were loyal undermined the moral and even practical impact of the policy.

I do not know that there was anything the British could have done to end slavery in North America in 1775. And indeed a vigorous effort earlier might have produced revolt sooner, at least in the south. Unless of course it had been undertaken in the 17th century before this hideous thing took root. But sometimes you just have to do the right thing.

Doing it at the wrong time for the wrong reason in the wrong way is unlikely to work. So you might as well try to get at least a few of the lesser things right as well.

UncategorizedJohn Robson
We finally surrender

On November 6, 1865, the Confederacy surrendered. If you’ve heard or read otherwise, allow me to introduce the CSS Shenandoah, a tribute to the military skill and doggedness of the South in a cause unworthy of the devotion it inspired.

Shenadoah was a commerce raider, initially launched as the Sea King in August 1863, with teak planks on an iron frame and both sail and backup steam power. Originally a cargo vessel, and built in Glasgow, she was converted to a man-o-war in October 1864 after a rendezvous with another ship carrying officers, guns, ammunition etc. (And no, I don’t know why a ship is “she” but a “man”-o-war. That was before pronouns like Xe and everybody getting their own gender.)

Now you may be thinking October 1864 is a bit late to join the U.S. Civil War, which by that point was just a matter of rather bloody mopping up. But Shenandoah went on a tear, striking at Union merchant and whaling ships in the Indian and Pacific oceans. And she captured or sank 37 of them, a majority after the war was formally over.

Of course there was no Internet in those days. And even after her captain, Lieutenant Commander James Waddell, got hold of a months-old San Francisco newspaper reporting the flight of the Confederate government from Richmond, he preferred to believe the statement by Jefferson Davis that the war “would be carried on with re-newed vigor”.

Finally he learned in August that the armies had surrendered and President Davis and much of his cabinet had been captured. So he headed for Liverpool, the unofficial HQ of the Confederate overseas fleet, concerned that if he surrendered to the Union his crew would be hanged as pirates. In the end they weren’t, and when Shenandoah struck her colours the Confederate flag was lowered for the last time.

Five years too late, of course. I have great admiration for many who fought for the Confederacy, and for their attachment to limited government. But the whole thing was about the loathsome institution of racial slavery and all that courage, dash and grit was not merely wasted but entirely misguided.

P.S. If you’re thinking the Confederate flag still flies grotesquely in places like Mississippi, that’s the battle flag not the actual Confederate flag, and the far greater popularity and familiarity of the “Stars and Bars” reflects, I think, the fact that those who fought for the South were by and large far better than their cause.

UncategorizedJohn Robson
And Michelangelo said, Let there be God

Is Boris Karloff funny as Frankenstein’s monster? Almost unwatchably corny? If so, it’s because he’s such an exact, stereotypical imitation of… of… himself. Which naturally brings me to Michelangelo.

Well, it could be worse. It could bring me to Karloff’s interactive ad for Butter-Nut coffee which trades on his exceptional, campy resemblance to Boris Karloff. (And if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to Google it and drink deeply.) But in a desperate lunge for high culture cred, I’m going with Michelangelo instead because it was on Nov. 1, 1512, that his fresco on the roof of the Sistine Chapel was first shown to the public.

Yes, that one. With God with flowing white beard reaching out to touch Adam. The one you’ve seen parodied so often, from the Simpsons to the Muppets to bank card ads to the Pastafarians, that the original itself seems like a parody. Including that business of God as an old man with a big beard. Which is, of course, proof of its transcendent genius.

I’m sure there were one or two people who saw it on that Nov. 1 and went “Oh, I don’t like that.” But the majority must have known at once, like the audience for the 1st performance of Beethoven’s 9th, that the world was somehow changed, that something had been created that was as original as art can be, and technically brilliant, yet as natural that the reaction was half “It can’t be” and half “Of course.”

There’s a lot more up there, of course. Just as there’s a lot more to Karloff including, dare I mention it in this context, his iconic “mummy” on which every subsequent mummy movie is in some sense a commentary. Indeed, to have created two characters so worth parodying is a mark of the man’s genius. As is the fact that the only major award of his long acting career was a Grammy for the LP of… I presume you know that too. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. (And the name, a stage name adopted while doing theatre in Canada; his actual name was the deeply not spooky “William Henry Pratt.”) And the fact that he parodied himself superbly, including in the original stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace where he played a gangster infuriated at being continually mistaken for Boris Karloff.

Oh, by the way, Michelangelo also did sculptures including the much-parodied David. (A Google search for “Michelangelo David parody” returned “About 7,510,000 results (0.88 seconds)”.

Not bad.

UncategorizedJohn Robson
Little green folly On October 30, 1938, Martians did not invade Earth. As they often don’t. Perhaps because they’re happy where they are, perhaps because we’re not as great as we think, or perhaps because they’re extinct microbes or never existed at all.

If it’s the latter, they have lots of company. Including all the people who panicked over the famous, or infamous, CBS “Mercury Theatre on the Air” broadcast starring Orson Welles.

It’s a story we’ve all heard and, in many cases including mine, believed. The show was in grittily realistic format and crucially didn’t have a lot of commercial breaks (for young people I should explain that before the Internet we used to endure periodic interruptions in whatever loud inane thing we were watching or listening to for some generally loud inane pitch for a product we didn’t need; now of course they pop up during it which is called “progress”).

So even though the legal department insisted on changing the names of a lot of actual institutions and buildings to thinly veiled substitutes, an idiot could have believed Martians were invading and panicked without checking first. And the urban legend is that many idiots did. But it’s not true.

It’s curious, therefore, that so many people believed and still believe they did. Now the obvious explanation is that we like to believe many of our fellows are such fools they will run screaming from a radio broadcast. But why would that be a comforting thought, especially given that they might run straight into a voting booth? Perhaps it is because, knowing humanity is prone to folly and that includes us, we can feel smug that at least we’re not quite as stupid as those people streaming screaming through the streets.

Until we look out our own window, or on the Internet, and find that they aren’t there and never were. Then we realize the fool is, as so often, in the mirror.

Especially as in the aftermath of this nonexistent panic, a real one did happen, with people denouncing CBS and calling for heavy regulation. And Orson Welles became more famous than I’ve ever been able to understand.

So maybe the Martians haven’t invaded because they don’t want the management of such a pack of fools. Or maybe they’re as bad as we are, and panicked at false rumours of panic at false rumors of an invasion from the Earth.

UncategorizedJohn Robson
Three cheers for Wolfe, one for Montcalm

First phase of the battle (Wikipedia)

September 13 of 1759 is a day to be… um… can we change the subject here? Like right now. You see, it was a pivotal victory for liberty in Canada, the preservation of a long heritage of freedom and its extension to people who have benefited immensely from its blessings. It was also significant to world history for evicting absolutism from North America.

Why aren’t we clapping? Oh yeah. That Quebec thing again. Because of course I’m talking about the victory on the Plains of Abraham, a brief affair in itself, about 15 minutes, in which a bold stroke by James Wolfe coupled with bad luck and dubious decisions by Montcalm ended a three-month siege with pivotal strategic consequences in the boringly named “Seven Years’ War.” It is a pity that Wolfe was killed securing this victory; he might well have gone on to further greatness had he lived. (Indeed one Col. William Howe, who distinguished himself by leading 24 volunteers up the slope to capture the only defenders in position on the Plains, later became commander in chief of British forces during the American Revolution.)

Now in fairness it should be said that Montcalm was an excellent general who had previously given the British fits including capturing Fort William Henry in 1757. I am sorry that he died of a wound incurred in the battle and I wish to give him full credit as a brave, intelligent man. But to give him his due does not require me to regret his defeat.

It was good for Canada and the world that Britain prevailed in the Seven Years’ War. It was even good for the inhabitants of New France, who escaped first French absolutism then the madness of the French Revolution. Quebec would not be the dynamic, prosperous, populous place it is today without the blessings of British liberty, as many Quebec statesmen understood in days of yore. That we should have sunk to the level that a francophone Canadian prime minister could regret not being there to awaken and warn Montcalm, and that reenactments of the battle on its 150th anniversary had to be cancelled, is a sign not of sophistication and sensitivity but of groveling witlessness.

Hooray for the Plains of Abraham and Wolfe the dauntless hero.

UncategorizedJohn Robson