Strangers in Paradise

May 17, 2013

  

From Herman Melville’s Typee:

Among the islands of Polynesia, no sooner are the images overturned, the temples demolished, and the idolators converted into NOMINAL Christians, that disease, vice, and premature death make their appearance. The depopulated land is then recruited from the rapacious, hordes of enlightened individuals who settle themselves within its borders, and clamorously announce the progress of the Truth. Neat villas, trim gardens, shaven lawns, spires, and cupolas arise, while the poor savage soon finds himself an interloper in the country of his fathers, and that too on the very site of the hut where he was born. The spontaneous fruits of the earth, which God in his wisdom had ordained for the support of the indolent natives, remorselessly seized upon and appropriated by the stranger, are devoured before the eyes of the starving inhabitants, or sent on board the numerous vessels which now touch at their shores.

When the famished wretches are cut off in this manner from their natural supplies, they are told by their benefactors to work and earn their support by the sweat of their brows! But to no fine gentleman born to hereditary opulence, does this manual labour come more unkindly than to the luxurious Indian when thus robbed of the bounty of heaven. Habituated to a life of indolence, he cannot and will not exert himself; and want, disease, and vice, all evils of foreign growth, soon terminate his miserable existence.

But what matters all this? Behold the glorious result!—The abominations of Paganism have given way to the pure rites of the Christian worship,—the ignorant savage has been supplanted by the refined European! Look at Honolulu, the metropolis of the Sandwich Islands!—A community of disinterested merchants, and devoted self-exiled heralds of the Cross, located on the very spot that twenty years ago was defiled by the presence of idolatry. What a subject for an eloquent Bible-meeting orator! Nor has such an opportunity for a display of missionary rhetoric been allowed to pass by unimproved!—But when these philanthropists send us such glowing accounts of one half of their labours, why does their modesty restrain them from publishing the other half of the good they have wrought?—Not until I visited Honolulu was I aware of the fact that the small remnant of the natives had been civilized into draught-horses; and evangelized into beasts of burden. But so it is. They have been literally broken into the traces, and are harnessed to the vehicles of their spiritual instructors like so many dumb brutes!


Fully Slaved

November 11, 2010

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Reading Marcus Rediker’s book, The Slave Ship: A Human History, I learned of the Liverpool Seamen’s Revolt of 1775.  The slave ship owners decided to seriously cut the wages of the crews, and the sailors responded with a labor rebellion.  They cut down the rigging from the ships, looted the homes of the rich slavers, commandeered canon and bombarded the Exchange, headquarters of the city elite.  It was noted that the rebels, violent and destructive as they were, treated most people decently, reserving their rage for the directors of the slave trade.  They were finally put down by the military after a few days. They were protesting against their awful treatment by the controllers of the slave trade, not the trade itself.

The term “fully slaved,” refers to a slave ship (slaver) that has its full complement of human cargo and is ready to sail for the Americas.  The process of acquiring slaves took months, and the toll on the captives waiting below deck, as well as the sailing crew subject to sickness, was terrible.  Rediker’s book details all aspects of life aboard a slaver and the economic and political web that surrounded them.  It makes for horrifying reading – the first time I delved into this subject in detail.  It also adds a lot to my reading of Melville’s Benito Cereno and Eugene Sue’s Atar Gull. The book is quite repetitive, and not too well-organized, but the depth of scholarship is amazing.

In the course of his narrative, Rediker touches at length on John Newton, the author of  the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  He points out that Newton did not speak out against slavery until nearly thirty years had passed after he left the trade.  Moreover, his famous conversion to evangelical religion took place while he worked the trade, and did not prevent him from continuing profitably in it, believing he was following God’s path.

Better late than never.

The images below are of an old movie theatre in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that startled me the first time I drove by it years ago.