This summer during my annual trip to Kansas to spend time with family, I took a trip of my own to Colorado. I have a hard time resisting the mountains, and this year I caved. But I took a detour on the way to out to visit two historical sites. It was a tour of tragedy.Continue reading A Tour of Tragedy
I just finished reading The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson. If the length of the title is any indication as to the length of the prose, be warned. At 550+ pages of 18th century writing by a classically trained slave, this book is a chore to read. It doesn’t help that very little happens. Which is all too bad. It’s a fascinating story of an escaped slave joining up with the British to become part of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment to fight the revolting Colonials.
I was curious about this Royal Ethiopian Regiment, though it probably had few if any actual Ethiopians in it. While the story is fiction, it’s based on fact. Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation that any slaves escaped from rebels would be granted freedom for serving in the British Army. Some 800 were organized into the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, though they were never given much of a chance to fight. They were led into a trap at the Battle of Great Bridge and were later decimated by smallpox. Only 300 of the original 800 survived the eventual retreat to New York.
The story of black Loyalists in the American Revolution is interesting. The title of the book paints Octavian as a traitor, but what choice did he have? Traitor, slave, dead. Black Colonials had no hope of freedom, while the British often offered freedom as a way to encourage recruits and disrupt the colonists. Those promises were eventually honored and some of these black Loyalists were moved to Nova Scotia and later Sierra Leone.
There’s an interesting author’s note at the end of The Kingdom on the Waves that reads in part:
In the course of my research for this book, I have come to believe that the American Republic would not have survived its early years—would not have made it through the War of 1812—if it had not been fueled and funded by two profound acts of ethnic violence: the establishment of slavery and the annexation of Native American lands, both of which practices played a major part in the inception and conduct of the Revolution. The freedom—economic, social and intellectual—enjoyed by the vocal and literate elite of the early Republic would have been impossible if it had not been for the enslavement, displacement and destruction of others.
With so much whitewashed talk of our founding fathers, that’s perhaps a more realistic look. But they’re not alone in their guilt:
But it is easy to condemn the dead for their mistakes. Hindsight is cheap, and the dead can’t argue. It is harder to examine our own actions and to ask what abuses we commit, what conspicuous cruelties we allow to afford our luxuries, which of our deeds will be condemned by our children’s children when they look back upon us. We, too, are making decisions. We, too, have our hypocrisies, our systems of shame.
On Sunday the frozen state of Minnesota turned 150. It’s our sesquicentennial! I’m an old pro at this, having lived in Michigan during their 1987 sesquicentennial (which means I can pronounce sesquicentennial, but can’t spell it without help). Some have argued that nobody really cares about 150 years of statehood. But I say it is a big deal, especially if you let me learn for free.
That’s right, on June 1 you can visit all Minnesota Historical Society sites and museums as well as Minnesota State Parks free of charge. Now that’s a celebration I can support.
But seriously, it is kind of cool. It’s fun to explore local history and understand how things came to be. Of course it shouldn’t be a chance to whitewash history—not everyone is eager to celebrate the sesquicentennial. After all, there have been people in Minnesota for far longer than 150 years and we didn’t exactly ask politely if we could have their homeland. Plus we have the distinction of being the location of the largest mass execution in U.S. history (how’s that for a tourist slogan?). That execution, by the way, involved military tribunals of questionable fairness, was personally reviewed by Abraham Lincoln, and ultimately only 38 of 303 death sentences were carried out, thanks to Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple’s pleas for leniency (go Episcopalians!). As hard as it is to read about these sad moments in our history, it’s encouraging to read about people like Whipple who stood up against racism and violence.
Sometimes history’s lessons are somber, but they’re still important.
On a less somber note, I am disappointed we don’t have better sesquicentennial swag. Where are the yo-yos?
Since this is my second sesquicentennial, I thought it might be interesting to move around and celebrate sesquicentennials as they come. If that sounds like fun to you, you better head to Oregon in 2009, Kansas in 2011, West Virginia in 2013 and Nevada in 2014. You could also celebrate centennials in New Mexico and Arizona in 2012, but that’s not as fun to say.