‘A British Milestone in the Fight for Freedom’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Photo: ERASMO VASQUEZ LENDECHY/WIKIMEDIA COMMON

The British officially abolished slavery throughout their empire on Aug. 1, 1834, freeing some 800,000 Africans from bondage. The date should be forever commemorated—but so should slavery’s own history of resistance and rebellion.

That slaves have always found ways to rebel is reflected in the earliest surviving legal texts. In the 21st century B.C., King Ur-Nammu of Ur, an ancient city in what is now Iraq, proclaimed that “if a slave escapes from the city limits and someone returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who returned him.”

As slavery became more deeply ingrained in society, so did the nature of the resistance. The Greeks were severe toward rebellious slaves. But no society was as cruel or inventive as Sparta. Having subjugated the neighboring Messenians into helotry in the seventh century B.C. (helots were the property of the state), the Spartans inflicted a reign of terror on them: During annual culls, young warriors were encouraged to hunt and kill the strongest helots.

A catastrophic earthquake in 464 B.C. prompted a short-lived rebellion, but the helots remained trapped in their wretched existence for another century. Finally, another opportunity to revolt came in 371 B.C. after the city-state of Thebes defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra. Aided by the victorious Thebans, the Messenians rose up and drove the Spartans from their land.

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‘Joan of Arc: A History,’ by Helen Castor – The New York Times Book Review

Engraving by J.C. Buttre, via Corbis

Engraving by J.C. Buttre, via Corbis

Fame is like a parasite. It feeds off its host — infecting, extracting, consuming its victim until there’s nothing left but an empty husk. For the lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view), with the emptiness comes the possibility of a long afterlife as one of the blowup dolls of history.

These women — and they’re almost always women — become the public’s playthings in perpetuity. Stripped of truth, deprived of personhood, they can be claimed and used by anyone for any purpose. Exhibit A is Joan of Arc, simultaneously canonized by Pope Benedict XV and the women’s suffrage movement; sometime mascot of 19th-century French republicans, 20th-century Vichy France and the 21st-century National Front. She has over a dozen operas and several dozen movies to her name. And she’s the single thread that unites a bewilderingly diverse crowd of playwrights, writers, philosophers, poets and novelists, from Shakespeare to Voltaire, Robert Southey, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Vita Sackville-West and Bertolt Brecht.

No wonder the British historian Helen Castor begins her highly satisfying biography of Joan of Arc by stating the obvious: “In the firmament of history,” the Maid of Orléans is a “massive star” whose “light shines brighter than that of any other figure of her time and place.” Indeed, Castor insists, Joan’s star still shines. But what a travesty if all people can see is the reflected vainglory of their own desires.

Castor’s corrective approach to the problem of Joan’s fame is to turn the mirror outward, changing the point of view from Joan herself to the times in which she lived. Follow her too closely, Castor argues, and “it can seem, unnervingly, as though Joan’s star might collapse into a black hole.” To those who think they know her story, this statement might seem unnerving. But Castor doesn’t mean the facts are wrong or need revising.

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‘Hillary’s emails honour the creed of hiding, twisting, leaking at the top’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Pawel Kadysz

Photo: Pawel Kadysz

WHY DID Great Britain stay neutral during the American Civil War? Back when I was researching this question, one answer that seemed particularly intriguing was the claim — made at the time in America and by subsequent historians — that it was due to a severe wheat shortage.

Repeated crop failures in the early 1860s had led to a massive reliance on imports from America and Russia. Ergo, Britain intervening in the war between the states would have been an unaffordable risk.

I combed through four years of cabinet reports, memoranda, letters and diaries, looking for proof. Cotton, slavery, Canada, blockade running, the balance of power: these were frequent subjects of fretful debate, but never wheat. The paper record showed the theory to be an utter dud, thereby freeing me to find the true causes of British neutrality.

I tell this story because I don’t see any point in hiding the fact that I am entirely partisan in the debate about government transparency. I believe that everything should be maintained in its proper place. What is classified should remain so, what is public should be open, and all must be preserved for future scrutiny.

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‘The British View the War of 1812 Quite Differently Than Americans Do’ – Smithsonian Magazine

Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS

Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS

As we look forward to celebrating the bicentennial of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, I have to admit, with deep shame and embarrassment, that until I left England and went to college in the U.S., I assumed the words referred to the War of Independence. In my defense, I suspect I’m not the only one to make this mistake

For people like me, who have got their flags and wars mixed up, I think it should be pointed out that there may have been only one War of 1812, but there are four distinct versions of it—the American, the British, the Canadian and the Native American. Moreover, among Americans, the chief actors in the drama, there are multiple variations of the versions, leading to widespread disagreement about the causes, the meaning and even the outcome of the war.

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‘When a Monarch Calls It Quits’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Abdication fever is sweeping the royal palaces of Europe. Recently, Spain’s King Juan Carlos became the third monarch in just over a year to renounce his crown. In January 2013, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands declared that she was stepping down in favor of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander. King Albert II of Belgium followed six months later.

Abdication in the old days was usually a prelude to execution. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud (who ruled from 534 to 509 B.C.), is one of the earliest recorded examples of a monarch who was forced to abdicate and still lived to tell the tale. Tarquin was the seventh and last king of the Romans. Burdened by heavy taxes, the aristocracy was already wishing to be rid of Tarquin when his son raped the pious Lucretia. The crime proved to be the catalyst for the birth of the Roman republic.

Tarquin eventually retired to the court of a neighboring tyrant. There, bored and angry, he plotted endlessly to reconquer Rome. Today, if Tarquin is remembered at all, it is by the generations of British schoolchildren who grew up learning to recite “Horatius at the Bridge,” Thomas Babington Macaulay’s stirring ballad on Tarquin’s defeat: “Lars Porsena of Clusium, / by the Nine Gods he swore, / That the great house of Tarquin / Should suffer wrong no more…And how can man die better/ Than facing fearful odds / For the ashes of his fathers / And the temples of his gods.”

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