I spoke too soon. At the end of my last tirade over a Leftist writer and his libertarian/anarchist allies, I mentioned a brilliant but left-leaning work of historical analysis by Adam Hochschild entitled Bury the Chains, about the ending of the slave trade by a handful of British abolitionists. I forgot about the bug that buzzes around my ear whenever I listen to or read the words of a Leftist, no matter the level of intelligence he possesses or interest I hold in what he’s trying to communicate. I’m still not done with the book (slow reader), but I know I shall continue to enjoy it. Well, most of it. I do have to put up with passages, on occasion, like the following: “The couple returned to England and, her book of adventures quickly published, settled in Anna Maria’s hometown of Bristol, where, as with so many women of her time, no further trace of her remains [p. 212].”* Frightening to contemplate, isn’t it? Anna Maria Falconbridge simply disappeared into the setting sun of the eighteenth century, never to be heard from again. I’ll bet a domineering husband is to blame.
Keep in mind that this is a book about slavery, an institution so indescribably awful that other women who had the misfortune to be born black, African, and in the same century as poor Mrs. Falconbridge were made to work in the fields, and more of them than men apparently, who were often given specialized tasks “like maintaining mill equipment, building sugar barrels, or doing masonry [p. 66].” The fields and sugar mills were where the most horrible work was to be done, toiling unspeakably long hours all day and well into the night. What was Mrs. Falconbridge’s greatest complaint? She apparently married a drunkard she didn’t like, and settled briefly in a poorly organized colony in Sierra Leone where she “hit it off wonderfully with the slave traders [p. 179].” Then, after giving up on this (rather socialist) little colony of good intentions, and with the aid of slave trading sailors, she returned to the bosom of Britain, became the best-selling author of a book against slavery, and retired. Not disappeared; retired. I can assure you, gentlemen, if I wrote a single best-seller, none of you would ever hear from me again. Actually, I’d probably never even get around to the book if you put me with a bunch of hardy and agreeable sailors. But that’s beside the point. Sadly.
Anyway, a quick look in the index shows a whole bunch of entries under “Suffrage”: “…for women in Britain… for women in Sierra Leone…” There’s even an index entry for “Women”: “field work done by… mutiny attempts by slave… as petition signers… as prostitutes… as public speakers… rights for… as slave revolt leaders… suffrage denied… suffrage for… travel narratives by… whipping of slave…”
There’s no index entry for “Men.” Yet the reader is led to believe that there was something in the eighteenth century that was quite important but was denied to women by virtue of their sex. The only thing anyone ever comes up with, including Hochschild, is the vote. But why did women in Britain need the vote?
The women who would have directly and immediately benefited from having a say in how the empire was run were female slaves with the wrong skin color. If the vote had been extended only to enslaved black men and not black women, does anyone honestly think that the men, of their own accord, would have done anything other than vote to have the women relieved from excruciating field labor? And if those same men had remained immovable on that issue, what would the slave women have done? Lied down and taken it?
No, they would have mobilized in the limited fashion available to them, and compelled the men to the polls. British women without the vote did much the same thing without even sending their men to the ballot box. According to Hochschild, it was mainly women who started a boycott of sugar: “Quietly but subversively, the boycott added a new dimension to British political life. At a time when only a small fraction of the population could vote, citizens took upon themselves the power to act when Parliament had not [p. 195].” Hochschild doesn’t mention women in these few pages with much specificity, but then again, he doesn’t need to. Who goes shopping for the household in eighteenth-century Britain? Who does the majority of cooking, baking, and making of tea? Who, after all this shopping and cooking, gets to say exactly what she wants to the family voter? Who withholds affection and sex if the voter fails to listen?
For the uninitiated and/or the thick-headed, this is usually how women, in general, like to wield power: quietly, in the background, and in a “supporting” role. They get on boats worked by men whose trade they disagree with, bat their eyelashes up on deck, and then blab in a tell-all book that sells, sells, sells. They decide, behind the scenes and purse in hand, to join the mass movement to boycott a single slave-traded item. How wonderful it would be if women in modern times would boycott air travel in protest against having their snatches glared and groped at in the airports. In comparison, using honey instead of sugar to protest the mistreatment of others in far away places seems quite pale, does it not? The only difference I can see is that modern, air-traveling women can vote. Is the sugar in your belly slowing your pace to the polls, honey?
Yet Hochschild brings up women again and again, as if they had no voice due to not having a vote. The rest of the “oppression” of women remains, as it has always done and probably always will, amorphous and evasive like the changeling it is. In the meantime, Hochschild ignores one of the most glaring, obvious, and truly awful examples of men being deliberately, directly, and decidedly oppressed due not to skin color, region of origin, or social class, but to their very sex.
I don’t know how it’s possible to ignore the profound differences between the way eighteenth century men and women were treated, but Hochschild manages the cognitive dissonance with ease. Chapter 15, entitled “The Sweets of Liberty,” is all about the question of why. Why did eighteenth-century Britain catch anti-slavery fever when other countries did not? America and much of the rest of Western Europe had roughly the same rate of industrial advancement. Enlightenment principles were bandied about by both American and French revolutionaries, but neither group of white people cared much about ending the atrocity against black people. Hochschild narrows it down to three things collectively peculiar to Britain: a free press, the improvement of highways with a parallel increase in ease of travel, and a diabolical phenomenon called “impressment.”
What was impressment? It was slavery for men. Regardless of color, social status or financial ability, the owner of a penis and testicles, if he was found on the wrong street at the wrong time by the wrong group of armed men in service to the wrong empire, would be pressed into “service” in the mightiest navy the world had yet seen, to fight however near or far “king and country” needed him to. Hochschild makes a distinction between impressment and modern-day drafts by pointing out that at least in modern times, drafts are approved through bureaucracies maintained in part by modern-day men and women who have access to the polls.
Big fucking deal. The only difference I see is that you’re less likely to be flogged for deserting this modern form of enslavement. You are not less likely to escape imprisonment or even social scorn for doing so. You are also not at all likely to be a woman: “The Royal Navy could rule the waves only because it was far bigger than any other fleet, and it expanded with every conflict throughout this era of battling empires; during the Napoleonic Wars, it would reach a peak of nearly 1,000 ships and more than 140,000 men [pp. 222-223].” One third to half of those “serving” in this navy were forced at gunpoint, at the end of a whip, and at the mercy of a number of infectious diseases, poor sanitation, cramped quarters, malnutrition, and the odd bullet or cannonball.
All of them were men.
All of them were utilitarian.
All of them were disposable.
All of them are dead.
All of them, when they were alive, had eyes to see, as the representation of Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ” could see, when standing in front of a drunken King Herod, the cast-down eyes of a black slave. The same thing was happening. To male and female slaves, it was happening because of their skin color. To British males, it was happening because they were men wandering around outside. To British women, nothing nearly as horrible was happening.
It reminds me of yet another movie, “Saving Private Ryan.” The only shot we see of Private Ryan’s mother, who is given no lines (That bastard Spielberg!), is when she collapses on her front porch after a telegram is delivered with the news that three of her four sons are dead. Heartbreaking, indeed, which is why I think a lot more people should be listening to Cindy Sheehan. But I’m left thinking to myself: DID ANYBODY HAPPEN TO BE WATCHING THE FIRST TWENTY MINUTES OF THIS MOVIE??!!
Spielberg did something virtually unprecedented in war movies: no set shots; no carefully timed explosions. It was all over the place: the body parts, the fallen men, the bullets whizzing past, the explosions, the blasted sand, the barbed wire, the flame-throwing, the random, spontaneous executions, the drowning, the blood, and the one image that sticks in my mind (since I only ever saw it once and will never see it again), row after row of men in an amphibious landing craft mowed down by machine guns fired by other men as the door of the craft drops down to the sand.
That’s how disposable we are. Collapse on your porch over that.
People outside the men’s movement need to understand that we are not in competition for sympathy here. We are trying to point out the painfully obvious, for anyone who cares to dismiss the concerns of feminists, which, compared to what countless men have had to go through, are everywhere and in every way thoroughly trivial or nonexistent.
Women never were and never will be thought of as being disposable. Why is that? It is, I believe, simply because we are aware, at some primal level, that it takes an awfully long time for a human female to produce a single, viable human being, whether male or female. It takes a man a few glorious, headboard-banging seconds to do his part. If he’s healthy with a high enough libido, he can “manage it” more than once a day, and would undoubtedly be more than happy to oblige. It takes one man to impregnate several women in one day. We have more than enough men to get “the job” done.
Somewhere, in the back of her mind, while standing on deck, soaking in the sun, and noticing on her particular ship that the slaves “experienced the utmost kindness and care [her own words],” I suspect that Mrs. Falconbridge knew this. She could safely sail and flirt, be bitterly disappointed that her ship was supposedly yet remarkably free of the horror accompanying so many other slave ships, and disembark to a new life brought to her by her brand new husband, whom she married three weeks after her alcoholic husband drank himself to death on page 212.
Mr. Hochschild, I’m not done with your wonderful book, but please get back to writing about the end of this wretched system of coercion. I’m tired of hearing about the complaints of pampered pets. When they are someday able to tell me of the weird feeling they felt in the pits of their stomachs on that fateful day after turning 18 when they walked off to the post office, be sure to let me know.
*All page numbers taken from: Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. New York: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005 (first Mariner Books ed. 2006)