Who was Harriet Tubman? The Life and Legacy of an American Heroine.

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

This was a famous quote by the American abolitionist and political activist, Harriet Tubman. 

As March is Women’s History Month in the United States, this article aims to present the life and legacy of one of America’s most famous heroines. 

Harriet Tubman (born Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross) was a black, female abolitionist and political activist. She was born into slavery in Maryland in 1822 from which she escapade in 1849 using the so-called “Underground Railroad.” 

Instead of running as far away as possible once she gained her freedom, she decided to go back and save others with a similar fate. She thus became a leading abolitionist and led hundreds of slaves to freedom using the “Underground Railroad.”

Early years as slave

Araminta Ross was born to parents Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross on a plantation in Dorchester County, Maryland. She later changed her name to Harriet in honor of her mother. 

Despite her mother’s efforts to keep her nine children together, the harsh reality of slavery did not allow for this. At the age of five, Harriet was rented out as a nursemaid where she was whipped and beaten whenever the baby cried. 

At age seven she was rented out to a planter to set muskrat traps and few years later she was once again rented out as a field hand.

At the young age of 12, it became apparent that Harriet was destined for greater things. One day she spotted how an overseer was about to throw a heavy weight at a fugitive slave. Harriet jumped between the slave and the overseer and the weight struck her head. 

She later explained that the weight had broken her skull and that they had carried her into the house all bleeding while she was unconscious. She had no bed, so they brought her to the seat of the loom, where she stayed all day and the next.

Escape from slavery

Harriet’s father was set free in 1840 and she discovered that her owner’s last will set her mother and children free as well. However, Harriet’s new owner refused to recognize the will and kept Harriet’s mother and siblings as slaves. 

Around 1844, she married a free black man named John Tubman and changed her last name. She wasn’t happy in her marriage though, as her husband threatened to sell her further south. 

Her husband’s maltreatment towards her and the knowledge that two of her brothers – Ben and Henry – were about to be sold, provoked Harriet to hatch a plan to escape. 

Following the death of her owner in 1849, Harriet decided to escape to Philadelphia. Her two brothers – Ben and Henry – accompanied her, but once word got out that there was a $300 reward for the return of Araminta, Henry, and Ben, the two boys had second thoughts and returned.

Harriet had no plans to remain in slavery. After seeing her brothers safely home, she set off alone for Pennsylvania. Tubman traveled nearly 90 miles using the “Underground Railroad”.

Harriet Tubman: The Conductor 

As a free woman in Philadelphia, she found work as a housekeeper, but she wasn’t satisfied living as a freed slave on her own. She wanted freedom for her loved ones as well. 

Word got around that her niece and her niece’s children were about to be sold. Harriet thus traveled back to the south to free her family via the “Underground Railroad”. 

This was the first of many trips that she made to free slaves. Her work as a “Conductor” for the “Underground Railroad” earned her the nickname “Moses”.  

In 1850, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, the dynamics of freeing slaves changed. The new law stated that escaped slaves could be re-captured in the North and returned to slavery. This led to the widespread abduction of former slaves and free blacks in northern states.

Law enforcement officials were forced to partake in the capture of slaves, regardless of their personal beliefs. This evidently affected the “Underground Railroad” and Harriet’s work. They were thus forced to re-route the network to Canada, where slavery was prohibited.

Harriet Tubman: The political activist

As the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Harriet Tubman remained active. She was recruited as a nurse, cook, and laundress to assist fugitive slaves at Fort Monroe. 

Harriet also had some knowledge of herbal medicines which she used to treat the sick soldiers and fugitive slaves. 

In 1863, she became head of an espionage network for the Union Army. She provided essential information and intelligence to the Union commanders about Confederate Army supply routes and troops. She also helped liberate slaves to form black Union regiments.

She became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, as she guided the Combahee River Raid, which freed more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. It took the government over three decades to recognize her military contributions during the war, but she was eventually received monetary compensation. 

Harriet’s Legacy

Potential design for new $20 bill

As Harriet aged, the injuries she suffered to her head as a young girl became more and more severe. She underwent brain surgery, because she was suffering from pains and “buzzing” in her head. Surrounded by friends and family, she died of pneumonia on March 10, 1913. 

After her death, she became widely known and respected as an American icon. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the new $20 bill. 

This decision came after the Treasury Department received a flood of public comments, following a campaign that called for a notable female American to appear on U.S. currency. More than half a million voters participated in an online poll for the “Women on 20s campaign”. 

Harriet Tubman devoted her life to racial equality, and she fought for women’s rights alongside the nation’s leading suffragists. She is undoubtedly a female and American national icon to look up to. 


What were the causes of World War I?

On June 28th, 1914, the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, were assassinated by a Bosnian revolutionary, Gavrilo Princip. This triggered the First World War, but the underlying reasons for the war were much more complicated. 

Numerous factors contributed to political tensions on the European continent which eventually escalated on July 28, 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. This article will aim to break down the different factors that led to the First World War (or Great War).


Prior to the war, a number of alliances had been formed in Europe. This led to a quicker escalation of the war, as certain countries had no choice but to declare war if one of their allies did. 

The main alliances that existed before the war were the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy (signed in 1882) and the Triple Entente of Britain, Russia, and France (signed in 1907). 

These alliances were defensive in nature, however, it still meant that any conflict between an ally and another country would automatically involve all other signatory countries. The fact that Germany had to face France and Britain on the one side and Russia on the other, greatly influenced its actions during the war. 

Famous English historian, A. J. P. Taylor, stated that “the alliances created an excessively rigid diplomatic framework, within which relatively small detonators could produce huge explosions.” This came at an unwelcome time, as political tensions in Europe were already on the rise. 

Polarization of Europe

Some historians claim that the distant origins of the First World War can be traced back to the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871. While Germany became a growing powerful Empire, France fell into chaos and military decline for years. 

Subsequently, France grew more and more suspicious and hostile towards Germany, especially following the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. This led to a significant chapter in French society, known as revanchism. 

Meanwhile, Britain abandoned its “splendid isolation” policy and formed alliances with France in 1904 and Russia in 1907, which became the Triple Entente. For Britain, this was a preventive measure against Germany following the Anglo-German naval arms race in the late 19thcentury.

Several crises between 1905 and 1914 reinforced these existing alignments and further deepened the polarization of Europe. 

Moroccan Crisis and Balkan Wars

One being the First Moroccan Crisis from 1905-1906. This was an international dispute over the state of Morocco which aggravated tensions between Germany and both France and the United Kingdom. This was due to Germany’s challenge to France in the Moroccan Crisis. 

Afterwards came the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911 (also known as the Agadir Crisis). Imperialism led to rivalries between France, Germany, and the UK in relation to control of Morocco. 

In April 1911, French troops deployed troops into the interior of Morocco. Germany responded by sending the gunboat SMS Panther to the Moroccan port of Agadir. This led to stronger ties between London and Paris and deeper suspicions towards Berlin. 

A final significant factor were the Balkan wars and the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

The Balkan wars took place in 1912 and 1913. The two separate wars led to the Ottoman Empire losing almost all of its holdings in Europe. This also led to the weakening of Austria-Hungary, as a much-enlarged Serbia pushed for union of the Slavic peoples. 

Russia encouraged Slav nationalism which led to increased tensions between the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary. Especially after the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary awarded itself the right to occupy the two provinces. This annexation worsened the already fragile balance of power in the Balkans.

The arguably illegal annexation enraged Serbs and pan-Slavic nationalists. A weakened Russia was forced to submit to Austria-Hungary, however, this did trigger more aggressive anti-Austria campaigns in Russia and surrounding Slavic regions. 

As a result of all of this, Austria felt that a preventative war against Serbia, in order to undermine its growing power, might have been necessary. When Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, Austria used this as a catalyst to declare war on Serbia.

The July Crisis

The assassination sent deep shockwaves through Austrian society. Historians have dubbed this event a “9/11 effect, a terrorist event charged with a historic meaning, transforming the political chemistry in Vienna.” 

Anti-Serbian sentiments had already been strong among the people and this attack had been the final drop. Two days after the assassination, the Foreign Minister and the Emperor agreed that the “policy of Patience” with Serbia had come to an end. 

The attack on the heir to the Austrian throne on June 28, 1914, sparked a series of events which eventually escalated into the Great War. This was known as the July Crisis. 

On July 6th, Germany affirms its unconditional support for Austria-Hungary with a so-called “blank cheque”. On July 23rd, Austria-Hungary set an ultimatum to Serbia, containing their demands for an inquiry into the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Furthermore, Serbia was to suppress all anti-Austrian propaganda and to take measures to eliminate terrorist organizations. 

The ultimatum gave Serbia 48 hours to respond. The following day, Serbia sought support from Russia, who advised Serbia not to accept the ultimatum. 

On the 25thof July, Serbia responds to Austria with less than full acceptance. Subsequently, Austria-Hungary breaks off all diplomatic ties with Serbia. Three days later, having failed to accept Serbia’s terms, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. 

This incidentally brought Germany into the war as well. The British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Edward Goschen, was informed that Germany was contemplating war with France and also wished to send its army through Belgium.

In the morning of July 29, the Russian army mobilized to assist Serbia. As a result, and due to threats made by Germany against France, Britain and France entered the war. 


Evidently, the causes of the First World War were manifold, thus, a consensus on the origins of the war remain elusive. Right after the war, Anglo-American historians asserted that Germany was solely responsible for the war, but more recent academic works have blamed all participants more equally. 


The Spanish Civil War: How it all started and its aftermath

The Spanish Civil War (La Guerra Civil Española in Spanish) took place from 1936 to 1939. On the political left side were the Republicans fighting the Nationalists, who were on the political right. 

The war was mostly a struggle between democracy and fascism. Ultimately, the Nationalist front won, and Spain was ruled by Francisco Franco’s dictatorship until 1975, when Franco died. 

The Spanish Civil War was one of the worst atrocities in Spanish history, so how did it all start?

Spain in the 19thcentury

The 19thcentury was a tempestuous time in Spain. The country faced many different reforms, with the liberals advocating for limited powers for the monarchy. In 1812, King Ferdinand VII dissolved the Constitution.

Twelve successful coups were carried out, subsequently. Although these coups and public uprisings reduced some of the ultra-conservatism of the monarchy, discontent among the people was still prevalent. 

In 1874, the Carlists and Anarchists were formed in opposition to the monarchy. The Radical Republican Party helped bring republicanism to the fore front of Spanish politics.

During the First World War, Spain remained neutral. The threat of communism, as perceived by the public, kept growing during this time. Eventually, King Alfonso XII gave in to popular pressure and established a republic in 1931. 

This was the start of the Second Spanish Republic, which remained in power until the escalation of the Spanish Civil War.

Preparations by Franco and the Nationalists

Numerous suspicious military officials, including Francisco Franco, were sacked and moved to Spanish territories abroad. For instance, Franco was transferred to command of the Canary Islands. 

Francisco Franco

His disloyalty only grew after this. With the help of the British Secret Intelligence Service, Franco managed to escape Spanish supervision and fled from the Canary Islands to Spanish Morocco. 

In the following year, several extrajudicial police killings took place. Public resentment continued and the Socialists and Communists demanded that arms be distributed to the people before the military took over. 

Outbreak of the Civil War

On July 18, 1936, the right-wing Nationalists, led by General Franco, began a revolt. He broadcasted a message calling for all army officials to join the coup d’état and overthrow the existing leftist government. 

Within three days, the Republican government managed to capture Morocco, much of northern Spain, and several key cities in the south. For a while, the government managed to subdue the rebellion.

Franco, who was well-respected by officials in the Army of Africa, planned to bring them over to the European mainland to join the fight. The Nationalists were aided by the conservative Moroccan troops who were also opposed to the leftist government in Spain.

Workers and peasants fought alongside the Nationalist rebels, but in many cities, they were denied weapons. In conservative regions the Nationalists quickly seized control with little bloodshed.

However, in other more liberal regions, such as the city of Bilbao, the fight resulted in many casualties. The revolt against the Spanish navy largely failed. Nevertheless, Franco managed to sail his Army of Africa from Morocco. 

This was a gamechanger and in the following months, Nationalist forces rapidly overran many Republican-controlled regions. In November 1936, Madrid was put under siege. 

In 1937, Franco united the Nationalists with the Falange, Spain’s fascist party, while the Republicans aligned themselves with the communists. 

With those ideological oppositions, both sides sought foreign help. Germany and Italy aided Franco’s fascist rebellion, while the Soviet Union helped the Republican government. 

Additionally, thousands of communists and other radicals from France, the Soviet Union, America, and other places formed International Brigades to support the communist Republican cause. 

A significant achievement from the foreign contribution was the successful defense of Madrid until the end of the war. 

In June 1938, the Nationalists managed to cut the Republican territory in two. Franco mounted a major attack against Catalonia and in January 1939, its capital, Barcelona, fell. Soon after, the rest of Catalonia was also captured. 

This was the end of the Republican cause. Its leaders did try to negotiate a peace deal with Franco, but he refused. On March 28, 1939, the Republican government surrendered Madrid.

Impact on Europe

The Spanish Civil War underlined opposing political sentiments that existed throughout Europe. The right and the Catholics supported the Nationalists as a counter measure to the expansion of Bolshevism.

Meanwhile, labor unions, students, intellectuals, etc. united on the left to support the Republicans to stop the spread of fascism. 

Moreover, anti-war and pacifist movements were widespread as well. Many countries in Europe were concerned that a Civil War in Spain could spark a Second World War. In fact, the Spanish Civil War was an indicator of the growing instability within Europe.

Many non-Spanish citizens also participated in the war, either as soldiers or advisors. Britain and France, as the heads of a political alliance of 27 nations, promised not to intervene in the Spanish Civil War. The USA unofficially aligned themselves with this stance. 

Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union singed the non-intervention agreement officially, but still participated in arms deals with Spain. 

After the War

Franco served as the leader of the newly formed fascist Spain. He implemented harsh reprisals against his former enemies. Thousands of Republicans were imprisoned and at least 30,000 executed. Furthermore, many were put in forced labor camps. 

Hundreds of thousands of Republicans fled the country after the war. Some 500,000 went to France. 

Shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War broke out in the rest of Europe. Spain did not officially join the Axis powers, although Franco did write to Hitler offering to join the war on 19 June 1940.

Instead, Spain supplied Germany with the Blue Division to fight specifically on the Eastern Front against the USSR in recognition for the aid that Spain received during its civil war from Germany and Italy. 

The actual death toll of the Spanish Civil War is a controversial topic. Particularly, the part related to war and post-war repressions. Many historians, encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc. only provide vague numbers and general descriptions.

The figures vary from 250,000 to 1 million victims. The main reason for the ambiguity in the numbers are the different methodologies used to count the victims. Various researches have included different casualties ranging from combat related deaths, terror attack related deaths, to post-war deaths, and extra-judicial killings.


How did the Partition of India happen and what were the consequences?

In August 1947, one of the largest mass migrations in human history took place. This was after India regained its independence from the British Empire. This might have been the end of the British Raj, but it was merely the beginning for India, Pakistan, and many of its surrounding regions. 

The subsequent chapter in history, known as the Indian Partition, sparked a large conflict and resulted in the death of many people. Even today, the struggle has not ended with the continuation of the Kashmir conflict. 

This was undoubtedly one defining moment in the world’s history, but how did the partition of the British colony take place? This article endeavors to shed more light on the creation of the separate nations of India and Pakistan. 

The Two-nation theory

At approximately 25% of its population, Muslims were the largest religious minority in British India.  The conflict between India’s Muslim population and its Hindu population were apparent long before the Partition.

The notion of a two-nation state had been promoted throughout the second half of the 19thcentury. This theory claims that religion is the determining factor in defining the nationality of a group. Following that definition, Indian Muslims were entitled to be a sovereign nation where Islam could be practiced as the primary religion. 

During the British rule, religious sovereignty was not the biggest issue. The British government insisted on speaking of Indians as “the people of India”, instead of speaking of an “Indian nation”. 

This was the justification for British rule, as “Indians were not a nation”. This type of governance allowed some autonomy among the Muslim minority. 

Under imperial rule, they enjoyed a protected minority status with a system of reserved legislative seats and separate electorates. This style of governing was often referred to as “divide and rule”.

Yet, when it became apparent that the British rule might come to an end, the All-India Muslim League started a Muslim identity movement. In 1945-1946, the League won a majority of Muslim votes in provincial elections.

Following this victory, the claims for an independent Pakistan became stronger. As the Second World War approached, the political stakes in India were significantly higher. 

The end of the British Raj

In 1939, when the Second World War escalated, Britain brought India into the war without consultation. This was the beginning of the end for the British Raj. 

It sparked widescale national protests which culminated in the 1942 Quit India movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

In the meantime, the war called for more local allies. The Muslim League saw this as an opportunity to offer its aid in exchange for future political security. In March 1940, the Muslim League introduced the “Pakistan Resolution” calling for the creation of a “separate state”. 

Historians are still debating whether this demand was merely a bargaining chip or a firm objective. Either way, it might have intended to solve the Muslim minority issue, but it ended up aggravating the situation.

Due to financial issues, Britain recognized that it could not sustain its empire. In June 1948, an Act of Parliament was issued as a deadline for the transfer of power. 

What this Act failed to address, however, was the issue of India’s Muslim minority. It proposed a loose federation, but this idea was rejected by both Congress and the Muslim League, which vowed to fight for an independent “Pakistan”. 

Meanwhile, civil killings continued. In August 1946, the Great Calcutta Killing took place which left some 4,000 people dead and an additional 100,000 homeless. 

Eventually, an ultimatum was presented which left politicians with little choice but to agree to the separation of the state. On August 14, 1947, Pakistan celebrated its independence. The new official borders split the provinces of the Punjab and Bengal in two. 

A nation divided

A partition of such a magnitude did not go by without backlash. Riots were started with mass casualties and a colossal wave of migration. Some 14 – 16 million people moved from one side of the border to the other. 

The direction in which they travelled depended on their religion. Hindus and Sikhs came together in a conscious effort to separate themselves from the Muslims. 

This chapter, unfortunately, did not go by without casualties. The death toll of the partition ranges anywhere between 200,000 to two million victims. Many were killed by members of their own communities and sometimes their own families.

Especially, women were targeted as a symbol of community honor. Reportedly, up to 100,000 women were abducted or raped. 

One of the reasons why the partition sparked such extreme emotions was because many people were not only very deeply attached to religious identity, but also to territory. Furthermore, British troops were reluctant to maintain law and order. 

Another unforeseen side-effect was the ultimate homogeneity of Pakistan. The Muslim League had anticipated that Pakistan would contain a substantial non-Muslim population, whose presence would safeguard the Muslim population remaining in India. Instead, in West Pakistan, non-Muslim minorities comprise only 1.6% of the population. 

Pakistan was evidently created as a “safe land” for India’s Muslims, but not all Muslims supported its formation. Thus, many decided to remain in India and still form the largest minority group in independent India.

This led to ongoing conflicts. The nationally beloved icon, Mahatma Gandhi, was assassinated in January 1948 by a Hindu nationalist extremist who blamed him for being too supportive of the Partition. 

Happy ever after

After the Partition, both states faced substantial problems accommodating and rehabilitating post-Partition refugees. When the two nations went to war over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the number of refugees skyrocketed.

Unfortunately, the relationship between the two nations has hardly improved since the 1950s. Kashmir still remains a territory of conflict.

Since the Partition of India, the two nations have fought three wars over the region: the Indo-Pakistani Wars of 1947 and 1965, and the Kargil War in 1999. 

To make matters even worse, both nations are now nuclear-armed and terrorist attacks are frequent. In February 2019, one of the deadliest attacks took place. A Kashmir separatist terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, carried out a suicide attack on a military convoy killing over 40 Indian soldiers.


Hildegard of Bingen: A Renaissance Woman Before Her Time

In The Beginning Hildegard was the tenth child of a wealthy and devout family which gave her ‘as a tithe’ to the church when she was only eight years old, sending her to a Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg which had just begun to accept nuns. When she entered the monastery Hildegard had already begun to have visions which came to her surrounded by ‘a light so bright that [her] soul trembled.’ She had also figured out that other people didn’t see that light, and had decided to keep her experiences to herself—although she couldn’t conceal the physical sickness which often accompanied or followed them. Under the care of a brilliant and ascetic nun named Jutta, Hildegard learned to read and write, studied a variety of holy texts in Latin, and took holy vows when she was old enough. Jutta became Mother Superior, and on her death she chose Hildegard, who was then thirty-eight, as her successor.

Coming Out

Hildegard’s administrative duties didn’t stop the visions pressing on her. She tried to keep these secret, but the effort exhausted her and finally made her seriously ill. She confided her visions to a monk who helped her record them.  In the midst of her illness she heard a voice which told her to speak and write of her visions, and she obeyed, recording them as they happened and also writing long commentaries on her interpretations of those visions and the flashes of insight which accompanied them.  These drew some anxious scrutiny from people higher up in the Church, but the examiners eventually decided that her visions were legitimate. The Pope wrote to Hildegard expressing his approval. Hildegard wrote back telling him to work harder to reform the Church. As the record of her visions spread far and wide, many girls and women came to study and live under Hildegard.  The women’s quarters in the monastery became crowded; Hildegard may also have felt the need for more independence from the monastery’s abbot. Hildegard had absorbed her teacher Jutta’s learning, but not her asceticism; she believed in moderation, and seems to have regarded the human body with fascination rather than suspicion. Most importantly, Hildegard believed God was calling her to leave the monastery and found a new convent and church for her nuns. The abbot was very reluctant to let them go, but Hildegard persisted and finally persuaded an archbishop to overrule the abbot. She purchased land and oversaw construction of their new House at Rupertsberg near Bingen on the Rhine. Hildegard paid attention to details of the building (which included water pumped in through pipes, an unusual feature at the time) as well as administration (the nuns were free to elect their own Mother Superior without interference from the Disibodenberg monastery.)  She did send part of the dowry money that had come with the nuns back to Disibodenberg. At last Hildegard had the space and freedom to pursue the physical and spiritual understandings which she prized.


Hildegard wrote many books explaining the order of the natural world, the cosmos, the human body and the human soul—all of which she saw as naturally and inextricably interrelated.  The dichotomy between science and nature would have been alien to Hildegard. So would the treatment of people as somehow separate from their environment. In her book Scivias (Know The Way) she wrote,” “The soul in the body is like sap in a tree, and the soul’s powers are like the form of a tree … The intellect in the soul is like the greenery of the tree’s branches and leaves, the will like its flowers, the mind like its bursting first fruits, the reason like the perfected mature fruit, and the senses like its size and shape. And so a person’s body is strengthened and sustained by the soul….” Elsewhere she described humans as responsible for helping God to redeem, not only all humanity, but also all the living world. Hildegard’s Book of the Subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Creatures combined religion and philosophy with explanations of natural history and practical remedies for all kinds of wounds, infections, poisonings and diseases. She even included a section on veterinary medicine. Some of the herbal remedies she recommended resemble those that are commonly used today—though given the long gap of time, the things we’ve learned since, the vagueness of the dosages and the errors introduced as the book was copied over and over by hand, it’s not recommended to use her book as a practical basis for treatment today. Hildegard’s creativity extended to music as well as writing.  She wrote a compendium of 70 religious songs and also composed musical plays. In her view music allowed humans to join the angels in praising God, and much of her music came to her in visions. Ensembles are still recording her music today—or at least some approximation of her music; musical notation in her day was quite different and somewhat obscure, taking the form of neumes instead of notes.

Influence and Controversies

Hildegard ‘s visions also urged her to instruct other people firmly in God’s will, and she seems to have done this without fear of consequences.  She wrote firm letters admonishing the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa (the ruler of Germany) for planning to dismiss a bishop of whom she approved; later, when two different Popes were named by different factions of the Church, she opposed the Emperor’s choice and told him so in no uncertain terms. Despite this she was not punished as many others were who dared to challenge the Emperor.  Besides this she wrote letters to many other prominent people and went on preaching journeys even when she was elderly and in ill health. Hildegard was eighty years old when she buried a knight who had been excommunicated by the Church in holy ground. She explained that he had confessed and received the last rites, and he clearly deserved Christian burial. Cathedral authorities ordered her to exhume him. She refused and concealed the grave so no one else could dig him up.  Placed under Interdict, she continued to insist that she was right, and eventually the Church gave way—in time for her to be buried in honor and in peace. To learn more about Hildegard see https://www.bingen.de/en/tourism-culture/hildegard-of-bingen/her-life]]>

What was Watergate?

In light of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump’s possible ties to Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election, it is worth looking back at the Watergate scandal. Comparing the two situations, one cannot help but get a sense of déjà vu. 

President Richard Nixon was involved in a widescale scandal that eventually led to his resignation. History does tend to repeat itself, as the US president is once again wrapped in an international political scandal. On that note, this article aims to shed light on what really happened during the Watergate Scandal. 

Who was Richard Milhous Nixon?

Before he became president, Nixon was a lieutenant commander in the US Navy during World War II. Afterwards, he became a Californian congressman and senator. He continued climbing the political career ladder and served as US vice president to Dwight D Eisenhower for eight years, before he decided to run for president himself.

In 1960, he entered the presidential race, but lost to John F Kennedy. Needless to say, Nixon was not happy with this outcome. He blamed the media for favoring his opponent. He did eventually make it to the White House in 1968, but that resentment never went entirely away. 

During Nixon’s five-and-a-half years presidency, he waged five overlapping wars: on the media, Democrats, the US judiciary, US history, and not-surprisingly, on the anti-war movement itself. 

His goal was to undermine anyone who he saw as an enemy, including people who leaked the Pentagon Papers. In response, Nixon appointed the so-called ‘White House Plumbers’, who were tasked with stopping the leak of classified documents. Eventually, the ‘Plumbers’ were tasked with other illegal activities. 

The Watergate robbery

In the early morning of June 17, 1972, several burglars were arrested in the Watergate buildings in Washington DC which was the office of the Democratic National Committee. This was no ordinary robbery though. The crime was connected with Nixon’s reelection campaign.

Investigations showed that they found wiretapping phones and stolen documents on the burglars. One of the robbers was identified as E Howard Hunt, an ex-CIA officer and one of Nixon’s ‘Plumbers’. 

As a matter of fact, Nixon never ordered the break-in. However, to make the matter more suspicious, Nixon went to great lengths to cover the crime up. The real scandal was the subsequent collusion to distance himself and his administration from the crime. 

Reportedly, six weeks after the burglary, Nixon ordered his chief of staff Bob Haldeman to cover the incident saying: “They have to be paid. That’s all there is to that.”

Nixon’s second term

Somehow, Nixon was able to overcome the growing discontent surrounding the Watergate break-in and he won the re-election in 1972. He beat his democratic opponent George McGovern with one of the most substantial margins in US history.

During his second term, Nixon’s attempt to obstruct justice continued. Later investigations highlighted how Nixon and his aides planned to instruct the CIA to impede the FBI’s investigation. This plan did not work, however, and in January 1973 seven conspirators were indicted. Five of them pleaded guilty and the other two were convicted in trial. 

Two important personas in uncovering the Watergate scandal were Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They later won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting. 

Their work included following the money trail which led the burglary back to Nixon’s people. As they kept investigating the issue, their stories were continuously and vehemently denied by the White House and its press secretary at the time, Ronald Ziegler. 

Much of the information that they received came from an anonymous whistleblower only known as ‘Deep Throat’. Many years later, in 2005, it was revealed that the anonymous source had been W. Mark Felt, a former associate director of the FBI.

The infamous tapes

Several of Nixon’s aides testified in front of a grand jury. Some admitted that the president had secretly taped every conversation that took place in the Oval Office. During the summer and fall of 1973, Nixon tried everything to protect the tapes.

The prosecution would not give up that easily though. A special prosecutor named Archibald Cox was adamant about obtaining the tapes. When Nixon realized that he was not going to give up, he ordered for him to be fired. 

In protest, several officials of the Department of Justice resigned. This event took place on Saturday October 20, 1973, which came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre. 

The saga continues In March 1974, when seven of Nixon’s officials were indicted. They became known as the Watergate Seven. Meanwhile, the battle over the Oval Office tapes continued and went all the way to the US Supreme Court. Eventually, the court ruled unanimously that the tapes had to be released. 

It came to light that 18 minutes of the recording had been erased. Nixon’s personal secretary Rose Mary Woods claimed that she had done this by accident, but further investigations proved that the tape had purposely been erased in several sections. 

In August 1974, a new audio tape surfaced which contained a recording in the Oval Office in which Richard Nixon and Bob Haldeman hatched a plan to block FBI investigations, claiming that national security was the reals issue in the Watergate break-ins. 

This particular extract from the tape was henceforward known as the ‘smoking gun’. Nixon’s own lawyers later stated that it “proved that the President had lied to the nation, to his closest aides, and to his own lawyers for more than two years.” 

The end of the Nixon era

It was clear that this was game-over for President Richard Nixon. Facing certain impeachment, he decided to resign. On August 9, 1974, Nixon and his wife left the White House. As he stepped into the helicopter, he gave his famous v-sign salute which later became one of his best-known trademarks.

The famous Nixon v-sign

He was succeeded by President Gerald Ford, who issued a presidential pardon for Nixon. Thus, Richard Nixon himself never faced any charges, but in total the scandal resulted in 69 government officials being charged and 48 being found guilty. Reading this story in 2019, one cannot help but be alarmed by the similarities between the Watergate Scandal and the current Russia investigation. As the world continues to watch the American presidency, this might be the year in which President Donald J. Trump’s fate will be decided. 


Seeking Refuge: International Refugee Policy and the Holocaust

January 27 was international Holocaust Remembrance Day, the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  In this time of many refugees and fierce debates about where they can find refuge, it seems timely to remember the Jewish refugees who fled—or tried to flee—Nazi-occupied Europe, and the international debates over who, if anyone, would take them in.


When the Nazis first came to power in Germany they did not prevent Jewish emigration. They claimed to encourage it in their attempt to make Germany, and later Nazi-occupied Europe, judenrein—devoid of Jews. They did make it very difficult for German Jews to transfer their assets outside Germany, and they required Jewish emigrants to get “certificates of harmlessness’ approved by the Gestapo as well as proving that they had turned over their valuables.  Nevertheless, more Jews were cleared for departure than ever found refuge in other countries.

In theory, other countries were aware of the need. In the summer of 1938, Western countries met at the Evian Conference to discuss the refugee crisis; they made statements of concern, but very few actually offered to take in significant numbers of refugees.  Even after the widely reported violent pogroms of Kristallnacht in November 1938 most countries kept their admissions quotas low and refused visa requests. The reasons for this varied depending on the countries, and there were a few exceptions.

United States:

The US had passed immigration quotas in 1924, strictly limiting the number of immigrants it would accept from places other than England and Northern Europe.   These quotas were partly inspired by the report of the government’s Dillingham Commission, which claimed that unassimilated, unassimilable immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe threatened the integrity of the US. The reports also claimed to describe differences in intelligence and moral character between immigrants of different ethnicities. Furthermore, during the economic depression of the early 1930s many native-born Americans viewed immigrants as competitors for jobs that were already too scarce.  So at the Evian Conference the US refused to raise its immigration quotas (which allowed 27,000 people a year from Germany and Austria) and admit Jews fleeing the Nazi regime.

There was a domestic interfaith effort to raise the quota for humanitarian reasons. In 1939 the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children into the US, was introduced in both houses of Congress—where it failed to pass out of committees for a general vote. Also in 1939 the ship St Louis, which had taken refugees to Cuba and been turned away, sought admission to the US, which also refused them. The ship and its passengers returned to Europe, where more than 250 of its 900 refugee passengers died in the Holocaust.

As the war intensified in Europe, refugees were described as national security threats, and administrative directives denied visas to people who might have been admitted under the legislative quotas.  In June 1941 US diplomats were told that visas would soon be denied to people who had relatives in German-occupied countries who might be taken hostage and used to blackmail the emigrants into committing espionage or sabotage. In 1942 one man, Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr, applied to enter as a refugee and was found to be a spy.  No other such cases among the many thousands of refugees who sought asylum from the Nazis in America are known to historians, but at the time his case made it much easier to turn genuine refugees away. At the Bermuda Conference of 1943 the US again refused to increase admissions.

In 1944 the Treasury Department, whose presiding Secretary was Jewish and deeply concerned by word of the Holocaust, prepared the “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews,” and the government formed War Refugee Boards.  From 1945-48, in the aftermath of the war and the liberation of the concentration camps, the new President Truman’s directives brought nearly 40,000 people displaced by war, many of them Jewish, to the US.


Britain also strictly limited the immigration of adult refugees to its own soil. In 1939 when war broke out it also curtailed the immigration of German Jews to Palestine, which it controlled. But the persistent efforts of children’s aid committees persuaded the government to accept child refugees in the aftermath of Kristallnacht. Under the Kindertransport program, children under seventeen were allowed to immigrate from Germany and German-annexed territories, without their parents or guardians, so long as individuals or NGOs were willing to pay for their care; it was also understood that once the crisis was past they would leave.  A few infants were sent through Kindertransport in the care of older children.   The first Kindertransport arrived in December 1938, and children continued to arrive into 1940, when the Nazis effectively prevented Jews leaving for Britain. About 10,000 children came to Britain via Kindertransport; about 7,500 of those children were Jewish.

In 1939 Britain began interning ‘enemy aliens’ in case they might be spies or saboteurs.  About 1,000 teenagers who had arrived via Kindertransport were sent to internment camps.  Some of these internees joined the British armed forces once they were of age.

After the war it became clear that many of the Kindertransport refugees had been orphaned and could not return home as first envisioned.  Many became British citizens or emigrated to Australia or America.

Continental Europe:

Nearly 100,000 Jewish refugees emigrated from Germany and Austria to other countries in Europe that were then overrun by the Nazis. Most of these died in the Holocaust.

 About 40,000 entered Spain, whose vague and contradictory policies allowed considerable discretion to local officials; many of these fled further rather than remaining there.

Switzerland accepted about 30,000 Jewish refugees, many of whom were kept in camps apart from the main population, and turned nearly the same number away. 

After the war ended, hundreds of thousands of Jewish Displaced Persons were sheltered in camps run by the Allies in Italy, Germany and Austria.

Latin America:

Latin American immigration policies were generally growing more restrictive over the 1930s in the wake of economic depression—just as the refugee crisis was growing.  About 84,000 Jews were resettled in Latin American nations over the war years. After 1941 this was largely a result of the German ban on emigration, but in earlier years the restrictions came largely from populist and nativist sentiment in the host countries.  

There were exceptions.  Bolivia, thanks in part to a Jewish business leader with ties to their President Germán Busch, welcomed more than 20,000 Jewish refugees; some moved on (without papers) into other Latin American countries, but many stayed. Brazil and Mexico took in significant numbers of refugees from Nazism, and the Mexican consul Gilberto Saldivar, posted to Vichy France, ordered his staff to issue Mexican visas to any refugee who asked for them. 

The Dominican Republic offered to take any number of Jewish refugees if they had means to ‘contribute to the country’s enrichment’ and would agree to establish an agricultural settlement in an area designated by the government.  Some historians see this as an attempt by the Dominican dictator Trujillo to ‘whiten’ the population of his country—or get people to overlook his own history of killing civilians. Fewer than 1,000 Jewish refugees actually settled in the DR, but about 5,000 DR visas were issued, allowing refugees to get out of Germany.


A Jewish girl and her Chinese friends in the Shanghai Ghetto during WWII, from the collection of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, via Wikimedia

One exit destination that required no visas was the city of Shanghai, some parts of which were controlled by the Chinese (or, after 1937, the Japanese, who were getting the upper hand in the Sino-Japanese War) while other parts were controlled by various foreign powers which traded there. Shanghai was already home to a few thousand Jews who had emigrated either for business or (especially in the case of Russian expatriates) to escape pogroms.  Nearly 20,000 Jews emigrated from Nazi-occupied lands to Shanghai’s international quarters. Most of these arrived in late 1938 and early 1939, after Kristallnacht and before the Japanese imposed immigration restrictions.  Many of them settled in the very affordable Hongkou neighborhood, which became known as “Little Vienna.”  Shanghai was struggling economically as a result of the war, and the international sectors had also become home to Chinese refugees, but locals still welcomed the new refugees.

The Japanese occupying forces were less welcoming.  Germany urged them to eliminate the Jewish population through heavy forced labor, ration cuts and medical experiments.  The Japanese refused to do this, but in 1943 they did require all Jews to be contained within Hongkou, which was already overcrowded. There was little privacy, and too often little food, but still the refugee population survived the war.  After the war many returned to Europe, and some others fled the Chinese civil war in 1939.

More information about specific sections of this article can be found at the links below:

 The Evian Conference

Two perspectives on US responses to Jewish refugees

The British Kindertransports

Spain’s ambiguous refugee policy

Latin America’s reception of refugees

Refugees in Shanghai


How did Switzerland stay neutral during World War II?

When thinking of Switzerland, a few things come to mind: Chocolate, watches, and the country’s unwavering neutrality. Switzerland has an impressive record of being the world’s longest standing neutral nation and has not taken a part in a war since 1505. 

In 1815, during The Congress of Vienna, the country officially proclaimed its stance of non-involvement. This has been true ever since and during both World Wars Switzerland managed to remain neutral. 

However, maintaining its neutrality has not been easy. Especially its ‘non-involvement’ in the Second World War has been heavily scrutinized since, particularly in terms of border controls, banking, and trade with Nazi Germany. 

The main reason why Switzerland was able to remain neutral was thanks to the non-invasion of Hitler’s army. This, naturally, did not mean that Hitler had no intention of invading Switzerland, but rather that the cons outweighed the pros. 

Firstly, due to the rapid mobilization of the citizen army at the outbreak of the war in 1939, Switzerland became a difficult target. The Swiss invested heavily in their machinery, which, in addition to its naturally tough terrain, made the chances of a successful invasion slim for the German army. 

Secondly, Germany did not want to jeopardize its pre-existing trade partnership with Switzerland. The infamously neutral Swiss bank were beneficial to the Nazis. 

Yet, by 1940, Switzerland was completely surrounded by Axis powers and Nazi occupied land. Undoubtedly, this made it difficult to stay clear of the war. Subsequently, Switzerland allowed, and in certain ways, assisted the Nazis which made their so-called neutrality a subject of scrutiny. 

Despite its pledge to be a sanctuary for marginalized groups, Switzerland imposed strict laws to regulate the influx of Jewish refugees. For instance, the Swiss government taxed the Swiss Jewish community for any Jewish refugee they allowed into the country. 

On other instances, Jewish refugees were completely denied entry. One Swiss government official stated in an infamous speech that “our little life boat is full”, in an attempt to justify their regulations. 

Another controversial point of protection was the Swiss currency. The Swiss Franc was the only remaining freely convertible currency in the world until 1936. Both the Allies and Axis Powers, therefore, depended heavily on Switzerland’s economic stability. 

Obviously, accepting gold from both sides does not impede a country’s neutrality. However, it is the way in which the Swiss bank dealt with the large amount of gold, collected from Holocaust victims, after the war, which has been deemed immoral. 

Finally, Switzerland, as it was completely surrounded by Nazi held territory, had no choice but to cooperate with German trade policies. Reportedly, approximately 10,276,000 tons of coal was transported from Germany to Switzerland between 1939 and 1945. Evidently, the Swiss wanted to stay on good terms with Nazi Germany. 

It can thus be argued that Switzerland was not truly neutral during World War II. Yet, at a time of war, the notion of neutrality is arguably as relative as the notion of virtue itself. Some might argue that Switzerland aided Nazi Germany, while others would state that the Swiss simply had no other choice in order to maintain control over their country.  


Lines In The Sand, part 2: The Mexican-American War

This Land Is…Whose Land?

As described in last week’s article, the Republic of Texas successfully seceded from Mexico in the spring of 1836—“successfully,” that is, insofar as they had captured the Mexican president and general Santa Anna and gotten him to sign an agreement that Texas was to be an independent republic. The Mexican government, however, had deposed Santa Anna and refused to acknowledge Texas, though they no longer conducted an active war against the separatists.

 To further complicate the picture, there was no agreement about just where Texas’ southern boundary might be. The Republic of Texas claimed that the Rio Grande marked the southern border, while the Mexican government insisted that the border lay about 150 miles north of the Rio Grande along the Nueces River. 

Some Texans wanted to maintain a separate and independent republic.  Others maintained that they would have a better chance of keeping their territory out of the hands of the Mexican government if they were annexed by the US and became a US state.  The first Texan elections swept Sam Houston and the annexationists into power, and a delegation was sent to Washington.

Slavery and the Road Not Taken

The United States, in the person of President Martin van Buren, declined to annex Texas. The US was then at peace with Mexico, but the peace was not likely to survive the US annexation of Mexico.  Also the US was already deeply divided over the question of slavery, and the addition of new territories, slave or free, was likely to change the balance of power and perhaps alter the direction of the federal government. Texas would have come in as a slave state, having earlier insisted on remaining a slaveholding territory when the rest of Mexico outlawed slavery.  Van Buren turned down the fraught offer of annexation, but he did recognize the Republic of Texas.

Charles Elliot

So did Great Britain, which sent Charles Elliot as its ambassador to Texas in 1842. Elliot was a seasoned diplomat whose protests against the brutalities of the slave trade had contributed to Britain’s banning slavery in all its territories in 1833. After that he was sent to China, where he was found too conciliatory to the natives and sent to the fledgling republic of Texas—a downward move, in the view of his superiors. But the Texans were delighted to have a real British ambassador, and their view of Elliot warmed further when he helped them out of a diplomatic embarrassment.  Some Texan troops had gone raiding in the disputed territory along the Rio Grande in 1842, and the Mexican government captured two hundred of them.  Elliott negotiated their release in 1843.

Elliot hoped to use this leverage to keep Texas as a sovereign republic, and also to get them to outlaw slavery. This appealed both to his conscience and to Britain’s economic interest. Since banning slavery, Britons were increasingly uncomfortable trading in commodities that depended on slave labor; they also saw the potential for a more advantageous trade relationship with a small, separate and grateful Texas than with the US.  Elliot offered a very substantial loan from the British government that would have enabled the Texan government to emancipate all slaves and compensate all former slave owners.  But the slave owners weren’t willing to take up this proposal. 

In 1845 Elliot also negotiated and supported a treaty offer from the Mexican government, which was willing to recognize Texas and promise peace if Texas would stay out of the United States. This proposal also was turned down. The US had elected an expansionist President, James Polk, who promised to support Texas’ claim that the Rio Grande was its Southern border if Texas joined the Union. 

James K. Polk

Polk wasn’t just thinking of Texas.  On the day of his inauguration he confided in his Secretary of the Navy that one of his main objectives was to annex California, which was still, as Texas had recently been, Mexican territory with a history of welcoming immigrants from the US—and a more recent rise in tensions with some of the newer immigrants.   

The President wasn’t the only one with grand ambitions. In 1845 the Washington Union, a Democratic Party paper, had called for “a corps of properly organized volunteers” to “Invade, overrun and occupy Mexico. They would enable us not only to take California, but to keep it.”  That same year Polk offered to purchase California and New Mexico, and the Mexican government refused. However, Sam Houston and the Texans took Polk’s offer up, and in December 1845 Texas was admitted to the Union as the 28th state.

“Ample Cause of War”

In February 1846 President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor and his troops to take up and defend a position on the banks of the Rio Grande.  Taylor obeyed orders, crossing the Nueces River, marching south and arriving at the Rio Grande late in March.  Mexican families fled ahead of the army and took refuge in the city of Matamoros just across the Rio Grande, from whence they watched Taylor’s troops setting up fortifications.

Later on Ulysses Grant, then a lieutenant in Taylor’s army, later a famous Civil War general and US president, wrote: “The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory farthest from the Mexican settlements, was not sufficient to provoke hostilities. We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, “Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,” and prosecute the contest with vigor. Once initiated there were but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it. …”

Mexico declared a ‘defensive” war against Taylor’s advancing troops late in April. Early in May, according to President Polk’s diary, he told his Cabinet that “we had heard of no open act of aggression by the Mexican army, but that the danger was imminent that such acts would be committed. I said that in my opinion we had ample cause of war…”  Not long after that he received dispatches informing him that Taylor’s quartermaster had been found dead, and that a patrol of Taylor’s soldiers had been surrounded and killed or captured by Mexican troops. Polk went before Congress and declared, “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil…we are called upon by every consideration of duty and patriotism to vindicate with decision the honor, the rights and the interests of our country.”  After only one day of debate the declaration of war was authorized by a vote of 40-2.

Many members of Congress, and of the general public, supported the war enthusiastically, often framing their support in terms of the US’ manifest destiny of expansion.  Thousands of private citizens volunteered to fight in the first excitement, though as the war dragged on the Army struggled with low recruitment and with soldiers abandoning the army on mid-campaign when their terms of enlistment expired.

A few anti-slavery politicians and public figures opposed the war vehemently—for varied reasons.  One antislavery Congressman from Ohio, Joshua Giddings, denounced the war because “In the murder of Mexicans upon their own soil, or in robbing them of their country, I can take no part…” and also because he saw the war as supporting slave-owners against a nation that had rightly abolished slavery. Another, Columbus Delano, warned that taking over more Mexican territory would encourage Americans to mingle with people who were willing to “embrace all shades of color…resulting, it is said, in the production of a slothful, ignorant race of beings.” Freed slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass denounced the war vehemently.  Henry David Thoreau, hero of many modern tax resisters, refused to pay his poll taxes—and went to prison for that refusal– because he objected so strongly to the war.

Many members of the generally anti-slavery Whig party, while unconvinced by the President’s rationale for war, were unwilling to oppose funding for the war once it had started. Abraham Lincoln, who was not yet in Congress when war was declared, tried to explain the position of the Whig moderates two years later: “If to say ‘the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President’ be opposing the war, then the Whigs have very generally opposed it…The marching of an army into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, frightening the inhabitants away, leaving their growing crops and other property to destruction, to you may appear a perfectly amiable, peaceful, unprovoking procedure, but it does not seem to us so…But if, when the war had begun, and had become the cause of our country, the giving of our money and blood, in common with yours, was support of the war, then it is not true that we have always opposed the war.”

“Such ‘Glorious’ Butcheries”

While the politicians weighed their interests and their consciences, the soldiers fought. Anglo-American settlers in California started the “Bear Flag Rebellion” there in summer 1846, and federal troops soon poured in to back them, sweeping through Alta California and New Mexico.  Meanwhile Taylor’s forces pressed south.  Mexico was at a disadvantage in responding, as its own government was in chaos and plagued by factional infighting.  In May, after prolonged fighting, Taylor’s army routed Mexican forces, drove them in disorder across the Rio Grande, and pursued them south into Mexico.

The fighting that followed was marked by ruthless conduct on both sides, but given the location of the battles it was Mexican civilians who suffered.  Veracruz and Mexico City were besieged and heavily shelled, leading to large numbers of civilian casualties.  More direct cruelty was also an issue.  General Taylor complained that the Texas Rangers had committed “shameful atrocities” and declined to renew their terms of enlistment.  Lieutenant Grant wrote bitterly—in a letter, not in his memoirs– “Some of the volunteers and about all the Texans seem to think it right to impose upon the people of a conquered city to any extent, and even to murder them where the act can be covered by dark.” Rape also was widely reported. Some of these crimes were reported at home and may have damped public support for the war.  One anonymous letter-writer in Massachusetts informed the paper’s readers that he did not intend to enlist in or otherwise support the Mexican war, explaining “I have no wish to participate in such “glorious’ butcheries of women and children as were displayed at the capture of Monterey etc.”

Soon after the US army occupied Mexico City, the Mexican government gave up the fight.  The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, ceded the territories of Alta California, Nuevo Mexico and Texas—about half of Mexico’s land– to the United States in exchange for fifteen million dollars.  The treaty also stipulated that individual landholdings were to be preserved if former Mexican citizens wished to remain on their land and become US citizens. In fact, however, in the postwar years commissions “investigated” land claims and invalidated the title of many formerly Mexican owners.

For more information about Charles Elliot, see this article.  To read Polk’s speech to the Congress calling for a declaration of war, click here. To read Joshua Giddings’ speech opposing the war, click here.


What is “blackbirding”?

Everyone has heard shocking stories about the transatlantic slave trade, but this was hardly the only type of slavery in which Europeans were engaged. The Pacific slave trade involved the forceful enslavement of Pacific islanders from the mid 19thcentury to the 20thcentury. This particular type of slavery is often referred to as “blackbirding”. 

The primary focus of “blackbirding” was to supply cheap labor to sugar-cane plantations on Pacific plantations, particularly in Queensland, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoan Islands. This was mainly achieved through trickery and kidnapping. They were frequently deceived about the length of time for which they were “contracted” and the nature of their “contract”. If all this failed, the islanders were simply loaded onto slave ships at gunpoint.

The captured islanders were collectively known as Kanakas, which means Person or Man in Hawaiian. These workers were essentially treated as slaves, but officially they were referred to as “indentured labourers”. 

There have been debates as to whether “blackbirding” was considered slavery, as the “labourers” were paid. Yet, it is worth noting that their wages were well below the wages of European workers. 

According to various studies, first-year workers received a standard pay rate of six pounds per year. The pay rate was also fixed for 40 years without taking inflation into account. As slavery had already been outlawed by the British Empire, the minimal pay was used to justify the practice. 

“Blackbirding” can be seen as a euphemism, because the captured workers still worked in slave-like conditions. A person recounting their grandfather’s story explains how “[he] was told that once they were here, they were unable to speak their mother language, they were punished in terms of corporal punishment.” They were also segregated from wider society just like African American slaves were in the US. 

In 1872 the British Parliament introduced the Pacific Islanders’ Protection Act which outlawed “blackbirding”. Yet, the practice still continued until the early 20thcentury. The Act did provide for agents on British recruiting vessels, leading to stricter licensing procedure, and patrol of British-controlled islands. 

The Pacific Islands weren’t the only area where “blackbirding” took place. The practice was also common in the United States after slavery was banned. Many US citizens used the Reverse Underground Railroads to capture free African-Americans and fugitive slaves and tricked or sold them into slavery. 

This practice in the United States was also known as “blackbirding” and relied on the same type of coercion and trickery. People of African or mixed ancestry frequently took part in these actions. While some worked for white employers, others helped slave owners with finding escaped slaves. 

For many tricking their fellow African-Americans was not a choice, but a necessity to survive. For their help they would receive a bounty. Their actions also resulted in more successful kidnappings, as “blackbirding” largely relied on developing a connection between the hunter and their target and for ex-slaves it was easier to trust a fellow African-American person.

In 1807 Britain passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and in 1862 Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but this was hardly the end of slavery. “Blackbirding” was simply one of the many ways in which people circumvented official laws to continue profiting from slavery.