Monday, May 5, 2014
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Never having received appropriate recognition in life, after death, Harriet Tubman became an African American icon and a hero to later generations of Civil Rights activists. Her concrete achievements in war and peace, and her struggles on behalf of African Americans and women in particular, surely make her someone that disabled people can also call a role model.
Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland, and was originally named Araminta Ross. Her grandmother, Modesty, had been brought from Africa – according to the family legend, she was of Ashanti origin, from what is modern day Ghana. Tubman’s father managed the timber on a plantation; her mother was a cook. She herself was hired out as a nursemaid aged five or six, and was brutally whipped by her employers. As a teenager, she was in a store when a white man asked her to help restrain another slave. She refused, and when the slave ran away, the white man threw a two pound weight. The iron lump missed the other slave but hit Tubman in the head. She survived the resulting injury, but it caused her siezures and narcolepsy for the rest of her life. Perhaps as a result of the epilepsy, she became very deeply religious, and regularly thereafter had visions and premonitions.
In 1844, Tubman married a freed slave, John Tubman, and changed her name, although remaining enslaved. In 1849, when her owner died, she and her brothers escaped from slavery, only to return. Tubman then escaped again, using the Underground Railway network of abolitionists (including Quakers) to travel north, mainly by night. She later described her feelings on reaching Pennsylvania: "When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."
Although she was safe in Philadelphia, she said "I was a stranger in a strange land," because her relatives were enslaved in Maryland, “But I was free, and they should be free." Tubman returned to Maryland to help members of her family escape slavery, then other African Americans, including eventually her own parents. In total, she made 13 expeditions, rescuing 70 slaves, and advising many more on how to make their escape. Often disguised, she became known as “Moses”. On one trip, she was able to meet up with her husband, only to find that he had remarried and did not want to come North with her. She reflected later "I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."
Harriet Tubman was in touch with other abolitionists, such as John Brown, Thomas Garrett and William SewardIn 1859, Seward sold her land in Auburn, which became a haven for freed slaves and other African Americans.
Tubman was also in touch with African American activists, such as Frederick Douglass. In 1868, Douglass wrote to Tubman to honor her practical achievements and contrast it with his more public advocacy: “You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. ... The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.”
For obvious reasons, Harriet Tubman was a strong supporter of the Union side during the Civil War, although she was frustrated by Abraham Lincoln’s unwillingness to enforce emanacipation in conquered Confederate territory. She went to offer her support in Port Royal, South Carolina, serving as a nurse. More unusually, for the time, she also conducted reconnaissance missions for the Union forces, for example providing information which helped in the capture of Jacksonville, Florida. She became the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War during the Combahee River Raid which led to the release of 700 slaves. Despite these efforts, she never received any acknowledgement or pension from the United States government for her service during the conflict.
After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn. More injustice followed when, on a trip to New York, she was roughly handled by a train guard and other white passengers, resulting in her arm being broken. Happily, she also ended up marrying a veteran, Nelson Davis, who was more than twenty years younger than her. They were together for twenty years and adopted a daughter together. But Tubman remained poor and struggled for money, particularly after falling victim to two fraudsters. In her later years, she was an active supporter of women’s suffrage, and in the process of speaking and advocating, her own story became more widely known.
Harriet Tubman suffered increasing symptoms from her head injury in the last decades of her life, undergoing brain surgery to relieve her suffering. In 1903, she donated land to her church to open a home for poor African Americans. It was there that in 1913 she died of pneumonia, being buried with full military honours in Auburn. Booker T.Washington spoke at the inauguration of her memorial.
Saturday, January 7, 2012
“Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation, whose courage was beyond reason, and whose aggressive spirit burned at its fiercest when he was hemmed in and surrounded by enemies, could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance which rallied and sustained us in the menacing summer of 1940” (Anthony Storr)
Winston Churchill was born prematurely and looked after by a wet-nurse, as was the aristocratic way in 1874. Throughout his childhood, he endured a continuing lack of unconditional love and affection from both his parents which, according to the psychiatrist Anthony Storr, left Churchill psychologically ill-equipped. His salvation was his nanny, Mrs Everest, on whose death he described as “my dearest and most intimate friend during the whole of the twenty years I had lived”. However, it seems likely that Churchill also had an underlying genetic disposition towards depression which, interacting with inadequate parenting, resulted in his mental health vulnerabilities. Indeed, his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough shared his depressive tendencies, as did his own father, Randolph Churchill.
As a child, Churchill was not very impressive: small, thin and with a slight speech impediment, he was bullied at school. In 1893, he wrote from Sandhurst “I am cursed with so feeble a body that I can scarcely support the fatigues of the day; but I suppose I shall get stronger during my stay here.” However, he was determined to be tough, and had no lack of physical courage, having exerted willpower to overcome his fears. He was positively reckless in combat during the Boer War and the First World War.
Churchill was also hugely ambitious: writing from India in 1899, he said “What an awful thing it will be if I don’t come off. It will break my heart for I have nothing else but ambition to cling to…” Storr suggests that he sought recognition as a way of staving off despair. As Churchill said later “We are all worms. But I do believe I am a glow worm”. He had a strong sense that he was being kept for some higher purpose, the cause that finally presented itself when he was sixty-five and his country and the world was in such danger from fascism.
CP Snow described him as having a strong sense of insight, or intuition, rather than relying on insight. This approach sometimes led him astray, as with the disastrous Dardenelles campaign in the First World War (in which my grandfather fought, and nearly died). But his instincts about Hitler and about Stalin eventually proved to be correct. His brilliance was not that of a thorough or rigorous thinker. Famously, he preferred to have ideas presented to him on half a side of paper, because that was how he himself worked. He could also be very insensitive to the feelings of others.
Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, records the Prime Minister in 1944, talking about his depressive tendencies: “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible to get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” Yet after the Dardenelles, and in his wilderness years, he may have been deeply depressed, but he was not suicidal. He devised ways of keeping himself going – writing, painting, even bricklaying at his country house at Chartwell.
In his final years, Churchill suffered a recurrence of despair and a sense of his life having been futility, despite all he had achieved for himself and for his country. Hardening of the arteries and possibly Alzheimer’s disease may have contributed. His daughter records him as saying late in life “I have achieved a great deal to achieve nothing in the end”. Storr suggests that, as a result of a lack of parental affection, “he had a void at the heart of his being which no achievement or honour could ever completely fill”.
I am not sure how much I like, as opposed to admire, Churchill. His achievements in diverse fields were extraordinary, even though he hardly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature: I have an early memory of my grandfather, who was in government with him from 1939-1942, reading to me out of his History of the English Speaking Peoples. Churchill started his career as a liberal, but was more right wing than this might imply. He was a vigorous advocate of eugenics in the first decades of the twentieth century; he was a supporter of Edward VIII (and Mussolini, at the beginning); he opposed Indian Home Rule and should be assigned some of the blame for the Bengal famine of 1943; he was ultimately responsible for the saturation bombing of German cities in the first half of 1945; his post war term as prime minister was not distinguished. Yet despite this and other failures, he was a larger than life man, of ferocious appetites, powerful personality and immense inner drive. Small wonder that he topped a BBC Poll of “One Hundred Greatest Britons” in 2002: to many people, he was not only correct in describing the Second World War as “our finest hour”, he was also the architect of Allied victory. With his recurrent depression, his speech impediment, not to mention the physical and mental decline of his last years, Winston Churchill can also be counted, unquestionably, as a person with disability.
Anthony Storr, Churchill’s Black Dog
Friday, August 26, 2011
Who is the greatest British military leader of all time? Which disabled person prevented the invasion of England? Who was the most heroic naval commander in our history? The answer could only be Nelson, the man of contrasts: a man of high ideals, who abandoned his wife for a floozy; a person of supreme courage, who was also insecure and vulnerable. As his contemporary Lord Minto said, "He is in many points a great man, in others a baby."
Horatio Nelson - or Horace as he was known - was son of a country parson in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, one of five boy and five girls . From his father, he inherited or learned a strong sense of piety. He was a small and delicate child, but full of fire. He learned to sail in nearby Burnham Overy (as did I, with less success, two centuries later). His mother died when he was nine, and four years later Horace was off to sea as a midshipman, thanks to his Uncle Maurice Suckling, a naval hero and later a man of influence at the Admiralty. Typically, Nelson suffered chronic sea-sickness throughout his career.
Nelson's bravery and lust for glory was evident at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, when his 74 gun ship engaged with three much bigger Spanish ships. Nelson boarded the first, then leaped across to another ship, shouting "Westminster Abbey! Or, glorious victory!" and forcing their surrender. Later the same year, attacking the harbour of Santa Cruz on Tenerife, grapeshot shattered his right elbow, leading to an amputation. Nelson complained at the cold knife, recommending the surgeon in future to warm the blade first. Afterwards in despair, Nelson wrote to his commander, Admiral St Vincent with his unfamiliar left hand:
"I am become a burthen to my friends and useless to my country. When I leave your command I become dead to the world. I go home and am no more seen... I hope you will give me a frigate to convey the remains of my carcass to England... A left-handed admiral will never be considered as useful, therefore the sooner I get to a very humble cottage the better and make room for a better man to serve the state."
For a naval hero like Nelson to be so mutilated was unusual. While destitute and injured sailors were familiar sights begging in the streets of England, their social betters usually avoided the thick of the fighting. But not Nelson, who both led from the front, but also showed great concern for the well being of his men, and advocated for them to have state pensions.
Nelson's status as a national hero was confirmed by his brilliant victory over the French at Aboukir Bay in 1798 after Napoleon had landed his army in Egypt. By sailing his smaller vessels between the French line of battle and the shore, Nelson was able to achieve a devestating victory. All but two of the French ships of the line were destroyed, marooning Napoleon in North Africa. Needless to say, Nelson was wounded again, when a shot fragment gashed open his forehead. Refusing to take precedence in the queue for the surgeon, he exclaimed "No, I will take my turns with my brave fellows." Such gallantry appears typical of the time. For example, the French Admiral De Breys had his legs shot away during the battle. He ordered tourniquets to be tied round the stumps and sat in an armchair on deck commanding the action until another cannon shot tore him in two.
Back home, there was patriotic rejoicing at the British triumph. The First Lord of the Admiralty fainted when he received the news, while Nelson's grateful monarch awarded him a Barony. In Naples, where he had begun an affair with Lady Hamilton, the ambassador's wife, a great ball was held in Nelson's honour. Among his many awards and presents was a clockwork revolving diamond plume for his hat, sent by the Sultan of Turkey.
Yet a German described meeting Nelson at Dresden, on his way home overland with the Hamiltons, writing "One of the most insignificant-looking fellows I ever saw in my life. His weight cannot be more than seventy pounds, and a more miserable collection of bones and wizened frame I have never yet come across." But landing at Yarmouth, Nelson was heralded as the Norfolk hero, and much celebration continued back in London.
Private life was rather more difficult. His wife Fanny was anxious and solicitous, whereas his mistress Emma was gushing and admiring. The affair was a scandal, and the king publicly snubbed Lord Nelson at court. Fanny wrote to him "I am sick of hearing of dear Lady Hamilton, and am resolved that you shall either give up her or me". When a baby, Horatia, was born to Emma in 1801, Nelson finally split with Fanny, and went off on another naval expedition to the Baltic, perhaps partly to escape his domestic problems
It was in 1803, now as Vice Admiral Viscount Nelson, that he was appointed to command the Mediterranean fleet, tasked with resisting the combined French-Spanish fleet. Napoleon was seeking naval supremacy, in order to safely invade England with his army.
The final battle came on 21 October 1805, off Cape Trafalgar. Nelson's plan was again bold: to sail his 27 ships in two lines directly at the enemy fleet of 33 French and Spanish first-rates. Having composed his final prayer - "I commit my life to Him who made me" - Nelson went up to stand on the quarter deck in dress uniform, complete with his decorations and the diamond plume on his hat, an obvious target for snipers. When his old friend Captain Hardy suggested he change to a plain coat. Nelson responded "he was aware that he might be seen, but it was now too late to be shifting a coat".
As an eighteen year old in 1775, languishing with malaria after a voyage to India, Nelson had resolved "Well then, I will be a hero, and confiding in providence, I will brave every danger." He alway had a passionate belief in his own destiny. Three decades later, he more than fulfilled his ambition, through his charisma, boldness and what became known as "The Nelson touch". Now every October 21, the British navy drinks a toast to "The Immortal Memory". Countless pubs in Norfolk are named for their hero, including in Nelson's home village of Burnham Thorpe, where my own father is buried. It seems noteworthy to me that two of Britain's most celebrated military commanders - Nelson and Churchill - were disabled people. As Nelson wrote in 1804, "I really believe that my shatter'd carcass is in the worst plight of the whole fleet".