Tag Archives: Nelson Mandela

One picture worth a million or more words

Credit Iziko Museums
Credit Iziko Museums

So what are what look like black and white iron bars in the picture? Those of you who read the Times will know (in fact if you are a regular reader of the world’s best newspaper you’ll know this, as well as most of what I know).
The Times story, written by  where I saw the picture was number 6 of the “most emailed” of May 31st.

Grim History Traced in Sunken Slave Ship Found Off South Africa

So, what are the bars? Jaco Boshoff, a maritime archaeologist with the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, suited up and slipped into the water to see them for himself. There, resting in the sand, were the black iron bars with holes in them. He understood instantly what they were. Ballasts. Iron blocks of ballasts.

“I’m a scientist,” he said, “I’m not one for massive amounts of emotion. I knew immediately.” Iron ballast bars were part of the currency of the slave trade. Ships undergoing those long ocean voyages needed weight to keep them stable, and human beings in the cargo hold do not weigh enough. Their weights go up and down. Some of them die. So slavers used iron blocks of ballast to counterbalance the variable weights of their human cargo.

More than anything else that divers had pulled up so far from the site of the São José on December 27, 1794, from a pulley block to refined finishing nails to encrusted shackles, the iron ballast bars had meaning for the researchers involved. “That people were calculating the weight of human bodies that way — it’s difficult to imagine,” said Stephen C. Lubkemann, a George Washington University anthropologist and maritime archaeologist, who had heard about it from Jaco Boshoff.

So far, no skeletons or even partial remains have been found in the wreck.

 But you ought to go to the Cooper article yourself. It’s fascinating, horribly fascinating to read about the slave ship and what happened to the slave “passengers”. If however you don’t, here’s Cooper’s summary account:

On Dec. 3, 1794, a Portuguese slave ship left Mozambique, on the east coast of Africa, for what was to be a 7,000-mile voyage to Maranhão, Brazil, and the sugar plantations that awaited its cargo of black men and women.

Shackled in the ship’s hold were between 400 and 500 slaves, pressed flesh to flesh with their backs on the floor. With the exception of daily breaks to exercise, the slaves were to spend the bulk of the estimated four-month journey from the Indian Ocean across the vast South Atlantic in the dark of the hold.

In the end, their journey lasted only 24 days. Buffeted by strong winds, the ship, the São José Paquete Africa, rounded the treacherous Cape of Good Hope and came apart violently on two reefs not far from Cape Town and only 100 yards from shore, but in deep, turbulent water. The Portuguese captain, crew and half of the slaves survived. An estimated 212 slaves did not, and perished in the sea.

And a map:


And to add to the fascination and great interest that this true story holds, Robben Island is just a few miles north of where the ship, the São José Paquete Africa went under.


And Robben Island, Dutch for “seal island” is flat, only 5 km sq. and only a few metres above sea level, quite unremarkable, except that it was here that the Nobel Laureate and former President of South AfricaNelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid.

Bill Keller on Putin and Russia

Today in the Times Bill Keller begins his op ed piece with the well chosen words I’ve highlighted below. He could have stopped right there. Of Russia, and Russia in the world nothing more needs to be said.

Putin is bringing Russia down, as if the fall of the Soviet Union wasn’t already enough for the former KGB officer, and it seems he wants to bring the world, or at least the Western world down with him.

The world needs Nelson Mandelas. Instead, it gets Vladimir Putins.

Governments don’t act. At best they only respond, often badly.

What is it that most politicians talk about, first during the campaign, and then from their newly elected positions in the government? Isn’t it how they would and will do things differently from the previous administration?

But is that what actually happens, say during a new president’s term of office? During George W’s two terms only one serious reform was even attempted, the No Child Left Behind Act signed into Law on January 8, 2002. On whether this reform has done what it set out to do, improved public schooling for our most disadvantaged children, the jury is still out.

What mostly marks Bush’s eight year tenure as president are his responses to what happened to us, to the country during his time in office, responses to things over which we had no control, to start with anyway.

And in fact Bush’s presidency will probably be judged by his responses to just two events —the destruction of the twin towers by terrorists and the devastation of New Orleans by the hurricane, Katrina. It won’t be judged by the rare and mostly failed reform initiative or two undertaken during his administration.

For in fact no less than individuals, even more so perhaps, are countries subject to, the prey of, mostly unforeseen events. And of course about this sort of thing, tsunamis, hurricanes, revolts, uprisings of the populace etc. we don’t, and can’t, and won’t hear much during the campaign.

The effectiveness of a president and his administration, no less than that of an individual, will be known by his responses to what is mostly happening to him while in office. Certainly not by which he imagines he may be making to happen.

Quick, name me one good thing that George Bush made happen during eight years in office? President Obama can now at least name one.

Bush did begin the war in Iraq. He made it happen, but does anyone now believe that it was a good thing? In any case it was certainly not, even at the beginning, what Bush himself imagined it would be.

But this is not to say that the world is without progress, that things don’t get better, and that we don’t help, just that most of that progress is not of our own making. Rather progress, like so many other things, seems to happen to us.

In any case things do not usually improve by the actions of our leaders. Things do not usually change because of what they do, or try to do. Just two examples,— the public schools and the Arab Israeli conflict ought to persuade you of this. How many have tried and failed over now nearly two generations to change either one for the better?

Even the universally admired and long delayed march for the long absent civil rights of the blacks happened to us more than we made it happen. And President Johnson made a good name for himself by joining the march rather than opposing it. And most presidents since then have followed in his stead. They had to.

By his responses to 9/11 Bush made things much worse. Perhaps because he had no example to follow. In any case because of what must be called ill-considered actions on his part we are now heavily invested with lives and treasure in two wars, and have little hope that when the wars end we will have accomplished anything beneficial to ourselves or to the peoples there on the ground and most directly concerned.

All that didn’t have to be.

What’s clear now, well after the fact, is that we should have been somehow with or behind that which was about to happen in the Middle East, the genuine popular and democratic movements among the peoples of the region that we are now witnessing. We ought to have seen this coming and acted accordingly, just as we ought to have seen some 20 years before, and then favorably influenced, the breakup of the Soviet Union.

If we had done so we might now have a different and more enlightened Russian nation, perhaps even a member of our family of nations instead of the closed autocracy it now is under Putin.

We ought to have somehow got behind the peoples of the Middle East and supported their own as it turned out readiness to remove their oppressors (who were too often our partners) and realize for the first time their own and rightful freedoms.  We ought to have done this instead of going after Saddam and Bin Laden with a singleness of purpose and the full power of our armed forces, the kind of action or reaction that was just right on December 8th, 1941 but entirely inappropriate today.

As I think about the reforms and changes that I have witnessed in my own lifetime, and in particular about those that have added to men’s freedom, or, what is the same thing, those that have helped more and more of the world’s peoples to realize their full potential, I look mostly in vain for those reforms and changes that have come about through the initiatives of men and nations.

Even the civil rights movements, the rights of women, or minorities of all kinds, those events which make up so much of modern history, probably had less to do with individuals, even when these individuals were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and such others, than with whole masses of peoples who were now ready to participate in their own enfranchisement.

And in fact how many individuals, no less truly great than the three I mention, have remained completely unknown to the world because they were simply ahead of their time? In other words, because the world was not ready for them, as England, say, was ready for Gandhi, the United States for King, and yes, South Africa, for Nelson Mandela.

The big question on my mind right now is whether President Obama will see what’s really happening to the country, and when it’s good, such as school choice and growing the private economy, and go along with it and support it, and when it’s bad, the growing numbers of unemployed, young, poor, and minority males, and the millions of “illegals” who are asked to work and pay taxes and not given legality, and take steps to oppose it.

There are any number of things happening to the country right now, most of which we’re not even aware of, but some of which we are and which we should address, such as the two just mentioned. Instead our politicians are either blind, ignorant, or simply pretending that these things don’t exist.

Probably at the present time the large numbers our young men unable to find a job paying a living wage, and the out of control run-up in our national debt, from some $5 trillion in January of 2001 when George W took office to some $14 trillion today, may very well be the two greatest problems we face, and are mostly unaddressed by our elected representatives.

What happened to our country during the eight years of George W’s presidency and is still happening is not too different from what happened in New Orleans during Katrina. Except now, nearly six years after the winds and rains of August, 2005, New Orleans is no longer under water, while the country, now under President Obama, still is, still is awash in debt, and still with no dry land in sight.

Furthermore instead of stemming the sources of that debt, —too many wars, too many aircraft carriers, too many subsidies and entitlements going to those who don’t need them, resulting in there being not enough for those who are really in need— we continue to add to it.

More on the Nobel Peace Prize

Quick, how many winners of the Nobel Peace Prize can you name? Probably a few of your own countrymen? Barack Obama, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter? Anyone else? Well going back a bit further, to 1993, probably Nelson Mandela (and Fredrik Willem De Klerk), and going way back to 1964, Martin Luther King Jr.  You’d probably like to forget that Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger were among the prize winners.

Maybe you have a couple of favorites. I do. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, who probably more than anyone else of the past century substantially changed the world for the better (and made peace more likely?) by his own actions, Lech Walesa of Solidarity fame, Norman Borlaug, who almost single handedly by his own personal contributions to the Green Revolution (those new agricultural techniques that prevented otherwise expected global famines) ended the fear that rising world population numbers would condemn millions to death by starvation.

But if you were to look for whatever it was that characterized the Peace Prize, whatever it was that the winners had in common, you’d look in vain. For there is probably very little, other than the prize itself, that they share.

You’d probably like to see as I, in a listing of the Peace Price winners, a long series of Martin Luther Kings, Nelson Mandelas, and Aung San Suu Kyis, all those who were by their own words and actions following the example of Gandhi and struggling against oppression in their own lands, utilizing like Gandhi before them, the power of their own non-violent, strong, and courageous stands.

But such people as these are, of course, the exceptions. Unlike the Peace Prize they don’t appear every year. Hence the large number of winners whose awards are immediately questioned by the world’s press. The Norwegian Prize givers ought to have given far fewer prizes, and made it clearer from the beginning what the award was meant to honor.

All this to say that I think we have right now a valid recipient for the award, one in the tradition of Gandhi that I mention above. The Norwegian prize givers would have done much better, made the prize much more influential and prestigious, more like the other Nobels, if they had stated from the beginning that their prize would be awarded to an individual whose actions were most clearly in the Gandhi, and later King and Mandela, tradition. But, of course, they didn’t do this.

My proposed Peace Prize recipient is Mehdi Karroubi, a 72 year old Iranian cleric, who at the present moment, almost by himself, is speaking truth to arbitrary power, much as King and Gandhi, risking his own life while resisting, by his fearless public utterances, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and the other illegitimate ruler/thugs of today’s Iran.

To read a full account of Mehdi Karroubi go to Michael Slackman’s article in the NYTimes,  A Lone Cleric is Loudly Defying Iran’s Leaders.

In Karroubi’s own words in a letter he wrote to the Iranian natrion:

“If only I were not alive and had not seen the day when in the Islamic republic a citizen would come to me and complain that every variety of appalling and unnatural act would be done in unknown buildings and by less-known people, stripping people and making them face each other and subjecting them to vile insults and urinating in their faces…. I say to myself, ‘Where indeed have we arrived 30 years after the revolution?’ ”