Choices

Category Archives: Choices

The end of slavery

At the close of the eighteenth century the slave trade was a thriving and very big business. Prominent families held slaves and interests in the slave business, a vast swathe of people depended on slavery for their livelihoods, and public opinion was undisturbed by it. When Clarkson threw in his lot with a small group of Quakers in opposition to the trade the odds of success were seemingly impossible.

On May 22, 1787 Clarkson and about a dozen others met in the James Phillip Bookstore for the first official meeting of the Committee of the Slave Trade. They devised a strategy to gather intelligence on the trade, expose it’s inhumanity via pamphlets, posters and public lectures, and build momentum for a banning of the British slave trade. Clarkson became their only full time anti slavery campaigner. He travelled tirelessly throughout England seeking to gather intelligence on the slave trade and to draw people’s attention to its cruelty and inhumanity.

The task was incredibly difficult. Few of those involved in the slavery business would talk to him; he received death threats, and at least one attempt on his life; many mocked him. In that first year he noted

I began now to tremble, for the first time, at the arduous task I had undertaken, of attempting to subvert one of the branches of the commerce of the great place which was then before me…. I questioned whether I should even get out of it alive.

Yet the tide of opinion began to turn. Petitions containing thousands of names started to find their way to Parliament. More people joined themselves to the cause, including the potter Josiah Wedgewood, who crafted a relief of a kneeling slave with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” that became a popular and influential adornment, and parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who championed the cause in Parliament. Hundreds of thousands stopped using sugar, the major slave produced good in England, and slave-free sugar started appearing. The autobiography of freed slave Olauda Equiano became a best seller and many heard him speak.

Within five years of that first meeting at the James Phillip bookstore public opinion had turned against the slave trade. Parliament however would take longer to conquer. William Wilberforce was the spearhead of the parliamentary campaign.

So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would; I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition

Like Clarkson, Wilberforce met with fierce opposition and derision. Admiral Horatio Nelson for example, condemned “the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies”. He also found the support of colleagues such as the Prime Minister, William Pitt.

Bills against the trade were moved in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805, all without success, until on February 27, 1807 a bill for the abolition of the slave trade passed the House by a vote of 283 to 16.

The anti slavery activists had assumed that once the shipping of slaves was outlawed slavery would collapse. This assumption proved naive. While no more slaves were shipped, slaves continued to be held on British owned plantations in the West Indies and their children enslaved. This set off continued campaigning. A mass uprising of slaves in 1831 signalled the oppression of slaves was no longer sustainable, and in 1833 the Emancipation Act finally saw the end of British slavery.

It took fifty six years, but who’d have thought that from that meeting of a dozen people in the James Phillip Bookstore on May 22, 1787, armed with nothing but their determination and their voices, would issue such a result?

I’d much rather have known my father

George Mallory is the famous mountain climber who died attempting to reach the peak of Mount Everest, and may well have been the first person to reach the peak. But the pursuit of his dream took a toll on his family. In the introduction to the book Last Climb, George’s son John, who is was just three years old when his father perished, speaks of both his pride at what his father achieved and sadness. He wrote “I would so much rather have known my father than to have grown up in the shadow of a legend, a hero, as some people perceive him to be.”

One small voice can start a revolution

In 2004 Victor Yushchenko stood for the presidency of the Ukraine. Vehemently opposed by the ruling party Yushchenko’s face was disfigured and he almost lost his life when he was mysteriously poisoned. This was not enough to deter him from standing for the presidency.

On the day of the election Yushchenko was comfortably in the lead. The ruling party, not to be denied, tampered with the results. The state-run television station reported “ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.”

In the lower right-hand corner of the screen a woman by the name of Natalia Dmitruk was providing a translation service for the deaf community. As the news presenter regurgitated the lies of the regime, Natalia Dmitruk refused to translate them. “I’m addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine” she signed. “They are lying and I’m ashamed to translate those lies. Yushchenko is our president.”

The deaf community sprang into gear. They text messaged their friends about the fraudulent result and as news spread of Dmitruk’s act of defiance increasing numbers of journalists were inspired to likewise tell the truth. Over the coming weeks the “Orange Revolution” occurred as a million people wearing orange made their way to the capital city of Kiev demanding a new election. The government was forced to meet their demands, a new election was held and Victor Yushchenko became president.

Philip Yancey writes

“When I heard the story behind the orange revolution, the image of a small screen of truth in the corner of the big screen became for me an ideal picture of the church. You see we as a church do not control the big screen. (When we do, we usually mess it up.) Go to any magazine rack or turn on the television and you see a consistent message. What matters is how beautiful you are, how much money or power you have. Similarly, though the world includes many poor people, they rarely make the magazine covers or the news shows. Instead we focus on the superrich, names like Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey.… Our society is hardly unique. Throughout history nations have always glorified winners, not losers. Then, like the sign language translator in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, along comes a person named Jesus who says in effect, Don’t believe the big screen – they’re lying. It’s the poor who are blessed, not the rich. Mourners are blessed too, as well as those who hunger and thirst, and the persecuted. Those who go through life thinking they’re on top end up on the bottom. And those who go through life feeling they’re on the bottom end up on the top. After all, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul?

Source: Philip Yancey, What Good Is God, pages 184-186

The Greatest Forger

It was perhaps the greatest hoax in art history. Han van Meegeren was an artist with a grudge. Painting in the Netherlands pre World War 2, critics mercilessly panned his exhibitions. One critic described him as “A gifted technician who has made a sort of composite facsimile of the Renaissance school, he has every virtue except originality.” Stung, van Meegreen decided to strike back. He painted a work with flourishes of the style of the great Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, titled it “The Supper at Emmaus”, and submitted it to the prominent critic Abraham Bredius. Bredius took the bait, writing that “It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master… And what a picture! We have here a – I am inclined to say the – masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.”  The art world gasped, the painting was sold for the equivalent of millions of dollars, and displayed in  the Boijmans Gallery in Rotterda.

Han van Meegren planned to expose the forgery at the opening of the Gallery’s 400 Years of European Art exhibition, in which his forgery was given pride of place. His critics would be humiliated and their reputations shattered. Greed, however, got the better of him. Rather than exposing the forgery, he made more, raking in millions more dollars. When the Nazis swept through Europe, he even managed to sell The Supper at Emmaus to them.

This almost proved his undoing.After the war the victorious Allied forces were determined to return the artworks collected by the Nazis to their previous owners. A receipy led two soldiers from the Allied Art Commission to the studio of vm Meegren. They wanted to know from whom van Meegran had bought the artwork. Unwilling to divulge the truth, van Megreen was arrested on charges of treason and faced the death penalty. Confined in prison, facing death, van Megreen had a change of heart. He confessed, but no-one believed him. Experts testified that the work was indeed an original by the Dutch master Vermeer. The only way to prove his innocence was to produce another fake, anfd so he did, spending weeks literally painting for his life!

The final twist to the story is that van Meegren was not only acquitted, but became a national hero, for he had fooled the Nazis, shown them to be the corrupt regime everyone knew they were.

Source: information found in “The forger who fooled the world” The Telegraph, Aug 5, 2006
 

Steve Jobs on Death

In 2005 Steve Jobs gave the commencement speech at Stamford University. In commencement speeches the speaker traditionally passes on some wisdom for life that will help the graduating students commence the next phase of their life. Steve Jobs spoke about three things and one of them was death.

He described going to a doctor’s appointment in 2004 and being told he had pancreatic cancer and had just 3-6 months to live. It was devastating news.

Later the same evening he had further tests that revealed he had a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that could be treated with surgery. He had the surgery and lived for another seven years before the cancer returned to claim his life.

During that 2005 speech at Stamford Jobs spoke of the importance of death.

[quote] Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.[/quote]

Casualties of War

The movie Casualties of War tells the true story of a squad of soldiers which fought in the Vietnam War. While there they both saw and participated in some terrible crimes. One of their crimes was to abduct and rape a young Vietnamese girl. The lead role in the film is played by Michael J. Fox. He takes on the character of a Private Erikson, a soldier who is part of the squad but didn’t join in the abduction and rape. As he struggles with what has happened, he says to the other men in his squad, “Just because each of us might at any second be blown away, we’re acting like we can do anything we want, as though it doesn’t matter what we do. I’m thinking it’s just the opposite. Because we might be dead in the next split second, maybe we gotta be extra careful what we do. Because maybe it matters more. Maybe it matters more that we ever know.”

A Drowning Girl

One wet and miserable morning in Ohio Ray Blankenship was making breakfast in when he looked out the window onto the open stormwater drain that ran alongside his house. What he saw terrified him – a small girl being swept down the drain. He also knew that further downstream, the ditch disappeared with a roar underneath the road. Ray ran out the door and raced along the ditch, trying to get ahead of the little girl. Then he hurled himself into the deep, churning water. He surfaced and was able to grab the child’s arm. They tumbled end over end. Within about one metre of the drain going under the road, Ray’s free hand felt something protruding from one bank. He grabbed a hold and held on for dear life. “If I can just hang on until help comes,” he thought. But he did better than that. By the time fire-department rescuers arrived, Ray had pulled the girl to safety. Both were treated for shock. On April 12, 1989, Ray Blankenship was awarded the US Coast Guard’s Silver Lifesaving Medal. The award is fitting, Ray Blankenship was at even greater risk to himself than most people knew. You see, Ray can’t swim.

 

Source: Reported in Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

His Father’s Son

Let me tell you two stories about two men who came from Chicago, USA.

Story Number One:
Chicago’s O’Hare International airport is named after one of Chicago’s most famous and heroic sons. Butch O’Hare was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington during the Second World War. About ten weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbour Butch O’Hare was flying his single engine Grumman Hellcat fighter plane off the Gilbert islands.  He and another pilot were the only ones aloft when O’Hare spotted a group of nine Japanese bombers heading straight for his aircraft carrier, the Lexington. O’Hare knew the odds were against him – the other fighter planes on the carrier were refuelling and would not have time to take off. It was up to Butch and the other Hellcat to stop the Japanese bombers. The odds were dramatically reduced when Butch discovered the machine guns on the second Hellcat had seized. It was just Butch O’Hare and four minutes between the Japanese bombers and the 2000 crew aboard the Lexington.

Butch dove in and started the attack. The crew of the Lexington watched as he engaged the Japanese bombers – their guns training in on his Hellcat fighter. With astonishing skill Butch O’Hare emerged victorious, shooting down five of the nine Japanese bombers and badly damaging another. The last three were taken out by planes that managed to get off the decks of the Lexington while the air battle raged above them.

President Roosevelt later described Butch O’Hare’s actions as “one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation.” Butch was promoted two ranks and designated the US Navy’s first “Ace” of World War 2.

Story number two:

Some years before World War 2 a millionaire lawyer known as “Easy Eddie” was involved in illegal gambling rackets with the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone. Eddie had the patent rights to the mechanical rabbits used in dog racing and he and was brought into the Hawthorne Kennel Club by Capone as a major partner. The races were usually always fixed and although dog racing was illegal Capone and Eddie kept the matter tied up in the courts. This allowed them to continue to run their tracks. When dog racing was finally declared illegal Eddie and Capone simply switched their tracks over to horseracing, which was legal, and continued to fix races and rake in money.

In addition to his race track interests Eddie performed a variety of legal services for the Capone Mob. He looked after mob members arrested for murder, gambling and prostitution and set up elaborate real estate and stock transactions for Capone, himself and other insiders of the gang.

There was however another side to Eddie. Eddie was a father. He had a son and daughters whom he loved dearly, and the wealth he had amassed allowed him to shower everything money could buy upon his beloved children. And in many ways he was a good father. Eddie sought out the best schools for his children and spent lots of time with them attending their school productions and sporting events, and just hanging around together.

But there was one thing Eddie’s money couldn’t buy – integrity and respectability. Eddie’s son finished high school and declared he wanted to go into the naval academy at Annapolis. But to get there you needed more than money. You needed the approval of the congressman for your state.

Eddie decided his son’s future was more important than his own. He approached the authorities and indicated he would be willing to testify against Capone. On the basis of Eddie’s witness Al Capone went to jail for 11 years and his stranglehold on Chicago was broken. Eddie’s son also got into the Annapolis Naval Academy. But for Eddie the price was severe. Capone swore he would kill Eddie and in 1937 Eddie was gunned to death as he drove his car home from work. In his pocket the police found a poem which read:

The clock of life is wound but once
And no man has the power
To tell just when the hands will stop
At late or early hour.
Now is the only time you own.
Live, love, toil with a will.
Place no faith in time.
For the clock may soon be still.

I know what you’re thinking. What do these two stories have to do with one another? Well, you see, Butch O’Hare was Easy Eddie’s son.

 

Source: Adapted from Illinois Police and Sheriff’s News archives 1939-1949