Project 500 Years
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Project 500 Years

My January Syndrome strikes again…

On Friday, I sent out an “institutional” email blast on behalf of Just World Educational, the non-profit educational org that I founded in late 2015 and have headed ever since. That email/newsletter took me much longer than usual to write, hampered as I am by the eye problem that first struck me in early November… but I did manage to get it out just in time for a little bit of End-Of-Year fundraising for JWE. (Donations still welcome!)

In the email blast, I mused on some aspects of the fact that the whole world is still mired in the multiple aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic — medical, economic, geostrategic — even as we enter its third year. (I’d just like to refer back to this blog post I penned on May 1, 2020, in which I explored the possibility- or as I saw it then, the probability- that the effects of the Covid crisis would be both much lengthier in duration and much deeper/wider in scope than most commentators at the time were saying. Yup, I was right…)

But part of the reason I’m writing this blog post today is to supplement and expand a little on what I wrote in the “corporate” email blast. Another part of the reason is that I deeply feel the need to get back to blogging here, and not just continuing to be a person who exists in the “corporate-ish” worlds of Just World Ed and Just World Books.

Part of what’s happening here is something that I think of as my own personal January Syndrome… Last year, the outbreak of January Syndrome led me to launch my “Project 500 Years”, which I am still really glad I did. Basically, the idea there was to write one blog post per day, each one summarizing the main events of a year in the development of Western imperialism, starting on January 1, 2021, with the events of 500 (501?) years earlier, in 1520 CE. Originally, I’d intended to continue the project until its purview reached the current year, which would have happened I think at some point in May this year. However, in late June last year a concatenation of events in my family caused me to break off my daily ritual, having reached only to 1695 CE.

That was okay. That caesura gave me the chance to review what I had done already and to start planning to be more strategic in my continued pursuit of the project… And meantime, having gotten my “blogging muscles” back into fairly good shape through the daily discipline, I was able, during August and September of last year to write some more substantial essays related to the project. One thrust of these new essays was to delve back much earlier than 1520, which had always been a slightly random starting-point from the historical perspective. In the new clutch of essays I wrote, I focused in particular on the pioneering role Portugal had played in the development of Western imperialism- and starting as early as 1415 CE. Check them out here!

In October, I started diving pretty deep into the history of Spain’s early moves into empire-building, reading a bunch of fascinating books on the subject. At that point, I was planning to follow up the long essay on the birth of the Portuguese empire with one on the birth of the Spanish empire… But in early November, nature struck me a very unwelcome blow in the form of a retina that first tore and then became detached. Reduced to monocularity (and for two weeks there, to remaining in a face-down position for >90% of each day), I found all actions in everyday life suddenly became more difficult, while roaming as I used to around the three or more windows that may be open on my computer display setup at any one point became much more complicated, slower, tiring, and frustrating….

It’s true, I could reflect on the fact that in an earlier era, many people would simply lose the sight of one or both eyes at this point in their lives when retinal attachment becomes more iffy- and most likely, in most of the world, that is still the case today. I have also certainly reflected on the fact that being able to survive childbirth three times and to have raised three healthy and amazing children is also a privilege that historically and today, few women have been able to enjoy. But such reflections can only get me so far. This @#$%-ing eye problem has been hard to deal with, even with all the truly heroic support and ministrations I’ve received from Bill the Spouse.

But here I am. It’s January of a new year and I am (a) back to blogging here at JWN: (hurrah!) and (b) starting to think again where I can take Project 500 Years over the next few months. Spain still awaits. The function the Spanish empire played in the formation of a frequently contested sense of “Spain-hood” was clearly somewhat different from the (actually essential) role the Portuguese empire played in the formation of Portuguese-ness. For the Catholic Monarchs who ruled Castile and Aragon in the 200 years following 1492, the overseas empire was… well, not exactly an afterthought (since they relied on its stolen plunder to finance their wars all over Europe), but anyway always clearly subordinate to their broad ambitions in Europe… That is what I’ll hope to write about next in the project; and after that, maybe really dig deep into the piratical origins of the English and Dutch empires.

France, it turns out, was relatively late to the venture of building a global empire. I confess I did not understand that before I started this project.

Twenty-six years ago, in 1996, I experienced a particularly memorable case of January Syndrome. I had two children still at home; we were still here in DC; my Dad had come over from England to spend Christmas with us; the whole Christmas/winter-break season felt exhausting. I remember driving my dad to the airport, and the next day the kids went back into school. Once they were in school I gave myself a mental-health day before resuming my work as — at that point — a columnist for two newspapers and a researcher on global issues… So I went to a place that, until then I had never visited, only heard about: It was a bookstore+cafe in Adams Morgan called the Potter’s House. (It’s still there!) It’s run by a fairly socially radical Christian group called the Church of the Savior, and it had a good section of spiritual/social-justicey titles. I picked out one called Quaker Spirituality and started reading it. Some of it really did not speak to me, but they had good excerpts there from the journal of an 18th-century U.S. Quaker activist called John Woolman, and I was totally smitten. I bought the book, took it home and read the whole of the John Woolman section, and started attending a small Quaker worship group in Tenleytown most Sundays.

I’ve worshiped with Quakers, and self-identified as a Quaker ever since. In 1997, we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where I was a “trailing spouse” to Bill, who was teaching at the University of Virginia. Charlottesville was a pretty small town and not much happened there. But they had a great Quaker meeting with some really inspiring and experienced older members, as well as younger members and some extremely nice people my own age. In 2000 I went through the formal process of applying for, and receiving, membership in the Charlottesville Friends Meeting (Quakers), and actually I haven’t started transferring that membership to the Washington DC meeting yet.

John Woolman and the other U.S. and British Quakers who battled against the institution of slavery (which was also engaged in for many decades by Quakers, here in North America and also the Caribbean) have always inspired me. However… Because of my long intimacy with the issue of Palestine and the sufferings inflicted on Palestinians by the Zionist colonists who seized their land, I have also experienced increasing disquiet over the years about the status of Woolman- and indeed also myself- as, actually, a Western settler in Turtle Island, that is, in a land forcefully seized by Western colonizers from its previous rightful owners. Far too few Quakers, it seems to me, have reflected on that fact. The history of Quakers in America- like that of most other West-European settlers here- is told in terms of “North America providing a much needed refuge for members of religious communities who were suffering terrible oppression in their European homeland”, rather than in terms of the very well-connected Mr. William Penn having been “ allotted “ a huge chunk of land in Turtle Island, by England’s King Charles II, so he could build two large English-cultured colonies here. One of those became grandiosely named after himself “Pennsylvania”, the other was “New Jersey”.

And how did England’s King Charles II get to just “allot” all these lands to Mr. Penn in 1681? Solely because the king claimed them for England and wanted to strengthen the English presence up along the Delaware River and its hinterland, especially since there were already small Swedish and Dutch colonies in its lower reaches… “King”Charles presumably felt that his empire-building project in North America needed to have pumped into it as many colonists as possible who would be English-cultured and beholden to him (through William Penn, who was named “Proprietor” of the new colonies.) And he probably trusted Penn, whose father had been a notable admiral in the English colonial fleet in the Caribbean, not to defect or sell out to either the Natives who had long inhabited those areas, or to the colonists of rival European projects.

The young Penn had been attracted to the teachings of the then-young Religious Society of Friends when he was still in his teens. It seems from the English-WP page about Penn that his dad and several other Quakers had colonial holdings in Ireland, that had been allotted to them by Cromwell; and that t hat fact did not bother the young man very much. Indeed, as a young man he went to administer some of those lands:

With his father laid low by gout, young Penn was sent to Ireland in 1666 [at age 22] to manage the family landholdings. While there he became a soldier and took part in suppressing a local Irish rebellion. Swelling with pride, he had his portrait painted wearing a suit of armor, his most authentic likeness. His first experience of warfare gave him the sudden idea of pursuing a military career, but the fever of battle soon wore off after his father discouraged him…

In the following years, he became even more of a Quaker, at a time when the newly restored monarchy was cracking down quite harshly on Quakers in various places. Then, this:

The Admiral also knew that after his death young Penn would become more vulnerable in his pursuit of justice. In an act which not only secured his son’s protection but also set the conditions for the founding of Pennsylvania, the Admiral wrote to the Duke of York, the heir to the throne.

The Duke and the King, in return for the Admiral’s lifetime of service to the Crown, promised to protect young Penn and make him a royal counselor.

Penn was not disinherited and he came into a large fortune but found himself in jail again for six months as he continued to agitate… A minor split developed in the Quaker community between those who favored Penn’s analytical formulations and those who preferred Fox’s simple precepts. But the persecution of Quakers had accelerated and the differences were overridden; Penn again resumed missionary work in Holland and Germany.

Seeing conditions deteriorating, Penn decided to appeal directly to the King and the Duke. Penn proposed a solution which would solve the dilemma-a mass emigration of English Quakers..

Thus, it was win-win-win all round for the “king”, William Penn, and the Quakers. But definitely not so much so for the Lenape and the other Indigenous inhabitants of the areas in which the two new colonies were built- or for the enslaved Africans whom Penn himself and other colonists shipped in to help them build and maintain their colonies.

Penn famously averred that he had treated the Lenape fairly and that he had “bought” much of the land that was used for the colonies he built. His heirs John Penn and Thomas Penn, who had inherited “proprietorship” of the colonies from him, did not make much of an effort even to appear to be fair to the Lenape. In 1736, they famously swindled the Lenape in something called the “Walking Purchase” (and the settlers’ version of what happened on that occasion was upheld by the US court system as recently as 2006.)

William Penn has long been regarded with admiration by many Quakers and others in the United States. It is, however, worth noting this summary of the man that appeared in the 1974 Encyclopedia of American Biography:

Penn liked money and although he was certainly sincere about his ambitions for a “holy experiment” in Pennsylvania, he also expected to get rich. He was, however, extravagant, a bad manager and businessman, and not very astute in judging people and making appointments… Penn was gregarious, had many friends, and was good at developing the useful connections which protected him through many crises.

Also worth noting: that Quakers in both the United States and Britain are now undertaking something of a reconsideration of Penn’s legacy- especially as concerns the fact that he held captive and forced into labor on his plantation in “Penn”-sylvania at least six enslaved people of African heritage. In this recent, well-expressed article in Friends Journal, British Quaker Kathleen Bell explored that issue, in the context of a controversy having arisen among British Quakers over the naming of a room in their London headquarters after William Penn.

From my perspective, however, I think that Bell’s critique of Penn does not go far (or deep) enough. Yes, it was pretty terrible that, at a time when he was preaching the equality of all (“White” European) people, Penn- along with many other Quakers in the 17th and 18th centuries- was quite happy to profit from his involvement in the institution of slavery. But it was also terrible- possibly even more so?- that he was an eager participant in a system of “White” European settler colonialism here in Turtle Island.

It is not worth taking any time to debate whether “White” European settler colonialism here in Turtle Island or anywhere else in the world was “worse” for the Indigenous peoples whose lands the colonists seized though force, or through elaborate charades of “purchase” that were always backed up by force- and whom, as it happens, they generally displaced and very frequently genocided or enslaved- or for those, Africans or others, who were taken captive and shipped across oceans to be an enslaved workforce in the new colonies. Settler colonialism was a disaster for all those notably non-”White” peoples. But I think I would maintain that the various European projects of settler colonialism in distant, non-European continents, were really the “original sin” that enabled and underlay all the other atrocities. The mass-scale trans-oceanic shipment of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic- and also, to a lesser but still significant extent, across the Indian Ocean, especially by the French- or of enslaved Malays across the Indian Ocean to Southern Africa (especially by the Dutch) only took place because the destinations in which those enslaved persons were worked, often to their deaths, were not inside the prissily “Christian” European heartland, but very far away.

By this score, I think the “case” against William Penn could and should be strengthened by adding to the topics of concern Penn’s enthusiastic participation in the English monarchy’s settler colonial project in Turtle Island. I’ll be thinking and writing quite a lot more about this topic, and what it means for how European-origined Quakers (and other European-origined settlers here in Turtle Island) might start to reconsider our involvement in this settler-colonial project here, and what this means for any efforts we might make in the years ahead to decolonize Turtle Island.

January 3. What else will this year bring?

Originally published at https://justworldnews.org.

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Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, with a focus on the Middle East. Senior Fellow, Ctr for International Policy. Fuller bio at my Wikipedia page.