Eighteenth-Century Slavery

As readers may be aware, a number of activists at Harvard Law School have organized themselves into a group called “Royall Must Fall,” inspired by the successful “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign at the University of Cape Town, which was directed against a statue of that particular arch-imperialist. “Royall Must Fall” is not animated by any statues, but by the HLS coat of arms, which looks like this:

hls

Via Wikipedia

What is wrong with this, you ask? The three sheaves of wheat are the coat of arms of Isaac Royall, Jr. (1719-81), whose bequest of land in 1779 served as the original endowment for HLS – and whose family wealth derived from the slave trade in Antigua, where his father had taken part in the brutal repression of a slave revolt in 1736. The offensiveness of these facts to our current sensibilities do not need to be spelled out. To underline their point, RMF members adopted their own coat of arms featuring black slaves carrying the sheaves of wheat:

hlsrev

From the Royall Must Fall Facebook page.

The HLS coat of arms, like those of most subunits of Harvard, dates from the university’s tercentennial in 1936. In that year, Pierre La Rose designed a heraldic system for the university: each school (medicine, law, public health, dentistry, etc.) got a coat of arms featuring the arms of its founder, differenced by the so-called “chief of Harvard” – a crimson horizontal band across the top, featuring three open books collectively bearing the Harvard motto “Veritas.”

harvard3

Via Wikipedia, the arms of Harvard Divinity School, Kennedy School of Government, and Harvard Business School. For the meanings of these and other Harvard shields, see Mason Hammond’s multipart article “A Harvard Armory”, which appeared the Harvard Library Bulletin in the early 1980s.

It is important to note that Royall himself was not an agent of the slave trade (although he was a slave owner); furthermore, many historical figures have done great things in spite of their moral crimes, and we have no problem honoring them, while being cognizant of their shortcomings. But if Royall’s sins are judged to be too much, and to outweigh any good he did otherwise, it would be easy enough to find the coat of arms of someone else associated with the founding of HLS and change the HLS arms to be that, differenced by the chief of Harvard. (After all, the grant occurred in 1779, and HLS was only founded in 1817! Did Nathan Dane have a coat of arms? Joseph Story? John Ashmun? If so, it would be easy to substitute one of these shields for that of Royall. If not, it would also be easy to invent a coat of arms for HLS not referencing a person, but the law itself: a pair of crossed gavels, a gryphon, a balance, a book, etc.)

It’s not just the Ivy League that is sensitive to these issues. I discovered an article on Rantsports ranking all the helmets in the National Football League. This ranking was not done simply from a design perspective, but from a political one too. Thus, as you can probably imagine, the lowest-ranked helmet was that of the Washington Redskins. As the article says:

Whether you believe it should or should not, the Washington Redskins’ helmet sadly offends a portion of our country’s Native American population. Therefore, it lands at No. 32.

But then number 31 is the New Orleans Saints, for similar reasons.

saints

From Amazon.com

What could possibly be wrong with this clean, simple design of a fleur-de-lis, referencing New Orleans’s French heritage? The article claims that:

many feel it is racist in nature due to its history (which you can look up and decide for yourself). It seems like a rebrand is needed at this point. Washington and New Orleans are tied for the worst in my humble opinion.

As a Canadian I am used to seeing the fleur-de-lis used by the government of Quebec, and as a medievalist I am used to seeing it associated with the medieval French monarchy. I had never heard that it is racist. And yet, a quick Google search brought up an article by one Ashley Rae Goldenberg from July, 2015:

Slave historian Ibrahima Seck explained to WWLTV the fleur-de-lis is part of slave history.

According to Seck, the fleur-de-lis was implemented as part of the Louisiana “black code,” which were the rules for the French slave populations throughout the world.

Seck stated, as a punishment for a slave running away, slaves “would be taken before a court and the sentence would be being branded on one shoulder and with the fleur de lis, and then they would crop their ears.”

“As an African I find it painful, and I think people whose ancestors were enslaved here may feel it even harder than I do as an African,” Seck continued.

I thought this sounded suspiciously like an urban legend, but Article 38 of the French Code Noir really did order the branding of a fleur-de-lis on the shoulders of runaway slaves, among other indignities.

art38

But I confess I am not sympathetic to getting rid of the fleur-de-lis. Slavery was a cruel system, and the racism used to justify it is still with us in more than a few ways. This one historic use of the fleur-de-lis, however, is surely not enough to ruin its long and distinguished heraldic history. One cannot help but think that in this case, things really have Gone Too Far.

Hermits

Something amusing from Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2011). In a chapter on gardens, Bryson describes the triumph of “artificial nature,” inaugurated by the Serpentine (1730) in Hyde Park, an unprecedentedly asymmetrical pond. Follies (fake ruins) were also part of this movement, and then:

For a time it was highly fashionable to build a hermitage and install in it a live-in hermit. At Painshill in Surrey, one man signed a contract to live seven years in picturesque seclusion, observing a monastic silence, for £100 a year, but was fired after just three weeks when he was spotted drinking in the local pub. An estate owner in Lancashire promised £50 a year for life to anyone who would pass seven years in an underground dwelling on his estate without cutting his hair or toenails or talking to another person. Someone took up the offer and actually lasted four years before deciding he could take no more; whether he was given at least a partial pension for his efforts is sadly unknown.