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Moll Flanders

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The film "The Insider" begins with an interview of militant mullahs by a ‎journalist (played by Al Pacino) from "60 Minutes". The central theme of the film, of ‎course, is the tobacco industry. But for quite some time the viewer fails to see any ‎connection between the mullahs and the CEOs of the tobacco companies. ‎

Russell Crowe plays the reluctant whistleblower on the industry: for years, the ‎tobacco firms had known that cigarette was a "nicotine delivery device" and had even ‎augmented the efficiency of the device by means of chemicals. The CEOs had denied all ‎such knowledge to Congress. This was perjury. Only the personal bravery of a journalist ‎saves the whistleblower's life as well as his integrity and allows the great American ‎public to learn the sordid details of the tobacco industry. The connection with the mullahs ‎begins to be clear: only in America ("the land of the free") can such revelations occur. ‎


Incarceration rates
(prisoners per ‎‎100,000 population), 2002‎

United States ‎700‎
Russia ‎660‎
Belarus ‎550‎
South Africa ‎400‎
Thailand ‎340‎
England and ‎Wales ‎132‎
China ‎108 (2000)‎
Canada ‎102‎
Italy ‎97 (2000)‎
France ‎85‎
Japan ‎48 (2001)‎

[Table compiled from The Economist, ‎August 10th 2002, p. 27‎]

How did America come to be "the land of the free"? Because, basically, it is the ‎land of the unfree. As one author queried with passion: "What explains the paradox of a ‎country that prides itself as being the citadel of liberty, yet imprisons more people per ‎capita that any other nation...? Why does a country founded on equality imprison mostly ‎people of colour, showing a rate of incarceration of blacks that is more than eight times ‎that of whites?" ‎

‎"Don't be shocked when I say that I was in prison," Malcolm X liked to tell his ‎urban audiences. "You're still in prison. That's what America means: prison." He was not ‎wrong. From the very foundation of Virginia, the use of unfree labour has characterised ‎the economy of the colony as well as that of the mother country. The unfree labour was ‎originally white. ‎

On Columbus's first voyage he found the Taino Indians, as he called them, rolling ‎up dried leaves which they lit and inhaled. By the early seventeenth century England had ‎become addicted to tobacco. "Many a young nobleman's estate is altogether spent and ‎scattered to nothing in smoke and a man's estate runs out through his nose....". The weed ‎became as valuable as silver. ‎

The huge profits from tobacco required a huge supply of labour. Free labour ‎perished in those inhospitable conditions: by 1618, after eleven years of effort, only about ‎six hundred out of eighteen hundred colonists survived! The answer was unfree labour: ‎indentured servants, convicts, kidnapped children. By a fortuitous coincidence, even as ‎England's population soared and its 'criminal' and unemployed elements increased ‎furiously, a happy outlet was found in the colonies. These became, in effect, an overseas ‎extension of the domestic prison system. ‎

Daniel Defoe, in The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, ‎describes the convict experience vividly. Moll is born in Newgate, where her mother is ‎under sentence of death for theft! Her sentence is commuted to transportation to ‎Virginia, a humane measure adopted for commercial purposes. The abandoned child is ‎educated by a gentlewoman. Moll suffers romantic disillusionment when she is ruined at ‎the hands of a cynical male seducer; she becomes a prostitute and a thief, but finally she ‎gains the status of a gentlewoman through the spoils of a successful colonial plantation. ‎Moll's ageing mother-in-law (who turns out to be her mother!) confides that "many a ‎Newgate-bird becomes a great man, and we have...several justices of the peace, officers ‎of the trained bands, and magistrates of the towns they live in, that have been burnt in the ‎hand." The old lady then removes her gloves to expose a scar. "You need not think such a ‎thing strange, daughter, for as I told you, some of the best men in this country are burnt in ‎the hand, and they are not ashamed to own it. There's Major_____,' says she, 'he was an ‎eminent pickpocket; there's Justice Ba_____r, was a shoplifter, and both of them were ‎burnt in the hand, and I could name you several such as they are." ‎

And we have the personal accounts of convicts like James Revel, who wrote ‎eloquent, if not polished, poetry. ‎


Examining like Horses, if we're sound,‎
What trade are you, my Lad, says one to me,‎
A Tin-man, Sir, that will not do, says he.‎
Some felt our hands and view'd our legs and feet,‎
And made us walk, to see we were compleat;‎
Some view'd our teeth, to see if they were good,‎
Or fit to chew our hard and homely Food.‎
If any like our look, our limbs, our trade,‎
The Captain then a good advantage made.‎



America, then, began as a giant penal colony, run for the profit of a few. (In fact, ‎Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the continent has been named, turned out to have a ‎criminal career; hence, Ralph Waldo Emerson's comment: 'Strange...that broad America ‎must wear the name of a thief.') John Keats was not, therefore, wide of the mark, when ‎he described America as the "dungeonor of my friends". ‎

So far, so white. Events acquire a darker complexion with the arrival, in 1619, of ‎a Dutch man-of-war that sold "twenty and odd Negroes" to Virginians. By the 1660s, the ‎states were enacting laws regarding slavery. Unlike indentured servants who served for ‎six years and convicts seven to fourteen years slaves served for life. "Every ‎Freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over Negro slaves". So ‎wrote John Locke, champion of man's 'inalienable rights', into the Fundamental ‎Constitution of that state. Clearly, 'rights' were for Englishmen, and even then of a ‎certain class of Englishmen. Locke was, of course, a shareholder in the Royal African ‎Company, which made him a fortune through slavery, and he was no doubt careful to ‎distinguish between his financial and political interests. ‎

Thus, a large body of men and women, who had committed no offence save that ‎of being unarmed and defenseless, came to a fate worse than their white counterparts, ‎who were frequently felons and rogues. And, by that curious reversal of roles peculiar to ‎western civilisation, the innocent became the permanently criminal and their criminal ‎keepers continued to be permanently innocent. ‎

 

http://iftekharsayeed.weebly.com

Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
 

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