Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: slavery

Jihad on Baltimore

Muslim terrorists attack Baltimore and kidnap citizens into slavery.

What’s Bogie got to do with it? 



Sailing on the ferry to Sherkin Island in the Atlantic off the coast of West Cork, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see a pirate vessel from North Africa appear over the horizon and sail into Roaring Water Bay.

Murat Reis

Around two in the morning on Sunday 19 June 1631, the inhabitants of the town of Baltimore, West Cork, Ireland woke up screaming as their doors were splintered by iron bars and their thatched roofs set alight. As they ran into the streets they were confronted by Janissaries waving curved sabres and screaming like demons.

“A stifled gasp, a dreamy noise! ‘The roof is in a flame!’

From out their beds and to their doors rush maid and sire and dame,

And meet upon the threshold stone the gleaming sabre’s fall,

And o’er each black and bearded face the white or crimson shawl.

The yell of “Allah!” breaks above the prayer, and shriek, and roar:

O blessed God! the Algerine is lord of Baltimore!”

Thomas Davis thomas davis

230 musketeers divided themselves into 26 attack squads – one for each homestead. Timothy Curlew put up a brave resistance and was hacked to death, as was John Davis. However, the basic aim was to take as many alive as possible. Within a very short time 109 villagers, four-fifths of them women and children, 50 of them children, were being herded onto waiting boats. Two were released because they were too infirm to be profitable.

Why did this particular ship turn up at this particular time on the coast of County Cork? This European raid by Barbary pirates was not as unusual as one might have thought. Barbary pirates operated from the time of the crusades until the 19th century. They were based along the stretch of North Africa known as the Barbary Coast after the Berber inhabitants. The Ottoman Pashas were little more than figureheads in North Africa. Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli were independent bases for pirates in the business of capturing and trading in slaves. They carried out razzias or predatory raids throughout the Mediterranean and as far north as Iceland, capturing Christians to sell in the slave markets of Algeria and Morocco.  From the 16th to the 19th century, it is estimated that as many as 1.25 million Christians were kidnapped.

It would not have been a pleasant cruise on the Algerian ship. The dark, dank warren would have been home to rats and cockroaches and everyone crawled with lice. Arrival in Algiers would have been a great shock to the systems of simple villagers who had never been outside their own parish. A contingent of established Christian slaves got entertainment from jeering at new arrivals. The captors did not recognise Europeans as full human beings and did not worry about breaking up families. They were put on sale in the Bedistan market.

A French priest, Father Pierre Dan reported how “they sold on the one hand the husbands, on the other the wives, ripping their daughters from their arms, leaving them no hope of ever seeing each other again.” Buyers would have been interested in three classes of females: virgin girls, skilled craft workers and the outstandingly beautiful, meaning of ample proportions and fair-skinned. An English slave, Joseph Pitts reported that buyers would stick their fingers in the women’s mouths, squeeze their bosoms and check their virginity ‘in a modest way’. They made them walk up and down to check ‘the bounciness of their breasts’.


Of the Baltimore women, Ellen Hawkins was worth about six horses and Joane Broadbrook about eight oxen. Joane Broadbrook would have been sold for the price today of a ten-year-old hatchback. The profits from the sale of the captives would have been shared out. Half of the proceeds would go to the investors in the kidnapping mission including the ship’s captain. The other half was divided up amongst the ship’s company. Each seaman would get three parts and each Janissary got half a seaman’s cut because they were already on salary. The captain got 40 parts bringing his total take to around  $73,000 in today’s money.

The imperial harem would normally be a sedate place and there were periods when the royal palace was ruled by females. Unfortunately, the period when the Baltimore women arrived coincided with the reigns of the two most debauched sultans in history. Murad was only in his twenties but the entire nation feared his unpredictable rages. He executed a cook on the spot when he was dissatisfied with dinner. He sat on the sea shore randomly shooting his subjects as they passed by. He once, on a whim, ordered a whole boatload of women to be sunk. He died at the age of 28 when he had a seizure following a gargantuan drunken spree which coincided with a solar eclipse.


A skilled oarsman like Tom Paine, one of the Baltimore captives, would have been highly valued as a galley slave, but the value would not reduce the brutality with which he was treated. The life of a galley slave was described as being like ‘a species of hell’, chained three to an oar, constantly lashed and prodded. Their heads were shaved and they had nothing to cover them but a filthy cape. Their only lodging was to lie on a bare board and they had to subsist on bread soaked with a little wine.

Other slaves were put to work on state farms. Captain John Smith (of Virginia fame) was once a slave and described being ‘treated like a dog’ threshing corn. There are reports of men pulling ploughs like horses with metal bits in their teeth. Some worked in quarries pulling 40-ton rocks for two miles on sleds. Others worked in the blazing sun on construction sites.

There were methods of escaping from slavery. You could be ransomed by family or friends. You could save the pittances gleaned from working and buy yourself out. You could be ransomed through charity. Your release could be negotiated by treaty by your home government. Your patron might release you, usually because you had converted to Islam. You might try to escape.

Fifteen years after the raid on Baltimore, in September 1646, an English ship, the Charles, appeared in the bay of Algiers. On board was Edward Cason an envoy dispatched by Parliament to negotiate the release of hundreds of English and Irish slaves. Cason compiled a register and calculated that there were 650 in Algiers and another 100 in the Turkish fleet at Crete. There was an acceptance that he could not recover those who had converted to Islam ‘through beating and hard usage’, those children being raised in local households and those who had converted and been spirited away to other ports in the east. The patrons drove a hard bargain, citing the increase in value of some of the slaves who had been taught crafts and skills. Cason reckoned that he only had funds to ransom 250 slaves. In the end 264 were ‘redeemed and sent home’.

There were captives from all over the British Isles but only two from Baltimore – Joane Broadbrook and Ellen Hawkins. What had happened to the other 105? The average post-infancy life expectancy in the 17th century was about 60 and Algiers at that time was one of the world’s more healthy locations. In London bedpans were tipped into the street. In Algiers, there was piped sewage and clean running water. The streets were kept clean by an army of workers.

One of the authorities on this subject, John de Courcy Ireland, said that few showed any enthusiasm for returning. There may have been elements of the Stockholm syndrome. Slavery might have been an improvement on the drudgery they had been snatched from in the fish factory back home. Many may have been successfully integrated into Algiers society. Life may have been more pleasant and social mobility more possible in this ancient sunny town than in rainy, windy West Cork.

A greedy and corrupt English navy had failed to protect them and failed to pursue the pirates. Some may have felt betrayed and abandoned and resistant to returning to their former home. Looking back to the circumstances of the raid, the details become even more bizarre.

My friend, Richard Boyle, is editor of Travel Sri Lanka, author of the books Knox’s Words and Sinbad in Serendib and a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. His namesake was Joint Administrator of Ireland and Great Earl of Cork in 1631 and he owned great chunks of the county (stolen from the natives of course) including Midleton where I lived before coming to live in Sri Lanka. His son, Robert Boyle, was a noted scientist, author of Boyle’s Law and The Sceptical Chymist. The Earl was a prime target himself and had previously narrowly avoided capture by pirates. After this, he had placed spies among them and knew that the price on his head was around 390,000 GBP. He received a tip-off that there was going to be a raid but did not know where and could not persuade the government to take precautions.


Boyle had many enemies and did not want to dig too deeply lest his own financial shenanigans would be exposed. John Hackett (see below for his part in the episode) was chosen as a scapegoat and was dragged across country behind a galloping horse and hanged on a high cliff.

Boyle could have done more to effect the release of the Baltimore slaves. The amount he spent on a single present for his daughter could have paid the ransom for all the Baltimore women.

 Other aspects are surprising: the pirate captain was not a Berber; the captives were not Irish. A list of the names of the 107 Baltimore residents who were taken to Algiers is in the archives. A strange coincidence that  one of them wascalled Tom Paine. They were all descended from English Protestants who settled in Ireland after leaving Devon and Cornwall.

jan janzsoon

The captain of the pirate ship was known as Murat Reis the Younger but he was born in Haarlem in the Netherlands and was formerly called Jan Janszoon.    Janszoon married a Moorish woman of African Berber origin, by whom he fathered several children.

The captives were of English Protestant origin but they were not aggressive usurpers like the Presbyterians in Ulster. They were refugees who had fled to Ireland to escape the oppressive rule of Elizabeth I. Their leader was Thomas Crooke who found the Irish Anglican hierarchy more sympathetic than the established church in England. In 1624 he was knighted. At the time of the raid their settlement had been established for 30 years and their children had known no other home than Baltimore.

They had paid a substantial rental to lease the land from a local chieftain, Fineen O’Driscoll. Why did these particular ships turn up at this particular time on the coast of County Cork? They were piloted by John Hackett from Dungarvan in Waterford whose 12-ton fishing boat had been captured by the corsairs at the Old Head of Kinsale. It may be that Hackett helped them willingly in order to guide them away from his home town.

There was considerable tension between Catholics and Protestants in the area at the time. Hackett, a Catholic, guided the fighting forces of Islam towards the Protestant English community at Baltimore. They anchored at the entrance to the Eastern Hole, concealed by a rocky outcrop out of view of the main port at the seaward base of a narrow triangular inlet bounded by treacherous rocks and cliffs. Murat carried out a full reconnaissance before the full attack. He went in a small boat with deadened oars accompanied by ten musketeers.

The small boat was piloted by one Captain Fawlett, who seemed to have had an intimate knowledge of the village, including the occupancy of individual houses. Fawlett was from Dartmouth in Devon and had been captured by the corsairs in the St George’s Channel, 60 miles from Cornwall. He became an active supporter of the Barbary slavers volunteering his detailed knowledge of the ports of southern Ireland.

It is unlikely that he had been coerced because he was released after the raid. Was his encounter with the corsairs pre-arranged? The settlers were being harassed by a lawyer called Walter Coppinger who wanted to expel the settlers and take over the port of Baltimore for himself. As well as being a shyster lawyer and a money lender Coppinger seems like a character from a Hammer horror movie. Legend has it that he started his career as page boy to Sir Walter Raleigh on Raleigh’s estate at Youghal (stolen from the Irish people). He made a fortune through cheating and intimidation. It was said that he had a yard arm fixed to the gable of his house ‘a gallows wherewith to hang the victims of his unlicensed power.’

Coppinger gave his fourteen-year old niece, Jeanette, in marriage to the wealthy Walter Grant, who was almost eighty. Grant soon died and Coppinger managed the estate, putting his name on all the documents leaving Jeanette penniless. She knew she could not get justice in Cork because uncle was well known for knobbling juries, so she took her case to Dublin. The furious Coppinger punched her in the mouth and knocked out all her teeth and got her sent to gaol for four years. One of his clients, Ellen ni Driscoll, discovered that he had tampered with her deeds and put her estate in his own name. Heavily pregnant, she begged for funds from him. ‘He did batter her in a most cruel manner and threw her over a cliff into the sea’. She survived but lost the baby.

After years of intense wrangling through the courts plus harassment and intimidation, Coppinger secured ownership of Baltimore, confirmed by Chancery and upheld by the Lords Justices. However, the courts had decreed that the settlers had invested too much in the settlement at Baltimore to be evicted even after the lease expired in 1631. Coppinger had won his long battle but his victory was tainted by the fact that he was stuck with recalcitrant sitting tenants.


Coppinger was the only man in Ireland to benefit from the pirate raid. He was rich enough and vicious enough to pay any price to settle a grudge. He had a history of hiring musclemen to do his bidding. It would not be beyond him to hire Mussulmen.

Murat had offered to renounce his Muslim faith and serve King Charles but he had been rebuffed. He hated the English. Baltimore had been a haven for pirates but the English settlers had frozen them out. He had two heavily armed warships and 280 elite fighting troops, which suggests he was on a serious mission. He tootled around the English coast for a long time attacking small merchantmen and fishing boats before sailing 50 miles west to attack a small village that depended on pilchards.

On June 20 1610, an agreement was signed to hand over Baltimore to Coppinger in 21 years’ time. Twenty-one years to the day from the date that agreement was signed, Murat’s corsairs arrived and removed the English settlers from Baltimore. Was Murat on a contract with Coppinger to cleanse Baltimore of the English Protestant settlers? Bad Karma got Coppinger soon enough though – the vast pilchard shoals which made Baltimore profitable suddenly stopped coming and in 1636 Coppinger leased out the village.

There is another implication arising from the story. Historian WJ Kingston has suggested that the raid may have been a major factor in the execution of Charles I. The Ship Money tax was normally imposed on coastal towns in order to equip warships. Charles, fearing a repetition of the corsair raid, extended the tax to inland communities in order to strengthen the navy. He did this without the consent of Parliament which produced such opposition that civil war and regicide followed. From then on no autocrat in Europe was safe.

What’s Bogart got to do with it?

Murat Reis aka Janszoon fathered several children by his Berber wife. Two of them, Abraham Jansz (a common Burgher name in Sri Lanka) and Anthony Jansen van Salee, took up the family trade of piracy. They were among the early settlers of New Amsterdam, settling in what is now Coney Island and Brooklyn. Among van Salee’s descendants were Humphrey Bogart, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jackie Kennedy, John Hammond (producer of Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan) and John Hammond Jr (blues singer).

Des Ekin

Most of the information in this article came from a wonderful book by an Irish journalist called Des Ekin called ‘The Stolen Village’, published by the O’Brien Press, Dublin http://www.o’ There is even more fascinating material in the book, available from Amazon.

Servant’s Tooth

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!


King Lear. Act i. Sc. 4.

As a post-colonialist settler in post-Imperial Sri Lanka, I found a resonance in these words from Joseph Conrad’s first short story, Karain. He is describing the first impression of settlers of a new land.

“It was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anything that would stir thought, touch the heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.”

This nicely describes the difficulties involved in training our servant (domestic operative), whom for these purposes, I will name Dobbie the House Elf.

Back in Old Blighty, not many of us working stiffs would ever dream of having a servant or ever encounter anyone who could afford such a commodity. My boss at one time was a formidable beast of the Establishment jungle called Dame Alice Perkins, wife of Jack Straw, a boring little man once tipped as a possibility to take over from the hapless Gordon Brown as PM of the UK. Straw has now announced his retirement. The Dame was often praised for having such a successful career as well as raising a family but I’m pretty sure she had an army of nannies to care for the Strawlings. Such people floated on an astral plane far above  mere mortals.

My own family were from the servant class. My mother’s father, Sam King, was a groom at Berkeley Castle and later drove the pony and trap for a doctor on Clarence Street in Gloucester. There he met my grandmother who was a maid, a country girl come to the city for employment, for another doctor.

Sam’s service for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie provided the experience to serve King and country in a cavalry regiment in Palestine during the First World War and the Mandate.

In the London Review of Books, Michael Neill reviewed Shakespeare, Love and Service by David Schalkwyk. Neill tells a personal anecdote about when he and his wife were in service before his academic career took off. When they came to hand in their notice the employer was mortally offended. “We chose to see this as the straightforward termination of a commercial arrangement. But for our employer it was something else entirely: the wanton abrogation of an intimate bond, an act of unpardonable disloyalty that brought tears of justified resentment to her eyes.”

However, he should not have been so surprised that the employer saw the relationship as on a different level than a mere commercial transaction. Neill had been brought up with servants himself. “When my mother paid a return visit to Northern Ireland in 1981, and went searching for her old housekeeper in Omagh, she was to be met with unexpected coldness, and then to find herself gazing at a shrine to a dead son, bearing the accusatory legend ‘Murdered by the Brits’. As surely as the township risings had done in South Africa, the Troubles had exposed as a nostalgic fiction the comforting belief that master-servant relations belonged inside the affective nexus of ‘family’.”

David Schalkwyk himself, author of the book Neill is reviewing, was brought up in apartheid South Africa. In the apartheid world, the young Schalkwyk “was defined legally, socially and . . . psychologically as a master’’, even as the material realities of bondage were masked (and painfully complicated) by the emotional bonds built up through years of familiarity and ‘surrogate parenting’. Thus when a white madam said of her black maid, ‘she’s one of the family,’ it was not entirely (or not only) a ‘sentimental obfuscation’.”

According to Schalkwyk, in the desolate wilderness of King Lear, “Shakespeare represents perfect service under conditions in which the normal sanctions that hold the bonds of service in place have disappeared – conditions of almost absolute negation, suffering and frailty. It is under such conditions that the sanctity of service becomes identical to the holiness of love.”

Shakespeare contrasts the “super-serviceable” compliance of Oswald and the self-interested “deserving” of Edmund with the “vassal” Kent’s resistance to his royal master’s will, and the heroic refusal of Cornwall’s “villein” servant to assist in the blinding of Gloucester. Kent’s reappearance in the guise of the faithful Caius, whose identity is defined by his desire to call the king “master”, and Cornwall’s servant’s insistence that never has he done “better service””to his lord, mark them as embodiments of one of the play’s deepest emotional truths – the voluntary unconditionality of love.

As a child I was puzzled by the social setup described in the Just William books by Richmal Crompton. William’s family, the Browns, were fairly ordinary, living in a medium-sized suburban semi-detached; father went off to work in an office. But there was a cook, and a maid.

The Browns did not have a butler. We got our image of butlers from the works of PG Wodehouse. Plum also did a good line in valets and manservants, gentlemen’s gentlemen such as Jeeves. These fellows were much cleverer than their effete, inbred nincompoop masters who were in awe of their intellect and encouraged them to eat plenty of fish to maintain their brain power. The cretinous masters were always scared of offending these cool customers – “ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes” is how Wodehouse described the disdain of Lord Emsworth’s butler, Beach.

Being scared of servants seemed not uncommon among the master class. Ann Fleming (wife of the creator of James Bond) once remarked that she was so depressed that “last night I would have put my head in the gas oven, if I wasn’t too frightened of cook to go into the kitchen.”

Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her cook, Nellie Boxall, “involved a degree of intimidation on both sides”. Ginnie and Nellie were interdependent in a way they both resented, continually disappointed in one another. Nellie’s weapons were moods, strategic toothaches, low-level espionage and emotional blackmail. She was always charming to visitors and passed on most interesting accounts of the Woolf ménage. Virginia and Leonard often paced the Bloomsbury squares to avoid Nellie and discuss what to do about her. They feared they would be stuck with her as a dependent for life. (Actually Nellie flourished after leaving the Woolfs, happily working for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, one of the most glamorous show-business couples in London. She was interviewed by the BBC. She died in 1965 after putting about a story that she left the Woolf household because that Leonard tried to climb into her bed.)  Virginia descended into domestic chores and madness. I have just been re-watching The Hours – Nellie is shown as fairly frightening.

Of course “servant” is a word that political correctness has consigned to the trash bin. We are probably supposed to say something like “domestic technician”. Whatever the nomenclature, they can still inspire fear, discomfort, and guilt. I know people in London who have hired cleaners from an agency but make sure the place is spotless before the “operatives” arrive. One cleaner left peremptory notes all over the place chiding the employer for her slovenliness.

Robert Musil, in his monumental book The Man without Qualities, described how the Prussian, Arnheim, acquired his servant, Soliman as a slave from a market, treated him as a pet but then tried to educate him, teach him to read and make a decent citizen out of him.

“That hour, when he had been promoted from the uncertain status of a pet kept in luxury to being a servant with free board and lodging and a small wage, had caused a devastation in Soliman’s heart of which Arnheim had not the slightest notion…he hated his master since the change that he had had to undergo. Not that he now refrained from taking books, cigarettes; but whereas previously he had merely taken what he enjoyed, now he was deliberately stealing from Arnheim, and his sense of revenge was so difficult to satisfy that he sometimes simply smashed things, hid them or threw them away, so that they never turned up again and Arnheim, who obscurely recalled them, was left with a vague sense of puzzlement.”

We had similar experiences in Sri Lanka. We were always ready to help our workers out if they needed help with household repairs, medical treatment or school books. There  was usually a surplus of fruit, arica nuts and  chilies in our garden and asked the workers tol et us know if they wanted them. They usually refused. They preferred to steal them.

In her novel about the decaying Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, Good Behaviour, Molly Keane describes how the servant, Rose, releases decades of pent-up frustration and hatred.

“That way you could get this house in your own two hands and boss and bully us through the years. Madam’s better off the way she is this red raw minute. She’s tired from you – tired to death. Death is right. We’re all killed from you and it’s a pity you’re not lying there and your toes cocked for the grave and not a word more about you, god damn you!”

The employer, Aroon, feels a saintly forbearance under this onslaught.

She muses: “Yes, she stood there across the bed saying these obscene, unbelievable things. Of course she loved Mummie, all servants did. Of course she was overwrought. I know all that – and she is ignorant to a degree, I allow for that too. Although there was a shocking force to what she said to me, it was beyond all sense or reason. It was so entirely and dreadfully false that it could not touch me. I felt as tall as a tree standing above all that passionate flood of words. I was determined to be kind to Rose. And understanding. And generous. I am her employer, I thought. I shall raise her wages quite substantially. She will never be able to resist me then, because she is greedy. I can afford to be kind to Rose. She will learn to lean on me. There is nobody in the world who needs me now and I must be kind to somebody.”

Aroon is an unreliable narrator and is here hiding the fact that her parents looked down on servants and also traders while depending on their kindness to survive and rarely paid their bills or wages.

In Paul Scott’s touching and funny novel Staying On (this was a coda to his more famous Raj Quartet and won the Booker Prize), Tusker and Lucy’s servant Ibrahim is explaining to the mali that he is frequently told to “piss off” when Tusker is cantankerous but he just lurks around until Tusker comes to shout at him and ask him why he is being paid to do “bugger all”. Ibrahim says that this is known as “reinstatement”.

In Othello, Iago combines social resentment, heterosexual jealousy and hints of homoerotic obsession. This combination adds further menace to the psychological and social contradictions of the master/servant relationship and made the figure of the treacherous servant into such a powerful bogeyman of the early modern imagination.

Neill cites later Jacobean dramas. “The more closely a servant is embosomed in his master’s confidence, the more likely he is to prove a hidden enemy. So, in The Changeling, for example, ‘honest De Flores’ – a figure conspicuously modelled on ‘honest Iago’ – turns from ‘servant obedience’ to the ‘master sin’ of murder, destroying Vermandero’s castle from within. In his mastery of the building’s labyrinthine architecture, its winding passages and stairwells, and in his conspiracy to possess the body of his mistress, De Flores is matched only by Maskwell, the servant-friend-of-the-family in Congreve’s The Double Dealer, who so nearly succeeds in achieving the material and sexual dispossession of his patrons.”

Iago lived on in Joseph Losey’s dark film The Servant, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter based on Robin Maugham’s novel. Dirk Bogarde’s magnificently creepy Barrett turns his master’s privileged and ordered world into one of complicit corruption and dependence, the servant becomes the master.

There are echoes of this in Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her staff. Her sister, Vanessa Bell, managed to create a workable balance, briefing her cook every morning and keeping a professional and psychological distance from the staff. Virginia’s domestic technicians jangled her nerves and she was afraid of them getting into her mind. Her character, Mrs Dalloway, probably expressed Woolf’s own sentiments when she thought of her staff as having “the power and taciturnity of some prehistoric monster” whose goal in life was to “ruin her; humiliate her; bring her to her knees”.

I was amazed to find that in Sri Lanka everybody, down to a fairly humble social level, had servants. Even servants had servants. Middle class people seem to be modelling themselves on the Brown family but some aspire to an aristocratic style.

You see schoolboys in the streets with uniforms whiter than the soul of the Immaculate Conception. You can bet your sweet bippy that these young men played no part in achieving that crisply ironed whiteness. In addition to being mammy’s boys Sri Lankan males have servants to cater to their whims and to bully.

I have personally witnessed boy-men bellowing for servants to rush from distant rooms where they are immersed in some awful drudgery to come and pass a glass of water which is just beyond the reach of the podgy boy-man arm.

Thorsten Veblen wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class: “A certain king of France is said to have lost his life through an excess of moral stamina in the pursuance of good form. In the absence of the functionary whose office it was to shift his master’s seat, the king sat uncomplaining before the fire and suffered his royal person to be toasted beyond recovery. But in so doing he saved his Most Christian Majesty from menial contamination.”

Veblen also mentions some Polynesian chiefs, who, “under the stress of good form, preferred to starve than carry their food to their mouths with their own hands.”

The British brought Tamil workers in from south India to work on the coffee, tea and rubber plantations of Ceylon. These indentured labourers were not slaves in the sense that they were property. Today, the estates provide schools hospitals and crèches in order to maintain their labour force and their union is not without muscle. Nevertheless, estate labourers and pluckers had few rights and their descendants are still the poorest section of Sri Lankan society.

The Sri Lankans (some of them Tamils) who succeeded the British as managers of the plantations learnt the British ways. One frail elderly gentleman (of mixed ethnicity) told me that the labourers had to jump into the ditch when the white master was riding by on his horse. The old man himself proudly told me how he once knocked out all the teeth of a worker who was impudent to him.

These brown Britons may fantasise about a Jeeves or a Mrs Hudson to cater for their needs but the recruitment pool is up-country tea estates. You can take servants out of the lines (the rudimentary accommodation of plantation workers) but you can’t take the lines out of the people.

I know that it is dangerous to generalise in these matters but something of a slave mentality persists. Effectiveness is an alien concept. It does not matter if an objective is achieved or not; the main thing is to put in the time and get the wages. A mania for sweeping sweeps the nation but it does not seem to matter whether the place is tidier or not at the end of the day. Dobbie our House Elf has been moving the same broken clothes peg around our driveway for months. There are more cobwebs after she has “cleaned” the house than there were before. If shortcomings are pointed out she is indignant and claims that she works very hard, which, in reality, means that she has been on the premises and has been moving about a bit.

At regular intervals she goes off in a huff shouting that she is ashamed to work for us and it is like being in prison. The rest of the village community tells her how lucky she is to have found us.

William Gouge wrote in his Of Domesticall Duties (1622) that some malcontents  ‘thinke their masters house a prison to them, muttering, murmuring against their strait keeping in, as they deeme it’. Some, by the mere neglect of their duties, are identified as ‘enemeies to their masters, to themselves, to the city and country where they live, and to their friends and parents’, while ‘others are so possessed with a devil, as they will seeke all the revenge they can, if they be corrected’; and even those ‘that have not the opportunity to practise such villanies, doe nothwithstanding in their hearts wish their masters destruction, and make most fearefull impreccations against them; whereby they make themselves guilty of blood before God’.

The social resentment of De Flores in Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, who, having “tumbled into th’ world a gentleman”, rails against the “hard fate” that “thrust me out to servitude”. “Do you place me in the rank of verminous fellows/To destroy things for wages?” he demands. The suggestion that the tender of financial reward amounts to an act of disparagement, reducing the waiting-gentleman to the status of a menial hireling, reflects a significant shift in the material conditions of service.

Many in Sri Lanka have advised us that kindness is seen as weakness. Those who pay less and treat their staff brutally get better results. We find it hard to behave like that.

I might dress up my manservant in a starched white tunic, but that won’t stop him collapsing face down in the soup while serving dinner to influential guests if the kasippu (illicit hooch) is upon him.

I might kit the maid-of-all-work in a little black outfit with a frilly white apron like a nippy from Bewley’s coffee house but that won’t stop her dribbling in the sorbet.

Living in England, we never thought anything about doing our own shopping, cooking, cleaning, and ironing. Here we pay someone to do all those things but still do the work ourselves. We serve the servants – cooking their meals, buying their medicines, kitting their children out for school, refurbishing their homes. We work just as hard as we did in England, but are out of pocket and have strangers inhabiting our home and annoying us and interfering and criticising and spreading malicious gossip about us.

Some might think this is payback for British imperialism. However, just as the British brought indentured labour to toil on the tea estates of Ceylon, Cromwell sent my Irish ancestors in chains to work on the sugar plantations in the West Indies.

And we still feel guilty!

Reconciliation in Haiti Part 1

The Haitian National Truth and Justice Commission was created on December 1994 by an executive order issued by President Jean Bertrand Aristide.

The nation now known as Haiti has the great misfortune to occupy a location far too close to the nation now known as the USA. December 5 1492 was a bad day for the Taino, an Arawakan people. Christopher Columbus, who was looking for India, stumbled upon the island the Taino  called Ayiti. Columbus claimed the island for the Spanish Crown, naming it La Isla Española (“the Spanish Island”), which was later changed to Hispaniola.


The Spaniards did not bring their own women with them. They took Taíno women for their wives. Rape of Taino women  was common. The 1518 Smallpox epidemic killed 90% of the natives who had not already perished.  By 1548 the native population was under 500. Spanish interest in Hispaniola began to wane in the 1520s, as more lucrative gold and silver deposits were found in Mexico and Peru. Nevertheless, up to the 1550s, the Spanish imported large numbers of black African slaves to labour in the gold mines and sugar plantations. Dutch traders/pirates joined their English and French brethren trading on the remote coasts of Hispaniola.

In the 18th century it became France’s most valuable possession; on the eve of the French Revolution, it was supplying two-thirds of all of Europe’s tropical produce. Santo Domingo, as it was then called, was a brutally efficient slave colony.


Peter Hallward, of King’s College Cambridge, wrote in New Left Review: “The structural basis of Haiti’s crippling poverty is a direct legacy of slavery and its aftermath.” By 1681, there were 2,000 slaves. A hundred years later there were 500,000 slaves and perhaps 700,000 offspring of masters and slaves. A third of new arrivals died within a few years. There were only 40,000 whites who had to use harsh measures to keep control over such large numbers. Religion was important. All slaves had to practise Catholicism and native African religions were suppressed.


Voodoo ceremonies with animal sacrifices were conducted  in secret and fomented revolt. According to tradition, after a ceremony on August 14 1791, a slave overseer and hougan (voodoo priest) called Dutty Boukman gave the signal and slaves from a dozen plantations slaughtered their masters and their families. The revolt spread. The slaves had learnt cruelty from their masters. In her book The Rainy Season, Amy Wilentz writes: “The masters had stuffed gunpowder into slaves’ rectums and exploded it. They had rolled their slaves in spiked barrels down hills, they had whipped them and tied them to boards and left them in the swamps to be eaten alive by ants and mosquitoes. The slaves repaid these favours in 1791 by decapitating the masters, raping their wives on top of their bloodied corpses, chopping off their arms and legs, sawing them in half, impaling their infants on proudly carried spikes”.

There had been a revolution in France also. In 1792, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax was sent by the French Legislative Assembly to maintain French control of Saint-Domingue, stabilize the colony, and enforce the social equality recently granted to free people of color by the National Convention of France. In  1793, Sonthonax proclaimed  the freedom of the slaves and in 1794 French National Convention abolished slavery by law in France and all its colonies.

White colonists continued to fight Sonthonax, with assistance from the British. They were joined by many of the free men of color who opposed the abolition of slavery. Toussaint Louverture and his corps of well-disciplined, battle-hardened former slaves came over to the French Republican side in early May 1794.

With the colony facing a full-scale invasion by Britain, the rebel slaves emerged as a powerful military force, under the leadership of Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. Louverture successfully drove back the British and by 1798 was the ruler of the colony. He asserted enough independence to persuade Napoleon to send forces to increase French control. Word began to reach the colony of the French intention to restore slavery. The French burned alive, hanged, drowned, and tortured black prisoners, reviving such practices as burying blacks in piles of insects and boiling them in cauldrons of molasses. After one battle, Rochambeau buried 500 prisoners alive; Dessalines responded by hanging 500 French prisoners. Rochambeau’s brutal tactics helped unite black, mulatto, and mestizo soldiers against the French.

Revolution and Republic

Louverture was kidnapped and taken away to a prison in the Jura. He died of exposure and tuberculosis in 1803. In November 1803, the former slaves won the war’s final battle, and on 1 January 1804 Dessalines declared independence, reclaiming the indigenous Taíno name of Haiti (“Land of Mountains”) Hemmed in by slave colonies, Haiti had only one non-colonised neighbour, the slaveholding United States, which refused to recognise its independence.

Dessalines massacred 2,000 Frenchmen at Cap-Français, 900 in Port-au-Prince, and 400 at Jérémie. He issued a proclamation declaring, “we have repaid these cannibals, war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage.”

Reconciliation in Ireland Part 2

Cromwell’s Genocidal Legacy

During the negotiations towards the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, which eventually led to independence and today’s modern republican state of Ireland, Lloyd George was heard to express his exasperation at the Irish team’s  reluctance to discuss current mundane issues such as borders and policing. “They  only want to talk about Cromwell!”
Jonathan Powell in his book on the more recent Northern Ireland peace process, Great Hatred, Little Room, said that he and Tony Blair had the same problem with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness. With them it was Cromwell,  with Reverend Ian Paisley it was the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne.

Winston Churchill was not loved by the Irish. My father described him as the man who sent the Black and Tans into Ireland to shoot civilians and burn villages. Churchill described the impact of Cromwell on Anglo-Irish relations thus:
“…upon all of these Cromwell’s record was a lasting bane. By an uncompleted process of terror, by an iniquitous land settlement, by the virtual proscription of the Catholic religion, by the bloody deeds already described, he cut new gulfs between the nations and the creeds. ‘Hell or Connaught’ were the terms he thrust upon the native inhabitants, and they for their part, across three hundred years, have used as their keenest expression of hatred ‘The Curse of Cromwell on you.’ … Upon all of us there still lies ‘the curse of Cromwell’.”

History lives in the present. Cromwell was a hard act to forgive and forget.

Plantations and Genocide

In October 1641, after a bad harvest, Phelim O’Neill launched a rebellion, hoping to rectify grievances of Irish Catholic landowners. Once the rebellion was underway, the resentment of the native Irish in Ulster boiled over into indiscriminate attacks on the settler population. Recent research suggests  4,000 settlers were killed directly and up to 12,000 may have perished from disease or privation after being expelled from their homes. Ulster was worst hit. The atrocities committed by both sides further poisoned the relationship between the settler and native communities and arguably the wounds still fester. Does this remind anyone of Palestine?

Cromwell with the New Model Army by 1652 had effectively re-conquered Ireland. Cromwell held all Irish Catholics responsible for the rebellion of 1641. The Irish Catholic land-owning class was utterly destroyed and Cromwell achieved the logical conclusion of the plantation process. Over 12,000 New Model Army veterans were given Irish land instead of wages. They were required to keep their weapons to act as a reserve militia in case of future rebellions.

Cromwell has his defenders among modern historians but a recent book, God’s Executioner by Mícheál Ó Siochrú, is a forceful restatement of the prosecution case. The 1649-53 campaign lingers in the Irish psyche for the  huge death toll (possibly 40% of the population).There was  wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement and slaughter of civilians. The post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”.

The fifty years from 1641 to 1691 saw two catastrophic periods of civil war in Ireland  which killed hundreds of thousands of people and left others in permanent exile. Some Irish were sent to the West indies as slaves. The first recorded sale of Irish slaves was to a settlement along the Amazon in South America in 1612 but early arrangements were probably unofficial although encouraged by James I. In 1637, a census showed that 69% of the inhabitants of Montserrat in the West Indies were Irish slaves. The Irish had a tendency to die in the heat, and were not as well suited to the work as African slaves, but African slaves had to be bought. Irish slaves could be kidnapped. After the 1641 rebellion, an estimated 300,000 were sold as slaves. In the 1650’s, 100,000 Irish Catholic children were taken from their parents and sold as slaves, many to Virginia and New England. From 1651 to 1660 there were more Irish slaves in America than the entire non-slave population of the colonies.

The wars, which pitted Irish Catholics against British forces and Protestant settlers, ended in the almost complete dispossession of the Catholic landed elite. The Plantations had a profound impact on Ireland in several ways. The native ruling classes were destroyed and replaced by the Protestant Ascendancy.

Sir William Petty

William Petty (1623-87) – mathematician, mechanic, physician, cartographer and statistician – devised a public-private partnership for “fusing science and policy”. Petty is best known through his connection with the Cromwellian settlement of Ireland. Arriving in Ireland in 1652 as physician-general to the army, he set about making himself useful by  surveying the boundaries of holdings and assessing relative values. This became known as the Down Survey, which commodified Irish land. It standardised the measure of estates, in size and in value, and, as, Petty himself was a major holder of these debentures, he became very rich. When he arrived in Ireland, he had maybe £500 in assets, but  he came to own 50,000 acres in County Kerry alone. John Aubrey estimated Petty’s  rental income at its height at £18,000 a year – perhaps £27 million in today’s money.

Petty anticipated Henry Ford’s methods (Ford’s father was from County Cork) of division of labour and economies of scale. He divided complicated tasks into bits that could be handled by men “not of the nimblest witts”, that is, by the soldiers themselves, who were also tough enough to deal with angry landowners and “with the severall rude persons in the country, from whome they might expect to be often crossed and opposed”.

One way of preventing Ireland from being a haven for terrorists was to transform it  by social engineering into a peaceful and productive land. Ireland could be seen as a laboratory in  which a new, rational and virtuous society might be developed. Petty wrote: “Some furious Spirits have wished, that the Irish would rebel again, that they might be put to the Sword.” He had some scruples: “I declare, that motion to be not only impious and inhumane, but withal frivolous and pernicious even to them who have rashly wish’d for those occasions.”

Eugenics and Ethnic Cleansing

Petty explored the idea of breeding the “meer Irish”  out of existence by deporting 10,000 Irishwomen of marriageable age to England every year and replacing  them with a like number of Englishwomen?  “The whole Work of natural Transmutation and Union would in four or five years be accomplished.” The Englishwomen would run Irish households on much more civilised lines: “The Language of the Children shall be English, and the whole Oeconomy of the Family English, viz. Diet, Apparel, &c., and the Transmutation will be very easy and quick”.

Cromwell’s genocidal campaign had been financed through promises of confiscated Irish land. Rebels were executed and others were sent as slaves to the West Indies. Irish soldiers were given the opportunity of going abroad to fight in foreign armies and became known as the Wild Geese.

All land east of the River Shannon was claimed by the Crown. About 8,400,000 acres were reassigned from Catholic to Protestant owners. The former Irish owners could either accept transportation to poorer land reserved for them in Connaught or be tenants of the new Protestant owners. Catholic ownership plummeted from 60%  of the land before the Rebellion to less than 10%  after 1652. It was a great experiment in the movement of populations and transference of social power.

There has been speculation  that Irish travellers  were descended from ancestors who were made homeless by Cromwell.

Petty may have provided some useful ideas to Hitler and Mengele.. While I deplore the activities of conflict junkies who are only happy when the fires of hatred are constantly stoked, one cannot understand contemporary Ireland without knowing where the divisions in Irish society originated.

Reconciliation in Burma

What’s in a name?

I generally like to call this South East Asian nation “Burma” rather than “Myanmar”. In doing so, I am in line with the US State Department: “Although the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) changed the name of the country to ‘Myanmar,’ the democratically elected but not convened Parliament of 1990 does not recognize the name change, and the democratic opposition maintains use of the name ‘Burma.’ Due to consistent, unyielding support for the democratically elected leaders, the U.S. Government likewise uses ‘Burma’.”

Burmese lessons for Sri Lanka?

That “State Peace and Development Council “ is the name the dictatorship gives itself. They have been giving a show recently of relaxing their grip somewhat. On July 30,  US Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats told the Washington International Trade Association: “My baseline scenario is they will continue to move in the direction of reform”.



President Thein Sein

The “new” government, led by President Thein Sein, a former military general, has started overhauling the country’s economy, easing media censorship, legalizing trade unions and protests and freeing political prisoners. The most prominent of those, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, has been allowed to travel outside the country.

I have seen a  few bizarre  comments in the Sri Lankan media suggesting that the Sri Lankan should look to Burma for lessons on how to conduct itself. These commentators seem determined  to think the worst of Sri Lanka if they think the nation consistently  placed at number 190 in the human rights league of shame could be an exemplar to anyone.

“There has been one admirable quality among many Burmese leaders in the past and present, unlike in Sri Lanka. They were modest enough to admit failures. Ne Win himself declared that ‘Burmese socialism’ was a failure and stepped down in 1988. That led to continuous social upheavals asking for democracy.”



General Ne Win

So says Laksiri Fernando,  author of Human Rights, Politics and States: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka writing in the Asian Tribune. Fernando can even see the bright side of  the ethnic conflicts in Burma: “There are thousands and thousands of internally displaced people in the country due to the ethnic conflict. No one calls the ethnic conflict a myth like in Sri Lanka!” Another great thing was, according to Fernando, that “no insurgency evolved into ruthless terrorism like in Sri Lanka”.



Colonial background

British rule in Burma lasted from 1824 to 1948, from the Anglo-Burmese Wars through the creation of Burma as a province of  British India. The First Anglo-Burmese War arose from friction between Arakan in western Burma and British-held Chittagong to the north. The British navy took Rangoon without a fight in 1824 but the war itself had cost 15,000 European and Indian troops and cost the equivalent of 48 billion US dollars of today. This caused a severe economic crisis for British India. In 1852, the Second Anglo-Burmese War was provoked by the British who wanted the teak forests in Lower Burma as well as a port between Calcutta and Singapore.


The Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 was because of the British desire to get their hands on the resources of the north. The British government justified their actions by claiming that the last independent king of Myanmar, Thibaw, was a tyrant and that he was conspiring to give France more influence in the country. After 25 years of peace fighting started again and lasted until the British occupied the whole of Lower Burma.



King Thibaw

The Third Anglo-Burmese War lasted less than two weeks during November 1885. British troops entered Mandalay on 28 November 1885 and Burma was incorporated into the British empire on 1 January 1886. The new colony of Upper Burma was attached to the Burma Province on 26 February 1886. Rangoon, having been the capital of British Lower Burma, became the capital of the province.

The British tied  Burmese economy to  global market forces and forced Burma to  become a part of the colonial export economy. Suddenly a large amount of Burmese resources were being exported for Britain’s benefit, thereby extracring the resources needed by the Burmese to continue living their lives as they had before colonisation. Vast tracts of land were converted  for cultivation of rice for export. Burmese farmers were forced to borrow money from Indian moneylenders at high interest rates prepare the new land for cultivation. This often led to the eviction of indigenous farmers and most jobs went to indentured Indian labourers.

An account by a British official describing the conditions of the Burmese people’s livelihoods in 1941 describes the Burmese hardships as they must quickly adapt to foreign trade:

“The peasant had grown factually poorer and unemployment had increased…. The collapse of the Burmese social system led to a decay of the social conscience which, in the circumstances of poverty and unemployment caused a great increase in crime.”

Burmese were excluded from the civil service and the military which were staffed by Indians, Anglo-Burmese and minority groups such as the Karens. The Burmese resented both the British and the Indian migrants, and staged guerrilla warfare, often led by former Burmese army officers, against the British army of occupation.

The British rulers imposed a separation of church and state and exiled King Thibaw. This was a way of imposing direct control. The monarchy had supported the sangha and the Buddhist monks were dependent on the monarchy and explained the monarchy to the public. The imperial power introduced a secular education system and encouraged Christian missionaries to found schools Buddhism and traditional Burmese culture were discouraged as part of a plan to deprive the  Burmese people of a cultural unity separate from the British.



Resistance continued in northern Burma until 1890, with the British systematically destroying villages. Grass-roots control was exercised by burning villages and uprooting established families regarded as disloyal. Dissent was suppressed by  mass executions.


An independence movement emerged in the early 20th century, initially led by monks and students. A nationalist movement began to take shape in the form of Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA). Between 1900 and 1911 the “Irish Buddhist” U Dhammaloka  (a hobo variously known as Laurence Carroll, Laurence O’Rourke and William Colvin or “Captain Daylight”, who was probably born in Dublin in 1850) publicly challenged Christianity and imperial power, leading to two trials for sedition.



U Dhammaloka

By the 1930s a new radical movement known as the Thakin was formed. Its leading figures included Aung San, U Nu and Ne Win. They began to look to neighbouring powers to help break the yoke of British rule. One student, Ko Aung Kyaw, was beaten to death by British colonial police in the third Rangoon University student boycott in December 1938. Students had been supporting striking oil workers. In Mandalay,  police shot into a crowd of protesters led by Buddhist monks, killing 17 people.



Aung San

Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, sought support for the Burmese independence struggle from Japan. Japan invaded Burma in 1942 but never succeeded in fully conquering the whole country. On 1 August 1943, the Japanese declared Burma to be an independent nation. Aung San was appointed War Minister. He became disillusioned with the Japanese. One of his followers told General Slim:  ‘If the British sucked our blood, the Japanese ground our bones!’ When the British defeated the Japanese Aung San was offered the rank of Deputy Inspector General of the Burma Army, but he declined and became the civilian political leader and the military leader of the People’s Volunteer Organisation (PVO).


He was assassinated on 19 July 1947 Former prime minister U Saw was tried and hanged. A number of middle-ranking British army officers were also were tried and imprisoned. There were rumours of higher-level British involvement, and/or involvement by Ne Win Aung San’s long-term rival.


U Saw with Lord Halifax


For most of its existence as an independent nation, Burma has been a military dictatorship. There were sporadic protests against military rule during the Ne Win years and these were almost always violently suppressed. In 1974, the military violently suppressed anti-government protests at the funeral of U Thant, Burmese UN General Secretary. Student protests in 1975, 1976 and 1977 were quickly suppressed by overwhelming force.



General   Saw Maung

In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression led to  pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators.  General   Saw Maung staged a coup and established SLORC – the State Law and Order Restoration council. In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years and the NLD – National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 80% of the seats. SLORC  continued to rule until 1997, and then ruled as the SPDC until March 2011.

Ethnic conflict

Pace Mr Fernando,  analyst Martin Smith believes “Burma has been the scene of some of the most-sustained and diverse ethnic insurgencies in the contemporary world… conflict resolution––with integrated support from the international community––remains a primary need if Burma and its peoples are to achieve peace, democracy, and a stable nation-state.” There are 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in Burma. Martin Smith writes: “In the deep mountains and forests of the borderland periphery, over 20 armed opposition groups controlled, under their own administrations, vast swathes of territory and continued to reflect an often changing alignment of different political or nationality causes.”

The Thailand Burma Border Consortium’s (TBBC) annual report on conditions in South East  Burma “found that more people had been forcibly displaced from their homes during the past year than any other since data was first collected in 2002.” Jack Dunford, the TBBC’s Executive Director, said: “A determined and sustained effort to resolve ethnic conflict in Burma is essential to avoid another generation of violence and abuse.” In recent years the TBBC’s and its partner agencies have documented “the destruction, forced relocation or abandonment of more than 3,700 civilian settlements in South East Burma since 1996.” The TBBC statement estimated that during the past year at least 112,000 people were forced to abandon their homes. “While some fled into Thailand as part of an ongoing flow of new refugee arrivals and others returned to former villages or resettled elsewhere in Burma, over 450,000 people currently remain internally displaced in the south eastern region.”


Mr Dunford said that while democratic reforms by the “new” government are both vital and welcomed but conflict has increased in ethnic areas.


Even though some wish to be optimistic about Burma, oppression of minorities hits the headlines even today. Burma has a  substantial Muslim population, known as  Rohingyas, of 800,000. Rohingyas have been subjected to persecution for decades. According to Amnesty International, 200,000 of them fled to Bangladesh in 1978 to escape a brutal military operation. Another  250,000 went into exile in 1991-92. The refugees complained of rape, persecution and forced labour by the military. Another 100,000 fled to Thailand, but were forced to leave for camps along the border. Although the Rohingyas have lived in Burma since the eight century they are regarded as illegal immigrants with no rights. A 56-page report released Wednesday by Human rights Watch  group called for strong international reaction to “atrocities” committed during last month’s bloody unrest between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingyas, which left 78 people dead and about 100,000 homeless.

Recently a foreign journalist asked Aung Sang Suu Kyi whether she regarded Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. “I do not know. We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.” This can be translated as “I won’t get any votes by defending a minority group”.

US involvement


The US had  accepted Burma as one of the original beneficiaries of its Generalized System of Preference (GSP) program in 1976. It also granted Burma Most Favored Nation (MFN, now referred to as Normal Trade Relations, or NTR) status, and supported the provision of developmental assistance by international financial institutions.


There were also close military to military relations (including a major International Military Education and Training [IMET] programme) until 1988. The implementing of sanctions on Burma did not begin until after the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) brutally suppressed a peaceful, popular protest that has become known as the 8888 Uprising. Starting in the fall of 1987, popular protests against the military government sprang up throughout Burma, reaching a peak in August 1988.


Washington recently lifted some  financial and investment sanctions in response to nascent democratic reforms but has retained the ban on imports — a restriction that a US Senate committee this month said should be extended by three years.


Garment industry

Prior to the passage of Customs and Trade Act of 1990, the Bush pére Administration had suspended Burma’s eligibility for the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program on April 13, 1989. President Bush also designated Burma as a drug-producing and/or drug-trafficking country under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 on February 28, 1990, which required the United States to oppose loans to Burma by international financial institutions.


Today, optimists on Burma have criticised sanctions as stifling key job-creating areas of the economy such as the garment industry rather than hurting the interests of the corrupt elite it targets. The
International Crisis Group(ICG)  think-tank is well-known to Sri Lankans. Although it has called for sanctions on Sri Lanka it opposes them on the far worse regime in Burma. It says Myanmar’s reform process had challenged “the dominance” of crony businessmen, who flourished under the disbanded junta, and nudged the economy towards greater openness at the expense of some key hardliners.


ICG warned that renewing the US import embargo, due to lapse this year, “could have a serious impact on Myanmar’s economic recovery”. ICG believes the  ban is skewing the nation’s economy towards “potentially problematic” extractive industries at the expense of sectors that employ large numbers of ordinary people.



Burma is cursed by being a resource-rich country. Burma’s GDP stands at $42.953 billion and grows at an average rate of  only 2.9% ICG believes that current sanctions will skew the economy towards extractive industries such as oil, gas and gem mining which have long been linked with corruption and also raise fears over environmental damage.


Human rights

The UN and several other organizations have reported consistent and systematic  human rights violations in Burma including child labour and human trafficking. After Hurricane Nargis devastated the country international NGOs feared that the reconstruction effort would depend on forced labour – be it from children or migrant adult workers. The Tatmadaw  routinely forces civilians to work on state infrastructure projects, such as the building of roads, bridges, military bases or even towns.


When friends have enthused about the joys of Burma as a tourist destination I have responded that I could  not be comfortable in a hotel that had been built by slaves. A Boycott Burma campaign stated : “As a tourist to Burma you will travel on roads and railroads, see temples and palaces and stay in hotels built or rebuilt since 1988, which will definitely contain the dead bodies of the slave labourers who made them for you… I never met anyone going to Burma since 1988 to help the people there. Only selfish, ignorant people on holiday who want to see for themselves. See what? Burmese used as human landmine detectors? Burmese slave labour camps? Burmese people dead in piles in the no man’s land? If you go to Burma, you pay to murder the people you visit.”
The army has  used  villagers as human minesweepers to clear the way for the safe passage of soldiers. Convicts are used as forced labour. It is estimated that as many as 20 percent of prisoners sentenced to “prison with hard labour” die as a consequence of the conditions of their detention. It has been reported that at least 91 labour camps operate in areas across the country .


Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that there may be more than 70,000 child soldiers in the SPDC Army. The children are often kidnapped without their parents’ knowledge while on their way home from school. They are then brutalised and physically abused during their induction and basic training before being shipped off to fight in the country’s ethnic states. “Child soldiers are sometimes forced to participate in human rights abuses, such as burning villages and using civilians for forced labour,” said HRW. “Those who attempt to escape or desert are beaten, forcibly re-recruited or imprisoned.”


Back in 2009, The Independent reported that Burmese soldiers, who provide security for the Yadana oil pipeline on behalf of the French company, Total, are forcing thousands of people to work portering, carrying wood and repairing roads in the pipeline area. They have also been forced to build police stations and barracks.


After such knowledge, what forgiveness? With poverty, inequality and racism,  there will always be conflict.
In a media statement the TBBC said: “While government figures estimate that a quarter of the nation live in poverty, the survey found that almost two thirds of households in rural areas of the South East are unable to meet their basic needs.” The TBBC statement said poverty severe in the “conflict-affected areas of northern Kayin State and eastern Bago Region.”


Jack Dunford said: “As prospects for the voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons are directly linked to national reconciliation, the urgency of finding a solution to conflict in Burma has never been greater.”


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