Every time I think I have approached something remotely close to beginning to get the measure of the man, Rabindranath Tagore surprises me and how.
I was reading an essay titled ‘Dharma Bodher Drishtanto’ or Examples of Rightful Thinking where I found that the same man that was writing ‘romantic songs and prettily rhyming poetry’ as someone said to me recently was also well informed about events happening on the other side of the globe. These were not just pre-Google times, this was also before air travel. It would not be till December 1903 that the Wright brothers would fly their contraption for the first time. Everything including news, moved at the rate of a steam engine.
And yet Tagore was writing Dharma Bodher Drishtanto in that same year. More than a century later I read his essay to discover two events that I have been shamefully unaware of. It is not merely reporting of events of course, any two bit writer could have done that given a current newspaper. But it was how he felt about the two events described, the sense of outrage and anger he expressed; something that would not be out of place if an activist had written those lines today.
He wrote about the coercion of local tribes into acting as porters for the great numbers of European explorers all over the world; in particular the plight of the Shaukas who acted as porters on Henry Savage Landor’s expedition to Tibet. I read up on Landor to find that he was an adventurer of the very worst kind, tweed coated and top hatted, sipping tea from Minton china on an icy pass while his hapless porters ‘gasped miserably in solemn silence in the thinning air.’ Even the London Times was sceptical about the truth in his depiction of the Tibetans as religious savages but published every florid word and exaggeration for its readers nonetheless.
The other event that he describes in the essay was the incarceration of millions of African Americans in slave camps across the American South, long after slavery had been abolished. The Southern states made laws that effectively made all blacks criminals. Hauled to court on flimsy charges such as loitering and vagrancy, the blacks would then find that they were quickly bailed out by whites. This would lead to being enslaved all over again. Tagore mentions McRee camps in his essay. These were owned by Georgia State Representative Ed McRee and his brothers. These men were slave owners on a scale unimaginable before the Civil War. On their 22000 acre estate they used the labour of thousands of blacks to produce sugar, pick and cure tobacco, grow cotton and other crops. Escape was impossible. Tagore writes of a black woman who was flogged to death. This was common punishment. If you lived through the floggings, you went back to shared dormitories where you were chained to the beds at night and fed a spoonful of rotting porridge during the day. Buying freedom came at the cost of years of your ‘salary’, an impossible amount to save by any standards.
When a woman called Carrie Kinsey wrote to President Roosevelt seeking to free her fourteen year old brother from one of these McRee camps in 1903, the same year Tagore was penning Dharma Bodh, her letter was neatly placed in an envelope and sent off to the Department of Justice. No one ever saw the letter again till recently. The President was blissfully unaware of this letter at least, primarily because as Tagore wrote, it was easy for people in the West in general to dissociate themselves from what happened to people of colour.
“Let me have him. He have not don nothing for them to hase him in chanes.”
Carrie Kinsey in her letter to Pres. Roosevelt
July 31 1903
My translation of the Tagore essay from 1903: