Thursday, July 28, 2016

John Brown's Wrens: Abolitionism and bird protection

John Brown's daughter's told a bird protection story about her abolitionist father:
One day, a short time after I went down there, father was sitting at the table writing, I was near by sewing..., when two little wrens that had a nest under the porch came flying in at the door, fluttering and twittering; then flew back to their nest and again to us several times, seemingly trying to attract our attention. They appeared to be in great distress. I asked father what he thought was the matter with the little birds. He asked if I had ever seen them act so before; I told him no. 'Then let us go and see,' he said. We went out and found that a snake had crawled up the post and was just ready to devour the little ones in the nest. Father killed the snake; and then the old birds sat on the railing and sang as if they would burst. It seemed as if they were trying to express their joy and gratitude to him for saving their little ones. After we went back into the room, he said he thought it very strange the way the birds asked him to help them, and asked if I thought it an omen of his success....[H]e always thought and felt that God called him to that work; and seemed to place himself, or rather to imagine himself, in the position of the figure in the old seal of Virginia, with the tyrant under her foot. (Sanborn,1885, p. 531)
It is not my intention to make a strong claim about direct connections between the bird protection and abolitionist movements. For the most part, rather than being mutual influences they both can be seen as falling under the philosophical umbrellas of "benevolence" or "social reform" or "Christian mercy." In John Brown's case, he had been called by God to overthrow tyranny, whatever the order of being. In Henry Ward Beecher's case, love for one's fellow humans could be extended to love for one's fellow non-human beings.

Lydia Maria Child is a case in point. She was an anti-slavery activist, a feminist, an outspoken critic of capital punishment, and an advocate for Native American rights. And she was a huge bird lover, whose writings about barn swallows and great-crested flycatchers (originally for the Boston Courier, collected in Letters from New York), circulated throughout the general and agricultural press in the 1840s. While Child loved the birds for themselves, she herself drew a symbolic connection between the condition of slavery and the persecution of birds.
The darling little creatures have such visible delight in freedom….I seldom see a bird encaged without being reminded of Petion [Alexandre P├ętion], a truly great man, the popular idol of Haiti, as Washington is of the United States.
While Petion administered the government of the island, some distinguished foreigner sent his little daughter a beautiful bird, in a very handsome cage. The child was delighted, and with great exultation exhibited the present to her father. "It is, indeed, very beautiful, my daughter," said he; "but it makes my heart ache to look at it. I hope you will never show it to me again. 
With great astonishment, she inquired his reasons. He replied, "When this island was called St. Domingo, we were all slaves. It makes me think of it to look at that bird; for he is a slave." 
The little girl's eyes filled with tears, and her lips quivered, as she exclaimed, "Why father! he has such a large, handsome cage; and as much as ever he can eat and drink."
"And would you be a slave," said he, "if you could live in a great house, and be fed on frosted cake?" 
After a moment's thought, the child began to say, half reluctantly, "Would he be happier, if I opened the door of the cage?" "He would be free!" was the emphatic reply. Without another word, she took the cage to the open window, and a moment after, she saw her prisoner playing with the humming-birds among the honey-suckles. (Child, 1843, p.141).
Lesley Ginsburg, in a (2003) book chapter, "Babies, Beasts, and Bondage: Slavery and the Question of Citizenship in Antebellum American Children's Literature," points to similar imagery in The Slave's Friend, a landmark in abolitionist children's literature. Two kinds of stories related birds and slaves: one the caged bird, desiring its freedom. 

The other is a the story of "bird-nesting" in which two boys steal chicks from their nest, thinking that they know better than the birds' parents how to take care of them. The chicks die and the narrator provides the moral: "James acted as the slaveholders do. They seize men as James seized the birds...[while men] like John, look on, and either help to commit the robbery, or offer all manner of excuses for the robbers. They say, as John did, 'if I should let the birds go, they cannot take care of themselves.'" (Ginsburg, p.93 ). Meanwhile in this, and similar accounts elsewhere, the parent (birds) mourn the forced separation from their children. 

These sentiments would feed back into the bird protection movement, which (as in the Child account above) would find pathos in the sight of caged birds and would use the emotional pain of the child separated from its parent as an appeal against real-life bird-nesting and the hunting of birds during breeding season. 

Our final exhibit, predating by some years the material above is the British women's anti-slavery publication, The Humming Bird, published in the 1820s. A poem placed on the title page makes the significance of the title clear:
As the small Bird, that fluttering roves
Among Jamaica's tam'rind groves,
A feather'd busy bee,
In note scarce rising to a song,
Incessant, hums the whole day long,
In slavery's Island, free! 
So shall "A still small voice" be heard,
Though humble as the Humming Bird,
In Britain's groves of oak;
And to the Peasant from the King,
In every ear shall ceaseless sing,
"Free Afric from her yoke."
The connection between birds and freedom-from-slavery here may seem completely symbolic. Even in this publication, though, the editors included natural history information about actual hummingbirds, even if they didn't explicitly advocate their protection. Note that William Lloyd Garrison would reprint the above poem in the first volume of The Abolitionist (1833). 


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