Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Response to Beyond fear, is understanding

On 30/11/11 at 8.01am

Hi James,

Indeed your article in the Fiji Times resonates the experiences of many others.

Perhaps some still face similar bullying here in NZ.

Good luck with your search of further knowledge.

With best wishes

Bhakta Naicker

Dear Bhakta,

Thank you for your email, and for reading the article.

Yes, I am sure many people of varied backgrounds experience the similar situation to mine - although these days, the perpetrators of racism and bullying are not limited to one social or ethnic group.

My point was our lack of awareness or understanding, leads to fear, which leads to discrimination. This happens when we allow perceptions based on stereotypes or prejudice to shape our understanding of others... those different from us, be it ethnically, culturally, socially, by gender or sexuality.

This is the core of the continuing ethnocentric mindset in Fiji. This must change if our nation is to move forward, truly.

Sorry for ranting and raving.

God bless you.

In Peace,
"Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity"

Beyond fear, is understanding

Published in the Fiji Times (Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan)
Wednesday 30th November, 2011

I can still remember the point in my life when I realised that my colour and race mattered. Being a Fijian and raised in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural environment, my best friends were just that, my friends. That Hazel or Sunil were Indo-Fijian or Inoke or Orisi were i-Taukei, or that Ronald was Chinese, Philip and Peter – European (Peter was actually Australian, but it didn’t matter back then), that Timoci, Robbie, Michael and Jonathan were Kai-loma or Part European or that Visoni and Raymond were Rotuman were never things that really crossed our minds.

I mean I am sure we recognised it, but our friendship overshadowed any physical differences. We played, we fought, and we made up, hung out. What made us different were our abilities, our interests and hobbies, whether we liked soccer or swimming and whether we liked Western or Commando comics. (I liked Commando but loved Phantom).

That changed when I went to boarding school in New Zealand. I remember the afternoon in 1985 when I got into my first real fight. This was not the play fights or the “you-ate-my-lunch” / “you-cheated-in-marbles” / “you-like-the-girl-I-like” (yes we had those in primary school) fights. This was the first time I experienced the frustration, the rage of being ridiculed, of being made to feel worth less that the other human being who was taunting me because my skin was darker than theirs. I was only twelve years old at the time but if my friend had not stopped me, I don’t know if I would have stopped myself.

Racism became something I had to get used to when living in a foreign country. I was the stranger, the other, the different. I remember being told at night to “smile so that I could be seen”. Racial slurs, intimidation were part of my boarding school experience. So was sleeping with a knife under my pillow. I learned to stand my ground when I could and to seek support when I couldn’t from the other older Pacific Islanders in my boarding house (my first experience at regional cooperation) who, having experienced racism themselves, were always there to back me up. I learned to bear indignity silently; and how to make my point to someone (at knife point). I was thirteen years old.

The other boys were also thirteen years old. What did they know of the world? What did they know about this boy from Fiji except what they were told by their elders, by their role models, or what they heard from others? I believe we were all good kids. Yet we were all insecure. We were all afraid. Afraid of those bigger than us. Afraid of failing. Afraid of being seen to be weaker. So we made ourselves feel better through our bigotry. I became racist too. I made fun of the boy who was heavier or not as bright or cool as I was.

That I came back to Fiji at a time when the one place I thought ethnicity didn’t matter was experiencing ethnic conflict in all spheres of life – political, social, religious and economic was a rude awakening. I was made to realise that those kids at boarding school were not the exception to the norm. Contrary to what some have said, I believe the ethnic conflicts or discrimination that flared up three decades ago were not simply simmering embers of racial discontent but the fanning of insecurity. The reality is our aggression comes from not hate but fear. People still fear what they don't understand or what's not familiar. For so long many of us lived side-by-side but not together. So instead of loving our neighbour we remained suspicious of them. That suspicion led us to fear, to discriminate.

How quick we are to make judgments based on stereotypes. How quick we are to make assumptions based on physicality. We make judgements about people we don’t even know. What is worse, these days it seems that we don’t even take the time to get to know people. Our judgements, our perceptions of others are based on the judgements and perceptions of others. What happens when we get it wrong? What happens when the oppressive structures we have built up cause someone to suffer? What happens when we withhold the one thing no one is supposed to be able to take away from another – their dignity?

Last week my dear mother celebrated her 73rd birthday. Her birthday is special for a number of reasons: it marks one month until Christmas and two months until my late father’s birthday. It also marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. 16 days in which we need to remember how many women and girls suffer because their human dignity is not valued by those who would never wish the same suffering on themselves.

Tomorrow is World AIDS Day. Tomorrow many articles will be written about the ongoing response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic. I understand that this year the focus will be on discrimination of people living with HIV and AIDS. Again the phrase rings true - people still fear what they don't understand or what's not familiar. Those living with HIV and AIDS, those who are most at risk, and those in vulnerable and marginalised groups still suffer stigma and discrimination.

"Stigma is unacceptable, because stigma kills." These were the words of the Governor General of Papua New Guinea, Grand Chief Sir Paulias Matane, as he launched the Papua New Guinea Christian Leader's Alliance on HIV and AIDS last year. Tomorrow as you read, hear and see stories about those who suffer and the lives in the balance of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, ask yourself if you are person who is willing to transform the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV and AIDS into understanding, or whether you are someone who keeps the vicious cycle going.

If you think that is a difficult question then, simply ask yourself if whether fear and suspicion will be the guide by which you relate to others or whether understanding and acceptance?

Many of us learn at an early age that, male and female, we are created in the image and likeness of God. Unfortunately, many of us also misunderstand this and make God in our own image. What doesn’t fit our image of God is to be feared, mistrusted, and eventually mistreated.

Let’s correct our perceptions together, let’s understand, accept and try to even love the stranger, the other, the different. Who knows, they may be trying to do the same to you.

One person at a time. One relationship at a time. One step forward at a time.

“Be still, stand in love, pay attention.”


Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is currently a student of the International Graduate School of Theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. Email: or visit

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Are You Your Brother's (or Sister's) Keeper?

Published in Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan - The Fiji Times Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In Fiji the term “brother” (and “sister” for that matter) is used to demonstrate a closeness of relationship that is not necessarily based on blood ties. The phrase, “my brother,” often means closeness between friends. It expresses a bond based on shared identity, shared experiences – it is a celebration of commonalities. Brothers (and sisters) not by blood but perhaps by “soul”.

I have many “soul brothers” and “soul sisters”. These men and women come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures and social status. Yet the term “brother” and “sister” means we are part of a family, a mataqali. I know that this is not a unique to me. Many, if not all of you have people that, although not related by blood, you refer to as “brother” or “sister”.

Even in our cultures we continue to seek out ways to forge relationships. The terms kai, naita, tau, vasu are used beyond their traditional understanding to create a relationship with the other – a sense of closeness, a connection.

The Girimitayas, had their jahaji-bhai, their brothers (and sisters) on which they crossed the kala pani and left their mother-land to what would, for many, be their new home and the mother-land of their descendants. This bond of shared experience, shared suffering and shared hopes and dreams may not have lasted much beyond the second generation but in its time was an important support network.

Perhaps one of the more thought-provoking questions in the Bible is that one asked by Cain. According to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, Cain had killed his brother because God had accepted Abel's offering, but not his own (Gen 4:3-8, Holy Bible). When the Lord inquired concerning Abel, Cain's response was: "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen 4:9)

This is a question we in Fiji would do well to ask ourselves today. Are we our brother's keeper?

Do we have a responsibility to watch out for and care for one another?

There is a saying in the Christian scriptures, “Anyone who claims to live in God's light and hates a brother or sister is still in the dark. It's the person who loves brother and sister who dwells in God's light and doesn't block the light from others. But whoever hates is still in the dark, stumbles around in the dark, doesn't know which end is up, blinded by the darkness.” (1 John 2:9-11 The Message)

You cannot be blind and be a good keeper. "Am I my brother's keeper?" confirms Cain's blindness. One cannot be a good keeper or mindful of other's welfare when they hold on to spite, bitterness, unforgiveness, jealousy, etc. If one claims to be kind, concerned, a lover of humanity, a peacemaker; yet clings to any of hateful attributes within him/herself, better that they not add hypocrisy to the lot by speaking about or marching for peace, justice or equality.

In his book “Stride toward Freedom, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr. wrote that the person who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as the one who helps perpetrate it. The person who accepts evil without protesting against it, is really cooperating with it.

When he received the Nobel Prize for Peace, he said in his acceptance speech:

"Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.’ Deeply etched in the fibre of our religious tradition is the conviction that men are made in the image of God and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value, the heirs of a legacy of dignity and worth. If we feel this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see men hungry, to see men victimized with starvation and ill health when we have the means to help them…

… In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers’ keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality."

King was inspired in his non-violent action for civil rights in America by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent resistance to the British colonisation in India. Gandhi’s truth-force or satyagraha was not just a philosophy for the liberation of India but for the liberation of humankind, “My mission is not merely brotherhood of Indian humanity. My mission is not merely freedom of India,” he said. “But through realization of the freedom of India, I hope to realize and carry on the mission of the brotherhood of man.”

His words, “Humanity is an ocean”, if the few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty,” serve to remind us of the capacity for goodness that lies in each human being – in each one of us.

Brothers fight. Sisters fight. Brothers and sisters fight. This is sibling rivalry.

Psychologists believe that sibling rivalry comes from competition for parental attention, love, and approval. The amount of conflict depends on the perception of parents about the role of each child in the family , the personalities of the parents and children, the number and spacing of children in the family, outside resources available to the children, and parental beliefs about child rearing, including their attitudes toward gender, birth order , and competition. Sibling rivalry is also affected by the presence in the family of a special needs child, divorce or other family trauma, and ethnic and cultural attitudes toward family relationships.

How does sibling rivalry affect the brotherhood and sister hood of humankind?

Suggestions for parents to reduce sibling rivalry include:

· working to see each child as a unique individual with his or her own strengths and weaknesses

· spending some one-on-one time with each child every week

· encouraging children to develop their own interests and friends independent of the interests and friends of their siblings

· limiting the amount of care giving expected of older siblings for younger ones

· setting and enforcing firm rules about name calling, teasing, and physical aggression in the family

· praising cooperative behavior

· insisting that each child's personal possessions and privacy are respected by the other children in the family (

What would it mean to apply these suggestions to our absolute failure to watch out for and care for one another?

We persecute our brothers and sisters when we should be protecting them. We oppress our brothers and sisters when we should be empowering them.

Jesus once made a comment that took many by surprise. While he was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers showed up. They were outside trying to get a message to him. Someone told Jesus, "Your mother and brothers are out here, wanting to speak with you." Jesus didn't respond directly, but said, "Who do you think my mother and brothers are?" He then stretched out his hand toward his disciples. "Look closely. These are my mother and brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys my heavenly Father's will is my brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:46-50 - The Message)

Those whom Jesus gathers around him are not marked by bonds of clan and kinship, blood and race – they a marked by obedience to the will that would have them love their neighbour, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and have compassion for the imprisoned. They are their brother and sister’s keepers.

Are you?

“Be Still, Stand in Love, Pay Attention”


Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is currently a student of the International Graduate School of Theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. Email:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Civil Disobedience- A History of the Concept

I came across the following page in my research for a term paper on Natural Law......

The concept of civil disobedience has evolved over a long period of time. Ideas drawn from different periods of history and from different cultures have contributed to its evolution. The idea that there is a law that transcends the laws of the state is found in Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.E.), in some of the classical Greek tragedies, and in the Indian concept of dharma (duty). In these traditions, should the higher law and the laws of the state come into conflict, the individual had the obligation to disobey the laws of the state. In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) defended the natural-law view that unjust laws did not bind the citizen in conscience. John Locke (1632–1704) taught that the government derived its authority from the people, that one of the purposes of the government was the protection of the natural rights of the people, and that the people had the right to alter the government should it fail to discharge its fundamental duties.


The writer who made the theory famous, put it into practice, and gave the practice the name "civil disobedience" was Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). His ideas on the subject are found in the celebrated lecture that he delivered in 1848 to the Concord Lyceum in Massachusetts, under the title "On the Relation of the Individual to the State." It was first published in printed form in 1849 under a different title, "Resistance to Civil Government," in Aesthetic Papers, a volume edited by Elizabeth Peabody. It first appeared under the title "Civil Disobedience" only in 1866, four years after Thoreau's death, in a volume of his writings entitled A Yankee in Canada with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers.

Two principles underlie Thoreau's conception of civil disobedience. The first is that the authority of the government depends on the consent of the governed. The second is that justice is superior to the laws enacted by the government, and the individual has the right to judge whether a given law reflects or flouts justice. In the latter case the individual has the duty to disobey the law and accept the consequences of the disobedience nonviolently. In Thoreau's case, he judged that the laws upholding slavery and supporting the Mexican War (1846–1848) were unjust. He chose to spend a night in jail rather than submit to the unjust laws.


Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) broadened the scope of civil disobedience and internationalized its practice. Gandhian civil disobedience originated in 1906, in South Africa, as part of his campaign for the defense of the civil rights of the disenfranchised Indian immigrants. On his return to India in 1915, he made civil disobedience the primary moral force behind his leadership of the Indian nationalist movement.

His idea of civil disobedience drew from a wide variety of intellectual sources. Plato's Apology of Socrates was one of them. In 1908 he published a paraphrase of it under the title The Story of a Soldier of Truth. The Sermon on the Mount had a profound influence on him, especially as interpreted by Leo Tolstoy in his The Kingdom of God Is within You (1893). Patanjali's Yogasutra and the Bhagavad Gita also guided the development of his thoughts on nonviolence as it applied to civil disobedience.

When in 1906 he started the civil rights campaign in South Africa, Gandhi did not know what term to use to describe it. (He read Thoreau only in 1907). Some called the new campaign passive resistance, in comparison with the British Passive Resistance Movement against the Education Act of 1902. But he was unhappy with the comparison for two reasons. The first was that British passive resistance did not forbid violence as a means of achieving its goal; the second was that it did not require that its practitioners be free from hatred of their political opponents.

Gandhi called his practice "satyagraha," a Gujarati word meaning "firmness in adhering to truth." Satyagraha, free of the defects of passive resistance, introduced six elements into the theory and practice of civil disobedience:

  • First, its moral basis was grounded in truth, a basis much deeper than that provided by the theory of consent. To be binding, laws had to be truthful. All untruthful laws had to be resisted, though civilly—that is, by truthful means.
  • Second, civil disobedience presupposed the obligation to obey the state: only those had the right to practice civil disobedience who knew "how to offer voluntary and deliberate obedience" to the laws of the state.
  • Third, commitment to nonviolence was an essential component of civil disobedience. The commitment in question could be either moral or tactical, depending on the moral aptitude of the practitioner.
  • Fourth, the practice of civil disobedience required a minimum degree of moral fitness, to be acquired by the exercise of such virtues as truthfulness, nonviolence, temperance, courage, fearlessness, and freedom from greed.
  • Fifth, a practitioner of civil disobedience had to accept the punishment consequent to the disobedience voluntarily, and without complaint.
  • Finally, engagement in civil disobedience had to be complemented by engagement in organized social work.

For Gandhi, it was not enough to seek to improve the state; it was equally necessary to seek to improve civil society. To assist Indians to combine civil disobedience with voluntary social work, he wrote Constructive Programme (1941, revised in 1945). It identified the major social evils prevalent in Indian society, such as religious intolerance, caste violence, and discrimination against the untouchables, minorities, and women. The removal of these social evils by voluntary work was as important as the removal of unjust laws by civil disobedience. According to Gandhi, "civil disobedience without the constructive program will be like a paralyzed hand attempting to lift a spoon."

Martin Luther King Jr.

The third major figure who contributed greatly to the development of the practice of civil disobedience was Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). He made civil disobedience the distinguishing feature of the civil rights movement in the United States. In this he was deeply influenced by Gandhi's methods. But he was also influenced by Christian humanism, as is evident in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963). The letter has been called the most widely read and discussed manifesto on civil disobedience since Thoreau's essay. Addressed to his fellow African-American clergymen, it explained why immediate, direct, nonviolent action was a duty incumbent upon every American who wished to rid the nation of segregationist laws. Here King faced a dilemma. On the one hand, the law had by 1954 declared segregation to be unconstitutional, yet on the other it also tolerated segregationist practices in certain states. How then could one advocate breaking some laws while obeying others?

One could do both, he contended, because one had the right to judge each law on its own merit. And the criterion he recommended for making such judgement was drawn from Christian humanism. According to St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), an unjust law was no law at all. And according to Aquinas, an unjust law was a human law that was not rooted in eternal and natural law. Just laws uplifted human beings, while unjust ones degraded them. The segregationist laws were unjust and dehumanizing and therefore had to be disobeyed. King contributed greatly to making civil disobedience a respected tradition of American politics. In this he marks an advance on Thoreau, who seemed to appeal, hitherto, mostly to New England intellectuals. King actualized the potential that was in Thoreau.

In the late twentieth century, civil disobedience became a tactic adopted by various protest movements worldwide. The anti-nuclear weapons movement, the green movement, and the movement against globalization have adopted it with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Read more: Civil Disobedience - The History Of The Concept - Laws, Law, Thoreau, and Practice - JRank Articles

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Solidier of Peace Gets Scratched for Justice for the People

Press play to hear: Mahatma Gandhi is a Solider of Peace. Albert Einstein's thoughts on Gandhi and Non-violence and Lee "Scratch" Perry sings "Give more justice to the people."
No pictures... listen if you have ears to hear!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An Airwave Surfer’s Lament

Published in the Fiji Times as “Words of inspiration” in the Column “Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan,” Wednesday, November 16, 2011

With Fiji about to get its next “free to air” television channel the hype of who has the best coverage, programmes, and presenters is bound to intensify as the broadcast war shifts into a new genre – from radio to television. With a small share of the pie in terms of advertising revenue, competition across the media will be tougher, especially in the broadcast media

The “hype” around coverage, audience (listeners and viewers) and programmes around which businesses can market their products will benefit advertisers with competitive rates being offered. It will benefit whichever station can get the advertisers and audience to believe its “hype”. But will it really benefit the audience?

As someone who has had some experience in radio, television and print in the local commercial, state-owned and government media organizations, I continue to be increasingly concerned about what is being churned out on our airwaves, in terms of content.

As the commercial broadcast media strives to outdo its competition, the public interest has taken a back seat to “keeping up with the Joneses” – in other words international media marketing of music and television is dictating what we hear and see. Here’s a little newsflash: the “Joneses” don’t live here.

Of course there is a place for Top 40 music, the hits of US, UK, Australia and everywhere else on radio – it’s popular. Of course there is a place for the latest crime, action, comedy and drama television serials from the same countries – they’re popular. They are a big part of the global popular culture. But is that it? Is that all there is? Are the words at the end of the Warner Brothers’ Loonytoons Cartoons “That’s All Folks” true?

The sad thing is that, all those who run commercial broadcast companies, and they’re all commercial broadcast companies now, regardless of who owns them; all those who will talk about giving the listener or viewer what they want have the benefit of growing up in a time when they were exposed and shaped by the very things they now ignored. Yet even with the benefit of this exposure, they neglect to offer the same exposure to the next generation.

When I was growing up, radio was it. Even when video came in, radio how we connected with the world – the whole world. It was our world-wide-web. But it wasn’t just a diet of Top 40 music and news. I heard classical music, jazz, I learned about the world through the little transistor radio I had.

When people talked on the radio (not just the broadcasters or “personalities” but ordinary people – sometimes doing extraordinary things), we paid attention to what they said. We heard the voices and the words of people who inspired nations, and the world. We heard their messages.

Now we just listen to the music inspired by the people inspired by these words. Now we don’t listen but we watch. Image is what counts. We no longer pay attention to what is being said but what the speaking is wearing, how they look – shallow visual attraction wins over depth of message. How sad.

I believe that radio still is the dominant media in Fiji. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan writes about the difference between television and radio:

“TV is a cool medium. It rejects hot figures and hot issues [...]” He continues that hot characters appearing on TV appeared “rendered as a cartoon” while “Radio [was] a cool medium and [took] cartoon characters seriously.”

McLuhan states “Radio affects most intimately, person-to-person, offering a world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker and the listener. That is the immediate aspect of radio. A private experience. The subliminal depths of radio are charged with the resonating echoes of tribal horns and antique drums. This is inherent in the very nature of this medium, with its power to turn the psyche and society into a single echo chamber.”

McLuhan believed the power of intimacy and the potential for creating relationships in a shared personal and communal experience (kinship) through radio broadcasting by “offering a world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker and listener”.

Radio has the power to involve people in one another in terms of “the power to re-tribalize mankind” reversing individualism into collectivism. But this power is largely unnoticed in western cultures. Or it is noticed and for commercial interests, ignored.

It is ironic that despite a strong oral/aural culture and a traditionally relationship-oriented community, this has also proved to be the case in Fiji, as the introduction of television and certain aspects of commercial radio have fragmented the aural and oral community which radio once fostered.

While the internet is touted as the information superhighway, less than 30% of the world has access to the internet. That means the majority of the world – at least 70% is without internet access. Half of the now 7 billion people that inhabit this planet have water problems. A quarter of the world lives without electricity. Radio remains still the best means of communication, whether plugged into the “grid”, powered by batteries, hand, the sun or if you are fortunate to own one – on your mobile phone.

The funny thing is that whether it is radio or television, at the end of the day the same excuse is given. The choice of an audience that has a limited menu is really no choice at all. As for the advertisers, the sponsors – well, they will sponsor whatever the audience listens to – and in most cases they have had the same broad exposure that the broadcasters have had.

So broadcasters, is it going to be the same dismissive response and talk of commercial markets? Or are you willing to open your airwaves up to some radical radio and television programmes and content such as local music on the English language stations, history (and not just the “on this day in history” kind) , arts and culture?

You provide the narrative, the story of our nation. Please don’t let it be just a soundtrack or a short filler.

“Be still, stand in love, pay attention.”


Rev. J.S. Bhagwan has won awards in Radio (PIBA/AFTRS), TV (Commonwealth Vision Award) and Print media (FAME), and is currently a student of the International Graduate School of Theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. Email: (Facebook/Twitter).

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A vision of the whole human race

Revolutionary ideas do not come from books and manifestos, but from experiences and connections with different peoples.
(Source: Al Jazeera)

On February 22, 1803, Colonel Edward Despard was hung and beheaded in London for organising a revolutionary conspiracy to overthrow King George III and establish a republic in Britain.

Among the crowd of 20,000 in front of the gallows was Colonel Despard's wife and partner in conspiracy, Catherine, an African American who Despard met during his military service in the Caribbean. She helped him compose the speechhe made with the rope around his neck:

"... his Majesty's Ministers... avail themselves of a legal pretext to destroy a man, because he has been a friend to truth, to liberty and to justice. Because he has been a friend to the poor and the oppressed. But Citizens, I hope and trust, notwithstanding my fate ... that the principles of freedom, of humanity and of justice will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion, and [over] every principle inimical to the interests of the human race."

What Despard meant by the "human race" was far in advance of the political theorists of his time. He included in this concept not only white males, but women and men of every colour and every status and class, native peoples, slaves and all the mixtures of white, brown and black that he had encountered during his service in the Americas.

How did the son of a family of small, Irish landlords, who became an accomplished professional soldier, develop such an expansive view of humanity?

As a boy in Ireland, he watched peasants driven off the land as English-backed landlords enclosed land that had been held in common. As a young officer building fortifications in Jamaica, he was nursed by Afro-Caribbean women. He learned to effectively command multi-racial work parties, and saw firsthand the terror used to enforce discipline among slaves, sailors, soldiers and workers.

Along with a young Horatio Nelson, Despard led a harrowing expedition to evict the Spanish from Nicaragua. They successfully captured the main Spanish fort but then their men began to die from starvation and disease.

Challenging societal norms

Survival was possible only by cooperating with nearby free communities of Mosquito Indians - composed in fact of native Americans, runaway slaves and lower class whites who preferred freedom to backbreaking labour. (Nelson, who became Britain's greatest naval hero, would later unsuccessfully appeal for clemency for Despard and for a pension for Catherine.)

Despard then became the Crown's leading official in British Honduras. There he sought to distribute land to indigent men and women of colour. He set aside lands for common use; sought to keep food prices down "for the poorer sort of people"; and worked with Indians who understood the local ecology.

The landlords and big merchants were outraged. One railed that Despard had placed the "lowest Mulatto or free Negro" on an equal footing with the wealthy whites.

Not to be trifled with, the landlords and merchants appealed to their networks in London and had Despard removed. Despard and Catherine returned to London and started plotting their conspiracy which ended on the gallows.

What does the story of Edward and Catherine Despard offer us today, as we live through another moment of upheaval, revolution and counter-revolution?

One thing the Despards teach us is that new political ideas do not generally arise from intellectuals and theorists alone. Rather the cut and thrust of experience and practice throws up new political possibilities. 'Practitioners' like Despard draw on their stock of ideas to develop new and creative responses to the situations that confront them.

It is worth remembering that many of those we regard as great thinkers were also practitioners. Karl Marx was a revolutionary not an academic, and his comrade Friedrich Engels managed a factory. Karl von Clausewitz, the philosopher of war, was a Prussian officer with much experience of war. Socrates too was a veteran soldier; Freud a working psychologist; Keynes a civil servant. Gandhi was an activist.

Even Rene Descartes, the supreme rationalist philosopher, was a professional soldier who sought to 'gather experiences'. His worry that he might be a brain in a vat, fooled by his senses, was perhaps an early modern case of PTSD.

Despard developed his expansive concept of the human race because he had lived and worked in the multi-racial world of the 18th century Atlantic, not because he had read Immanuel Kant. In any case, Kant's cosmopolitanism was profoundly limited by comparison with Despard's. Kant believed that "Humanity achieves its greatest perfection with the White race".

In Haiti in 1801, revolting slaves managed to produce a constitution that went well beyond the liberal thought of the day. All slaves were freed and everyone made equal before the law. The US Constitution of 1787 regarded slaves as three-fifths of a person so that their white owners could have more representation in Congress.


And so, when we look upon the Arab Spring, we should not interpret it as a matter of Arabs having finally read John Locke and Thomas Jefferson and applied Western ideas. We should look instead for the new ideas, the new possibilities, the new politics created up by the protesters, activists and ordinary people who have made revolution.

We should be cognizant too that the Arab Winter will be a university of counter-revolution, as new forms of repression, of neo-imperialism and of exploitation are developed in response to novel circumstances.

The Despards have one last, difficult lesson to teach us. For over two centuries, liberal political theorists have been writing of human rights and democracy. Their well-intentioned acolytes have sought to spread the word around the world.

Yet today, despite globalisation and multiculturalism, it is difficult to imagine political activism, cooperation and resistance across lines of race, religion and region that match what the Despards achieved.

Think about it: A lordly Irish officer in the 18th century finds common cause, even love, with Indians, Africans and all manner of oppressed folk, and returns to the West as a revolutionary citizen of the world. Catherine, too, of slave origins and "violently in love" with her husband, crossed lines to help organise London's sailors (white and black), longshoremen, and other workers in the failed plot to create a republic.

Here and there, in our time, Westerners, Christians and Muslims may find common cause - as in the Palestinian solidarity movement; or whites, blacks and mixed race people, as in the resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

But in a jingoistic age, when Westerners, Asians and Muslims are all convinced of their own superiority, a multi-racial, multi-regional, multi-cultural resistance movement on the model the Despards cooked up is almost unthinkable.

Despite our own delusions, we have regressed - not progressed - from the Despards' vision of the whole human race.

Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer in the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge.

Al Jazeera readers can find out more about the Despard conspiracy in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (London: Verso, 2000)

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Al Jazeera

(1970) By


five bandits, each brandishing a golf club, each determined to win, set out to display their


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other face. He snoops here and smiles there, stout, impudent, sly; his teeth are crooked and





under it. He acts like an obedient shaggy dog when flattering superiors, but like a snarling

hunting dog to subordinates. He puts public funds into his left pocket and bribes for favors

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the poor enlisted men in a bitterly cold winter; instead, hard labor all day to keep them



accordance with military law, soldiers who deserted their units because of hunger and

desperation were arrested, beaten and thrown into the brig, and harassed under orders.


living toys for his wanton wife. Meanwhile the general enjoyed his cleverly camouflaged life





with their right. And, when they softly write “Increased Production, Increased Export and

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