From a perch in space, witnessing the history of humanity must look like a really bad ‘Eastenders’ episode with never-ending plot twists. The modern-day human (Homo sapiens) appeared around 200,000 years ago. While we witnessed the birth of mankind, we have also seen the annihilation of states and nations under tyrannical men in the name of power. The paradox of the ceaseless compassion that defines humans and the exhausting belligerence that has plagued humanity is a tale that began before we could walk on two legs. When looking back at history many may ask the question “How did people allow for this to happen?”. In this article, we will be exploring how humanity was allowed to both destroy and grace history.
AP Photo/Narciso Contreras. – Syria.
The phrase “The pursuit of money is the root of all evil” has been quintessential to the understanding of all things wicked and unjust; however, whilst studying history I have come to disagree with this statement. The desire for money has been the cause for much of the suffering and harm of millions, but it is power that was truly sought after in the pursuit of money. Within the modern world, money and power could sufficiently be interchanged with one another. Money has evolved to become the access point to power.
‘Power‘ is defined as “the ability to control people or events” by the Cambridge English Dictionary. While many do not believe that power is the cause of all evil, it can be agreed that power has provided access and the ability to commit evil or destruction. Power corrupts absolutely but it does not corrupt inevitably. Humans have the conscience to resist corruption. Not all leaders have been corrupt and worked to destroy democracy and not all those with riches are knee-deep in the dark web, committing crime. Nonetheless, without the existence of power, many of the historically “destructive” events would not have taken place or been able to happen at such magnitude. While studying history the question that often emerges is “Why was power corrupted in this specific event?”
In this case, we will be exploring the impact of social power on both a group and an individual level. Thibaut and Kelley (1959), developed the Party A and Party B example of understanding social power. Societal power is related to the quantitive-capacity perspective; relating to the relative dependency between two or more parties which constitutes the primary driver of power. To put it simply, the difference between Party A’s dependence on Party B’s is compared to Party B’s dependence on Party A. The party with the lower net of dependence is considered to hold a higher amount of power. This creates two forms of power, behavior control (power over one’s actions) and fate control (power over one’s outcomes). Thus, leading to “outcome control.” Psychologists French and Raven (1959) state that with manipulation and the correct settings, allows for an individual to attain power. Some examples of this are the relationships between the state and the citizens, and between a parent and child.
However power cannot be exerted onto another individual without consent, or the individual may act against the other which inevitably decreases the power holder’s influence and control. Locke (1689/1988) argues this by stating that a sovereign power cannot act or exist without the consent of their subjects. Once consent is withdrawn power is nullified. Therefore, with compliance and consent from the power holder’s subject, power can be exerted and perverted without objection. This leads to corruption, and hence the many horrific events that have gone and come.
THE EUROPEAN COLONISATION OF THE AMERICAS + THE PEQUOT MASSACRE (1637).
The European colonisation of the Americas led to the death of at least 8,400,000 Indigenous Americans; most of these deaths were due to Afro-Eurasian diseases, however many of those deaths were the result of massacres during the Frontier Wars. The murder of the Indigenous Americans equated to 10 percent of the global population and prompted a global cooling.
Ingrained in the Western world and specifically the American culture is the holiday and celebration of ‘Thanksgiving‘. Despite what we believe, the reality behind the holiday is coated in blood from senseless murder and persecution of the Native Americans – most particularly the Wampanoag People. The relationship between the Puritans who had set sail to the ‘promised land’ and the Indigenous Americans was less than equal and loving as it is wrongly portrayed by many American history books.
In the early 1600s, the Puritans were dying from diseases like pneumonia and were struggling to survive. With the help from their slave Tisquantum, they had successfully negotiated a treaty with the Wampanoag people, learning how to correctly harvest and grow crops in order to supply their community – that year they enjoyed a plentiful harvest. For the next 15 years, the population of Puritans had greatly increased and were thriving. The thriving population meant that the ‘peaceful’ relationship between the Natives and the Colonisers was no longer a necessity.
By 1626 there were discussions of legal ownership of the land under Common English Law (the English crown) which declared all land that was not subdued by the Natives was now under the English King. The discussions were not in consultation with the Indigenous population – effectively taking the land as their own. Using Biblical justifications such as Psalms 2:8 “Ask of me and I shall give thee the heather for thine inheritance and the utter most parts of the earth for thy possession.” – gave way to murder and forceful taking of the land. With these laws, a group of Puritans led by Miles Standish sought the head of local chiefs. The trophy of the head of Native leader Wituwamat was shown off in the centre of Town square of Plymouth.
The Pequot Massacre took place on May 26, 1637. On that day 700 Puritans attacked the Pequot People beside the mouth of the Mystic River in Connecticut. Gathering for the annual Green Corn Dance, they were surrounded and attacked by both the English and Dutch colonisers. Natives were shot and cut up and then burned alive in a building. Out of fear of retaliation from the remaining Pequot People that might seek refuge with neighbouring nations, the Puritans burned the village down and forced the Pequot people to leave their homeland.
The Puritans had justified the witch hunt of Native men, women, children, and elders through religion. In this case, the Puritans had expressed their power through violence all while using religion and peace as the canvas to build a new nation. Puritan Fathers had used Thanksgiving to celebrate their success, hiding the bloodshed behind the celebration of good harvest and summer. The Pequot people were only one of the nations that were decimated by the hand of the white men and their burden as a means to gain power.
THE HOLOCAUST + KRISTALLNACHT (1938).
The Holocaust is one of the most horrific genocides witnessed in modern history. The persecution and slaughter of 6 million Jews equated to two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. These deaths were systematic and intentional, aimed to achieve the goals of the power-hungry Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
The belief that the Holocaust took place completely on Hitler’s whim is very common. Our history textbooks are littered with examples of Hitler’s Anti-Semitic attitude from his youth to his position as leader of Nazi Germany. While Hitler was undoubtedly Anti-Semitic and played an essential role in the Holocaust, it has also been established by many historians such as Christopher Browning that the acceptance and support of the German public and the other European states gave way for Hitler and his party to turn his aims into action. One of the greatest examples of the German public accomodating Hitler’s anti-Semitism was Kristallnacht.
Kristallnacht took place on the 9th and 10th of November, 1938. Also referred to as the ‘Night of Crystal’ or the ‘Night. of Broken Glass’ – the Kristallnacht was the infamous, violent anti-Jewish pogrom. That night, a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment took over Germany, Austria, and the Sudeten land. The Nazi government had justified and instigated the pogrom as a reaction to the murder of Ernst Vom Rath by a young mentally distraught Polish Jew. Propaganda minister Goebbels had announced that the “world Jewry” had planned the assassination of Ernst Vom Rath and that the “insofar” was “not to be tampered with.”
Goebbels played upon the existing anti-Semitism that was building within Germany. The pogrom would not have been as impactful without the compliance of the German public. Kristallnacht ended with the death of businesses, academics, and families. Arnold Friedmann remembers the days before the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ and how the SS officers raided his home. He recalls how his neighbor was “bloodied up” and how his Uncle was killed by SS officers who “pushed him” downstairs and “stomped him to death” in front of his children.
Mobs of SA men and Hitler’s Youth marched the streets of Berlin and Vienna, attacking and raiding the homes of Jews – forcing them into acts of public humiliation and in some cases, they murdered them. German officials announced that there were 91 deaths due to the pogrom, but modern sources have suggested numbers are within the hundreds with those who died of their injuries in the aftermath. High reports of rape and suicide were also uncovered after the 10th – the violent remnants of the night going on for days after.
The life of European Jews had changed forever that night. To many, the death of their family and friends became a marker for the seemingly never-ending persecution within their communities. To the Nazi government, the night had shown how much influence and control they held over the German public.
‘Creation of Adam’ – Michelangelo.
Archeologists believe that human kindness and charitable nature is down to ingrained cultural understanding within the human psyche. Humans have shared crops, meat, and water since the existence of communities. Kelly states in ‘The Fifth Beginning’ that if humans avoided sharing their food and gain to their community members, we would feel “soiled” or dirty for going against the cultural norms. The other explanation for human kindness is that by expressing stinginess the other humans would not share in times of need. Humans adapted to share and be charitable as a form of survival.
In ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiment’, Smith explores the unique social nature of the human race. While humans are solely self-obsessed and thrive with competition – capitalism stems from this – our sense of justice is similarly as strong. We have the ability to empathise with others, albeit not as strongly, we are able to relate to our counterparts and feel a sense of injustice when another is wronged or is hurt. Smith argues that morality is a natural part of the human system as we are social creatures – hence we feel pleasure when people do something morally correct like charity, and are upset when we perceive people as doing harm.
Our ability to empathise and feel emotions is what defines us as humans. When power is corrupted and used to harm others, that sense of empathy is lost. Power does not only lie within the ability to do but also lays within the ability to not do. Ergo, there are certain circumstances for the corrupting and rewarding use of power;
Disinhibition – the ability to go against the social norms gives way to social reform. In the case of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., they were able to express power by not conforming. But in the case of Puritans, they went against the cultural norms, taken from the Natives to effectively steal their land.
Illusionary control – a form of inflated self-esteem in which a person believes they hold more power or control than they perceive. Illusionary control can result in optimism or lead to havoc such as the Iraq war, where leaders overestimated the potential for success and underestimated the risks.
Diminished empathy – the inability to empathise or reconcile the impact of one’s actions. Diminished empathy can be seen with Nazi officials knowingly sending millions to death camps without hesitation.
So, the question of “Why does power corrupt in this specific event?” is answered. But now the question “When does power get used for grace?” arises.
HARRIET TUBMAN – THE AMERICAN ABOLITIONIST AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST.
Harriet Tubman (1822-1913).
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery – despite the challenges, she escaped slavery using her savings. After achieving her freedom, Tubman helped over 300 slaves escape the plantations over the span of 10 years, through a network of underground railroads. Through her work, she gained her nickname “Moses” for aiding the fugitive slaves.
In Tubmans’s adolescence, she suffered a severe head injury when an overseer threw a metal weight at her head whilst trying to hit another slave who was attempting to escape. Tubman describes the weight “breaking her skull”, rendering her unconscious. Taken to her owner, she was left for 2 days without medical assistance, and she suffered seizures and migraines. Due to the severe injuries she had sustained, she was conscious for those two days. Tubman was left with temporal lobe epilepsy from the injury, which she suffered from for the rest of her life.
Tubman had fled for freedom through the underground railroads using money that she had saved – however, despite her ‘freedom’, without legal protections freed black slaves were still at risk. The fear of capture was great but this did not deter Tubman from becoming an ‘Abductor’ – prompted by the news that her niece Keziah would be sold to other slave owners in the Deep South. Abductors would guide slaves to freedom through the underground rail network to the North. Tubman faced grave danger due to her role as an Abductor – she was a five-foot, illiterate fugitive. The bounty on Tubman was $40,000 and on one occasion she recounts hearing two men reading her wanted poster (stating that she was illiterate). Tubman then quickly took a book and pretended to read in order to fool the men.
Also referred to as “General Tubman”, Harriet participated in the Civil War for the Union army as a cook and nurse and then armed scout and spy. Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war. Acting as a guide for the raid on Combahee Ferry, she took the John Adam (the ship) with 300 slaves onboard down the Combahee River. With her expertise she led the ship around the river, avoiding mines and artillery traps, all while burning the planations down along the way. By the end of the 25 miles, 750 slaves were freed.
Harriet Tubman was one of the defining figureheads of the civil rights movement. Throughout her life, she helped free well over 1000 slaves. As a devout Christian, she used her faith to aid and drive her actions to help others then destroy others. In Tubman’s case, she had gained power through knowledge and influence, pushing others to freedom and ultimately aiding progress society.
From my desk, writing this article filled me with both disgust and hope. Disgust at how humanity had the capacity to allow for such horrors to occur and hope for how humanity has fought for progression. As you have read this, at home on your phone or P.C, millions of lives and events have gone and passed. As you have read this, Uyghur Muslims are being persecuted for their faith, homosexuality is still punishable by death in nine countries and the Black community is fighting against discrimination through the Black Lives Matter movement. As history has shown us time and time again, individuals and communities hold the power to shape or wipe out nations – it is our role to make sure we use our power to grace history.
Written by Abida Khanom