Friday, March 18, 2011

The story of Dimmock Charlton - or - wait, they did WHAT?

Getting back on focus with some history surrounding the Sloop of War HORNET - I offer the narrative of one man and his struggle for freedom.

It is difficult for us to imagine the social complexities of the United States as it was in the early 19th century. The rigid system of deference - that is, a tiered social hierarchy in which your place was decided by birth - is so foreign, so bigoted and prejudicial beyond anything we commonly encounter today that to imagine it involves evoking images of the Dark Ages. Members of the social elite were considered to have a responsibility to lead the rest, govern, employ and 'dispose of' them. Middling ranks were filled with tradesmen, shop keepers, entrepreneurs and 'tinkerers'. Lower ranks were laborers, providing some of the motive power. And below all of these were the Irish, most Eastern Europeans, Asians and Africans - often considered lower forms of life - less than human. These were grunt laborers considered more akin to oxen and mules than those at the top of the social ladder.

In keeping with my typical movie references - Fritz Lang's Metropolis comes to mind. The concept was a nightmare even in the early 20th century.

Analyzing the social progression is the subject of many books and theses - which I just don't have time, space or intellect to dive fully into. But suffice it to say that in the early 19th century our nation was still struggling with the idea of "all men" being "created equal".


Dimmock Charlton - like the Sloop of War Hornet herself - is not a name readily recognized by the masses today, nor is he recorded in textbooks. But his story illustrates the complexities of the system slaves faced in early 19th century America - and the myriad pitfalls that beset any free black person in our nation at that time. Like the Amistad case several decades later, his is a story of perseverance against remarkable odds - and ultimately bittersweet triumph. His story was published in 1859:

A chronological description of Charlton's story begins halfway down page 8.

Read, digest, ponder.


Now, the real meat and potatoes. If you go back and read the narrative of Hornet's service life, you'll see that after sinking Peacock, she sailed straight back to the US, calling at Martha's Vineyard to discharge prisoners before sailing to New York via Hell Gate. But in Charlton's narrative, Army Lt. William Henry Harrison (future PRESIDENT) led him to Savannah, GA. I need to go back and study Hornet's logs to see if she called at another port before proceeding to Martha's Vineyard. BUT either 1) Charlton was separated from the other Peacock prisoners while onboard Hornet and delivered up during that port call or 2) he was separated ashore after they'd landed at Martha's Vineyard. Either way, there is something really fishy going on there.

Why did this happen? Why did it take nearly half a century for this man to earn his freedom and freedom for some of his family despite being a foreign national, and a prisoner of war? Simple - a rigid system of undue deference, and the crookedness that maintained it.

Understanding our past - or at least attempting to - is the only way to ensure we don't repeat past mistakes, and ensure we "rise up and live out the true meaning of [our nation's] creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'"

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