Monday, October 23, 2006

The “D” for Delano in the Sara D. Park. All in a name..

Sarah Delano Roosevelt was fond of remarking that the Delano family was more illustrious than the Roosevelt’s.

“ Along with the slave trade, the traffic in opium [in China] was the dirty underside of an evolving global trading economy. In America as in Europe, pretty much everything was deemed fair in the pursuit of profits. Such was the outlook at Russell & Company, a Boston concern whose clipper ships made it the leader in the lucrative American trade in Chinese tea and silk. In 1823 a 24 year old Yankee, Warren Delano, sailed to Canton, where he did so well that within seven years he was a senior partner in Russell & Company. Writing home, Delano said he could not pretend to justify the opium trade on moral grounds, "but as a merchant I insist it has been.. fair, honorable and legitimate,"

Warren Delano returned to America rich, and in 1851 settled in Newburgh, N.Y. There he eventually gave his daughter Sara in marriage to a wellborn neighbor, James Roosevelt, the father of Franklin Roosevelt. The old China trader was closemouthed about opium, as were his partners in Russell & Company. It is not clear how much F.D.R. knew about this source of his grandfather's wealth. But the President's recent biographer Geoffrey Ward rejects efforts by the Delano family to minimize Warren's involvement. …The family's discomfort is understandable. We no longer believe that anything goes in the global marketplace, regardless of social consequences.” -1997 The New York Times

The opium trade had a disasterous affect on China. In the 1830's…virtually all men under 40 smoked opium. The entire army was addicted. It affected all classes of people. The total number of addicts in China in the 1830's was as high as 12 million As Mr. H. Wells Williams writes in his book "Middle Kingdom" the opium trade “was a turning point in the national life of the Chinese race”.

A statue in nearby Chattam Square of Lin Zexu (the Chinese official whose refusal to bend to British opium interests gave pretext for the Opium Wars) was paid for by Chinatown residents. A strong statement of the Chinese communities views on the legacy of the opium addiction enforced upon China’s people.

It never makes sense to pretend that a history hasn’t happened or that we can’t look compassionately and clearly at the worst in humanity knowing we are going forward. To not do so puts us in league with harmful ideas of revisionism and pretense. The area around the southern end of Sara D. Park is home and playground to Chinese children. It is a learning moment.

In recent news Brown University has chosen to face its history with the slave trade. It brings a collective sigh of relief when we do this squarely. We do this, not to smear someone we can then comfortably peg as the bad guy, but to be able to go forward: this is where we were; this is where we are going. Examples abound of individuals, institutions, and states looking squarely at the consequences of actions taken in the past (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission being one of the more famous of these). It is a growing international consensus that this is the only way we can actually move on from tragedy. These are not just things that happened long ago that have no consequence today. Any reading of history shows that the effects of war, slavery, genocide, wholesale colonization or in this case the drugging of a nation for profit, lives on in the affected future generations unless we stop and address it.

As Ruth J. Simmons President of Brown and great granddaughter of enslaved Africans said, “We cannot change the past. But an institution can hold itself accountable for the past, accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges”.

I personally don’t agree about the illustriousness of the Delano name and I don’t feel we need to honor it, but if we do so by naming a park after it, then it requires telling the whole story. There is a right to know.

It is an opportunity to acknowledge that Warren Delano’s involvement with the opium trade, though gravely and tragically wrong, was of an historical time that from our present vantage point we know with certainty was neither “fair”, nor “honorable” nor “legitimate”.

No comments: