A New England

North And South

We came a long way these last days. No more for us the swamps of Georgia and the country guitars of Nashville; we have come to the historic foundations of this country: New England.

It’s known as the cradle of the nation, and it is true that the first clamorings of revolution were heard here, but it is not the war of independence which first grabs your attention as you move up here from the deep south but another war; the civil war.

The soldiers of the Confederacy were known as the rebels in that war and it’s striking how much sympathy the rebels still command down south even today. The state of Mississippi staunchly bears the stars and bars on its flag and in shops and boutiques — even at attractions which had nothing to do with the civil war — still stock figurines of rebel soldiers, belt buckles of the flag, and even replica costumes of the Confederacy. They have roads and places named after Confederate generals and even at sites run by the (national) Parks Association the civil war is presented as a war of equals, with no side really right or wrong. People don’t really talk about it with outsiders, but there are common assumptions shared by the locals about who really “should’ve won that war”.

Somewhat surprisingly, happily, this doesn’t seem to have too much to do with race. We haven’t seen any prejudiced opinions or displays of bigotry; instead we’ve seen lots of open-mindedness and understanding; hell, we’ve even seen black cowboys at rodeo events getting cheered by the crowds. I’d guess the hoisting of that rebel banner has more to do with local pride than anything — anti-government rather than anti-equality.

The Stars and Bars of the Confederate rebels

The Stars and Bars of the Confederate rebels

This view, however, doesn’t hold in New England. The yankees speak with disgust about those who waved the rebel flag and have a very clear idea in their mind about what it stands for. For New Englanders, the civil war and the independence war were fought (and won) by them for freedom. The passion with which they say that word should strike anyone to the core. As long as Boston stands, so shall Liberty.

 

Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death

Boston is a supreme mix of the old and the new. It has beautifully conceived modern architecture, renovation, and — as it is surrounded by rivers and estuaries — curvatious bridges. It boasts Georgian, Federalist, Modern and Liberty styles and they all fit gracefully into a light and spacious city which seems made to measure for its inhabitants.

The best way to get to see all the most important sites is to take the Freedom Trail. It’s a two-mile walk (painted and paved in red) which takes you on the meandering path through Boston’s giddy history and puts you right in the middle of some of the nations most important heritage.

Now, not wanting to be typical tourists, we did the tour backwards. We started off with a walk around the USS Constitution, the US Navy’s oldest commissioned vessel afloat. The ship saw heavy battles in its day and is nicknamed “old ironsides”, an affectionate moniker due to its solidity in the face of repeated cannon attack.

We then crossed over a small iron bridge into town where we were led through winding streets, through a small graveyard with headstones dating back to the 1600s — final resting place of the sons of Liberty, and upto the Old North Church. This is where Paul Revere caused the famous lantern signal “one if by land; two if by sea” to be sent.

Revere, a wealthy craftsman, was involved in revolutionary activities along with such heroes as John Hancock and Sam Adams. He was chosen as a messenger to bring the news of the British army’s movements as an attack on the towns of Concord and Lexington was anticpated. On discovering that the British were coming across the river, he rode all through the night from Charleston to Lexington to inform fellow patriots while two lanterns hung from that church steeple. It was only after his death that his role in the revolution was fully appreciated, but now his name is synonymous with the fight for freedom.

 

We went past Paul Revere’s house and then to the Fanueil Hall, where Sam Adams spoke in the upstairs meeting place and roused the temper of the Bostonian people in the days leading upto the Boston Tea Party.

You could really feel the history on your skin, and it didn’t take much effort to imagine yourself there in those days as the rallying cries of Freedom were raised and Tom Paine was publishing Common Sense.

 

How Pure?

After Boston, we continued up the coast to a town with a much darker history: Salem. It may have been home to such splendid writers as Nathanial Hawthorne, and to adventurous pirates (we actually visited the pirate museum), but it is famous for its killing of “witches”.

Despite the name being loaded with the more malign kind of fame associated with Stephen King books, the place is actually one of the most picturesque towns you could hope to find. Settled on the harbor with cosy cottages and white-picket fencing it is a wonderful place to spend a day or so. I believe that this apparent tranquility and feeling of safety is what gives an extra twist to the tales of horror associated with this place: it seems safe and friendly, but even in the midst of such idealistic beauty, terror can lurk…. It sounds like the narration at the start of a Nightmare on Elm Street flick.

But it was here that, between February 1692 and May 1693, over 150 people were tried for witchcraft, 19 of them (14 women and five men) were hung for the offense. The Puritans who founded the village (ironically, to escape persecution in their native Europe) held that the church should be the final arbiter in the administering of justice (including the death penalty) and given the hard socio-economic climate of the times, scapegoats were sought and the mystical was soon brought into the judicial realm. Rumours about certain people’s behavior soon led to hysteria and witch-hunting.

Anyone who was a little different or strange, especially old women, those who shied away from society or those who were involved in unusual activities such as practising homeopathy were immediately subject to accusations, and also anyone who had upset a more upstanding member of society could meet with suspicion. The tests used to establish someone’s guilt included the accused having to touch their accusers (and then seeing if the accusers had any strange effects, fits, tremors, etc.); and “spectral evidence” where all an accuser had to do was to claim to “see” ghostly images of the person they were accusing. If someone had a grudge against you it was very bad news indeed in those bleak times.

It was so long ago that the tragedy loses some of its power, yet memorials stand to this day in rememberance of those unfairly killed.

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2 Comments

Filed under Historical Connections, Places Visited, USA Trip

2 responses to “A New England

  1. Stephanie

    Oh good! I was going to suggest Salem but didn’t think you’d have time to make it out there. We went on a rainy, late winter day and had the whole place to ourselves. It was eerie.

  2. francesca barozzi( David's friend)

    Great article! I did’n know you were a teacher/jornalist. After I read your piece i ‘m just ready to fly in the places you are describing ….. Keep on …..as i can get on dreaming until my next holiday..

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