Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Private Property

One of the best-known myths in history is that a Dutch international trading company bought Manhattan Island in the 17th Century for $24 worth of beads. What a bargain, eh? It’s not quite true. What they actually bought was a right to use the land. Exclusively perhaps, and indefinitely perhaps, but the natives of that region had no concept of private property. Their representatives not only didn’t have the right to sell (alienate) any land, they wouldn’t have even thought of it.

When native Melanesian villagers in the South Pacific Islands that European invaders called New Hebrides and New Caledonia (and the French equivalents) solemnly agreed to sell their spare land in the 19th and 20th Centuries, they were pleased when the settlers planted long lines of coconut trees and gave the villagers some of the fruit. As the villagers increased in number, they naturally expanded their living space among the trees. To them, land-use was the same as land-ownership; unused land had no owner. They had no concept of private property.

Much argument ensued. Military might defined legal right – as it always does. The natives’ resentment was still strong in the New Hebrides in the 1970s when Linda and I lived in Vila, the main trading town. The resentment was assuaged in 1980, when the first government of the newly independent nation of Vanuatu confiscated all vacant land owned by non-natives. We lost our half-acre suburban plot in Vila, bought as a speculation. These forty years later, we still feel hardly done by, and we understand the old resentment of the villagers.

Centuries ago, all land in England was deemed to be owned by the monarchy. It had been appointed directly by God, and it claimed the “divine right” that King Charles lost his head over. Today, legal title to English land is in the names of individuals, and the monarch has no say in the matter.

That’s not quite true, either. The permission of the monarchy or its deputies (or its recognized legal successors in some former colonies) is an essential requirement for all transfers of land. A tax is payable, evidence that the State’s power is the power of an owner, never mind whose name is on the Title Deed. Death duties are a reminder. So is the doctrine of “eminent domain” – the right of the State to confiscate anybody’s land.

(The power of the State to conscript citizens for foreign wars is, equally, a reminder of its right to enslave its subjects, never mind what statutes have been passed banning slavery and indentured service, and never mind what international Human Rights Conventions have been solemnly signed. Military (paramilitary) might still defines legal right.)

When the British government began its conquest and occupation of Australia, in the years following the loss of its major North American colonies, it (the government) decided to experiment with an alternative to its American practices. This time, there would be no argument with native communities over the difference between land-ownership and land-use. There would be no moral dilemma over the theft of natives’ land.

This time – and what a brilliant notion it was – this time, the natives would simply not be recognized as human! Wow. British judges declared Australia an uninhabited continent. The nomadic sub-human natives were shoo’d out of the way, and were shot like outlaws if they baulked. Well, they were outlaws – creatures living outside the protection of the law. Let them play that on their didgeridoos and dance to it!

I have blogged [Grandfathers, January 2014] that my mother’s father used to negotiate with the local native community for the right to harvest trees in the forest and to establish sawmills to cut the felled trees into timber. It was prudent to negotiate those things in good faith, but by law he could have simply walked in and assumed the right – with the permission of the registered European owner of the forest, of course…

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A wedding to attend (New Hebrides)

The New Hebrides (before it went independent as Vanuatu) was a fascinating place. This archipelago in the South Pacific was and is populated by ethnic Melanesians, with a scattering of Polynesians – biologically related, very distantly – to Australian aborigines and native Hawaiians, respectively. Plus a few ethnic Europeans on the fringes, stealing slaves for Australia’s sugar farms (until 1901) or operating coconut plantations, or trading.

In the 1970s, the two nations made half-hearted attempts to establish an offshore tax-haven (paradis fiscal, in French). Their attempts were thwarted by the inadequacy of international communications. The overseas phone service was an antiquated radio link, like something out of a World War One movie. (“Do you copy?” “Roger! Wilco!” “Over and out!”)

We were connected to the world via an undersea cable to Australia during the scheduled British sessions, and one to Tahiti during the French sessions. I was once cut off in the middle of an incoherent exchange with a client in New York, when the session changed. I pleaded with the French operator (je vous en prie!), and she kindly gave me an extra three minutes.

There were reckoned to be 113 separate Melanesian languages, some spoken in only one or two villages, and four Polynesian ones. The lingua franca was and is a simple local pidgin called Bislama – described in my August 2013 blog Unexpected Places.

The territory was governed eccentrically by France and Britain in tandem – not in any Euro-bullying fashion but in cordial partnership with the local village chiefs. The European powers had only invaded in the first place, in the late 1800s, in order to forestall Germany’s presumed intentions. Their later governance concentrated mainly on the affairs of all non-native traders, visitors and residents.

When the Christian conquerors arrived, they stopped the traditional practices of head-hunting, cannibalism, and wearing no clothes, and tried manfully to stop domestic violence and revenge killings. The Native Code of the Islands (explained in my Aiding and Abetting Adultery, November 2012), negotiated by the two European administrators and the village chiefs, put the punishment of violent crimes into the hands of the Europeans. Offenders were prosecuted in The White Man’s courts, and served time in The White Man’s jails.

The British jail was a source of wonderment for us British expats. The rickety fence was designed (deliberately) not to keep prisoners inside but to keep their families outside. Why would anybody bother to escape, when his village chief would only send him back? Except on special occasions, naturally.

At one village wedding, a British Magistrate friend of mine caught sight of a prisoner he had sent to jail earlier that day. “I carefully didn’t catch his eye, and he carefully kept out of my way,” my friend told me. “Neither of us wanted to spoil the party. No harm done. He took himself back to jail before morning. I did check that.”

What is now called “community service” was part and parcel of jail sentences. Work-gangs of twenty men (violent offenders all) swarmed up and down the town streets armed with sickles and machetes, under the benign supervision of an unarmed native policeman. A chain-gang without chains…

Because old habits die hard, the jail was always full. So there was always a waiting-list of sentenced offenders who had been sent home to their villages to await official recalls by the government radio station. The station was on the air three times a day – half an hour in each of English, French and Bislama, each time: news, followed by public announcements.

“This message is for Henry Bong, believed to be (…!) on Malekula. Please meet the Motor Vessel Maskelyne at the jetty on Saturday morning. On arrival in Vila, report to the jail to commence your sentence. Also, Peter Vatu on Erromango, please meet the Maskelyne at about noon on Saturday –" [and so on until the half hour was up].

And, wonderfully, they all did report, unless they were severely sick or injured, or had a wedding to attend… I don’t know what they did if they didn’t know where the jail was, when they got to Vila. Asked a policeman, I suppose.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Catch and release

“Catch and release” is a term common in game-fishing tournaments. Catch a fish and reel it in, weigh it for the record, and throw it back in the water in order to preserve the stock. In Cayman, the term is also applied, cynically, to our justice system. Catch and try a criminal, take him to court, and throw him back on the streets again.

Sometimes there is a brief time in prison between court and release, but not always. Our Prosecution Service doesn’t always prosecute a bad guy for the correct crime, and doesn’t always prosecute him enthusiastically when it is the correct crime. It’s a small island, and people know people.

Our judges’ sentences are erratic; concurrent terms are the norm instead of consecutive. Only a few convicts seem to serve their full sentences in prison. Parole is readily granted; the Probation Service seems to operate more generously than is warranted. And although Police lock-ups are notoriously dreadful places, the actual prison is not as tough as my old boarding-school used to be.

I don’t know how much help convicts receive when they are released from prison; it’s all pretty hush-hush. Cayman’s governance in general operates on a need-to-know basis, and the public doesn’t need to know much at all, according to our rulers. Policing and justice are secretive, and scarcely monitored. Corruption is universally suspected, and no serious effort is made to dispel that suspicion. Recidivism is rife. So. How can we (our society) get our repeat-criminals off the carousel?

The latest new idea is a day-release program that will (hopefully) persuade selected convicts that they can cope with life after prison. They will become useful members of society, earning an honest living and not go back to their criminal careers and bounce in and out of pokey the rest of their lives.

It hasn’t been decided yet what jobs they will be doing, or how much they will be paid, or – most important – what degree of criminality will be addressed by the program. The public wouldn’t stand for any baby-rapists to be chosen for the list, or violent offenders of any kind, surely. Or seducers of children, or gang members. Drug-dealers would probably be out of consideration, mainly because it’s hard to believe they ever retire from such a lucrative line of business. That leaves only petty thieves, burglars and embezzlers, really.

The voluntary risk-taking employers would have to be very community-minded people indeed, wouldn’t they – very determined to thwart Cayman’s drift towards the development of a permanently lawless underclass. One must wish them well, and their auditors and insurers…

To what extent will our politicians and Civil Servants cooperate? How will the employment of convicts fit into government’s existing labour-policy? Will Caymanian convicts on day-release be given priority over the three thousand supposedly unemployed Caymanians? Some of the latter may be shiftless and lazy, but they are not convicts, or at least not at the moment.

 Will the convicts receive wages at the going rate, or will they have to work for nothing, like slaves? Free labour generally has difficulty competing with slave-labour, for obvious reasons. Would the risk-taking employers be exempted from the Labour Law, and the Minimum Wage law when we have one?

 And another thing… Half of all Cayman’s Civil Servants are reckoned to run private businesses from their desks. Would they favour themselves in the allocation of no-wage convict workers? Damn right they would.

What about government’s permanent immigration policy, which requires that Caymanian citizens be hired and promoted ahead of Work Permit foreigners, regardless of ability? Might employers of convicts be rewarded with extra Work Permits, say one-for-one? Huh. Not likely! So how would they be rewarded? Public approbation, alone?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"No other gods before me"

In a post in January 2012 I speculated on the origin of the Biblical Children of Israel, which came into existence some time around 1500 BC. The names of its gods and legendary heroes suggested that it was an artificial tribe constructed from diverse elements of refugee groups during a clash of empires in northern Phoenicia.

The tribe was created and consolidated over several generations by a ruthless gang (all that unnecessary smiting…) of warrior priests that I called “the Taliban of their day”. A year or so later (February 2013), The Hebrews took the story back to Father Abraham in the city-state of Haran, and in October of that year Noah and Company moved it even further back, to the original homeland of at least some of the ancestors in the vicinity of Ararat.

“Ur of the Chaldees” is more plausibly identified as Ur of the Khaldis in north-eastern Anatolia than as the city on the southern Tigris River. A slow-but-steady tribal-drift (folk-wandering) from Ararat down to Haran is infinitely more likely than a pointless migration down to the Persian Gulf and back, for Abraham and his forebears. (Haran was a focal point of one of the busiest trade-routes in the region, and the legendary Abraham left there a rich man.)

The name of the tribal god Yahweh/Jehovah appears in several guises, notably Noah and Jacob. (n is a vocalisation of h in human speech, so Noah is the same name as the second syllable of Ya-hweh.) All the names and their variants, and all the contemporary legends – were memorized and recited by thirty or forty generations of tribal bards before being written down in later tribal dialects. The writing was done around the time Celtic-speaking tribes were conquering the native peoples of the British Isles.

The huge time-scale provides scope for superficial changes of names and dialects. My speculations are based on the premise that names (holy names in particular) retain their basic structures. The claimed meanings of proper names in all languages, have always been assigned on the basis of folk-etymology; they shouldn’t ever be taken seriously.

The proto-Hebrews carried Yahweh-the-god from the Mountains of Ur down to the Land of Egypt – not in the Egypt of our modern maps, but the part of northern Phoenicia under Egyptian rule at the time. That’s a defensible and legitimate speculation, based on history. But speculations can’t cope with the time before The Flood. The names of Adam’s descendants are mostly the names of regional gods – probably the ancestral gods of the wanderers before they settled on Hebe (and variants), and before their adoption of Yahweh/Jacob.

Every tribe has always had its own god, whose duty was to protect the tribe. The creation of the world was usually not ascribed to tribal gods. Generally, creation-gods did their Big-Bang job and left the stage. The Children of Israel, being an invented tribe and not a traditional one with a long history, and having selected one of their ancestral gods to be their very own, went the extra furlong and declared that their newly-agreed-upon tribal god had actually created the entire world and everything that was in it. Wow!

That declaration didn’t make them monotheists, but it did give their god a great customer-relations boost. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, the god said, and “I am a jealous god”. In effect: Look, I’m number one; the rest of them are make-weights; don’t waste your time with them. The priests who wrote the script were on a winner, with that line - at least for the time being.

But monotheism arrived only with the energetic heresy of the cult of Christianity. That cult’s fervent proselytising among the pagans embraced large numbers of other tribal gods, but its priests (oh, the chutzpah!) refused to acknowledge them as gods. Agents and saints, yes, but not gods. One single god since the beginning of the world – not limited to one tribe – was irresistible. As Christianity (and Islam, later) proved in much of the world.

Yahweh’s original tribe became marginalized. Over the centuries it gained some converts here and there – Berbers in North Africa were the ancestors of the Sephardic Jews, and the mini-empire of the Khazars north and east of the Black Sea produced the Ashkenazi Jews. But in the Levantine homeland, most of the original tribe fell prey to (and converted to) the two major heretical cults. Their descendants are today’s Palestinians.

Captivated by the romance of an ancient tribal ethos, and cynically manipulated by JINOs (Jews In Name Only) the European descendants of converts to the Yahweh cult are currently engaged in the slow-motion conquest of the ancient homeland of their cultural forebears.

But the old tribal ethos demanded the mass slaughter of all who stood in the way of the jealous Yahweh and his people, and mass slaughter is out of fashion now. Even ethnic cleansing is frowned upon, in an age of human-rights. So it’s a futile exercise, strategically – an historical aberration that has nothing to do with the Israelites.