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Letters

Vol. 32 No. 13 · 8 July 2010

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Enemies of All Mankind

It isn’t true, as Stephen Sedley asserts, that ‘slaving became assimilated in international law to piracy, a capital offence,’ after Britain and the US outlawed the slave trade for their nationals in 1807-8 and the Congress of Vienna issued a moral condemnation of the trade (LRB, 24 June). For more than four decades after Britain criminalised the slave trade, the judges who administered international law in British courts considered it a legal activity for foreigners. The key judgment was Sir William Scott’s in the case of Le Louis. Scott, the senior judge in the High Court of Admiralty, overruled the condemnation by the Freetown vice-admiralty court of a French slaving vessel in 1817, and upheld the ‘natural’ right of the French crew to resist an unlawful search. (Twelve men from the Queen Charlotte had been killed in seizing Le Louis.)

Scott’s opinion was a masterly summation of customary international law with respect to the freedom of the high seas. The law’s fundamental principles were, first, ‘the perfect equality and entire independence of all distinct [sovereign] states’ and, second, their ‘equal right to the uninterrupted use of the unappropriated parts of the ocean for their navigation’. On the high seas ‘no one state, or any of its subjects, [had] a right to assume or exercise authority over the subjects of another.’ The right of visit and search, which belligerents legitimately exercised in wartime in the interests of self-defence, could not lawfully be exercised in peacetime, without a prior treaty establishing that right. Since the search of Le Louis had been unlawful, any evidence of slaving so revealed could not be part of the legal case for condemning the vessel.

Scott demolished the Crown’s contention that the declarations of the European powers at the Congress of Vienna condemning the slave trade as repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality sufficed to make it a crime on a par with piracy, which all states had a right and duty to suppress. Slavery was a legal institution in British dominions and buying and transporting African slaves had once been a legal business actively encouraged by British governments. Slaving, Scott argued, ‘cannot be deemed a legal piracy’:

It wants some of the distinguishing features of that offence. It is not the act of freebooters, enemies of the human race, renouncing every country, and ravaging every country in its coasts and vessels indiscriminately; but of persons confining their transactions (reprehensible as they may be) to particular countries. It is not the act of persons … assaulting coasts … against the will of [African] governments and the course of their laws, but of persons [carrying] on a traffic not only recognised but invited by the institutions and the administrations of those barbarous communities.

Scott warned the British executive that British courts administering international law were bound to respect the legality of slave-trading by nationals of states which had not positively outlawed the activity: if their slave cargoes were seized by the Crown’s officers, then they had to be restored to them; ‘and if not taken under innocent mistake, to be restored with costs and damages’. Although he did not award costs and damages to the plaintiff in what was a ‘test’ case, Scott’s judgment opened the way for foreign slave-traders to sue British naval officers for financial restitution if they broke international law in suppressing the slave trade, and they had considerable success.

Bernard Waites
Hunworth, Norfolk

The Shudder

My expectations of pieces by Frank Kermode are, by now, such that when one comes along on any contents page it’s the first I turn to. I think, though, that ‘Eliot and the Shudder’ (LRB, 10 June) merits more than my private appreciation.

What I tend to do when I find myself enjoying an article to the point that I decide it will join an uncounted but plentiful number of other pieces in the several boxes stored here and there in my home, is to circle passages, sentences, paragraphs with a ballpoint; this, unstartlingly, to make a specific referring-back simpler and swifter. These circled areas aren’t always a matter of original deep-thinkings; they can equally well be quotations or simple reminders of cherished thoughts or images which have slipped further from me than they should have done.

What happened with this latest Kermode contribution was that these circlings multiplied to the point of pointlessness: I’ve just counted them and they number 19, probably, if I were to spend the day on this, an all-time record. In no particular order, Tennyson’s ‘The blue fly sung in the pane’; the ‘bewildering minute’ quoted from The Revenger’s Tragedy in a letter from Eliot to Spender; Kermode’s description of how usage changes (‘the language had to move over to admit the upstart’); Eliot/Gottfried Benn’s poet, who ‘cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words’; Kermode’s own formulation of an Eliot procedure, ‘surrender, then contemplate, then do something about it’; the forceful reminder of the mind-quietening quality of Shakespeare’s ‘strong toil of grace’; Kermode’s ‘Eliot lost his love for Donne; it was consumed by his passion for Dante’; (Eliot again) ‘the quality of surprise which Poe declared to be essential to poetry’; and Charmian’s response, in Antony and Cleopatra, to a Roman soldier’s question regarding the dead queen. I think the four pages of this essay the finest I have read in the LRB, this issue or any other.

Don Coles
York University, Toronto

Between Toast and Marmalade

I may have been an early beneficiary of Keith Thomas’s working methods as a historian, which he explained in his Diary (LRB, 10 June). Some years ago I tried out my first paper on the Muggletonians for his research seminar. I raised a question with him the next morning at breakfast. He instantly went to a side room and came back with a fat envelope marked ‘Muggletonians and animals’. He scattered its contents on the kitchen table. I found what I needed, if my memory is correct, at a point somewhere between the toast and the marmalade.

William Lamont
Lewes, East Sussex

A Sonnet a Minute

It seems strange to write or review a book called The Art of the Sonnet without mentioning Raymond Queneau, who, in addition to his other achievements, was the most prolific sonnet-writer ever (LRB, 24 June). The ten sonnets in his Cent mille milliards de poèmes all have the same rhyme scheme and scansion so that lines from any sonnet are interchangeable with the corresponding lines of any of the others. The pages of the Gallimard edition are cut between the lines so that they can be moved to make any of the 1014 different combinations. Queneau calculated that at a rate of a sonnet a minute (45 seconds to read the sonnet and 15 seconds to move the lines) all day every day, it would take 190,258,751 years (more or less) to read them all.

Mark Etherton
London W2

Progress!

Tony Wood may think that we will never know for certain who was behind the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, but the lead investigator into Politkovskaya’s murder, interviewed by Novaya Gazeta, said in October 2007 that the list of those suspected of ordering the murder had been reduced to four; more recently, Petros Garibyan said the ongoing investigation has now narrowed its focus to two suspects (LRB, 24 June). Gathering sufficient evidence and bringing one of those individuals to court will be another matter. As concerns the other accomplices in the crime, Wood implies that a retrial would ‘consist simply’ in finding the ‘right’ people on whom to ‘pin the crime’. This is evidently not the view either of Politkovskaya’s colleagues at Novaya gazeta or of the attorneys, Karinna Moskalenko and Anna Stavitskaya, who represented the family at the trial. What would frustrate Politkovskaya most, I suspect, is Wood’s attitude: his view that ‘nothing has changed, nothing can change.’ She never felt that way. Buoyed by the self-assurance she inherited, growing up as a part of the Soviet elite, she constantly chivvied and agitated the police, the army and the prosecution service to investigate abuses and detain those responsible. By not taking the trial of her killers seriously or, for that matter, the trials of the men who murdered Dmitry Kholodov and Igor Domnikov, Wood fails to register the shift in Russia since the late 1990s from total impunity to partial justice.

John Crowfoot
Beccles, Suffolk

Where?

Peter Campbell writes that the new East London Overground line runs south from Dalston Junction to Crystal Palace and West Croydon (LRB, 10 June). No it does not, at least not from here: it runs north from West Croydon and Crystal Palace to Dalston Junction. He quotes the view that New Cross is ‘rubbish’, and while he ruminates on the view at Wapping, he doesn’t deign to name the South London stations, let alone visit them. Well, I have news for Mr Campbell. We in South London enjoy the idea of a new line which speeds us northwards to places we had never even heard of, such as Haggerston. George Melly wrote of the transpontine divide which represents a psychological chasm between those living north and south of the Thames. Some of us savour these cultural differences; Campbell seems to relish his ethnocentricity.

Peter Gillman
London SE25

Peter Campbell has lived in South London for nearly 50 years.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Hitchens: love him or hate him

David Runciman says Christopher Hitchens’s book Hitch 22: A Memoir is ‘very hard to like’ (LRB, 24 June). I disagree. Although I have never met Hitchens, I found the Hitchens I met in this book to be irresistible. In both style and substance I found him to be a cross between Shaw and Wilde: like them, always beautifully lucid, funny, profound, witty, warm, generous, a little romantic, and very passionate about the causes he embraces.

Sabah Salih
Danville, Pennsylvania

David Runciman nicely compares Christopher Hitchens to one of Carl Schmitt’s political romantics, but there is also an echo of the Nazi jurist himself in Hitchens’s writing. Schmitt famously argued that all politics is based on a violent, primordial distinction between friends and enemies. Whether as Trotskyist provocateur or neoconservative schmoozer, Hitchens has always tended to see politics as a clash of personalities, and above all, as an occasion to declare his own loyalties. When he broke with friends such as Edward Said, who did not share his views on the ‘Islamofascist’ menace, and befriended Paul Wolfowitz, he was merely applying Schmittian logic. It has been a short step for him from the permanent revolution to the war on terror.

Henry Finlayson
London N1

Sudyu na mylo

Simon Kuper’s piece about Spartak Moscow mentions the terrace chant of sudyu na mylo, ‘turn the referee into soap’ (LRB, 10 June). When I was a student in Russia in the 1980s the chant had it that the referee was ‘on the soap’, not that he be turned into it. This, it was explained, meant that the ref was using soap as a lubricant to engage in sexual practices not approved of by the Party. This change in meaning over the years probably counts as progress in Soviet terms but indicates the continued failure of the Soviet consumer goods industry.

Neil Robinson
University of Limerick

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