Trees and American History

Cotton Tree

Cotton Tree, Freetown, Sierra Leone

In American history they have represented freedom and unfreedom.  Here is Stony Brook historian Jared Farmer at the Oxford University Press blog:

Extralegal violence committed by white men in the name of patriotism is a founding tradition of the United States. It is unbearably fitting that the original Patriot landmark, the Liberty Tree in Boston, sported a noose, and inspired earliest use of the metaphor “strange fruit.” The history of the Liberty Tree and a related symbol, the Tree of Slavery, illustrates American entanglements of race and place, nature and nation.

The Liberty Tree was a specific elm (Ulmus americana) in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. It was also a generic designation for political gathering sites throughout the thirteen colonies (mainly in New England, but also notably Charleston and Annapolis). And it was a stylized tree in the form of a “liberty pole,” plus a design element for flags.

In the age of revolution, this emblem had multicultural, transatlantic appeal. The Sons of Liberty in Newport, Rhode Island, appropriated for their cause a sycamore that had previously been used for gatherings by the city’s African population. In Haiti, black revolutionaries enthusiastically adopted liberty poles. Toussaint L’Ouverture’s apocryphal parting words became famous: “In overthrowing me, you have overthrown only the trunk of the tree of negro liberty; but the roots remain; they will push out again, because they are numerous, and go deep into the soil.”

The African tree of liberty was not just metaphorical. From the Caribbean to Brazil to Ecuador-Colombia, maroon communities associated food-producing trees such as tamarind (Tamarindus indica) and pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) with freedom. A cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) in the center of Freetown, Sierra Leone, became mnemonically associated with both the slave trade and the homecoming of freed slaves from North America.

Read the rest here.

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