Translation:The White Terror in Texas/Intro

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The White Terror in Texas and my escape  (1862)  by Jean-Charles Houzeau, translated from French by Wikisource

At the beginning of the year 1857, a Belgian scholar, who was known for works such as a dissertation on the Symétrie des formes du continent, la Géographie physique de la Belgique and l’Histoire du sol de l’Europe, where practical science allies itself to literary and philosophical synthesis, Mr. J.-C. Houzeau went to America. Soon, he stationed himself in Texas, where he kept in touch with home: with the Academy and the men who cultivate science, to whom he sent many mathematical and astronomical memos, the most notable not having yet emerged; with the Belgian edition of the Revue Britannique that published several of his monographs on the manners of the new continent; and finally with the quarterly Revue Trimestrielle, which would regularly receive a Correspondance d’Amérique containing political and social research on the United States.[1]

The opportunity was not lacking, and the events often helped his studies. Twice he came to write on the American slavery; he did so bluntly and without passion, with the view that a deep conviction of principles does not impair the judging of the situation, indeed making it surer and bolder for examining it in all its angles. This independent view did not fail to raise some outrage: one was surprised to see a friend of mankind, a man of principles, accept objections to the abolishing of slavery, bother to search for the solution in factual matter, bring up the practical aspect in the humanitarian debate, and, far from taking part in the rantings, from applauding the attempts, show himself stern, that is, just, regarding the scuffle — the "speculation", of which the abolitionist John Brown was in turn the agent and later victim.

The War of Secession found Mr. Houzeau right in slavery country. He had carefully studied the political parties movements prior to the presidential election, the election itself, the betrayal of the previous administration in favor of the supremacy in the South, the forbearance of the North in upholding freedom in its most hideous deviations and, in leaving her rebel brethren time to recognize what could only be a mistake, which was actually a crime — the whole prelude to this crisis, the greatest perhaps that democracy has ever had to endure. He witnessned both the finest and most deplorable spectacles of life of a people. He nearly was a victim himself.

On 1 May 1861, sending the Revue Trimestrielle a correspondence where he was judging the "Sonderbund" of slavery, and laid bare the causes of this unholy assault, he wrote to a friend:

"I am writing today under the impulse of a strong sense of duty. I owe you back home a reasoned assessment of the saddest, thouhtless events that the brutal passions of selfishness can trigger. It is a fever, a delirium which leads to a frightening waste of acquired human strength and wealth. A gradual disappearance of the moral sense which I mentioned in my previous correspondence, can only report what is happening around me. I continue to keep myself as much as possible, in my position as a disinterested spectator But the relentlessness is terrible. There are times when possession itself seems to have deserted the human soul…

"I spoke my full opinion, consciously formed as I have argued a year ago that slavery, just like material bondage, is milder than most servitudes in Europe (military service, workshop labour, etc) But now I am forced to condemn the plantation owners…"

This letter, and the correspondence which went with it and which arrived in Brussels June 10, 1861, were his last. For eight months we remained without news.

Everything was to be feared from this unbridled barbarism: the alarm was long and doubly painful, because it was felt that such a loss would not be cruel only to a family and many friends, but the country would have to miss a citizen who could serve and dignify her.

At long last, February 23, 1862, a note of "astronomy" addressed through diplomatic channels to a member of the Academy of Belgium, to be presented at the Academy, came to Brussels. Mr. Houzeau had managed to show signs of life!

Up to this point, he had escaped the dangers. But the few words which he had slipped into its official dispatch could hardly reassure his family and friends about the future, which seemed more threatening:

"We live as in a besieged city, said he. We are shut off to the world… The strongest enjoy an undivided reign and little restraint. I have pages of extremely colorful eye witness. I'm hoping to one day be able to write this little piece of history…

"What I promise to the Revue is a personal journal painting day to day the state of the country I am in and the events and scenes that take place before my eyes. The readers' wait will have been worthwhile because I have been given to see a lot…

"We spoke for a moment of the mass uprising and the lack of weapons alone has delayed it. There was a question of putting in the penitentiary the foreigners who refuse to serve. But there is no money to feed the convicts themselves, and they will have to enlist them in the army, if it is not already the case… Imagine: me as a convict for refusing to be a soldier for this cause!

"If Texas remains immersed in this condition, there is only one thing for me to do, which is to go back home. I will have to sacrifice everything, but I will not live in a country without communications with the outside world. You will find me aged somewhat, I hope, developed by physical activity, life in the open air, by the knowledge of the danger and of human passions. But let us pass on this latter point, we will explore this later on. Believe me in the meantime, that what I saw only strengthen the democratic faith and philosophy that you know and in which I hope to live and die."

In this situation, which had become more dangerous every day, there remained only one thing to do, one way to salvation: to escape from the country, much like from a prison of despots, as from a den of robbers.

And so, what a joy when new letters, dated from Matamoros in Mexico, announced the successful escape that had not required less than thirty-five days of marching!

"I ran for my life", such is the first word of the fugitive. "I regained the freedom of my pen" is the second.

The first private letters written to friends before resting from so hard a journey, contained frightening details of this regime of terror and crime, which wanted to be recognized among the civilized nations. According to the desire expressed by the author, some fragments were published immediately, and the Indépendance Belge which welcomed them, had them reproduced by the press in all of Europe.

The detailed account, announced by the author, was soon to follow. It is composed of three letters which are like the diary of his escape and the causes that necessitated it.

The effect of the first fragments was big, quick, and European. The complete work could not restrict its advertising to a Belgian journal. We extract it from the Revue Trimestrielle, with the permission of the author, for the public.

Humanity is interested in that the public rebuke an odious cause, served by more heinous means. "You never would imagine in Europe, said Houzeau, the tyranny, cruelty, atrocities of the unleashing of the plantation owners, now free of all restraint." Only one corner of the picture, uncovered by an eyewitness, whose name has authority and unquestionable repute, will give an idea, and the cry of outrage from the writer will reach in the minds of the readers, will travel Europe, and avenge humanity.

  1. Revue Trimestrielle, volumes 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 20, 27, 28, 29, 30 et 31. (April 1858 to July 1861).