As this Black History month, February of 2018, draws to a close, in this the fourth year of the UN proclaimed decade (2015 to 2024) for People of African Descent, I hasten to yield to a challenge to write a letter on this subject.
We understand without question that the UN proclamation of this decade is directed at speeding the dissipation of the adverse legacies of that historical period of some 250 years when tens of millions of Black Africans were taken as chattel slaves by Europeans during that era of their global expansion and dominance, to provide enslaved labour for their plantations in the conquered lands of the Americas and the Caribbean.
What should be the attitude today of People of African Descent to that period of horrible slavery? That period cannot be erased from the history of mankind, but in time it ought to become a bald fact of history; much as England, along with a great part of Western, Middle and Eastern Europe up to the borders of Asia, and North Africa were brought under the dominion of Rome; much as we were taught in our Christian Sunday Schools about Moses leading the people of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt. It was his brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt but fortune made Joseph, a slave, the right hand man of Pharaoh, and Joseph’s people were afforded a place of honour through that dynasty. However, as happens in the course of time, in the rise and fall of peoples and nations, there arose a new dynasty of Pharaohs who knew not and would pay no heed to the special honoured place of the people of Israel in Egypt and made them slaves.
Slavery has been, it can be argued, one of the most common practices amongst humankind, making forced servants of conquered people. There is probably no one who does not have a number of enslaved as well as slave-holding persons amongst his ancestors, but the European slavery of Black Africans had a number of particularly pernicious features.
During a tour of ancient sites in Greece in 1978 (after a bauxite conference) the tourist guide pointed out the columns on which the names of erstwhile slaves were inscribed as they were freed – most of these slaves were from other Greek city states, who had been on the defeated side in one of their frequent battles. In such circumstances, the fact of having been a slave might be lost within a generation with little, if any adverse effects.
My mind turned to that quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, “The institution of slavery has disgraced the race and the physiological peculiarities of the race have perpetuated the disgrace”. There was an interesting nuance in a quote from a Brazilian author, “the propensity to discriminate is a function of the degree of separation of the ideals of physiological beauty”. For him, however, the ideal of physiological beauty is the physiology of the conqueror, the winner, the successful, and he argued that Iberian people who had seen Black Africans in the conquering Moor armies from North Africa, saw beauty in the Black African physiology and were less inclined to discriminate against Black Africans, as absolutely as northern Europeans many of whom only knew of Black Africans as disgraced chattel slaves. There was a lot unconsciously inherent in that cry in the 1970s, about Angela Davis, “Bright, Beautiful and Black”.
I welcome the work being done to make available a history of Black Africa before and beyond that of the land from which captive Black African slaves came ‒ the emerging stories of ruling families and kingdoms and intrigue in Black Africa, which would be the match of similar ones from Europe.
Black Africans in Africa insist that they are not descendants of slaves ‒ quite true – but black Africa was not unaffected by African slavery. Apart from not being distinguishable, my main take-away from my reading of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was that in the loss of so many of its citizens, the drain of scarce capital inherent in their loss and in the very distraction of the domestic trade that fed the transshipment of captive Africans, Africa might have been prevented from reaching a point where population density and other consequential social pressures might have sparked a sustained agricultural and industrial revolution of its own.
And it should be noted, as I learnt from Bobby Moore in my 1959-60 Modern Britain history course, for many in England and Europe during those years of agricultural and industrial revolutions, which years were more or less contemporaneous with African slavery, their lives, in tangible material ways, may have been little better than the lives of slaves. Spare a thought for English girls of twelve years or so pulling small trolleys of coal out of narrow coal seams; the conditions of work in those dark satanic mills, having nothing but the discarded heads and tail bones of the fish caught to live on. Life in the poor house was really a life of last resort. There has been lots of enforced and self-imposed hard times in the growth and development of mankind, in our journey of sustaining, growing and developing humankind. However, as adverse as the conditions were for working people in Europe they could hold the hope of their children rising and enjoying some of the benefits of their labours.
Today, whilst we, the people of African descent in the Americas and the Caribbean, have left slavery 150 years and more behind, the consequences of that period of Black African slavery are still largely with us. A recent series on BBC World chronicled how slave-owning families benefited, and how their descendants still do. On the other hand, too many of the descendants of Black African slaves are trapped in a cycle of discrimination, poverty and needs. What is to be done? Reparations? From whom to whom? There may be as many answers as the many experts with whom you might choose to consult. How is the success of this UN decade to be assessed?
Editor it may be considered escapist but I see the answer in a greater awareness and commitment to the idea of ‘One World, One Human Race’ and this is what I urge my fellow People of African Descent to work towards. I will argue that this would be what Dr Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, both inspired by the Mahatma, were working towards and would have us continue. And, as Bob Marley reminds us, freeing ourselves from slavery is not merely a material thing. It is essentially a mental thing.
True, when we recall the period of Black African slavery, a great rage, a great anger, a great bitterness can well up within us; a rage and anger and bitterness that must be safely vented. Let us set aside a day or two a year to rage, to be angry and to rail at the hand fate served us, but for the rest of the year let us be what we should be aiming to be, just members of the one human race: earnest, conscientious, responsible; not devoid of fun and laughter; no better no worse than others as we make our contributions. There has been much progress won through the lives and sacrifices of many persons of whom King and Mandela are the best known. Keep the faith brothers and sisters that by our work and through the traditional values which all mankind hold sacred, we can and will get this period of Black African slavery behind us.
Samuel A A Hinds
Former President and Former Prime