Saturday, March 03, 2007

Slavery and Freedom

by Prof Mohammed Arif

A talk given to the World Muslim, Sikh Federation in February.

I WOULD LIKE THANK the World Muslim, Sikh Federation for inviting me to speak to you on the subject of slavery and freedom.
In March this year we will be celebrating the bicentenary of the end of Britain’s part in the slave trade. There will be lectures, film shows, exhibitions and TV programmes. The Heritage Lottery Fund has granted £16 million for this purpose.
The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1807. This Act outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire. However, the slave trade continued for more than 30 years in deferent forms after the act was passed.
During this period, major slave rebellions took place in Jamaica, Dominica, Barbados, Honduras and Guyana. This was primarily because the Act gave false expectation among slaves that their servitude might soon come to an end. This was a mistake and the rebellions were savagely crushed.
In fact, the Act was not respected even by the British who violated it by purchasing black people in the slave market to serve in their imperial wars. Black people were imported from the slave market in Goa and Mozambique to fight a war of conquest in Ceylon.
However, when the final end of the slave trade took place it was due to the enormous struggle by slaves themselves, who were at the heart of their own liberation (today they would probably be described as terrorists), with the help of their supporters and sympathisers throughout the world.
To understand the horrors of slavery, we need to be both passionate and informed about the way in which human relations were perverted by the insatiable thirst for incredible wealth.
I would like to quote Makgabuka K Kola, a distinguished African writer who said, “a person without knowledge of his own history, culture and identity is a lost person. He is like a lifeless leaf that drifts aimlessly with neither direction nor destiny over the ocean of time.”
This quotation underlines the significance of this meeting. The slave trade did try to disconnect African slaves from their heritage, achievements, culture and identity. The impact of the injustices of slavery is palpable today among the descendents of slaves.
Slavery is about the ownership and control of people by other people through economic and military means. It has existed since the beginning of time, long before it came to be seen in terms of race. In fact, slavery was an economic institution of the greatest importance. It was the basis of the Greek economy and propped up the Roman Empire.
The demand for African slave labour arose in the New World through the development of plantation agriculture, the long-term rise in the price of sugar, cotton and minerals, and the need for domestic servants. The African slave trade was massively boosted and carried out on an industrial scale as Europeans began to invade and occupy that continent. Corrupt African rulers were supported by Europeans to participate in the ghastly trade.
This point was eloquently elaborated by Karl Marx: “Western capitalism, in its period of primitive accumulation, turned Africa into a commercial warren for the hunting of black skin.” Marx further pointed out that “labour in the white skin can never be free when in the black it is branded”.
The British, French and Spanish scoured the Gulf of Guinea, moved east, around the Cape of Good Hope and up to Mozambique.
The slave traders moved into the interior, plundering as they went, capturing all, regardless of age and sex, setting tribe against tribe, murdering and looting. Darcus Howe, a distinguished writer has pointed out that for the first time in its history, Africa experienced murder and plunder on an unimaginable scale.
For the African continent it was tantamount to a Holocaust. The continent was robbed of its physical, intellectual, technical and productive capabilities. The process of negative “cumulative and circular causation” devastated the continent economically and socially.
Richard Gott has pointed out: “For more than two centuries the slave trade has been the central feature of Britain’s foreign commerce. The beneficiaries included financiers, landowners, and merchants. The wealth created by slave trade was a crucial element which made the industrial revolution possible. In some specific families that wealth has cascaded down from generation to generation.”
The state of Virginia in the US was the primary site for the development of black slavery. In 1672, the King of England chartered the Royal Africa Company to bring a shipload of slaves from West Africa to the trading centres in Virginia. Prior to that time, the Dutch had already formed their own Dutch West Indies Company in 1621 to ship slaves to the Americas. African slaves were in great demand because they were skilled workers and experts in tropical agriculture. They had high immunity to malaria and yellow fever compared with Europeans and Native Americans. The slave trade made slave traders rich and brought a massive supply of labour to the Caribbean and American colonies. Capitalism in America could not have progressed without the slave trade.
They did not succeed in enslaving Native Americans (so-called “Red Indians”) as they were rebellious, supported by their tribes and knew their country better than white immigrants, while African slaves found themselves in a strange atmosphere in a strange country without any help or support.
As a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade between the 16th and mid 19th centuries, over 20 million Africans were removed from their home and shipped to the New World. Around 50 per cent died, either in transit or while being prepared for servitude.
These sons and daughters of the African continent were kidnapped and forcibly carried to the Americas to be sold and branded with the initials of their masters’ name, with large iron hooks hung around their necks. Extremely cruel instruments of torture were used against them. This applied not only to the US but also to the Caribbean and South America.Slavery in US was fundamentally different from other parts of the world. Here, most blacks were slaves and no slaves were white. It was strictly racial.
From 1660 to 1860, slavery in the United States was governed by an extensive body of laws: These laws made slavery a permanent condition inherited through the mother and defined slaves as property. It placed the label of inferiority on black skin and black culture. Slaves could not marry, own property, give evidence in a court of law, carry weapons, assemble in groups or leave plantations without permission of their master; slaves could be bought and sold, auctioned, rented and separated from their family.
It may be worth noting that many distinguished leaders of the US were slave owners. In 1774 George Washington held 202 slaves, while Thomas Jefferson owned 187 slaves and both became President of the United States and “founding fathers” of the nation. However, in their lifetimes, they did very little to relieve the suffering of slaves.
In fact, African slaves had very few supporters and friends in the countries which owned and traded them. With the honourable exception of Methodists and Quakers, many leading churches supported and profited from the slave trade. Many Bishops owned hundreds of slaves. The Church of England has recently apologised for its role in the slave trade.
Many slaves were converted to Christianity but that led to little improvement in their conditions. Slave owners had Christian names but no Christian ethics. The complicity of some Christian missionaries in the plunder of Africa has been very powerfully presented by Jomo Kenyata former president of Kenya: “When the white man came to Africa, he had the Bible and we had the land, and now we have the Bible and he has the land.”
The intellectual basis for the slave trade was provided by a twisted logic promoted by the slave owners, that slave labour was uneconomic and if slaves were freed, then they would not produce enough to feed themselves. At the same time, slave owners were renting slaves, earning rental income and were still able to feed them. This proved the duplicitous nature of this logic.
Slavery in America was different from other parts of the world not only because of its racial dimensions but also because it was solely motivated by commercial incentives. In other was words a slave was not only considered to be a chattel but also racially and culturally inferior.
It is important to note that ‘slavery was not born out of racism but racism was the consequence of slavery’.
Slavery has existed as a human institution in Africa and Asia since the days immemorial but it was not based on race or the colour of skin. It typically involved prisoners of war and was considered a humane alternative to prisoners being put to death. It was common in Africa for slave owners to adopt slave children and to marry slave women who then became a full member of the family. Slaves, after gaining their freedom, faced no difficulty in settling down in society as equals.
Slaves accumulated property and in some cases reached the status of kings, for example Jaja of Opobo in Nigeria.
One finds similar instances in the Islamic world: Prophet Mohammed’s own spokesman was a slave named Bilal. There had been a slave dynasty in India. Within Europe, slavery was common but was not based on the racial inferiority of slaves. For example, Cicero, the great orator and statesman of Rome, had a low opinion of the intellectual ability of the English, but it was not racial. He wrote in 50 BC to Atticus, his close friend and a slave trader who had settled in Athens: “Do not obtain slaves from England because they are so utterly stupid and incapable of being taught that they are unfit to form a part of the household in Athens.”
On the other hand, slavery in America was solely based on the colour of the skin and the racist perception of the inferiority of the African culture.
The example of Phyllis Wheatley is a case in point. Phyllis was born in Senegal in 1753. She was abducted into slavery at the age of seven and shipped to Boston, US. She was brought up by a family called Wheatley. At the age of 13, Phyllis had not only achieved a complete command of the English language, but also had studied Greek, Latin and published her first poem.
Later on, she published many masterpiece poems and pieces of prose. Had she lived in more enlightened times, she could have won the Nobel Prize. Many of her white opponents could not believe that a young black slave was capable of writing so well and so profoundly. They also could not tolerate her revolutionary views regarding freedom, human equality and human dignity.
The racists at the time tried to dismiss her as a fraud. The Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts prosecuted her in a court of law for plagiarism, which was a criminal offence at that time. She won the case and the racists were forced to acknowledge that she was the sole author of her works.
Oscar Wilde later on wrote that the mistreatment of Phyllis Wheatley could be put down to the fact that they (Americans) were a nation of philistines who would not have been able to define the term ‘philistine’.
It is an established maxim that where there is oppression, there is resistance! There were slave revolts in America as early as 1712. In New York slaves revolted – the revolt was not successful and 21 slaves were executed. Again there was another revolt in New York in 1741.
However, the successful revolt took place in Haiti in 1791. The slaves set up the first free black state. The Haitian revolutionaries exploded the myth of white imperialist supremacy by driving the Spanish, the British and the French out of their island in a brilliant guerrilla war.
Yet other islands also saw serious uprisings by slaves, assisted by French, they seized control of large parts of Dominica, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St Vincent, Jamaica, St. Lucia and Trinidad. The rebellion defeated two British armadas sent to destroy them, killing thousands of soldiers and seamen. The rebels were eventually defeated but they deprived the British of income from their sugar plantations for years. The danger of the continuing slave trade to British commercial interests became evident.
At the same time, anti-slavery movements were set up all over Europe and in America.
The 1772 Case of Somerset vs Stuart, with Judgement by Mansfield, the Chief Justice of England, freeing the slave (Somerset) from bondage is held to be a landmark in British judicial history. Mansfield held that slavery was irrational and could only be maintained by perverse laws.
In 1774, a Ghanaian scholar presented a brilliant thesis against slavery in a University in Holland, arguing that slavery was inconsistent and incompatible with Christianity.
In 1775, Lord Dumore, Commander of British Forces in America, declared freedom for slaves who joined the British forces against the rebels.
George Washington also asked the help of slaves to fight for freedom from the British, promising that he would put the issue of abolition of slavery before the Congress, knowing full well that the Congress would never approve it.In 1778, the Society of Friends of Blacks was set up in Paris.
In 1807 Britain finally abolished the slave trade in all its colonies.
In this respect, the contributions of Lord (William) Wilberforce (a Conservative MP) and Thomas Clarkson in fighting slavery were extremely important. They helped to set up anti-slavery committees throughout the country and mobilised public opinion against it.
Moreover, the French revolution of 1789 played a major role in providing the ideological basis for revolt against slavery. One of the first acts of the revolution was to abolish slavery.
When Britain finally abolished the slave trade, it compensated the slave owners but not the slaves, leaving the question of compensation and reparation unresolved. What Africans are asking for is the stolen fruits of their ancestor’s labour to be given back to their rightful heirs.
This is a powerful argument for the cancellation of all African debt as a collective way of admitting responsibility and atoning for the suffering western countries caused. Tony Blair has belatedly expressed “deep sorrow” over the slave trade without tendering an apology or restitution. This gesture is vacuous and unlikely to satisfy those who are demanding compensation for the descendants of slaves as well as for Africa generally.
It will not be out of the place to mention that indentured migrant labour from South Asia in the 19th century carried on where the classical slave trade left off. Indentured labourers from South Asia were dispatched to the plantations of the empire from the Pacific to the Caribbean. Death rates on these sea voyages were similar to those on the earlier Trans-Atlantic slave trade voyages.
Today there are some 30 million slaves in the world, if you include bonded labour, child labour, and a large numbers of women caught up in international prostitution.
Moreover, neo-liberalism and the dominance of multinationals are enslaving the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America, with debt bondage predatory pricing, skewed concepts of intellectual property rights, interference in internal affairs under the pretext of “human rights”, wars, occupations, setting up puppet regimes, and the outright exploitation and theft of the natural resources of these countries.
Whatever we do, ladies and gentlemen, we must not allow the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade to mollify us into self-congratulation. We ought to link it with the broader issues of today, such as poverty, disease, inequality, exploitation, environmental degradation, unprovoked attacks against defenceless countries, and occupation.
I firmly believe the battle is far from won.