Just who were those people

Commemorating the lives of Enslaved Africans.

  1. Taitu Heron
    Commemorating the lives of Enslaved Africans.
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    Just who were those people
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    • 1. 1 JUST WHO WERE THOSE PEOPLE? Taitu Heron Lecturer, Institute for Gender & Development Studies, University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica taitu.heron02@uwimona.edu.jm SANKOFIE & IGDS Seminar on African Perspectives on Spirituality February 27, 2011 People of African descent entered a new dispensation when they forcibly arrived to the Americas. As Professor Verene Shepherd pointed out, there is much to memorialise, recover and reclaim. My purpose here today, since this year the UN commemorates the International Year for People of African Descent, is to reflect on just who are those people when we say – People of African descent that will segue into our guest speaker’s presentation on African perspectives on Spirituality. The grand plan as you see in your programme was to focus on Gender in the West and reclaiming African spirituality. However, Spirit intervened last night when Okomfo Mena asked me to take pictures of the monument and to send her the names of the ancestors engraved on the monument. Needless to say, seeing all those names had a great impact on me. This monument which is 2 minutes walking distance away from where I park my car and 5 minutes from my office was unknown to me in such detail before this event... I had only seen it peripherally and therefore had not really SEEN it at all.
    • 2. 2 I have been disconnected from the historical significance of the space where I work and the ground under which the building is now located and the enslaved people that once occupied that space and worked there too... and God knows suffered unimaginable things. Thus speaking of gender in the West in a clear academic sense is now peripheral. Instead, my approach is driven my Spirit. Today, instead, the ancestors want us to identify them and give them voice; and deconstruct what we mean when we say – “People of African descent” or as my Director likes to say – People of African Ascent. We must speak of names, their lives, lifestyles, lessons, modes of being, trauma and memory that cut across the gendered experience of children, adolescents, adults and the elderly. The traumas began from African villages and continued on the Middle Passage. Chained two by two, right leg and left leg, right hand and left hand, each person had less room than a coffin.
    • 3. 3 Olaudah Equiano’s account as a young boy of 14 years stolen from Nigeria is an account of one who suffered through such a profound ordeal. He recalls in his memoir: "I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me." ..." we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel. ...The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome....The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died -- thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. (Narrative of Olaudah Equiano) The story of the slave ship Zong gives another unforgettable account. The ship was under the command of Luke Collingwood and his crew. They left from the coast of Africa on September 6, 1781 on a voyage to Jamaica. By November 29, 1781 the ship had unfortunately claimed the lives of seven white men and sixty African slaves. The crew had packed on more enslaved persons than they had room (470 instead of 350) and this caused a lot of disease and malnutrition. Luke Collingwood made the decision of throwing the remaining sick Africans over the boat. He pulled his crew together and told them that if the sick Africans died a natural death, then the responsibility would be on them as the ship's crew. But if they were thrown over while still alive for the safety of the ship it would be the under the responsibility of the underwriters. This seems very unjust, but at the time it was a law in Europe because enslaved Africans were seen as merchandise and a matter of insurance. Collingwood and his crew threw over 133 captured Africans, one managing to escape and climb back onto the boat. Shyllon goes on to say, "The last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death.". When they returned to England the owners of the ship claimed the full value of the murdered Africans from the insurers. They claimed they there was a necessity because of water depletion. Well it was proven later that it was all a lie and that the captain had an opportunity for more water on December 1. By the time the Zong had arrived in Black River (St Elizabeth) Jamaica on December 22, they had 420 gallons of water to spare. No one was punished and no African was compensated. Of adult men and women that shark grew full on black meat Of young men and women that shark grew fat on black meat Of children, boys and girls, that shark grew up on black meat Of elders who watched from a far in the ancestral sleep, that shark grew sick of black meat.....(Miller 2003)
    • 4. 4 After the trauma of the Middle Passage was over, the newly captured Africans were forced to embrace life as an enslaved man, woman or child on a plantation. In specifically focusing on plantation life, I wish to drawn on the plantation of Mona Estate and Papine Estate on which this University now occupies. By looking at the ancestral monument nearby we can see that: Some 187 persons lived here in 1817, a few more females than males, with under one-quarter of them African born. Of this community, about 50 were under 15 years old, while less than 10 were 61 years and over. Coming from various African societies along the West coast of Africa and elsewhere, where seniority mattered more than gender, what kind of cruel adjustments had to made? We can deduce from historical records that in 1817, Jamaica was a prime sugar colony in the period of mature plantation society (Kamau Brathwaite, Creole Society). Stage IV – 1804 – 1838, corresponds with the general crisis in plantation slavery and linked with increasing rebellion which hastened emancipation, the impact of the Haitian Revolution, and anti- slavery discussion and agitation by white abolitionists in the colonial metropole. Members of the plantocracy had grown accustomed to living a life of leisure, lasciviousness and profit on the backs, blood and wombs of many enslaved Africans; and were anxious to retain their dominant position. It was also a time of increased missionary activity whereby Baptist and Anglican missioners set about the task of Christianizing what they deemed as “heathen Africans”. With the African God of our heritage condemned as pagan and spiritual practices promoted as demonic, we were deemed filthy and ahistorical. It was only through being cleansed in the body of Christ that we could become whole again. From the records we can deduce that many women were subject to sexual violence, their bodies taken at will by white planters or overseers. Both they and their menfolk were helpless most of the times, to help them fight off the blows. A significant portion of the older women and men would have had to have mated to produce children not for love (although there was that too amidst all that) but because the planters demanded a natural replacement of the labour force after the abolition of the British trade in Africans in 1806. Even though this was so, the harsh conditions of slavery, for both men and women, also meant that the mortality rate was high, for the average life of an enslaved African in the Caribbean was 40 years for men and 45 years for women (Beckles & Shepherd). Here on Papine Village, 187, only 10 were elderly. Being old during slavery was not an honourable condition, you were no longer a useful supplier of labour. This stood in stark contrast to the elevation that elders held in traditional African societies: Old woman Her pain and her age wrestled To see which would convolute her more The old woman who watched her children die
    • 5. 5 In the swamps at the hands of the white man’s God Her own God left far behind Perhaps not knowing the way to this strange land Old woman comes to greet us Crying for her children I feel your pain old woman (Miller, 2003) From our historical records, we can also deduce that all these 187 persons would have felt the weight of the whip because they were subject to the slave laws of Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands (which where the stepping-stone for the institutionalisation of slavery, not only in the Western Hemisphere, but also throughout the world). They would have had to work and live under the “The Acts for Governing Negroes”, or the Slave Code of 1664, which placed almost no limits on the slaveholder's power to "correct" his or her slaves. This code explicitly declared that "Negroes" were a "heathenish, brutish, uncertaine and dangerous kind of people," unfit to be tried according to English law. Masters were not allowed to "wantonly" kill their slaves, but if a slave died in the course of a punishment for a "misdemeanor," the law stated that "noe person shall be accomptable to any law." Enslaved African men tested the slave codes and did not take the institutionalisation of violence lightly. Diane Patton in her article, “Punishment, crime, and the bodies of slaves in eighteenth- century Jamaica” tells us about an enslaved man named Daniel and his fellow enslaved men who plotted to kill an overseer and run away: Daniel, had been convicted of "violently assaulting Sir Edward Seymour with a large clasp knife," a crime for which he received 300 lashes and was then transported off the island. Another slave, an accomplice to Daniel, was sentenced to be "hung up in body chains till he be dead." Anthony, the third accomplice, was to be "staked down and made fast to the ground and burnt till he be dead." Frank, the fourth was to be “hanged and then to have his head severed and stuck on a pole”. The black man was not created equal to the task of slavery: The black man was not created equal to the task of slavery The black man was not created equal to the task of slavery His chest not made to withstand the branding of the iron His back not lined to bear the stripping lashes of the whip His manhood not prepared for the raping of his women His pride not enough to have his family split apart His name not enough to suit the white man’s tongue His dances not choreographed for the white man’s feet His songs were not sweet to the white man’s ear His masks not carved for the white man’s face
    • 6. 6 His hands not shaped to squeeze life from the white man’s neck The black man was not created equal to the task of slavery (Miller, 2003) Children, boys and girls were not spared by virtue of childish innocence. According to the Slave Code, those that had passed the age of 8 years could receive punishment of up to 12 lashes. Mary Prince’s narrative gives us a hint: There were two little slave boys in the house, on whom she [my mistress] vented her bad temper .... One of these children was a mulatto, called Cyrus, who had been bought while an infant in his mother's arms; the other, Jack, was an African from the coast of Guinea, whom a sailor had given or sold to my master. Seldom a day passed without these boys receiving the most severe treatment, and often for no fault at all. Both my master and mistress seemed to think that they had a right to ill-use them at their pleasure; and very often accompanied their commands with blows, whether the children were behaving well or ill. I have seen their flesh ragged and raw with licks.--Lick--lick-- Lick--lick Lick--lick Lick--lick Lick- -lick Lick--lick Lick--lick Lick--lick Lick--lick Lick--lick Lick--lick Lick--lick ...they were never secure one moment from a blow, and their lives were passed in continual fear. Mary Prince also spoke of the violence she received under the whip: I was licked, and flogged, .... To strip me naked--to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow-skin, was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence. ... She goes into further detail about a fellow enslaved woman named Hetty: Poor Hetty, my fellow slave, was very kind to me, and I used to call her my Aunt; but she led a most miserable life, and her death was hastened (at least the slaves all believed and said so,) by the dreadful chastisement she received from my master during her pregnancy. It happened as follows. One of the cows had dragged the rope away from the stake to which Hetty had fastened it, and got loose. My master flew into a terrible passion, and ordered the poor creature to be stripped quite naked, notwithstanding her pregnancy, and to be tied up to a tree in the yard. He then flogged her as hard as he could lick, both with the whip and cow-skin, till she was all over streaming with blood. He rested, and then beat her again and
    • 7. 7 again. Her shrieks were terrible. ..Hetty was brought to bed before her time, and was delivered after severe labour of a dead child. She appeared to recover after her confinement, so far that she was repeatedly flogged by both master and mistress afterwards; but her former strength never returned to her. Ere long her body and limbs swelled to a great size; and she lay on a mat in the kitchen, till the water burst out of her body and she died. The white woman feels the shadow of the pain of slavery: The white woman feels the shadow of the pain of slavery. For how could she understand the depths of its horrors when she benefited from its infliction? When the black woman does not even begin to comprehend Why strange men came to her and took that which was hers to give Why she squeezed her legs tightly to prevent the seed entering And squeezed even tighter to prevent the fruit exiting The white woman who refuses to try to countenance the stories of slavery For she does not want to imagine her ancestors’ limitlessness of unbound cruelty When the black woman still cannot grasp Why she wears on her chest the brand from a hell-hot iron Why she was beaten and sold leaving her children behind As she resisted being serviced like cattle to increase backra’s wealth (Miller 2003) I could go on and on by digging into the archives of history on enslavement in the Americas and by extracting other poems, narratives and stories that we have. We are not short of copious resources telling us of the lives of adult men and women, adolescents, girls and boys, and the elderly who woke up being subjected to violence every single day for almost 400 years. However we are short on knowing, acknowledging, and honouring the details. Some of us would probably leave here sad, angry or depressed. However we must not be. Rather we must honour the difficult, respect the traumas and respect the lives of those who lived it here as we move forward because that is what they want us to do. So how then do we move forward? Moving forward is to embrace SANKOFA – where it is not taboo to go back in your past to move into the future... Examining gender relations in this current era -- rapes on end, police brutality, gang violence, impregnation of young girls by older men, physical abuse of our elders; physical and sexual abuse of our children; the existing class relations that are still built around complexes of embedded inferiority, superiority and feelings and expectations of entitlement to privilege; and politicians and ministers of religion acting out of
    • 8. 8 integrity. We could easily well argue that we continue to be trapped in definitions of society defined by the experience of slavery. All of us have been branded with the iron on the chest, but the scar is still there and Spirit remembers because we have not been nurturing our spirits in a way that heals. This is not a blame game but rather to say that deep inside this change has to occur in a very deliberate way that honours us and the trauma of our ancestors so that they may also rest. Just as how we have been rewarded with a plethora of history books on the experience of enslavement (Genovese, Brodber, Shepherd, Burton, Beckles, Mair, Braithwaite, Watson, Bryan, Brereton and many more), so too we have been given many sign posts which on deeper examination will be treasures to repair the breach. These sources come from many parts of Africa (not just West Africa) and they let us know that the principles of society were built on balanced gender relations that accepts that each life cycle for a human being was to be guided through by a community of elders (Ru, Karade, Ani, Olatunji, Ewe, Ambimbola, Clarke, Ante Diop, Van Sertima, T’Shaka etc). Life giving values such as justice, reciprocity and balance are embraced as commonly as breathing. To this end, in African and Asiatic cosmologies, the Spirit connects (i) a higher power, (ii) ancestral kin, (iii) the natural environment and (iv) living beings within the circle of life and death towards the attainment of a better human being imbued with strength of good character. Subjugation or domination therefore has no basis for existence. But we have not made that psychic split with the past to say – this is not how we wish to live with each other anymore and establish what governing principles would allow us to purposefully reclaim an African way, whether here in the Diaspora and in many parts of the continent. I will end with another poem by Carol Miller with some spiritual interventions. It will point us to where this split may need to occur in order to continue the project of emancipation that remains unfinished: And was it the white man’s God who delivered us from the White man Then his God betrayed him Or is it that our God consulted with the white man’s God And made a deal perhaps if we worshipped the white man’s God he would soften the white man’s heart and set us free? Then our God has betrayed us And is it this betrayal why we cleave to the white God His image adorning our homes, embedding our minds, blocking liberating thoughts Placing him reverently and very early in the hearts of our children --- yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me... the bible tells me so... Why we no longer speak honourably of our own God But confine them to secret places, whispers, mockery and condemnation We have betrayed our God And has the white man’s God not betrayed us
    • 9. 9 For it was not the blood of animals or sacrifices of chickens and goats But of fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles The blood of those people of African descent that the white man’s God demanded we paid for this freedom How will we redeem our God and how will our God redeem us? Adupe. Works cited Clarkson, Thomas, The Cries of Africa to the Inhabitants of Europe or a Survey of that Bloody Commerce Called the Slave Trade, London: Harvey Dart & Co. 1822. Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, London: 1789 (reprinted Coral Gables:1989). Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Hilary Beckles & Verene Shepherd (1992) eds. The Diary of Mary Prince. In Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World. Erica Major, London Bell, Turkessa Baldridge, and Tene Jackson, Slavery in Eighteenth Century England, April 1999. http://www.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/slavery/ Carol Loy Miller, Untitled: A Collection of Words and Pictures, Arawak Publications. 2003. Diana Patton, Punishment, crime, and the bodies of slaves in eighteenth-century Jamaica. Slave Codes of Barbados, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands, 1664. Online version.
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