Monday, December 31, 2007

The legacy of Slavery

As someone of Jamaican decent, born and living in London, the whole issue of identity and roots has always been important to me. I have long since concluded that I'm different in many ways to my white English counter-parts, and I've always valued this difference.

Jamaicans are very interesting people. Anyone who knows the history of the island would not argue that to have survived that experience, that Jamaicans must be very strong. This spiritual strength manifests itself in many ways, and is readily visible in the music and the arts. Along side the strength, Jamaicans poses a warmth and a gentle humility, which is scarcely found in other parts of the world.

I have always been curious to know how much of Jamaican culture is African and how much European. For political reasons, and because I seldom see these traits in the English, I've been happy to associate the positive Jamaicans traits with Africa. Also, some negative social traits found in Jamaica, like a propensity to use violence and a wide spread tolerance of discrimination and cruelty towards people of low social standing, I've been happy to assume that these are social traits inherited from Europe.

It comes as no surprise I suppose to find that the truth is not this simple. African complicity in the slave trade is a well known historical fact. What isn't well known though is that slavery in Africa was a normal part of life. The social issues in West Africa over land and natural resources were very similar to those in pre-industrial Europe. The people who possessed land were those who had the military and political means to hold on to it. They organised themselves into family based clans with marital and lineage systems that ensured land and property inheritance within a ruling class, much like in feudal Europe. Those without land and the conquered provided labour for the elite with land. This system worked much like serfdom and peasantry in Europe where a local (war)Lord would swear loyalty to a King and be granted land which provide him and his family with private wealth through the agricultural labour of Serf tenants. West Africa in the 15th century was no different to this. In the same way that a Lord had responsibilities for the well being of his peasants, an African Chief had a responsibility towards his slaves.

The social order was more complex of course, with the land owners representing an aristocracy, and middle classes populated by people with valued skills like priests and metal workers, and then there were the slaves, the agricultural labourers of their time. I've read that in some West African societies as much as 30 percent of the population were slaves.

With the discovery of the new world and the growth in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Slavery in Africa became a booming export industry. The ownership of slaves was no longer a natural by-product of the "prevailing social order", but a means of gaining access to European goods like cloths, spirits and most importantly guns.

As far as I can tell, being a slave in Africa did not entail the same social stigma as it did in the new world. Slaves were a by-product of wars. The conquered were made captive and used as slaves. Over time many of these slaves were assimilated into society, and marriage between slaves and non slaves was not uncommon. This assimilation was often necessary as slaves were often required to replenish a lost in population as a consequence of war. In fact the King of the Ashanti's went as far as to pass a law banning the open discussion of a persons family back ground so that people who had first entered society through captivity could be more readily assimilated without stigma.

With the arrival of the trans-Atlantic slave trade all this changed. The ability to supply slaves as an export commodity became a means of massing great power and wealth. The Europeans and and the African elite fought to control this trade with control moving amongst several powers such as the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Fante and the Ashanti over many years. On the African coast the traders whether European or African shared a common scant regard for human liberty and dignity and were all equally implicit through common greed. What had been a small scale local system to deal with the dis-enfranchised, had now become a global industry responsible for the mass transportation of over 10 Million people to the new world. To meet the demand, the African powers needed more captives which they traded for guns which then fueled more wars, which delivered more captives. The driver for all of this was an insatiable demand for sugar in Europe. Slaves were needed in the new world to produce the addictive substance sugar. So a growing demand for sugar in Europe ensured a growing demand for African slaves.

It seems that only in the new world and in Europe, that Slavery took on a racial connotation. Here race became the justification for what had become an ungodly trade. In the new world the new slave owners felt no responsibility towards what they saw as chattel, and slavery here was a de-humanising and barbaric practice justified by labeling the enslaved as some how less than human. This assessment was based solely on race, as black Africans who had converted to Christianity, and had adopted European ways were still seen as some how less human then whites.

It is into this social setting the early African Jamaicans found themselves. Disenfranchised at home and sold off to foreigners who saw them as less than human. It is difficult to imagine how they must of felt. Becoming a captive is bad enough, but loosing your humanity at the hands of people who saw you as a savage and nothing more than 'chattel', must have been completely sole destroying. In this situation, having hit rock bottom, they had no alternative than to fight, and fight they did. The history of Jamaica is dominated by rebellion. Jamaicans have rebellion in their blood. As a Jamaican plantation owner, you stood a very good chance of amassing a fortune, but you also stood a good chance of getting your throat slit too. The British Army fought many wars against the Maroons - run away slaves who chose to live high up in the Jamaican hills, until finally they were forced to grant the Maroons independence and sue for peace.

So it is this legacy that makes me who I am. Thinking it through, as far as attitudes to social inequality is concerned the Europeans and the West Africans at the time of the trans-Atlantic slave trade seem pretty similar. The main difference being the willingness of the Europeans to reduce human-beings to the status of "chattel", a situation which was sustained through racial bigotry. So perhaps it is mostly the Jamaican experience that has made Jamaicans who they are today? The experience of struggle and surviving such a huge social trauma must have had a massive impact on the Jamaican psychic. It is definitely a unique experience. One that brings shame to both Europeans and West Africans alike!

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