Friday, August 10, 2007

Slavery is just so last century....

Yesterday we visited beautiful Goree Island, just a 20 minute Ferry ride from Dakar. At the famous old Slave House the curator told the story of the millions of Slaves captured in Africa and sold into Slavery in the so called "first" world over a period of 300 years, making the point that in Western culture a communal place is reserved for the shame that is the Holocaust, but that the same shame is not reserved for Slavery, which was arguably an even worst outrage against humanity.


When Africans talk about Slavery today and suggest that there should be at least a token restitution for the wrongs committed , the response from the Western Governments and from ordinary Westerners is that, yes, Slavery was bad, but really it was long ago so stop going on about it so much and get on with your lives. The message is: you are such losers for going on about something that happened so long ago and you are really just trying to frind excuses for being so stupid and lazy.

This is a shameful rhetorical trick, but Westerners get away with it because Africans do not, in the larger scheme of things, have the political or economic power to force people to confront the absolute disgusting horror of slavery which helped to build up the economies of Western societies, while at the same time helping to devastate Africa.

And of course, unlike the Germans who spectacularly lost the Second World War, the collective West who supported and benefited from Slavery never lost a War. On the contrary, Western culture (such as it might be) an society are truimphant in the world today. Winners never have to apologise except in the most perfunctory way, and can bully the decendants of those they terrorised and murdered into submission and silence.

The Holocaust is (rightly) burnt into our collective conscience because the families and friends of those who were murdered by the Germans had the power and influence to ensure that the losers are demonised in a way fitting their crime. But those with the power to do the same for Slavery are the very descendants who grew rich and complacent on the rivers of blood spilt during Slavery. (I have been listening to a lot of French, so I am into rhetorical overdrive at the moment.)

I do not want to sound like President Mbeki (who has finally and irrevocably lost my vote by firing the Deputy Minister of Health for showing she cared), but inherent racism also make it difficult for even the most bleeding heart liberals to sympathise with the issue of Slavery. While movies about the Holocaust can still become popular (The Piano, Shindlers List), I cannnot imagine a movie that shows the true story of Slavery from the point of view of the Slaves (and not from the point of view of those "noble" whites who wished to free them) would ever win an Oscar and become a Box Office Hit.

The problem is, of course, that like the Israeli government, African states and their leaders may well use and abuse the history of Slavery for own effect. But this does not absolve the West from collective responsibility for the most shameful of acts done in the name of "Western Civilization".

11 comments:

Michael Osborne said...

Pierre, do you think it is also “inherent racism” that prevents people from recognising that, long before “the West” inaugurated its own atrocious human commerce, fellow Africans – to be precise, Arabs – were enslaving black Africans on a massive scale? And what about the fact, which I don’t think is subject to serious dispute, that many of the slaves taken both by Europeans and Arabs had been captured by fellow Africans?
The age-old methodologies of European intellectual and moral superiority are no longer believed by anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Let not those superstitions be replaced with sentimental counter-myths, depicting an unmitigated “European” savagery visited upon a continent of noble innocents. History is just more complicated than our President (or his loyal scribe, Ronald), can begin to imagine.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of movies from the viewpoint of the slaves, I think Steven Spielberg's Amistad comes close. Yes, slavery is really something the Western (and Middle East) 'civilizations' should not be particularly proud about. Moreover, slavery is not yet dead, just practiced in other (more inhumane?; more hidden?) ways - see the latest media reports on sexual slavery and South Africa's attempt to proscribe 'trafficking in human beings'. Abhorrent I say!

Anonymous said...

Hey, Michael: that's quite a hectic little blog you have there!

Anonymous said...

Slavery! Pah! What about those 'modern' humans, then - those who came out of Africa around 50,000 years ago to colonize (colonize!) Asia and Europe, and succeeded in wiping out the 'archaic' humans (Homo erectus, Neandertals) they found there? That's genocide! Why did they do it? Because they could! Man's inhumanity to man is well documented throughout history. The modern Africans' descendants - that's us, Pierre's much-maligned Westerners - later went back to Africa to enslave/colonize/oppress/exploit the Africans. Because they could. Moral of story: what goes around, comes around, and it never stops.

Dean said...

If we're going to talk about genocide I reckon that we should include democide. Western history has companions when it comes to atrocities. I'm still waiting for Hollywood to produce a blockbuster about the long running assault on the Palestinians. Unlikely.

I've enslaved no one, haven't killed anyone, don't deliberately help with the financing of occupational forces, and feel no guilt for atrocities that I didn't participate in. Having said that, I'm not proud of atrocities committed by the West in the past. That doesn't mean that I'm about to dismiss all of Western history as shameful. I treasure much of my Western heritage and will continue to do so.

Africannabis said...

Roadside pedestrian deaths...

have killed more than were shipped throughout slavery.

Anonymous said...

Michael Osborne has read van Zyl Slabbert's book I see.
Don't expect any intelligence on this site albeit from a professor

Pierre de Vos said...

Michael, it is true that the "mythologies of European intellectual and moral superiority" would never be endorsed in polite company today, but to say that it is not believed or does not permeate the very fiber of Western culture, seems to me extremely naive. One cannot attend any conference (or go to any restaurant for that matter) with a black friend without noticing the implicit superiority of whites towards blacks. It is so obnoxious exactly because the white people think they are perfectly nice and not racist at all.

In any case, the issue here is not whether other people (including Africans) have been or are horrible to others. The issue is that the myth of the Enlightenment - a Western culture built on reason and rationality and fairness - on which the moral leadership of the world by the West is built, is just a myth. Dominant cultures often claim to be uniquely virtuous and fair and thus entitled to rule the world, thus trying to disguise the violence and double standards and disdain on which their dominance is built. The collective shrug of the shoulders about Slavery in Western culture represents a perfect example of how those who rule the world can control the discourse and thus can claim virtue in the face of overwhelming evidence of wickedness.

A culture who claims that it is true and fair and virtues mus be held to that claim. But Western culture cannot be held to that claim and are thus morally bankrupt.

Michael Osborne said...

Pierre, please note that I said the anyone with “a modicum of intelligence” would abjure the mythology of European moral superiority. Yes, I agree that these complacent pretensions remain commonplace. It is just that I assume that Europeans who continue to cleave to those myths are foolish, or at least ignorant What I was specifically criticising is the counter-myth -- which I thought might be implicit in your initial posting – that the victims of “European” depredations are morally superior. I am cynical enough to believe that, if “Africans” (or Chinese, or whomever), had had the technological advantage, they would have been every bit as exploitative and cruel as the “Europeans” were, and are. The idea that “Africans” (another crude essentialism), are inherently gentle people, suffused with Ubuntu, who lived in grace, sweetness and light before the onset of colonialism, is patronizing nonsense. Itself a form of racism, in fact. I am not saying you believe that. Yet many an American undergraduate takes it for granted.

Speaking of Americans, you say “[a] culture who claims that it is true and fair and virtuous must be held to that claim.” But Pierre, does not every culture make such claims? (I think it is deeply problematic to speak of Western “culture,” but that is a different debate.) I am not aware that Arab “culture,” holds itself to be un-true and un-fair and un-virtuous. And I have not noticed that Arab “culture” spends very much time agonizing over its historic guilt for centuries of holding black Africans in slavery. There may be even less chance of an apology for slavery from brother Ghaddafi than there is of an apology from London, Paris or Washington.

Africannabis said...

Ooo the past - anyone care to comment on present day roadkill?

.... ?

Or will we in future look back and discuss it intellectually as as glitch in out transport system?

I am constantly amazed at the shock and horror (and time) people spend on the past. When in the here and now there are more horrors in your backyard than Slavery and Apartheid put together.

Because it appears to afflict only the most marginalised - do we as a culture ignore these subhumans till the future when we can pontificate on their horror.

2020 - "Those shacklands that used to fill the Cape Flats were a blight on civilsed society. How could we as people have allowed them to be washed away in the big flood"

Yip - "Slavery is just so last century!"

ROADKILL is always fresh!

Dean said...

A huge blot on Western history is that a great number of other cultures have been destroyed in the drives to 'civilise'.