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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 27 December 2018

"Sins of the fathers" by James Pope-Hennessey

A history of the slave trade with rather more vivid description than most.

If the title were not clear enough, the first chapter makes the author's position plain, describing slavery as "that vast complex of international crime by which, in four centuries, a total of fifteen million men, women and children of African blood were delivered into transatlantic slavery, under conditions so hideous that another nine million are estimated to have died during crossing.” (C 1) This is not academic history. This is the position of the prosecution. Swiftly he dismisses the economic argument: that the British transatlantic slave trade came into being because of the labour requirements of the agriculture being developed in the New World and ended because the sugar islands were no longer so important to the British economy. He also denounces the position that the slave trade was a marginal activity: "a trade in which so many Europeans and Africans indulged for centuries cannot have been run exclusively by money-maniacs and pocket sadists." (C 1) In essence the purpose of this book is to know who to blame.

But I found the moral analysis of the blame too narrow and naive. I propose that slavery is wrong and that the transatlantic slave-trade was a particularly nasty form of slavery involving other great moral wrongs such as kidnapping, false imprisonment, torture, mutilation and murder. But from this I would go on to say that, with the exception of the slaves who were victims, all the participants in the slave trade bear some moral guilt. Pope-Hennesey seems to disagree. He excuses the Africans who kidnapped the slaves in the first place and then sold them to the slave-trade captains. He quotes an ex-slave as saying ‘If there were no buyers there would be no sellers’ and comments "that is the crux of the matter, and the final word that can be said on African ‘guilt’.”(C 10.1) Such a point of view is also used to excuse prostitutes, redefining them as 'sex workers' and instead to attach moral blame to their clients. But if this is then extended to the drug industry we are presumably blaming the addicts and excusing the dealers. It seems to me that the African slavers may be less guilty than the slave captains and the plantation owners but they cannot be entirely excused.

Similarly, Pope-Hennesey acknowledges the existence of slavery among the Anglo-Saxons (abolished in England by the Normans although the serfdom with which it was replaced was not much better) and endemic in some African societies but seems to consider these as innocent variants. Whilst I agree that the transatlantic slave-trade offered extreme horrors and extreme immoralities I don't think one can consider any form of slavery as morally acceptable. Furthermore, Pope-Hennesey does not mention the slave trade that existed during the middle ages in the Indian Ocean, possibly involving up to twenty-two million slaves, and the more than one million Europeans captured by Barbary pirates between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. If we start believing that slavery was a one-off moral horror it may make us complacent when we need to be morally alert to any erosion of the freedom of individuals.

This aside, Pope-Hennessey has provided some wonderful descriptions of horrors and many fascinating facts:
Just as the colour black was, for most Europeans, connected with night, witches and the Powers of Darkness, so, to many Africans, white was often of the colour of devils, and the semaring of the face with white clay was calculated to inspire terror.” (C 3.4)
Many of the plants associated with Africa (eg maize, yams, and coconut palms) were in fact plants from the New World or the Indian Ocean imported during this period. This was partly because the slave traders built gardens around their forts: “To have strange and inadequate, often repulsive, food added to the other health hazards of a lethal climate was asking too much." (C 4.1)
The reason it took so long for the Europeans to find West Africa was that “mariners would not venture beyond Cape Bojador, for fear that they and their ships would plunge over the edge of the world-platform into oblivion.” (C 4.2) I’m not sure this is true. The accepted view was that the world was round (and sailors were always prepared to sail beyond the horizon) but that the temperatures as you progressed south became too hot for wooden ships and humans to bear.
The word ‘fetish’ derives from the Portuguese ‘feti├žos’, images; the word ‘ju-ju’ is from the French word ‘joux’, toys (C 5.2)
You might buy a parcel of youths and girls in the market at Bridgetown, Barbados, or Charleston, Carolina, but you could never really be sure what exact quantity of hatred, hostility and magic you were carting back to the slave-barracks of your comfortable Palladian home.” (C 5.2)
The Oba of Benin was “so heavily sheathed in polished gold that when he rose to his feet he had to be propped up by two slaves, who likewise operated his arms for him when he wished to gesticulate.” (C 5.3)
Portugal retained their fort at Whydah until it was annexed by Dahomey in 1961. “The Portuguese representative at Whydahr burned his motor-car in front of the fort as a protest, whereupon Dahomey issued a celebration postage-stamp showing the charred wreckage of the Citroen.” (C 5.3 fn)
Slaves were branded by their owners: SPG denoted slaves of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (C 6.1)
To work on ships which often were merely floating coffins - the ships taking slaves to Rio de Janeiro were in fact called tumbeiros from the Portuguese for tomb - was at once brutalizing and nauseous.” (C 7.1)
The primitive, rickety basis of gracious living in the West Indian Islands required a cohort of house-slaves” (C8.3)
The first line of defence for any vanquished or occupied nation, as for any camp of war-prisoners, is calculated cunning and deceit.” (C 8.4)
The African concept of style was influenced by the slave-trading ships:
the upper floor of any two-storied Efik house is still called a ‘dek’.” (C 12.2)
King Pepple would sometimes sport a pair of scarlet leather boots which seemed too small for him and which caused him to topple over when he was drunk.” (C 13.3)
Negro proverbs” include “‘If you knock de nose de eye cry’ ... ‘as de ole crow fly, so de young one do too’.” (C 13.1)
Slave girls were inevitably raped. Some slave traders “were thought to have literally worn themselves away copulating in the night dews on the coast.” (C 13.3)

December 2018; 280 pages

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