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Raffique Shah


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No man must ride your back

By Raffique Shah
April 01, 2007

Last week the world's conscience drifted back in time, some 400 years, to the barbaric transatlantic slave trade, and to the bicentennial of its formal abolition in 1807. What I read and heard of apologies sans reparations, of manufacturing heroes and liberators while ignoring those who really fought to free themselves, I found nauseating. I noted, too, that the hypocrisy of the descendants of the slavers was matched by the hypocrisy-or ignorance-of those whose forebears were victims of slavery. It's all a charade designed to distort history, to extort money from those who have no obligation to pay for the sins of others, and to play the blame game.

Lest I am misunderstood, although frankly I don't give a damn, let me say that the African slave trade was the most degrading, murderous, barbaric display of man's inhumanity to man in history. Not that it was the first time man enslaved man. From the dawn of history the strong have always imposed their will on the weak, the wealthy on the poor. In almost every society, at some point in its history, slavery was accepted as a way of life.

In ancient Africa, powerful rulers and tribes imposed their will on smaller ethnic groups, and even within tribes the powerful enslaved the powerless. Before Europeans started their slave trade, Arab traders made African slavery part of "commerce". Every continent-America, Asia, Europe-and more than a few island states engaged in subjugating man in the worst possible way-enslavement.

In fact, slavery is a thriving business today. It happens here in Trinidad and Tobago. You don't believe me? Think of orphans who are shunted from "family" to "family", only to be abused, to have their freedoms and rights seized, to be treated like animals.

Sometimes we only discover the truth when tragedy strikes. Think, too, of how many among us, mainly the wealthy and the strong, enslave our own. Maids and other household employees, children who labour in fields or in businesses for little or no compensation-what are they but slaves? And don't even mention illegal migrant workers here and elsewhere in the world. In Europe, the flesh slave trade is thriving, as young women, some mere children, are seized from East Europe and held captive in the flesh markets of London, Paris, Berlin...

Even as we mark the 200th anniversary of the law in Britain that prohibited the enslavement of Africans, the world around us is not free from slavery. Still, for sheer barbarism there is nothing to compare with what transpired when Europeans discovered "black gold" in Africa, an almost inexhaustible supply of free labour for their many plantations across their newly-acquired colonies.

Those who dare to compare African slavery with Indian indentureship do not know their history. The conditions under which captive Africans were brought to the West were beyond a sadist's imagination. I shan't even bother to describe the atrocities those ten-million-plus Africans suffered. Those who don't know should read up on the horror known as the Middle Passage.

Today, 400 years after the fact, we see members of British royalty, government ministers and politicians pretend to atone for the sins of their ancestors by symbolic gestures. In Africa itself, where that epoch in the continent's history was largely forgotten, many governments have jumped on the bandwagon. These are people who looked down their noses at the descendants of slaves.

I know. I lived for a while in England in the 1960s and saw the way Ghanians and Nigerians (among others) treated their West Indian "brethren". It was similar to the treatment meted out to the descendants of indentured Indians by "real Indians" who came directly from the sub-continent.

In lionising William Wilberforce as the great liberator of slaves, Britain is excluding the tens of thousands of slaves who fought to free themselves, some using their bare hands, others crude weapons, and most sacrificing their lives in the process.

Toussaint and Dessalines and Daaga are forgotten men. But Europe will always make heroes of their own, and hardly would you hear a word of condemnation of Queen Victoria or Hawkins and Drake.

Similarly, my Afro-brethren completely ignore the harsh truth that many among African royalty played a nasty role in enslaving their own. It was they who captured hapless, poor people from the continent and sold them to the slavers.

The latter hardly went into the towns and villages gathering slaves. They merely collected them at trading posts-already shackled and waiting to be taken into the living hell that was the Middle Passage. So while the Europeans were culpable for the atrocities they inflicted upon millions of slaves, so too were their many African "suppliers". It is why I refuse to recognise the likes of the Ooni of Ife.

We can only truly emancipate ourselves when, in remembering the past, we stand strong, refusing to bow or bend to anyone. That way no one, not even our own, can ever again ride our backs. Or enslave us.