Sometimes the best pain-relieving therapy is a tasteless joke. As a painful relic of the slave trade, we usually joke with the apocryphal tale of a Fante man in a slave castle in Cape Coast who humbly implored an unattended gun to be still while he visited the toilet. He had been programmed to respect the owner of the gun and all things that belong to the master. If he would ask for permission from the master before doing anything, he would accord his property the same respect.
Has the old order changed much today? We believe in solutions from far more than our own prescriptions.
The transatlantic slave trade remains the greatest crime in history. Africans were quantified in economic units and sold away to till the land in foreign plantations. Many slaves died on the way. About 2million were killed while some five percent died in prison before they were shipped. Those who were sick or too weak on arrival were left to die. There is the shocking account of a slave master who threw some of some of his into the high seas to die, so he could claim fat insurance for their loss. The killing of a slave was legalised. In Virginia, the killing and destruction of Negros was passed into law. The women were constantly raped, beaten and killed.
Slaves who survived the brutality at the master’s plantations were not in a better position than those who were killed. In 1756 Thomas Thistlewood, a notorious slave owner, ordered a slave to be flogged endlessly and maimed. He then asked another slave owner to defecate into his mouth. The slave’s crime was that he had stolen sugar cane when he was hungry. Slaves who tried to run away were nailed to the ground and burnt. Fire was applied to their hands and feet, and as they wailed in suffering their masters laughed and teased. In 1736, 77 slaves who protested the evil treatment were burnt to death in Antigua. Six of the ringleaders were hanged in cages and watched to die of thirst. Those who were reprimanded for lesser crimes received light punishment like castration, and had their foot chopped off. There was a circular in all plantations, advising slave owners to institutionalise terror, to keep slaves in subjugation.
Even at a relatively younger age, I have been hurt too many times that I can't imagine the form of apology that will be adequately placatory. I have been cuckolded on occasions without number, but I have never suffered the humiliation of chewing and swallowing human faeces. I have rebelled too many times against authority, but I mostly escaped without a knock on the head. But the awful knowledge that my forefathers were subjected to this treatment makes me a very sad fellow. In many ways, a filter would leave an imprint on that which it filters. I am not a direct victim, but I am descendant of a victim. Theirs is a crime that went down as the darkest moment in the history of civilization.
In his first speech to parliament in 1789, William Wilberforce made a painful acknowledgement of the role of Britain in the transatlantic slave trade. “I mean not to accuse anyone but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole parliament of Great Britain, for having allowed this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority.” When a normal person feels ashamed of a crime committed in the past, the usual thing to do is to apologise, often profusely.
In that same speech, Wilberforce noted that the crime of slave trade was so horrendous that a mere apology will not be enough to convey the depth of the regret of the British people. He moved: “Let us make reparation to Africa so far as we can, by establishing trade upon true commercial principles”. He knew he was culpable, and so were all his compatriots. When the Act abolishing the slave trade was passed in 1807, he wrote to the government of the day: “I’m only one among many fellow labourers.”
During the 200 bicentenary commemoration of the abolition of slavery, Toyin Agbetu, a Nigerian immigrant in Britain, stormed the British parliament during an official church service which was held as part of the event to disrupt proceedings. The queen who was in attendance bent down her head while Tony Blair, then Prime Minister looked on in dismay. As Toyin was restrained and led outside, he continued calling the British people a disgrace. Toyin’s actions and gyrations may be inappropriate, but I could understand where the man was coming from. If you cannot officially apologise for your wrongdoing, why waste our time with a cosmetic window dressing to mark end of a crime that still persists in different guises?
On the Volta Lake in Ghana, children as young as ten are virtually bought from their parents for as little as 400,000 cedis, to serve as apprentices in a fishing trade. They are deprived of basic education and serve under masters who see them as part of their possessions. More than 1.8 million children are sold into sex slavery today. Conservative estimates in South East Asia have it that nearly a million children are in the sex trade.
In Cambodia, the sex trade is so pervasive that even the police are accomplices. Because virgins are pricy in the sex trade, girls whose virginity has already been taken are made virgins again, by restiching their hymen. They cost double the usual. A sixth of the world’s population lives in India, where the largest number of child slaves work in cloth weaving shops. A greater number are also in the sex trade. Each month, more than 300 children cross the Yemen border to Saudi Arabia, where some 24,000
children are working as professional beggars on the streets. In Ethiopia, about 50,000
homeless children live on the streets of Addis-Ababa. Child trafficking itself sees some 1.2million children crossing borders around the world. World Labour Organisation figures on child labour are low but child slavery persists in forms that are too degrading for the 21st Century. Ghanaian orphanages are worse than slave castles, as children are made to fast and starve while their food donations are sold by their caretakers.
The principle underlying slavery and discrimination is that evil thought that one group of people are superior to another. We have a case for dignity and respect but we must pursue that case looking inwards than outwards. The enemy might be within.