31 August 2007

Four stations on the slave trade

Last week I travelled from Monrovia to Dakar, Senegal and then to Brussels and Lisbon. This unusually indirect itinerary (the product of indecision and obscure ticket conditions) has made me think about something that rarely occupies a white European: slavery.

We spent two months living in the Baptist Compound, Congo Town: named after the ‘Congos’, as the freed slaves who founded Liberia were called. Monrovia was built by them, funded by their guilty ex-masters and grew rich on enslaving the locals in their turn. The Americans who settled in Liberia created plantations whose rubber still contributes half their country’s exports. Only one of Liberia’s presidents was not Liberian-American: Samuel Doe, a semi-illiterate brute whose vindictive rule so incensed the elite that they helped fund his removal. He was succeeded by Charles Taylor, a pale-skinned, white-suited Baptist preacher. Taylor’s concrete palace, freshly painted, is right opposite the Baptist Compound.

I flew to Dakar on Slok Air. Its clapped-out 737 performs the West African stopping service the Royal Mail steamers used to. We stopped at Freetown to take on passengers. Across the river, a peak shone in the late afternoon sun. You could make out scattered houses on it: this is Hill Station, where the ‘Krios’ who founded Sierra Leone built their bungalows well above the malaria-infested ‘native settlement’ down below. The Krios were freed slaves too, but after 50 years of self-government the British decided they were getting ‘uppety’ and took over on the pretext that the Krios were excluding the natives of Sierra Leone from power. You guessed the next bit: a century of resentment and rivalry, boiling over in a bloody civil war . . .

Senegal is a complete contrast. It is the model of a self-confident Africa: it celebrates its French administration and bread as much as its Islamic heritage and vibrant music. A little offshore of booming Dakar, the Ile de Goree welcomes visitors. I went on Sunday, along with thousands of Senegalese, to delight in the colonial architecture. One of the prettiest buildings is called ‘La Maison des Esclaves’. Each room has a label: ‘Hommes’, ‘Femmes’, ‘Jeunes filles’ and so on. An arched door leads straight into the Atlantic ocean. Through this door, it is estimated that some tens of thousands of slaves were packed into waiting ships. There were many such houses on Goree, which was so lucrative that it changed hands repeatedly between 1650 and 1815, captured and recaptured by Dutch, French and British navies. Just like the Portugese, Arabs, Germans and British fought over Zanzibar.

What the guide on Goree didn’t tell us was that Mauritania, 300km to the north, tolerated slavery until 1981. Indeed, while I was in Senegal, the parliament of Mauritania voted to make slave trafficking a crime, so as to be able to prosecute it (see this article in Jeune Afrique, or the BBC for background). Mauritania’s democratically elected president – its first since 1960 – had made the issue a central pillar in his campaign.

I flew to Belgium on SN Brussels, a fading relic of empire whose Airbuses are still the best link to Kinshasa and Kigali. Belgium was the last European country to get into slavery. To make up for lost time, they kept the slaves right in the Congo where they came from. The pompous palaces of Brussels were paid for with Congolese copper and diamonds. In Tervuren, near the airport, King Leopold built the ‘Royal Museum of Central Africa’. It is still open, but when I visited in 2004, the ivory tusks and photos of happy natives dancing were being replaced with maps and mementoes of slaughter: for when Mr Kurtz died, he took an estimated 5 million Congolese with him.

Finally to Lisbon, from where Europeans first set sail for Africa and the Carribbean. Portugal was the first country into Africa and the last out: Angola and Mozambique didn’t attain their independence until 1974. The picture below shows the Cap Sao Vicente, the most south-westerly point in Europe. On the cape is an old fort: a naval college built by Prince Henry the Navigator. Its style reminded me of a fort in Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast some 5,000km away: not surprisingly, since that too was built by the Portugese. When Portugal abandoned East Africa in the 16th century, the Arab traders took it over.

What, if anything, links these four stations?

First, it turns out that the slave trade was the largest mass movement of people in human history. Some 12-15 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic between 1500 and 1900. 5 million went to Brazil and another 5 million to the Carribbean – mostly Cuba and Hispaniola. Less than half a million ended up in the USA. In countries like Jamaica, Haiti or Guyana, Africans essentially replaced the native population. Yet it is estimated that FOUR OUT OF FIVE captured slaves died before they got across the Atlantic – half of them didn’t even make it onto the ship. This puts the total captured at something closer to 25 million. To that add millions sent through Zanzibar to the Arab world or bought and sold in countries like Mauritania. (See here for details on the Atlantic slave trade or here for the Arab - though they were really part of the same phenomenon).

Second, nobody escapes from blame. All maritime powers were involved in the slave trade and many African rulers connived in it. Christian preachers like William Wilberforce and David Livingstone fought against slavery, but the slave traders of Lisbon, La Rochelle and Liverpool were Christian too. The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, writing in the 14th century, described Africans as “the only race who willingly accept slavery, owing to their low human state and closeness to animals”.

Third, slavery doesn’t end with being freed. The sad stories of the three republics founded by freed slaves – Haiti, Sierra Leone and Liberia – should make that clear. Haiti spent 100 years trying to pay ‘damages’ to France and the next 100 years oscillating between dictatorship and chaos. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and Sierra Leone the poorest country in the world. In the early 20th century, Liberia exported slaves to the Spanish colony of Fernando Po (now Equatorial Guinea) to work on the cocoa plantations. The League of Nations censured it for this in 1929 and when President William Barclay came to power in 1931 he largely ended the practice.

Growing up in Central Europe in the 1990s, my history teachers focused on the twin horrors of the 20th century: the Holocaust and the Gulag. The slave trade deserves similar attention: not just in Africa or America, but in Europe and Arabia as well.


I.P.A. Manning said...

Slavery is part of African culture, and is still in force - though it does not operate to the degree or manner it once did. African chiefs and headmen sold their own people, reducing African life to a series of isolated stockaded villages. Avoid, therefore, giving way to the white man's guilt, and therefore his burden. Donor aid is simply the manifestation of this guilty, enslaving and reducing the Africans' capacity to develop. Study commerce therefore.

Molly Kinder said...

Rupert, this is an absolutely wonderful blog entry. And validates my latest (fond) nickname for you, i.e. "Encyclopedia Brittanica" :). You've done a brilliant job of tracing the history of slavery with your own disjointed route home from Liberia and, importantly, drawn attention to an extremely pertinent issue.

One of the things that most struck me at the Maison des Esclaves was the contrast between the two floors of the house. On the top floor lived the Dutch slave owners, the furnishings of their home reflecting the lucrative earnings that resulted from their trade. RIGHT BELOW them lived the slaves themselves: literally imprisoned in small, short, barred rooms in which I could barely stand straight up. The most profound image was of the tiny rooms in the back facing the ocean: in these rooms, just a sliver of light came through the narrow rectangular windows that peaked out across the ocean. That glimmer of sparkling blue ocean was all that the slaves could see of their future as they were kept chained to the room as they awaited their forced migration.

One way to think about the slave trade is on a very large-scale, impersonal level. The mass movement of people, the role of slavery in colonial societies and burgeoning agricultural economies, the laws that permitted this inhumane industry to flourish. Standing in front of the stairway of the Maison des Esclaves, however, and observing the path leading upstairs to luxury and downstairs to a real-life hell -- two absurdly contrasting worlds that coexisted literally on top of one another -- hit home the issue on such a personal level that my sister and I were left speechless and in tears.

There are innumerable issues that we policy dorks can point to that, on a structural level, can be frustratingly unjust and unequal. The Doha round's quest for ending distortions in agricultural policy and subsidies. Lant Pritchett's urgings to liberalize migration and permit low skilled workers to earn a wage in developed countries. The NGO movements' calls to forgive developing country debt. Environmentalists' pleas for progress on climate change. And earnest efforts to address ginormous market failures that leave poor countries without life-saving medicines. To name a few. The focus here is not necessarily on the immoral actions of individuals, but rather injustices embedded in or resulting from larger policies that effect the lives of millions.

And yet what adds so much insult to an already awful injury with the slave trade was, in addition to the egregious policies underpinning the slave trade, how fundamentally human the trade was. It seems inconceivable that a wealthy Dutch family could dine comfortably above a basement filled with enslaved humans about to be deported halfway across the globe. One would like to think that it is ignorance, distance, or unfamiliarity that limits compassion and perpetuates injustice. And yet the Maison des Eslaves reveals a much darker side of our humanity: the personal tolerance of large-scale injustice, face-to-face, right in your own home.

While my personal interactions are often filled with (effusive) hyperbole, I try not to exaggerate current circumstances through unfair comparisons to the atrocities of the past. To be sure, the economic relationship between a country like Holland and a country like Senegal is highly unequal, but it certainly does not amount to slavery. And yet I couldn't help but reflect on our personal comfort level in coexisting with striking inequality. In Liberia, for instance: the dichotomy between the well heeled Liberian elites and expats compared to the rest of the country, and those working for them. The USAID contractors who live the high life alongside their meagerly paid Liberian staff. Seeing such inequality in such an absurd scale in that small island off of Dakar prompted me to reflect on the degree to which I rationalize the hands dealt to myself and those around me.

Kudos to Rupert for another wondrous blog entry!

Liberian Media Support Initiative said...

Dear Rupert

Charles Taylor was many things but a Baptist preacher was not one of them. While Taylor sometimes took on the trappings of being a religious man he never deviated from his ambitions as a ruthless politician and businessman.