I recently had the opportunity to speak to a Bermudian style Rasta of African Descent the other day who – noting my long standing anti-racism advocacy – basically asserted that he was not prepared to listen to anything concerning racism and white behavior in perpetuating it until we recognize that black Africans participated and sold black people into slavery.
He then cited Ghana and one or two West African nations as being involved in the trade. Of course, he meant the West African largely coastal kingdoms that traded with the Europeans during that era and not the present day nations which did not exist then, and which evolved out of the European colonial territories that were stitched together over the last Century and a half or so.
Now what is fascinating about these types of comments is that they usually are found and have currency amongst certain sectors of Bermuda’s white community who use it as a “get out of jail card” with respect to European culpability in the slave trade and the systems of exploitation and oppression of persons of African descent that they established in this hemisphere and beyond.
Moreover, some blacks who push this line go as far as saying that “we need to stop talking about slavery” as a consequence of African complicity in the trade or, as a corollary, that we should act as if we are out on an island, living in a largely mono-racial country as in St. Kitts. Although truth be told I really do not hear people talking about slavery that much if at all. But again, in Bermuda if white racists say it, it must be true.
My view is that most of those ancient kingdoms that traded with European slave traders with the exception of the Asante (AKAN) in Ghana and one or two others are long gone. And most of those that remain have expressed their apologies for their participation in the trade.
But the question is whether the fact that some African Kingdoms and African polities of various stripes participated in the trade absolves the Europeans of a) their determinative role in the trans Atlantic trade b) their establishment and management of slave based plantation systems and the debasement of the African descended enslaved persons and c) the relegation of those descendants to an inferior status based solely upon the colour of their skins for well over one hundred years once slavery had been abolished throughout the hemisphere.
Those blacks who hold these views are also willfully ignoring the very real damage on a multi-generational level that we are still dealing with in regard to this issue.
But getting back to the Rasta. He showed real contempt toward those modern West African nations as a consequence of the above – in spite of the fact that he, along with millions of us, share a common ancestry with that region – a point he vehemently denies.
He obviously preferred to hold on to his romantic fantasy about Ethiopia and the Emperor Selassie (the Last Emperor) notwithstanding the fact that Ethiopia was one of the last African countries to abolish slavery on the continent only doing so in 1942 under pressure from the Western allies that had just assisted them in liberating the country from the Italians. Selassie signed the proclamation to make it official during that same year. And note that he had been in power on the throne for decades before that.
Also note – and I have always found this troubling – that Ethiopians, traditionally did not consider themselves black Africans. The operable word being “black”. Why? In my view because for Centuries the people that they routinely enslaved were “black skin” Nilotic peoples which inhabited the South of the country. Many of these captured Nilotics were then sold to ARAB slave merchants as well as being utilized in Ethiopia.
These Sanqella or Barya – terms denoting a person or persons of slave descent – were people from the south of the country and were noted by their pronounced so called “Negroid” features. Thus the roots of the Ethiopian bias and, frankly, racism toward them.
As with most ancient societies, slavery was fundamental to the social, political and economic life of the country. The Wikipedia entry on the topic notes that “in Ethiopia, slavery was legal and widespread and slave trading was a fact of life. The largest slave driven polity in the Horn of Africa before the nineteenth Century was the Ethiopian Empire. And though its intercontinental slave trade was substantial, the Ethiopian Highlands were the biggest consumer of slaves.”
Moreover it notes: “By the second half of the nineteenth Century, Ethiopia provided an ever increasing number of slaves for the slave trade as the geographical focus of the trade had shifted from the Atlantic basin to Ethiopia, the Nile Basin and down to Mozambique.”
In closing, we should also note that while slavery is slavery, much of what we consider African examples of historical slavery really amounts to what is known as “debt bondage” with the enslaved person treated as a minor member of the family.
But what the Europeans introduced to the world beginning in the 1500s with the Portuguese was something quite different in many respects – centered as it was around the plantation system in this hemisphere and the notion that the enslaved person was chattel. They also, after having eliminated or outlawed the enslavement of Europeans, ensured that their model would be a colour coded one with the consequences that are still present with us today.
As to the Rasta, I am looking forward to a follow up conversation with him.
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