Dyer: Slavery and history

The past is a different country and it’s pointless to judge people by standards they would not even comprehend. Worse, it is a distraction from the business at hand, which to clear up the ghastly heritage of racism that slavery has left in America.

“Assessing the people of America's past by today's standards would compel us to cast the majority of our heroes as villains.”

That seemed to be the line taken by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas last month in his opinion piece for the New York Times. It caused great outrage, the Opinion editor had to resign and Cotton was roundly abused for “defending slavery.”

article continues below

He probably deserved that. What he actually said was that the “founding fathers” of the United States saw slavery as the “necessary evil upon which the Union was built.”

That would sound all right in a classroom, if you then explained that otherwise, the slave-owning Southern states would not have agreed to a federation of all 13 colonies.

It sounded less well coming out of the mouth of a senator who wants to ban federal funding for a project to improve the teaching of the history of slavery in American schools. Cotton is one of President Donald Trump’s loyal soldiers, trying to whip up a white racial panic and consolidate the boss’s base.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that I changed one word in the above quote — and that it wasn’t Cotton who said it. It was Nigerian journalist and novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, and what she actually said, in an opinion piece for the BBC, was this: “Assessing the people of Africa's past by today's standards would compel us to cast the majority of our heroes as villains.”

She was talking specifically about her great-grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku, who was a widely respected trader in tobacco, palm oil and slaves in southeastern Nigeria in the early 20th century. The Atlantic slave trade had been banned by the European empires a century before, but slavery was still a flourishing domestic business in Nigeria and many other African countries.

Her great-grandfather became famous by defying the British colonial authorities, who were trying to stamp out slavery within Nigeria. They had confiscated some of his slaves and he marched right up and demanded them back, waving a trading licence that dated back to the previous century.

They were taken aback, apologized and returned his slaves. Indeed, they were so impressed by his boldness and self-confidence that they subsequently appointed him paramount chief of his region. So he became a local hero in his own day, and is still a hero to Nwaubani’s family.

Slavery was normal in most pre-modern societies, including almost all the kingdoms and ethnic groups of sub-Saharan Africa. Africans had sold slaves north to various Islamic empires in the Middle East for centuries before Europeans showed up on the coast in ships. They were just another set of customers buying in the same market.

Most enslaved Africans didn’t travel more than a few hundred kilometres from home, of course. It is estimated that in the 18th century, one-third of the people in what is now Senegal were slaves who belonged to other Senegalese. But the ones who were sold to foreigners probably suffered even more.

Historians believe that around one-fifth of the 10-million Africans transported to the Americas over more than three centuries died on board ship. The fatalities among the estimated 17-million African slaves sold to Arab traders and forced to walk across the Sahara or carried around the India Ocean in ships during 10 centuries were probably just as high. What awaited the survivors when they arrived was pretty appalling too.

But Nwaubani is right. The past is a different country and it’s pointless to judge people by standards they would not even comprehend. Worse, it is a distraction from the business at hand, which to clear up the ghastly heritage of racism that slavery has left in America.

It is noteworthy that there is no comparable heritage of guilt and racism in the African countries that sold the slaves. Everybody, slaves and masters, was from the same group, and everybody was involved one way or another. We used to do it, now we don’t, end of story.

Why is it so different in the European countries and, above all, in the United States? My guess is that it’s because slavery, uniquely in the world,  had completely died out in Europe by a thousand years ago. When 16th-century Europeans reached West Africa, it was quite new to them.

They took to slave-owning readily enough, but they had no traditional framework in which to think about it. Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku didn’t need to justify owning slaves by telling himself they were inferior. He’d bought them fair and square. What’s the problem?

Whereas American plantation owners had to come up with bizarre racial fantasies to explain to themselves why it was right to own other people — and their great-great-grandchildren are still struggling with those fantasies today.

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).

© Kamloops This Week

 


KAMLOOPS WEATHER

Question of the Week POLL

How has the smoke filling Kamloops’ skies affected you this year?

or  view results

Popular Kamloops This Week

Events Calendar

Help Us Help Kamloops. Support Local Media.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Kamloops This Week is now soliciting donations from readers. This program is designed to support our local journalism in a time where our advertisers are unable to due to their own economic constraints. Kamloops This Week has always been a free product and will continue to be free. This is a means for those who can afford to support local media to help ensure those who can’t afford to can get access to trusted local information. You can make a one-time or a monthly donation of any amount and cancel at any time .

NEW: For every donation of $25 or greater, we will offer a digital advertising package to the local non-profit group of your choice.

Click on https://support.kamloopsthisweek.com for more information or to make your donation.

Thank you in advance for your support.