By Satish Sekar in Accra © Satish Sekar (September 25th 2017)
The African Malaise
Africans don’t know their history – worse they don’t want to. During the WAFU Cup of Nations I was in an area steeped in history. I visited places that should be seen and believed, and then talked about. Elmina Castle overlooked the place I was staying in. As usual I was subjected to the aggressive and annoying sales pitch outside.
One wanted me to sponsor his football team, and said, ‘But I gave you the shell”, when I refused. I was annoyed, as a few metres away I met a man who had played professionally at the expense of his health, and in the nearby hotel was coaching staff of Ghana Premier League team, the Elmina Sharks. He had never even talked to them, let alone tried to work with them. Instead he hassled foreigners to support him. He wasn’t alone. Even professional players not only wanted help, they expect you to pay to do it. He at least showed some interest in his history.
I am not black in African terms – no problem – but they have a colour definition that defies logic and decency. Anyone not as black as them is seen as white, and therefore fair game for their aggressive, annoying, and actually offensive sales pitch for unwanted products. One artist in Cape Cost tried to sell his wares at the Castle. He demanded his ‘friendship’ shell back because I saw no reason to support him. No problem I didn’t want the shell, or his false friendship.
He even demanded that I spend dollars needed for other things on his unwanted art. I actually wanted specific art that I did buy from others later – that will be auctioned at forthcoming book launches for the Fitted-In Project. The sales pitch cost him, but is typical of attitudes there. Strangely, given the location, there was nothing reflecting the tragic history of that place.
In the shadow of this arrogance and ignorance is unspeakable horrors. Africans were brutalised as they were softened up for the horrors of transportation. Many died in the rank and disease-infested cells. Women who refused to give sexual favours to perverted and sadistic guards and Governors were brutally punished until they ‘consented’. Several of those who survived and passed through the Door of No Return died on the voyage to the Americas or Europe. Their bodies were cast into the ocean or seas to be devoured.
This unspeakable Holocaust – bestial genocide – began in Ghana. Slavery in Africa pre-dates the trans-Atlantic trade, but it was a different institution, more like servitude than what we understand slavery to be. Captured warriors were enslaved. They had less rights – they were low in the pecking order, but had not fallen as far as chattel slavery would push them. It was no picnic, but these ‘slaves’ had ‘rights’, limited certainly, but a long way from what slavery would become.
Were Africans complicit in the slave trade? Yes they were, but it is more complex than that. African slavery changed when Europeans came. It is taught here that Trans-Atlantic slavery came from a very unlikely source, Bartolomé de las Casas – remember that name, it’s very important.
De las Casas became one of the most important voices against the brutality of slavery. He was not always so humane. In Ghana it is taught that de las Casas recommended enslaving Africans because Native Americans were susceptible to illnesses brought by Europeans and unsuited for the bestial rigours of the demands of European thugs,a andthis was the beginning of Elmina Castle for that purpose from 1492, but the dates don’t tally. At that time de las Casas was not even ten years old! It does tally with Colombus and his crimes though. It wasn’t just Francisco Pizarro González and his ilk, it was the so-called discoverer of the Americas, Christopher Colombus. De las Casas once owned Native American slaves, but he later turned against it and exposed the crimes against those people. That was in the 1520s, and these were Spanish crimes, not Portuguese.
De las Casas began his evolution as a willing participant in what he later considered terrible crimes. In 1502 he arrived in what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Spanish adopted slavery by conquest, but it was a more brutal model. Many were worked to death. De las Casas turned against it but gradually and in contradictory fashion.
Inadvertently, he provided the argument that developed into the racist system of slavery. Africans were sturdier and better suited to hard work than Native Americans. They were therefore better suited to be hard-working slaves. The idea was adopted and demand grew. The utterly bestial trade thrived, but Ghanaians say that the Spanish did more buying than transporting.
De las Casas’ views evolved. He came to oppose all slavery, but his racist ideas were adopted by others and used to justify the racist trade long after he rejected it.
Never Get Weary
One of the first records I ever bought, ‘Knockout’ by Toots and the Maytals includes what became one of my favourite songs ‘Never Get Weary’. The record was a bargain – I still have it over 30 years later. The lyrics, poignant for this article can be read here
or better still heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R62Sk6sBBRA but his message is far from all that has been neglected in talking about slavery.
The Americas were not discovered by Colombus, but in Ghana his crimes, utterly bestial ones, are not part of the narrative as they should be. De las Casas renounced his previous views and spent the rest of his life trying to enlighten and end the bestial treatment of the Native Americans. Meanwhile, Colombus enriched himself and facilitated unprecedented brutality and greed.
In Ghana, even the guides at Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle were unaware that de las Casas became an implacable opponent of slavery and is one of the most important sources on the brutality of Colombus. So why is de las Casas so important? The timing.
The Europeans coveted Africa long before the Great Scramble of the late 19th Century. Back in the 15th Century the Portuguese developed Elmina Castle for its nefarious purpose. This was the beginning of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade – well the ‘legal’ one.
It’s not all they are unaware of. At Elmina Castle, Cape Coast Castle and Assin Fosu they knew little of a pivotal event in the abolition of the slave trade, and one of the movement’s greatest but neglected figures, the Haitian Revolution and the country’s first great President, Alexandre Pétion.