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04 Feb 2000 00:00
Why is it that we can’t forget the days of slavery? It is a millstone round our necks, and we would all just love to get past it.
But slavery, like the days of colonialism, is destined to be a recurring theme in our discourse, even though we are several generations down from the era when it was a general reality of life across the African continent.
Last week this paper published a story describing a form of slavery that is still very much alive and kicking in certain parts of the continent.
This week, we hear more about the ongoing saga of the 18th-century American president, Thomas Jefferson, who, in spite of his belief in the inviolability of the principle of human freedom, saw no contradiction in personally owning numbers of black slaves—at least one of whom was his long-term concubine and bore him six children.
The fact that the Jefferson-Sally Hemmings affair is still a source of such controversy in sophisticated America is testimony to the ongoing tension surrounding the country’s slave past. I was recently privileged to find myself on the island of Gorée, a couple of kilometres off the coast of the Senegalese city of Dakar.
Gorée invokes many comparisons with our own Robben Island. It is clearly visible from the bustling mainland metropolis, and yet the sins of its past life were easy to ignore for those who happened to be living in freedom.
Gorée was a slave-transportation island. It is said to have been the last piece of African territory that millions of Africans stood on before being permanently transported to the New World - the plantations and factories of Brazil and North America that became the engine for the prosperity of both Europe and the Americas.
The Africa that those slaves left behind declined and disintegrated with the loss of their blood, and through the wars of colonisation that followed.
More than half of the black slaves who were shipped in those unreliable wooden vessels never made it to the Americas.
They died of shipboard diseases, or were simply thrown overboard to avoid excessive customs duties or the attentions of anti-slaving raiding parties that plied the seas after the nominal abolition of the trade in African slaves from the 1830s or thereabouts.
Ayoka Chenzira is a descendant of some of the slaves who “made it” to America. She is unavoidably American (in spite of her adopted name) and is a film-maker, professor of film studies at a New York university, and a black/feminist activist.
In spite of her survival in America, she cannot avoid the symbolism of Gorée, and its unresolved implications for her own slave heritage.
“I finally made the pilgrimage to the House of Slaves,” she says, “and then found this old guy in a suit blocking the door who wanted me to pay to go inside.”
The old guy was Joseph Ndiaye, who for years has been keeping the House of Slaves alive as a museum of memory of the slave trade. The House of Slaves is the main attraction for thousands of tourists who each year are shown the conditions in which slaves were imprisoned before transportation from Gorée, and the luxurious apartments in which the slave traders entertained themselves with their African concubines.
Chenzira refused to pay. She only wanted to see the infamous “door of no return”, from which captives were loaded on to ships to make the final crossing. She did not see why she had to pay to see where her forebears were submitted to their final humiliation.
Ndiaye, a Senegalese who never left, but whose life is dedicated to the memory of those who were uprooted, was adamant that every tourist should pay—especially well-heeled Americans. Chenzira did not regard herself as a run- of-the-mill tourist. She saw herself as an ex-slave, whose great-grandparents might well have been among those who migrated involuntarily through that very same passage.
A friendly but heated exchange ensued. It remained an impasse until Daada Albert, a participant, like Chenzira, in the film workshop project that had brought us all to Gore in the first place, and who hailed from Ghana, offered to pay on her behalf. “After all,” said Daada, “some of my ancestors might have been responsible for selling you to the white men who put your ancestors on those boats.” (Ghana’s was a famous slaving coastline.)
“Yeah, right,” snapped Chenzira (with a smile, it must be said). “What I really want to know is, where were all you other Africans who were supposedly manning the war canoes that were supposed to come and rescue us? How come you just let us go like that?”
Yes, indeed. Black Africans sold other black Africans to other blacks, and to Jews, whites, Chinese, Indians, whatever. And they all went in and raided African villages when supplies of slaves were insufficient. It was a rainbow of aggressive commerce. Every nation was implicated. It was a sign of the times.
Gorée, like Robben Island, is now a symbol of peace. It is just another gentle, offshore African village, getting on with life amidst the ruins of its past.
But Gorée, as Don Mattera would say, is also a weapon against forgetting. Gorée, disquietingly, continues to speak to us about the days of slavery, and still waits for the dawn of the African renaissance that will transform poverty into prosperity.
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