Is my cucu’s cucu guilty of participating in the slave trade?

Is my cucu’s cucu guilty of benefiting from the slave trade? Do I carry the guilt of those that did? I just read a great post by Keguro and may have forever annoyed him by writing such a long comment that I have made it into a post here.

I am confused about how to apportion guilt over the slave trade accurately so I do not let myself off the hook when I should be on it or hang myself when I shouldn’t. I lived in the States for a dozen years and in that time was closest to black folks in terms of my politics and my social life. Every once in a while the slavery question would come up emotionally: why had Africans such as my ancestors sold our brothers to plantation hell? It is obviously an issue that even today evokes pain in some descendents of slaves so let me try delicately offering some thoughts that I have.

My family hails from central Kenya, most of it is Gikuyu and a few are Maasai. As best as I know, neither of these two groups participated in the slave trade, either as captives or capturers. Of course tribes were never the isolated, static groupings that we think them today so it is well possible some Gikuyus or Maasais did participate. But we do know that the peoples living in the Mt. Kenya region could not be compared to the Kingdom of Dahomey – in present-day Benin – which aggressively captured and sold neighbouring people to slavers. Among the Gikuyu-speaking people, slavery was rare; it was unlike parts of Sudan or Angola or the Congo where slavery, both for internal exploitation and export, was widely practiced. What are we to do about those peoples that did not raid others for slaves or even those whose sole addition to the trade were as victims? Are their descendents also guilty of slavery since they are African? This is the reason that the words Africa and African have become increasingly confusing to me.

During the period of the slave trade, the only people who constantly referred to the African were Europeans – they were also the ones that had invented the word. Few people on the continent at that time had the notion of belonging to such a political or cultural community. Yet the debate over guilt revolves around questions such as, ‘should Africans apologise for their role in the slave trade?’ What confuses further is that the people who were captured – to use our all-encompassing language –were themselves African. For every soldier acting on the orders of Dahomey’s kings to capture slaves, there was a family that lost a son, a father or a mother. There were those who died during the raid, on the march, in the holds of a ship plying the Middle Passage and on the plantations of the Americas, Middle Eastern homes and European farms. Victims of a brutality whose painful echo still reverberates not only in the Americas, but also in the vast stretches of the Congo and Angola that remain depopulated to this day.

How exactly should this debate over guilt proceed? What would help bring closure to the descendents of slaves who demand a reckoning? I do not know. But I suggest that one of the actions that the present day people in Africa (I think we are stuck with this word at least in my lifetime) can do is to ensure that the slavery that is still alive and well across some of the Sahel zone countries like Mauritania is done away with. Surely there are few ways of demonstrating our opposition to this evil better than ensuring that it is wiped out in our time.

For better or worse, nationalists and anticolonialists adopted the African label from the very people that they were struggling against. In their desire for a unity that would further their cause, they took up the word European imperialists used to simplify the enormous diversity of the continent into a few useful stereotypes (the Romans came first, saying of the continent: Ex Africa semper aliquid novi – there is always something new out of Africa.) The African to the European of the slave trade was stupid, childlike, savage or docile, and lacked a soul. He could not be counted a member of the human race, and was due none of its civilised considerations or the grace of the Christian God (btw, the anti slavery movement in Britain acquired momentum only after its lobby argued that Africans had souls too.) The Africans to the Panafricanists were also a single community with a few (positive) stereotypes that allowed them to wage a struggle against colonial notions of European superiority. Yet since Europeans surrendered the reins of government, the idea of African exceptionalism has had power-crazed autocrats as its self-appointed guardians. Removed from the needs of an anti-colonial struggle, the idea has been used to promote a bloody-minded vision of nationhood at odds with its citizens. I refer here to the Mobutus, the later Nkrumah and the beat-them-and-truck-them Nyerere, not to mention the present ‘African revolution’ of Mugabe which involves destroying the homes of poor folks in Harare and torturing the ones who dare protest. Whoever said sticks and stones but not words may break bones apparently never felt the outcome of tear-the-flesh-off-bone words like Africa and Africans. But, I digress.

My point is that we are stuck with this African identity as a good, at least at the height of the anti-colonial movements, and a bad when it comes to the historical guilt of the slave trade and the postcolonial period. What I wonder about is how to reconcile these contradictory Africas of the mind (to paraphrase Lonsdale’s ‘Mau Maus of the mind’.) Which Africa was guilty of the slave trade? Is it possible that there were communities in Africa that did not participate in the trade? What position should their descendents adopt in the present debate? Do Africans think they are Africans when they are away from the microphone and the page or when they are not speaking to Europe or in reference to it? Can you create a pan-nation united by its past and present oppression and deprivation? Does being chained in Benin by the kings of Dahomey; whipped in apartheid South Africa by Afrikaners; shot at in Darfur by Janjaweed militias; enjoying Fela Kuti’s music; patronised by Tony ‘scar of humanity’ Blair’s Commission for Africa; and being governed by a dictator who attends African Union meetings make you an African? Is there a moral dimension to African citizenship when it is not protesting European action?

Where is the common moral and memory thread that will allow us to consider the tragedy of the slave trade from a moral perspective that offers answers to the descendents of slaves and slavers?

About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

10 Responses to Is my cucu’s cucu guilty of participating in the slave trade?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Why should there be an exercise in assigning responsibility? Reparations, Historical fact or Peace between the people? President Lula of Brazil recently offered an apology for the slavery in Brazil’s history, to me is was hollow in that there were no reparations or programs to address its effects. So if it is determined that you grandmother had a hand in slavery who should get the reparations? The persons in Africa whose ancestors were sold of or person whose ancestors went across the Atlantic or Indian Ocean as salves?

  2. I guess it is some form of truth commission task you are exploring. Let’s get history right and then get on with our lives. I’d say it is too late and that digging too deep will create more damage than good.

    When it comes to African identity, I think you are touching on a huge problem. All identities are social constructs, sometimes created purposely to fill la space of land with a unified people (like the case of France), or somtimes created more naturally over a longer period of time.

    It seems to me that there is no strong construct of a contemporary pan-african identity – but you have to correct me if I’m wrong – and constructing one over such large cultural and geographical distance may be very hard.

    Identities are most often formed by the identification of the “other”, an enemy or simply an identity that is clearly not part of “us”. Identity is in other words more often about a common “other” than a common culture, language etc.

    However, the creation of identity based on the other is obviously problematic – especially in today’s context. Look at Europe and the enormous problems in incuding immigrants into the traditional societies. How can a Iraqi muslim with no understanding of Swedish history and social democracy be part of the Swedish identity, when the Iraqi muslim has been the very “other” that Swedish self-idetification is based upon.

    I believe that the creation of pan-African identity based on the common history of slavery and colonial oppression, will strengthen the identification of the white man as the “other”. Apart from the somewhat racist undertones of this identification, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a development. However, we must look at the benefits and downsides to such a development. To what extent will Africa benfit from a strong pan-African identity based on a sense of revenge towards the white or arab man?

    Perhaps it would mean the way out of the aid trap and true self-reliance?

    Perhaps it would simply mean increased alienation of global capital invesdtment and further deterioration of the African economies and political systems.

    You tell me!

  3. Renegade Eye says:

    I found this blog surfing.

    That was a very interesting post. Every nationality has periods of historical injustice.

    Your immediate solution is correct. Fight slavery and injustice, in this life, to rectify past lives.


  4. MMK says:

    Anon – there is no doubt that the practical steps to take in giving and paying reparations are complex to say the least. But even before the matter of payment is made, there are urgent questions about what constitutes Africa. From what perspective guilt and innocence are to be judged, by whom and when. It is a conversation that I think is probably going to happen in novels and films, and it is one that has just started.

  5. Anonymous says:

    from what i heard east africans were sold as slaves to arabs, and the middlemen or merchants were actually somalis, since they have a lot in common with arabs, being muslims themselves. I dont know if our ancestors were against it, maybe they were.I cant imagine kikuyus doing that to their own people, who knows.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi from what i know and heard, east africa traded slaves with the arab world and the middlemen or merchants were actually somalis not kenyans. Maybe the kikuyus did not participate, its hard to imagine them selling their own people, who knows how it transpired.

  7. Stephen Bess says:

    This was a very interesting read. I’ve never really thought about the Africans that were involved in the trade, but it is reality. I don’t think that Reparations would heal 400 years of systematic slavery. It’s too deep. I am willing to just accept that it happened and move on. I get a little irritated with those that sort of brush it (slavery) off as something that has always happened in history. It still stings. Besides, It was only in 1965 that a Voting Rights Act was passed in this country (America) so that Black people could have the right to vote. I am ready to move on, but I owe it to my ancestors to never forget.

  8. Afrikan Eye says:

    Thanks for the post.
    The issue of repsonsibility is interesting. What I find is that the countries that started the Slave Trade, where nations were raided sepcifically for slaves, always try to blame Afrikans for their pariticpation in the slave trade in an attempt to abscond from taking repsonsibility for their HEINOUS acts. Whenever the issue of the slave trade is raised, some people from slave-owing nations tend to immediately say that 1) Africans were participating in slavery before the trans-atlantic slave trade or 2) Africans were the main slave raiders anyway. To point one, the slave trade in Africa was entirely a different situation where slaves were only acquired after war (noone raided villages just for slaves), slaves were treated well , becoming servants in houses and some even married into wealth, in Africa NOONE remained a slave for life and finally in Africa slaves in some cases eventually formed the royal military. In short there was still rrom for slaves to be dignified, find honor and acceptance within the social structure. In some societies, a slave onwers status would drop in society if people learned that he/she was mistreating his/her slaves. This shows that slaves were still humans!. As for point 2 Africans would not have become slave raiders if the insitution of slave raiding wasn’t established by foreigin powers in the first place. Nuff said.

  9. plez... says:

    I was redirected to this blog while reading another one. Such an interesting and soul searching topic, since I am a Black man of African descent, I feel obligated to respond.

    No one can speak for their ancestors any more than they can speak for the actions of their brothers and sisters and children.

    This is an excellent post because more than asking WHY, it is really asking WHO. Because we don’t know our African “relatives” as much as they don’t know their African-American kin. I know my great-great-grandparents were slaves in the Southern US, but I don’t know how they got there. I know very little as to WHO they were, how they lived, what work they did, how they worshipped, and whom they loved.

    I know nothing of their African cousins and forbearers. It’s been 150 years and we (Blacks in America) still don’t know WHO we are. We have a vague idea of where we came from (only the largest continent on the earth), but we will never truly know WHO we are.

    I would never ask anyone from Africa WHY their ancestors sold my ancestors into slavery. I would only ask them to tell me WHO they are, since they are the only connection to WHO I may be.

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