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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Slave Tourism

At Elmina Castle we emerged blinking from the notorious slave dungeons, which remain oppressive in their stench and their darkness, and in the knowledge that millions of people were branded their, chained there, raped and murdered there, and that the survivors were sent to sea in the bottom of a shoulder-to-shoulder boat’s belly to perish at sea or work to death in servitude in some far-off unknown land. Some of the Africans and African-Americans with whom we had shared our tour had cried, and there was a strange tension between the blacks and whites throughout, with the two groups drifting apart and leaving a physical distance between them.

In the bright daylight, a young West African man said to me, “Your people have caused much harm to Africa. Americans.”

“Oh, but I’m not American,” I said quickly. “I’m Canadian.”


Before I could talk more about heritage, our tour guide picked up his canned speech of the ‘evil trade,’ and I was hurt by what the young man had said. He was right, in a way, but wrong, I felt, to say it that way. It’s a hell of a thing to say to another human being, someone you know nothing about, someone you have never spoken to before, with a smile on your face.

I wanted to tell him that Nova Scotians had provided one of the major destinations for slaves on the underground railroad so that they could escape the evil trade in human beings. But even there I’m laden with guilt because I know what the white Nova Scotians have done to black Nova Scotians since, that the home they provided was not so welcoming or hospitable, that blacks were sanctioned off in the worst parts, then forced out when it was convenient and a space was needed for a garbage dump.

I wanted to tell him that the other side of my family was Scottish, and probably far too poor to be involved in the slave trade as buyers or sellers. But who knows? I can’t account for every dead ancestor. And even if I could and they were clean, did they stop this trade? Did they speak out against it? No, they were complicit.

As were many Africans. Particularly the ones selling slaves. Apparently in the Congo in the 15th century, many Africans became so covetous of European goods that they simply kidnapped a neighbour or two and sold them to the Europeans. In Ghana the Ashanti did most of the selling because they were the biggest, most powerful, and possibly craziest society (they had a saying, ‘kill 1,000 of us and another 1,000 will replace them’ – this was the strength, determination, and quantity of their warriors), but all the tribes were in the trade to some extent. They captured their enemies and sold them; some of them too got rich from the slave trade. In fact, slavery was a common practice in much of Africa long before the arrival of the Europeans, who inflated the practice into a global trade and created something far bigger out of it, far more devastating. There was no mention of the role played by Africans at any of the slave tourism sites we visited during our tour of Ghana.

Even though the Africans involved, and those complicit, may not have had a market to sell their neighbours to without the involvement of Europeans, they were still responsible for their own actions, because on the flipside Europeans could not have run a slave trade so efficiently without help from Africans. Europeans were obviously the biggest factor but it’s more complicated than people make it out to be and to point the finger at one person and say, “Your people did it,” is useless.

It’s important to acknowledge that Europeans, of all the people and groups involved or complicit in the slave trade during those 400 years, were the most powerful and the richest, and therefore made the most money and were most responsible for what happened. But they couldn’t have done it alone.

Slave tourism is a strange thing. On the one hand it is supposed to provide an important rite of passage for many slave descendants, especially African Americans, i.e. the chance to face these things, to visit the sites where such atrocities happened, to reconnect with their centuries-old roots, to see the land of their ancestors, where blacks rule and are not an oppressed ‘minority.’ It was a visibly powerful experience for the African Americans with whom we shared our tour.

I guess I’m just surprised at the way it is managed. First of all, Ghana has a Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora that focuses a huge amount of its resources on getting money from African American tourists. Fine, but no such department exists to channel the remittance payments of the 3-5 million Ghanaians living abroad, whose cash transfers home account for about 20 percent of Ghana’s economy already. Imagine if that was channelled toward healthcare, education, and infrastructure.

But the obsession of the Ghanaian government remains on African Americans’ money (more so than it is on helping them as people to rediscover their roots). As Prosper put it, “If African Americans really care about Africa, they should put their money into it; they should move here or invest here.” But how African are African-Americans in terms of culture? There are many cultural differences between African Americans and African Africans. Besides which, many of the Africans saying “hello brother” to African Americans are the descendants of the people who sold them down the river to begin with, and I wonder if African Americans are sometimes angry at all at their African brothers for that, or would they rather leave it in the past?

I don’t write these things to alleviate what Europeans did as colonialists based on their assumption of superiority, not only to slaves but to all Africans, and to indigenous peoples they encountered across the ‘new’ world, all the many human atrocities, and the fallout of inequality that remains to today. But the responsibility for the trans-Atlantic slave trade also rests on all our ancestors, and all humanity, to some degree or another, and therefore the responsibility for reconciling differences, for righting current wrongs against humanity, including poverty everywhere, also rests heavy upon us all.



Amanda said...

There was also a good deal in the Star a couple of weeks ago talking about the complicity of Canada in the slave trade--that we always pat ourselves on the back for all the Underground Railroad stuff--but in fact we were very guilty of hiring our own slaves as well. And this latter fact is often conveniently forgotten or left out of discussions of Canada's role in the slave trade. Interesting discussion.

benjibopper said...

Indeed, I'd like to read that one.