Friday, October 26, 2007

On the Book Shelf- Edward Ball Part II

In the final chapter, a descendant of an American slave buying family confronts the current chief and descendant of an African slave selling family. Ball goes nose to nose and asks the hard questions. (Surprising the oral history tradition of Africa is even more reliable than our own written version. The tribal historian relates details from the beginning of the slave trade with Portugal in the 15th century.) Here's a taste of Ball's tense dialogue with a chief of Sierra Leone.

"Why did the chiefs allow people to be sold from here?" I asked.

There was a chuckle from Chief Modu, but it was not clear whether it came from nervousness or amusement.

"It was a business which everybody was doing," said Deen Kanu [tribal historian]. "one can't say why a businessman does business." Smiles around the room.

"if the chief of Maforki wanted to protect his people," i said, "why would he allow them to be sold?" This time laughter rolled from one end of the room to the other. "is that a stupid question?" I asked. . .

There were looks exchanged, and the moments passed until finally Deen Kanu said flatly, "they wanted money."

And with this rather small, grotesque admission the feeling in the room changed completely. The prevailing mood of nervous denial seemed broken. . ." pg. 440

Ball establishes that in Sierra Leone, one of the main countries that his relatives in the slave trade used to buy slaves, the slave sellers came from two families, the Kamaras and Kanus. The tribal historian relates "The paramount chiefs knew that by getting a lot of slaves, they would become very powerful. Slavery was encouraged by the chiefs, with their warriors. If you are powerful, you can conquer people, then you have slaves. if you went to any town, it was to conquer the town and take some captives. These people become slaves. you could sell them, or you could use them to farm for you." The chief further explains that they things the British gave to the African chiefs in exchange for a slave weren't unusual. Tobacco, rum, and a gun. What mattered was that these things were "expensive." In the end, the reason for the slaver traders in Africa was the same for the slave traders in America- greed.

The conclusion where both Ball and the Chief have a special forgiveness ceremony to ask forgiveness for their families 250 year old mistake is extremely touching.

One more thing I wanted to remember about this book. There are several examples of when the slave owners come face to face with the immorality of their choices. During one trip to the North, the slave owners start buying better clothes for their black slaves. The cook first receives better shoes. Then the valet is given new breeches. They buy the slaves ice-cream and give them pocket money of their own to spend. They even start to refer to slaves as "servants." All of this occurred because in the North, where slavery was virtually non-existent by 1820, the slave owners are made uncomfortably by the poor treatment they are extending to their slaves. For the five months of their New York tour, their treatment radically changes.

I want to share this incident to my kids when they get older as an example of how our moral consciousness is not based on "relativism." At the time, Southern culture virtually brainwashed it's citizens into thinking that slavery was a morally acceptable. There were even Christian churches which said that slavery was sanctioned by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. Despite all their justifications, however, even the most hardened slave owner came face to face with the obvious evil which was slavery. Our job as Catholics, is not to follow the crowd in the areas of socially acceptable morality. Instead, we are called to form our consciousness and moral convictions on the eternal truths of the Church. Studying the politics of slavery which seems so obviously "wrong" today, can help my kids be more discerning about the modern day acceptable sins of contraception & euthanasia.

1 comment:

Tienne said...

What a fabulous book! I'll have to put it on my "to read" list.

I remember learning about slavery in Africa at college (this goes a bit with your earlier post about slavery in England and Rome and how the system in the colonies' differed.) It's evident that the kind of slavery practiced in the US was the cruelest, severest, most inhuman form of slavery ever practiced in the world. I doubt any African chief knew (or suspected) that the children he sold to white traders would be locked in bondage for the rest of their lives, and their children's lives, and their children's children's lives. In Western Africa where most American slaves originated, slavery was a state whose length depended almost entirely on the slave's individual choices. People were traded as spoils of war, but a "good" slave could earn privileges or be adopted into the new tribe if that was their desire. In any case, the slave was still a person. Only in America did the issue of race enter so perniciously into the equation and rob the slave of their humanity.

I don't necessarily think the African chiefs should bear no responsibility for the situation. As you point out, economic gain is a poor reason for depriving your own kingdom of its youth. But I'm also sure they didn't realize exactly what they were doing to those poor people. Really, if we hadn't heard about it in history class, could we imagine the atrocities our own ancestors inflicted upon fellow members of the human race? It's chilling.

Great post.