Intolerable Cruelty | The Nation


Intolerable Cruelty

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Anne Bailey's African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade is a remarkable effort to present the slave trade from a perspective very different from what we are used to--not that of slavery's liberal opponents or even of the slaves themselves but of the Africans from whose midst the slaves were taken. Bailey, who teaches African history at Spelman College in Atlanta, is herself of Afro-Caribbean extraction and has spent several years doing research along the stretch of southern Ghana once known as the Slave Coast. According to liberal mythology, what she should have found there was a society still reeling from the trauma of the slave trade or, according to black nationalist mythology, one still seething with resentment over the hurt inflicted by the imperialist West. Instead, she found a highly stratified society determined to avoid the topic altogether. As Bailey pressed more and more deeply, the most common response she elicited was one of shame and disdain. Descendants had changed their names to avoid the stigma of having a slave ancestor, while would-be tribal chiefs had reportedly been disqualified because questions were raised about possible slaves in their family tree. Bailey adds, "It is almost a crime to say to someone in Ewe [a local language], 'Togbuiwo nye amefefleor Mamawo nye amefefle'"--they bought your grandfather or grandmother. Indeed, "it is much more permissible to confess to some connection to slave traders--but an absolute taboo to mention slave ancestry." Better a victimizer, in other words, than a victim.

About the Author

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

Also by the Author

China's Confucian Revival

Dent, Minn.

Laurence Tribe's new book asks us to consider the "invisible" web of ideas that have grown around the text of the Constitution. But who's to say what it contains?

Strange as this may seem, it is no different from the English taking pride in the exploits of a John Hawkyns, which they did until recently. Meanwhile, Bailey notes that if slavery had long been a feature of West African society, there is no doubt that the Europeans raised it to a whole new level. The terms of trade were vastly unequal. Europeans encouraged their African suppliers to range deep into the interior. To pay for the slaves they brought out, the English alone supplied them with more than a million guns over the years, a vast arsenal that helped fuel the growth of powerful slave states such as the Asante. A growing emphasis on the slave trade caused other activities such as cattle breeding, farming and fishing to wither, sending local economies into a downward spiral. Nor did conditions improve after the Europeans began shutting down the trade in the early nineteenth century--in some ways, they got worse. The old supply networks continued to function, flooding the coastal tribes with slaves they could no longer sell. Domestic slavery rose as a result, with ever more poisonous consequences for African society. When a Danish military detachment tried to suppress the slave trade in the 1840s, one tribe, the Anlos, furious at this latest European about-face, rose in revolt. All the Anlos knew is that the Europeans had encouraged them to adopt a certain way of life and now were trying to take it away.

Bailey is scrupulously objective in making her way through the resulting political minefield. Although the Europeans were obviously in control, she does not absolve the Africans of responsibility. While not rejecting the call for reparations altogether, she argues that real reparations would enable West Africa to grow and modernize so that it would have both the economic and political ability to wrestle with the legacy of slavery in all its various permutations and combinations.

The task, needless to say, is not an easy one, as a photograph reproduced in African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade seems to suggest. It's an ordinary tourist snapshot, showing the author with members of an African tour group at a slave site in downtown Accra. But one thing about it stands out. While Bailey, tall, slender and fashionably dressed, is smiling warmly, the others are solemn to the point of scowling. I found my response to this photo changing the more I studied it. At first, it seemed to capture a well-earned sense of resentment on the Africans' part at yet another painful Western intrusion into their affairs. But then it occurred to me that what it showed was not African resentment so much as the beaming self-confidence of a citizen of the advanced, industrialized West who goes out of her way to grapple with difficult problems that others try to avoid. Where others see trouble, she sees an opportunity. People like Anne Bailey make us uncomfortable, which is all to the good.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size