Earlier this week one of our radio and television personalities raised the question of whether or how should Caribbean people, particularly Kittitians-Nevisians, confront the legacies of the Slave Trade.
I found this a pertinent question, not just because it was raised during Black History Month but more properly because it is a burning issue which has faced our African population ever since 1807 when the traffic in Africans was brought to a halt in the British Empire.
It remained a pertinent question 27 years later when the British decided to end plantation slavery of Africans in the Caribbean.
It remains pertinent today 172 years after that land mark event in the history of Africans in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Americas.
Indeed, it is a pertinent question in Africa itself, which still bears the scars from the wounds inflicted during four hundred and fifty years of the African Slave Trade.
It often happens that when the matter of the African Slave Trade is raised, there is always some apologist either black or white who tries to explain away this activity, by pointing out that, at some time or other in the history of mankind every nation had a taste of slavery.
Whenever I am forced to listen this drivel, I get nauseous and ask myself the question which other nation in the history of mankind was ever subjected to human trafficking by the boatloads for a sustained period of four hundred and fifty years?!?
I also ask myself the question why were Africans selected for slavery in the New World? For this I find a simple answer.
A Spanish priest named Las Casas felt called to minister to the “Indians”, the natives of South America.
He felt that these native souls were noble and needed to be saved to go to heaven. The problem that he had was that these natives had no time to listen to the gospel because they were kept very busy working as slaves on he white Spaniards’ plantations.
This captivity broke both the bodies and spirits of these natives who surrendered to premature death rather than bear the brutal servitude.
Las Casas was sorry to see them die before he could deliver his soul-saving gospel. It broke his Catholic heart to see these “Indians” whom he loved so much suffer and die like flies at the hand of his cruel and greedy fellow Spaniards. He appealed to the King of Spain and to the Pope at Rome. After paying him little attention at first, they eventually asked him what would be his alternative to the enslavement of the natives. How would the latifundia of the Spanish landowners thrive without the hard labour of the slaves?
Who would mine the gold and silver which the kingdom of Spain wanted to buttress its power in Europe?
It was capitalism and slavery. As far as the Pope and King Ferdinand were concerned these two went together and Spain could not have one without the other.
Las Casas understood. Hie was a Spaniard, a priestly Spaniard, but he understood the power of wealth. He could see what the gold and silver mines had done to transform his pauperized nation into the world power. He had seen how the South American soil had multiplied the national product of Spain and raised the standard of living of its people.
He had seen Spanish adventurers stake out their claim of land which they stole from the people in the Spanish Main and transform themselves from rags to riches. It did not really trouble his Roman Catholic conscience that he and the rest of the Spaniards were trespassers on the land of an ancient civilization. He felt that as Christians from the Roman Catholic land of Spain, the Spaniards had a right in the name of God to possess the land and claim it as their own New World.
Las Casas had only one dilemma. If only he could preach the gospel to the Indians and baptize them into the Roman Catholic faith he would be able to cap the occupation by the Spanish of the native lands with the official endorsement of his church.
He had to find an alternative to native slavery.
He found it in Africa.
He argued to the Pope that the African was suited to working in the sunshine of South America because the African was raised in the sunshine of Africa, that the Indians who were in their natural habitat in the South American sunshine were dying like flies in their own climate.
In case the Pope would not buy this specious logic, he added that the African was strong and could bear the cruelty of New World slavery. Las Casas, the Christian priest, thus became the holy advocate of the African Slave Trade and set into motion an activity which would last 450 years, claim 10 million lives and virtually empty large areas of West and Central Africa.
It is obvious that Las Casas suggested the replacement of the “Indians” with the Africans because the Africans were black. It must also be obvious that in the mind of priest Las Casas the black Africans had no souls to save, so the Spanish bosses could work them to death without any qualms and they could die like flies as the Indians had done but without breaking his Christian heart.
In fairness to Las Casas, when he saw the cruelty which Africans endured, he repented. But the deed was done and the African Slave Trade continued for 450 years.
I don’t think it necessary to look across the ages and hate Las Casas for his extraordinary zeal for the “Indians” and his mistaken notion about the Africans.
Las Casas was a white man and viewed Africans the way all white men viewed them – as inferior beings.
Las Casas was the embodiment of an idea which was present among white people in his day and even to this day.
This concept of inferiority was based not on the Africans’ paganism but on the colour of his skin.
Las Casas passed this concept of black inferiority to the Portuguese, Dutch and English slave dealers.
This legacy gave them moral authority to head millions of black people across the Atlantic for enslavement by white Europeans who stole the lands of the New World and built European empires on the blood of the oppressed peoples.
In 1807 this concept of black inferiority was carried to its logical development. It was a well disguised ploy, presented in all of its humanitarianism. It was really a capitalist gimmick to stop the brawn drain from Africa to the Americas.
Even while the British were outlawing the traffic by their own nationals, they were frantically trying to prevent other nations from continuing to drain Africa of its human resources.
Was it because they had suddenly become conscience stricken by the horrors of the Middle Passage? Nuttin ‘tall go so.
It was because they had now found a new way to enslave Africans. By 1800 they had done a careful survey of Africa and discovered that the Continent had more than Black people. It also had every resource which could be exploited to yield unimaginable wealth.
They sent down explorers, most notably a man named David Livingstone, to scout the continent. Livingstone was well selected for this assignment. He believed that the Africans were an inferior race and supported the proposition that the white man’s burden was to develop Africa’s vast resources with white people’s capital and Black people’s labour in the land which belonged to Black people.
When I continue this discussion I will show the devastating effects of the European scramble for Africa and how the concept of Black inferiority plays out in the Modern Caribbean.