Slavery just can't be whitewashed away

BY George Garwood

Monday, August 06, 2018

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Taking Dr Franklin Johnston's article 'Slavery re-imagined - Part 1', published in the Jamaica Observer on July 27, 2018, at face value, we could conclude that, as Jamaicans, we are making too big a deal of slavery. For Johnston says: “Many Jamaicans are obsessed with slavery and hug it up as if they were the ones enslaved.”

He goes on to say, “No other country in the Caribbean; not Barbados, Dominican Republic, or revolutionary Cuba, has our rear-view focus on slavery... Jamaica looks back a lot and is the only West Indian nation that did not prosper for even a decade since Independence.”

Forget about slavery?

So Johnston seems to be telling us to forget about slavery and move on. Yes, we must move on, but must never forget our history — and a significant part of that history has to do with slavery.

Other nations seem to remember, commemorate, and even celebrate theirs; so Jamaicans have a right and duty to know about slavery — of course, not to wallow in it and use it as an excuse to do nothing, but to commemorate it, and to celebrate those who fought against slavery.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

Dr Johnston would benefit from revisiting Phillip Sherlock and Hazel Bennett's book, The Story of the Jamaican People, Chapter 11, The Atlantic Slave Trade, to get an informed position about what slavery was, and what it did to its victims, and to our Jamaican ancestors.

At the outset of that chapter about the Atlantic Slave Trade the scholars readily admit that: “Slavery and trading in persons is as old as man. It was not limited to one race or one class of people. It was not for blacks only…”

However, although slavery existed from time immemorial, and is still present to this day, the Atlantic Slave Trade was different from other types of slavery that preceded it, or slavery that was contemporary with it.

African slavery

For instance, “…African slave trades differed… from the later Atlantic Slave Trade. The Africans were placed in long-established communities from which escape was difficult. The alternative to escape was acculturation, a process which was made easier for the African, because generally, he endured household slavery, not plantation slavery.”

Sherlock and Bennett further add: “In contrast, the Atlantic Slave Trade scattered the enslaved Africans throughout plantation America [the Caribbean also] with its large estates and pioneering communities. It was a world in which blackness was a badge of inferiority, and colour determined status. Even African slavery differed from indentured white servitude. Indentured servitude was for a limited time, whereas Africans were forced into perpetual servitude. The African slaves were completely at the mercy of the master. They had neither legal or property rights.”

Freed blacks

Admittedly, during the time of slavery some blacks managed to secure their freedom; but, as we saw in the movie Twelve Years A Slave and read in the book of the same title, even African freedmen and women could not be guaranteed their freedom — for they may be kidnapped and returned to slavery, as had happened to Solomon Northup, a free black man.

Sherlock and Bennett inform us that slavery entailed: “Physical suffering, anguish of spirit, and unbearable cruelty were the lot of the slave from the time of his capture.”

Floating tombs

The two Jamaican scholars draw on the account of the young, African boy Olaudah Equiano, who was born in Nigeria but who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, so that his account can to give us a greater sense of what the prospects of slavery were like.

While on-board ship a bound for Barbados (such ships were referred to as “Floating Tombs”) on this perilous Atlantic crossing, Equiano recalled his “astonishment and terror”. At first, he refused to eat, but was forced to do so after two white slavers or crewmen lashed him to the deck and severely flogged him.

Other Africans on board the ship, from utter despair, jumped overboard, preferring death to bondage. One of the captives who jumped shipped was rescued, but was then flogged almost senseless for his preference to death over slavery.

Case study of slavery

Sherlock and Bennett further informed us that the Atlantic Slave Trade was far worse than other types of slavery that existed and, they again, citing Equiano's experience say: “… the severing of those forms of human relationships that were most precious to the African: the ties with family, kinsfolk, tribe; relationships that governed the behaviour, thinking and life of each individual African” were forever destroyed.

So African slavery for our forebears was no bed of roses; not some vacation to some distant tropical paradise, but it was one of the most iniquitous forms of human cruelty inflicted on other humans. Sadly, the slave traders didn't think Africans or black people were humans, but were mere animals and commercial products.

Lasting effects of slavery

This tragic episode of the Atlantic Slave Trade, which lasted over 300 years, still fundamentally affects our psychology, and our individual and collective consciousness.

Dr Johnston minimises the historical and cultural legacies of our remembered and shared history — that of the Atlantic Slave Trade. He does this to his, and to our disadvantage.

George S Garwood, PhD, is a Jamaican educator and author who resides in Florida. Send comments to the Observer or to

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