Remembering ...

Guyana Chronicle
October 18, 1999

"Slavery was a great moral evil that left very serious social and economic effects on the African peoples on both sides of the Atlantic".

"I WAS attentive and took trouble to ascertain if there was gold".

Thus wrote Christopher Columbus in his daily journal on October 13, 1492, the day after he landed on the Bahamas, which he christened San Salvador.

This innocuous little sentence, according to Nigerian-born Dr Adeola James, was to mark the beginning of the first ever gold rush in the annals of the modern world.

James, an English lecturer at the University of Guyana, was recounting the events which led to the scourge of slavery, at a Seawall ceremony Tuesday to pay floral homage to the spirits of our ancestors who never made it to shore in the course of the `Middle Passage'. The ceremony was highlighted by a poignant water ritual on the periphery of the Atlantic Ocean, in which floral wreaths and bouquets were tossed into the sea and moving presentations in song and dance.

Tracing the events of that terrible era, which is often linked to the genocide of the Indigenous peoples and the enslavement and mass destruction of the African Peoples, James said that in 1943, by which time whatever little gold and silver the land held, had been all but exhausted, Columbus introduced the sugar cane, native to India when he made his second voyage this side of the Atlantic that same year in his never-ending quest for a shorter route to the Indies, as Asia was then referred to.

In a memo, penned on January 13, 1494, to his bankrollers (the king and queen of Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand), Columbus was to write enthusiastically about the bright future he foresaw in the New World for this new industry.

"Of course, the need for labour to produce this work led to the intensity in the sinful trade in human beings," James said.

In those days, James said, slaves could be had at giveaway prices.

"One small piece of cloth was often sufficient payment for a slave in those ugly years," she said. Even as late as the 18th century, an African slave could be had with goods valued at the princely sum of 100 shillings or even less.

Of course, the merchants made a killing when the slavers arrived at the other side of the Atlantic, on occasion getting as much as ten times the price they paid per slave back in Africa.

They were a fastidious lot, were the Europeans. They demanded the most robust of Africans to use as slaves, and showed a marked preference for younger people between the ages of 15 - 25. They much preferred to have, too, at least two men to one woman.

They also differentiated between tribes, preferring one over another for any number of reasons. Some were either inclined to work harder than others, or to be too rebellious or prone to violence for their delicate tastes. It was also felt that some made better house slaves or field hands than others.

While the Atlantic Slave Trade was abolished in most parts of West Africa by the 1860s, James said, it was not until around 1880 that it was completely wiped out. And even long after then, she contended, the West African society was to still suffer its consequences.

A peoples always interested in gold, ivory and other goodies from Africa, she said of the Europeans, they usually wanted these commodities in addition to, rather than in lieu of, slaves. As such, she said, "there was never any alternative to the trade in human beings".

Again, with the end of the Atlantic Slave trade was to come a new dispensation; the mad scramble for Africa and the period of imperialism. In essence, James said, it was a continuation of the exploitation of Africa, but in a different form.

Noting that no-one can deny "that slavery was a great moral evil that left serious political social and economic effects on the African peoples on both sides of the Atlantic", James said what made matters worse was that "the whole affair was possible because people were concerned only with private profit".

Equally blaming the African ruling class for what had transpired, James said "they knew that they were taking part in evil practices, but they wanted European-manufactured goods".

As for the Europeans, she said "because there was so much profit to be made by taking slaves from Africa, [they] refused to listen to their consciences".

She said they knew all about the suffering that was being inflicted upon the African peoples - at home in Africa, on the slave ships and even on the plantations in the Americas. They were also well aware of the fact that to sell their fellow human beings could not be morally justified.

Even the Christian church, she said, was not without blame.

"There is no part of the history of the Christian church which was more disgraceful than its support of the Atlantic Slave Trade", James said.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples