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SLAVERY AND SPIRITUAL REPARATION
The case of the Krachi Dente Worship (1999)
THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Lincoln did set me free
To eat grass, to seek new homes,
To look for a new conscience.
I was related to the rising sun;
The setting sun's my blood,
And in the midday I stood,
Watching their rising and setting,
Left in a dilemma of my roots...
Dale Massiasta, Somerset's Protest, Beyond God.
This study of the historical and religious phenomenon of the transmission of the KRACHI DENTE worship to the coastal districts of Togo and eastern Ghana through the slave trade should necessarily introduce us to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In this, we are presented with the two facets or characters of slavery as it was practised in and outside Africa. That these facets or characters are rarely contrasted could be explained by the close relationship between the two. The traditional African institution of slavery and that of the Americas, the caribbeans and Europe, to say, are closely related in terms of the triangular trade.
THE TWO INSTITUTIONS
However, it seems, for many decades, the emphasis of study has been placed on what may be regarded as the product of the other. The triangular trade attains such an enormity that readily belittles the traditional system or institution of slavery in Africa. At a stage, the African practice of slaveholding became so dependent on the trade that there would have been no need of the practice without the monstrous trade across the seas. By the introduction of this trade, most African slaveholders abandoned the traditional methods and aims of holding slaves, and would not have kept slaves at all but for the purpose of feeding the coastal markets. Usually the demand for slaves in these markets was so high that domestic slaves were rarely held permanently. This was one of the factors which completely changed the character of the institution of slavery in Africa.
In this study, however, our review of what is already known
or heard, what actually gave slavery its dreaded name, is intended
to buttress the unfolding facts on slavery in Africa, the unrecorded
religious beliefs and practices of the institution of slavery
in Africa. As I have said, before in discussing this religious
question, "we cannot achieve the aim of a religious explanation
without examining in passing some other aspects relating to slaveholding
and the slave trade."1 Our review, therefore, provides us
with the weapon for understanding the significance of this religious
phenomenon. We should, at this point, begin with what is probably
the most overwhelming experience, the African-American experience.
THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
To the African-American of today, slavery is the most important historical experience of black people all over the world. It has far-reaching physical and psychological effects not only on its direct victims and their descendants. "The fact is that the institution of slavery was an evil thing, resulting in the degradation of all who operated under it, whether master or slave."2 Apart from this, slavery has become the uniting heritage of black people. No sane black person would ever dissociate himself or herself from that cultural and historical identity bestowed on our race, the black race of Africa. To the world at large, it is the only crime that requires more than one CHRIST to atone for it.
Slavery indeed gives the African-American thoughts of Africa. These thoughts are like the daily visitations of remote ancestors, lost ancestors who were wrenched away from Africa probably four hundred years ago. They are deep thoughts soaked in tears of deprivation, humiliation and pain. And many pursue these thoughts, searching for a beginning, their roots. Certainly, their ancestors belonged to somewhere else other the slavery in which they were born.
It could be recalled that, in the plantations of America, the ancestors of African-Americans and Africans, to say, "herded in barracks, working in gangs, and regimented, as they had been recruited by soulless and mercenary violence,"3 lost the history of a beginning. It was as if they were not made for a song, for new songs ceased to give the solace of home and freedom. They were not made for a vision; visions were usually painless. Visions then belonged to the oppressor, the slave master of doom. Indeed their songs of hearts and lonely villages of Africa remained in the plantations unborn, undelivered. Sighs and sighs were their songs. In California. In Nevada. Heaves and heaves were their songs. In Georgia.
For centuries, the ancestors of African-Americans and Africans, to say, crossed every river; they clambered every mountain. Absentmindedly, they counted sorrows on their stubby fingers. Vaguely, they recalled the number lynched or flogged. The number whose bones were devoured by shackles, chains. The number raped and hacked to death. They were many. And they lost the memory of being alive, the memory of count, for their heads carried loads rather than reason. They lost the time of mind and thought, for they spent every time, any time, kneeling, submitting, pleading. But they didn't plead a cause. They had no cause that was theirs.
In the plantations of America, our ancestors pleaded to be called a name, to be called human, a name of their own. And they were told they weren't made for history. History then belonged to the oppressor, a surviving being, a carnivore, whose footprints survived their own trample dance. Our ancestors were not created for footprints and landmarks. Their footprints had disappeared under loads carried in a quagmire. Their own carcasses blurred, covered, the footprints that should have remained, appeared, at where they fell. The sandstorms of indignities and spite rolled the dunes on them, at where they fell. And they fell many times. In Florida. Oregon. Buried by mud and dunes, their fossils were those of extinct creatures - dinosaurs, tyranosaurs, brontosaurus.
The life of a slave was an expensive one. Not that he dined
in mansions of gold. What was simply cheap belonged then to the
free. It cost nothing to hurt, insult, destroy or cudgel a slave.
It was cheap. But it cost so much to endure the pain, the sorrow,
the deprivation. Slavery not only cost our ancestors their flesh
and dignity; it also cost them their identity, their origins.
Fortunately, the colour BLACK is traceable. Our ancestors' clue
of home is BLACKNESS. BLACK BELONGS TO AFRICA.
Reflections of Home
However, reflections of home, Africa, invoke memories of despondency, passion and vengeance. The message was sadly clear when a member of Gerhard Byrd's African-American group visiting Klikor in the Volta Region of Ghana in March 1995 lamented:
Within me, I know I come from this place, Africa. But where
exactly I know not.
Could it be here? I don't know which African language I spoke before. This is the
pain in my heart.
Then he rubbed his eyes.
Certainly, four, three, or two centuries ago is far away.
So far away
Not even memories alive
Save those that history books create,
Save those that songs
Beat back into the blood -
Beat out of blood with words sad-sung
In strange un-Negro tongue -
So far away
Subdued and time-lost
Are the drums - and yet
Through some vast mist of race
There comes this song
I do not understand,
This song of atavistic land,
Of bitter yearnings lost
Without a place -
So far away
Africa has become so distant. In less than a hundred years,
when colonialism ruled the continent, Africa underwent dramatic
changes. Institutions have changed or virtually disappeared; ideas
and relations have changed. Today only a few black Africans could
be identified by their traditional marks, names or costumes. A
majority of Africans have abandoned their traditional religions
and cultures. The ancient convents have disappeared with the verdant
forests. Only rubbles remain of the sacred spots. The old temples
are red mounds of earth burying the ancient iron bells, figurines
of stone and metal. The rubble is the dilemma of a suitable direction.
Africa, the beginning of things, is now culturally a beggar, a
beggar of other histories.
However, African-Americans, among others, continue to excavate abandoned sites of their ancestral homes for their name. But only a few have succeeded in relocating where their umbilical cords were buried, where their ancestors worked in the fields as free men. Alex Haley, for instance, found his African ancestor, Kunta, in the Gambia. But Kunta was only one among millions who had been dragged from the jungle, gagged, whipped, knuckled, chained and finally hurled into the stench of slaveships. Kunta was only one among millions who made the voyage across the Atlantic on the carrion of chained skeletons. That voyage was probably nobler than the embarkation on the abattoir of American plantations.
In Search of Freedom
Kunta lost his foot in the end, but not through mischance or accident. Through the choice or option of amputation and castration. And Kunta, like Nat Turner, was a freedom fighter, fighting for the freedom of race, our race. He, in Virginia, frequently remembered his previous home, where the drum meant festival. That world was one of play and prayer, where he could choose to sleep or work. But in his new world of hounds, there wasn't the right to play or pray. A fellow slave, Attabora Kweku Enu, testified how, in Grenada, he "saw Negroes lacerated by the whip, because instead of working they went to church on the Sabbath... Others have their teeth broken because they dared to suck the sugar cane."5
Like many other African slaves who never felt spiritually detached from Africa, Kunta frequently went hunting in his African world of history, reminiscing Old Mali, Mauretania and the Gambia, where his ancestors came from. Like many others in Virginia or Tennessee, he also remembered the "bedlam of raided villages, which were often in flames. The captured able survivors were linked neck-by-neck with thongs into processions called 'coffles' which were sometimes as much as a mile in length."6 Kunta's memories were those of the greasing, the shaving, the branding, the nudging, the hustling and the cold of slave-ships. Memories of Pekali N'Ding, Juffure, Jiffarong and freedom. But the answer to that desire of freedom was the option of amputation and castration.
Nat Turner had no such opportunity of an option. In 1831, probably restaging the revolt of African slaves in Haiti on the plantations of Christopher Columbus' son, Diego, in 1522, Nat and seven other slaves demonstrated to the white American what it costs to keep others in chains.* The tinderbox of slavery exploded into violence, and there in Virginia, they "started out at his master's home and through the night they went from one plantation 'big house' to the next, killing, until the next morning 57 white people were dead and Nat had 70 slaves following him. White people, terrified for their lives, fled from their homes, locked themselves up in public buildings, hid in the woods, and some even left the state. A small army of soldiers took two months to catch and hang Nat Turner."7
Slavery in the Americas and the Caribbeans in particular have
produced more hideous outrages on both sides - slaves and masters.
Stories of "black slave women tied up and flogged with whips;
of black mothers watching their babies being dragged off, never
to be seen by their mothers again; of dogs after slaves, and of
the fugitive slave catchers, evil white men with whips and clubs
and chains and guns."8 Stories of the slave denied his name
and the right of developing a social relationship, a family unit.
In the southern states of America, for example, "the marriage
of slaves had no legal status and could be broken by the will
of the master."9
Sadly enough, despite the indignities and brutalities that slaves in America were subjected to, some believe there are "certain important positive features of the life of the Negroes in America... In spite of the harsh conditions," it is argued, "they survived and multiplied to the extent that would have been impossible had they remained in Africa. Furthermore," the argument continues, "they were able gradually to acquire something of the culture of their country - the language, if only rarely the arts of reading and writing; and the Christian religion, on which they often put a different interpretation than that suggested by their masters."10
Althought the aim of this study is not to moot a critical comparison of the merits - if there are any - and the demerits of slavery, those positive features argued by Henry Pelling are the very essence of slavery : the absolute imposition of the master's adulterated culture on the slave. What drove Caucasians to the New World, for instance, was not the unavailability of language, religious, writing or reading skills in Europe. They were driven by the absence of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Before the Pilgrim Fathers landed in Jamestown in 1607, most of them had one or the other form of religion. But the freedom to practise it... What really matters is freedom, the oxygen of the soul, to use Moshe Dayan's maxim.
Henry Pelling's arguments are not, therefore, justified when we consider that those positive features - survival, reproduction, a new religion and a new language, for example - could also be attained in freedom. Nor could these arguments be defended by the fact that African-Americans enjoy today a higher standard of living than Africans at home. One does not justify thievery because the stolen property or article is properly maintained. And if survival or multiplication should be an achievement to defend, one could also assume that the African-American slave had only developed an immunity system of strrength or resistance against the brutalities of slavery. Indeed, Malcolm X notes that "Negroes born in Georgia had to be strong simply to survive."11 That is not an achievement of American slavery.
The benefit of a new religion is equally untenable. What could Christianity offer the liberated slave among other options of faith when its adherents defended the practice of keeping slaves for centuries? "It is," indeed, "a terrible commentary on Christian civilization that the longest period of slave-raiding known to history was initiated by the action of Spain and Portugal, France, Holland, and Britain after the Christian faith had for more than a thousand years been the established religion of western Europe; and it is graver since the new slavery was worse and more inhuman than the old."12
It could, however, be argued that the abolitionists, appealing to Christian slavers, used Christian doctrines to plead the cause of the slave. For example, William Wilberforce, speaking in the British Parliament in a debate on the abolition of the slave trade, entreats:
Can our religion allow us to carry out raids to take slaves in Africa? Can our religion allow us to encourage African chiefs to buy brandy and gunpowder with slaves? Can our religion allow a slave trader to cut the mouth of a girl slave from ear to ear then allow the courts to fine him only twenty-five shillings for his crime? I say our religion cannot.13
Unfortunately, for many centuries, the Christian religion allowed
all that. However shocked some Christians might be "at the
purchase of slaves," "at their hardships, their tortures
and groans," how could they "do without sugar and rum?"*
Christians also "thought that the sweetness of sugar was
more important than the bitterness of the slaves."14
Christianity would have established its name as the perfect religion had it principally fought at the outset the worst form of slavery that black people ever experienced. That it had permitted it while millions were being tortured, humiliated and killed for the comfort and prosperity of its adherents remains the big question mark of its proclaimed civilization. Why not? "To steal men, to rob them of their liberty, is worse than to plunder them of their goods."15
But how did Africans at home perform in the madness of nations? Were they also culpable? Let's address these questions to the next chapter.
1. Dale Massiasta, Origins of the Slave Stool in Klikor, 1996, p. 1.
2. Henry Pelling, American Labour, Popular Library, Inc, 1962, p. 40.
3. H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe Vol II, Fontana/Collins, (1935) 1976, p. 1121.
4. Langston Hughes, "Afro-American" (Selected Poems), in Black Voices, ed. Abraham Chapman, A Mentor Book, 1968, p.425.
5. Attabora Kweku Enu, Reflections on the Slave Trade and Slavery of the Negroes, quoted from Dr Isaac Ephson, Gallery of Gold Coast Celebrities Vols 1-3, Illen Publications, Accra, 1971, p.32.
6. Alex Haley, Roots, Dell Publishing, New York, 1977, p. 721. NOTE: I am indebted to Alex Haley for all the information on Kunta and his origins.
* Slave revolts were common in history. For example, in Sicily, slave revolts occurred in 139 BC, 134-131 BC and 104-101 BC. In Spartacus, Italy, there were slave revolts in 73-71 BC ( A.R. Burn, The Pelican History of Greece, Penguin Books, (1965) 1974, p. 383).
In the revolts of modern slavery, those of the Coromantine (Ghanaian) slaves have been singled out as extraordinary. Edward Long, in the History of Jamaica (1774), described them as "haughty, ferocious and stubborn." "In the space of one hour," Long wrote, "thirty-three Coromantines, most of whom had been newly imported, murdered and wounded no less than nineteen whites." (Quoted from Adu Boahen, Topics in West African History, Longmans, (1966) 1968, p. 109).
7. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in Bearing Witness, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr, Pantheon Books New York, 1991, p. 140.
8.Ibid. p. 140.
9. Henry Pelling, op. cit. pp. 39-40.
10. Ibid. p. 40.
11. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in Black Voices, A Mentor Book (Published by the Penguin Group), New York, 1968, p. 335. If we consider that only young and healthy men and women between the ages of sixteen and thirty years, only boys and girls between the ages of ten and sixteen, were sold into slavery, as was the age specification of a London company in 1722, only the unfit, the unhealthy and the aged, besides the healthy slave raiders and traders, were left behind in Africa. These slaves were the more prolific Africans who must necessarily multiply even under the pressing conditions of slavery.
12. H. A. L. Fisher, op. cit. p. 1121.
13. G.N. Brown, An Active History of Ghana, Bk 2, Allen & Unwin, p. 87.
* The economic importance of the slave trade to Europeans is underlined in the following words of the English poet, William Cowper:
I own I am shocked by the purchase of slaves
And I fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures and groans,
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones
I pity them greatly but I must be mum
For how could we do without sugar and rum (G.N. Brown, op. cit. p. 58).
And so in Africa's worst moments, the Europeans did the most possible to encourage Africans to support the slave trade. For example, when the Governor of the Cape Coast Castle, Thomas Melvil, attempted to introduce the development of cotton cultivation among the Fante in the 1740s, the British Board of Trade ordered him to stop for reasons that: "The introduction of culture and industry among the Negroes is contrary to the known established policy of this country, there is no saying where this might stop, and that it might extend to tobacco, sugar, and every other commodity which we now take from our colonies the Americas and the Caribbeans; and thereby the Africans, who support themselves by wars, would become planters and their slaves be employed in the culture of these articles in Africa, which they are employed in, in America." (Adu Boahen, op. cit. p. 113).
14. G. N. Brown, op. cit. p. 32.
15. Attabora Kweku Enu, op. cit. p. 32.
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RESEARCHES IN BLACK AFRICAN CULTURE AND CIVILISATION
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