In the Footsteps of the Ancestors – The UNESCO Slave Route Project
By Deniece Alleyne
As a small child I was very much mesmerized by Africa. My parents took a keen interest in the developments in South Africa in the waning days of the Apartheid regime in the late 1980s and would take any opportunity to watch the struggle unfold on television. I was a young child then and did not understand much of the significance of what I was seeing but I knew it was important.
My first memorable experience, however, was the horrific 100 days in early 1994 when the Hutu government in Rwanda unleashed a reign of terror on the Tutsi population and massacred nearly one million men, women and children in what is antiseptically known as ethnic cleansing.
I devoured every bit of news about that genocide and have a distinct recollection of feeling relief, thanking God that my ancestors had escaped Africa through the slave trade and, even then at 12 years old, feeling uncomfortable about that train of thought.
I understood enough to know that Africa mattered to me and that was as it should be but my image of the continent was unquestionably dark based on nothing but news reports of death, disease and disaster and I simply could not associate myself with that. I know that this is a common reaction of those of us in the Diaspora that, unfortunately most never grow out of.
My first inkling that something was very wrong with this view was the world’s reaction to the genocide in the Balkans. Europe and the United States went to war against Serbia to stop the ethnic cleansing of a few thousand Europeans. This was in stark contrast to the treatment of one million Africans in danger of being butchered where the United Nations made a hasty escape and the world simply ignored the crisis.
I began to wonder then, as a sixteen year old, whether there might not be a deeper meaning to this very different reaction and how my own experience, including that of my ancestors, could be better understood. Could I, and more importantly should I really be thanking God for the trans – Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans and the system of multi – generational racial slavery that endured for several hundred years as a result?
I did what my father had taught me from my earliest days. I dived into books on the subject, many of the best of which were written by fellow Caribbean people who I firmly believe went through the same development of consciousness that I did. Names like Walter Rodney, Eric Williams, CLR James and others are generally well known but their work is not.
Perhaps that is why the Africans, and that is what we are, in this Caribbean section of the Diaspora are still so helpless to follow the sage advice of one of our most recognized and revolutionary griots and emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.
The Africa that most of us are so afraid of and appalled by is not the result of the natural passage of time. It is not the result of a deficit in development that is caused by their and our failure to adapt to the modern world. It is not the result of intellectual inferiority and neither is it caused by traditional religion; what we know as obeah. All of these theories, which are implicitly believed by most although we would never admit to it amount to nothing more than egregious slander.
No one at the dawn of the early modern age at the beginning of the 1400s would have predicted that over the next six centuries the many nations of Africa would deteriorate from, in many cases, sophisticated and complex societies on the cusp of the agrarian revolution and very much equal to the feudal societies of their European trading partners into the repositories of so much suffering and backwardness that we see today.
If we sit and really think about the matter it would become immediately apparent how simply ludicrous it is to believe that the forcible, permanent and brutal deportation of millions of people in their most productive years from Africa, over centuries, and scattering them from New England in the north to Argentina in the south and throughout the Arab world to as far as India while obliterating the ethnic, social and cultural institutions that it took those societies millennia to build would have no effect.
When the triangular trade began in 1501, with the first arrival of Africans in the Americas on Hispaniola the population of the entire world was only around 1.5 billion people. The slave trade out of Africa represented a demographic, economic and social disaster on an epic scale. Scholars believe that over the four principal trade routes four million slaves were exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route into the Arab world, and eleven to twenty million across the Atlantic Ocean. This represented a significant proportion of the population of the continent.
Scholars have further proven that the trade was not only of demographic significance, in aggregate population losses but also in the profound changes to settlement patterns, epidemiological exposure, i.e. to strange diseases, and reproductive and social development potential.
In addition, the majority of the slaves being taken to the Americas were male. So while the slave trade created an immediate drop in the population, its long term effects were even more drastic. The agrarian revolution, an important and necessary precursor to the industrial revolution, was cruelly aborted in Africa and still has not been accomplished.
Yet, this was not all. Right after the suppression of the Atlantic trade the scramble for Africa began and with it the oppression of hundreds of African populations increased dramatically as colonization developed. When the Europeans left after 150 years the results were as undeniable as they were terrible.
This is the cause of our modern reality and while it does not condemn us or Africa to a debilitating fate that cannot be over come, understanding these origins provides the much needed context for any thrust towards development.
I am now rather embarrassed that I could even contemplate gratitude to God as an appropriate response to the dehumanization of my ancestors then and kith and kin today, even as a child. Instead I am often in awe of the strength of character that it took to survive that and am amazed that in the Americas today, from that tiny seed that should have died, there are over ¼ of a billion people that are recognizably of African descent.
Not only did our ancestors survive the unimaginable but they kept and passed on a culture that created jazz, reggae, the epic poem Omeros, blues, development economics, peanut butter, salsa, Usain Bolt and other achievements too numerous to mention. I often wonder whether we today have what that took. How do we honour their achievement? We can begin by tracing their footsteps.