44A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

The Roots of Slavery
October 11, 2008

“Sail away.  Sail away.  We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay.”   r. newman

In the middle of the Gambia River west of Senegal’s Kiang National Park lies an infamous landfall known as James Island.  Now badly eroded, James Island and the ruins of its once prosperous Fort James, lie baking in the African sun.   It is infamous because of its history as a strategic port of trade for European merchants and colonists.  The island was variously controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and British and was named after James, the Duke of York in 1661. For four hundred years the Gambia was thought to be the treasured route into the heart of Africa. But as Joseph Conrad described such ambitions, it was more like a route into the heart of darkness.  And not African darkness - European darkness. 

In 1976 Alex Haley, a retired Coast Guard seaman and journalist published the riveting account of his search for family origins in “Roots.”  It was a wildly successful venture published two hundred years after the Declaration of Independence and it prompted Americans to look at the dark side of their own history.  That history is of course the history of slavery in the United States.  What captivated Haley’s and the American imagination was his triumph in having located his African roots.  A key milestone in that search was his identification of the British slave ship Lord Ligonier, which records show sailed from James Fort in the Gambia on July 5, 1767 bound for Annapolis, Maryland.  On board was a cargo that included 3,265 ivory tusks; 3,700 pounds of beeswax; 800 pounds of raw cotton; 32 ounces of Gambian gold; and 140 “Negroes.”  On its arrival in Annapolis on September 29 of that year, Maryland’s Hall of Records confirmed the cargo, except for just 98 “Negroes” in the Ligonier hold.   Typical to slave trade, one third of the captives had died in the brutal crossing.

Haley’s narrative investigates his family’s oral history and its tale of an African man “Kinte” who was kidnapped near a Gambian village by “the King’s soldiers.”  The television adaptation of “Roots” recounts some of the slave-taking violence.  But no account can aptly describe the horror of waking in a village on fire surrounded by white soldiers and professional slavers who beat you into submission, shackle you by the neck and march you in a coffle line to the stinking hold of a slave ship.  While much has been written about slavery, it is a subject that can never have enough light shed on it.  It is an evil scourge brought about by the primitive, selfish belief that the weak must serve the strong.  And that some races of people are superior to others.  And that abducting people from their homelands and forcing them to live in a new culture is somehow an act of charity.  The fact is the abduction and kidnapping of people from anywhere for any purpose is an act of unholy mental and physical violence.  Those who aid and abet any form of this violence give succor to the darkest, most evil forces of being.  The repercussions are profound and long lasting.  Indeed, they reverberate around the world to this day.

Haley recounts that the African Kinte tried on four occasions to escape the Virginia plantation that claimed to “own”  him.  On the fourth attempt he was captured by professional “slave catchers.”  To make an example of Kinte the slavers offered him a choice; castration or hacking off a foot.  He lost his foot.  It was a pattern of Southern intimidation used for two hundred years to “keep the niggers down.”  Eighteenth century colonial laws prescribe ruthless punishment for runaway slaves including lashings, branding, cutting off hands, feet, and tongues.   All to intimidate a man’s independence, to destroy his individuality and to suppress any idea of freedom. 

On the positive side of Haley’s book is the fluent dialog it brought about within American society.  It caused us to think and discuss the humiliating role of slavery in the birth of our nation.  It showed us in harsh familial terms the ruinous effect of owning human beings, of forced labor and the conscious suppression of culture.   Millions of Americans were made to see the prosperity enjoyed in the southern colonies loyal to the Crown arrived at a terrible cost.  Not only did it bring about the bloodiest of American wars, it very nearly tore the nation apart.  Even today, forty five years after the passage of Civil Rights law, we hear the dying whispers of racial conflict.  Just forty five years ago celebrated black athletes and entertainers were still asked to enter public facilities through the back door.  With this in mind, the nomination of the first African American for President is a measured step forward. 

Some two hundred and fifty years after the arrival of Haley’s ancestor at the slave dock in Annapolis, we have the potential to reverse the damage.  We have the opportunity to recognize a man not only for his contemporary achievements but for the achievements of an entire culture.  They are accomplishments made in the face of powerful opposition.  They have demanded a Herculean rise above slavery, intimidation, and prejudice.  These achievements have come about because both black and white culture has pressed beyond the ignominious past to a more civil, equitable present.  There may be no better elixir for past ills than a healthy recognition of those who have long struggled to a
chieve, and to be free.

NOTE: Haley's book was never meant to be an historic record of fact.  Rather, it was an interpretation of incidents and folklore that gave Haley a constructive view of his personal journey