Monday, September 15, 2014

British Colonials In Africa

From the New York Times Sunday Book Review, "'Imperial Reckoning' and 'Histories of the Hanged': White Man's Bungle," by Daniel Bergner, on 30 January 2005 -- In a war-ravaged town in Sierra Leone a few years ago, I listened as five men debated the idea of recolonization, which many of their countrymen favored. They sat in a derelict shed, the office of a building contractor who'd lost all his equipment to rampaging soldiers. He was lucky to be alive and unmutilated; factions in the civil war had cut off the hands of civilians, then let them live as the ultimate message of terror. Amid the ruin of their nation, only one of the five men objected to the idea. ''We had segregation, right over there,'' he said, pointing toward the desolate grounds of a secondary school, his voice rising in outrage. ''We couldn't go to that school!'' To which the contractor, white-haired and old enough to have spent his childhood under British rule, said, ''At least there was school for Africans.''

The men spoke during extreme times in their country; their desperation had reached this pitch after 10 years of anarchy. But despair pervades the continent. ''The average African,'' Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs and brother of South Africa's president, declared recently, ''is poorer than during the age of colonialism.'' Yet for anyone tempted, even fleetingly, to look to the past for solutions to Africa's problems, two new books, ''Imperial Reckoning,'' by Caroline Elkins, and ''Histories of the Hanged,'' by David Anderson, give warning.

Focusing on the final decade of British rule in Kenya (ending in 1963), both writers evoke a period when, especially in Elkins's view, the colonial pretense of civilizing the dark continent gave way to the savagery of imperial self-preservation. Some 40,000 whites lived in Kenya by the early 1950's, drawn by promises of long leases on fertile land and native labor at low wages. ''Whatever his background,'' Anderson, a lecturer in African Studies at Oxford, writes, ''every white man who disembarked from the boat at Mombasa became an instant aristocrat.'' But by midcentury, many of the natives, particularly those of the Kikuyu tribe, refused to play their assigned role. The Kikuyu had been put off their most arable land by white farmers. They, like other Kenyan tribes, had been banished to ethnic reserves too small to sustain them. They were forced to carry passbooks as they searched for work from the governing race. In 1952, stirred partly by their displacement and partly by British efforts to prohibit traditional Kikuyu customs, a Kikuyu secret society, the Mau Mau, launched a rebellion, attacking white-owned farms and brutally killing perhaps a hundred whites and 1,800 of their African supporters. In retaliation, the British carried out a campaign that, Elkins suggests, amounted to genocide.

Anderson's book, meant as a kind of requiem for the ''as yet unacknowledged martyrs of the rebel cause: the 1,090 men who went to the gallows as convicted Mau Mau terrorists,'' never manages to render a vivid martyr. Examples of colonial judicial corruption and hypocrisy are thoroughly explored, but little room is left for character. Elkins, a history professor at Harvard, also neglects individual portraits, but she develops an unforgettable catalog of atrocities and mass killing perpetrated by the British. ''Imperial Reckoning'' is an important and excruciating record; it will shock even those who think they have assumed the worst about Europe's era of control in Africa. Nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million was, by Elkins's calculation, herded by the British into various gulags. Elkins, who assembled her indictment through archives, letters and interviews with survivors and colonists, tells of a settler who would burn the skin off Mau Mau suspects or force them to eat their own testicles as methods of interrogation. She quotes a survivor recalling a torment evocative of Abu Ghraib: lines of Kikuyu detainees ordered to strip naked and embrace each other randomly, and a woman committing suicide after being forced into the arms of her son-in-law. She quotes an anonymous settler telling her, ''Never knew a Kuke had so many brains until we cracked open a few heads.'' Her method is relentless; page after page, chapter after chapter, the horrors accumulate.

Yet for all its power, ''Imperial Reckoning'' is not as compelling as it should be. With so much evidence of atrocity, Elkins often forgoes complexity and careful analysis. Not only are the colonists barbaric in their treatment of the Kikuyu, but, as she has it, they are basically barbarous in private as well, maintaining ''an absolutely hedonistic lifestyle, filled with sex, drugs, drink and dance.'' More important, there is the case that Elkins apparently wishes to make -- for genocide. ''Mau Mau,'' she writes, ''became for many whites in Kenya, and for many Kikuyu loyalists as well, what the Armenians had been to the Turks . . . and the Jews to the Nazis. As with any incipient genocide, the logic was all too easy to follow.'' According to the official statistics, the British killed 11,503 Mau Mau adherents. By contrast, Elkins estimates that ''somewhere between 130,000 and 300,000 Kikuyu are unaccounted for.'' She reaches her figures by reviewing colonial censuses taken in 1948 and 1962; she compares the increase in the Kikuyu population to the larger increases in three other Kenyan tribes. It's a fragile means to support her case, partly because we're left wondering whether the other tribes also grew more swiftly than the Kikuyu during earlier periods.

Unfortunately, Elkins's prosecutorial zeal in a sense precludes a true ''imperial reckoning.'' For British rule brought crucial benefits that persist -- among them modern education and a degree of infrastructure -- as well as violent oppression to its subjects. A thorough reckoning would provide, by way of paradox, not only a more deeply insightful but a more deeply wrenching work of imperial history.(source: New York Times Sunday Book Review)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Author Greg Grandin On The Economist And Slavery 

From the Nation Magazine, "‘The Economist’ Has a Slavery Problem: Multiple commentaries from the journal show a pattern of making sure white people aren’t taken for total villains when discussing slavery," by Greg Grandin, on September 2014 -- A few months ago, my recent book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World received a lukewarm review in The Economist. The title of the unsigned review, “Slavery: Not Black or White,” was odd, calling to mind a parody of an Onion headline: “Nietzsche: Not Good or Evil.” After all, slavery, a centuries-long institution involving the buying and selling of tens of millions of human beings, did in fact result in divvying up the diversity of much of the world’s population into those two colors. The review itself was written in that smarmy style that makes US corporate managers and hedge funders swoon, identified some time ago by James Fallows as “colonial cringe.” Readers on this side of the Atlantic assign an Oxbridge accent to the text, which “involves a stance so cocksure of its rightness and superiority that it would be a shame to freight it with mere fact.” Another critic said the magazine is written by young people trying to sound old.

The Empire of Necessity tries to establish the dependent relationship of slavery to the capitalist revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in all of the Americas, north and south, and presumes to use Herman Melville as embodying the moral complexities of that relationship. In other words, there’s a lot going on in the book. But the reviewer seemed only excited to find a few instances confirming that the trans-Atlantic slave system was not universally, 100 percent, absolutely, totally, categorically, “a matter of white villains and black victims.” “As is commonly supposed.” “Blacks,” he or she was happy to report, “profited from the Atlantic slave trade.”

The reviewer then complained about the book’s gloominess: “Unfortunately, the horrors in Mr Grandin’s history are unrelenting. His is a book without heroes. The brave battlers against the gruesome slave business hardly get a look in, although it was they who eventually prevailed.” One might think that “brave battlers” would be a good description of the group of West Africans who led the slave-ship revolt that is the book’s set piece. Having endured horrific captivity and transport, forced not just across the Atlantic but the whole American continent into the Pacific, the deception they managed to pull off under extremely hostile conditions was, I’d say, heroic.

Slavery might not be black or white, but bravery and morality apparently are: whites possess those qualities, a possession that merits historical consideration; blacks don’t, at least according to The Economist. The Empire of Necessity didn’t “credit” William Wilberforce, the white reformist MP, or white abolitionist evangelicals and Quakers, for ending slavery. Nor, the reviewer points out, did I make mention of the British Royal Navy freeing “at least 150,000 west Africans from slave ships during the 19th century.” The book isn’t about abolition, or, for that matter, the British Royal Navy. No matter. “The British historians,” wrote the great historian of slavery, Eric Williams, “wrote as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it.” So too, apparently, anonymous Economist reviewers.

Then last week another review appeared that made it clear that The Economist has, well, a race problem. Also published without a byline, this one is of Ed Baptist’s wonderful The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, and is even more of an apologia for white resentment, if not supremacy (by which only white folks have virtues worthy of historical commentary). It had to have been by the same critic, for it uses nearly exactly the same victim/villainy opposition as scaffolding: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” This time, though, the Internet responded with a barrage of snark (“@TheEconomist asks the tough question: why are black people victims in a book about slavery?” #notallwhites #notallslavemasters) that, remarkably, forced the editors to withdraw the review and apologize for its apologia: “Apology: In our review … we said: ‘Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.’ There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system…” Glad we got that cleared up.

The review of Baptist’s book in fact had other problems than what its editors apologized for. Baptist provides meticulous, extensive and comprehensive evidence that capitalism and the wealth it created was absolutely dependent on the forced labor of Africans and African-Americans, downplaying culturalist arguments for Western prosperity, of the kind rehearsed by historians such as Niall Ferguson. This seemed to particularly irk the reviewer, who asserted that Baptist “overstates his case when he dismisses ‘the traditional explanations’ for America’s success,” including its “individualistic culture, Puritanism,” and “ingenuity.” Here, the reviewer adopts exactly the “cocksure” tone Fallows long ago described, unburdened by the need to actually make a counter-argument or provide evidence. An assertion pronounced in crisp English is as good as its word.

So a pattern is detected, one reaching back much further than the review of my book. In the 1860s,The Economist stood nearly alone among liberal opinion in Britain in supporting the Confederacy against the Union, all in the name of access to cheap Southern “Blood Cotton” (ironically, the title of the Baptist review) and fear of higher tariffs if the North triumphed. “The Economist was unusual,” writes an historian of English public opinion at the time; “Other journals still regarded slavery as a greater evil than restrictive trade practices.”

Since the Baptist review appeared, only to be quickly withdrawn, other historians, such as Mark Healey, have dug up reviews with similar problems. The Economist seems committed to making sure that white people aren’t taken for total villains and darker-skinned folks held accountable for their share of world’s inequities. It also seems dedicated to make sure the economic system created by slavery is denied its parentage, and on insisting that the miseries that continue to be produced by neoliberal capitalism can only be cured by more neoliberal capitalism. A few years ago, for instance, the magazine upbraided the Laurent Dubois, in his book on the history of Haiti, for, you guessed it, dismissing cultural explanations for the country’s poverty and focusing instead on structural issues. Haitians need to be held responsible for “their society’s underdevelopment,” and the best way to end their misery is to stop clinging to substance production and accommodate themselves to “specialised wage labour for a global market.”

The reviewing practices of The Economist are opaque, its reviewers shrouded in collective anonymity and endowed with the timeless authority of the “Royal We.” “In our review … ” started off its Baptist recantation. But who was the author of the reviews of The Empire of Necessity and The Half Has Never Been Told? A staff writer? A professional historian? Of slavery? Of the United States? Of the British Empire?

If so, why not be a “brave battler” and stop hiding behind the neoliberal plural. Have the courage of your convictions and come out. An apology and withdrawal isn’t enough. Release the name of the reviewer. (source: The Nation; Please support The Nation. Donate now!)

Author Edward E Baptist On The Economist's Book Review

As reported by The UK Guardian, "The Economist's review of my book reveals how white people still refuse to believe black people about being black: This is what happens when racism goes viral. This is why, somehow, it still can," by Edward E Baptist, on 7 September 2014  --  In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from slavery, joined dozens of white passengers on the British ship Cambria in New York harbor. Somewhere out on the Atlantic, the other passengers discovered that the African American activist in their midst had just published a sensational autobiography. They convinced the captain to host a sort of salon, wherein Douglass would tell them his life story. But when the young black man stood up to talk, a group of Southern slaveholders, on their way to Britain for vacation or business or both, confronted him. Every time Douglass said something about what it was like to be enslaved, they shouted him down: Lies! Lies! Slaves were treated well, insisted the slaveholders; after all, they said, the masters remained financially interested in the health of their human “property”.

In a review of my book about slavery and capitalism published the other day, the Economist treated it the same way that the tourist enslavers treated the testimony of Frederick Douglass on that slave-era ship long ago. In doing so, the Economist revealed just how many white people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience of being black.

Apparently, I shouldn’t have focused my historical research on how some people lived off the uncompensated sweat of their “valuable property”, the magazine’s anonymous reviewer wrote: “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” Worst of all, this book reviewer went on, I had, by putting the testimony of “a few slaves” at the heart of book about slavery, somehow abandoned “objectivity”’ for “advocacy”.

Of course, the reviewer wasn’t treating me like the slaveowners on the Cambria treated Douglass. They threatened to kidnap him and send him to New Orleans – the largest slave market in North America. No, a single nameless reviewer from a single stodgy magazine couldn’t do much to me.

Still, the review enraged a significant number of people. Within a few hours, Twitterstorians scorched the earth of the magazine’s comments page with radioactive reviews of the review. The parodies and viral disdain forced the Economist to retract the review and issue a partial apology.

But the Economist didn’t apologize for dismissing what slaves said about slavery. That kind of arrogance remains part of a wider, more subtle pattern in how black testimony often gets treated – sometimes unknowingly – as less reliable than white. The Economist reviewer was saying that the key sources of my book, African Americans – black people – cannot be believed.

As the historian Jelani Cobb pointed out to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Friday night, the reviewer’s ideas about slavery’s history are not actually as uncommon as many of us would like to believe. He’s right: All across the American south, you can go to historic plantation sites still pushing the idea that slaves who had a “good” master were happy, and “faithful”.

If you write about the history of slavery, you become used to the pattern: No matter how many accounts you cite from ex-slaves, people often say they need more information before they can accept what former cotton pickers say about how cotton picking worked. And when we’re talking about contemporary events, the presumptive doubt is just as bad.

For instance: white people have had numerous opportunities, especially after Ferguson, to hear what African Americans think about how policing takes place when white civilians aren’t around. Yet twice as many white Americans as black Americans still think that police treat African Americans fairly.

Perhaps this is because, according to a recent survey, 75% of white Americans have zero black American friends. Surely if more white people knew more black people on a personal level, some would be more ready to accept the accounts from African Americans about how white privilege affects their own lives.

Instead, we’ve still got white magazine writers refusing to believe first-person accounts of history, which re-enforces white privilege at the very time when we should be revoking it. In the meantime, both historians and advocates of contemporary change often have to turn to the strategy of getting white people to vet black testimony before other white people will believe it.

Back in 1845 on the Cambria, as the attackers surrounded Douglass, threatening to throw him overboard, he told the other white passengers that if they didn’t believe his words, he would speak the words of the enslavers. Straight from the book of state law in the south, Douglas read aloud those punishments allotted to slaves, then – “lashings on the back, the cropping of ears and other revolting disfigurements” – as now: “for the most venial crimes, and even frequently when no crime whatever had been committed”.  (source: The Guardian)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Greg Grandin’s "Empire of Necessity"

From the New York Times Sunday Book Review, "A Vengeful Fury: Greg Grandin’s ‘Empire of Necessity’," by Andrew Delbanco, on 10 January 2014 -- Between the early 16th century and the middle of the 19th, more than 12 million human beings were shipped against their will from Africa to the New World and sold into slavery. An untold number died at different stages of the journey — overland in Africa, during the “middle passage” at sea or soon after arrival. Among those who perished, most died of disease, some by suicide and still others from wounds or execution following failed revolts.

For nearly four centuries, as Greg Grandin writes in his powerful new book, slavery was the “flywheel” that drove the global development of everything from trade and insurance to technology, religion and medicine. To read “The Empire of Necessity” is to get a sort of revolving scan from the center of the wheel. What we see is an endless sequence of human transactions — the production and exchange of meat, sugar, rice, cotton, tobacco, gold, among many other things — all connected, through slavery, by linkages whose full extent cannot be discerned from any point along the way. Slaves, Grandin writes, “were at one and the same time investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities and capital.”,204,203,200_.jpg

Grandin’s kaleidoscopic technique gives his book a certain pastiche quality (many years and miles are silently traversed in the breaks between chapters), but through a remarkable feat of research he establishes a strong narrative line that gives the book coherence and momentum. Beginning in 1804 with their embarkation from West Africa, he follows a particular group of slaves to a British slave ship until it is seized in the name of “liberty, equality and fraternity” by a French pirate, who exercised his liberty by selling them to a buyer in Buenos Aires. Then came a forced march across the “never-ending blanket of grass” of the Argentine pampas, which must have cruelly reminded the captives of the African steppe they once had known. Next was the hard climb into the Andes, where the weak and sick had their limbs or heads cut off in order to facilitate removal of shackles and halters for future use, their mutilated bodies left to nonhuman predators along the trail. Upon arrival in Valparaiso, survivors were taken aboard the slave ship Tryal, bound for Lima, under the command of a Spaniard named Benito Cerreño.

Into this harrowing account Grandin, the author of “Fordlandia,” intersperses sections about two New Englanders who seem at first disconnected from the story but who were destined to intersect with the lives — and deaths — of the slaves, and thereby with each other. The first was a merchant seaman named Amasa Delano who dropped anchor in late 1805 at Santa Maria Island off the Chilean coast. The second was a Massachusetts writer, Herman Melville (from whom Grandin borrows his title), who, probably sometime in the 1840s, read Delano’s memoir and was drawn to the tale of what happened early in 1805 when Delano spied a ship sailing erratically near the island, in evident need of help.

That ship was the Tryal, whose human “cargo” had rebelled, murdered their owner along with a score of other whites and demanded that Cerreño sail them back to Africa. Fifty years later, Melville made Delano’s story the basis of a short novel that he called “Benito Cereno.”

When Delano boarded the vessel to aid what he surmised was a distressed crew, he was duped by the risen slaves — and by Cerreño, who feared for his life should he hint at the truth — into believing that the disorder aboard was the result of storm damage and disease. But as Delano was being rowed back to his own ship, the Spanish captain suddenly leapt overboard after him, screaming for help. Now grasping the truth of the situation (at least some of it), Delano dispatched an armed party that subdued, then tortured, the rebellious slaves. When he returned to the ship, he found them “writhing in their viscera.”

In “Benito Cereno,” Melville retold these events with some significant ­changes. Omitting what Grandin calls “Delano’s nearly yearlong hounding” of the Spaniard for what he considered his due compensation for the rescue, he emphasized Cereno’s lingering shock and Delano’s impenetrable insouciance. He focused on the leader of the slave rebellion, whose corpse, after his trial and hanging, was decapitated, with the head impaled on a spike in the main plaza of Lima so all could contemplate his “voiceless end.”

Melville refused to write knowingly about the unknowable inner lives of the slaves, a reticence that elevated his novella far above the antislavery manifestoes of his time in which slaves appear in one form of caricature or another. He conveyed the horror of slavery while looking unblinkingly at the reciprocal fury of self-liberated slaves toward those who had enslaved them.

Grandin does not say much about the literary power of “Benito Cereno.” But by reconstructing the world through which the slaves moved toward their doom, he has done more than any previous scholar — and there have been many — to illuminate the context of the work in which Melville confronted slavery without presuming to comprehend its vast ramifications. “The Empire of Necessity” is also a significant contribution to the largely impossible yet imperative effort to retrieve some trace of the countless lives that slavery consumed.  (source: New York Times Sunday Book Review)

Greg Grandin on "The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World" from Brooklyn Historical Society on Vimeo.


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