GUYANA: Voices from slavery’s graveyard – By “Countryman”  Dennis Nichols 

Come Thursday, August 01 2019,  Guyanese will celebrate 181 years of freedom from that abomination known as slavery. What’s there to celebrate, or not, is arguable. But we, the descendants of Africans, and heirs of a rather curious legacy, will invoke the collective spirit of our ancestors, as is our custom.

Olaudah Equiano

This year’s libations and tributes will be blended with African street theatre and movie screenings, parades, sports, artistic expressions, and an appearance by Jamaican reggae star, Ky-Mani Marley, son of the late Bob Marley. And though it seems to elicit participation mainly from one ethnic group, it is, of course, a national holiday.     

me. Hard! I do not remember learning much, if anything, about New World slavery during my primary or secondary schooling; or even from my parents, although my father occasionally referred to the plight and the penury of ‘my people’.

I did learn of it however, in the early seventies, from my GCE tutor, Desmond Shepherd, my neighbour, Alfred Skeete, and the small cohort or radicalizing youths I sometimes hung out with at MAO (Movement Against Oppression) meetings in Tiger Bay.

As I did, I began to understand the enormous debt owed by my generation, and subsequent ones, to the strength and resilience of our African forbears in the New World through physical pain, mental torture, and raw humiliation.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

I began to appreciate how the foundations of this nation of ours were laid out for future development, notwithstanding the evident contributions of other ethnic groups before 1600 and after 1838.

I then resolved to concretize some small measure of my African heritage by reclaiming the West African custom of naming my sons according to the weekday on which they were born. So, my first son, born on a Sunday, was Kwesi, and so it went.

The history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade has been penned by those who grew wealthy off it, and in part by those of remorseful conscience, some of whom must have found God and salvation after profit. But there are also recollections by the slaves themselves among which are the writings of the enslaved, but literate African, Olaudah Equiano, that vividly captured the horror of the Middle Passage – from the West African Coast to the New World.

The remainder of this article takes an extract from his narrative and links it with a poem from African-American suffragist and abolitionist, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. It’s an unapologetic reminder of what our ancestors endured, and what the world should never, ever forget, even as some still attempt to whitewash history. It is dedicated to all Guyanese who appreciate the true price of freedom.

First, an excerpt from ‘The Interesting Narrative of life of Olaudah Equiano’ –

“… At last, when the ship had got in all her cargo, they made ready, and we were all put under the deck. The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilineal.
The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice of their purchasers.
This wretched situation was again aggravated by galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable… In this situation I expected every hour, to share the fate of my companions, some of whom were almost daily brought upon deck at the point of death, which I began to hope, would soon put an end to my miseries.”

Now hear the words of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper as she pleads against being buried in a land desecrated by the inhuman practice.

“Make me a grave where’er you will, in a lowly plain or a lofty hill; Make it among earth’s humblest graves, but not in a land where men are slaves.
I could not rest if around my grave, I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb, would make it a place of fearful gloom.
I could not rest if I heard the tread, of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair, rise like a curse on the trembling air.
I could not sleep if I saw the lash, drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast, like trembling doves from their parent nest.
I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay, of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain, as they bound afresh his galling chain.
If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms, bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame, my death-paled cheek grow red with shame.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave, where none can call his brother a slave.
I ask no monument, proud and high, to arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves, is bury me not in a land of slaves.”

Our people in this part of the world, from politicians to poets, know a lighter measure of the insufferable injustices meted out to their ancestors under slavery and, to an extent, indentureship and colonization. Yet many of us are still mentally and emotionally locked by invisible chains. The more astute and the more cunning among us, know this. Some try to rend these chains; others do their damnedest to draw them tighter. And too many of us are accommodating the latter.

The voices from transatlantic slavery’s graveyard are varied and haunting, including those silenced by the ocean waves and the slave master’s whip. But even the muted ones carry weight, and still press heavily, centuries later. Here in Guyana, we hear them still in our dreams. We ignore them still at our peril.

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Comments

  • mudhead2  On July 28, 2020 at 3:59 am

    The slave trad is as old as mankind. The Arabs have been taking Africans for slaves for a very long time, and most of the people enslaved were done so by their leaders selling them into Slavery. With that in mind one can not point the finger at anyone race

    • kamtanblog  On July 28, 2020 at 4:34 am

      Exactly !

      Racism existed for centuries and will be with us for centuries
      to come.
      Awareness of it a cure
      The fix !

      Kamtan

  • kamtanblog  On July 28, 2020 at 4:10 am

    Racism/prejudices exists in all societies today and slavery will be with us for centuries
    to come.
    Anti social laws playing “catch-up” in some societies.
    CorV has triggered “social-distancing” as a norm …will it remain post pandemic?
    Begs the question !
    Will a vaccine resolve some of the “prejudices” in society today.
    Humanoids show their true colours before/during/after a pandemic.

    Guess have opened the can of worms for debate !

    Kamtan

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