The era of colonialism and the slave trade may look like history, but the past is not yet past
A few weeks ago, a newspaper reported that the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol had sold its premises and surrendered its collections. The chairman of the museum is quoted as saying the closure was due to post-imperial angst, and a feeling that the subject was unfashionable.
The era of colonialism, and its close ally the slave trade, is considered to be over, but the subject needs to remain open. Not just because colonialism is responsible for so many of today’s inequities, or to remind colonisers of their guilt, or to shout “Never again!” on a designated day once a year, but mainly because that past is not yet past.
Writers continually turn up another face of the history of slavery and colonialism. Last year I read Lawrence Hill’s “The Book of Negroes” (published in 2007), the fictional reminiscences of Aminata Diallo, captured as a girl from Africa and, after the American Revolutionary War, recruited by abolitionists in London to speak at their meetings. She documents her life as a slave and servant. The book referred to in the title is the list of ex-slaves who fought on the British side during the Revolutionary War, in exchange for the promise of freedom and a place to live. No one will be surprised to hear that those promises were grudgingly and incompletely kept.
This week I read Barry Unsworth's “Sacred Hunger”, winner of the Booker Prize in 1992, which follows a slave ship from England to the west coast of Africa and then to the American continent. It is a detailed and well-written slavery novel, but Unsworth also examines the lives of the white men hired as crew on slave ships. Many are captured from the streets and bars or recruited on the basis of lies and threats, and they will be paid, if they survive, at the end of a long and dangerous voyage. They are slaves without chains.
The sacred hunger of the title is the hunger for profit, which drives a man to pay for a ship, capture a crew, and send them to capture more humans to be turned into money again. In Unsworth's novel, there is a mutiny, and a group of English sailors and African men and women end up living in the swamps of Florida. Surrounded by hostile Native American tribes and hiding from the British governor of the colony, who would recapture and sell the Africans among them, they experiment with a new society of uneasy equality. But even in this new world, the urge to enslave rises again.
Slavery, Unsworth’s story reminds us, was not only a British idea. It rears its head wherever a debtor is considered to owe his creditor an endless amount of labour, wherever children are sold by their parents.
And colonialism never goes away. It's simply called land grabbing now, and everyone does it: agribusiness, mining companies, and governments. The museum may be closed, but as long as writers and readers connect the dots, the subject is not.
Keywords: The Book of Negroes