For this month’s blog article, I thought I’d offer you this ‘History of Slavery’ by Ron Davoran CP, who is community leader of our Sydney based community at Marrickville. Ron took a trip to Ghana in 1999 and to New Orleans in 2018, where he visited sites connected with the slave trade. His writing this history was motivated by the recent wave of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that have swept through the USA and have spread throughout the world.
At the International Congress on Pastoral care and Counselling held in Accra, Ghana in the August of 1999 we had the opportunity of going on a day trip. We left at 7.30 am and I chose the tour to the Cape Coast. This was the region that was originally the capitol and the former government centre of the Gold Coast until 1877. This coastland is famous for its ancient forts and castles built by the early European traders and armed forces to keep invaders away.
This destination took over two hours to reach. We used three buses and firstly went to a National Park, where we went on a tree top walk over the forest. We then went on to the South Coast where we saw the Cape Coast Castle Museum. The photo shows the inside courtyard of the Elmina castle which was only one of these places of infamy where in the 1700’s the slave trade was the main export from this country, as the need for overseas labour increased in the new world. It was from castles like this along the coast that thousands of slaves were exported, in horrible conditions, not only by the Spanish, Portuguese, and the British, but also by the Africans. The history is not a pleasant one as, prior to the European invasion, the slave trade was run by the Arabs. We had a guide who took us through the museum and then took us into the inner workings of this grotesque place. We entered a door which the sign above the lintel that explained the whole story, and it was through this door the captives entered the dungeons, which were separate for men and women. The African men and women who participated at the conference were in tears at this point and needed a lot of support on hearing these stories about their ancestors. This really churned my guts that people could be so cruel to people of different races and languages.
Over 60% of slaves came from Africa. These people were made up from different tribal groups, also different religions, and different shades of pigment in their skin, for fear of mutiny once under way on the high seas. The traders applied a one drop rule, “one drop of African blood and you were no longer human.”
I couldn’t help but feel that we are all responsible for this blot in our human history which we, the people from the ‘first world’ have to reconcile with the people of the ‘third world’ that we exploited, and used for our benefit over the many years of this trade. The day we visited this fort was a beautiful sunny day as this photograph above shows, but we were stunned by the brutality and exploitation of people for economic benefit.
I had put this trip into the back of my mind until I was in the USA conducting the Mission appeal in 2018. I was in New Orleans for six weeks. One morning I travelled 50 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to a location called the Whitney Plantation, to a landmark built by enslaved Africans and their descendants. An estimated 354 enslaved men, women and children worked indigo, rice, and sugar fields on this plantation from 1752-1867. Today, it is the only plantation museum in Louisiana that is exclusively dedicated to telling the story of slavery. As a site of memory and consciousness, the Whitney Plantation pays homage to all enslaved people on the plantation and across the U.S. South.
In 2014 this plantation opened its doors to the public for the first time in its 262-year history as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery. It began when the current owner, John Cummings who was a prominent trail attorney with offices in New York, Houston and New Orleans, bought this plantation as an investment and in part of the sale was a file that had some history on the past records. When he opened this, he found out about a German couple by the name of Ambrose Haydel. He and his wife who had 9 children by 1790 and started the plantation in 1752 on what was called the German coast of the Mississippi.
This experience of visiting the Whitney plantation was overwhelming. I felt like the slaves’ spirits were present, watching over us. There was a beautiful church, the trees were very big and tall, and there were beautiful sculptures. But amidst all this beauty were the slave houses that they lived in.
The new owner of this plantation has spent a lot of his money on research and it took 15 years before this museum could be opened. In the restored church we saw these replicas of
Sculptures by Woodrow Nash haunt the church on the plantation property.
the slaves from mature adults to children. On entry we were given a name tag and mine said ‘Shack Wilson.’ The information on this tag read “… trying to forget all those horrible days of slavery and way back yonder I was born in Clinton, Louisiana and belonged to Marse B Robbins. They used to whip slaves if they did not pick enough cotton. They put four pegs in the ground and tied one leg to one peg, the other to the other and the arms were tied together. They were stripped of all clothing and whipped with a raw-hide… then they’d be put to picking cotton with all that suffering.”
Our tour guide was Cheryl and there would have been about 16 in our party. We started off in the Baptist Church, when entering we saw models of slaves, and I saw a stature of Shack Wilson, then we saw a brief video that told the history and the cruelty that the slaves had to endure from their masters and owners.
After viewing the video and being enlightened by these facts we began our journey. We walked to the “Six Memorial Walls” instead of gravestones, that told the story of hundreds of slaves, who had died. The engravings on these walls of memories represented the slaves’ perspectives on their lives. Some of the passages were long and others just had their slave name. I read some of these stories. The narratives were the hardest to cope with; reading about somebody’s life as a slave was beyond depressing. The passages were filled with horror and terror beyond belief, yet it was a beautiful honour to hear the stories from the slave’s perspective. One woman had 15 children, all from different men, and she never saw one of them, for as soon as they were born, they were whisked away to be eventually sold as slaves on the market block. She was classified as a breeder. On reading some of the slave’s stories you could not help but feel revulsion in the pit of your stomach.
From there we walked to the “Field of Angels,” This was a statue of an angel with a sheet wrapped around her waist and looking down on a baby in her arms. Around this statue was a circular brick wall, on which were the names of the slaves and their ages at the time they died. Little did I know that on the walls around this enclosure were the names of over 2200 children who died and the stories of some of these children are on these walls. Many of these children did not have names. Grotesque is the word that I have been trying to find.
We walked down a shaded path where I saw the name of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall on a plaque. This woman was a prominent historian who focused on the history of slavery in the Caribbean, Latin America, Louisiana, Africa, and the African diaspora, who studied the ethnic origins of those who came to Louisiana. She created a database of records identifying and describing more than 100,000 enslaved Africans. It became a primary resource for historical and genealogical research. She earned recognition in academia, and her contributions to scholarship, genealogy, and the critical re-evaluation of the history of slavery have been valued.
As we walked down this roadway, we saw these basic houses which was where the slaves lived. These four slave houses were in a row and only one of the four houses were open for inspection. They were basic houses with four rooms one of which had an open fire in the middle of the room which would have been used for cooking of their food. We were told that the slaves who worked the fields left in the dark mornings and it was dark when they returned at night. The major cash crop was Sugar Cane and Maze and the fields were up to 3 miles from these quarters. The cane would grow to a height of 16 feet, and they used machetes to harvest the crop. Many slaves harmed themselves deliberately by cutting their leg or arms to prevent them from working as a slave again. Today we would call this PTSD, [post-traumatic stress syndrome} and many people died from infection caused by this method of refusing to go to work in the fields. These cabins could hold up from 20-25 slaves. Of these slaves 10% of them worked near the master’s house, mainly women and the other 90% were sent into the fields. Slaves were not seen to be human, and they were not allowed to learn to read or write or even to congregate apart from church on a Sunday as this gathering could lead to a fear of riots and uprisings.
After walking past these houses on the right could be seen a rectangle steel box with bars and we wondered what this could be? This was the slaves’ jail where the slaves were placed if the master felt that a slave was disobedient or as a slaves’ punishment if he or she had run away. This steel cage had three rooms and each cell had four bunks. It was about two metres from the floor to the ceiling and was made of steel. Wall to wall was the size of the width of a person’s arm span. Each cell was closed with heavy metal padlocked doors. These cells had a small window on the front of each door. The doors, windows and the sides and the backside of this cage was crisscrossed with flat steel metal bars. The metal felt hard and it had turned burgundy after the sun had cooked the paint. It would have been extremely hot in these cages. The heat emanating from this torture chamber would have been unsettling, apart from the torture that would have been inflicted by the master for any indiscretion. The only cool air would have been at night when the wind blew. I started to feel claustrophobic as I imagined fellow slaves locked in this cage with me. On the day of this visit it was extremely hot with a high humidity level.
We then went to the master’s house which was built from 1790-1810. This consisted of a white painted two-story large house with 6 bedrooms upstairs as well as a dining room, as in the downstairs portion of the building were kept cattle and other exotic animals that were kept for the Master’s family food. Outside there was a blacksmith and two buildings that held pigeons as a delicacy for the master and his family to eat. These houses were in far better condition than the houses that we had previously seen where the slaves lived.
On return to the starting point of the tour, I bought a few books on the story and history and then saw on a map of the journey of slaves around the world. The first showed the maritime routes which were the Atlantic slave trade; Indian Ocean slave trade; the Mediterranean slave route and the Trans-Saharan slave route and most of these people came mainly from the continent of Africa. On this map could be seen the Atlantic route where the slave ships would have travelled from the African port to New Orleans. To the side of this picture was an insert that I have added below so as to explain where the slaves had been captured as their place of origin. Slaves did not only come from Africa, of course, although the huge majority had come from this country. Who had traded these people? Where was the destination that they were transported in these horrible conditions?
The International Slave Trade commenced in 1612 and ran until the year of 1807. There are prominent dates like in 1612 when the Dutch arrived in West Africa and settled on Gorde island; then 1664 when the French Company of the West Indies was founded; in 1672 the British Royal African company was founded; In 1685 the French passes the Code Noir into law in the West Indies; in 1781 the Haitian Revolution begins with a slave uprising near the city of Le Cop; in 1807 the British parliament bans the African Slave Trade; in 1808 the US ban on the foreign slave trade took effect on the 1st January, 1815; in 1819 the British station a naval squadron on the West African coast to intercept slave ships.
Slavery went on until its abolishment in England thanks to a bill that was introduced in parliament by William Wilberforce. In the British House of Commons it was discussed and passed, but it did not come into force until 1833, abolishing this trade in the British Empire. Abolishment in the USA was not ratified until December of 1865 when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863 that abolished slavery officially freeing more than 50,000 people still enslaved in Kentucky and Delaware.
The guide on our tour recommended to us a book called “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward E Baptist on this issue of slavery in the deep south. Baptist’s work is a valuable addition to the growing literature on slavery and American development … Baptist has a knack for explaining complex financial matters in lucid prose….. This is an ambitious new economic and social history of antebellum America. … The overwhelming power of the stories that Baptist recounts and the plantation level statistics he has compiled give to this book the power of truth and revelation.
When I stayed at St Augustine’s presbytery, during the week that I had in downtown New Orleans, I observed a cross made from chains, handcuffs, and torture instruments, as I used to walk to the transport routes in New Orleans. The plaque read: “On this October 30, 2004, we the faith community of St Augustine’s Catholic Church, dedicate this shrine consisting of crosses, chains and shackles to the memory the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg, Treme. The tomb of the unknown slave is commemorated here in this garden plot of St Augustine’s Church, the only parish in the United States whose free people of colour bought two outer rows of pews exclusively for slaves to use for worship. This St Augustine’s/Treme shrine honours all slaves buried throughout the United States and those slaves in particular who lie beneath the ground of Theme in unmarked, unknown graves, There is no doubt that the St Augustine’s sits astride the blood, sweat, tears and some of the mortal remains of unknown slaves from Africa and local American Indian slaves who either met with fatal treachery and were therefore buried quickly and secretly or were buried hastily and at random because of yellow fever and other plagues. Even now, some Treme locals have childhood memories of salvage/restoration workers unearthing various human bones, sometimes in concentrated areas such as wells. In other words, the tomb of the unknown salve is a constant reminder that we are walking on holy ground. Thus, we cannot consecrate this tomb, because it is already consecrated by many slaves’ inglorious deaths bereft of any acknowledgement, dignity or respect, but ultimately glorious by their blood, sweat, tears, faith, prayers and deep worship of our creator.” [Donated by Sylvia Barker of the Danny Barker Estate.]
In the early days of New Orleans, the Catholic Church was extremely prominent as the people who settled in this area were mainly from France and Germany.
This time in New Orleans has really stirred up my feelings over slavery, especially with the attitudes of President Trump over the immigration issues and how he is taking children from their parents as they cross the Mexican border as illegals or as refugees. This is a hot topic in the states of Texas and Louisiana currently in 2018.
It also raised issues in myself that we in Australia must approach the question of Aboriginal Reconciliation with honesty. This arose after my period in Port Augusta when I was parish priest from 2000-2004 and as part of this role visiting the Port Augusta Prison weekly.
The Australian Indigenous situation by numbers from an article in “The Conversation” titled ‘When it comes to deaths in custody, we need to look in the mirror’. By the numbers.
99 the number of deaths in custody documented by the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
432 the number of Indigenous Australians who have died in custody since (according to Guardian Australia’s Deaths Inside project.
2,481 the number of First Nation adults in prison for every 100,000 people.
164 the number of non-indigenous adults in prison for every 100,000 people.
3% the percentage of Australian’s adult population who are First Nations Australians.
28% the percentage of Australian’s prison population who are First Nations Australians.
2015 the year David Dungay Jr was killed when prison officers restrained him, including with handcuffs, and pushed him face down on his bed and on the floor. One officer pushed a knee into his back. All along, Dungay was screaming that he could not breathe and could be heard gasping for air.
ZERO the number of successful homicide prosecutions of a death in Australian criminal courts.
With the unrest in our world today and especially in the USA over the death of George Floyd, a black man by the police in Minneapolis, this issue has raised for me that “BLACK LIVES DO MATTER”