You would normally expect the bearer of a typical West African name like Kwame Kwei-Armah to be Ghanaian. Apparently, this intelligent playwright and actor, who has been on my interview list for so long, is not Ghanaian. He is presently involved in the bicentenary celebrations of the abolition of slavery in Britain. I have always been keen on finding out what motivated him to adopt a Ghanaian name. His website says he embarked on a search into his roots and arrived at a total identity change. Kwame is not alone. Trinidadian born Stockley Carmichael has become Kwame Ture, and boxing legend Mohammed Ali, insisted his former identity-Carcius Clay-was a slave name.
Of course, slavery cannot be reduced to a seemingly inconsequential thing as nomenclature; but there are a few reasons why a man would wake up one day and decide on self definition. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. A visionary called William Wilberforce got fed up with the evil trade and championed its abolition. Essentially, the idea was a Christian reform that was inspired by the protestant conversion of Wilberforce. On 25 March 1807, the Wilberforce human slavery abolition bill received the royal assent in the UK. 200 years on, there is much to regret about the transatlantic slave trade, perhaps than the day we saw the first black man in manacles.
Sometimes the best pain-relieving therapy is a tasteless joke. So we have a silly joke of the slave trade times, where a Fante man in a slave castle in Cape Coast, humbly implored an unattended gun to be still while he visits the toilet. He had been programmed to respect the owner of the gun and all things that belong to the master. It followed therefore that, if he would ask for permission from the master, he might as well accord his property the same respect. Whoever invented this joke would have done us a big favour, by telling us what Magya Otu did when the slave returned from the toilet.
If this account is only a joke, what exactly is the truth bout slavery? The transatlantic slave trade remains the greatest crime in history. Africans were quantified in economic units and sold like atwemo or groundnuts to till the land in plantations in the west.
Too many slaves died on the way. A lot more were killed-some 2million, about five percent died in prison before they were shipped. Those who were sick or too weak on arrival were left to die. There is the shocking account of a slave master who threw some of his property-slaves-into the high seas to die, so he could claim fat insurance for their loss. The killing of a slave was legalised. In Virginia, â€˜the killing and destruction of negroesâ€™ was passed into law. The women were constantly raped, beaten and killed.
Slaves who survived the brutality at the masterâ€™s plantations were not in a better position than those who were killed. In 1756 Thomas Thistlewood, a notorious slave owner, ordered a slave to be flogged endlessly and maimed. He then asked another slave owner to shâ€¦t into his mouth. His crime? The slave had stolen sugar cane when he was hungry. Slaves who tried to run away were nailed to the ground and burnt. Fire was applied to their hands and feet, and as they wailed in suffering their masters laughed and teased. In 1736, 77 slaves who protested the evil treatment were burnt to death in Antigua. Six of the ringleaders were hanged in cages and watched to die of thirst. Those who were reprimanded for lesser crimes received light punishment like castration, and had their foot chopped off. There was a circular in all plantations, advising slave owners to institutionalise terror, to keep slaves â€˜in subjugation.â€™
Even at a relatively younger age, I have been hurt too many times that I canâ€™t imagine the form of apology that will be adequately placatory. I have been cuckolded on occasions without number, but I have never suffered the humiliation of chewing and swallowing human faeces. I have rebelled too many times against authority, but I mostly escaped without a knock on the head. But the awful knowledge that my forefathers were subjected to this treatment makes me a very sad fellow. In many ways, a filter would leave an imprint on that which it filters. I am not a direct victim, but I am descendant of a victim. Theirs is a crime that went down as the darkest moment in the history of civilization.
In his first speech to parliament in 1789, William Wilberforce made a painful acknowledgement of the role of Britain in the transatlantic slave trade: â€˜â€˜I mean not to accuse anyone but to take the shame upon myself, in common indeed with the whole parliament of Great Britain, for having allowed this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority.â€™â€™ When a normal person feels ashamed of a crime committed in the past, the usual thing to do is to apologise, often profusely.
In that same speech, Wilberforce noted that the crime of slave trade was so horrendous that a mere apology will not be enough to convey the depth of the regret of the British people. He moved: â€˜â€˜Let us make reparation to Africa so far as we can, by establishing trade upon true commercial principlesâ€™â€™. He knew he was culpable, and so were all his compatriots. When the Act abolishing the slave trade was passed in 1807, he wrote to the government of the day: â€˜â€˜I m only one among many fellow labourers.â€™â€™
So why has there not been a formal apology from the British government? There have been several statements acknowledging guilt, but they have stopped short of a formal apology. George Bush referred to the slave trade as: â€˜â€˜one of the greatest crimes of history.â€™â€™ The Virginia General Assembly duly acknowledged that human slavery ranks as the most horrendous of all depredations of human rights and violations of our founding idealsâ€™â€™, and expressed â€˜â€˜profound regretâ€™â€™ for it. France has expressed some vague form of apology. The Liverpool council and the Church of England have offered formal statements of apology. The British government is yet to officially apologise, because of the legal ramifications such an apology may have and the fear of paying never-ending reparations when international law codifies it. So Tony Blair is only kind enough to express his â€˜â€˜deepest sorrowâ€™â€™ for the role of Britain in the evil trade.
How difficult is it to express a formal apology? Former German Chancellor Willy Brand, apologised on behalf of Germans for the Holocaust. President Clinton apologised in Senegal for Americaâ€™s role in the transatlantic slave trade. George Bush Snr also apologised for Americaâ€™s treatment of the Japanese during the Second World War. Some westerners are particularly incensed about modern versions of slavery such as racial prejudice and discrimination.
I am not very sure what Toyin Agbetu, the Nigerian who last week stormed the British parliament during the official church service commemorating the bicentinary of slavery in Britain, had wanted to achieve. He disturbed the solemnity of the service; the queen bent down her head while Tony looked on in dismay. As Toyin was restrained and led outside, he continued calling the British people a disgrace. Toyinâ€™s actions and gyrations may be inappropriate, but I could understand where the man was coming from. If you canâ€™t officially apologise for your wrongdoing, why waste our time with cosmetic window dressings, by commemorating the end of something that really hasnâ€™t ended?
On the Volta Lake in Ghana, children as young as ten are virtually bought from their parents for as little as 400,000 cedis, to serve as apprentices in a fishing trade. They are deprived of basic education and serve under masters who see them as part of their possessions. More than 1.8 million children are sold into sex slavery today. Conservative estimates in South East Asia have it that nearly a million children are in the sex trade. In Cambodia, the trade is so pervasive that even the police are accomplices. In the last couple of years, there have been 108 arrests but only two people were prosecuted. Because virgins are pricy in the sex trade, girls whose virginity has already been taken are made virgins again, by restiching their hymen. They cost double the usual.
A sixth of the worldâ€™s population lives in India, where the largest number of child slaves work in cloth weaving shops. A greater number are also in the sex trade. Each month, 300 children cross the Yemen border to Saudi Arabia, where some 24,000 children are working as professional beggars on the streets. In Ethiopia, about 50,000 homeless children live on the streets of Adis-Ababa. Child trafficking itself sees some 1.2million children crossing borders around the world. World Labour Organisation figures on child labour are low but child slavery persists in forms that are too degrading for the 21st Century.
The principle underlying human slavery is that evil thought that one group of people are superior to another. Tribalism has for long been the bain of our woes as Africans. In Ghana, there are tribes who consider themselves better than their folks who live at the other side of the river. It is a social condescension to marry into such tribes. Yet a chap from Lithuania or Slovokia is white enough to be given a chieftancy title in Ghana.
I visited the Prince of Wales theatre in central London with a Ghanaian lady to see Mama Mia, a great musical. We were the only black people in a big theatre hall seating nearly 700 audience members. The lady with me was happy about it; it makes us special, she said. In the middle of the show, another black guy walked in, clutching the arms of a white girl. He sat in front of us and kissed the lady throughout the three hour show. I could hear their teeth screeching the sound of a Formula One racing car while their tongue lapped up each othersâ€™ alveola ridge, like a cat lapping up porridge. I was worried the ladyâ€™s tongue will fall off in the process. The guy was very happy and obviously very proud of the white girl. It reminded me of how half caste girls are sought after in Ghana.
After the show, I worried why only three blacks attended such an informative show. But I didnâ€™t have to think any further for the answers. I looked down the road and I could see them entering the sex shops on Leicester Street. On the train back home, none of the blacks read a book or a newspaper. There was a black lady beside us who was reading the Bible, while polishing her long nails. She soon fell asleep before we got to Euston.