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There’s Beauty in the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Kamau Brathwaite’s Middle Passages (New Directions 1994)

  1. Cannibal Europe

Thinking of the title I just gave this post, I wonder how many will also ask themselves what, if anything, can possibly be beautiful about the transatlantic slave trade, that particular institution of colonialism responsible for the displacement of twelve million Africans and the deaths of two million during those arborous voyages. A good century or so has passed since the stench of human flesh last announced the arrival of human cargo to American ports, but few if any today realize what the exploitation of African and indigenous labor and raw materials from the Americas meant for the economic development of the Western world, that without such institution the Western world would have never risen as the primary author and architect of the modern world.

Europe was the cradle of capitalism and the child in that cradle was fed with gold and silver from Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, and Brazil. The mines of Potosí and Guanajuato devoured Indians; while those in Ouro Petro developed indigestion from dining on blacks.

The silver that was regurgitated from those mines landed in Seville and was siphoned off to fill the bellies of Flemish, German and English bankers and merchants, to whom the Spanish Crown and its treasury were mortgaged. The gold that was regurgitated from those mines hit Lisbon and was siphoned off to fill the bellies of those English merchants and bankers to whom the Portuguese Crown and its entire treasury were mortgaged.

Without these veritable transatlantic bridges of gold and silver, without millions of pounds of human flesh that had to be minced off of the African coast would the kid have grown so fat? Would Europe have developed the strength to developed sciences, languages, arts and other dimensions of human civilization? Or as Eduardo Galeano put it: “Without the capital from the slave trade, who would have financed James Watt’s steam engine? What furnaces would have forged George Washington’s cannons?

  1. Stubborn Art

Kamau Brathwaite’s Middle Passages offers a stunning collage or a series of notes devoted to the history, mythology and language of the African Diaspora. Brathwaite’s poetry and in particular this collection not only uplifts the cornerstone of European civilization to show us the putrid underside of Europe’s colonial projects as in this description of a slave hunt in “Damballa Noom” (aligned as it appears in the book):

it will throttle its anchor down into the cold muddy morn<
ing water of the man
grove swamps & manacles and it will wait
sooner or later a man with a fan or a lion or loin cloth. bare

foot or in pal. aquin will rise to the bait
mumbled by drummers & several fearful attendants
do not run
abate them with bullet or bribe
better bribe if you can
preserve the bullets for naygars
and bring back a hundred thousand

or in his condemnation of the underdevelopment of Africa that began during the colonial era and which continues (through economic restructuring programs and other sometimes more violent means) to this day:

Price fix rise rachman & rat/chet squeeze
how bread is hard how rice is scarcer than the
muddy water where it rides

how bonny baby bellies grow doom-laden dungeon grounded down
to groaning in their hunger
grow wailer voiced & red eyed in their anger

but Middle Passages, more than a condemnation of the accumulation of capital and technological know-how that was direct result of the trade in black skins, is a celebration of the resilience of black people and of the direct progeny of those that out-survived the middle passage of slavery. In these celebratory notes we find poems to the heroes of resistance, political leaders, and musicians that compose the beauty of those that vanquished, as in “Duke Playing Piano at 70:”

The old man’s hands are alligator
skins
and swimming easily like these
along the harp stringed keyboard
where he will make
of Solitude
a silver thing
as if great age like his
could play that tune along
these cracks that flow
between their swing
without a scratch of thistle
sound

or in the blues of Bessie Smith:

O
Bessie
Bessie
Bessie Smith
the empress of our shattered blues
you
smiling
up front in the coach
avery morning
after the thousand & one night stands

Brathwaite’s dazzling and inventive language recalls for me the stubborn art of an eighteen-century community of maroon slaves whom hid in the jungles of Surinam and whom before running-away smuggled with them bits of scraps of cloth and pieces of the sails of plantation windmills to make the bright-colored clothes, rings, bracelets and other ornaments that would protect and lend a warrior her dignity and whom made from the forest instruments to give rhythm to their limbs yearning to dance.