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Between force and freedom in slavery



EDITOR: You can’t have slavery without using force and only one side the slave owners side, can have the freedom and the right to command and to coerce. The Jamaican scholar, Orland Patterson, describes slavery in part as a “permanent violent domination…” that takes away honour and heritage and material value from a person and from a people.

In transatlantic slavery, the records show us a kind of force and violence that was inhuman and barbaric, but there was freedom also in transatlantic slavery. The Kings and Queens in Europe, the Popes and Priests, the noblemen and ladies, the merchants and bankers, the ship owners and captains, the planters and overseers, the rising industry owners and investors: these were the men and women who gladly and freely took part in establishing and expanding slavery, and took benefits from slavery. They consented to grow and developed new substance and opportunity out of the force and violence and extortion that the slaves bore.{{more}}

Slavery was an interaction, a covenant, between the freedom and consent of one “class”, and the un-freedom, bondage and coercion that the other “class” absorbed. But between those who freely enjoyed the benefits of slavery and those who endured slavery and its violence, there was another set of people who were active in slavery. They did not (at first, anyway) freely consent to slavery; they may not even have known much of the substance of slave life across the ocean; but they gave their “assent” to slavery, an active assent. These were the Africans who directed and managed the supply of captives to the European traders.

Most of the time we do not practice “consent” in our social lives. We are accustomed to give “assent”, to conform or say yes to the status quo, and to what sounds right. “Consent” is different. It is not about accepting a situation i.e. assent, but rather constructing a position. For example, those who established slavery actually had a case or an argument to support it. From the priest ‘Las Casas’ to the Vincentian estate owner Mrs. Carmichael, a “consent” in favour of slavery was constructed. Similarly, experienced slaves like Mary Prince, Frederick Douglas, Olaudah Equiana and others helped to produce a “consent” against slavery. While to “assent” is to say yes to what is in front your face, to construct consent is to say “when we look at this and we look at that, and we take this action and look beyond these, and listen to the other side; ah, it becomes clear to us that we must position ourselves here and encourage others to do so too.”

What was the relationship of African rulers to the arrival of raiders, killers, kidnappers, and traders from Europe with the demand for captives in exchange for goods and guns? Did they give assent and say yes, or did they construct their own clear position, which they held on to? The records show that Africans did both – give assent to the trade, and construct consent against the trade. This is how some writers put it. “There were cases where local African societies consciously chose not to deal in slaves, … Most communities did not take this route.” (James Walvin, 1992). The African slaves did know that their profession was evil, but they also knew that the whites would buy nothing else but slaves (Walter Rodney 1970)

The slavery interest in Europe hotly and gladly consented to the plunder, profits and brutality of their project. They enjoyed the freedom to do so. The slaves experienced the forced domination of their bodies and minds. Between European freedom and slave suffering, there was the assent of Africa’s rulers.

Oscar Allen