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By Hon. Charmaine Joy Pemberton, J.A. Judiciary of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
And Koya Ryan, Judicial Research Counsel, Judiciary of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
For the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery, Hon. Justice Charmaine Joy Pemberton invites women to lead and ensure that such a scourge on humanity never take place again.
I visited Goree Island, Senegal in 1993 and stood in wonder in the caves in which the captured were kept before being loaded in the holds of ships to be transported across the ocean.
I visited Cap Hatien in Haiti, the site of the start of the Haitian Revolution, Santiago de Cuba in Cuba and San Basilio de Palenquo in Columbia. Within the English-speaking Caribbean I am exposed to the Maroons in Jamaica and the Garifuna People in Belize. I live in Trinidad and Tobago where some families maintain strict African traditions- the Rada Yard in Belmont is one such place. These sites all had one thing in common – the emotional grip of my ancestors on my consciousness!
I felt moved to write this piece after my visit to “Yoruba Land” in September 2022. That area is present day Ghana, Benin and Togo. I did my lineage after and discovered that my instincts of “home” were not misplaced or contrived. They were real. I have therefore seen Africans both in and out of the Motherland.
Much has been written of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery and I need not add to the store. I wonder though, were the beneficiaries all as insensitive as history makes them out to be? This question unfortunately will remain largely unanswered.
In this essay, I share my thoughts from an English-speaking Caribbean perspective.
Dr Eric Williams’s Doctoral Thesis at Oxford University attributed the end of the slave trade in 1804, and the eventual apparent dismantling of the institution in 1834 in the Caribbean and 1865 in the United States , to solely economic reasons. Historical facts prove him correct. One unassailable fact is that compensation was paid, not to those whose liberty and humanity were stripped from them, but to those who owned and benefited from the commodity produced by the trade and the institution, the human lives “lost”. As Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, we were thingified and therefore any loss of a “thing” was compensatable. That to us as the descendants of the “things” is a supreme irony.
March 25 is designated the “International Day of Remembrance of the “Victims”” of the trade and the institution. What do we mean by “victims”? According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the closest relevant meanings of the word “victim” are “a person who has been tricked” or “a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune”. Is that how we regard our ancestors? Is that why and how we should and do remember them?
It would seem that one can only make negative associations with the word “victim”. Having looked at the entire period from the time that the first persons were taken into captivity until the end of the trade and institution, is it plausible or realistic to pose the question whether victims can leave positive “legacies”? Must we perpetuate that negative intergenerational notion of victimhood or do we remember their plight and overcome in order to forge our way forward. Do we allow the helplessness connoted by the word “victim” to paralyse us and to stymie or prevent our bravery and movement forward with a sense of purpose? I want to explore the positive legacy of the “victims” as a fitting celebration of March 25 - the Day of Remembrance.
Over the period of the scourge, there was a concerted effort by those who did not appreciate or understand the culture and essence of those on whom they depended for their way of life and riches. They were resolute to stamp out African strength and presence through laws and practices which they thought would eradicate our traditions. There were no attempts to keep slaves belonging to the same family or even tribe together. All traces of familiarity and attachment were ripped apart. It is written, that on any one plantation there would be a mix of tribes so as to make communication among slaves difficult.
The Yoruba People provided a vast majority of the captured persons transported, though, it is ironic that history does not record the exact percentage. The Netflix Documentary ‘Bigger than Africa’, speaks to and traces Yoruba traditions which predominantly impact our lives. The series spoke about the Yoruba’s natural propensity to leadership and recognition of the important role that women played in society. Women were recognised not only as child bearers and cooks but also as traders and businesswomen. The men went out to farm, fish, or work at other endeavours for instance in foundries or as blacksmiths, ironmongers and woodworkers. Women saw to agriculture and merchandising and the collection and distribution of money in the household .
Over the years, the women educated themselves. Many learnt to read the Bible and that transcended to other books that they could lay their hands on. Some sensible men who accepted the counsel of these women, took steps to educate themselves. Together they placed great store on education. That we know, is and remains one of the enduring legacies of the transported peoples.
Children were the product of the village- “it takes a village to raise a child”.
Coupled with this respect for women and children, was the Yoruba’s respect of and for hierarchy within the community. In Bigger than Africa, Valerie Taylor commented on the tangible respect, which elders received within communities. I daresay that if we go back to those traditional values, issues of elder and child abuse would be minimised.
The transported people were deeply religious even though they were not allowed to practice their religion in its pure form. Many overtly converted to Christianity but found covert ways to observe their traditional religious practices. This fusion became known as Santeria, Orisha, or Pocomania, to name a few. Devotees are still strong where the transported people had a presence. Their practices and beliefs especially honouring ancestors remain a vital part of Africa’s gift to the world.
In terms of our legal landscape, dispute settlement today was greatly influenced by Yoruba tradition. As explained to me in Togo, if an alleged perpetrator was identified, the Council of Elders would meet and a hearing would follow. The alleged perpetrator was left to make his or her amends by a certain date. Failure to do this resulted in self-imposed exile from the village until that person was ready to make amends. These are the seeds of restorative justice, mediation, conciliation and above all taking responsibility for one’s actions.
Little credit is given to the Yoruba’s inclination and ability to embrace others- what we now call inclusiveness- and the recognition that there is strength in diversity. One may even say that it is because of that forthright approach to life that they found themselves “captured through their kindness”.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy is culture. In terms of music, the rhythms of jazz, blues, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, soul, calypso, reggae, and Gullah sounds remain in the blood of the descendants of the transported people. Those who benefited were particularly afraid of the drum, which they saw as more than a musical instrument. When Trinidad and Tobago was ceded to the British by Spain, they banned the drums used by the captured and forbade them speaking in their native language and practicing their religion. It was thought that the drums carried messages that would inspire rebellion. Not to be daunted, the slaves used bamboo tubes (“tamboo bamboo”) to produce the despised sounds. Out of that Trinidad and Tobago’s gift to the world, the steelpan, was born. Space does not permit an exploration of all influences such as those in language, food and dress.
Human beings’ desire for respect peaceful coexistence and personal security once threatened will bubble over into protection at all costs. The horrors of the middle passage, etched into our DNA ever so often rises to the surface and has manifested as slave rebellions and slave escapes. Since Emancipation, descendants of the “victims” have been striving to claim their rightful place in the world through liberation movements (peaceful), independence movements, post-independence uprisings and culminating in focusing the world’s attention on the fact that “Black Lives Matter”. These occurrences add real meaning to the recognition of universal human rights, the dignity of the person and the right to self-determination.
Part of our modern conversation involves the need for reparations. This has provided a rich study of history from the compensation standpoint. There have been small mutterings of apologies by some and displays of remorse by way of giving money. In February 2023, the latest overture was by the Trevelyan Family who owned six (6) plantations in Grenada. In 1834 the family received £34,000 pounds (£3M in 2023) for the loss of those “victims” of the trade and the institution. The family promise give $120,000 USD to establish a community fund for economic development.
When will those who benefited from the blood, sweat, tears and torture collectively stand up and face us all? When will they all acknowledge their roles in the victimisation of a people and a continent? When will they say “I am sorry”!. That gesture will truly make the celebration of March 25 meaningful to us all.
For us as, we can say that persistence and recognition of ourselves as worthy - as human beings - is a fitting tribute for the remembrance of the transported and of the institution of slavery. It will truly give life to the legacy.
It is hoped that these words will inspire not only us as women judges, but women of all races, colours and creeds, to join together to lead and ensure that such a scourge on humanity will never take place again.
I hope that I have at least wetted appetites, if not stirred the consciousness of our collective.