March 18, 2007
The Way We Live Now
A Slow Emancipation
By KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH
Once, when I was a child in Kumasi, Ghana, I asked my father, in a room full of people, if one of the women there was really my aunt. She lived in one of the family houses, and I’d always called her auntie. In memory, I see her lowering her eyes as my father brushed the question aside, angrily. Later, when we were alone, he told me that one must never inquire after people’s ancestry in public. There are many Ashanti proverbs about this. One says simply, Too much revealing of origins spoils a town. And here’s why my father changed the subject: my “auntie” was, as everyone else in the room would have known, the descendant of a family slave.
My father was trying to avoid embarrassing her, although I don’t think he regarded her ancestry as an embarrassment himself. Unlike her ancestors, she could not be sold; she could not be separated against her will from her children; she was free to work wherever she could. Yet in the eyes of the community — and in her own eyes — she was of lower status than the rest of us. If she could not find a husband to provide for her (and a prosperous husband was unlikely to marry a woman of her status), the safest place for her was with the family to which her ancestors had belonged. So she stayed.
Beginning around 1700, Kumasi was the capital of the Ashanti empire as it rose and fell. At some point in my education, I was taught that the empire had been the center of a great trading system, with roads radiating from Kumasi in every direction, connecting us with the Atlantic trading system along the coast and with the trans-Saharan trade to the north. Gold, everyone knew, was one of the commodities we exported: the empire of Ashanti covered most of what was once called the Gold Coast.
What I don’t remember hearing much about was the role of the slave trade in the growth of Ashanti. More than a million slaves were sent to the Americas through the British, Danish and Dutch forts along the Gold Coast, mostly in the course of the 18th century. Next Sunday marks the 200th anniversary of the British Parliament’s vote to ban the empire’s North Atlantic slave trade. Following that vote, the Ashanti had to rethink the whole basis of their economy. But while the export of slaves had helped Ashanti consolidate power, it was arguably the importation of slaves from farther east — sold to the Gold Coast states by the Portuguese, starting in the 15th century — that made the empire possible in the first place. The rise of settled states in West Africa, as in much of the New World, seems often to have depended on the rise of plantation agriculture, and plantation agriculture depended on involuntary labor. Just as in the New World, moreover, the legacy of slavery has proved curiously durable. Indeed, to understand the nature of that legacy here, it helps to look at the experience of slavery on the African side of the middle passage.
When I was growing up, people used to visit us regularly from a village called Nyaduom, in the forest to the south of Kumasi. The village had belonged, I was told, to my father’s family, and he inherited responsibility for it when he became the head of the family. He had the right to appoint chiefs and queen mothers for the village, and had some vague dominion over its land. A couple of hundred years ago, it turns out, an ancestor of my father’s, an illustrious Ashanti general named Akroma-Ampim, had, with the permission of the king, settled the area with war captives and set up a plantation. In the slaving empire of Ashanti, as the Ghanaian historian Akosua Perbi tells us, there were different designations for different kinds of forced laborers — war captives (who could, if they were lucky, be redeemed by the payment of ransom), people held as security for their families’ debts, people bought at the slave markets elsewhere and family servants with a status akin to feudal serfs — and each had a distinct status. Not all slaves were created equal. Still, to use our generalizing term, the inhabitants of Nyaduom had been slaves for generations.
And these days? Slavery hasn’t been legal in Ashanti for roughly a century. (The final rules for abolition were made in 1908: they allowed slaves to be redeemed for a fixed fee, required men to emancipate female slaves with whom they had children, made cruelty a basis for emancipation and declared that children born to slaves after a certain date would no longer be slaves themselves.) The people of Nyaduom are now “ethnically” Ashanti if they are anything. Their ancestors were not, however, and their status as the descendants of captives was one of hereditary inferiority to free Ashanti. For the villagers, these customs outweighed anything on the statute books. They regularly brought us fruits and coffee that they had grown, as well as the occasional chicken, turkey or sheep. And they acted as if my father had duties that gave him authority over them.
That wasn’t exactly his view. Though he met and talked to them, he always tried to persuade them that they had to settle their disputes for themselves. He was willing to help, he told them, but they no longer belonged to him. They shrugged off his protests. They were the descendants of Chief Akroma-Ampim’s captives; my father was the descendant of Chief Akroma-Ampim. What could change that?
They weren’t the only ones to see themselves that way. Whenever I visit Kumasi, I get to chat with a man who worked for my father’s predecessor as head of the family and who’d had, as a result, many dealings with Nyaduom. Last year, I asked him about Nyaduom and he answered me only after reminding me that it was not his hometown. Only recently has it occurred to me why he has always been so emphatic about this point: his family, unlike most of those in the village, never belonged to anyone. Generations after slavery has gone, the lowly status of these slave ancestors still matters. It matters that he is not one of them.
When I think about how the world of the Ashanti remains etched and scored by slavery, an odd question arises: What is it about slavery that makes it morally objectionable? European and American abolitionists in the 19th century tended to focus, reasonably enough, on its cruelty: on the horrors that began with capture and separation from one’s family, continued in the cramped and putrid quarters below the decks of the middle passage and went on in plantations ruled by the lash. William Wilberforce, the evangelist and Tory member of Parliament who was as responsible as anyone for the passage of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, was not an enthusiast for democracy when it came to expanding the franchise, and he railed against the “mad-headed professors of liberty and equality.” It was the torments of slavery’s victims that moved him so. (He was also a founding member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.) Once freed slaves had been properly Christianized, he believed, “they will sustain with patience the sufferings of their actual lot.” In the United States, abolitionists mainly shared his perspective, naturally emphasizing the abundant horrors of plantation slavery.
Slavery’s more sophisticated defenders had a response. They agreed that cruelty was wrong, but, they maintained, these horrors were abuses of the slavery system, not inherent features of it.
What if their paternalist fantasies had come true, and a world of kindly slave masters had developed? Would slavery be acceptable? Of course not. Even a well-treated slave is diminished by his status. As a social or legal institution, slavery has built into it a denial of the social basis of self-respect: it defines the slave as lower in status by denying that she could have personal aims worthy of consideration and rejecting the enslaved person’s right to manage his or her own affairs. When you’re a slave, someone else is in charge of your life. What keeps the wound from healing is that this subordination is something you inherited from your parents and will pass along to your children.
And to their children, and their children’s children. Although the sale of slaves is now illegal, and demands for unpaid work are officially unenforceable, there are still slave descendants who work in the households of prosperous Ashanti without remuneration. (There are also some people who are sent by families that cannot afford to feed them, people who are properly servants, though their compensation is not monetary, and the families to which they go tend to treat them like the poor relation in a Victorian novel.) The status of these home workers, it seems to me, is like that of children. They are in the care of the families they work for, which have obligations to maintain and support them, but their labor and their lives are pretty much governed by the people in whose households they live. In principle, they are free to leave whenever they choose. In practice, they often have nowhere to go. Never having been paid, they have no savings. Often they have a very basic education, so their only skill is domestic work, a market in which there is a great deal of competition. Even without the legal apparatus of Jim Crow, liberated slaves can find themselves effectively recaptured.
None of this is peculiar to Africa, of course. The etymology of the English word “slave” reflects the large-scale forced servitude of Slavs into the Middle Ages; in modern Arabic, the word “abd,” a classical designation for a slave, is used to refer to dark-skinned people. Because people almost always think of slaves as belonging to a kind — a race, a tribe, a class, a family — that is suited to enslavement, the slave status tends to survive the abandonment of the formal institutions of slavery.
This isn’t to diminish the achievements of abolition. The bicentennial of the Slave Trade Act is eminently worth celebrating, and it’s reassuring to know that slavery is officially forbidden in every country on the planet. (The word may yet prove father to the deed.) The United States National Slavery Museum is scheduled to open in Fredericksburg, Va., next year, while in Ghana, the remaining coastal slaving forts do a brisk trade in moralized tourism. Meanwhile, human rights campaigners have taken aim at nonchattel forms of slavery, like the millions of bonded laborers in South Asia whose employers force them to work in order to pay off a debt, or “peshgi.” Groups like Christian Solidarity International continue to support slave-redemption programs in Sudan. The International Labor Organization of the United Nations monitors trafficking networks that bring an estimated 1.2 million children into forced servitude, from the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast to the brothels of Thailand. Various intergovernmental groups have helped secure the release of some of them.
But the politics of abolition and redemption, now as then, go only so far. You can legislate against the peshgi system, pass laws regulating working conditions and, in a dozen ways, deny legal recognition to the slaveholder’s claim to manage the lives of his slaves. You cannot thereby command respect for them or grant them self-respect, because these things are not within the power of the market or a legislature. Nor can you guarantee that someone who has experienced only slavery will be prepared to manage a life alone, even if he had the money to do so. There’s no neat toggle switch between slave and free.
The woman I asked my father about is not a slave. But she carries on something crucial to the enslavement of her ancestors. Beyond the possibility of being sold away and the impossibility of making your own decisions, slavery meant that certain people were hereditarily inferior. You can abandon the slave markets and demand that all who work are paid for their labor and free to leave it, but even if you succeed, the stigma and the status won’t give way so easily. That’s why I haven’t told you her name. Emancipation is only the beginning of freedom.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton University, is the editor, with Martin Bunzl, of “Buying Freedom: The Ethics and Economics of Slave Redemption,” coming this fall. His last article for the magazine was a cover essay on cosmopolitanism.