6 September 2010

Frederick Douglass

African Revolutionary Writers, Part 1

Frederick Douglass

1818 - 1895

The first part of this ten-part series covers the period from slavery to Imperialism. The slave trade begun with the first Portuguese ships that passed Cape Bojador on the coast of Western Sahara in 1434, bringing them South of the Sahara for the first time. These first slaves of the bourgeoisie were sold to Spanish colonists on the Canary Islands, where the original inhabitants had already been enslaved and then worked to extinction. The slave-trade triangle Portugal - Africa - Canary Islands - was soon repeated on an Atlantic scale as Britain - Africa - West Indies (or alternatively Brazil or North America).

Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies in 1492 and touched the continent of South America in 1498, the same year that Vasco da Gama reached India. By 1502 the trans-Atlantic slave trade was in full flow, initially as a Portuguese monopoly, and later as a British monopoly.

Although as Marx notes in “Capital”, capitalism began in the 1500s, yet for more than three centuries the biggest business of the Western European bourgeoisie was not capitalism but the Atlantic slave trade, and the biggest operator in that business was Britain. This situation lasted until the capitalist “Industrial Revolution” of the late 1700s, also in Britain.

Only when the Western bourgeoisie made its turn towards capitalism did it become expedient for it to avail some blacks, former slaves, to create a literary genre called the “slave narrative”. An early example of this genre is Olaudah Equiano, who wrote a book about his “Interesting Life” as a slave and rescued slave, published in 1789.

These slave-narrative books tended not only to denounce slavery, but also to praise Christianity and capitalism in equal measure, so as to flatter their sponsors and readers. They did not always denounce the system as a whole. Frederick Douglass was an exception for his breadth and his fearlessness.

After escaping by train from twenty years of slavery Douglass wrote an outstanding slave narrative called My Bondage and My Freedom, published in 1855. He also included in the book a series of six transcripts of speeches or orations that he had given as a campaigner against slavery. Slavery was abolished in the USA in 1865 at the end of the US Civil War, ten years after the publication of Frederick Douglass’s book.

All of Douglass’s six lectures are contained in the linked document. “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” is a famous one, but they are all extraordinary and exemplary. This was an orator!

The American Civil War of 1861-1865 was an armed conflict between one part of the bourgeoisie and another. It represented the real capitalist revolution in the USA, when the specifically capitalist bourgeoisie gained its dictatorship, the dictatorship that we have today.

For the Africans, the abolition of slavery was a relief after three centuries of terrible mass-scale atrocity. But the abolition of outright slavery also marked the beginning of wage slavery and of military invasions, conquest, domination, plunder, settlement, and colonialism, all followed in the second half of the 20th century by globalist neo-colonialism and Imperialism.

African political writing tracked all these changes. In this part we look briefly at the literature of slavery and colonialism. In the next we will move to the literature of the post-WW2 era of decolonisation.

To conclude, here is a passage from “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”

"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth."

Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are to-day rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, "may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!" To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave's point of view. Standing there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July.

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Further reading:


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