Oct 14, 2011 Editorial
The term “Maafa” is Kiswahili for “great tragedy”, “terrible occurrence” or “reoccurring disaster” and has been used to describe the European slave trade or the Middle Passage. The term “Maafa” also references the “Black Holocaust” historically and presently: meaning millions died during the transfer across the Atlantic in slave ships but millions are still dying because of the structural conditions that have persisted from slavery into the present.
The Black Holocaust, however, is the most underreported major event in world history. The question has to be asked, “Why?” A major economic event for Europe and Asia, a near fatal event for Africa, the seminal event in the history of every African in the Diaspora – if not every citizen in the New World–and yet, most of us cannot answer the simplest questions about it. On Wednesday, a group of citizens, led by representatives of the African Cultural and Development Association, participated in a simple but moving ceremony at the Georgetown seawall on the Atlantic, to commemorate and raise consciousness about the Maafa.
While the event is observed on a variety of days at different locales across the Americas, it is entirely fitting that October 12th was chosen by the Guyanese organisers. For this day, the day Columbus landed on a little island in the Bahamas – Watling Island, serves as the beginning of a concatenation of events that was to culminate in the greatest act of inhumanity ever committed by man against man: African slavery.
The Spanish, who expropriated the New World as if it were vacant and simply awaiting their arrival, almost immediately decided that the “Indians” they stumbled over were incapable of providing the labour for the mining and agricultural endeavours they contemplated. That the poor, friendly natives were so judged might be related to their inconvenient proclivity to perish by the millions from the diseases the Europeans had bequeathed to them. They decided that Africa, whose inhabitants were adjudged by the Christian Church as not to be in possession of souls – and therefore not being quite human – but were in abundant possession of muscles and sinews – should provide the necessary labour.
So this is how the ancestors of Blacks brought to the Western Hemisphere didn’t come here on the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria, the famous ships of explorer Christopher Columbus. They came instead as cargo – shackled and chained in the hulls of ships during the trans-Atlantic slave trade which began circa 1500 and did not end until 1807 in the British colonies and much later in Brazil and the US.
The estimates of these “soulless” Africans shipped across the Atlantic as cargo vary from 20 million to 100 million. Who needed to keep count? And how many perished and were thrown overboard? There is the true story of one captain who threw the remainder of his African slave-cargo overboard because the insurance for the total shipped was more lucrative than if he had sold the survivors.
But we should not imagine that these Africans went meekly into the night. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Back on the coast of Africa, mothers fought slave traders fiercely to save their children. They offered their bodies to slavers [traders] if they would leave the children behind. On some slave-ships that are known, and many that will never be known, manacled Negroes crawled from the holds and fought unarmed against guns and knives. On slave plantations, parents fought, stole, sacrificed and died for their families.” The history of Africans in the New World is one of struggling to simply survive against odds that cannot even be calculated in the present.
And that struggle is not over. In declaring 2011, “International Year for people of African Descent”, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reminded us: “The international community has affirmed that the transatlantic slave trade was an appalling tragedy not only because of its barbarism but also because of its magnitude, organized nature and negation of the essential humanity of the victims. Even today, Africans and people of African descent continue to suffer the consequences of these acts.”
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