Sarkozy belittles crimes of French slave trade

Slave ship diagram

From French daily L’Humanité:

By Maurice Ulrich

All in the Same Boat?

Why Sarkozy’s Attitude to Remembering the Slave Trade Should Make Us See Red

Translated Tuesday 15 May 2007, by Carol Gullidge

At the recent celebrations for the anniversary of France’s abolition of slavery, Nicolas Sarkozy’s inflammatory remarks on historic memory provided fuel for the fire of confrontation.

L’Humanité urges the left to get back on its feet and fight back.

In Nantes – one of the hubs of the triangular slave trade – the new museum of the city’s history is displaying account books, meticulously kept by its wealthy merchants.

In perfectly ruled columns, the trade figures can be read: black men, black women, and black boys and girls, with each one’s respective price and state of health.

You see the ships’ plans, together with the most efficient method of piling the slaves on board; you see the leg irons, and iron collars with their inward-pointing metal teeth…

Slavery was an abomination.

On the 10th of this month, we commemorated its abolition for the second time, and so we should.

For, if there were traders, and if there were whole towns that lived off the slave trade, very soon there were also men who stood up for emancipation.

Symbolic of these is Toussaint Louverture, who liberated the slaves of Santo Domingo before dying in a French prison in 1803. …

Two French presidents – or almost, since the second one [Nicolas Sarkozy] is not yet in office – went to the commemoration ceremony at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris on 10 May.

The future president came out of his “retreat” in Malta [on a billionaire’s yacht], for which he made it clear that he has no intention of “apologizing, lying, or hiding his face”.
Sarkozy the Rightist, French cartoon
From the first words he uttered on Sunday evening, we know that he proclaimed his wish to finish with “repentance”, and with “the battle of memories that fosters hatred of others”.

But can there be a battle of memories if the memory itself is the subject of a collective study? A matter of collective responsibility.

The term repentance does of course smack a teeny bit of masochism, but should we, for all that, relinquish efforts to establish and recognize responsibilities?

Because they did exist, and this should not be swept under the carpet.

In history, everything isn’t equal. Spartacus and Crassus aren’t in the same boat. Or should that be the same yacht?

In fact, Nicolas Sarkozy was not thinking of slavery in particular.

At his second major meeting, in Montpellier, the same terms were addressed to the more right-wing electors.

These words were levelled at the colonial wars, and the wars of Indo-China and Algeria.

Because, for Nicolas Sarkozy, those dirty wars are part of the greatness of France, just as May ’68 contributed to its downfall.

In every respect, Nicolas Sarkozy wants a right totally devoid of hang-ups.

His stay in Malta is in keeping with this desire.

This is rupture from now on, and it’s already violent.

Confronted with this, we need a strong left and one that believes in itself as such, the bearer of real changes and ready to be rebuilt.

Sarkozy update: here.

Senegalese Leftists on Sarkozy: here.

Sarkozy and culture: here.

21st century Haiti and Canada: here.

14 thoughts on “Sarkozy belittles crimes of French slave trade

  1. October 21, 2007 2:58 a.m. PT
    Book explores history of slave ships

    History professor Marcus Rediker poses in his office with copies of his book “Slave Ship,” at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Oct. 5, 2007. The book explores the history of slave ships, their human cargo and crew. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

    PITTSBURGH — Over more than three centuries, more than 12 million Africans were loaded on ships, bound for the Americas to be slaves.

    Aboard the slaver, or Guineaman, as the vessels were also known, the kidnapped Africans frequently had to travel in living quarters as cramped as coffins, and suffered savage beatings, outright torture and death to quell uprisings and forced dancing to keep them fit.

    While the plantation system and other aspects of slavery have been widely studied, the history of the slave ship itself is largely unknown, says historian Marcus Rediker, author of “The Slave Ship – A Human History.”

    “What I’m basically interested in is how captains, ship captains, officers, sailors and the slave interacted with the slave ship. What was the actual reality? Of course, it was quite horrifying,” said Rediker, a University of Pittsburgh history professor. “In many respects, the development of the Americas through slavery and the plantation system is unthinkable without the slave ship.”

    For a couple hundred years, most people thought they knew what happened during the Atlantic crossing, Rediker says. Abolitionists had produced evidence of life aboard slave ships, but many scholars were suspicious of what they’d gathered, thinking it propaganda.

    Perhaps the most significant reason for lack of scholarship, he says, is an assumption that “history happens on land, that the landed masses of the world are the real places and that the seas in between are a kind of void.”

    Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland professor who has written about slavery said Rediker’s book addresses a difficult subject.

    “And that is what happened to slaves and others in the middle passage. It speaks with great authority and he’s able to balance his knowledge with his deep anger with what has transpired,” Berlin said. “It has an edge of moral outrage which gives it a certain kind of authenticity.”

    Rediker acknowledges a fascination with elements of the sea and seafaring, the romance and adventure of pirates and explorers, but says, “We’re fascinated by all tall ships except the most important one, and that’s the slave ship. And that one we can hardly bear to look at.”

    Slave ships arrived on the west coast of Africa, where it took an average of six months to gather the entire human cargo of slaves. The middle passage, as the journey to the Americas was known, could take eight to 13 weeks. Death was common. Some 1.5 million Africans died, either of sickness, suicide or by murder-as-example. Crews also faced death, either by illness, insurrection or sinking.

    In one example in the book, an African man who refused to eat was tied up and lashed with a horse whip until he was raw and bloody “from his neck to his ankles.”

    After the beating, Captain Timothy Tucker ate his dinner, then returned to inflict more punishment to prevent the man – who had apparently decided to end his life by self starvation – from inspiring others to starve themselves.

    Tucker ordered a cabin boy to get his pistols. He pointed a pistol at the man’s head and told him he’d kill him if he refused to eat. The man replied “Adomma” in his native tongue – “so be it.”

    Tucker fired into the man’s forehead. The man clapped his hand to his wound, but did not die. Tucker placed the gun to the man’s ear and fired again. Again, he did not die. Tucker then ordered another sailor to shoot the man through the heart, which finally killed him.

    “Captains ruled this potentially rebellious mass of humanity by enacting terrible examples, enacting violence and terror on one in an effort to cow the rest,” Rediker says.

    Slaves, who far outnumbered the crew, also plotted rebellion.

    “What’s impressed me in doing this research, is even though the odds of insurrection were low, enslaved people kept trying. They kept trying,” Rediker says. “They refused to accept this reality and the captain and the sailors assumed the enslaved would rise up and kill them given half a chance, to escape this horrible reality of the ship and this slavery they were being carried into.”

    A prevalent west African religious belief that when someone died, they would return to homeland, also prompted suicides.

    “They would jump overboard. Captains put netting around the rail to prevent them from doing that. Some would actually try to cut their own throat with their fingernails. This was a desperate business,” Rediker notes.

    Life was not much better aboard the slaver for common sailors, many of whom were duped into signing up for duty. Men were often rounded up while drinking in pubs or yanked from jails.

    Once the kidnapped Africans were delivered to slave markets in Jamaica, South Carolina and elsewhere, captains frequently forced sailors – who, after all, had to be paid – off the ships, bilking them of their wages.

    “You need a lot of sailors to guard the slaves on the middle passage, but once you’ve sold the slaves, you need a much smaller crew to return to the home port,” the author says. “So these sailors become beggars, and many of them close to death … were nightmarish in appearance.”

    Rediker discovered that frequently, slaves took the sailors into their huts and cared for them.

    “This is a very powerful and hopeful commentary that people who suffered tremendously on board these ships could have this compassion for other people who were literally their prison guards, who were now suffering because of their own experience aboard the ship,” Rediker says. “It’s just a stunning thing.”

    Eventually, abolitionists focused on the horrors of the slave ship, which help lead to the outlaw of the slave trade two centuries ago. “The slave trade happened far beyond the shores of most people’s experience. (The public) really didn’t know what happened on these ships,” Rediker says.

    A print of the slave ship Brooks, showing slaves packed sardinelike below deck in the ship, which was published in England and America, was particularly effective in the campaign against slavery. Rediker devotes a chapter to the print.

    “Once (the public) could see the physical layout of bodies, they were struck with horror: What must that be like?”

    The book also details the work of British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who traveled to Liverpool and Bristol in 1787 to gather information about the slave trade. While ship merchants and captains refused to talk with him, he gathered evidence from sailors that fueled the abolitionist movement.

    The slave trade was abolished in Britain in 1807 and in America in 1808.

    Rediker also devotes a chapter to John Newton, the slave ship captain perhaps best known for writing the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Newton had a Christian conversion while a slave captain, but did not immediately renounce the trade and continued to serve as a captain until a stroke forced him to retire.

    He did not write “Amazing Grace” until well after his retirement.

    “The dark side of our history is one we don’t like to face, and yet, I believe that progress depends on coming to grips with it,” Rediker says.

    On The Net:

    Marcus Rediker’s Web site:


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