Memphis, Tennessee – the birthplace of Rock & Roll, feels as foreign to me as the Inca communities of the Altiplano, yet fascinates me in much the same manner. Friendly, vibrant and indisputably cool, the residents of Memphis have made this contrived capital on the New World Nile their own cultural nexus. As a centre of African-American culture and above all else, music (much of which is too loud for my unconditioned ears), the rhythms that took form in Memphis continue to provide emotional and even spiritual grounding to people the world over. Transcending language and race the music born throughout the Mississippi region is open, inclusive and powerful. This global cultural gift is particularly altruistic given the painful history of the region.
Driving south through the heavily subsidised cotton fields of Mississippi, where The Blues took form as a musical genre, the historian in me ponders the fact that only 5% of all slaves sold into the Americas went in the United States. The modern story of exploitation in the Americas began with the Spanish-controlled mines high in the Andes followed by Portuguese, British and French sugar, rubber and cotton plantations in Brazil, the Caribbean and North America.
Enslaved peoples from Africa did not last long at the high altitudes of the Peruvian and Bolivian plateaus, so the Spanish took to forced labour of indigenous populations in order to exploit the mines. Today those same Quechua and
For Africans sold into slavery in the Americas, the hell of their existence is all too often forgotten. Most ended up in the Caribbean and Brazil and died in such numbers that fresh boatloads were required for each harvest. Over 90% of Haiti’s sugar-plantation population was enslaved and in 1804, France’s wealthiest colony, became the second independent republic of the hemisphere, quite literally fighting off Napoleon.
Exploited beyond recognition and forced to pay reparations to slave owners, Haiti has had a difficult time finding prosperity, but its fights against the colonial French (and Spanish) regime began a march to freedom for which the world owes a debt of gratitude.
New Orleans also benefited from Haiti’s fight for freedom. Briefly reverting back to French rule from Spanish, slave owners from Haiti settled in the slavery-friendly region of North America and quickly enjoy legal protection from the mighty United States of America.
It would take another 60 years and the most destructive war in American history to finally close the chapter on human trade in the world’s most powerful country. Travelling through the American South I cannot help but notice how almost every civil war battlefield is now a state or national park and for some reason foreign to me, the statue to Jefferson Davies, President of the Confederate States of America, declares him; “A True American Patriot.” Yet monuments to nearly 300 years of slavery are few.
In spite of the weight of this incredibly raw history of forced resource exploitation, the legacy of the wealth created through the trade in humans is minor and tired. Famous antebellum homes dot the landscape of the South. Many are museums and frankly not terribly interesting. Each home stands as
Famous antebellum homes dot the landscape of the South. Many are museums and frankly not terribly interesting. Each home stands as monument to New World Feudalism, marked by strict biblical code and an ironclad class structure. Similar tired colonial architecture dots much of South America and while the adobe or brick home of the Quechua may lack colonial grandeur, they do represent a certain quality of life, environmental stewardship and autonomy.
While the overwhelming majority of non-slaves would have lived in abject rural poverty, it is important not to conflate poverty with slavery. One is a tragedy of economics, whereas the latter is the worst of humanity.
Standing back – way back – the view of the open society that has risen from these most obscene forms of oppression is testament to something better in the human experience. From the vibrancy of Quechua culture to the music of the Deep South it is not the small power elite who advance society, rather the people from whom society was stolen who contribute so much of what we now find valuable.
We cannot re-write the history of colonisation of the Americas, but we most certainly can learn from it. The echo of crimes of the past has not left and it is cheap to hide behind diluted “I didn’t do it” argument. From the highest city on Earth in May to New Orleans below sea level in October the American mosaic – including the crimes of enslavement – remains a work in progress.