Saturday, July 27, 2013

251. Ama - a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade by Manu Herbstein

Ama - a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade (374; Techmate) by Manu Herbstein won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book in 2002. It explores, boldly, one of the darkest moments of human history when human beings (blacks from Africa) were traded like articles or farm animals. Assessed for defects - muscles, clear eyes, etc. - and for profitability. Thus, in that period, black men and women were no different from livestock - in treatment and in conception. 

Manu Herbstein painfully peels off the gangrenes from our necrotic wounds to show us our painful complicity as Africans in our own enslavement and therefore our debasement. To this extent Manu is in league with Ayi Kwei Armah, who in his books - Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers - showed how far we went as Africans, how lowly we bowed, how stupidly we grovelled, and how greedily we participated in our own destruction. Armah called the chiefs who stupidly surrendered our sovereignty for perks of mirror, Schnapps, and shiny clothing, Ostentatious Cripples. In Manu's work, there were such chiefs. Though this theme should have been a fodder ground for African novelists, it has hardly been touched and those who did preferred to romanticise the Africa of the time, thus narrating half the story. What most writers care to write about are the effects of the slave trade and not the event itself - at least not the entire chain of events. And those who do are academicians who only discuss it in essays and academic writings thus taking the story away from the larger majority to whom such academic discourse remains a mystery. It is in the light of this that Manu's well-researched novel plays an important and significant role in the telling of this horrific story, this stain in human history.

The story follows one character Nandzi, a Bekpokpam girl, who was captured by the Bedagbam slave hunters in present day northern Ghana, as part of hundreds of slaves who had to be sent to the King of the Asantes as payment for the annual tax placed on them by the latter after a defeat in a war. Thus, as Nandzi moved from her home village to Yendi and then from there to Kumase, the capital of the Asante Kingdom, her story - which is synonymous to the story of the slave trade - unfolds in graphic details. In Kumase she was given as a gift to the Asantehemaa (the Queenmother of the Asantes), where she worked as a servant girl and where the name Ama was given her. But a misfortune befell her when after the death of the ailing king, the young one who succeeded him, Osei Kwadwo, fell in love with him. To avoid embarrassment to the kingdom, she was sold to the slave traders along the coast to be shipped across the sea. Thus, Manu's story is more than the story of the Atlantic slave trade. It is also about the internal slavery that existed among ethnic groups of the time. For Ama was first an internal slave to the Asantes before she was sold to the Dutch and would have forever remained so had it not being her poor judgement.

Another important issue this book raises was those macabre traditions that existed at the time like beheading of people - mostly non-royals - upon the death of a king, for burial. Here Manu's dexterity in bringing images alive with his precise words, made these macabre and grisly parts difficult to read. However, they are also important and contribute to the story of the slave trade; for they show how far we have come as a people.

The role the autochthons played in the slavery enterprise were not limited to the supply of men, but also included its funding, and even directly buying and selling of slaves to support their acquired taste for those foreign goods the slave ships bring in when coming to load the slaves. This is clear in the case of Augusta, a black woman who was neck-deep in the trade herself. Also, some of the people - chiefs and elders and other denizens - worked to keep the slave trade bourgeoning and physically fought those who opposed them. An instance of this occurred in another location, possibly on the more western part of Africa (Senegal). Tomba, the son of a man who himself had escaped from chains and a woman whom the man had saved from being transported as a slave, had worked to prevent several potential slaves from being shipped abroad. Consequently, he established a village with these freed slaves and together attacked every ship that docked at the village to purchase men and women and children as slaves. With time the business became unprofitable as ships docked less and less. However, the people of the village - unhappy with this decline in trade and wealth - enlisted the help of a captain of a ship that had come to dock, attacked Tomba and his men with sophisticated weapons and arrested them as slaves. 

The conditions in the dungeons, where the captured men and women were kept, the persistent rape of the women, beating of the women who resisted, the conditions on the slave ships, the conditions they met the on the ship, and the work the slaves are put to were discussed in their heart-wrenching details. The diseases and the deaths were more than a person should bear, yet it became their lives. Ama was raped by several men as she made her way from her native village to the Edina where the Elmina Castle was (is) located. First she was raped by Abdulai, leader of the the slave hunters who took her from her home; then by Akwasi Anane, a drunk Asante who was to watch over them as they journeyed to Kumase; then by Jensen, who became the new Mijn Heer after the death of Debruyn; and Jesus Vasconcellos, when she was taken to Brazil. And there were those who took her, and to whom she gave herself, because there were no other choices to be made. This included De Bruyn, who took her as his partner, renamed her Pamela, lived with her for several years, thought her to read and write and do maths, and was ready to marry her before his sudden death; and Captain David Williams - captain of the slave ship The Love of Liberty, when she planned for their escape. Some reviewers discussed Ama's treatment as a metaphorical representation of Africa in general and women in particular. Here Ama becomes that Africa raped by its European invaders, colonisers, and neo-colonisers, and also by its Eurocentric and parochial Africans whose thoughts are filled with the satisfaction of their personal needs, regardless of the means. Today, there still are the Tombas and Amas fighting to liberate the continent from the shackles of economic slavery, and the Augustas and Tomba's opponents who work to benefit themselves. 

The role of Christianity in entrenching slavery cannot be overlooked. In fact, no matter how one looks at it, it will be difficult to deny that Christianity was deeply embedded in the enslavement of the people and the slave trade itself. It is exceedingly shocking that the irony was lost to the slaves who took up the religion. However, Ama - having learnt how to read and write, noticed the irony that existed in that religion including the part of the Lord's Prayer "as we forgive those who trespassed against us..." (P. 230). Even though the missionaries were preaching the love of God towards man, they asked blacks to be meek. Thus, it created and entrenched the idea that the black man was not the man God was referring to in the bible, for even in the presence of God there was discrimination and the relegation of blacks.

This relation between the white and the blacks regarding culture and how the blacks were aping the whites is the theme of Kobina Sekyi's The Blinkards and The Anglo-Fante Short Story. However, in no one did this cultural buffoonery reach an apogee of disastrous proportions than in Reverend Philip Quaque, a chaplain at the Cape Coast Castle. This historical figure, as are many of the characters in this story, would not speak in his native language - Fante - and would not respond when spoken to in it. He considered English as a divine and civilising language. In fact, he considered his native Fantes who weren't Christians and who could speak no English as pagans and their names heathenish. To complete this absurd transformation he married a white lady. Also, like the character in Sekyi's play, most families saw the marriage of their daughters to the white men as key to success and like in the case of Taguba, sometimes mothers kidnapped and sold their daughters into such unions. However, this obsequious grovelling before the white man was not restricted to only the supposedly free folks but also those in his chains exhibited such reverential tendencies. Sometimes even the oppressed (the shackled and manhandled slaves) still grovel and marvelled at the white man's beauty and intelligence.
"Me broni," said another to a young seaman, "wo ho ye fe se anoma," meaning, "My precious white man, you are as beautiful as a bird" [228]
There were several sources of disunity among blacks that worked against them; sources, which are as germane to our unity and development today as they were at the time of slavery. The first is the role of language. With almost every ten slaves [my speculation] speaking a different language and none capable of understanding the other, this Babel of tongues worked against them. Thus, when Ama worked to free the slave ship from the captain, it was this which acted as a barrier to their freedom. Unable to understand each other, the escape was botched and the culprits punished so severely that some died and were fed to the sharks and others lost parts of their bodies; Ama for instance, lost an eye when one of the hooks at the end of the whip hooked onto it and came out when it was forcefully pulled. However, upon reaching Brazil, faced with a common Portuguese language they were able to come together for a common purpose.

Another source of disunity arose from their diversity: that is, the usual suspicion one person holds against the other because one cannot comprehend what the other is saying. In this way, consensus building and making a decision became a problem. Each unit - a unit being people who could understand themselves - worked for its own good but in the end led to nothing because it was working sometimes against the whole. 

The other source of disunity lay in favour-seeking: for the fear of repercussions and punishment, to seek favour and promotion from their masters, there were those other slaves who were more inclined to do the bidding of their masters even to the detriment of their people and sometimes, most often after a rise in rank, would do more than what they have been instructed to do to please their masters. These others were more likely and did indeed betray all plans of escape whenever they came to be in the know.

Race or colour also became a matter of importance, which affected the unity of the people even in their new country. For instance, the slaves who had been ferried earlier into the Americas thought themselves better than the new arrivals; claiming that they are more civilised 
"Don't call me brother, woman. I am not an unseasoned guiney bird like you," he replied. "Now stand in line so that master can look at you properly." [295]
Similarly, those who were born in captivity, especially the Mulatto breeds, considered themselves better than the rest and were more inclined to serve the interest of their white side than their black side, though they were never treated any better by the white men. This quest and eagerness among people to be superior to their kin even when they are facing a common enemy was addressed in Bessie Head's Maru
And if the white man thought that Asians were a low, filthy nation, Asians could still smile with relief - at least, they were not Africans. And if the white man thought Africans were a low, filthy nation, Africans in Southern Africa could still smile - at least, they were not Bushmen. [6]
Linked to race is the monarchic system of governance, which also encouraged the slave trade. The monarchical structure puts people into either inferior or superior class. Thus, in England and Portugal mere white wasn't a guarantee of a better treatment. These non-royals and mistreated people also looked at blacks and say we are better than them, creating a situation where there is no remorse for maltreatment but a justification. For Africans, this royalty and monarchy encouraged the arrest and sale of 'inferior' tribes and non-royals of the same tribe into slavery.

Overall, Ama was hardworking and resourceful; she loved freedom too. She helped whomever she could. Yet she was never free to do anything; she was always under somebody's command, as a slave - sexual and non-sexual.

The language in this novel is effective and fits the era being discussed. Interspersing the narrative are proverbs - common in most African languages and with African people - and folkloric tales. Manu's diction and descriptions did not make the period as antiquated and backward as one might have expected. For instance, he talks of inns and hostelries in a remote area of current Ghana in the 18th Century. There was also talk of international trading (at Kafaba), customs and exports.

This is a well-researched novel, filled with historical figures and events that one would not help but shiver at the enormity of human wickedness, the depths to which man could fall. For this is just the story of one individual - Nandzi (or Ama or Pamela). Take this and multiply it by the millions and millions of people who were transported across to those lands and those who died on the way and it is only then would one understand the importance of what Manu has done; for
African slaves were sold in Lisbon as early as 1441. The European discovery and colonisation of the Americas set the scene for the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted from early in the sixteenth century until the second half of the nineteenth. The slaves were all African. So too were many of those who sold them. The buyers and shippers were almost all Europeans. In the course of three hundred years, upwards of ten million black men, women, and children arrived in the Americas as unwilling migrants. Millions more died on the journey to the Atlantic coast, and at seas. [Epigraph to the section Americas, 203]
My only problem is that some places - though not widespread - were somewhat preachy. The telling of this story itself evokes deep imagery of wickedness, evil, and the moral failure of the time and therefore I believe those statements were not very needed. In addition, there were one or two dramatic events like Ama fainting upon seeing Tomba again, after their separation at the place where they were sold. However, this also set the scene for a beautiful love story at a subplot level. Regardless of these, which are not necessarily a failing, this book deserves to be read by all. It should be an important part of Africa's literary canon.

However, there are some questions that bothered me when reading this and which we will need to discuss:
  1. Would the slave trade have ended if it had not been banned in Europe? That is, would and could Africans have worked to ending it? 
  2. Did we as Africans ever realise that slavery was bad?
About the author: Manu Herbstein, a civil and structural engineer by profession, was born in Muizenberg, near Cape Town, in 1936 and educated at the University of Cape Town. His Jewish grandparents, he writes, had "emigrated to South Africa in the 1890s. Two from Russia, one a Litvak, her husband a Romanian, whose name I bear."

Manu Herbstein has lived and worked in England, Nigeria, India, Zambia, and Scotland, and now lives in Ghana. He first visited the slave castle at Elmina, Ghana, which features in this novel, in 1961. He has returned many times since and says that the experience never fails to move him.


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