Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mitchell Speaks on Aboliton of the Slave Trade

As I mentioned in a previous post, the bicentennial of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade is one of the important milestones being observed in the Bahamas this year. Since this coming Sunday March 25th is the day that the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was actually signed into law, I will attempt to spend the remainder of the week sharing items that help us to reflect on this important event. Today, I've posted the remarks delivered by the Hon. Fred Mitchell, MP for Fox Hill, to New Covenant Baptist Church on Sunday February 25, 2007.

On Marking The Occasion Of The Abolition of The Transatlantic Slave Trade in the British Empire

It is as usual an honour to be here to make this brief intervention on this subject that is of significance to the history and settlement of these islands. I want to thank Bishop Simeon Hall, my friend, for this kind invitation.

Last evening, I met with representatives of the Rasta community who have decided for the first time to engage fully in the electoral process by registering and voting in the next general election. Our discussions turned to the question of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. I made the point that we are not celebrating this anniversary; we are observing or marking the occasion.

The fact is that slavery was wrong, morally wrong. There is a requirement for an apology by all those who were officially involved in slavery even centuries after the fact, in the same way that the German government has had to make amends for their conduct during the second world war toward Jews.

Millions of African peoples perished in the middle passage; the numbers exceed those who died in the Holocaust. Their names are not known and never will be. They must not be forgotten.

I made the point about observance because there are many in the country who want to pretend that this never happened, and that we ought to in some kind of 21st century love fest forget about the past as if it did not exist. We cannot do that. Our history is our history; and we ought to be sure that the young know their history. We must also tell them, though, that history should not be used as an excuse for their failings but rather as a source of inspiration for their success.

On 25th March 1807, the British Parliament passed an Act that would forbid the transportation of slaves from Africa to the new world. It came into effect in 1808 and once it did, the British Navy had the responsibility of enforcing it. This meant that vessels of countries that still carried slaves were subject to seizure and forfeiture by the navy on the high seas.

Amongst those countries where slavery had not yet been abolished was the United States of America who did not abolish slavery until 1865 and in Brazil where slavery continued until 1888. Slavery itself was not abolished in the British Empire of which The Bahamas was a part until the year 1834.

We in Fox Hill have organized a whole set of observances around that event since the time it took place in 1834, perhaps the only place in The Bahamas to do so on a wide scale. This year, I would like you all to come to Fox Hill to join us for the observances.

Fox Hill owes its beginnings to some extent to the settlement of freed Africans who were set down by the British in what was then called New Guinea or the Creek Village, later named Fox Hill and then Sandilands Village.

Here is what Michael Craton writes in his History of The Bahamas “After the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, the Royal Navy maintained a special squadron to suppress the traffic. From 1830, slaves seized on the high seas were freed absolutely. The first such cargoes reached Nassau in September 1832, when 370 Negroes were settled on Highbourne Cay, 514 at Carmichael, six miles from Nassau, and 134 at Adelaide in the southwest of New Providence. In 1833, there was a serious drought and the Negroes at Highbourne Cay were brought back to New Providence and settled just ‘over the hill’ from Nassau, in an area already known as Grant’s Town after Governor Lewis Grant (1820-29).”

Dr. Gail Saunders writes in her book Slavery In The Bahamas:

“The arrival of Liberated Africans had a profound effect on the growth of the population of The Bahamas between 1808 and 1840… Most of the displaced Africans were condemned at Nassau at the Court of Vice Admiralty and between 1811 and 1832 over 1400 Africans had been put ashore under the protection of the crown.

“On being landed in The Bahamas they were placed in the hands of the Chief Customs Officer, whose duty it was to bind them to suitable masters or mistresses, in order for them to learn a trade or handicraft, for periods not exceeding 14 years... In the 1830s, there were at least eight free black villages or settlements outside the town of Nassau. They were Grants Town and Bain Town just south of the city, Carmichael and Adelaide in the southwest, Delancey Town just west of Nassau, Gambier in the west and Creek Village (New Guinea and Fox Hill) in the east…

“Fox Hill was named after Samuel Fox who arrived in New Providence in the 1820s and purchased property in the eastern district of New Providence. Fox Hill comprised a series of villages, for example, Congo Town, Nango Town, Joshua Town and Burnside Town. Congo and Joshua Town were probably settled by slaves or freed men who had been born in Africa. Congo and Nango Town probably took their names from the tribes that lived there.”

When I attended the celebrations for the 137th anniversary of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Fox Hill, the history there says that their congregation formed out of Mt. Carey Baptist Church and arose in part because of differences between the Congos and Yorubas.

The Yorubas came from West Africa and the Congos came from the Congo. Most British slaves came from West Africa and the Portuguese took their slaves from what is now the Congo and were transporting them to Brazil.

It is said that after the abolition of the slave trade a slaver Congo slaves was captured by the British and set down in Fox Hill. They were looked down on by the Yorubas because the Congos could not speak proper English, having come later to The Bahamas and the English language. When the split took place over some doctrinal matters, the Congos moved to found St. Paul’s.

Language is very interesting because as you know we have all been stripped of our African languages. I recall how the people of Barbados who migrated to Panama at the turn of the 20th century and stayed in Panama, even though they were born and raised in Panama and have not been to Barbados in their lives still speak English with a Barbadian accent, 100 years or more after the fact.

You can tell then that language is a difficult thing to erase and yet you see how slavery was so dehumanizing that it wiped out all traces of the original languages that came with our forefathers.

So I hope you see how the modern history of The Bahamas is influenced by what happened 200 years ago. We are still struggling with the meaning of this for our people, their self esteem, and their right to exist as human beings within their own skin and not suffer because of it. It is important that our children continue to know the story and continue to tell the story.

This year the Government plans to mark special observances. I am hoping that the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sierra Leone which was founded by the British to accommodate freed Africans will come to The Bahamas and that we will agree on special measures for these observances.

Ghana is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Independence this year and the Government hopes to send a delegation of civil society to represent us at those celebrations.

There are to be seminars and research projects, and collaboration with our Caribbean neighbours to mark these matters.

The Government of South Africa has asked The Bahamas Government to host the follow up regional conference on the African Diaspora in the Caribbean and we have agreed to do so as well.

I thank you for allowing me to share these tidbits of history with you and hope that during this morning’s service you will continue to reflect on where we have come from. You can see how the hymn "We've Come This Far By Faith" resonates so well in the African experience in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.

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