Friday, April 20, 2007

One day before the mast

I've been stuck at home all week with a bug - its not been much fun. But there are many much much worse places to be sick, and the previous week I visited one.

It was a replica of the ship Zong that was moored in the pool of London for two weeks and I went along to have a look round. The story is pretty shocking - not just was it a slaver, but the centre of an insurance scam that resulting in slaves being thown overboard mid Atlantic when they got sick.

While it was pretty interesting there were two things that bothered me a bit.

Firstly it wasn't a true replica of the ship Zong - which was longer and had different layout below deck. It was just the ship used in the recent film "Amazing Grace" about the life of William Wilberforce.

Secondly the attitude of the tour guide and at least one of the others on the tour I found disquieting. Both mentioned skin colour as if that would or should be crucial in determining attitudes to the boat. "Why are you here, as a white person?" was a flavour of the questions.

I found this boggling to be honest. Slavery is a horror of humanities past, irrespective of what race you are. I don't feel I should feel guilty for what was done centuries ago by someone else for the irrelevance that we share a skin colour.

Its not just that some white people opposed slavery, and that some black people were part of slave trading. We are all mongrels and it doesn't feel right to define our identity or be defined from just one historical group.

So to a degree I switched off and started asking about the rigging, going to the rail and asking what each of the ropes were. Recently I've have been reading "Two years before the mast" which at times is quite technical in its description of the rigging of a tall ship, so a hands on Q&A session seemed just what the doctored ordered.

I found a trainee who was initially nervous but then by the end had her confidence boosted as she found she did know all the ropes, their names, and their uses.

On the tube home there was the usual cross section of races, religions, and nationalities. As a little girl staggered her way across the isle I exchanged smiles with the proud grandfather sitting opposite.

No doubt we could have exchanged national histories, found differences and reasons for grievances. Would that really have helped?


Carol Anne said...

Something that doesn't often make it into the stories about the slave ships was what happened later with them.

Although the United States didn't ban slavery until the 1860s, the importation of slaves was banned in the 1840s. This just happened to coincide with strife in Germany and also with the Irish potato famine, which meant there were a lot of people who wanted to emigrate to America.

So the owners of the ships switched from carrying slaves to carrying immigrants, with nearly the same accommodations, minus the chains. In Ireland, these ships became known as "coffin ships." While a slaver had at least some interest in keeping his passengers alive, since he was paid based on how many arrived at their destination, the captain of a coffin ship had been paid in advance, so he wouldn't lose any money if a passenger died.

One of my ancestors arrived in this country on a ship that apparently had been especially horrendous -- fewer than half the people who had boarded the ship in Cork got off it in New Orleans.

So does that mean that the quarter of me that's Irish (and possibly also the quarter of me that's German) should be mad at the quarter of me that's high-class New Orleans and the quarter of me that's Southern white former slave owners, since the tradition of slavery led to the coffin ships?

Give me a break. We can't just keep being angry with each other over things that happened in the past, no matter how horrible those things might have been. Yes, we can give some allowances to compensate for economic disadvantages caused by past wrongs, but mostly, we should all be working positively together, rather than focusing on past hurts.

JP said...

Thanks for the story, Carol Anne - I didn't know the Irish immigrant ships had such poor survival rates.

Yes, I agree, lets move on together not fight over history

Katinka said...

Great post, JP!

This issue of inherited guilt is an important one. I completely agree with you that it's important to put aside the past and move forward together.

That being said, I must admit that watching the movie Amazing Grace made me flinch a little. My grandfather and his brothers inherited the Bundaberg Sugar Company (now Bundaberg Rum), and I know that the company once employed people from the Solomon Islands to help tend the sugar cane fields. I don't know how the workers initally came to Queensland, or under what circumstances. But my Great Great Aunt later lived and died caring for people in the Solomon Islands, so I gather that the family had a sense of responsibilty and concern for them.

As Carol Anne says, "we can give some allowances to compensate for economic disadvantages caused by past wrongs, but mostly, we should all be working positively together, rather than focusing on past hurts."

JP said...

Thanks Kat for your comments - I agree.

The residual economic benefit / loss side of things is the only one that makes me pause. For example one side of our family history was in shipping - and from Liverpool at that, one of the homes of slaving.

However it - the Blue Funnel Line - was set up in the mid 19th century after slavery was abolished. So I do not feel we personally have directly benefited.

Also they made sure that their boats were seaworthy and safe to protect the crew - Blue Funnel line standards were significantly better than that required by Lloyds.

So any benefit is at most an indirect effect on the whole national than individual thing and diluted over at least 200 years.

You could also choose any other ancestor of mine as could any other Briton. Some were poor farmers that probably suffered horribly under the system - should we therefore claim "credit" for them?

To start trying to balance the sum of the personal and national historical victory and defeats seems both impossible and divisive.

Instead we should aim to help those that are disadvantaged now, because that is the right thing to do today and not because of what happened years ago.