African Explorers Came Before Columbus

Several years ago, on a visit to the magnificent National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, I had a little catch-up with our tour guide.  We were in the Gulf of Mexico Hall, looking at Olmec artefacts.  The most famous works of the Olmecs are gigantic stone heads, some of which weigh 40 tons and are over two and half metres tall.

In 1862, the first Olmec head was unearthed in the state of Tabasco.  Almost a century later, the American archaeologist Matthew Stirling began excavations in 1942 in the ancient city of La Venta.  He discovered even more Olmec heads and found evidence of a civilization much older than the Mayan, Incan or Aztec, dating from about 1200 BC to 400 BC.

I knew a bit about the Olmec heads but I wanted to hear the official story. I asked the tour guide how he accounted for the African appearance of the heads.  It’s a long time ago so I can’t recall his exact words.  But it was something to this effect:  “Oh no!  It’s not African; it’s a jaguar”.  “A jaguar?” I asked in amazement.  “It looks much more like me than any jaguar.  Don’t you know that Africans were in the Americas long before Columbus?”

‘Jaguar’

The tour guide caved in:  “Yes, yes the lady is right”.  It was the only sensible thing to do.  If you look at head number 6 from San Lorenzo, Veracruz, there is no way you could mistake this decidedly human face for a jaguar.  But since it’s so obviously African, it had to mutate supernaturally into a non-human form.  The Mexican fairy tale of origins apparently could not accommodate an African genesis.

GAPS IN THE STORY

Sculptures from the Parthenon sold in 1816 to the British Museum

Museums are peculiar places, full of art and politics.  Their curators lock up pieces of the past in pretty cages and tell stories about them that are true or false to varying degrees. Many of these objects are stolen goods.  But that’s a whole other story.  Let’s just say that if the Greeks, for example, were to be properly paid for their cultural artefacts now imprisoned in the museums of their far more affluent neighbours, the proceeds would go a long way to help balance the national budget.

Acropolis museum

Better yet, if the artefacts were liberated and repatriated, the Greeks could make even bigger bucks in heritage tourism.  Museums are an essential component of the creative/cultural industries across the globe.  In non-Olympic years, one of London’s biggest attractions is the city’s network of museums and art galleries, some of which were funded, ultimately, from the bloody proceeds of plantation slavery.

Tate Gallery

Henry Tate, who made his millions in sugar refining, founded the Tate Gallery in 1897.  Tate started off rather modestly as a grocer’s apprentice in Liverpool in 1832 when he was only 13 years old.  True, slavery was abolished two years later in the British colonies in the Caribbean.  But Liverpool had been a major slaving port and, according to the website of the International Slavery Museum, “its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the 18th century.  The town and its inhabitants derived great civic and personal wealth from the trade”.

On a related note, I ran into Ainsley Henriques, leader of the Jewish community in Jamaica, at the elegant launch of Diana McCaulay’s new novel, Huracan, two Fridays ago.

huracantrailer.htm

Ainsley and I  had a nice chat and he told me that several people had asked if he wasn’t going to respond to my column, published two weeks ago, on “Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean”.  He’d decided not to.  Like my Mexican tour guide, Ainsley seems to have conceded the accuracy of my account of the gaps in the story told by the Museum of Jamaican Jewish History.

AFRICA IN ANCIENT AMERICA

I discovered the Olmec civilisation in a book by the Guyanese linguist and anthropologist, Ivan Van Sertima, published in 1976.  The title makes a startling claim:  They Came Before Columbus:  The African Presence in Ancient America.  In addition to the spectacular Olmec heads, there was more evidence.

Peruvian portrait vessel

Von Wuthenau, an art historian and archaeologist at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, had unearthed many terracotta sculptures of ‘Negroid’ heads in clay, gold, copper and copal.  Van Sertima notes that the layers of soil in which these African sculptures were found “ranged from the earliest American civilizations right through to the Columbian contact period”.

Then Leo Wiener, a linguist at Harvard University, had earlier “stumbled upon a body of linguistic phenomena that indicated clearly to him the presence of an African and Arabic influence on some medieval Mexican and South American languages before the European contact period”.

Traditional pirogue

There was also the evidence of the boat-building skills and seafaring knowledge of Africans.  Small open boats could, in fact, cross the Atlantic, particularly with the assistance of the fast-flowing Guinea and Canaries currents. And the evidence kept piling up.  You just have to read Van Sertima’s book to get the whole story.  Closer to home, it makes you wonder who really discovered Discovery Bay and who had to run away from Runaway Bay.

Back Pay For Slavery

The principle of reparations was established long ago in the 1833 Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies.  But there was a catch to the Act.  Not much different in essence from the original sin of catching Africans for enslavement in the Americas.  Reparations were to be made to the perpetrators of human trafficking, not to the victims.

This is how the Act opens:  “Whereas divers Persons are holden [held] in Slavery within divers of His Majesty’s Colonies, and it is just and expedient that all such Persons should be manumitted and set free, and that a reasonable Compensation should be made to the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves for the Loss which they will incur by being deprived of their Right to such Services . . . ;”  etc, etc.

Laura Facey Cooper monument

This is a classic example of the diabolical mindset of ‘wicked white people.’  Slaveholders were legally entitled to the services of their slaves and therefore had a right to ‘reasonable Compensation’ for loss of service.  The enslaved had no such rights or entitlements.  They were freed with nothing in their two long hands; just like that rather sad-looking couple trapped in a basin of water in New Kingston’s ‘Emancipation Park’.

When I talk about ‘wicked white people’ I don’t mean specific individuals who have done me personal wrong. I’m not speaking about singular acts of evil.  It’s a far bigger issue.  What concerns me is the collective crimes against humanity committed by gravalicious people who consider themselves absolutely entitled by God and nature to dominate the world.  In many instances, these self-proclaimed rulers just happen to be white.

Crocodile dance mask from the Torres Strait Islands in a current exhibition at the British Museum

In the age of colonial conquest, ‘wicked white people’ as a special interest group committed crimes of unapologetic horror.  They ravaged  other people’s bodies, souls, lands and histories; they vandalised sacred objects and then locked them away in ‘museums’ – those cemeteries of other people’s culture.  ‘Wicked white people’ invading and stealing, stealing, stealing without conscience.

I know I’m going to be accused of racism for exposing ‘wicked white people’ to public scrutiny in this way.  But that’s just another ploy of ‘wicked white people’ and their collaborators to perpetuate mental slavery.  It’s racism to talk about racist behaviour.  But actual racist behaviour is not racism.  It’s just human nature.  What an irony!

 

Justice versus expediency

So let’s say instead that ‘nice and decent’ white people agreed that it was “just and expedient” to set the enslaved free. But the yoking of justice and expedience in the Act for the Abolition of Slavery reveals the central philosophical and practical dilemma at the heart of the emancipation enterprise.

Justice seemingly puts emancipation on solid moral ground.  Expedience erodes all claims to moral authority.  It was expedient to emancipate enslaved Africans because plantation slavery had become an expensive proposition.  The substitution of beet for cane turned West Indian sugar into a rather sour deal.

After centuries of mostly verbal outrage – incessant talk, talk, talk about ‘wicked white people’ – we, the collective victims of transatlantic slavery, must finally decide to take legal action in the largest class-action suit in the history of the world.  This is a truly wonderful idea. Not the wishy-washy, everyday sense of ‘wonderful’, meaning simply ‘great’; it’s the mind-blowing, original meaning of the word: full of wonder.

Five hundred years after the rape of the body and land of the original inhabitants of this part of the world; five hundred years after the violent uprooting and enslavement of millions of Africans, we, their descendants, both native and immigrant, must lay claim to rights of reparation.

 

In the sweet by and by

For many Africans in the Diaspora, it is in religion that we find hope for reparations.  The Christian religion seems to recommend long-term investment in the celestial stock market. The concept of reparations has best been expressed in pious hymns like this:  “In the sweet by and by I’ll have a mansion so bright and so fair, won’t it be glorious when I get there in the sweet by and by?”  God will repair the breach.  God is the ultimate Human Rights Arbitrator.

Then we have those Africans who want hard cold cash in the here and now.  Think of the title song from the movie The Harder They Come:  “They tell me bout the pie up in the sky waiting for me when I die.  But between the day you born and when you die, they never seem to hear even your cry.  So as long as the sun will shine, I’m gonna get my share, what’s mine.  The harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all.”

That’s an excellent anthem for the Reparations Movement, the Garveyism of our times.  It’s the same kind of daring that made Marcus Garvey conceive the Universal Negro Improvement Association and Communities League:  a global movement of African peoples who see themselves as having a shared history and a common destiny.

And don’t think it’s a joke.  With derisive laughter cynics like to say, ‘when you get the money you can check me.’  But the Jews got compensation from the Germans; Japanese-Americans got compensation for the atrocities committed against them.   Why not Africans? I’d like to know what, exactly, our National Commission on Reparations is doing about it.

If you think that after five hundred years it’s now too late for reparations, just remember Psalm 90:4 in which David, himself a Jew, converses with the Supreme Arbitrator:  “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.”  Come to think of it, all we’re really talking about is half a day’s back pay.