Sunday, July 1, 2012

"History is alive" – Sierra Leonians and the fight for democracy

h/t Perry Pidgeon Hooks for the photograph of Freddy Shebaka, me and Frederick Whittington

Freddy Shebaka, on the right in this photograph, is a Sierra Leonian artist living in Washington who has become deeply interested in his heritage over the last 5 years and contacted me several weeks ago. One of his ancestors was Thomas Bright, a black Loyalist who is not listed on the manifest of the Book of Negroes or among the 1200 voyagers from Nova Scotia to Free Town in Sierra Leone. But a Mary Bright came with the British to Canada along with 3 children in 1783, perhaps an older one of whom was Thomas.

The great organizer and democratic leader of this expedition back to Africa was Thomas Peters. He died, shortly after reaching Free Town, and Sally Peters, his widow, then married Thomas Bright. So Freddy's great-great-great grandparents were among the leading fighters for democracy in Sierra Leone.

Inspired by the English radical Granville Sharp whom he had met in a perilous voyage to London, Peters helped organize blacks into tithings - groups of 12, each with a representative - and hundreders (groups of one hundred, each with a representative). These citizens voted for the creation of a genuinely Free Town, run by the "Nova Scotians" in accord with direct democratic principles, and practicing a 48 work week (this was enormously humane compared to the 72 hour work week characteristic of England and the United States at the time).

This democratic community in Africa was sponsored by the Sierra Leone Company in England which was made up of abolitionists, including Sharp. But the other officials wanted to make a profit off blacks and except for Sharp, thought that whites should run everything. Sharp was not a racist nor was Thomas Clarkson - but the rest of the Company were, sadly, racist and authoritarian abolitionists.

John Clarkson, the initial aid to Peters in recruiting blacks to go to Sierra Leone and then the first Governor, did oppose the quit-rent - the heavy tax on land - that other Company officials sought to impose on blacks. Blacks protested that it would cause them to lose their land. Without alteration resulting from their protests, it would have...

But Clarkson also opposed and feared Peters - he was jealous of Peters' influence among blacks and in the voyage became very ill and quite crazy, at one point even thinking of lynching Peters. He fantasized that democracy would be the "ruin" of blacks.

So even under his rule, there was terrific discontent. After he left, even more autocratic, profit-hungry governors came. In 1800, there was a huge uprising for democracy which was finally defeated only by the British bringing 500 maroons from Jamaica (escaped blacks who had lived in a free colony there, but then been defeated by the imperialists) to crush it.

Even very good historians like Ellen Gibson Wilson, The Loyal Blacks (1976), have treated this struggle as a precursor of black nationalism in Africa (an exception is Gary Nash whose essay on Thomas Peters is magisterial).* From the standpoint of freedom, however, it was a fight for participatory democracy, similar to New England towns and American state legislatures before the centralization in the Constitution.**

Freetown was a precursor of the Paris Commune (see Karl Marx, The Civil War in France) which against the capitulation of the French bourgeoisie to Bismarck's invasion, rose up to bring power to ordinary citizens, mostly workers. It was also a precursor of the experiments in democracy among poor blacks and whites of Reconstruction in the United States after the Civil War, and of Martin Luther King and Arab Spring and Occupy and the indignados in Spain and Greece.

The movement in Sierra Leone is not plausibly characterized as nationalist. It organized around Granville Sharp's ideas - he was white - and blacks were themselves divided between a majority of Methodists who thought they should have basic rights and democracy, and Baptists, led by David George and reinforced by the Jamaican maroons, who thought freedom from slavery was sufficient despite onerous quit rents and lack of representation.

In Africa, this movement for democracy is also a precursor of the great movements of nonviolent resistance, initiated by Gandhi in South Africa and extending to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu as well as the movement led by Kwame Nkrumah which transformed the Gold Coast into Ghana. The struggle against colonialism is, of course, in the interests of human freedom and an international common good. But in fact, the experiment in Sierra Leone is even more decisively part of the great struggle for democracy from below, a democracy not ruled over and perverted by the rich (the latter is an oligarchy with parliamentary forms characteristic of capitalism), and of the hope for nonviolent political and social transformation.

As Freddy put it in speaking to people at the Treasury Executive Initiative - government officials, perhaps a quarter black, who were discussing my book - "history is alive."

In Washington, I also met Nemata Blyden, a professor of history at George Washington who has written forcefully of the African diaspora - West Indians in West Africa - and is a descendant of the Jamaicans who came.

And in London speaking at Centerprise, the black history bookshop, Jamaican restaurant and community center on June 13 - see here - I met Martin Morgan, whose mother, Regina Wilkinson, is a descendant of the blind, prophetic minister Moses Wilkinson who welcomed Thomas Peters and John Clarkson into his church, one rainy night, in Nova Scotia, and brought his whole congregation - 516 people, nearly half of the 1200 who came from Canada in 1792 - to Sierra Leone. Moses Wilkinson is a hero in this wild journey to fight for democracy and a better future from below.

Educated in Sierra Leone, Martin, too, had not known of this history. For today's elite regime has exhibited no interest in ordinary people finding out about their ancestors' heroic struggles for a say concerning their lives (though formally free, the regime practices colonial, domineering education). I have long had the hope that Black Patriots and Loyalists might inspire people with all the great efforts of individuals, against the odds, which moved the mountain of slavery, and might move other mountains. Moses Wilkinson's is certainly among these stories I am very very grateful for Martin's words,

"Hello Alan,

It's a previledge meeting you, what a brilliant Topic about the Black Loyalists, and thank you for the recent up date. I just cannot stop reading your book, it's like a Bible to me, i had to make sure i read few pages every day during my lunch break and after work. What an interesting book to read. This is a story one would not in our history or socience text book in UK OR Africa. Thanks for educating us about our past history.

Martin Morgan"

See the University of Chicago's facebook page about the book here.

*Simon Schama is a dazzling stylist and has written eloquently of many important things. But he relies for Rough Crossings on John Clarkson's diaries in the British Museum - his long section on the journey from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone is named "John" - and it is no accident that the compass is, thus, askew...

**Led by Captain Daniel Shays, the Shays rebels were veterans in the American Revolution and farmers. As a condition of enlistment, they had been promised by George Washington that they could keep their lands; they returned to find banks and merchants threatening them with foreclosure. These rebels and other ordinary people could come to state legislatures in large numbers (in this case, armed...) with their grievances and secure redress.

In contrast, the Federalist Papers mention the Shays rebellion as a paradigm of what must be defeated to enshrine "commerce," that is, oligarchy, 11 times. Hamilton, Madison and Jay aimed to create a central government which along with quite a number of good things and striking arguments about institutions, aimed to put down justified popular rebellions by having a large and divided republic in which troops from one section could be used to put down citizens with serious grievances in another. This centralization of a modern federal republic is recommended in Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, book 9.

In a shrewd example of political "branding," the authors thus cleverly and ironically usurped the name Federalist for anti-federal or centralizing purposes. In contrast, the so-called anti-federalists sometimes affirmed local, popular, common good, citizen-oriented and democratic policies.

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