Sunday, July 30, 2017

Tribal Traditions

Often when the subject of the slave trade comes up, along with the need for modern white Europeans to feel palpably guilty about it in some way, someone pipes up with a statement along the lines of ‘Africans enslaved Africans too.’ 

This is one of those true statements that reveals some rather interesting things about the nature of truth itself...and its uses. 

Usually the person giving voice to it is not what you would call an all-round expert on African history and culture. They will instead have tended to pick up this fact in isolation, largely as a means to the end of interrupting a debate in an apparently confounding manner, most commonly also as a means to getting modern white Europeans off the hook a bit. 

It is indeed true that Africans enslaved Africans, just as it is true that Pedro de Alvarado conquered Guatemala with an army of Native Americans. Invaders of all sorts have always encouraged pre-existing antagonistic conditions in the lands into which they intrude. And so it was in Africa, where Europeans stirred independent tribal societies into damaging conflicts in which prisoners were taken, who could later be sold to the Europeans as slaves. 

In modern Cuba three separate African religious traditions have been largely preserved, the most widespread being Santeria which derives from the Yoruba culture of Nigeria. 

These belief systems survived in part because the Spanish slave-owners on the island wanted them to. In fact they established a set of slave-run councils or cabildos to help preserve the tribal identities of their human property, as they anticipated that tensions between such entities would offset against any outburst of protest against the slave-owning order in general. 

Yet many Cubans of African descent became proud of these bodies and the role they played in preserving African language and traditions. Similarly Mayan people in Guatemala today wear colourful textiles often specific to their places of birth of which they are justly proud, tending to to forget that these were also rolled out originally as part of a system of colonial control. 

Tribalism is thus almost always a double-edged sword. 

Members of a particular tribe who are in its grip often imagine that their feelings in this matter are somehow protecting them from a whole set of outside threats, whilst preserving stuff that deserves to be preserved. 

Fans of America First or Brexit are no different in this respect. But do please bear in mind that wherever there is tribalist sentiment, there’s usually also someone out there exploiting it for a wholly different set of ends. 

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