Category Archives: Africa

Sectarian Standoff in Central African Republic

This update on the sorry state of affairs in the Central African Republic (CAR) is in memory of my closest brother, who died a year ago today just before his 64th birthday. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer on rural health projects in what was then Emperor Bokassa‘s Central African Empire during the late 1970s, and later went on to become one of the tiny handful of academic experts on the country. For his memorial service, his old Peace Corps colleagues recommended redirecting contributions to Water for Good, which builds wells to provide clean water throughout the CAR.

The following excerpt is from a detailed and depressing firsthand report in Foreign Policy by Ty McCormick headlined ‘One Day, We Will Start a Big War’: Outgunned by powerful rebels in the Central African Republic, the U.N. can’t even protect civilians. Now it’s pushing for early elections that could destroy a fragile peace.

There are scarcely 200 paces of tarmacked road in Bambari, a sprawling city of rusty tin kiosks and crumbling concrete edifices, smudged with rust-colored clay, deep in the heavily forested interior of the Central African Republic (CAR). They span the length of a single-lane bridge across the Ouaka River, a muddy torrent that cleaves Bambari in half from north to south. They also happen to be the most important 200 paces of road in town, though for reasons unrelated to the quality of the driving surface. The bridge marks the boundary between two dangerously divided communities, a red line across which visitors from the other side risk death, occasionally by decapitation.

The east bank of the Ouaka is controlled by remnants of the Seleka, a largely Muslim rebel coalition that pillaged and raped its way across CAR before seizing power over the country for a brief period in 2013. The west bank belongs to the anti-Balaka, the knife- and machete-wielding Christian self-defense militias that sprang up to counter the Seleka but managed to make the Muslim rebel coalition’s abuses look relatively mild by comparison. “Muslims are too afraid to travel to the [west] bank,” the mayor of Bambari, Abel Matchipata, told me recently. “Some Christians are traveling to the [east] bank, but they are doing so with a lot of fear.”

Bambari’s stark divisions mirror those in the rest of CAR, a Texas-sized swath of rainforest and savannah that is sandwiched between Chad, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other troubled neighbors. Even before the latest crisis, CAR was “worse than a failed state,” according to the International Crisis Group. Now, after two-and-a-half years of turmoil stemming from the Seleka coup, the country is de facto partitioned: anti-Balaka in the southwest and former Seleka fighters in the northeast, where they fled after the coalition was disbanded and its leader stepped down under intense international pressure in January 2014. (They are now known as ex-Seleka, an umbrella term that refers to a smattering of armed groups lacking an organized central command.) Outside of CAR’s capital city, Bangui, virtually nothing is under government control. At least 6,000 people have been killed and 832,000 displaced — 368,000 inside the country and 464,000 abroad. About half of the country’s 4.7 million inhabitants are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

When I visited Bambari last month, ahead of planned elections that many fear could be destabilizing, the city of just under 50,000, the third-largest in CAR, was still reeling from its latest spasm of violence. On Aug. 20, a Muslim taxi driver was plucked from his car outside the city and beheaded by anti-Balaka fighters. The incident provoked a backlash from the Muslim community and a counter-backlash from the Christian community, both of which have acquired a healthy appetite for revenge. By the time the dust had settled, at least 10 people were dead and dozens more wounded, including two aid workers from the Red Cross.

The unenviable task of keeping Bambari’s residents from each other’s throats falls mainly on a single battalion of U.N. peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is itself home to the largest peacekeeping operation in the world. The Congolese are part of a 12,000-strong U.N. force in CAR known by its French acronym, MINUSCA. Authorized with a robust Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians and support the transitional government that replaced the Seleka, MINUSCA has been dogged by persistent charges of abuse and incompetence since taking over for a beleaguered African Union force in September 2014. U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of rape and of firing indiscriminately on civilians. They have also struggled to halt periodic outbursts of violence, like the spate of clashes and looting in late September that paralyzed the capital for close to a week. “Plagued by accusations of sexual abuse and facing mounting violence, MINUSCA threatens to turn into a disaster for the U.N.,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Central African Republic, democracy, NGOs, religion, U.N., war

Political Implosion Journalism

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 178-195:

As a correspondent for the Washington Post in Northeast Asia, I had been searching for more than a year for a story that could explain how North Korea used repression to keep from falling apart.

Political implosion had become my specialty. For the Post and for the New York Times, I spent nearly three decades covering failed states in Africa, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the slow-motion rot in Burma under the generals. From the outside looking in, North Korea seemed ripe—indeed, overripe—for the kind of collapse I had witnessed elsewhere. In a part of the world where nearly everyone else was getting rich, its people were increasingly isolated, poor, and hungry.

Still, the Kim family dynasty kept the lid on. Totalitarian repression preserved their basket case state.

My problem in showing how the government did it was lack of access. Elsewhere in the world, repressive states were not always successful in sealing their borders. I had been able to work openly in Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Mobutu’s Congo, and Milosevic’s Serbia, and had slipped in as a tourist to write about Burma.

North Korea was much more careful. Foreign reporters, especially Americans, were rarely allowed inside. I visited North Korea only once, saw what my minders wanted me to see, and learned little. If journalists entered illegally, they risked months or years of imprisonment as spies. To win release, they sometimes needed the help of a former American president.

Given these restrictions, most reporting about North Korea was distant and hollow. Written from Seoul or Tokyo or Beijing, stories began with an account of Pyongyang’s latest provocation, such as sinking a ship or shooting a tourist. Then the dreary conventions of journalism kicked in: American and South Korean officials expressed outrage. Chinese officials called for restraint. Think tank experts opined about what it might mean. I wrote more than my share of these pieces.

Shin, though, shattered these conventions. His life unlocked the door, allowing outsiders to see how the Kim family sustained itself with child slavery and murder. A few days after we met, Shin’s appealing picture and appalling story ran prominently on the front page of the Washington Post.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Korea, publishing, U.S.

Berber Awakenings in the Maghreb

In the wake of the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, The American Interest published a backgrounder article headlined The Berber Awakening by Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, who had just published a book on The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States (University of Texas Press, 2011). Here are a few excerpts from the article.

North Africa has long been the neglected stepchild of Anglo-American Middle East academe and policy institutes. This region, commonly known as the Maghreb, was traditionally the near-exclusive preserve of European (mainly French) policymakers and scholars, owing to proximity, colonial experiences, linguistic familiarity and economic interests.

This neglect is now coming to end. North African studies have flourished recently in the scholarly realm, in English as well as French. On the policy side, the wake-up call came for some with the radical Islamist challenge and bloodletting in Algeria during the 1990s. For others, it came with the discovery of young men of Moroccan and Algerian origins in the ranks of al-Qaeda. For democracy and civil society promoters, Morocco under King Mohamed VI offered a model to emulate. But if any of these didn’t happen to grab your attention, there was Tunisia 2011, which provided the spark for the explosions of popular protest rumbling across the entire Arab world and parts of the Muslim world beyond….

Constitutionally, Algeria and Morocco are certainly Arab-Islamic states, with Arabic being the sole official language. Organizationally, they are both members of the 22-nation League of Arab States, as well as the largely moribund five-nation Arab Maghreb Union (along with Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania). Beginning in the 1930s, the ideologues of Algeria’s national movement proclaimed the Arabic language, along with Islam and territorial nationalism, as the central pillars of their challenge to a century of French settler-colonialism and incorporation into metropolitan France. Morocco’s urban nationalist elite had a similar Arab-Islamic orientation.

Upon achieving independence, both countries directed their educational and cultural nation-building efforts toward the east, toward the Mashriq, linking their societies’ roots to the rise of Islam and the spread of its Arabic-language civilization across North Africa beginning in the late 7th century. Both Algeria and Morocco had to work hard at “becoming Arab”, importing thousands of teachers from the Mashriq to instill a standardized version of written Arabic to replace French as the language of administration. This Arabic differed sharply from the North African dialectical Arabic (darija) spoken in daily life—let alone from the widely spoken Berber dialects. There are three primary dialects in Morocco, and two primary ones in Algeria, along with two additional ones spoken by smaller groups.

So who are the Berbers, and why are they worthy of attention? Simply put, the Berbers are North Africa’s “natives”, the population encountered by the region’s various conquerors and “civilizers”: Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arab-Muslims and Europeans. Berber social organization was classically tribal, and they spoke varieties of a single, mainly unwritten language classified today as Afro-Asian. Their encounters with foreign forces, which generally were more powerful, produced a variety of responses ranging from resistance and retreat to acceptance and assimilation. Overall, Berbers straddled multiple worlds, assimilating the “other” with whom they were engaged in one form of accommodation or another, but retaining distinct attributes of their own.

Inevitably, given their relative weakness, this collection of tribal groupings was branded by a derogatory term: “Berbers”, from the Greek and Roman appellations for “barbarians.” Subsequent Arab-Muslim conquerors quickly adopted the term, and it has stuck ever since. Not surprisingly, modern-day Berber militants reject such stigmatization imposed from the outside, and prefer to call themselves Amazigh, which translates into “free men.”

The Amazigh are worthy of our attention for several reasons, one of which is their underappreciated demographic significance. Speakers of one of the Berber/Tamazight dialects constitute approximately 40–45 percent of the population in Morocco, 20–25 percent in Algeria, 8–9 percent in Libya and about 1–5 percent in Tunisia. They total some 15–20 million persons, a number that exceeds the total population, for the sake of comparison, of Greece or Portugal. These numbers, while considerable, are significantly lower as a percentage than they were a century ago, thanks to complex processes of economic and political integration that have occurred throughout the region.

Indeed, it is this very decline that has helped spur the modern Amazigh identity movement, one which explicitly foregrounds a collective Amazigh “self”, complete with a flag, anthems, collective memory sites (lieux de memoire), a “national” narrative and ancient and modern icons. Thus the movement seeks to renegotiate the terms of Berber accommodation with various “others”: the nation-state, Islam and modernity. The movement’s central demands are recognition by state authorities of the existence of the Amazigh people as a collective and of the historical and cultural Amazighité of North Africa. The most immediate and concrete manifestations of that recognition would be to make Tamazight an official language equal to Arabic and to begin redressing the multitude of injustices which they say have been inflicted on the Berbers in both the colonial and independence eras through corrective educational, social and economic policies. More generally, the movement challenges the fundamental national narratives of these countries, which until recently consigned Berber cultural expressions to state-sponsored folklore festivals, complemented by National Geographic-type television programs on remote and exotic mountain villages, on par with the nomadic Touareg “blue men” of the desert.

In their efforts to fashion a “modern” ethno-cultural collective identity out of the older building blocks of their societies, the Amazigh activists are part of a more general trend that challenges hegemonic Arab-centered nationalism. Ironically, the ever-accelerating processes of globalization, which some thinkers have heralded as the harbinger of a long-awaited post-national age, are also generating an intensified “politics of identity.” The new politics of identity in the Muslim world is marked by the ethno-cultural assertion of formerly marginalized minority groups, combined with a demand for the democratization of political life. For some, like the Kurds, this has reached a critical mass, morphing into full-fledged nationalism. For others, like the Muslim residents of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, this kind of nationalism is forming fast. Berbers have not yet reached that stage, and they may never reach it. But they, too, have achieved a measure of recognition and self-definition that was inconceivable a generation ago.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, Islam, language, Maghreb, Mediterranean, Middle East, nationalism

Who Was Responsible for World War I?

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2486-2525:

Would any of the Entente Powers have acted differently had they known of the profound complicity of the Serbian army, though not the government, in the murder of Franz Ferdinand? Almost certainly not, because this was not why the Austrians and Germans acted, or their opponents reacted. The Russians simply considered the extinction of a small Slav state as an excessive and indeed intolerable punishment for the crime of Princip, and for that matter Apis. Unless France had swiftly declared its neutrality and surrendered its frontier fortresses as Germany demanded, its alliance with Russia would have caused Moltke to attack in the West. The British were entirely unmoved by Serbia’s impending fate, and acted only in response to the German violation of Belgian neutrality and the threat to France. The various participants in what would soon become the Great War had very different motives for belligerence, and objectives with little in common. Three conflicts – that in the Balkans over East European issues, the continental struggle to determine whether German dominance should prevail, and the German challenge to British global naval mastery – accomplished a metamorphosis into a single over-arching one. Other issues, mostly involving land grabs, would become overlaid when other nations – notably Japan, Turkey and Italy – joined the struggle.

Many people in Britain have argued through the past century that the price of participation in the war was so appalling that no purpose could conceivably justify it; more than a few blame Sir Edward Grey for willing Britain’s involvement. But, granted Germany’s determination to dominate Europe and the likely consequences of such hegemony for Britain, would the foreign secretary have acted responsibly if he had taken no steps designed to avert such an outcome? Lloyd George in his memoirs advanced a further popular argument against the conflict, laying blame upon the soldiers he hated: ‘Had it not been for the professional zeal and haste with which the military staffs set in motion the plans which had already been agreed between them, the negotiations between the governments, which at that time had hardly begun, might well have continued, and war could, and probably would, have been averted.’ This was nonsense. What happened was not ‘war by accident’, but war by ill-conceived Austrian design, with German support.

Today, as in 1914, any judgement about the necessity for British entry must be influenced by an assessment of the character of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s empire. It seems frivolous to suggest, as do a few modern sensationalists, that a German victory would merely have created, half a century earlier, an entity resembling the European Union. Even if the Kaiser’s regime cannot be equated with that of the Nazis, its policies could scarcely be characterised as enlightened. Dominance was its purpose, achieved by peaceful means if possible, but by war if necessary. The Germans’ paranoia caused them to interpret as a hostile act any attempt to check or question their international assertiveness. Moreover, throughout the July crisis they, like the Austrians, consistently lied about their intentions and actions. By contrast, whatever the shortcomings of British conduct, the Asquith government told the truth as it saw this, to both its allies and its prospective foes.

The Kaiserreich’s record abroad was inhumane even by contemporary standards. It mandated in advance and applauded after the event the 1904–07 genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples of German South-West Africa, an enormity far beyond the scope of any British colonial misdeed. German behaviour during the 1914 invasion of Belgium and France, including large-scale massacres of civilians endorsed at the highest level, cannot be compared with what took place in the Second World War, because there was no genocidal intent, but it conveyed a profoundly disturbing image of the character of the regime that aspired to rule Europe.

It seems mistaken to suppose that neutrality in 1914 would have yielded a happy outcome for the British Empire. The authoritarian and acquisitive instincts of Germany’s leadership would scarcely have been moderated by triumph on the battlefield. The Kaiser’s regime did not enter the war with a grand plan for world domination, but its leaders were in no doubt that they required huge booty as a reward for the victory they anticipated. Bethmann Hollweg drafted a personal list of demands on 9 September 1914, when Berlin saw victory within its grasp. ‘The aim of the war,’ he wrote, ‘is to provide us with [security] guarantees, from east to west, for the foreseeable future, through the enfeeblement of our adversaries.’

France was to cede to Germany the Briey iron deposits; Belfort; a coastal strip from Dunkirk to Boulogne; the western slope of the Vosges mountains. Her strategic fortresses were to be demolished. Just as after 1870, cash reparations would be exacted sufficient to ensure that ‘France is incapable of spending considerable sums on armaments for the next eighteen to twenty years’. Elsewhere, Luxembourg would be annexed outright; Belgium and Holland transformed into vassal states; Russia’s borders drastically shrunken; a vast colonial empire created in central Africa; a German economic union extending from Scandinavia to Turkey.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Austria, Balkans, Belgium, Britain, Germany, nationalism, war, Yugoslavia

World War I’s Deadliest Day: 22 August 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4060-4087:

On that same dreadful 22nd [of August 1914], the French Fourth Army advanced up a forest road through the Ardennes which led through the village of Bellefontaine. One regiment, led by Charles Mangin, headed onwards until, as they approached Tertigny, the Germans opened fire from neighbouring woodland. Bitter fighting followed; Mangin led a bayonet charge, while street fighting developed in Bellefontaine, which came under heavy shellfire. That evening, French survivors retired to the edge of the forest, having lost eight company commanders and more than a third of the regiment. France had always planned to exploit its colonial mercenaries to make good its shortfall of white manpower. Mangin wrote in a deplorable book he published in 1910, La Force noir: ‘In future battles these primitives, for whom life counts so little and whose young blood flows so ardently, as if eager to be shed, will certainly display the old “French fury” and will reinvigorate it if necessary.’ Now that war had come, Moroccans, Senegalese and Algerians were indeed hurled foremost into its flames. By 1918, France’s black soldiers had suffered a death rate three times higher than that of their white comrades, because they were so often selected for suicidal tasks.

One of the first of these fell to the 3rd Colonial Infantry Division. On 22 August its units advanced in column through the village of Rossignol, and thence up a narrow road into the Forêt d’Anlier. The French had made no attempt to reconnoitre: horse, foot and guns merely marched into the midst of the woodland, led by the Chasseurs d’Afrique, nicknamed ‘les marsouins’ – ‘porpoises’, because of an old naval connection. Germans already deployed among the trees waited patiently until the entire division was committed, then unleashed a torment of fire which, within the space of a few minutes, shattered the formation. Trapped on the narrow road, horses, men, carts and guns milled in chaos, until the fortunate contrived to surrender. The division lost 228 officers and 10,272 other ranks, including 3,800 men taken prisoner; two generals were killed, one wounded and captured. Indeed, almost all the French commanders perished: among the divisional artillery, only a single officer survived.

This massacre was achieved solely by rifle and machine-gun fire, for artillery was useless in the dense woodland. After the war, a memorial was erected by the father of one of the dead, Lt. Paul Feunette. The grieving parent never forgave himself, because he had responded to his son’s pre-war sowing of wild oats by insisting that he should join the Chasseurs d’Afrique ‘to sort him out’. After the French retreated, the Germans conducted another orgy of violence against civilians, murdering 122 people in Rossignol on 26 August.

The fighting on this one day, the 22nd, cost the French army 27,000 men killed, in addition to wounded and missing in proportion. This was a much larger loss than the British suffered on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which is often wrongly cited as the First World War’s high-blood-mark. Other advances upon Longwy and Neufchâteau were shattered in similar fashion to those further south. The casualties in August 1914 were not merely statistically more terrible, but dealt the French army a blow from which it never fully recovered – it is remarkable that it recovered at all. Fourth Army commander Langle de Cary observed laconically to Joffre: ‘On the whole, results hardly satisfactory.’ More than a few senior officers lost offspring: both Foch’s only son and his son-in-law perished. The C-in-C urged a renewal of the assault, but Langle ignored him and withdrew.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, France, Germany, military, nationalism, war

Death of Venice’s Stato da Mar, c. 1500

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 5454-5511:

Vasco da Gama returned from India in September 1499, having rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The Republic dispatched an ambassador to the court of Lisbon to investigate; it was not until July 1501 that his report came in. The reality of it fell on the lagoon like a thunderclap. Terrible foreboding gripped the city. For the Venetians, who lived with a particularly intense awareness of physical geography, the implications were obvious. Priuli poured his gloomiest predictions into his diary. It was a marvel, incredible, the most momentous news of the time:

… which will take a greater intelligence than mine to comprehend. At the receipt of this news, the whole city … was dumbfounded, and the wisest thought it was the worst news ever heard. They understood that Venice had ascended to such fame and wealth only through trading by sea, by means of which a large quantity of spices were brought in, which foreigners came from everywhere to buy. From their presence and the trade [Venice] acquired great benefits. Now from this new route, the spices of India will be transported to Lisbon, where Hungarians, Germans, the Flemish, and the French will look to buy, being able to get them at a better price. Because the spices that come to Venice pass through Syria and the sultan’s lands, paying exorbitant taxes at every stage of the way, when they get to Venice the prices have increased so much that something originally worth a ducat costs a ducat seventy or even two. From these obstacles, via the sea route, it will come about that Portugal can give much lower prices.

Cutting out hundreds of small middlemen, snubbing the avaricious, unstable Mamluks, buying in bulk, shipping directly: To Venetian merchants, such advantages were self-evident.

There were countering voices; some pointed out the difficulties of the voyage:

… the king of Portugal could not continue to use the new route to Calicut, since of the thirteen caravels which he had dispatched only six had returned safely; that the losses outweighed the advantages; that few sailors would be prepared to risk their lives on such a long and dangerous voyage.

But Priuli was certain: “From this news, spices of all sorts will decrease enormously in Venice, because the usual buyers, understanding the news, will decline, being reluctant to buy.” He ended with an apology to future readers for having written at such length. “These new facts are of such importance to our city that I have been carried away with anxiety.”

In a visionary flash, Priuli foresaw, and much of Venice with him, the end of a whole system, a paradigm shift: not just Venice, but a whole network of long-distance commerce doomed to decline. All the old trade routes and their burgeoning cities that had flourished since antiquity were suddenly glimpsed as backwaters—Cairo, the Black Sea, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Smyrna, the ports of the Red Sea, and the great cities of the Levant, Constantinople itself—all these threatened to be cut out from the cycles of world trade by oceangoing galleons. The Mediterranean would be bypassed; the Adriatic would no longer be the route to anywhere; important outstations such as Cyprus and Crete would sink into decline.

The Portuguese rubbed this in. The king invited Venetian merchants to buy their spices in Lisbon; they would no longer need to treat with the fickle infidel. Some were tempted, but the Republic had too much invested in the Levant to withdraw easily; their merchants there would be soft targets for the sultan’s wrath if they bought elsewhere. Nor, from the eastern Mediterranean, was sending their own ships to India readily practical. The whole business model of the Venetian state appeared, at a stroke, obsolete.

The effects were felt almost immediately. In 1502, the Beirut galleys brought back only four bales of pepper; prices in Venice steepled; the Germans reduced their purchases; many decamped to Lisbon. In 1502, the Republic dispatched a secret embassy to Cairo to point out the dangers. It was essential to destroy the Portuguese maritime threat now. They offered financial support. They proposed digging a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. But the Mamluk dynasty, hated by its subjects, was also in decline. It proved powerless to see off the intruders. In 1500, the Mamluk chronicler Ibn Iyas recorded an extraordinary event. The balsam gardens outside Cairo, which had existed since remote antiquity, produced an oil with miraculous properties highly prized by the Venetians. Its trade symbolized the centuries-old commercial relationship between Islamic countries and the West. That year, the balsam trees withered away and vanished forever. Seventeen years later, the Ottomans strung up the last Mamluk sultan from a Cairo gate.

Tome Pires, a Portuguese adventurer, gleefully spelled out the implications for Venice. In 1511, the Portuguese conquered Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, the market for the produce of the Spice Islands. “Whoever is lord of Malacca,” he wrote, “has his hand on the throat of Venice.” It would be a slow and uneven pressure, but the Portuguese and their successors would eventually squeeze the life out of the Venetian trade with the Orient. The fears that Priuli expressed would in time prove well-founded; and the Ottomans meanwhile would systematically strip away the Stato da Mar.

The classical allusions of de’ Barbari’s map already contain a backward-looking note; they hint at nostalgia, a remaking of the tough, energetic realities of the Stato da Mar into something ornamental. They perhaps reflected structural changes within Venetian society. The recurrent bouts of plague meant that the city’s population was never self-replenishing; it relied on immigrants, and many of those from mainland Italy came without knowledge of the seafaring life. It was already noticeable during the Chioggia crisis that the volunteer citizens had to be given rowing lessons. In 1201, at the time of the adventure of the Fourth Crusade, the majority of Venice’s male population were seafarers; by 1500, they were not. The emotional attachment to the sea, expressed in the Senza, would last until the death of the Republic, but by 1500, Venice was turning increasingly to the land; within four years, it would be engaged in a disastrous Italian war that would again bring enemies to the edge of the lagoon. There was a crisis in shipbuilding, a greater emphasis on industry. The patriotic solidarity that had been the hallmark of Venetian destiny had been seen to fray: A sizable part of the ruling elite had demonstrated that, though still keen to recoup the profits of maritime trade, they were not prepared to fight for the bases and sea-lanes on which it depended. Others, who had made fortunes in the rich fifteenth century, stopped sending their sons to sea as apprentice bowmen. Increasingly, a wealthy man might look to reinvest in estates on the terra firma, to own a country mansion with escutcheons over the door; these were respectable hallmarks of nobility to which all self-made men might aspire.

It was Priuli again, acute and regretful, who caught this impulse and pinpointed the declining glory it seemed to imply. “The Venetians,” he wrote in 1505, “are much more inclined to the Terra Firma, which has become more attractive and pleasing, than to the sea, the ancient root cause of all their glory, wealth, and honor.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, disease, economics, Europe, industry, Italy, Mediterranean, Middle East, migration, Netherlands, Portugal, South Asia, Southeast Asia

“One thing it ain’t, is black and white”

From Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today, by Alan Huffman (Penguin, 2004), pp. 104-106, 278-280:

At first glance, Delores’s lineage is difficult to discern. Before now we have spoken only on the phone, after I was given her number by her niece, Laura “Butch” Ross. During my research into the story of Prospect Hill, I have often conducted first interviews on the phone rather than in person, and sometimes have found myself deliberating whether the person I am speaking with is descended from slave or slave owner, because many have similar accents and frames of reference. I wait for their perspective to reveal itself through some telltale sign—a verbal marker such as the use of “aks” in place of “ask” by blacks, or a reference to “faithful slaves” by whites. Sometimes the clue lies in what is left out of their account. The prevailing white version of the story of Prospect Hill always includes the slave uprising, but the prevailing black version never does. In many cases my assumptions have turned out to be entirely wrong, and I might be deep into a conversation before I know for sure.

In Delores’s case, neither her speech nor her perspective gave her away on the phone. Finally she said, “I’ll just be frank with you, it was kind hard growing up in the South with a black mother and a white father.”

After greeting me at the door and inviting me in, Delores launches into one of the more curious genealogies that I have come across.

“I’ll tell you, Roots, the best movie ever made, don’t have nothin’ on the Ross family,” she says. “We’re all over the place. Go way back, all over the place. Here some of ’em started out in Africa, come to Mississippi, then end up back in Africa. And a whole lot of ’em—black, white, you name it, been right here all along—and I’m talkin’ a long, long time.

Delores’s hair is long, wavy, and black, carefully molded with pomade, her skin midway between black and white. Her house is a catchall sort of place, with furniture from the 1960s and 1970s, potted plants and vases of plastic flowers, and every available surface crowded with memorabilia and framed photos of people, both black and white. Many area residents have a tendency to reduce key figures in local history to archetypes and stereotypes—good guys and bad guys, everything black and white, but not Delores. She listens patiently to a summary of the history of Prospect Hill, then leans back on her sofa and takes a long drag off her cigarette. She is unpretentious and self-possessed, and has no qualms about entertaining my questions about her family history—in fact, she relishes the opportunity.

“One thing it ain’t, is black and white,” she says, and blows cigarette smoke toward the ceiling….

“Here, pass me that picture there, Butch,” Delores says, and Butch hands her a framed photograph from among the group clustered on the coffee table. “That’s Thad Ross, my daddy,” Delores says, and passes the photo to me. “He was a descendant of Isaac Ross.” The photo looks to have been taken in the 1930s. A white man is seated on a sofa beside a dark-skinned girl with a black woman seated in a chair nearby. There is no mistaking they are a family. “It was taken down in Jefferson County,” she says. “That’s my father there. The girl is Jimmie, my sister, Butch’s mother. The lady’s Queen Esther Polk, Jimmie’s mother.”

The photo would be right at home in many family albums across the South but for the mix of skin colors. There are many people of mixed race in this part of the country, but they are usually the result of clandestine encounters. Racial mixing is rarely documented for posterity, particularly by members of prominent white families like the Rosses….

Delores points to a group of framed photos on the mantel, and adds, “That’s all my family up there.” She goes down the line, naming names. Most of the faces are black, but some are white, and others are in between. She pulls out her albums and shows me snapshots of blacks and whites intermingling unself-consciously—fishing on a lake, visiting in someone’s living room, gathering for a graduation….”

“Isaac Ross was a unique fella during that time,” James [Belton] says, in typical understatement. “He went along with slavery but his slaves were not slaves in the traditional sense. I doubt seriously if you would find anything written about the slaves before 1870, when blacks were first included in the census. But from word-of-mouth, folklore, what was passed down from generation to generation, it is apparent they were not like other slaves. I was told, you know, that some of those Beltons actually attended Oakland College. They were not free, per se, but they were educated.”

Before the Civil War, Oakland College was a private school for planters’ sons, and Isaac Ross sat on its board. Today it is Alcorn State University, which was founded in 1871 as the first land-grant college for blacks in the United States.

Most historical accounts note that many Prospect Hill slaves were taught to read and write, and that they all enjoyed relative freedom within the confines of the plantation. Ross never sold any slaves, and it appears he kept them sequestered from the slaves on neighboring plantations. When Isaac Ross Wade took over as master of the plantation, however, they were treated like any other group of slaves, James says. “By the time of the burning of the house, from what I gather, all of the slaves but a few were extremely bitter. Isaac Ross had treated them like relatives, and the truth is, a lot of them were relatives. The Belton ladies who worked around Prospect Hill were very light—you couldn’t hardly tell ’em from white ladies, my father said. But after Isaac Wade contested the will [that freed the slaves and offered them emigration to Liberia], they weren’t getting the treatment they had gotten during Ross’s lifetime, and resentment just built up. That was how they came to set fire to the house.”

Why did any of the slaves choose to remain behind when the majority emigrated to Liberia? James has a ready answer. A few were not given the option of being repatriated, he says, “most likely because they were just bad apples, like you have in any community.”

The others, he says, may have been wary of traveling to a distant, unknown land. But Mariah was different. Belton believes she chose to remain behind because her two sons, Wade and Edmond, had fled Prospect Hill to escape being lynched in the aftermath of the uprising, and perhaps she knew their whereabouts.

It may have been the grief she was keeping within over what had happened,” he says. “She knew her sons did not go to Liberia, and perhaps she thought, ‘For me to ever see my sons again, I have to stay in the area.’ So she was sold to Walter Wade and transferred to Rosswood with her son, William. He was my great-grandfather.” He digs through the stack of papers on his kitchen table and pulls out a photo of the young man, which looks to have been taken around the 1850s, with an inscription that identifies him as a carriage driver….

James still has a lot of questions, but most of them concern the genealogical riddle. He has organized the documents pertaining to his family and Prospect Hill on a CD-ROM, complete with images of the portraits of Isaac Ross and his wife, and of tombstones in the graveyard, and he plans to give a presentation on the subject at the next Belton family reunion. Since 1984 the Beltons have held reunions, often several times a year, at various locations. Last year the event drew more than 4,000 people, he says. “I had to get my facts in order,” he says of his Prospect Hill presentation. “I don’t like to lose history, and the first time I mentioned all this at the Belton reunion, the whole place went quiet. People’s mouths dropped. They said, ‘A white man did that before the Civil War—in Mississippi?’ They didn’t believe me. One fella who did believe the story said, ‘Man, you need to get in touch with Spike Lee. It’s make a great movie.’

“There’s a lot about our history people don’t realize,” he says, “Like that a lot of blacks in the South owned slaves.” In his view, the story is complicated, and it is shared. “Some of the white Rosses have helped me put a lot of information together, and the white Beltons, too,” he adds.

When I mention what so many have said about the story not being simply black and white, he smiles. He says there are a lot of gradations between any two extremes, and cites as an example the quasi-ward system that he remembers as a child, which was similar to that which exists in Liberia today.

“It was basically the same way here,” he says. “It wasn’t like slavery, but I grew up with a stepbrother and -sister, who Dad took in and raised ’em, and they worked for the family. They were like family, and they were less fortunate, and they worked for us. I see a lot of that—people who are less fortunate, maybe because they’re darker-skinned, and they weren’t given the same opportunity.”

Leave a comment

Filed under language, Liberia, migration, slavery, U.S.