Category Archives: Britain

Livingstone Saved by Slave Traders

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~1100:

Then, just when things looked their worst, Livingstone’s life was saved by the people he despised most. On February 1, 1867, he encountered a band of Arab slave traders. They took pity on the destitute, failing traveler, and gave Livingstone food to restore his strength. He accepted it without a second thought about the compromise he was making. Before the Arabs could leave, Livingstone wrote to the British Consulate in Zanzibar, begging that a second packet of relief supplies be sent to Ujiji, where he would meet them. Livingstone’s supply list read like a starving man’s fantasy: coffee, French meats, cheeses, a bottle of port. With his original supplies so depleted, this additional shipment would be vital. The Arabs accepted his letters and promised to deliver them.

Livingstone’s compromise seemed relatively minor—accepting food for himself and his starving men, entrusting his mail to their care—but showed how greatly the search consumed him. Few men of his era spoke out as passionately against slavery as Livingstone. To eat food that was paid for with money earned from slavery was against everything for which he stood.

In his journal there was no attempt at rationalization, just a matter-of-fact admittance that he’d come across a caravan led by a slaver named Magaru Mafupi. The slaver was a “black Arab,” born of an Arab father and African mother.

The lineage might have confused the outside world, but Livingstone knew well the symbiotic relationship between Africans and Arabs. Although Europeans perceived the African continent to be an uncharted land populated by indigenous cultures, the truth was that Arabs had lived alongside Africans for over a thousand years. It was the seventh century A.D. when Arabian ships began trading beads for ivory with Bantu tribes along the East African coast. A mingling of their cultures began: The Arabs brought Islam; Swahili, meaning “coastal,” was formed by merging Arabic and Bantu; the financiers of India and Persia set up shop in Zanzibar to outfit caravans; African men found work hauling ivory, giving birth to the occupation of pagazi—porter. Little boys of the Nyamwezi tribe even carried small tusks around their village, training for the great day when they would join the mighty caravans.

That relationship between Arab and African had been corrupted, though, as slavery became lucrative in the sixteenth century. Losers in war were routinely enslaved, and children were often kidnapped as their parents worked the fields. As early as the seventh century, men, women, and children from subequatorial Africa were being captured by other African tribes and spirited north across the Sahara’s hot sands. Two-thirds of those surviving the epic walk were women and children about to become concubines or servants in North Africa or Turkey. The males comprising the remaining third were often pressed into military service.

That slave trade route—known as the Trans-Saharan—was augmented by the opening of the East African slave trade a century later. Instead of Africans, it was the Arabs driving this new market, focused mainly along the easily accessible coastal villages. They found that slaves were a more lucrative business than gold and ivory, and began capturing clusters of men and women for work as servants and concubines in India, Persia, and Arabia. Even with the second slave route open, slavery was still not a defining aspect of African life, but a gruesome daily footnote. When the Portuguese came to East Africa in 1498, however, and as other European colonial powers settled the Americas during the following century, that changed. Slavery became the continent’s pivotal force. By the end of the sixteenth century, England, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, and France had followed Portugal’s initial example, and pursued slavery as a source of cheap labor and greater national wealth. A third slave trade route—the transatlantic—opened on Africa’s west coast. Slaves bound for America, the Caribbean, South America, Mexico, and Europe were marched to the west coast ports of Luanda, Lagos, Goree, Bonny, and Saint Louis, then loaded on ships for the journey.

Great Britain’s economy became so dependent upon slavery that some maps of western Africa were divided by commodities: Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, Slave Coast. But as Britain began to see itself as a nation built on God and morality, and as it became savvy for politicians to align themselves with the growing Christian evangelical movement, slavery was abolished in all British colonies and protectorates in 1834. During his first trip to Africa in 1841, Livingstone was terribly unaccustomed to the sight of men, women, and children being bought and sold. As he insinuated himself into the fabric of African life over the years that followed—speaking with the natives in their native tongue wherever he went, sleeping in the villages during his travels, making friends as he shared meals and nights around the campfire—the barbarism of the practice incensed him even more. He grew determined to stop it.

Livingstone’s focus was on the east coast, where Portugal had supplanted the Arabs as the coastal region’s reigning power. Even as other nations slowly abandoned the practice on humanitarian grounds, slavery became the cornerstone of Portugal’s economy. The tiny nation exported African men and women by the hundreds of thousands from ports on both the east and west coasts of Africa. African tribes were raiding other tribes, then selling captives to the Arabs in exchange for firearms. The Arabs, in turn, marched the captives back to the east coast, where they were either sold to the Portuguese or auctioned in Zanzibar. The slaves were then shipped to Arabia, Persia, India, and even China.

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Chief Operating Officer to Explorers

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle locs. ~400, ~2000:

Among their caravan was a hard-working young African named Sidi Mubarak Bombay, whom Burton referred to as “the gem of the group.” Bombay was a member of the Yao tribe who had been captured by Arab slave traders at the age of twelve, then sold in the Zanzibar slave market to an Arab merchant. When that Arab moved to the city of Bombay shortly after, his young slave came along. After his owner’s death, the slave was given his freedom and the adopted name of his new hometown. Upon returning to Africa sometime in his early thirties, Sidi Mubarak Bombay joined the Sultan of Zanzibar’s army as a soldier, and was posted to a garrison in Chokwe. That outpost seven miles from the Indian Ocean coastline was where Burton and Speke met up with the industrious, grinning former slave. By arrangement with the garrison commander, Bombay and five other soldiers were hired to accompany the British caravan. Bombay’s work ethic and linguistic skills soon made him invaluable to Burton and Speke. Unbeknownst to Bombay, his soldiering career was at an end, replaced by a new line of work.

Bombay spoke fluent Hindustani, as did Speke, so Bombay served as Speke’s gun bearer and translator. “He works on principal and works like a horse,” Burton wrote of the short ugly man with filed-down teeth and an aversion to bathing, “candidly declaring that not love of us but duty to his belly makes him work. With a sprained ankle and a load quite disproportionate to his puny body, he insists on carrying two guns. He attends us everywhere, manages our purchases, carries all our messages, and when not employed by us is at every man’s beck and call.” Bombay would go on to become the talisman of African exploration, an essential roster member on any serious expedition for decades to come.

The legendary Sidi Mubarak Bombay—“the honestest of black men who served with Burton, and subsequently with Speke”—came on board as leader of Stanley‘s protective militia. In time, Bombay would serve as unofficial caravan leader, and liaison between Stanley and the pagazis [porters].

Thirteen years had passed since a young Bombay had dazzled Burton and Speke with his easy humor and insatiable work ethic. But he was still able to walk thirty miles at a brisk pace, had worked with the most expeditions of any man, and knew the interior by rote. Bombay, however, had also passed into middle age. He was bald and the young pagazis didn’t respect him. As the rare man in history to follow the Nile from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean, Bombay thought himself a celebrity. He had an ego, as Stanley knew from reading the works of Burton and Speke, and could be outspoken, prone to drinking and chasing women, and a procrastinator. So there were liabilities incumbent with Bombay’s hiring. All in all, however, the exploration veteran was vital.

Stanley trusted Bombay so much he let the former slave hire his own soldiers. Bombay handpicked twenty men.

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Three Famous Explorers of Africa

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~300:

Speke was a thin loner whose family home, Jordans, was just forty miles from Bath. He was childlike, entitled, wealthy, bland, deaf in one ear. At thirty-seven, he doted on his mother but had never courted any other woman. Critics acknowledged his prowess as a sportsman, but puzzled over his penchant for slaughter and fondness for eating the unborn fetus of a kill. They wondered about the character of a man who once gave a rifle as a gift to an African chief fond of shooting subjects for fun, and who allowed a live human child to be steamed like a lobster during a tribal ritual in his honor. Speke felt that the ends justified the means—in this case, finding the source was worth the loss of inconsequential African lives. The source, Speke claimed, was a massive rectangular body of water the size of Scotland. He named it Victoria Nyanza—Lake Victoria—for the Queen.

The dark-haired Burton claimed Lake Tanganyika as the source. That body of water lay 150 miles southwest of Victoria Nyanza, separated by mountainous, unexplored jungle. Burton did not dispute that the Nile flowed from Victoria, but he believed that another, yet undiscovered, river flowed from Tanganyika through the mountains, into Victoria.

Lake Tanganyika’s shape was slender and vertical on the map, like a womb parting to give birth to the great Nile. Its choice as Burton’s geographical talisman was apt, for his character tics veered toward the sensual. The accomplished linguist had a fondness for Arab prostitutes and would someday write the first English translation of the Kama Sutra. In 1845, as a young army officer stationed in India, he’d been ordered to investigate Karachi’s homosexual brothels. Burton’s detailed reportage implicated fellow officers and evinced suspicion about his own sexuality—both of which combined to ruin his career. So he’d become an explorer. His knowledge of languages and Islam allowed him to infiltrate cities like Mecca and Harar, which were forbidden to non-Muslims. The resulting books about those escapades were best-sellers in the mid-1850s, earning Burton a reputation for daring while introducing Oriental thoughts and words to his readers. It was Burton who made the term safari—Swahili for “journey”—familiar to the English-speaking world.

The mob packing the auditorium, so eager for spectacle and rage, knew the Burton and Speke story well. The time had come for resolution. When the eleven o’clock starting time came and passed, the crowd “gave vent to its impatience by sounds more often heard from the audience of a theater than a scientific meeting,” sniffed the Bath Chronicle. The audience gossiped loudly about Speke’s whereabouts and stared at the stage, scrutinizing Burton with that unflinching gaze reserved for the very famous. In an era when no occupation was more glamorous than African explorer, Burton’s features were already well known through photographs and sketches from his books. But for many in the audience, seeing his face up close, in person, was why they’d come. They felt the same about Speke.

There was a third explorer many hoped to glimpse, a man whose legend was arguably greater than any living explorer. “The room,” the Chronicle noted of the auditorium, “was crowded with ladies and gentlemen who were radiant with the hope of seeing Dr. Livingstone.” The British public hadn’t caught a glimpse of their beloved Livingstone since the halcyon days of 1857 when he seemed to be everywhere at once. His exploits had been a balm for the wounds of the Crimean War, the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, and the bloody slaughter of British women and children during the Indian Mutiny. Livingstone reminded Victorian Britain of her potential for greatness. The fifty-one-year-old Scot was their hero archetype, an explorer brave, pious, and humble; so quick with a gun that Waterloo hero the Duke of Wellington nicknamed Livingstone “the fighting parson.” Livingstone was equally at home wandering the wilds of Africa and making small talk over tea with the Queen. The public made his books best-sellers, his speeches standing room, his name household. Livingstone was beloved in Britain, and so famous worldwide that one poll showed that only Victoria herself was better known.

Livingstone, though, wasn’t scheduled to appear at the Nile Duel [debate about the origins of the Nile]. His first public appearance since returning from an exploration of Africa’s Zambezi River six months earlier was officially supposed to take place the following Monday. He would lecture the British Association on the details of that journey. Ticket demand was so enormous that Livingstone, standing before a massive map of Africa, would give the speech live in one theater as Clements Markham of the Royal Geographical Society read it concurrently to the overflow crowd in a second auditorium. The Chronicle‘s special edition would publish the text in its entirety. Rumors, however, said Livingstone would make an appearance at the Nile Duel as moderator. His appearance would confirm the Duel’s heft and counterbalance smirks of innuendo. For celebrity gazers and scientists alike, Livingstone, Burton, and Speke on the same stage would elevate the proceedings from grudge match to intellectual field day. Those three greats hurling geographical barbs would make the long hours in the rain more than worthwhile.

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Prelude to Partition in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 3380-3420:

The war was ending. The two main political parties, the Muslim League and the Congress, were arguing over the future constitution. Both sides knew the British would soon leave India. But in what state? Would there be one India or two, a Hindustan and a Pakistan? What would be the fate of Calcutta, which was India’s largest city and the capital of Bengal, its largest Muslim-majority province? Everything was up for grabs.

Initially, the League’s demand for Pakistan – a separate nation state for India’s Muslims – seemed more like a bargaining tool at the negotiating table. But when the discussions between Congress and the Muslim League fell through in the monsoon of 1946, the League’s leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, declared 16 August 1946 to be Direct Action Day.

In Bengal, the Muslim League had formed a provincial government. Its leader Husain Suhrawardy declared Direct Action Day a holiday and called a bandh. The league organised a major rally at the Maidan. On 16 August thousands of Muslim men walked to Esplanade from all over the city and its industrial suburbs. Some of the first clashes of the morning happened in Maniktala as Muslim labourers were crossing the Beleghata Canal heading to the Maidan. In front of Maniktala Market, League supporters fought with Hindu shop owners who refused to close their shops. By afternoon those areas had become war zones. Guns had been plentiful during wartime. A bottle of whisky could get you a revolver from a GI. The strongmen on both sides were ready with arms. About three-quarters of the city’s residents were Hindu and one-quarter were Muslim, not very different from what it is today. But back then, the layout of the city was completely different. There were Muslim pockets in Hindu areas, Hindu pockets in Muslim areas, patchworked across the city.

On Direct Action Day, Calcutta was going to be liberated para by para. After the Muslim League’s rally, mayhem broke loose. Bands of men went lane by lane, house by house, burning, looting and killing. Smoke them out, burn them down, take over land. Drive the other side out. The strategy was area control. In Maniktala, Hindus drove out Muslims. In Park Circus, Muslims were driving out Hindus. In Kidderpur, Pakistan was being made, in Bowbazar, Hindustan. Barricades went up between neighbourhoods, like international borders that could not be crossed. On Chitpur Road, the buses stopped near the Nakhoda Masjid and detoured for several blocks before continuing onward. That stretch of Calcutta’s oldest street had become Pakistan.

In the first two days, the League had used its goons and guns to take the battle to Hindu paras. Worse, Suhrawardy used his power to hold the police back. Then the goondas of the Congress and the other Hindu parties had organised their war in Muslim paras. Even the full force of the state could not control the violence for several more days. The killings went on for a week. Hundreds of thousands were forced into refugee camps. Five to ten thousand people were killed; the actual figures will never be known. In the muggy August heat dead bodies began rotting on pavements as they had during the famine. There were so many bodies everywhere that the sanitation authorities could not figure out how to dispose of them. On the streets there were bodies being eaten by vultures. Bodies were thrown into the Ganga. Bodies were burned round the clock at Nimtala. Bodies were buried in mass graves at the cemetery in Bagmari. Bodies were chopped up into pieces and stuffed into drains. The water pressure of the city plummeted until, as the historian Janam Mukherjee wrote, Calcutta could finally ‘digest its dead’.

Partition was born on the cannibal streets of Calcutta. After this, there could be no more coexistence. There would have to be two nation states: India and Pakistan.

From August 1946 onwards the killings continued sporadically for months, first in Noakhali, then in Bihar, here and there across the land. It was a time when homemade bombs were going off in the Bengal countryside, when rumours of stabbings abounded. In their village, my uncles remembered Muslim schoolfriends suddenly brandishing knives and talking casually of murder. At that time, Dadu felt that it would be better to take the family with him to Calcutta. Not permanently – after all, his mother and brothers were still in the village, with families of their own – just until the ‘Hindustan-Pakistan’ troubles died down.

On 15 August 1947, the British partitioned their empire and left. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, delivered the radio address on that day in his clipped English accent:

‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.’

At the moment that Nehru celebrated India’s half-measure freedom, Gandhi, his mentor, wasn’t making sweeping Hegelian pronouncements. He was keeping vigil in a house abandoned by a Muslim family in Beleghata in Calcutta, meeting with Hindu and Muslim leaders and pleading with them to hold back their goons. It was a year after Direct Action Day. Pakistan had come into being; Bengal’s Muslim League government was being disbanded. The Hindu thugs began the attack, dreaming of a redux of the previous year’s mass killing, only this time initiated by them and not the League. The violence had resumed in Calcutta.

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Examination Hell in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1635-1655:

When I was a student at Calcutta Boys’ School, our academic year was marked by three term exams. The tests would be in at least a dozen subjects. Preparations would take over a month of mugging up. During exam time, a hush settled over Calcutta’s families, as mothers fretted, cajoled and provided warm glasses of milk, while the little one prepared for his term exams. The SATs were a breeze compared to my Calcutta first-grade final exams. No test I would take in the US – not even the field exams in graduate school – ever required the amount of mindless memorisation, or produced as much competitiveness and anxiety, as those grade-school exams.

After each term exam we would be ranked among our peers. The status of the kid who topped the rankings, the ‘First Boy’, can be compared only to that of an American high-school quarterback. He was typically bespectacled, oily haired and a bit of a bore, but students revered him, teachers granted him the equivalent of diplomatic immunity, and other kids’ mothers wanted to copy notes from his ma. Perhaps I have neglected to mention that each day, mothers lined up along the schoolyards during lunchtime with hot fish curry and rice tiffins to spoon-feed their progeny. Since my mother worked as a scientist for much of my childhood, my tiffins were cold butter sandwiches carried from home, and I was spared this maternal attention.

All those years of spoon-feeding and exams led up to the standardised tests in tenth, and then twelfth grade. Six hundred thousand tenth graders took the state’s final exam in 2009. The boy who ranked first was featured on the front page of the newspaper, just under the article on the national parliamentary elections. On the inside pages each year are stories of kids hanging themselves because of a poor exam result. The preferred mode of suicide for spurned lovers is drinking acid. The preferred mode for exam victims is hanging.

The target of every Bengali family is to produce a doctor or an engineer. Both fields have rigorous entrance exams at the end of twelfth grade, known in Bengal as the joint entrance exam. By the time you reach twelfth grade, exams have provided the entire drama of your existence. These results are the measure of your self-worth. Each year, with each new report of suicide, there is talk of easing the stress, perhaps doing away with some tests altogether. Nothing much changes except that more shortcuts appear – more reference books, more coaching centres, more compilations of old exam papers – and more people pass.

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Tyranny of Transliteration

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1580-1590:

Bengali last names when transliterated into English often have multiple spellings. For instance, my name, Choudhury, can be Chaudhuri, Chowdhury, Chaudhry, and so on. These variations are used by aunts and cousins in my own family. Other Bengali last names even have varying pronunciations. As with Bob and Robert, so too everyone recognises that Banerjee and Bandopadhyay are the same name. Everyone, except the University of Calcutta. Each name has a prescribed university version. If your birth certificate says Choudhury when the university accepts only Chaudhuri, there will be forms you will have to fill out and get attested, clerks you will have to flatter and treat to tea while you wait to be renamed. Like Yahweh, Ellis Island and the slave masters from Roots, not only will the university play name-giver – on your certificate you will become Chaudhuri, of that there is no doubt – but whether they will recognise your life prior to your conversion is a matter left up to the fates themselves.

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Why Write about Calcutta?

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1380-1405:

Sumitro and I were sitting in the last row of a minibus, bouncing from Ballygunge to Rajabazar, travelling northward up the city’s spine.

‘Who are you writing for? Why are you writing about Calcutta? And whose Calcutta?’ Sumitro fired those questions away with his piercing intelligence.

The minibus was idling in the traffic snarl at Park Circus when Sumitro asked: ‘Why is it that representations of Calcutta seem unchanged for centuries?’

The first Europeans who came to these shores had refused to get out of their boats. They called the settlement in the swamp Golgotha. Most accounts of Calcutta since have hardly varied. Calcutta to Western eyes was the epitome of urban hell, the Detroit of the world, the punchline to a joke: your room looks like the slums of Calcutta. Every visitor, even those who came to slum it in Calcutta, seemed to take away the same city, I said, the same crumbling mansions of colonial elites, graveyards full of dead Englishmen who could not survive the tropics, and everywhere, like a disease, the suffering of the poor. Ultimately the slummers all fell back upon the idea of the urban hellhole, the city as a place of darkness and death. Even Louis Malle and Allen Ginsberg arrived as gleeful voyeurs and headed to the cremation ghats at Nimtala, as if the last rites were a morbid spectator sport, as if they came from places where no one died. Had any of them ever been to Nimtala to give shoulder to the dead? Had they any idea how it might have felt to be on the other side?

‘Where in the representations of Calcutta is the jumble-tangle human clot of Baguiati?’ Sumitro asked, its intersection throbbing at every hour of the day with careening autos and overtaking buses and people rushing away in every lane clutching polythene bags from Ma Sarada Stores full of moong dal and Surf Excel?

‘Why not the Maniktala Market?’ I said, ‘With its fishmongers seated on their concrete plinths like sultans, surrounded by mounds of hilsa, pomfret and koi.’ ‘What about all the shops and little village-worlds in Bowbazar, in the heart of Calcutta?’ Sumitro asked.

At Sealdah, the bus roared up the overpass we called ‘the Flyover’. To our right, the suburban train station was bright with fluorescent lights; its orange neon signs were flashing SEALDAH, SEALDAH, SEALDAH, alternately in English, Hindi and Bengali, as they have eternally in my memory. To our left, the evening rush at Baithakkhana Bazar spilled out onto Bowbazar Street. Three centuries ago, the English trader Job Charnock, who is said to have founded the city, had sat under a banyan tree there and turned it into his parlour, hence the name Baithak Khana, Living Room. The street was barely visible now, covered over by the evening vegetable sellers squatting with their goods spread out on tarps, backlit by the beckoning glow of the jewellery shops that lured in wedding shoppers. Under a canopy of sulphur street lights stretching all the way to Dalhousie, was the perpetual human parade.

From atop the Flyover, Sumitro surveyed the sweeping view of all that was revealed below, and asked, ‘Where has anyone represented all this?’

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