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THERE were two remotely related events in November. On November 2, the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (most commonly referred to by its short name Rhode Island) in the US voted on whether to change its official name by dropping the words “and Providence Plantations.”
To some, the word evokes memories of Rhode Island’s prime role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Rhode Islanders, however, voted overwhelmingly to keep the original name by 78% to 22%.
Supporters of the old name say it has nothing to do with slavery, and history suggests they are right.
The name Rhode Island and Providence Plantations derives from the merger of two colonies, Providence Plantations and Rhode Island. Providence Plantations was the name of the colony founded by Roger Williams in the area now known as the City of Providence.
Roger Williams, a theologian who was one of the first to advocate freedom of religion, separation of church and state, abolition of slavery, and equal treatment to Native Americans, was forced out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Seeking religious and political tolerance, he and others founded “Providence Plantations” as a free proprietary colony. “Plantations” referred to a British term for a colony (people leave one place and are “planted” in another). Thus, this name bore no relation to the later Southern and Caribbean Islands slave plantations.
We shall leave that at that.
In the Maghreb, on November 28 Mauritania marked the 50th anniversary of its independence. This year was special in Africa, because a record 17 countries celebrated their 50th independence anniversaries.
Now, unlike Rhode Island, Mauritania has a slave problem. Though the governments there have made three attempts in recent years to make slavery illegal, and slave ownership is punishable with a fine or prison sentence, it is still rampant.
Mauritania’s case is part of the missing link in the slavery narrative. While there is a lot material of the trafficking of African slaves to Europe and the Americas, there is little to nothing about an earlier trade in the sale of African slaves in the Arab Middle East.
One reason for that is that there are very few descendants of African slaves in Arab Middle East (and most are not influential), so there’s no one to fight to keep their memory alive.
Even leading African scholars like East Africa’s own Prof. Ali Mazrui tend to say little about this sale of Africans to the Arab Middle East in his case, because it raises awkward personal questions.
The question then is, why did African slaves perish in the Arab Middle East? One reason is that while in Europe and the Americas African slaves were taken to work in plantations and industries, in the Middle East they were mostly domestic labour.
Partly for that reason, the African slaves were castrated. As eunuchs, they couldn’t have sex with their master’s wives, daughters, sisters, aunts, and cousins. Some (not all) of their owners had another vested interest in turning them into eunuchs – the slaves became rounded like women. So in the night the Arab chiefs would be in the embrace of their wives or mistresses, and in between they would be perched on the backs on the eunuchs.
The even more tragic thing about eunuchs, it that to create one, according to some accounts, you needed 20 men. The other 19 perished after castration, from infections and bleeding to death!
Thirdly, unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the one to the Middle East included very few women. Thus even if the African slaves in the Arab world weren’t castrated, they would not have been able to reproduce, because it would have been nearly impossible to find an African female companion.
Even in the Americas, whereas the white slave owners everyday went about picking a strong-backed African woman to sleep with, the black male slaves did not have any opportunities to sleep with white women. In this way, the slave footprint largely disappeared in the Arab world, but thrived in the Americas and Europe! All this is remarkable, considering that millions of African slaves died in horrid conditions in slave ships on the way to Europe and the Americas.