Thu | Mar 21, 2019

Religion & Culture | Sex, magic and the slave trade - How mass rape and Vodun defined history’s darkest chapter

Published:Sunday | February 17, 2019 | 12:26 AMGlenville Ashby
In this June 27, 2018 photo, tourists stand in front of the medieval-era Castle of Lagos in Lagos, Portugal. Lagos, a striking Portuguese beach town of charming coastlines and slightly sandstone cliffs, is the birthplace of the African slave trade in Europe.
In this June, 27, 2018 photo, tourists walk through a tunnel at the medieval-area Castle of Lagos in Lagos, Portugal. Lagos, a striking Portuguese beach town of charming coastlines and slightly sandstone cliffs, is the birthplace of the African slave trade in Europe. A museum dedicated to slavery is helping this enclave in the heart of southern Portugal’s Algarve region come to terms with its history.
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RELIGION & CULTURE

Many writers, including myself, have highlighted the sex-driven culture that defined plantation life. In part I of Sexual Violence and Genetic Survival: America’s War to Destroy the Black Male, I examined the psychological implications of buck breaking and other forms of sexual violence that haunted every slave.

Little, though, is mentioned of the sinister and perverse culture of sexual fetishism that characterised the slave trade. Familiar we are with the stealthy and brazen kidnappings, the miles-long walk to branding rooms and dark chambers where slaves stood for two weeks awaiting processing before being packed at the bottom of ships for the perils of the Middle Passage.

But sexual violence against tens of thousands of captured teenage girls is seldom mentioned. It’s a sensitive and revolting subject that white liberal historians and feminists would prefer to shelve. Not unlike the infamous 1936 Rape of Nanjing that still haunts China, the women of Benin suffered sexual violence, a sexual violence that continued for centuries long after slavery was abolished in English colonies. By 1902, 90 per cent of Africa was under the thumb of Europe ensuring the vile lust of the coloniser was met. When the rape fest was officially over, one strain of Africa’s bloodline was diluted. By the mid-19th century, the colonies were bedevilled by ugliness of colourism that was seeded on the African continent.

‘CANON GIRLS’

The slave girl of Benin was a prized commodity. By the 1800s the Portuguese and Kings of Abomey were trading canons for captured girls – 21 girls per canon was the going rate. The suggestive moniker, ‘canon girls’, were used in reference to their firm, pointed breasts, indispensable attributes for the ‘right price.’

Among the continual stream of shackled human cargo that was dragged along the miles-long slave route for branding and processing, teenage girls were prized.

Placed in dark rooms and periodically doused with salt water (to acclimatise captives to conditions on the bottom of slave ships) they were packed on these floating concentration camps facing upwards making sexual assaults that much easier. (Men faced downwards).

Sylvianne Diouf explores this sexual brutality in Remembering the Women of Slavery. She writes, “The abjection of slavery took an added dimension when women were concerned. They were the victims of sexual abuse, from harassment to forced prostitution, and from breeding to rape.

“Rape by sailors on the slave ships, and rape by overseers, slaveholders, and their sons in the Americas was a persistent threat to all, a horrific reality to many. Used, like it continues to be used today, as a weapon of terror, rape was meant to assert power over and demean not only the women, but also their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons, who were reminded daily that they were considered less than men since they could not protect their womenfolk.

“Breeding through compulsion or incentives was another appalling feature of the gender-based violence and exploitation women had to endure. Overall, the sexual abuse of women was part of the larger attempt at demoralisation and submission of the entire community.”

In Molly Morgan’s Women’s Resistance in the Middle Passage: A Story Lost at Sea, we read that mutiny was not uncommon aboard slave ships, and to protect themselves against threat of insurrection, ship captains typically kept male captives in chains and below deck at all times. Women, on the other hand, were commonly provided more liberties, typically left unchained they were often allowed to remain above deck.

I should add that this made sexual exploitation that much easier and explains why so many women arrived in the Americas pregnant with children of their abusers.

(The silence of Africans regarding the slave trade can only be understood within the context of psychological trauma, and nothing else. I will be exploring this subject in my upcoming book,Africa Diaries: A Personal Journey to Healing in Benin – Writings in Pan African Psychology).

TREE OF FORGETFULNESS

Another little-known dimension of the slave trade is Vodun and its psycho-spiritual implications. Throughout plantations in the Americas, we learn that Vodun and Hoodoo were weaponised against the oppressors, but in Africa, Vodun priests used the craft to purportedly seal the fate of slaves. Along the slave route in Benin one encounters The Tree of Forgetfulness (having fallen in 2017, it has since been replaced with a memorial), and miles away and closer to the ocean stood the Tree of Return, both trees ‘fixed’ by Vodun priests. At the former tree, male slaves were forced to circumambulate nine times; females seven times. This was all part of a macabre ritual to induce amnesia and docility. This ritual, according to the priests, would also minimise slave uprisings on the ship and ensure their inability to remember their land and traditions.

(We can only surmise the extent – if any at all – that such rituals had on the assimilation and seemingly undying embrace of Christianity by many first-generation slaves. Again, we can only guess).

Conversely, the Tree of Return was circled in a counter-clockwise direction for a total of three times, ensuring that when slaves died on-board ships or in their new land their souls would return to Africa.

The ‘tree fixing’ numerology and movements involved in these rituals are beyond the scope of this paper.

Clearly, the wonders of Vodun in Benin were respected (as they are today). Vodun priests held an esteemed place in Benin’s Kingdom of Abomey, ensuring that they and their families would never be victims of the unspeakable terror that stalked the land.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the liaison for UComeafrik Spiritual Journey to the Sacred Forest and Osun Oshogbo River, Shrines and Grooves in Benin Republic and Nigeria. Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @glenvilleashby.