Here’s an angle on American slavery that I’d never considered. How did the treatment of African slaves who were Muslim differ from non-Muslim slaves?
I knew nothing about the role of Muslim African slaves in 18th and 19th century America until I read a fascinating book called A History of Islam in America published by the Cambridge University Press. The author is a professor of religion, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri.
Most white slave owners were ignorant of differences between people in Africa. To them, Africans were a commodity bought and sold for their labour and that was it. But a minority seem to have taken an interest, if only to find ways of exploiting those differences for their own advantage.
They noticed that some of their slaves knelt to pray five times during the day while working on the plantation. Many were literate as they been brought up writing and reading Arabic. And they didn’t identify with non-Muslim Africans who having not accepted the word of Allah were therefore unenlightened.
Some white American slave owners began to regard the Muslim slaves as a cut above the others – and these slaves encouraged this notion. After all, they wanted better treatment and held out the hope that it might be possible to find the means to be freed one day.
Professor GhaneaBassiri notes that some were even given supervisory roles over other slaves because they were seen as being brainier. He also notes that of course some Muslim Africans had been slaveowners back in their homeland or had engaged in wars of religion with pagan Africans in the decades before.
During the War of Independence against the British, some African Muslims fought with the colonists. Names on the military muster rolls include Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali and Joseph Saba. It’s well known that Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an and opposed discrimination against Muslims and Jews.
In the years after independence, the new United States experienced years of conflict with the so-called “Barbary” states of north Africa. The US even suffered the indignity of its own sailors being captured off the African coast and sold into slavery – by Africans. Karma is the word that comes to mind.
Behind the scenes, a still miffed Britain encouraged the north African rulers to attack American shipping no longer protected by the Royal Navy after independence in 1783. In desperation, the US turned to Muslim African slaves in its diplomacy with the Barbary states to try and put a stop to the onslaught on its ships.
There have been moments in history when the whole of society seemed to be seized by a communal panic. Since mid-March 2020 this year, almost our entire news output from TV, newspapers and online has been Coronavirus related. We have been in a communal panic of epic proportions.
That’s not to say Coronavirus is fake as some have claimed. But the virus has shaken us all severely. It’s altered every aspect of our daily lives. As widespread panic goes – this is probably the most fundamental episode of collective anxiety I’ve ever seen.
In my lifetime – and I was born in 1963 – there have been what I can only describe as unsettling moments – where life couldn’t carry on as normal. The current Coronavirus pandemic is certainly one of those moments.
The streets of my home city, London, are noticeably emptier than usual. The tube train and buses have empty seats. In fact yesterday I found myself in an empty train carriage that would normally be full on a Saturday.
Which made me think about when had I experienced similar episodes of panic in my lifetime where the world seemed a more dangerous place?
PANIC IN HISTORY: The aftermath of 9/11
Well, for a panic on the scale of the Coronavirus, I’d have to go back to the aftermath of 9/11 back in 2001. In the days that followed the Al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York, people in London were worried that similar terrorist outrages could happen on our streets.
There were fears of so-called “dirty bombs” – a radiological dispersal device (even held in a suitcase) – being released in public places. On TV, we had dramatised scenarios where a terrorist would knowingly infect people with a deadly virus by brushing again them in a lift.
Reports circulated of nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union being robbed of lethal chemicals and we wondered if London could be made uninhabitable for a century or more.
PANIC IN HISTORY: Chernobyl
Back in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor went into meltdown. Radioactive material was scattered all over the Ukraine and eastern Europe. I was living in Liverpool at the time and recall being locked out of my flat and caught in a downpour.
A friend “joked” that as sheep in nearby north Wales had been shown to have higher than usual levels of radiation, I had probably absorbed some radiation too!
I must admit that for us in Britain, the health panic around Chernobyl was nothing compared to the fear in places closer to the nuclear site like Ukraine and the Balkans. And it certainly didn’t match the huge impact of the Coronavirus in 2020.
If I look back on the unsettling moments that affected society around me in my life – two big themes are disease and terrorism. These moments have sometimes created a sense of panic similar to what we’re feeling today about the Coronavirus.
On the disease side of things, there was the outbreak of “mad cow” disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE for short) – which led us to shun British beef in favour of Argentinian or not eat beef at all.
PANIC IN HISTORY: HIV/AIDS
There was the horror and anguish of the HIV/AIDS virus and the loss of people to that terrible disease, which first emerged very publicly in the early 1980s.
It struck terror into the gay community but affected other groups as well. What shocks us now is the lack of sympathy in the tabloid press back then that dubbed the virus – the “gay plague”.
I guess one difference between the panic around Coronavirus today and the fear of AIDS back then is that most people in the 1980s thought they were completely immune to AIDS. They assumed it was a virus only affected LGBT people and certain parts of the world.
On the terrorism side, there have been the ISIS bombings in recent years in London, Paris and Brussels. I was in Paris shortly after the 2015 atrocities and saw heavily armed troops patrolling outside Notre Dame.
While outside the Bataclan concert hall where terrorist shot up the audience at a rock gig, thousands of young people lit candles and wept.
Back in my childhood – in the 1970s – the terrorist threat came from the Irish Republican Army who in the middle of that decade carried out two notorious and bloody bombings in Guildford and Birmingham.
That was a spill over of the conflict raging in Northern Ireland between Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. There were periods when more vigilance was required and the public was noticeably more tense and anxious.
Outside of terrorism and disease – the only other thing that comes to mind is the threat of superpower conflict. Forty years ago, we worried about the Soviet Union and the United States blowing each other up.
Now – in a more multi-polar world – that’s not such a looming threat. The political danger instead comes from multiple sources and is far less predictable.
In short – these periods of heightened risk happen every so often in human history. Plague, war, famine….we’ve been here before. It’s when we realise that despite our modernity and technology – we are still very vulnerable to things beyond our control.
Companies today are at great pains to show they have diversity strategies in place. But not so long ago – corporate racism was rife. Let’s look at a truly appalling example I came across recently.
Corporate racism in the Roaring Twenties
It was Christmas 1923 and the owners of the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers had a great festive idea. For their card to friends and family back home, why not paint Merry Xmas on the bodies of their African workers. You really couldn’t make it up!
Nigeria was a British colony and many enterprising English folk went out to the colonies to set up businesses and exploit the natural and human resources. They may have thought they were benevolent to their staff but more often they were demeaning.
At the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, there is a photograph in the slavery section of the museum that will make your jaw drop. It’s a truly dreadful example of corporate racism.
Britain had outlawed slavery before the United States and a hundred years before, its navy had patrolled the seas stopping slave ships and liberating their occupants. But a few years earlier, Britain had been the greatest profiteer from slaves. It had operated something referred to as the “slave triangle” – with Liverpool as one point of that triangle.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, manufactured goods were sent to Africa to trade with local chiefs and obtain their war captives and other unfortunates as slaves. These were then shipped to the Americas – north and south – to work on plantations.
Then the produce of these plantations – sugar and cotton being the most important – were shipped back to Britain’s industrial factories before being bought as finished goods by consumers – or sent to Africa to begin the triangular cycle again.
With the end of slavery, shipping millions of Africans to the Americas ceased. But exploitation, supremacist racist attitudes and corporate racism did not.
This photograph of Nigerian workers turned into a human Christmas card evidences that. The European couple are Mr and Mrs Baxendale of Miller Brothers looking a bit sheepish.
Miller Brothers was a Liverpool based trading company and the Baxendales had journeyed out to the Nigerian town of Badagry to manage its affairs. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of their workers as they were humiliated in front of the camera.