Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lecture by Dr. Omar Ali

Painting of Malik Ambar that
was shown in Dr. Ali's presentation

I just attended Dr. Ali's lecture on the global African diaspora in the 17th century in regards to Peru, India, and Virginia.  I had some background knowledge on the topics that he covered in the lecture from being in our capstone course and from having attended one of Dr. Ali's classes a few weeks ago with my Spanish literature class, but today he talked much more in depth about the differences in slavery in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds.  He began by stating the significance of an African man named Malik Ambar who was part of an Ethiopian ethnic group known as the Oromo.  According to Dr. Ali, Malik Ambar was captured at the age of 11 or 12 and brought to the Muslim-ruled western coast of India as a slave, and gained his freedom when his owner died.  Right away we see a stark difference between slavery in the west (Atlantic Ocean) and slavery in the east (Indian Ocean).  Africans who were part of the diaspora and were brought to countries like India were freed with the death of their master, and a child born to a slave woman was also considered free, a trend that we know to be completely different in the history of slavery in the United States.  Malik Ambar went on to be one of the most instrumental leaders in the fight against Mughal oppression and impending invasion from the north, and transcended all boundaries of race and class that may have otherwise held him back.

Next, Dr. Ali mentioned a man named San Martin de Porres, a contemporary of Malik Ambar, who would eventually become the patron saint of Lima, Peru.  Dr. Ali explained that unlike many other areas of the Americas, Peru's slaves worked in urban settings as opposed to the majority who worked on plantations or others in the mines.  Again Dr. Ali has provided an example that really alters the way in which we view Africans in a historical context, and perpetuates the fact that the "winners" of history are responsible for writing it and often leave out key players who they declared to be inferior.

Finally we are brought back to more familiar territory in talking about slavery in Virginia, which brings the discussion on Atlantic vs. Indian slavery full circle.  We first learned that slavery in the United States began as indentured servitude.  Africans would often work alongside their European counterparts for anywhere between seven and ten years in order to earn their freedom in their new home and gain property.  An African called Antonio Johnson even became the owner of a plantation for which white indentured servants worked.  The greatest change occurred in the year 1640, however, and race officially becomes tied with slavery in America.  Three indentured servants, two white and one black, escaped from the plantation where they had been working and were all caught several days later.  The two whites received an extra year of servitude to the plantation, but the African servant, a man named John Punch, was punished with a sentence of life-long servitude.  From the eighteenth century onwards, a system called chattel slavery was enacted in the United States, which declared that the children born to slave women were immediately considered that slave owner's property, thus leading to the dehumanization of Africans brought through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

There's so much to be said about the themes brought up in this discussion.  From an anthropological standpoint, I think that it is incredibly important to give historical context to modern day culture in order to understand what has lead to the social construct of race and its implications.  Just as we've talked about in class, racial categorization is used explicitly to establish and maintain a system of social hierarchy, and to justify the superiority of one group over another.  One of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was incredibly influential in using "scientific" methodology in order to justify this system of white superiority, which carried over well into the 20th centuries eugenics movements in the United States that inspired many of the experiments in the Nazi regime.  The lecture really helped put a lot of things into perspective for me, so I hope this information is helpful to someone else as well!

1 comment:

  1. The differences between slavery in these three areas of the world were interesting. As we already knew, slavery in the United States was both an economic and a power strategy. However, I did not realize that the first Africans brought to Jamestown were actually indentured servants, even though I knew that some British and European people came here under that system. I also didn't know that the decision that basically equated skin color or place of origin with actual slavery in the U. S. was based on the case, or at least started with the case, of the runaway indentured servant, John Punch.
    I also learned that the Age of Enlightenment in Europe helped to perpetuate slavery by rationalizing it, which doesn't seem like a very enlightened way of thinking by our standards. It seems that we can find a way to justify just about anything if it leads to our getting or keeping power or wealth.
    Dr. Nash brought up a good point about Thomas Jefferson' excavation of the Indian mounds on his land. I already knew that he had excavated them, and that this was the first example of careful, scientific excavation of Native American mounds in the New World, from Dr. Gunn's Native American class, and I knew that Jefferson had declared that the natives did not build them. Of course we know that they did build them. This is just another example of our forefathers using any means possible to justify their actions. If the Native Americans were declared as the builders of these mounds, they would have a claim to the land that they were rapidly losing to the white settlers, and would have to be acknowledged as intelligent, resourceful beings, instead of the "savages" and "heathens" that most white people considered them to be.
    Dr. Omar also touched on the aspects of Islam that affected slavery in the Indian Ocean area of the world. The New World slave holders were by and large Christians, and it would be interesting to further explore what affect the two religions had on slavery in these two areas.


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