Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Careless and Worthless: Please do not argue that slavery was good for me.

Last weekend, a Jamaican columnist, Michael Wignall, wrote an article in The Observer newspaper entitled, "Slavery was good for the black man" (see report). I tend to shy away from terms like disgusting when I refer to people's opinions, but this article warrants that term. It is riddled with so much ignorance as to be mind-boggling. It has such a reverence for Europe and things European that I had to wonder if it was really the work of some European racist group. I am not going to conduct a deep analysis of the contents of the article, but repeat one of the aspects that I find warrant the term disgust:

"When the Europeans went to Africa to buy slaves, what did they find? They found a society and people vastly inferior to theirs. While the Europeans had emerged from their feudal practices, our ancestors in Africa, for the most part, had not developed for many centuries. We did not understand the concept of nation or government. Science and technology (and innovations in these areas) were non-existent in black Africa of the 15th and 16th centuries. Indeed, as a people, we had no sense of self-identity. In many respects, we were uncivilised. Slavery was our most important contact with modernity."

The newspaper printed one rebuttal, a reasoned and informed letter from Dr. Marcia Sutherland, of New York's University of Albany, entitled "Africa is the cradle of humanity. Dingwall needs to learn history" (see link). This, at least, corrected some of the glaring numbskullery of the Dingwall article. One extract from her response says most of what is needed:

"Africans have made great contributions to the earth's history in the last two billion years. Africans illuminated the ancient world for thousands of years along the Nile from its Ugandan sources to its Mediterranean delta. Africans navigated the great waterways of the world long before Columbus. Africans were familiar with literature, art, philosophy, science and mathematics for centuries before their contact with the West and with other peoples."

A host of Internet commentary has flowed over the past week, virtually all of it condemning Dingwall's piece and his lack of knowledge about Africa's history, geography, scientific, social and economic relevance. A search for "Dingwall" and "Jamaica" will lead you to most of them.

What has really troubled me since I came across the Dingwall article, which got some choice commentary from one of the radio programs in Jamaica, is to wonder about a newspaper's role and objectives, and in particular why the Observer printed the article. Most respected newspapers are normally very circumspect when it comes to publishing opinions that are patently based on lots of falsehoods, especially if they are also likely to find a hostile and negative reaction from many of its readers. Of course, newspapers will take on something sensational because it will raise circulation. That said, I was amazed that the Observer appeared to run this column without commentary. (I read the material online so did not see a print version, but a search of the electronic version of the paper turned up no results indicating that the newspaper made any comment.) So, the paper has in some sense given the article its endorsement and left it to others to object. Why would they do that? I have no answer, but have some uncomfortable suspicions. I will ponder that question for a long time.

I am not a history scholar, as far as Africa is concerned. However, I have lived and worked on the continent, and had the chance to discuss with different Africans aspects of their own culture and history--much of this has been passed down through oral and some written forms for centuries and is well known and understood in the various areas. I always impress on people that the continent is not a homogeneous mass, and has an enormous range of geography, and also has history, social and economic characteristics that is not well known outside the continent. From the north (Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt), through the east (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania), the centre (Congo), south (South Africa, Swaziland), and west (Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, Guinea), Africa has for centuries had a significant place in world development. The continent went through huge social, political and economic interventions when Europeans decided to take hold of lands and people, and to deal with them as their own property, and rarely on favourable terms, even carving up the lands into new administrative and political units that did not respect centuries old divisions, and consequently set up centuries of struggle and discord.

A dingbat is term used for a nitwit. Mr. Dingwall would on a nice day fit the term dingbat. I hope that he takes the time to learn about his subject matter before he dares put his words out to the public again. The Observer should hang its head in shame for giving space to such an article, and ignorance is no defence. If its management and editors do not understand the problem then perhaps they should reconsider if they are really running a serious newspaper.

1 comment:


Excellent post!I concur totally with your perspectives and sentiments on this issue. Especially your position regarding The Observer.