02 April 2011

Frederick Douglass

African Revolutionary Writers, Part 1

Frederick Douglass

The first part of this ten-part series on African Revolutionary Writers covers the period from slavery to Imperialism. The slave trade begun when Portuguese ships passed Cape Bojador on the coast of Western Sahara in 1434, bringing them south of the Sahara for the first time.

They immediately took slaves. These, the first slaves of the bourgeoisie, were sold to Spanish colonists on the Canary Islands, where the original inhabitants (the Guanches) had already been enslaved and worked to extinction. The triangular slave-trade pattern: Portugal - Africa - Canary Islands - was soon afterwards scaled up to Britain - Africa - West Indies (or alternatively Brazil or North America). The Atlantic Slave Trade took slaves across the ocean via the “Middle Passage”, and brought back sugar, tobacco, cotton and other plantation-grown commodities.

Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies in 1492 and touched the continent of South America in 1498, the same year that Vasco da Gama reached India by the Cape sea route. By 1502 the trans-Atlantic slave trade was in full flow, first as a Portuguese monopoly, later as a British monopoly.

Although Marx notes in “Capital” that capitalism began in the 1500s, yet for more than three centuries the dominant business of the Western European bourgeoisie was not capitalism, but the Atlantic slave trade, and the biggest operator in that business was Britain. This situation lasted until the capitalist “Industrial Revolution” of the late 1700s, also in Britain.

Only when the Western bourgeoisie made its turn towards capitalism did it become expedient for it to avail some blacks, released slaves, to create a literary genre called the “slave narrative”, as part of the capitalist campaign to suppress slavery so as to make room for a new, more productive, exploited class: the wage-slaves or working proletariat. An early example of this genre is the work of Olaudah Equiano, who wrote a book about his “Interesting Life” as a slave and rescued slave, published in 1789. These slave-narrative books tended not only to expose the evils of slavery, but also to praise Christianity and capitalism in equal measure, in order to flatter their sponsors and readers.

In this regard Frederick Douglass’s work was outstanding for the breadth and the rebellious fearlessness of his rhetoric. Please download via the links below.

After escaping by train from twenty years of slavery Douglass wrote an exceptional slave narrative called My Bondage and My Freedom, published in 1855. He also included in the same volume a series of six transcripts of speeches or orations that he had given as a campaigner against slavery. Slavery was abolished in the USA in 1865 at the end of the US Civil War, and ten years after the publication of Frederick Douglass’s book.

These six particular lectures of Douglass’s are contained in the first linked document below. “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” is a famous one, but they are all outstanding. This was an orator!

Also linked below is the best-known of all of Frederick Douglass’s speeches, known as “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress” from 1857, which contains the famous phrase: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” If you read nothing else of Douglass’s, do read this extraordinary piece of revolutionary literature, for the good advice that it gives: power concedes nothing without a demand.

The American Civil War of 1861-1865 was an armed conflict between one part of the bourgeoisie and another. It represented the real capitalist revolution in the USA, when the specifically capitalist bourgeoisie gained its dictatorship, the US bourgeois dictatorship that still exists today.

For the Africans, the abolition of slavery was a relief after three centuries of terrible mass-scale atrocity. But the abolition of outright slavery also marked the beginning of wage slavery and of military invasions, conquest, domination, plunder, settlement and colonialism. In the second half of the 20th century, globalist neo-colonialism and Imperialism followed.

African political writing tracked all these changes. In this part we look briefly at the literature of slavery and colonialism. In the next we will move towards the literature of the post-WW2 era of decolonisation.

Please download and read the text via the following link:
Six Lectures of Frederick Douglass (14,512 words, 24 pages)

Further reading:

No comments:

Post a Comment