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Toyin Agbetu

Toyin Agbetu



The Rage of Citizen Agbetu [2]

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Or, perhaps, Sarah Baartman and other terrible details of slavery were not the thoughts to have in that happy moment at Westminster Abbey? Slave ship Captain John Newton’s meticulous 1709 log of frequent African deaths in his ship? William Lynch and his infamous 1712 advice on how to breed slaves like horses? Pirate Captain Bart Roberts, in 1722, burning his shipload of Africans, chained below deck, to avoid capture? The 1783 case of Captain Collingwood of The Zong, who threw 133 Africans overboard for insurance purposes? And the deadly racist history of Psychiatry and related medical practices? Thomas Cartwright, infamous for Drapetomania, the non-existent disease of “running away” by slaves for which the cure was frequent whippings and hard labour? Benjamin Rush, so-called ‘Father of Modern Psychiatry,’ who introduced the disease of “Negritude,” considered a form of leprosy? Eugenics and such other white supremacist ideas of racial difference?
All these were too depressing to think about at the Abbey? What other African choices did he have – Citizen Agbetu? He could have been “forward-looking” instead of dwelling on slavery. Should he then have wound his mind forward to colonialism, which, in cases, continued the enslavement of Africans inside Africa? King Leopold 11 of Belgium – just one of those at whose behest African peoples were forced into dehumanizing, chattel labour, heads and limbs cut off those who opposed? And the racial experiments, gulags and genocidal acts of colonial enforcers and their intellectual justifiers? But again it was probably wrong to remember colonialism by those experiences. Better to think of it only as a civilizing mission…

Is there a reason for an apology to Citizen Agbetu? What was going through his mind in that Abbey? Did he, perhaps, have a William Cowper moment:

I own I am shock’d by the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures and groans,
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
(Pity for Poor Africans, 1788)

Or was he ‘full on’ from the beginning, and primed for his encounter with history without quibble or irony or fear, without doubt, the famous words of the old anti-slavery movement ringing in his ears:

Am I not a man and a brother?

The rights campaigner, Sojourner Truth, would express the same emotion in an 1851 speech to a women’s convention:

Ain’t I a woman?

It does come down to that foundation question, doesn’t it? Are those who oppress even remotely capable of imagining the shared humanity of those they dehumanize?

Toyin Agbetu had to contest the validity of the oppressive decorum at the Abbey before he could grab his moment. Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka, had similarly contested the international moment provided by his 1986 Nobel Prize award. In Sweden, when a similarly oppressive decorum dictated what might be safely said, the Nobel Literature laureate chose to seize the moment and own it for Africa. And it was a significant moment. The 1986 Nobel Literature moment was iconic as a first tribute from the world to intellectual achievement in Africa, to African intellect. And Soyinka should have played the thankful good boy in response to that belated burst of international goodwill, but he did not. He chose to be awkward, using his Nobel Lecture to champion African rights, to seek redress for the diverse historic enslavements and injustices from which the continent still suffers. In his lecture he was particularly focused on the then unfolding racial situation in South Africa. Soyinka chose the title, ‘This Past Must Address Its Present’ for his Nobel Award lecture:

In any case, the purpose is not really to indict the past,

but to summon it to the attention of a suicidal, anachronistic

present. To say to that mutant present: You are a child of those
centuries of lies, distortion and opportunism in high places,
even among the holy of holies of intellectual objectivity…
And to say to the world, to call attention to its own historic
passage of lies – as yet unabandoned by some…

Wherein then lies the surprise that we, the victims of that
intellectual dishonesty of others, demand from that world
that is finally coming to itself, a measure of expiation?

Was Citizen Agbetu looking at the visible opulence of the Abolition commemoration ceremony and, perhaps, thinking how like that Abbey moment much of Britain, its great cities of London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, the might of its industrial revolution, the stability of its democratic experience at a time of revolutionary pressure, the early prospering of its financial systems, even the funding of its historic centers of learning, such as Oxford, and the lavish maintenance of its great country homes and estates, all owe a debt of gratitude to the slaving of Africans? He might have wondered about William Beckford, a wealthy eighteenth century owner of slave sugar plantations in Jamaica. Beckford as Lord Mayor of London and, perhaps, the first English millionaire, was quite representative of a slavery-enriched political leadership in his time, so that by 1766 at least forty members of parliament were significant beneficiaries of the trade. Is there a reason for dialogue with Citizen Agbetu?

1807, that year of parliamentary assent to a freedom movement already advanced in its course, is important for its groundswell of activism involving many ordinary people who denounced the trade in human lives. This concerted move of the social conscience for social action was motivated by many reasons other than mere pity for poor Africans. It was neither a William Wilberforce moment nor the conclusive abolition action official history has made it. British Quakers had already banned slavery among their own as early as 1760, the year Thomas Clarkson, a less heralded but effective abolitionist, was born. For the slaves at the time of the 1807 Abolition, and their children born after them, freedom was not yet. There were still freedom struggles in the Americas by distressed African slaves. There were slave uprisings in the Caribbean islands and the United States. In South Carolina, 1822, they had the Denmark Vesey uprising. So many “Gullah” or Angolan Africans wasted. They called them runaways. Runaways could be wasted on sight. The Abolition Act was actually passed in 1833 and, finally, for the enslaved by Britain the possibility of real freedom came in 1838. Even then there continued to be the dangers posed to the freedom and lives of African captives by unscrupulous slave dealers. For instance, Sengbe Pieh, a Mende man, known in United States history as Joseph Cinque, would be forced to lead other captives aboard the slave ship, Amistad, in an 1839 revolt.

March 25, 1807 simply records the date of parliamentary assent to the abolition of the trade, but not the practice of slavery. Then after that the slave owners bagged their million pounds compensations and the Africans were left still bonded to those from whom they had to earn or purchase their freedom. In the end universal emancipation, begun by those earlier slave revolts, which have no grand monuments or cathedral ceremonies to commemorate them, was eventually achieved rather quietly as individual projects, each slave doing what had to be done to become free and to earn the freedom of other dear ones. Two centuries from that official 1807 date of the Abolition may seem like a long time ago, enough time for the impact of the trade on Africa to have worn off, but it has to be remembered that the Trans-Atlantic Slavery went on for about four centuries, beginning as early as the fifteenth century. Together with aspects of the colonial experience that followed, the devastating impact on Africa of slavery cannot be understated – in much the same way as you cannot successfully seek to diminish the advantages it gave to the slaving nations of Europe and America.

When he began to rise from his seat at the Abbey his neighbours must have thought he was going to unburden himself. And Citizen Agbetu was, but the toilet was far from his thoughts. He had his arms raised all the time as he moved to empty his rage. Better to have those arms raised. He knew there were protection people even in the haloed hall of the Abbey. Those hidden eyes had to see he did not mean war. It serves no purpose to be just another ‘nigger’ dead. “This is a disgrace to our ancestors!” he yelled, as the Archbishop tried to engage all in a solemn prayer of atonement over slavery. “Millions of our ancestors are in the Atlantic…” Citizen Agbetu would not be cowed by either location or occasion. Archbishop Rowan Williams, a fair-minded intellectual type, was not unused to hecklers. His own fractious bishops are engaged in a ferocious moral struggle over definition and control of the Anglican centre. He would later attempt to lighten the sense of invasion others felt over Agbetu’s Abbey outburst. Agbetu, he said, represented people who had deep hurts about the oppressive history of slavery, and that had to be understood. The Church of England is itself still ambiguous about how to apologize and possibly offer reparations for its earlier historical role as slaver and justifier of slavery. It did later become a bastion of the anti-slavery movement, and, in recent times, the anti-apartheid movement.   continues


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