For Wilberforce’s Aunt

Sins of the Fathers: A Study of the Atlantic Slave Trade

by James Pope-Hennessy
Knopf, 286 pp., $7.95

Here it is again—the horrors of the Middle Passage, the callous inspection of the naked human cattle in the slave pens, the dreadful auction by scramble when child was torn from mother. The old stories re-emerge: the young fourteen-year-old Negress flogged to death; the Negro boy of nineteen in his spiked collar, his body covered in festering ulcers, his buttocks mortified through the wounds inflicted by his sadistic master; the ten-month-old baby that was whipped with a cat o’ nine tails, scalded in boiling water, and then flung into the sea. And discreetly the sex and the hatred and the corruption get their due—the nubile Negresses handed out to house guests; the secret poisoning in the nurseries for revenge. Boldly painted are the suspicion and fear that loomed like nightmares over plantation society—the suspicion of treachery, of witchcraft, the fear of slave revolt. These pages are alive with pain, heavy with human misery. We hear the sad lamentations, we see again those dark silhouettes dancing against the sky but to the crack of a whip. On and on the book goes until we are bludgeoned into insensitivity by the endless barbarity.

The main evidence for these stories was collected and published by Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce in their campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. It has been used time and time and time again. Most of it is true, for Clarkson and Wilberforce were too aware of the ferocity of the opposition to use palpable lies. Nevertheless it was evidence for propaganda. No one denies that the collection of slaves along the African coast, from Hawkins’s first expedition to the last illegal ones in the nineteenth century, was bestial, nor that the six-week-long sea voyage to America could be as death-haunted as Auschwitz. We know that in the long history of slavery there have been few worse systems than that practiced in the southern states of America and the British West Indies. There is every reason for us and our children to be reminded of this over and over again, for it is relevant not only to our society but also to our humanity.

Before we denounce the loathsome policy of extermination practiced by Hitler and his cronies and connived at by the German nation, we should remind ourselves that our great-grandfathers and the generations before them were behaving with an almost identical sadism and criminality to fellow human beings. Power over men combined with lust for profit can destroy all human warmth, all human generosity. The intellect will twist and turn any way to create justification that callous unimaginative men can morally use to ease what conscience they may still possess. These things Pope-Hennessy demonstrates clearly enough as he guides the reader along the old, well-trodden paths, and his book will be useful to those who are ignorant about the Atlantic slave trade. But that is about the limit of praise to which one can go. The book is ill-written and ill-constructed and often rendered irritating…

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