Sunday, May 11, 2014

Dear Diary: I Digress

Before I go on with my gloss of great great grandfather George William Lillies’ 1840s journal, allow me to digress on weighty matters somewhat related to the subject of my last post. I wrote about the Royal Navy’s mission to stop slaving along the west African coast in the first half of the 19th century, and our ancestor's brief part in it. 

Who cares about such ancient history, some might ask? Well, here’s my answer.

Like others, I went last year to see 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen’s brilliant film adaptation of an 1850s memoir about a free black man shanghaied and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The movie made a strong impression. It presents no new information about or insight into slavery that I’m aware. The book on which it’s based was written over 100 years ago. But film is a powerful medium and sometimes forces us to feel and to empathize in ways we simply don’t in the course of our everyday lives. 

So, my great epiphany from 12 Years A Slave? No wonder race is still such a potent issue in America today. How could it not be given the extreme, systematic, sustained cruelty of slavery? The trauma, if that’s the right word – physical, psychological, spiritual in the case of enslaved Africans and their descendants, moral in the case of the Europeans who somehow (how?) persuaded themselves that enslaving Africans was appropriate and justifiable – will take generations to heal.

In case you thought the scenes of cruelty in 12 Years A Slave were exaggerated: contemporary photo of slave showing wounds from whipping
And then today, I read an essay by the Irish journalist Ed Maloney in The Globe & Mail explaining the background to and possibly dire consequences of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ recent arrest in connection with a murder committed 42 years ago during Ireland’s Troubles. (Interesting parallel: another period of extreme and systematic cruelty.) Follow the link if you want the full context; it's a good read. But here’s how Maloney ends the piece, the lesson he takes from these latest events in Ireland. 

“History,” he writes. “matters; if not addressed, it poisons the present and pollutes the future.” Amen. No, of course it’s not a new idea. But it’s one too often forgotten; and it bears constant repeating. 

To come full circle then, yes, what our ancestor was doing in Africa in 1846 – whether it was for entirely altruistic reasons on the part of the British government that sent him, whether it was done by him fully mindful of its significance is still relevant today. 

Here endeth the lesson. Back to GWL next post, promise.

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