History: 150-year-old photograph evokes evil of slavery

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Akeem Lasisi

Poor John! He is very likely to have died many years ago. Like many other Africans who ended up as slaves in European fields, his grave may never be found again – if he ever had any. But his memory has come alive in a photograph of his recently found in a North Carolina attic.

In the 150-year-old photo, the boy in ragged clothes, who could have hailed from any part of Africa, sits barefooted, looking stressed on a barrel that an analyst with bias for racial equality may describe as a tunnel in which African pride was once tucked. John sits beside another black boy that is, however, not identified.

According to a report published in African Press on Thursday, art historians believe the photograph is a very rare Civil War-era one, showing children who were either slave at the time or recently emancipated.

The photo, which may have been taken in the early 1860s, is a testament to a dark part of American history, says Will Stapp, a photographic historian and founding curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s photographs department at the Smithsonian Institution, the report notes.

“It’s a very difficult and poignant piece of American history,” he notes. “What you are looking at when you look at this photo are two boys who were victims of that history.”

The photo was found in April, at a moving sale in Charlotte, accompanied by a document detailing the sale of John for $1,150.

New York collector Keya Morgan says he paid $30,000 for the photo album including the photo of the young boys and several family pictures and $20,000 for the sale document. He explains that the deceased owner of the home where the photo was found was thought to be a descendant of John.

While the development has again validated the significance of photographs as enduring custodians of memories, it has also set tongues wagging on the evils and expansive racial injustice that slavery represented.

For instance, an author and member of the board of directors at the Abraham Lincoln Institute in Washington, D.C., Ron Soodalter, notes that the photo depicts the reality of slavery.

His words, “I think this picture shows that the institution of slavery didn’t pick. This was a generic horror. It victimised the old, the young.”

How Europe raided John’s parents

As have been depicted by many authorities, slavery is one of the worst crimes that a man can subject another person to. In clear terms, the New World Encyclopedia describes slavery as the “social and/or legal designation of specific persons as property, without the right to refuse work or receive payment.”

It adds that many cultures in history used slaves, often putting them to work in service of the rich, allowing them to live lives of luxury, or in service to the larger society by constructing roads, buildings, and so forth or working in the fields to grow and harvest crops for food. Many of the great civilisations and empires of the past could not have developed as they did without their slaves, and that is how the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, of which John and his unnamed friend were victims, has been noted to be the source of the development of the West.

In one of his numerous arguments against racism and slavery, seasoned scholar, Chinweizu, gives a vivid picture of how, in its search for cheap labour, Europe took war to the Black Race; how Europeans went to Africa as deliberate war provocateurs, and craftily fomented wars, and committed and suborned warlike acts, in order to stimulate a harvest of war prisoners. This was how it all began.

Chinweizu adds, “After Columbus ‘discovered’ America, and sturdy labour was needed for plantations there, the raiding of Africa for slaves became the official business of rival European states. By the early 18th Century, it brought war, war of the most atrocious and desolating character, and on a scale until then unimagined, to Africa, and made of England the great slave trader of the world. The trade had grown so large that mere kidnapping raids conducted by white men in the immediate neighbourhood of the coast-line were insufficient to meet its requirements. Regions inaccessible to the European had to be tapped by the organisation of civil wars.”

Waiting for reparations

So devastating has the memory of slave trade been that many Africans and Africans in the Diaspora – the latter being not-too-distant cousins of John – demanded that Europe and other races that took Africans into slavery pay reparations. This, for instance, was one of the crusades that the late business mogul and politician, Chief MKO Abiola, started in the early 1990s.

The crusade steadily garnered support till the Organisation of African Unity, which transformed to African Union, “officially embraced the idea of making claims for atonement, including specific reparations, for slavery and colonialism,” recalls Jullyette Ukabiala in Africa Recovery.

During the 1992 summit, African heads of state created an eminent persons group to explore the issue. The group co-chaired by Abiola and former UNESCO Director-General, Amadou-Mahtar M‘Bow, organised a pan-African conference on reparations in 1993, with the summit held in Abuja coming out with a proclamation that the damage caused by slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism “is not a thing of the past, but is painfully manifest in the damaged lives of contemporary Africans.”

In 1999, the African World Reparation and Repatriation Truth Commission, which met in Accra, also issued a declaration that called for $777trn over five years as reparation for enslaving Africans during the colonisation of the continent. The agitators expect the money to come from “those nations of Western Europe and the Americas and institutions who participated and benefited from the slave trade and colonialism.”

One of the hurdles that the advocates have to face, however, is the fact that opinions that matter differ on the kind of compensation that Europe should pay. Even at an anti-racism conference held in South Africa in 2005, African leaders such as ex President Olusegun Obasanjo and Enoch Kavindale of Zambia held different opinions.

For Obasanjo, an apology from Europe is enough, while Kavindale prefers an international compensation scheme. But for other elders such as Desmond Tutu and President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo, the payment being demanded is a way of saying ‘We are sorry’ on the part of the people who committed slavery against humanity.

One of the thorny issues has also got to do with who gets the reparation between Africans at home and the ones in the Diaspora, who were actually sold into slavery – with some even quick to recall that African ancestors who sold their fellow Blacks are also culpable. But if this is diversionary, some people have actually been trying relevant cases in court in the US.

According to an online account, from 2000 onwards, there have been a handful of cases brought against private institutions and corporations that were historically involved in slavery.

“Several were consolidated in 2002 to demand restitution from 20 assorted companies, including banks, insurance, textile, railroad and tobacco companies. The lawsuit was dismissed by district court. An appeal in 2006 left the plaintiffs with the option of resubmitting the lawsuit if they were able to provide proof that state law in 1850s was violated by importing slaves, that there was a basis for reparation created at the time of importation, and that the statute of limitations had not been exceeded,” it adds.

What next for John’s image?

While the discovery of John’s photo may have given his memory a push, whether or not his descendants will ever get a more concrete compensation is the question.

On what next for John’s photo, Morgan intends to keep it in his personal collection. He, however, notes that he already has an inquiry to sell the photo to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“This kid was abused and mistreated and people forgot about him,” Morgan said. “He doesn’t even exist in history. And to know that there were a million children who were like him. I’ve never seen another photo like that that speaks so much for children,” says Morgan, who is also inclined to participating in the creation of a video documentary about John.


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