We all have seen the car bumper sticker encouraging us to practice random acts of kindness. Digging deeper into the history of the Middle Passage and the transatlantic slave trade, I uncover numerous acts of humanity. One of the most startling examples involves the sailors of these ships. They had the most direct continuous contact with the captives often suffering and dying at the same rate, and for the same reasons as the Africans – poor food, disease, flogging, insurrections. If they survived the Middle Passage the practice of many captains was to literally dump them (especially if they were infirm) at one of the slave ports. This saved investors and the company the expense of contract payment upon return to the European or American home ports.
There are records of these sailors begging, being disabled from malaria and tropical parasites, and dying as they scattered along the docks. It was a routine occurrence. Drunk, sick, destitute they survived or died dependent upon the response of others. The amazing sequel is that many of these boys and men, after being abandoned and shunned, were nursed and buried by Africans. The very people whom they had helped enslave and remove from their home chose to care for them in a strange land.
Finding these kindnesses difficult to fathom, several historians have rationalized the Africans’ acts by stating perhaps some of the enslaved were repaying a favor, a kindness offered to them previously. That may be so, but I choose to believe that the feeding, healing, nursing and burial, for the most part, were random. They were not determined by merit but simply based upon principles of humanity.
Our forefathers endured much. They also realized that no single person can assume the total weight of punishment or benefit from a social political system of which they are a part. They opted to define themselves and others within a human and humane context. I know that is how they survived. As stated previously this project is the affirmation of ourselves as human in the best sense of the word, and anecdotes abound over three hundred and fifty years of the slave trade.
We can dwell on the horrors or follow the example set by the ancestors. We can honor them. It is a complex story replete with “demons” and “saints.” What we do with this knowledge and memory is up to us. This is without question “our bone to pick.”