". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Saturday, December 29, 2012

"The full story of the British empire is yet to be told .... "

So speculates Martin Kettle in yesterday's UK Guardian Comment section. What he speculated has provoked 500 comments so far. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, it has provoked a lively argument. Too bad so many of the argumentative are so stone ignorant of history of anywhere, including the countries in which they live.

Myself, as historian of New World slavery and the contexts in which it operated, appreciate how much he focuses on the 17th century, the century of the baroque, and the continuance of the Wars of Religion, while all the while Europe expands its abilities for extraction of resources around the world, and particularly in the New World. Very seldom do those who praise the gold and silver splendors of the Baroque era consider how and why all that gold and silver came available for those palaces, theaters, cathedrals and dinner services. Kettle does this via consideration of a new exhibit up in Amsterdam's City Museum, called "The Golden Age." These days more people pay duely lipservice to the fact that New World slavery funded the European Industrial Revolution. But even those willing to accept that tend to remain resistent to considering what those riches extracted from South America and Mexico with African and Indigenous slave labor funded before that -- not only elaborate salt cellers but even the ships that allowed for further slave transport pillage and-plunder and exploration. Not that there was anything to stop this process, any more than there's anything to stop the process of China's current pillage and plunder investment in Africa. No matter what power manifests itself, whether Egypt, Rome, a European power -- Africa, the birthplace and cradle of homo saps -- is central to the current imperial extraction.

The Amsterdam exhibition tracks all these aspects of globalisation's first wave. The Dutch established colonies in modern-day Brazil, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Java – and on Manhattan, too. Theirs was a connected world. In a 1656 picture of the centre of Amsterdam, Ottoman merchants are shown negotiating a deal just round the corner from where the picture itself now hangs. A Dutch translation of the Qur'an was printed there in 1696.

But this was a time of slavery and war too. Slavery was illegal in the Netherlands, but Dutch ships carried and sold slaves in Africa and Surinam, and Dutch fortunes waxed rich from the profits of the trade. The Dutch were renowned in China for their violence, and their arms industry – still the sixth-largest in the world today – was formidable. By modern standards, Dutch justice was anything but enlightened. Two ghoulish Rembrandt drawings of the public strangulation of a female murderer depict one of the many dark sides of the golden age. 

In the Age of Revolution exhibit here at the New York Historical Society last winter, there was a gallery devoted to Dutch Surinam in the 17th century, set up as a tavern, complete with sound of various figure speaking from the historical record. Around it were hung those famous paintings of the place, with traders, seamen, women -- particularly slave-whores -- from around the world, with a very large number of Atlantic seaboard captains and merchants. The seventeenth century Caribbean and Atlantic were the center of the world then, o yes, to degrees that we can hardly imagine. It's this kind of work done by museums and historical societies at the top of their game that helps fill in the picture from the documented texts.

A lot of this was also repeated in the Liverpool International Museum of Slavery as well. I sure wish I could visit this one too, but that's unlikely.

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