Tony Kinsella: Debt-free Haiti can banish spectre of slavery

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[Tony Kinsella is a columnist at the Irish Times.]

Although we regularly witness history in the making, the process is often far from evident. Sometimes it’s hesitant, as in last week’s reluctant shuffle of Europe’s leaders towards a unified response to Greece’s financial crisis. Sometimes it’s illegible, as in deciphering the impact of Viktor Yanukovich’s victory in the Ukrainian presidential elections.

And sometimes, very occasionally, the making of history is crystal clear. Twenty years ago many of us watched such a moment when a providential leader emerged from the half-light of 27 years in prison. Which of us was not moved, awed, even a little ennobled as Nelson Mandela strode into the light of freedom?

The handful of diehard racists and myopic political neanderthals (Dick Cheney opposed Mandela’s release) were irrelevant. Justice was served, democracy strengthened, and the flame of hope in humanity’s essential decency rekindled. Something good had happened, and we felt the better for it.

Manifestations of organised inhumanity conversely diminish us all, externally and internally. Externally because we wonder how the German Nazi state could have slaughtered millions of humans simply because they were Jews, gypsies, homosexuals or opponents. Internally when we ask how could those priests, brothers and nuns who professed such ardent Christianity have tortured and abused so many tens of thousands of children on our island for so many decades.

If this external interrogation is cathartic, our internal questioning is as problematic as it is necessary. What of our not very good Jewish jokes? Or the collective aversion of our gazes from Ireland’s reformatories and industrial schools? Do tiny tendrils of white superiority tenaciously persist in our subconscious depths?

Three reactions emerge from such angst: reparation, determination and commemoration.

We want reparations for the victims. We are determined that such outrages will never be repeated. We also want to create a gripping memorial to remind us, and hopefully future generations, of just how capable we are of getting things horribly wrong.

These benevolent actions can sometimes tip over, with reparations for one injustice sowing the seeds of another. The Middle East reminds us, in the words of Roger Cohen in last Friday’s New York Times, that “past persecution of the Jews cannot be a license to subjugate another people”.

Every people has its own historic memories, often little known to outsiders. Few Serbs have ever heard of the Irish triumph at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Nor will many on our island be able to place Serbia’s 1389 defeat by the Ottomans on the Field of Blackbirds into any meaningful context.

The Holocaust has an understandably global profile. Perhaps because of its very scale, almost seven million slaughtered, and the systemic dehumanising of victims by their Nazi butchers. Its very stature in western civilisation can however sometimes cast other human barbarities into shadow. The prime candidate has to be the Atlantic slave trade.

Over more than three centuries something in the region of 12 million slaves were forcibly shipped, mainly from west Africa, to the Americas. Another eight million perished in resisting capture, or while awaiting transport.

Some 20 million Africans paid with their lives for much of the wealth of the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese empires. Africans slaves contributed enormously to the development of the USA and Brazil, until they abolished slavery in the latter half of the 19th century. A longer and a more pragmatic holocaust, but a holocaust nonetheless.

Every cataclysm has its moment of glory, its instant of affirmation which confers some dignity on survivors and their descendants. For our planet’s black population, Haiti offers such a moment...
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