Where are the Chains?
On the memorialisation of historic slavery and its links to modern slavery: The case of James Town
by Chao Tayiana Maina
This article briefly explores the ways in which the Hidden Histories project approached memorialisation of historic slavery as a means to raising awareness on modern slavery in Jamestown, Accra. In exploring outputs and findings from this project, I am interested in the dance between past and present, remembrance and loss. Not just as it relates to dates, facts and figures but to the intangible human experience, that which has been erased and misrepresented. I am also interested in the foregrounding of personal intimate histories as a centering of black memory in a world that has been all to quick to separate race from discussions on modern slavery.
The Hidden Histories project team undertook interviews and research in Jamestown, interviewing those who have knowledge or lived experience of modern slavery in the area and those with knowledge on the history of Jamestown during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. A new walking tour of Jamestown’s historical sites was developed and an original performance based on the interviews was staged in local schools.
The project takes an exploratory look into the history of Jamestown, incorporating oral history and community interviews with an exploration of the sites, sounds and infrastructure of the area. The team’s approach to combining tangible and intangible histories, lends itself to the unearthing of narratives and experiences that have largely gone unrecognised in the official historical canon.
Listening to a discussion with principal investigators Collins Seymah Smith (Jamestown Community Theatre) and Nii Kwaterlai Quartey (JamesTown walking tours), I was immediately drawn to a comment that inspired the title of this piece, “when you mention slavery, what comes to mind is people in chains and shackles. The reason why people are saying modern slavery does not happen in Jamestown… They were no chains, they were no shackles.”
It is interesting to explore this link between what is visible and what is remembered. How does visibility shape memory? By using tangible forms of memorialisation we seek to cement histories both in the landscape and in the mind. Yet what is visible only represents a small fraction of the past and in some cases may or may not be connected to the events we seek to memorialize. Findings from the Hidden Histories project reveal the disconnect between what is visible versus what is invisible and how this affects what is eventually memorialised. Slave trade in Jamestown was characterised by a number of merchants with large houses who used underground tunnels to move slaves from cells in their houses to the coast in order to avoid paying tax.
By identifying tunnels and interviewing the owners of large houses in the area who confirm this use, the project spotlights the key role that Jamestown played in the trading and transportation of slaves. Project investigators point out that while a great deal of government attention in slave trade memorialisation and tourism has been paid to the larger sites of Cape Coast and Elmina Castles (positioning these as the most significant historic sites connected with the slave trade in Ghana) investigations into Jamestown now bring a new and more complex angle to the story.
What is interesting about the memorialisation of historic slavery in Jamestown is this paradox between visibility and invisibility. Watching the Jamestown Virtual tour, Nii Quarterly takes the viewer through historic buildings and tunnels that are not ticketed, cordoned off or signposted (as is normally expected at historical sites) . Some of the sites are part of people’s homes, children are playing, people are cooking and washing clothes, everyone is going about their daily activities. The infrastructure is alive but the memory of them is not. It is almost as if they are hidden in plain sight.
Through this grass roots approach to historical documentation the Hidden Histories project in Jamestown reveals strong links between historic slavery and modern slavery as they relate to sophisticated supply chains, the denial of the issue by people in traditional and civil roles, and a significant taboo relating to victims and survivors of slavery.
Memorialisation is never neutral and in many cases is associated with those who wield power, since they decide which narratives should be remembered, preserved and disseminated.. Successive governments in Ghana have also for instance seen historic slavery as belonging to national heritage and tourism with few attempts to links this to contemporary slavery.
Where state and collective memory fail, local interventions can play a big part in heritage education and sensitization. The creation of a play on modern day slavery performed to over 700 students and played to 160 locals and tourists facilitated critical discussions on the issues of modern slavery in James Town. By creating a performance based on community interviews and sharing this to raise awareness of contemporary exploitation, the Hidden Histories project spotlights the educative role of heritage and performance where school curriculums have failed.
There are various ways of engaging with the past, at the extreme ends, the politics of memory and memorialisation often lie between an obsession with the past and an attempt to impose forgetting. In the spaces that lie between, the Hidden Histories project demonstrates that this forgetting can in itself be a consequence of time and change – such as in the case of re-engineered buildings in Jamestown. People for instance, raise objections that Jamestown Fort had a role in slave trade because it does not have a door of no return, when in fact the door of no return was removed when the fort was changed into a prison.
Other times this shift can also be a consequence of language as demonstrated by the ways in which people associate the word slavery to shackles and chains, while dissociating it from the present. Instead, the word exploitation is seen as more applicable to modern day contexts. The work of memorialisation is not just to mirror the past but to hold up a mirror to the present as well. To allow us to continually engage with and uncover aspects of ourselves that are more often than not, painful to deal with.
I am intrigued that in Ga widely spoken in the Jamestown community, the word for slavery and the word for night are the same. That the night brings with it darkness and so does slavery, is perhaps symbolic of what slavery evokes and how it is interpreted. The exploration of these hidden histories therefore relates as much to the documentation of tangible infrastructure as it does to the documentation of intangible histories through language and memory.
As demonstrated by the Hidden Histories project an approach to memorialisation that steps away from dominant narratives and into the lives and homes of individuals and communities uncovers a plethora of forgotten histories. These in turn contribute towards a more comprehensive view of the past and its inextricable interaction with the present.
It is therefore not a question of whether historic slavery is linked to modern slavery, but how these links continue to manifest and present themselves in present day.