Slaves no more


This column featured recently the history of slave traffic to and through then Ceylon. In that context there are two sections to the piece today. One from the United States and the other from Sri Lanka.

Reconciliation contribution

Georgetown University undergraduates have voted by a large margin in favour of a referendum seeking the establishment of a fund to benefit the descendants of enslaved people sold to pay off the school’s debts. The $27.20-per-semester fee would create one of the first reparations funds at a major U.S. institution. Georgetown’s endowment today towers over $1.5 billion dollars, but in 1838, the school – deep in debt – sold 272 slaves to stay open. In 2016, the university’s president apologized. “We will seek forgiveness for our participation in the institution of slavery,” Georgetown President John DeGioia said. Georgetown offered preferential admission to their descendants – like New Orleans chef Melisande Short-Colombon– who came here as a freshman at age 63.

The Georgetown University Student Association Elections Commission said 2,541 students voted for the “Reconciliation Contribution.” That’s just over 66 percent of voters. The student-led proposal aims to atone for the Jesuit-organised sale of 272 slaves in 1838. Fees would go toward projects in underprivileged communities where some 4,000 descendants live, including Maringouin, Louisiana.

In an early Friday statement, university administrator Todd Olson didn’t commit to the fund’s establishment but said Thursday’s non-binding vote provided “valuable insight into student perspectives.”

Before the vote, Georgetown spokesperson Matt Hill told CBS News that no matter what the outcome, the school would “remain committed to engaging with students, Descendants, and the broader Georgetown community and addressing its historical relationship to slavery.”

Georgetown has apologized for its role in slavery and convened a working group to propose ways to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for that history. But it has stopped short of offering financial restitution.

The student vote comes as the issue of national reparations has resurfaced among 2020 Democratic candidates. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill to research the possibility of reparations, and some other candidates — including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris — have voiced support for reparations in principle.

There have been calls in Congress for decades to start a dialogue about reparations, but the idea has found little momentum.

Honouring Afro-Sri Lankans

Last week a ceremony was held to remember slaves who were brought to Galle from Africa. The brain child of South African High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Robina Marks. In her words, “the families performed a play that depicted how their ancestors were forcibly taken from them and laden onto Slave ships. And then we visited the temporary exhibition that Angus Leendertz curated for us in the Moon Bastion, a former dungeon, and that now tells the story of the Afro-Sri Lankans. It’s difficult to communicate the surprise and joy that they showed as they pointed out the story of those who have gone before them, and of themselves. This is the first time that they have seen themselves depicted in a dignified way, that told them that we see them, their history, their present.

Of course, there are people who would ask why should we remember and commemorate the effects of slavery? And the answer is very simple. We do so not only because we want to renew our commitment not to allow it to happen ever again, but also because we know that inter generational transmission of trauma can be passed on from generation to generation for those who have experienced trauma. And so how can we ask the descendants of the millions of Jews who were exterminated during the Holocaust, or the close to a million Rwandans who were killed in an act of genocide, or the many who suffer post traumatic disorder as a result of civil wars in Sri Lanka, in Afghanistan, in Vietnam, in Yemen, in Palestine, in South Africa and many other parts of the world to just forget and move on? And so it is important for us to say that we bear witness, we acknowledge the trauma caused by slavery, and to our Afro-Sri Lankan descendants we say, in the African tradition: We see you.

We acknowledge the history bound up in slavery that brought you here. And we feel your pain. And we commit that never, ever again, shall this land or any other tolerate any form of slavery in whatever forms they may come. Be it human trafficking or forced sexual exploitation or forced labour. Not under our watch. Because we are your brothers and sisters. And we remain each other’s keepers.

The following day we all got up at the crack of dawn for our traditional African ceremony of healing that we decided with the community to follow: seven stones bound by rope carried to a patch of tarmac where their ancestors remain buried, and carried by seven community members. Then maize meal mixed with water to represent the nourishment they didn’t receive, then the lighting of a red candle for their tears and pains and white for peace and healing. And after that, the burning of imphepo that was carried by a community member around the burial ground, now a car park, and then passed from one member of the clan to the other. And the cleansing in the dungeon...and the collection of seawater that they will use to wash themselves at home”.


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