One of the most perverse realities of human history has been the millenary character of slavery. It shows that we can be not only sapiens, carriers of love, empathy, respect and devotion but also demens, haters, aggressive, cruel and merciless. This somber side of us seems to dominate social scene of our time as well as our country.
Slavery history is lost in the darkness of the mists of time. There is a whole literature about slavery, popularized in Brazil by journalist-historian Laurentino Gomes in three volumes (only the first one has already been published in 2019). Historic sources of slaved persons are almost inexistent, as they were kept illiterate. In Brazil, one of history’s most slaver countries, sources have been burned by mandate of the naïve “genius” Ruy Barbosa, to erase the sources of our national shame. Therefore, our history has been written by the white hand with the blood of slaved persons as ink.
The word slave comes from the Latin slavus, generic name to designate Slavs, inhabitants of the Balkan region, in southern Russia along the shores of the Black Sea, large provider of slaved persons for the whole Mediterranean. They were white, blond, with blue eyes. The Ottomans from Istanbul alone imported almost 2.5 million of those slaved white people between 1450-1700 AC.
In our time, the Americas were large importers of people from Africa that were slaved. Between 1500 and 1867, their number is appalling: 12,521,337 made the transatlantic journey, 1,818,680 of them died on the way and were thrown overboard at sea. Brazil was the slavery champion. Since 1538, Brazil alone imported almost 4.9 million Africans that were slaved. From the 36,000 transatlantic trips, 14,910 were destined to Brazilian ports.
These slaved people were treated as merchandizes, called “pieces.” The first thing that buyer made to have them “well domesticated and disciplined” was punishing them: “floggings, chains, and shackles.” Historians of dominant class created the legend that here slavery was soft when it was extremely cruel.
An example will suffice: Dutch Dierick Ruiters, who was in Rio de Janeiro in 1618, narrated: “a hungry black man stole two sugar loaves. The master, when he realized what had happened, had him on his knees tied up to a wooden table and ordered a black man to flog him with a leader whip; his body ended up as an open sore from head to toe and the places where whip did not pass were lacerated by stabbing. When the punishment finished, another back man poured vinegar and salt over his wounds … I had to witness—said the Dutch—the transformation of a man into salted ox meat. And, and if that were not enough, they spilled over his wounds melted tar; they left him a whole night on his knees, strapped to a block by his neck as a miserable animal” (Gomes Escravidão, p. 304). With such punishments, life expectancy for a slaved person in 1872 was 18.3 years.
Jesuit André João Antonil said “for the slave, three Ps (for their Spanish equivalents) are necessary, that is: stick, bread, and cloth. Stick to hit him, Bread not to let him starve to death, and Cloth for hiding his embarrassments.”
It would be long to enumerate these Stations of the Cross, through which these slaved persons went; they are more numerous than those of the Son of the man, when he was tortured and raised on the wood cross, even though he has been around us “doing good and healing the oppressed.” (Hech 10.39)
It is always current the heartbreaking cry of Carlos Alves in Voices of Africa: “Oh, God, where are you that you do not answer? In which world, in which star do you hide / muffled up in the skies? Two thousand years ago, I sent you my cry / which in vain since then circle the infinite … / Where are you, Sir, God?”
Mysteriously, God remained silent as he did in Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau that made Pope Benedict XVI asked himself: “Where was God in those days? Why did he remain silence? How could he allow so much evil?”
And to think that the main slavery-crats were Christians. Faith did not help them see in those people “image and likeness of God”, even more, “sons and daughters of God,” our sisters and brothers. How was cruelty possible in torture cellars of various military dictators in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador and Brazil, who called themselves Christians and Catholics?
When the contradiction is too large and goes beyond any rationality, we simply remain silent. It is the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of iniquity, one to which no philosopher, theologian, or thinker has found an answer. Christ in the cross also shouted and felt the “death” of God. Even there, it is worth the bet that not all the forces of darkness together can turn off a small light that shines in the night. It is our hope against all odds.
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