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Tag Archives: Lose Your Mother

“It is all dead money now. The coffers of wealth accumulated by the capture and sale of slaves had turned into rubbish. Cowrie shells were demonetized and eventually outlawed altogether by colonial governments, which had divided and conquered Africa in the guise of emancipating it. The mortal anguish of the slaves had become apparent belatedly to European nations and this nascent abolitionist zeal provided the rationale for the conquest of Africa. In the nineteenth century, the same nations responsible for the shipment of millions of captives declared themselves the antagonists of slavery. Soon after colonial governments abolished Africa’s internal slave trade, the currency of the slave trade,at least what Africans had accumulated, was destroyed too. No similar effort to erase the past and start anew was enacted in the West. The pounds and francs and marks that replaced cowrie shells were blood money too.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother


“Cowrie shells replaced the indigenous curries of Africa… The literal piles and mountains of money must have made it seem as if this plenitude was without end.

However, the money Africans acquired was inconvertible. The shells passed from white hands to black, but back again, ensuring they remained ‘Negro currency.’

War and predation enabled Africa to produce slaves and purchase luxury goods, and permitted Europe to accumulate the capital necessary for economic development. But everyone knew the shells didn’t bear life but instead devoured it. The teeth lining the aperture were clearly for eating. In every place ravaged by the slave trade, stories circulated about the human cost of money: cowrie shells feasted on the bodies of the captives. Money multiplied if fed human food.

Popular lore held that teh best places to harvest cowries were along the coast where slaves had been murdered or drowned. Nets were cast into the sea to dredge for treasure. The corpse of a slave would emerge from the water encased by thousands of shells. The fisherman who retrieved the body of the human-mollusk plucked off the money and returned home a wealthy man. Rich men fished for cowries using the amputated limbs of slaves as bait… Hovering at the edge of the water, guiltless and avaricious, the big men lingered until the money began to sprout and welcomed it as a gift from God.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“Cowrie shells became the currency of West Africa in the era of the Atlantic slave trade. While North Africans had introduced them as early as the eleventh century, they became ubiquitous in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Europeans began exchanging them for slaves.

The shells were imported from the Maldives. Women and men waded waist-deep into the sea and detached the shells from stones, wood, and palm leaves, which had been placed in the shallows for easy collection. One person could gather as many as twelve thousand shells in a day. The shells were buried in sand for a few weeks until the mollusks died and the smell of putrefaction vanished. They were then disinterred, washed, dried and strong together for sale.

The English and the Dutch acquired the shells very cheaply and considered them worthless. European traders derisively called the shells ‘Negro money.’ To their eyes, Africans’ esteem of these worthless pieces was yet another instance of fetishism. In the eighteenth century alone, more than twenty-five million pounds of cowries were imported into West Africa. Of the six million plus captives transported to the Americas in the eighteenth century, anywhere from a third to a quarter of them had been exchange for shells. twelve to sixteen pounds of cowries were enough to purchase a strapping young man. That was one pound of cowries for every thirteen pounds of human flesh.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“Most of those sold in the internal trade were women and children… The children born to a slave wife shared the mother’s disinheritance and belonged entirely to the genealogy of the father. Slave women extended the owner’s lineage without enjoying the privileges or protection entitled to wives supported by their families. Nor did families ever forget who was ‘of the house’ (the slaves absorbed and remade in the line of the master) and ‘of the blood’ (royals possessing legal rights of inheritance and succession).

There were no women in the chief’s inner circle whom I might ask about the rewards of being pretty or about the trials of being a wife. The men had appointed themselves the official custodians of history. Besides, the women never had an afternoon to waste ruminating about history. They didn’t have an hour to spare; they were selling goods in the market or laboring in the fields or carrying pails of water or hauling a load of firewood or washing laundry, the very chores that made the labor of slave women so highly prized. When later I asked the women in town about slavery, they joked, ‘The wife is the true slave.’ ”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

” ‘What about the slaves of Salaga? Are there people in town who are the descendants of slaves?’

The chief visibly stiffened upon hearing my question. ‘It is still difficult for us to speak of slavery. One cannot point a finger and say he or she is a slave. It is prohibited to do so.

The taboo on revealing someone’s origins extended back to the seventeenth century. Ndewura Jakpa forbade people to refer to their own or anyone else’s origins… Everyone who had ever mentioned the law to me had explained that it was intended to protect those of slave origin. In practice it prevented the enslaved from speaking of a life before servitude and it abolished their ancestry. The slave existed in the world, but without either a history or an inheritance.

‘Why shame someone and say he or she is a slave?’ the chief added. I wondered if the chief was shocked that I had been so tactless. ‘Those who were slaves have married and become incorporated into Salaga.’

The Salagawura says one thing, but I hear another: ‘We still know who they are.’ ”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“Racism, according to Michel Foucault, is the social distribution of death; like an actuarial chart, it predicts who would thrive and who would not.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“The Royal Africa Company and the Company of Merchants didn’t imagine their human cargo as a pile of corpses, nor did they consider these dank rooms a grave. As they saw it, the dungeon was a womb in which the slave was born. The harvest of raw material and the manufacture of goods defined the prison’s function. The British didn’t call it a womb; they called it a factory, which has its first usage in the trading forts of West Africa. (The very word ‘factory’ documents the indissoluble link between England’s industrial revolution and the birth of human commodities.)

“In the company’s view, the dungeon was a way station for human refuse and a cocoon for laborers. The miracle of the slave trade was that it resuscitated useless lives and transformed waste into capital. Africa benefited from the commerce, avowed the merchants, because ‘her wants were satisfied at a very trifling expense’ and paid for with ‘the refuse and offscourings of her population.’ What Aime Cesaire later described as ‘walking compost hideously promising tender cane and silky cotton.’ ”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“…return is what you hold on to after you have been taken from your country, or when you realize that there is no future in the New World, or that death is the only future. Return is the hunger for all the things you once enjoyed or the yearning for all the things you never enjoyed. It bears the impress of everything that has been taken from you. It is the last resort of the defeated. It is the diversion of suicides and dreamers. It is the elsewhere of insurrectionists. It is the yearning of those who can ‘summon filial love for persons and places they have never known.’

“Every generation confronts the task of choosing its past. Inheritances are chosen as much as they are passed on. The past depends less on ‘what happened then’ than on the desires and discontents of the present. Strivings and failures shape the stories we tell. What we recall has as much to do with the terrible things we hope to avoid as with the good life for which we yearn. But when does one decide to stop looking to the past and instead conceive of a new order? When is it time to dream of another country or to embrace other strangers as allies or to make an opening, an overture, where there is none? When is it clear that the old life is over, a new one has begun, and there is no looking back?”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“I must have appeared a foolish woman who acted as if slaves existed only in the past and who conducted herself as if dispossession were her inheritance alone. Looking at me, the boys imagined the wealth and riches they could possess if they lived in the States. After all, who else but a rich American could afford to travel so far to cry about her past? Looking at me, the boys wished their ancestors had been slaves. If so, they would be big men.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“…what we both accepted was that the experience of slavery had made us an us, that is, it had created the conditions under which we had fashioned an identity. Dispossession was our history.

“The solidarity I felt with other black people depended largely on this history, whereas in Ghana their identity as Ghanaians and as Africans depended on silencing a past in which elites sold commoners and southerners viewed northerners as disposable people and alienable goods. The lines of division between kin and stranger, neighbor and alien, became hard and fast during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. It decided who lived an died, who was sold and who was protected. In Ghana, slavery wasn’t a rallying cry against the crimes of the West or the evils of white men; to the contrary, it shattered any illusions of a unanimity of sentiment in the black world and exposed the fragility and precariousness of the grand collective we that had yet to be actualized.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“In an apocalyptic account of history, the end is inevitable and destruction can be traced to the most innocuous and routine beginnings, like the exchange of salutations and vows of love on the Atlantic coast. The certitude of hindsight gives the demise an inevitable cast. But there were no black clouds casting a shadow on the Portuguese when they arrived, nor were storms brewing on the horizon. The heavens did not weep. All the omens that might have betrayed something terrible about to happen failed to appear or went unnoticed. Who knew the cost of naming the world anew? Who could have imagined the worlds destroyed by the horse and the musket, or the death reaped by luxury goods, or that sugar, coffee, and tobacco would transform three continents? It was not possible to foresee the Portuguese royal insignia scored along the west African coast as far south as Angola or to anticipate the crucifix branded onto the breasts and arms of captives…

“Deciding the matter of cause and effect is, by necessity, belated; causality is a the benefit of retrospection. One apprehends the signs of an inevitable demise only in hindsight. It is like trying to figure out when things began to change in a failed relationship: are the signs visible only after things have ended badly, or were the signs always there and you just failed to heed them? Only in looking back can the course from now to then be traced; or can we say, ‘Ah, this is how it began’; or weigh contingency and necessity, chance and causality; or wonder if the seemingly inexorable character of events was little more than the collective force of circumstance, accident, and caprice.

“The randomness and contingency of history nonetheless produces two classes, winners and losers. Like men at a gaming table, over the course of time the gap between these groups will become bigger and bigger…

“The record of the encounter between Europe and Africa is a litany of stories about events that never happened. Myth is the threshold of history. On the slave route, it is no different.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“For every slave who has arrived in the Americas, at least one and perhaps as many as five persons died in wars of capture, on the trek to the coast, imprisoned in barracoons, lingering in the belly of a ship, or crossing the Atlantic. Death also awaited them in pesthouses, cane fields, and the quarters. Historians still debate whether twelve million or sixty million had been sentenced to death to meet the demands of the transatlantic commerce in black bodies.

“Impossible to fathom was that all this death had been incidental to the acquisition of profit and to the rise of capitalism. Today we might describe it as collateral damage. The unavoidable losses created in pursuit of the greater objective. Death wasn’t a goal of its own but just a by-product of commerce, which has the lasting effect of making negligible all the millions of lives lost… Unlike the concentration camp, the gulag, and the killing field, which had as their intended end the extermination of a population, the Atlantic trade created millions of corpses, but as a corollary to the making of commodities. To my eyes this lack of intention didn’t diminish the crime of slavery but from the vantage of judges, juries, and insurers exonerated the culpable agents. In effect, it made it easier for a trader to countenance yet another dead black body or for a captain to dump a shipload of captives into the sea in order to the collect the insurance, since it wasn’t possible to kill cargo or to murder a thing already denied life. Death was simply a part of the workings of the trade.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“If the past is another country, then I am its citizen. I am the relic of an experience most preferred not to remember, as if the sheer will to forget could settle or decide the matter of history. I am a reminder that twelve million crossed the Atlantic Ocean and the past is not yet over. I am the progeny of the captives. I am the vestige of the dead. And history is how the secular world attends to the dead.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“My grandparents had left Curacao, a thirty-five-mile stretch of arid land adrift in the Caribbean Sea, vowing to make good in New York and to return home. But as the decades passed, they convinced themselves that it was still too soon, or that the money wasn’t right yet, or that it would be easier to leave the following year.

“Not ready to admit the defeat of their permanent estrangement, they held steadfast to the belief in American opportunity. It was a word they uttered to stave off fear; it consoled them on bad days; it reminded them why they were in the States rather than at home. Opportunity – it was intoned as if it was the consolation they required, as if it repelled prejudice, warded off failure, remedied isolation, and quieted the ache of yearning. It shrouded the past and set their gaze solely on the future.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother