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The Slave Girl and the Professor

Roger Sandall

Quadrant March 2012 []

Did British comedians Flanders and Swann know something about moral progress that a prominent philosopher seems not to understand?
Mende Nazer

Mende Nazer

The movie I am Slave is as good as the book, from scenes of wild destruction as Arab horsemen seize 12-year-old Mende Nazer from her home in the Nuba Mountains, to the slave market in Khartoum, to her days of captivity in London. The story of a plucky young woman breaking away from years of Sudanese servitude to recreate herself as a free UK citizen is inspiring: we wish her well. It also provides a dramatic glimpse of one of the stranger fruits of British multiculturalism — a slave-trade bringing hundreds of captive African youngsters into the land of William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp. (

This historic development is very odd. In fact it’s so odd it deserves the attention of someone who has thought long and hard about slavery, a person of broad culture and widely read, and ideally both a moral philosopher and of African background too. With such requirements it might seem hard to imagine anyone likely to qualify — hard even to know where to look. Yet there’s a man in the USA who exactly fills the bill: Kwame Anthony Akroma-Ampim Kusi Appiah. Born in London in 1954 before growing up in Ghana, Professor Appiah is a well-known Cambridge-educated figure who in the past has “published widely in African and African-American literary and cultural studies,” but is now, we are told, mainly concerned with “the philosophical foundations of liberalism” and “the connection between theory and practice in moral life.”

The Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton, Appiah is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Advisory Board of the United Nations Democracy Fund, is currently Chair of the Board of the American Council of Learned Societies, and even a cursory look at his long list of achievements reveals a serious mover and shaker in the U.S. liberal establishment today.  (

Slavery in theory and practice

Originally from Ghana, and now focused on “the connection between theory and practice in moral life”, could anyone be more suitable for bridging the world of surreptitiously smuggled African slave-children and higher academic thought? If anyone can explain to the Mende Nazers of the world what happened to them so violently and painfully in Africa, and why it is still happening to African children today, surely Kwame A. Appiah is the man. Though in the 2007 book Buying Freedom one soon discovers that the theory and practice of liberating slaves is no simple matter. Professor Appiah co-authored the Introduction, and his own essay toward the end — “What’s Wrong with Slavery?” — is one of a dozen contributions mainly concerned with the moral and economic perplexities of redeeming slaves by paying cash to slave-traders.

Those like Baroness Cox, in the UK, who forthrightly accept the practice, are opposed by others who claim that paying cash drives up the price of slaves, and increases slave-raiding. Paying cash should have that effect in theory, but whether it really does no-one is sure. Buying Freedom is a book with economic articles about the mathematics of “efficient competitive equilibrium,” on the one hand, and contributions from moral philosophers using words like “deontology” and “consequentialism” on the other. One might hope that despite all the fancy language there’s something here to help Africa’s modern slaves, but that is uncertain. Deontologically speaking, it seems we are duty bound to buy a slave’s freedom if we can; though some argue that this “commodifies” the human subject, while others point to a whole cascade of unfortunate unintended effects. A prudent man might keep his hands in his pockets and walk on by.

As for Appiah’s provocatively titled contribution, “What’s Wrong With Slavery?”, we learn that as a boy in Ghana he was at first told very little about the importance of slave trading to the traditional Asante (Ashanti) economy. Only later did he find that “the suppression of the slave trade began the period of Asante imperial decline, which was to end with final conquest by the British at the start of the twentieth century.” What he calls “the central moral questions” about liberating slaves are the author’s main concern, and he affirms that freedom comes first. But according to Appiah “freedom is not enough”. After the act of liberation we also have a duty to guarantee every freed slave respect, dignity, and both social- and self-esteem. While these are all good things, they seem to reflect wider political preoccupations than those of the ex-slaves themselves. You don’t read much of Mende Nazer’s story without realizing that her own priority was liberty — it’s right there in the title of the successful 2010 stage play about her life: “Slave: A Question of Freedom.”

*    *    *

After this Appiah goes off on a long divagation about the relative status of different kinds of Asante slaves. It seems there were five degrees of enslavement in the Asante Empire, hierarchy being the leading feature of a social milieu where minute grades of status make the Russian nomenklatura seem half-hearted. It’s not clear what Appiah thinks of this fact. Does he believe that ubiquitous bureaucratic order is the sign of an advanced and progressive state, and something to be proud of? Not all students of government administration feel this way. The world of the old-time Asante he describes is in fact a classical system of aristocratic rank and authority, in which everyone has a place and everyone is expected to keep it — a social order where what might be called “respect on demand” is vigorously enforced.

Appiah himself emphasizes that if you were lucky enough to be a Grade One Slave you couldn’t be sold, which is plainly good. Then he describes another degree in which the slave was really a kind of pawn — “but then a pawn was not strictly a possession either”, going on to claim that the relationship between slave and slave owner, though unequal, was better seen as “reciprocal” and that the slave had clear rights against his master. Only at the end of what reads like the usual anthropological apologia do we descend to the inglorious level of the Grade Four and Grade Five Slaves, Asante war captives and criminals whose fate was to be used for human sacrifice — though they might have to wait some weeks cooling their heels “until such time as it was deemed religiously auspicious to kill them.”

Human sacrifice

Latinate English prose is always useful for neutralising disagreeable facts, or veiling ugly realities, and the phrase “religiously auspicious” is a good example of this. In “What’s Wrong With Slavery?” Professor Appiah smoothly invites us to contemplate a world where sacrificial slaves uncomplainingly accept their fate as little more than a social convention. The scene portrayed is calm, formal, orderly, and safely ritualised. With a little imagination you might even be able to hear the victim imploring the executioner, “if His Majesty deems it religiously auspicious please take my head off now — delay is unnecessary.” Yet visitors to the region in days gone by (days as recent as the year 1900 in Appiah’s Ghana) suggest it wasn’t quite like that in the violent kingdoms of old West Africa, where capital punishment was a casual event and severed heads were part of the everyday scene.

In nearby Dahomey, in 1772, Robert Norris found the viceroy passing sentence on a woman who had accidentally started a fire in the market. “I requested that her life might be spared”, wrote Norris, and offered to purchase her as a slave. But the king had firmly made up his mind. Her head was to be “cut off and fixed upon a stake.” The victim’s small daughter ran up to her at this point, unaware of her mother’s situation, causing a brief diversion before the distressed woman was bludgeoned to death.

Mission to Ashantee

Also unmentioned by Professor Appiah are the disagreeable preliminaries Thomas Bowdich described. Bowdich was in the Asante kingdom for five months in 1817 and is usually regarded as a reliable, accurate, and racially unbiased observer. He was favourably impressed by much that he saw — the majestic deportment of the Asante king, the colour and magnificence of ceremonial life, the elegance of the women, and a style of dancing where “the man encircles the woman with a piece of silk…supports her round the waist, receives her elbows in the palms of his hands,” the two then performing “a variety of figures approximating, with the time and movement, very close to the waltz.”

Less attractive were the human sacrifices that immediately followed. “The drums announced the sacrifice of the victims… The executioners wrangled and struggled for the office: the nearest executioner snatched the sword from the others, the right hand of the victim was then lopped off, he was thrown down, and his head was sawed rather than cut off.” Bowdich writes of a typical victim en route to execution that “His hands were pinioned behind him, a knife was passed through his cheeks, to which his lips were noosed like the figure of 8; one ear was cut off and carried before him, the other hung to his head by a small bit of skin; there were several gashes in his back, and a knife thrust under each shoulder blade; he was led with a cord passed through his nose…the feeling this horrid barbarity excited must be imagined.”

Appiah’s quasi-ethnographic depiction of traditional Asante slavery, with sacrifices culturally authorised and occurring only when “religiously auspicious,” shows, some might say, a proper scholarly detachment. And perhaps it does. But it is also obtusely legalistic in mistaking rules for realities and forms for facts. When he tells us that reciprocity prevailed and that the luckier slaves even had “rights” against their owners, you would never guess that he is talking about a preliterate society without books, or writing, or written laws, or constitutional guarantees; a world with no independent judiciary, and no rational adversarial procedures for obtaining and testing evidence (though plunging the accused’s hand into boiling oil was thought a useful test); a world — if truth be told — perpetually subject to the whims and passions of powerful chiefs who ruled as much by terror as by consent. In the benign environment of Princeton it may seem plausible that the formal rights of West African slaves against their owners might actually have been enforceable. But you wouldn’t want to push your luck. My guess is that an Asante slave who stood on his rights would not be standing long.

“Moral revolutions” and slavery

According to the title of a recent book by the amiable Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal we live in The Age of Empathy, something he attributes to our warmly social hominid instincts. Also recently published is a book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, arguing that the modern era has been one of moral progress accompanied by a steady decline in violence. It seems that what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process” is nowadays on many minds, and Kwame A. Appiah’s 2010 book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, might be seen as broadly in the same vein. Taking an idiosyncratic view of moral and social progress, he sees national and social honour playing a key role in the outlawing of the duel, in the abandonment of Chinese foot-binding, in the abolition of slavery, and in the ongoing struggle by enlightened men and women in Islamic lands against the horror of “honour killings”. All these changes are what he calls “moral revolutions.”

Here we are only concerned with slavery and with Appiah’s treatment in Chapter Three, “Suppressing Atlantic Slavery” — a title that reveals a lot. Bear in mind that we’re dealing here with a persistent African problem, wondering what a prominent American liberal might usefully tell Mende Nazer about how and why she was enslaved in the 1990s. The judiciously inserted “Atlantic” however makes it clear that slavery as we find it in Africa today is not on the author’s agenda. With his gaze fixed firmly on the past, Professor Appiah is more comfortable writing about debates on abolition that took place in Westminster 200 years ago.

Nor does this moral philosopher feel obliged to comment on the inexplicably violent and cruel attitude to life and limb still found in many parts of the African continent, something as grossly visible in the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army as in the sickening events shown in the 2008 French/Liberian docudrama Johnny Mad Dog. ( Then when he defines slavery as “the subordination of one race by another”, entailing “the systematic subjection of black people to dishonour”, a self-serving assumption is exposed. It appears that the centuries-old enslavement of black people by black people, among the very West African societies he grew up in and presumably knows best — the same West African societies that started the “Atlantic” slave trade on its hideous course back in the 15th century — will not be discussed. One might also ask why no moral questioning of slavery seems ever to have occurred spontaneously among the thinking members of West Africa’s aristocratic élite. But here the author is silent.

The Lord’s Resistance Army

In the New York Review of Books for March 8, 2012, there’s a piece about “Africa’s Dirty Wars” by Jeffrey Gettleman. It mentions a 2009 massacre in the Congo when over 300 people “were clubbed to death, some were killed with machetes, a few were shot, and a few more were strangled” — all by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Representing the New York Times in Nairobi, Gettleman calls the regional mayhem Africa’s “civil wars” — a phrase which mocks the very meaning of the word “civil”. But what can you say about lawless marauding gangs who stab, slash, rape, mutilate and murder for fun? This is what he found on a later visit:

The LRA had struck again. One victim had survived, I was told, and was convalescing in a field clinic.

‘Want to see her?’ the aid worker asked me.

I walked under the mango trees and into an old house, the field clinic. A young woman sat on an iron cot. She had been fetching water when she was attacked, apparently for no reason. The rebels had pinned her down in the dirt and sliced off her lips. She was twenty-three. Now her mouth will forever be open, like a scream.

On not being dissed

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen is a curious book, hard to make sense of unless one radically changes the title. Appiah says he found the work of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend “fascinating” and that’s where he got the word revolution from. Lots of people have been fascinated by the word revolution — some still are — but it is not always appropriate, and is in this case downright misleading. The end of dueling, the end of foot-binding in China, the abolition of slavery, came from the incremental development of moral sentiments and legal reforms, as indeed is perfectly obvious from what Appiah writes about them himself. In fact the word revolution adds nothing but a false glamour to his argument. As for what we now see in Islamic lands regarding “honor killings”, the agonizingly slow process by which large male populations between Damascus and Kabul are reluctantly dissuaded from raping and murdering women they disapprove of — this is so far from being “revolutionary” that one wonders how any thoughtful man could use the term.

The Honor Code

But it is the word “honour” that is most confusing here. Historically it often denoted noble sentiments rather than ignoble, acts and feelings toward the courageous end of the semantic spectrum. But right from the start it is clear that this is a book more about fear than about courage, more about chronic status anxiety than about positive and helpful beliefs, and that a better title might be Face-Saving: an Aspect of Moral Conduct — or more to the psychological point, The Importance of Not Being Dissed. In what appears to be a definitive statement on page 175 he writes, “Here, then, is the picture: Having honor means being entitled to respect. As a result, if you want to know whether a society has a concern with honor, look first to see whether people there think anyone has a right to be treated with respect.”

Anyone? This sounds a little strange. Surely most cultures treat most of their law-abiding members with respect? Dancing definitionally around his subject, with one step forward and two steps back, the author next finesses different kinds of respect and different forms of honour; but about all one can safely conclude is that when he writes “anyone has a right” what he really means is “everyone has a right” — an expansion intimating that respect, once a distinction freely accorded and freely received by free citizens, should in future become both indiscriminate and obligatory. It’s true that this presents the familiar prospect of an earthly paradise where all citizens are found to be equally valuable and equally loved. But whatever its transcendental merits (and we concede its religious appeal), as a secular ideal the right to indiscriminate respect makes no sociological sense whatever: it would produce an ethical landscape tending to anarchy.

Preventing anarchy is important. Indiscriminate respect is withheld in all known human societies for the very good reason that the distinction between good behavior and bad is the foundation of any permanent social order. Respect is accorded when deserved; esteem and dignity are won when socially acknowledged. That is how Mende Nazer’s Nuba in the Sudan normatively order their lives, as do hundreds of tribal peoples. That is also how modern civil society allows free individuals to autonomously win distinction — autonomy being a not insignificant theme in Appiah’s writing. But what our author is on about here is really something else, a kind of ethical overreach that extends the anxious concerns of modern identity politics from the collective to the individual, and is to be policed, one can only suppose, by the magistrates of a Guardian State. In the utopia he envisages we see the prospect of respect, dignity and esteem being incorporated into a set of universal legal entitlements enshrined as political rights.

Comparing the academic view with the ex-slave’s view is illuminating. A person of strong character and transparent integrity, and someone who has seen humanity at its worst, Mende Nazer doesn’t need the help of vigilantes from a Department of Social Ethics to claim respect on her behalf. In contrast, members of the academic elite excited by political grievance (in this case the dread possibility that somehow, somewhere, someone is not being treated with respect by someone else) assume that the state should intervene to realize their ambitions — for unless respect on demand is made mandatory how exactly is it to be achieved? In Professor Appiah’s case this preference seems reinforced by his connection with Ghana’s upper crust of high chiefs and grandly titled kings, an aristocratic world he feels comfortable with and whose approval is important to him. I can’t help wondering if he might have obtained a more realistic view of the ordinary human lot by spending some time, like Mende Nazer, as a slave.

“Morality is not enough”

The author of The Honor Code has written novels, and one way of trying to make sense of his book is to regard it as a highly digressive intellectual roman à thèse. The thesis is that “morality is not enough,” that honour is just as important in moral conduct as firm convictions about right and wrong, and that honour should in fact be preferred to both Christian commandments and Kantian imperatives. Appiah notes on page 181 that Kant himself said that honour “is not worthy of the highest respect, even where it happens to coincide with the common interest and with duty.” Appiah disagrees — but Kant is surely right. The main reason being that the psychological source of honour is inescapably atavistic, a part of our competitive biological nature shared with rutting stags and bellowing elephant seals. For that unhappy reason we find that throughout the animal kingdom it is invariably associated with bloodshed and aggression. A psychological aspect of defensive pride, it is often found with unmanageable levels of amour propre, and that’s why it erupts in violence nearly everywhere. In human affairs honour belongs today in the touchy, unstable, and tumultuous world of the “dissed”, resentfully looking for the respect they believe is their due.

We may agree that honour contains an emotional stimulus prompting men to act, and that it can be harnessed to moral goals. But it is also unavoidably relativistic (what is honourable for group X may be deeply dishonourable for groups Y and Z) and exactly what it prompts men to do can be very ugly indeed. The honour of a camorra boss in Naples may lead him to massacre an innocent family; the honour of an Islamic father may lead him to kill his own daughter; the honour of the Crips may require them to slaughter a bunch of rival Bloods at the smallest sign they’ve been dissed. From which the sensible conclusion is surely that honour is largely indifferent to moral conduct per se — other perhaps than the deeply ambiguous virtue of “solidarity” shared by tribes, sects, footballers, regiments, Mafiosi, and American street gangs. Indeed, one is bound to point out that the most conspicuous sociological example close at hand is in Los Angeles, where honour and a fierce determination not to be dissed leave the streets in some areas daily stained with gore. If you want to see the living social universe of honour, where “morality is not enough,” and where the passion for face-saving goes perpetually unassuaged, the territory of the Bloods and the Crips is where to look.

Not that Appiah is unaware of the conflict between a safe social morality and his theory. Far from it. Much of The Honor Code can be read as a perverse intellectual struggle between two schemes of moral guidance that he well knows are often opposed. Item: “Honour and morality are separate systems: they can be aligned… but they can easily pull in opposite directions”… Item: “…respect and esteem can be distributed by honour codes without any regard for morality…” Item: in Pakistan we are bound to “confront one of the dark sides of honour”. And so on. But although on one page he can be found freely admitting the paradoxes within his thesis he usually manages to ignore them on the next. An entire chapter on Islamic “honour killings” is presented, with gratuitously long novelistic sections about rape, violence, murder, and “murderous families”, all in the name of honour, without it seeming to be seriously understood, amidst all the confusion, that the implication of the very usage itself — “honour killings” — represents not only “the dark side” of the phenomenon, it tends to make an oxymoronic absurdity of the general argument.

Honour in tribal Pakistan

The Economist for February 25th 2012 reports the death of Anwar Kamal Khan Marwat, a Pakistani politician and tribal leader for whom “the ancient Pushtun code of Pushtunwali — tribal honour, hospitality, revenge — was more important than any law passed in distant Islamabad.”

Summarizing his exploits the magazine tells us that in 2004 this “epitome of the swashbuckling frontier rogue” led some 4000 “heavily armed and bearded men up into the hills to avenge the abduction of two Marwat women by the next-door Bhittani tribe.”

“Around 70 or 80 people were killed, and a village flattened. The $260,000 in compensation his tribe had to pay the Bhittanis was not too bad, he thought, to restore Marwat honour.”

How did Appiah’s moral revolutions really happen?

The phrasing of Appiah’s title — The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen — clearly implies universality. Honour is presented as a psychological constant in human affairs, and it follows from this that its unvarying action must also produce, universally, “moral revolutions” everywhere. Why doesn’t he pursue the implications of this view? Surely it is demeaning to the Rest (some might even say racist) to suggest that a universal process so necessary to the moral improvement of mankind failed to occur outside the West? Shouldn’t we also be looking for it in Teheran, in Tokyo, in Moscow, in Beijing? Not to mention West Africa too?

Yet the moral revolutions he writes about never began in any such places. And the reason is blindingly obvious to even a casual reader of his book. Despite colourful examples culled from a wide range of historical and literary sources, far and away the most powerful impulse driving the moral and legal reforms he discusses came from Western Europe, sometimes embodied in the historic teachings of the Catholic Church, sometimes prompted by the efforts of Christian missions in foreign lands, and invariably driven today by the challenging cultural example of the humanitarian tradition in Western Civilization as a whole. In this humane tradition honour killings are not acceptable. Although it seems he would rather die than admit that the West was ahead of the Rest, or give credit where credit is due, Appiah’s own pages present all the evidence we need.

The duel, he says, was preceded by something called “judicial combat”, a contest in which “gentlemen of the rank of squire and above could settle legal disputes by passage of arms.” The Church opposed this as early as the ninth century, in the person of Pope Nicholas I, and in 1563 the Council of Trent denounced “the detestable custom of duelling…” The author doesn’t push his argument about national or social honour being the real factor that brought the duel to an end (his last pages on the subject peter out with airy literary references to Disraeli, Yeats, and Evelyn Waugh). But surely an obvious question must be asked: isn’t it more likely that the sense of honour that so impresses this moral philosopher, and which is found so widely among the touchy and the dissed, has in fact served to perpetuate duelling — just as it perpetuates the grim world of homicidal affray among the Bloods and Crips in Los Angeles today?

*    *    *

What about foot-binding? In deference to Chinese susceptibilities the author tries to make the most of whatever evidence exists of a native revolt against the practice. Because he declines to state outright that Western influence was the primary source of resistance to foot-binding, Appiah feels bound to try and find an explanation that flatters the moral insight and revolutionary potential of the Chinese people themselves. He points to the social role of an aroused late-19th-century urban literati, and it is suggested that a 1828 novel by Li Ruzhen, Flowers in the Mirror, amounts to an early critique of foot-binding by a member of this class. Yet on the next page Appiah all-too-typically reverses direction, frankly admitting that “despite these early critics, the organized resistance begins only after the intrusions of the missionaries.”

Christian schools for girls began to be opened in the 1860s in many parts of the country. In Hangzhou, in the Yangtze River delta, the Church Mission opened a school for girls in 1867, which required “from the first,” as Mrs Archibald Little wrote, “that the feet of the girls should be unbound, and that they should not be compelled to marry against their own consent…” Similarly, when the Methodists opened a girl’s school in Beijing, they required all the girls to have their feet unbound.

Comment on the so-called moral revolution that abolished the slave trade is surely superfluous. The evangelical convictions of Wilberforce were fundamental, as were the activities of numerous other church groups, from the Quakers to Wesley’s Methodists to the Clapham Sect that devotedly fought to abolish the slave trade after 1750. But enough: from his own documentation it is amply clear that Appiah’s long-winded examination of honour as a source of his supposed “moral revolutions” is superfluous, distracting, and amounts to yet another artificial exercise. The more pages one turns the more obvious it becomes that whatever interest honour may have in the psychology of moral action, both as motive and consequence it exists on a decidedly lower plane than the ethical principles it may occasionally serve. As Kant understood very well.

Fine words not nearly enough

Of course it took more than the activities of church groups to abolish the slave trade. And more than the eloquence of parliamentarians and preachers. It took concerted military action on land and sea — though you won’t find much about that in Appiah’s account. The author of The Honor Code may have no taste for war, and have never held a gun in his hand, but he must know that the only reason West African slavery and human sacrifice were stamped out during the 19th-century is that European colonial armies went in, conquered kingdoms incurably given to these practices, and brought them forcefully to an end.

Appiah makes occasional disapproving references to Sir Garnet Wolseley, and given his African background this is understandable. Wolseley was a soldier who didn’t mess about, and his 1874 campaign against King Kofi Kakari was ruthless in crushing the Asante armies, displacing the king, and burning the “charnel house” of the city of Kumasi to the ground. While General Wolseley strongly disapproved of slavery, he certainly didn’t march on Kumasi out of the pure goodness of his heart. As elsewhere in the region the military invasion of the Asante kingdom was meant to open it to trade with the coast, and to undercut such tribal peoples as the Itsekiri, “middlemen between the early European traders and the inhabitants of the hinterland”, a campaign that had gone on intermittently for many years. But you don’t need a degree in deontology to see that it helped the people of Ghana move on from sacrificial beheadings of slaves, however religiously auspicious, to entertainments of more general appeal.

Or does Appiah think the famous customs of Old Ashanti should have been kept as a living museum of the past, pristine and untouched? Does he imagine that if the Christian missions had been kept out, if Sir Garnet Wolseley had never existed, and if a sufficiently determined Anthropological Preservation Society had opposed all change, then internal war, slave raiding, human sacrifice, and cannibalism, might have been kept busily and bloodily alive right on down to the present day — the Age of Empathy and the International Court of Justice in the Hague?

The “reluctant cannibal” and moral theory

Whether or not it’s true that “there are no jokes in Islam” (a line we believe apocryphally attributed to the Ayatollah Khomeini), there is certainly little humour in Appiah’s world of respect on demand, instant dignity, and state-ordained esteem. So let’s try and lighten things up. It seems to me that as moral philosophers the British comedians Michael Flanders and Donald Swann look pretty good alongside the Ivy League professor, and when they sing their song about the “reluctant cannibal” who independently decides that “eating people is wrong” they raise serious issues for Appiah’s moral theory.

Recall first his doctrine that “morality is not enough.” And that individual convictions about right and wrong won’t do. Contemplating our reluctant cannibal (let’s call him Jim) we see a man who on his own initiative stands flatly opposed to his anthropophagous fellows. They all think eating people is right and proper: the rump steaks are tasty, fried fingers are a local delicacy, while human goulash is a popular regional dish. But when they invite Jim round for dinner he pushes his plate away and pulls back from the table in disgust. Jim thinks differently, feels differently, and most important of all has radically different moral convictions.

His companions indignantly assure him that they have always eaten people and there’s nothing wrong with it. They warn him — to borrow Appiah’s own formulation — that by his wilfully eccentric behaviour he will be “systematically subjecting all anthropophagous people to dishonour.” With angry tears in their eyes they emphasize that eating people is not just desirable, it is a duty, and that refusing to do so will bring his family into the worst kind of disrepute. But Jim isn’t one of those who live in fear of being dissed; his self-esteem is secure; he takes it for granted that a rule against eating people is both good enough for him and good enough for everyone. He thinks “the only thing that deserves full respect is doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do” — as Appiah ridicules the Kantian procedure he disapproves. But such ridicule is wasted on Jim. The right thing to do is embodied in a simple rule: Don’t Eat People. Jim’s a Kantian through and through.

*    *    *

There must be a thousand books about Wilberforce and Granville Sharp, and whole libraries devoted to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. We don’t need more. What we need now — and which we cordially propose as Professor Appiah’s next project — is an explanation of why no spontaneous moral revolution against slavery ever happened in sub-Saharan Africa. It may be this will require setting aside our reverence for exotic cultures, restraining our admiration for West African bronzes, and curbing our enthusiasm for ways of life and being not our own. But diplomatic evasion can’t go on forever: looking African facts squarely in the face will have to be done sooner or later if we are to make sense of Mende Nazer’s world, and as we’ve already suggested, nobody is better qualified for the task than Professor Appiah himself.

It happens that in 1826 a British governor on the Gold Coast, Sir Charles MacCarthy, was defeated in battle by the Asante, who cut out his heart, ate it, and made his skull into a much admired drinking vessel for the king back in Kumasi. In the splendour of his royal court the Asante monarch is said to have been advised by many wise counsellors, but you can’t help wondering how wise this was. After decades of British debate about the slave trade in which the Asante themselves were heavily involved, and only seven years before Westminster voted to abolish slavery itself, was no-one thinking how news of this event would play in England, or how the honour of the Asante kingdom might take a hit? According to Appiah’s revolutionary scenario, in which pride plays a crucial part, the national shame of being associated with such a happening should have led sensitive Asante toward radical moral change, a course that might with encouragement have led to a Kumasi Anti-Slavery Convention — even to a Benin Bill of Rights. Some will say this was altogether too much to expect.  But didn’t anyone think that making a beer stein out of the governor’s head was in doubtful taste?

The comic possibilities are endless. Yet for people like Mende Nazer it’s no laughing matter. It is largely because no moral revolution against sundry insalubrious customs ever happened in Africa that more than 200 years after the British abolition of the slave trade Africa still practices slavery. As a result, what amounts to an uncivilizing process is now flourishing on Europe’s fringes. For that is what the modern slave trade represents — the trade that trapped a 12-year-old girl in the Sudan and has doomed hundreds more African youngsters from elsewhere. This also relates to Appiah’s respectful anthropological account of the several grades of domestic servitude and patriarchal subordination in traditional West African society, grades blandly euphemised by apologists as “our regional family culture,” and that all too easily collapse into subjection and brutality.

Books take time to write, and no doubt we shall have to wait a year or two. But we look forward to learning from Professor Appiah why there was no spontaneous African push for abolition. It will certainly be of interest to the hundreds of Mende Nazers smuggled as slaves from Africa into England today.

Note: This essay is an expanded version of “The Slave Girl and the Princeton Professor,” first posted here on 22 October 2011.


Link for play about Mende Nazer:
Mende Nazer website:
Slave, by Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis. Perseus USA 2003
The History of Dahomy, by Archibald Dalzel. Frank Cass UK 1967 (1793)
Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, by T. Edward Bowdich. John Murray UK 1819
Buying Freedom, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Martin Bunzel. Princeton USA 2007
The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Norton USA 2010
The Fall of the Asante Empire, by Robert B. Edgerton. The Free Press USA 1995

Posted in New, Civilization, Open Societies & the Culture Cult, For the Record, Africana, Tribalism.

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