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Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, David Eltis & David Richardson (Yale U P) $50

At a time when fresh attention is being paid to the trafficking of human beings—the second largest industry in the world today, tied with the illegal arms trade and just behind the drug trade—comes a volume decades in the making. For the first time in visual form, the more than three-and-half-century-long transatlantic slave trade comes alive in all its gruesome detail. This 336-page volume features nearly 200 maps, illustrations, poems, and journal entries, chronicling the kidnapping, deportation, and coercion of 12.5 million Africans. Below is our exclusive interview with the authors of this monumental work, David Eltis and David Richardson.

RB

Who is your audience? Who do you hope will read this book and what do you hope your readers’ response will be?

Our expected audience is English speaking or reading at this stage, and ranges from school children to university students, from scholars to informed and socially aware members of the public, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, and nationality. We would hope in due course to produce an edition in a language other than English, if there is a demand for such. Our goal is to inform and promote greater transparency in debates over slavery and emancipation with a view to promoting national and international understanding and social cohesion through improved knowledge of the processes and legacies of what is often seen as one of the world’s greatest crimes against humanity.

What were the primary insights that stood out to you as you created this visual-geographical depiction of the transatlantic slave trade that were not as apparent in a purely verbal-textual description?

There were several primary insights that arose as a result of the new depictions of the slave trade. One was the range of European and American ports involved in trafficking slaves. A second was the heavy concentration of activity at certain ports in Africa and the strength and persistence of their ties to ports in Europe and the Americas. A third is the human costs of the slave trade as depicted in the maps showing the scale of slave arrivals in the Americas and the resulting size of slave populations. And a fourth was the capacity of traffickers to adjust to external interventions to end slavery (as in Saint-Domingue in 1791) or to end the slave trade slave (as Britain and the USA in 1807-8).

There is an artistic elegance to this book – maps, artwork, poetry, etc. How does this artistic quality contribute to your academic objectives?

Our goal from the very beginning was to track the scale and movement of enslaved Africans in ways that recognised both the numbers involved and the human aspects of the historic tragedy that they encompassed. The maps could tell the first part of the story; the other materials helped to explain the human elements within the processes and consequences that underlay the maps. When choosing contemporary images and texts we wanted to portray the violence and brutality implicit in the slave trade (as well as slavery). We also wanted to emphasise resistance by the enslaved as well as their capacity to survive and come through the ordeal. And finally we wanted to emphasise the banality of the slave trade—its widest spread acceptance as a species of trade—for much of the period before the nineteenth century, and the processes and mechanisms that produced a revulsion against slave trading from the late eighteenth century, thereby triggering change in international attitudes in support of abolition. Brutality and violence; resistance and survival; banality and change: these were the key concepts that guided us in selecting supporting texts and images. Readers and users of the atlas can judge which concept or concepts we had in mind when we chose specific texts or images.

David Brion Davis says in the Preface that greed and “Western culture’s tendency to worship the magic of the free market” more than racism drove the transatlantic slave trade. That appears to be the case today, as well.

The market for the products produced by slaves—among which sugar was clearly the most important—drove the demand for slaves and thus the scale and direction of the Atlantic slave trade, at least until abolitionist interventions from the late eighteenth century. In this sense David Brion Davis is clearly right. But the market alone did not determine that it would be Africans who, almost exclusively, would become the slaves of choice among peoples of European descent under transatlantic slavery. This decision, and the legacies that flowed from it, was as much a result of cultural factors as economic ones. In its highly racial structure transatlantic slavery was exceptional, a point underlined by the colour-blindness within most of systems of slavery before and since transatlantic slavery.

The United Nations estimates that there are 2.5 million people from 127 countries being trafficked around the world, and anywhere from 12 to 24 million slaves, more than at any other time in history. What do you hope this new volume will contribute to the abolition of contemporary slavery?

Slavery has been a robust and adaptable institution historically and has rarely ended without some form of intervention, whether driven by cultural change or politics or by slave resistance. Notwithstanding the outlawing of slavery internationally, ‘slavery’ in the form of people trafficking, child labour, debt bondage, caste systems and other forms still exists today, as it did in various forms on the past. The atlas will hopefully contribute to the abolition of contemporary slavery by reminding us that the human costs of slavery are high; that defeating slavery in any form will require organised vigilance and perseverance by states and other bodies; and that, in making efforts to inform ourselves of the circumstances under which everyday products of consumption are made, we can be agents of change in improving global labour condition.

Is the Electronic Slave Trade Database Project ongoing? If so, what is the future of the project? Are maps being made of 20th & 21st century slave trade?

The database project is ongoing. A platform has been created at Emory and Hull that will allow periodic updating of the database in response to offers of new data from the research community at large. This will expand the range of stakeholders in the project and thus its identity as a public rather than just academic resource. The Atlas is intended as an important contribution to that process.

The range and quantity of information relating to the transatlantic slave trade is exceptional relative to other trades in human beings, past and present. The fact that slave trafficking today is a form of organised crime makes it extremely difficult to track. Though there is a an ever growing list of publications on contemporary slavery, some of which provide estimates of both local and global numbers of people in slavery or conditions akin to slavery, there are no plans by the authors of the Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to produce maps of of 20th and 21st century slave trades.

November 2010

Ryan Bell is senior pastor of Hollywood Seventh Day Adventist Church, which was awarded the North American Division’s Award for Most Innovative Church in 2010. Bell writes for a wide range of publications, including the Huffington Post, and works very closely with many LA-based and national organizations to promote social justice.

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Aria: Poetry Translations by Sudeep Sen. (Yeti Books, Calicut & Mulfran Press, Cardiff) Rs.399 & £11.99

I.

Sudeep Sen’s highly praised books include Postmarked India, Prayer Flag, Distracted Geographies, and the poetic meditation, Rain, illustrated by twenty of India’s top artists. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages and his writings have appeared in leading international and national newspapers and journals and been widely broadcast. In Aria he offers a synthesis of his abilities as a poet and translator to bring to the wider public an anthology of work by 17 South Asian poets (ranging from Rabindranath Tagore and Gulzar to lesser known and newer voices) and 10 writers from other parts of the world. The translated languages range from Hindi, Bengali and Urdu to Korean, Hebrew, Icelandic, Persian, Macedonian, Polish and Spanish. In his introduction to Aria, Sen reveals that it is his experience of growing up tri-lingual and being able to slip between the languages and registers of Bengali, Hindi and English that gives his poetry and translations a multi-dimensional character; and this quality is one of the book’s greatest achievements—as Sen’s translations move with ease through a variety of voices and registers.

Jibanananda Das has been called one of the most loved Bengali poets, after Rabindranath Tagore, and it’s easy to see why. The beautiful poem, ‘Banalata Sen’, has echoes of Omar Khayyam’s famous rubaiyat. The translation starts with a wonderful striding movement:

For a thousand years I have walked this earth’s passage
by day and night — from Lanka’s shores to Malay’s vast seas.

The second stanza, which begins ‘Like the dense ink-night of Bidhisha, her hair — black, deep black;’ has the deeply sensuous, hypnotic quality that distinguishes much of Sen’s own poetry — especially his love poetry. This is a case of poet and translator being exceptionally well attuned. Das’s work is followed by four delightfully playful poems taken from the Visva Bharati edition of the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s nonsense verse, Khapcharra. Of these I especially liked the Pythonesque ‘Bird-seller says, “This is a black-coloured chanda.”’ To which the buyer, Panulal Haldar, replies, “I’m not blind — It is definitely a crow.”

AriaIt isn’t often that poetry makes you gasp; the last time, for me was many years ago on first reading Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Edge’ in which the moon is shown ‘Staring from her hood of bone. // Her blacks crackle and drag.’  The poems of Mandakranta Sen also induce a sharp intake of breath. To quote K. Satchidanandan (Molossus, July 2009) Mandakranta Sen is one of the brave women poets who ‘are fighting patriarchy and evolving their own mode of writing often organised around the female body and self’. Her Bengali poetry seems to me to represent an authentic voice for women, undiluted by patriarchal values. Her first poem, ‘The Witch’ contains imagery that disturbs and provokes. Identified by her habit of secretly writing poetry in the middle of the night with her hair undone, the moonstruck witch ‘roasts, then eats the pulpy sadness / Plucked from the crown of her head’. In ‘Nature Goddess’ the body is itemised and carved up —

Packing my groin, my navel, my buttocks in a sack,
I left my home for the sloping wrong side of the track.

The fact that these poems are beautifully rendered in rhymed and half-rhymed couplets belies their often excoriating language and themes. Another Sen — Mithu Sen — also uses what the ancient Sumerians called emesai or ‘women’s speech’. Her poetry is quiet, confessional and intense and she often uses forms that are even more spare than haiku.

In Bangladesh, Shamsur Rahman is considered to be one of the most distinguished Bengali poets of his generation. Syed Manzoorul Islam speaks of Rahman as having ‘produced a solid body of work which has permanently changed the geography and the climate of Bengali poetry … He has given us a language, which we did not have.’ The selection of his poems in this volume varies from the romantic (as in ‘Love’s Overture’), to the domestic (‘Mother’) which is a moving tribute to the role of women in South Asian life — especially, his own life. Two other Bangladeshi poets are represented in the book. Fazal Shahabuddin’s poems are both cosmological and cosmopolitan, often sounding an elegiac note. Aminur Rahman is a young poet and translator whose work is innovative, meditative and experimental.

Several leading Hindi poets, such as the incomparable Gulzar, Sachchidananda Vatsyayan Ageya, who is one of the most prominent exponents of the Nayi Kavita (New Poetry) and Prayogvad (Experimentalism), Kaifi Azmi, Kunwar Narain, and others, add immeasurably to the overall tonality of the book and display what is best in contemporary Hindi and Urdu poetry by the older generation. Among the younger writers, Mangalesh Dabral’s poems show a mixture of the political, the existential and the urbane which resonates well with much contemporary poetry being written by English language Western poets. Anamika has five collections of poetry to her credit and over the years she has won numerous accolades for her literary work. Her poems in this collection include the philosophical Salt: “Salt is earth’s sorrow and its taste. / Earth’s three-fourths is brackish water, / and men’s heart a salt mountain.” She can also be fiercely political as in ‘Mobile Phone’:

Like the streets of old Baghdad
before the American heavy bombings —
I too am like that.
In me, adorned like old souks, meena bazaars —
like archaeological ruins in this metropolis’s heart.

II.

The second part of Aria deals with translations of poetry from East and West Asia, the Middle East and Europe starting with the delicate ‘Willow’ by the Korean poet Moon Chung Hee:

He etched blue flowers
on my arms —

Blue flowers
that tied

my skin, my whole body,
my spirit, and my life.

Avraham Ben Yitshak is translated from Hebrew by Sudeep Sen with Yehuda Amichai, Daniel Weissbort and others. His work shares many spiritual resonances with the classical Indian poets, especially when he touches on religion:

Tomorrow, stricken with the absence of words, we die;
And on that day, we shall stand at death’s gate.
As the heart celebrates the closeness to God,
It will do so, in joy and repentance, in fear of betrayal.

Sudeep Sen photo by Sara Bowman[1]Israeli poet Amir Or, Iranian poet Shirin Razavian, Icelandic poet Ditte Steensballe and Polish poet Ewa Sonnenberg add their own distinctive notes to the cosmopolitan texture. Of Macedonian poet Zoran Anchevski’s six poems, the most strikingly original is ‘halfVerses’ but I particularly liked ‘History’ which shows Minerva the owl at the end ‘resting at ease in its burrow / masticating, consuming its prey’; and the sustained menace of ‘My Little Me’: “When I fenced in my little me / and said to myself This is mine / It grew, / became my dictator — / handsome and greedy.” Another Macedonian poet, Petko Dabeski, in ‘Five Minutes’ uses the vernacular ‘What’s with those five minutes? / Whether they exist or not, they are just a puny five minutes’ to begin a monologue on time and humanity.

Spanish poet Sergio Claudio F. Lima uses Duchamp’s statement that ‘art is not a creative activity, but a means to expand consciousness’ to preface his poem, which is ‘The Body [of a Woman] Signifies’. A note tells us that this poem is a translation of the essential framework/content of the book, O Corpo Significa. The poem is made up of a sequence of terse statements or gnomic utterances that remind me of some of Allen Ginsberg’s Beat poetry

I. The sight of love is definitive.

II. The way of seeing is the way/an expression of being.

III. The doing is the development of thinking, of thought.

IV. The act of action circumscribes, and the sense opens the field of art.

As a member of both the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, Duchamp had a huge influence on the development of modern Western art and, although it is hard to judge this poem on its own without the context of the book for which it provides the ‘framework’, introducing Duchamp inevitably widens the spectrum and terms of reference of Aria and helps give the book its international edge.

In the last section ‘Postscript’, there are two English poems by Sen himself. The first, ‘Translating Poetry’ could stand as the epigraph for any book of translation, tracing, as it does, the process of creation and transposition with all its mysteries and technicalities. When the poem ends with the translator concluding that ‘A real poem defies translation, in every way’ he is selling himself short. In this superlative book of translations, Sen uses his gifts as a poet, linguist, cosmopolitan traveller and observer to conjure, in Coleridge’s phrase, the ‘best words in their best order.’ The result is a fine collection of poetry which takes the best from classical and modern traditions and integrates them into a stunning whole.

Oxford | Summer 2009

Jenny Lewis is a poet and playwright who has worked extensively in cross-arts performances. Read more on our Masthead.

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