Supervisor: Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, B. A

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Kateřina šusteková

Remembering the Middle Passage

Master’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: Jeffrey Alan Vanderziel, B. A.


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Author’s signature

I would like to thank my supervisor Jeffrey A. Vanderziel, B. A. for his continuous encouragement, patience, understanding and valuable advice.


  1. Introduction 1

  2. Memory 5

Forms of Memory 6

Memory, History and Myths 9

Memory and Trauma 12

  1. The Middle Passage 16

The Atlantic World 17

Slave Cargo 21

Facts and Myths about the Middle Passage 27

4. Remembering the Past 31

Olaudah Equiano 31

W. E. B. Du Bois 36

Toni Morrison 42

Dionne Brand 47

5. Conclusion 53
Works cited 57

1. Introduction

This thesis addresses the questions of memory, history and culture. It attempts to demonstrate that these three distinct areas are, in fact, closely interrelated and mutually indispensable. While the first two chapters are descriptive in their nature, the third chapter is meant to unite the theme of the previous parts in an analysis of works by four different authors.

The last two decades of the twentieth century have brought increased and renewed interest in questions concerning slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. What becomes particularly important is that this interest is expressed on the part of those who have been primarily affected by the impact of the slave past. These people are usually referred to as members of the African Diaspora, meaning all people of African descent whose ancestors were transported during the transatlantic slave trade to the Caribbean Islands, the Americas and Europe. The thesis will suggest that it is very important that the period of the slave trade is commemorated by this particular group of people since their voices have been often suppressed and marginalized. It needs to be realized that “the master/slave system was grounded in denials: of black history, identity, humanity, community, knowledge and language….To deny or erase these was, therefore, a method of control, a device to deny the slaves’ identity and history and enforce an impression of being adrift, worthless and devoid of ancestry” (Campbell 76).

Five centuries have passed since the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade. Two hundred years ago the trade was abolished by the British Parliament. It is evident that the slave trade and its enormous growth were rendered possible by one essential prerequisite. Without drawing a line between people on the basis of the color of their skin, and without making these people inferior, the institution of slavery would not be easily maintained. While many things have changed since then and the racial relations witnessed a remarkable advance especially thanks to the Civil Rights Movement in 1960’s in the United States, racial prejudices still occur from time to time. Supposing that racism will never be eradicated completely from society, the more it becomes essential for cultures to point to the past and emphasize the dangers of race distinctions. In consequence, it is of great importance for the members of African Diaspora to cope with the trauma of slavery and do not stop reflecting on the past. Generations later, the period of slavery becomes more and more distant for the African American community. The further in time, the weaker the memories are. But it needs to be understood that these memories can be revived in commemoration and in highlighting the special features of African American identity. In relation to what has been noted a lot of questions arise. How do the descendants of people who were born in Africa deal with the fact that their ancestors went through the traumatic experience of the Middle Passage? How do they, if at all, go about forgetting their ancestry? And how do they respond to the multiple displacements they have faced? The thesis wants to find answers to these questions by surveying the questions of memory and the slave trade and by analyzing literary works of an African, two African American and an Afro-Caribbean/Canadian writer.

The first chapter of the thesis introduces in general what is memory, how it operates and what role it plays within the context of culture. It shows that through memories of individuals who are always part of some larger group the collective memory is consolidated. Since memory does not function flawlessly and operates on the principle of selectivity, any narration or historical account is stigmatized by the subjectivity. Moreover, as we get more and more distant in time from a past event, the more is forgotten and the more space is created for imagination. On the other hand, this time distance gives authors the opportunity to see circumstances and connections that were left unnoticed by the generations before. And still, in many cases the history is formulated by the dominant groups in society who decide what is going to be remembered and what is going to be forgotten. It is therefore necessary to look back to the past through various means of evidence and not only through those that are furnished by the leading figures of a particular period. This chapter also explores how trauma affects the memory and how it influences the way people talk about it since going back to the traumatic experience and communicating it, even though it is very difficult, has a healing effect for its victims.

The second chapter is rather a factual overview of mechanisms that made the rise and maintaining of the slave trade possible. It offers a detailed description of the historical development of the slave trade and it draws special attention to the individual phases of the Middle Passage. The other two legs of the triangular trade are left out because they do not relate to the topic of this thesis. It is fundamental to explain that it was primarily the economic side of the trade that kept it in existence for over four hundred years. Consequently, it is shown that the profitability of the trade defined the onboard conditions and the treatment of the slaves. It is also analyzed which facts about the trade were excluded from earlier accounts and what becomes the main focus of contemporary historians. This chapter is essential for the thesis because it wants to convey a picture as comprehensive as possible in order to prevent any misunderstandings about the trade and to create a referential background for the literary works that are analyzed in next chapter.

In the third chapter, the focus is put on four authors with African ancestry who address the topic of the slave trade in their works. I would like to state here that at the first glance they do not have much in common – each comes from a different geographical background and their works are of different literary genre but it will be demonstrated that there is something that connects them. Olaudah Equiano actually personally experienced the enslavement and shipment from the African coast to the New World and after years of slaving he managed to gain his freedom and write an autobiographical work called The Interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Equiano was able to adopt European identity and combine it with his African origins and, on top of it, become one of the early activists of the abolitionist movement. W. E. B. Du Bois, a versatile African American figure, contributed more than a century later after Equiano to the debates concerning race relations and civil rights. He turned to the past to demonstrate that in behalf of their financial profit and by their moral indifference the Westerners not only put the Africans in dehumanizing conditions but also exposed the African continent to economic and cultural exploitation. Fortunately, Du Bois saw, in looking at the history, also the positive side of things. Despite of the trauma, the African Americans have adopted a unique combination of knowledge, virtues and habits that make them, as Du Bois believes, unparalleled in the world. The next author in this chapter is Toni Morrison, a twentieth century African American, Pulitzer and Nobel prize winning novelist. She emphasizes that the descendants of Africans were, despite the experience of the transatlantic crossing and despite the brutality of the slave life able to develop a distinct culture with specific expressions. Her novel Beloved closely portrays both the individual and collective struggle against the impacts of the institutionalized slavery with a special stress put on the injustices suffered by the African American women. Through self-redefinition and through summoning both unpleasant and pleasant memories, the trauma is – both individually and communally – realized so that the past and the presence can be reconciled. Dionne Brand, the last author in this chapter, is a contemporary Canadian author with Caribbean ancestry who is particularly preoccupied with the forced displacement of her ancestors from Africa to the Americas. Her work A Map to the Door of No Return reminds us that there still exist living proofs of the haunting past in form of fortresses on the African shores, places where the Middle Passage started. Brand is searching for places in history and memory in order to map out the multiple origins of the identities of all people living in the African Diaspora. What these four authors have in common is that they approach in their works the questions of slave trade and slavery by remembering it. Not only that each of them pleads for recognition of their own identity, they also make contribution to the reconstruction of the collective identity.
Finally, I would like to identify the limitations of this thesis. First, as a person born and raised in Middle Europe my historical and cultural background differs from the cultures I am examining in this paper and my insight is therefore partially influenced by this circumstance. Secondly, throughout the thesis I constantly refer to a particular group of people who share common African ancestors and happened to live, because of the slavery past, on different continents. This fact suggests that they represent a coherent and objectively existing group. However, it needs to be realized that this group is more of an abstraction where every individual represents a distinct entity with the right to choose where he/she belongs.

2. Memory

Anyone who has tried to think about memory has to admit that it is very complicated and not easily definable notion. However pretentious it may sound, memory is an essential part of human existence. Without the distinction between past, present and future, our existence would be hard to imagine. Through remembering past events, thoughts, impressions we are allowed to create our sense of consciousness, our self-identity. Though various definitions and concepts of memory are available, for the purpose of this thesis it can be briefly defined as a human ability to retain information from experience and subsequently recall it. Jacques le Goff specifies the term of memory as “the capacity for conserving certain information, [which] refers first of all to a group of psychic functions that allow us to actualize past impressions or information that we represent to ourselves as past” (51). Others tend to be more cautious in their definitions. For example, Barbara Misztal thinks of memory as of “some kind of active orientation towards the past” (9). Despite the fact that almost every scientific discipline has something to say to memory – particularly because of its immense complexity – the primary concern of this thesis is with memory as understood in relation to culture.

Forms of Memory

The main carrier of memory is an individual who through the conscious or unconscious act of remembering refreshes past experience and associates it with certain meanings, values and emotions. This kind of recall is always bound to a concrete place and time and is called personal memory. Moreover, in the act of remembering, one acquires the concept of himself or herself which cannot be mediated any other way. Simultaneously, through memory we are allowed to integrate all our experience into a storage space in our brains where our thinking, behavior and emotions are based and further reevaluated and developed. Apparently, as individuals who live within a society, people define themselves against the external world, again through constituting relations with the past. Subsequently, memories which are common to a certain group of people are called collective memory. According to Maurice Halbwachs, the coiner the term collective memory, it is necessary to bear in mind that we always belong to some group, be it family or nation, and that the group “is solidified and becomes aware of itself through continuous reflection upon and recreation of a distinctive, shared memory” (Eyerman 6). On the other hand, collective memory is an ambiguous term since no experience, or its recollection, is transferable and fully communicable to another person. Collective memory primarily ensures cohesion within a society because it helps to produce, preserve and reproduce identity, both of individuals and groups. Ultimately, there is no universal or absolute collective memory since it is always bound to particular groups which share common experience.

The mechanisms of memory can be best formulated on the principle of selection. In every moment, the human brain has to decipher between relevant and irrelevant information. This information is assembled according to certain patterns and stored for further usage. Its consequent retrieval is then a process of reconstruction which is again influenced by selectivity. Imagination plays an important role in the process of remembering. This process can be explained in terms of creating images and organizing them into what can be called stories. The brain is capable of recalling an image, a short snapshot of an experience which is then attached by various interrelated strings to other sensations and mental constructs. The individual images create a sequence which can then be translated into language and thoughts. Thus, it could be concluded, a sort of narrative is created which becomes a prerequisite for our communication with the world. Our thoughts are always formulated on the basis of causal sequence and the way they are communicated resembles a narrative. For instance, “in testimony, memory is recalled in such a way that others can imagine being there – this imaginative narratization helps . . . to imagine a true experience” (Misztal 119). The collective memory is constructed and reproduced exactly through shared stories and narratives. In this respect, literature (which is primarily concerned with telling stories) becomes one of the main sources for sustaining collective memory and identity.

Despite the fact that personal memories in principle aim at truth, they can be easily distorted. In other words, our memory is fallible and does not adequately represent past events. The way it operates (on the basis of selectivity) indicates that it is susceptible to confabulations and misremembering. John Sutton expresses that “the very idea of truth in memory, and the attendant possibility of error, implies that we are naturally realists about the past: but this fact about us doesn’t dictate answers to questions about just how, or how often, we do remember the past truly” (Memory). In fact, complete or precise memory of our past moments is not necessary for a construction of consistent memories and consistent selves. What is required is that the memories bear some meaning to us. It should be also emphasized that the stronger our emotional involvement in a situation is, the more likely it will be inscribed into memory and the easier it will be recalled. Indeed, various mental states have profound influence on the process of remembering. It can be readily admitted that feelings of anguish, fear or hatred on one side seriously effect our way of perceiving reality; on the other side, through them “persons have a special access that in principle they cannot have to the histories and identities of other persons and things” (Connerton 22).

As it was suggested, memory and identity are closely interwoven mainly because “not only is identity rooted in memory but also what is remembered is defined by the assumed identity” (Misztal 133). Similarly to personal memory, there are liaisons between collective memory and identity of a culture. Jan Assmann insists that “the task of this [collective] memory, above all is to transmit collective identity” (6-7). In connection with the collective memory, the question remains, how can be the collective memories passed from one generation to another. The experience of one generation remains locked in the particular time and place. While a member of one generation remembers an event because he/she witnessed it, a member of the next generation will remember it only via narration or maybe as a part of something which is still, to an extent, present and somehow palpable within society. However, in transmitting the original event to next generations the nature and meaning of the event can be altered. In other words, as the memory is constantly reconstructed, so is the history. In this respect, it can be admitted that past always “goes beyond the limits of individual experience” (Misztal 84).
Memory, History and Myths

Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition. Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialect of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. (Nora 8)

This excerpt characterizes the essence of two distinct approaches to the past and shows that the relation between memory and history is not as straightforward as it could be presumed. Both memory and history try to find their way to the past through recollection and reconstruction. Even though the history is produced “through public representations and through private memory” (Perks 76), it approaches past from different perspective than memory does. This difference is aptly explained by Misztal who explicates that while “memory tends to mythologize the past, to look for similarities and to appeal to emotions and is thus considered arbitrary, selective, lacking the legitimacy of history and ultimately subjective”, history on the other hand “calls for critical distance and documented explanation, and opposes memory’s non-linear temporality and its indivisibility from imagination” (99). Claims for objectivity of the history are certainly adequate; however, it is necessary to look at how history is created. First, it is not an independent and absolute entity – it is always articulated, defined and interpreted by somebody. Only after this, it becomes the subject of reflection and memory – either personal or collective. As was noted before, memory is a process of selection in which it is decided what is going to be stored and what is going to be rejected. Similarly, this is true for historical accounts. A historian has to undergo a process of selection in which he/she decides what, from the vast reservoir of reality, is going to be documented and preserved for the future. In this process, obviously, a lot of facts and circumstances are omitted and lost. Consequently, by forgetting or not mentioning events are erased from the consciousness and history. Bernard Dauenhauer then objects that the historical accounts “misrepresent, rather than represent, the past” (Paul Ricoeur). And yet, history does not consist only in what the historians leave us with. It is constituted through various documentary materials and cultural artifacts like narratives, songs, statistics, items of everyday use, technical devices and much more.

The role of myths in history is as important as the historical documents and accounts themselves. Despite the fact that the classic myths were replaced by historical narratives, they fulfill the same function which consists in that “the future will remain faithful to the present and to the past” (Lévi-Strauss 43). As they both refer to the past, these two worldviews have much in common. The difference is that while history is, or can be, subject to reinterpretation, myths are considered as stories, images and concepts that provide universal and unquestioned explanation of concrete occurrences in the world. A myth “gives man, very importantly, the illusion that he can understand the universe . . .” (Lévi-Strauss 17). Moreover, myths are symbolic representations of the past which are valid as long as they are actual and meaningful for the present. Lévi-Strauss explains that they helps us to understand world by imposing dichotomies, by breaking the world down through binary codes like the division on good/evil or dominant/inferior (iix). The danger of myths lies in the fact that they include a grain of truth, that they access reality. But the historical facts in mythical narratives are idealized and elevated into the realm of confabulations.

At this point it could be added, in Misztal’s words that “it is society that ensures what we remember, and how and when we remember it” (11). Manipulation with memories is particularly crucial for societies whose intentions are aimed at exerting power over other societies or groups, not necessarily only within the sphere of politics but also in the areas of culture or science. As Le Goff points out “to make themselves the master of memory and forgetfulness is one of the great preoccupations of the classes, groups, and individuals who have dominated and continue to dominate historical societies”(54). Le Goff’s argument is repeated by Misztal who maintains that “the past is moulded to suit present dominant interests” (56) and by Assmann who asserts that “collective memory is particularly susceptible to politicized forms of remembering” (7). Nevertheless, the existence of conceptions which are put in historic consciousness and which Richard Johnson and Graham Dawson call “dominant memory” (qtd. in Perks 76) does not imply that these conceptions are accepted everywhere and by everyone. Until the twentieth century, the Western society sustained the image of history in which the Euro-American culture was the master culture and “in which slavery was depicted as benign and civilizing” (Eyerman 4). Only after the decline of great imperial powers the history started to be interpreted in new perspectives. Not surprisingly, these new ways of looking at the past were influenced by the effort to appease the conscience of the former powers and, as a consequence, much from the past has been left out or not mentioned. Therefore, it seems that the image of history which is produced by one society can never be complete. Only recently, minorities and various ethnic groups were given space to contribute with their own interpretations of the past and it needs to be admitted that without them, the account of history would be definitely incomplete. If the focus is shifted to literature in particular, a sort of intended remembering and certain types of repetition can be found in it. All, including Europeans and African Americans, use the means of signifying to confirm their tradition and identity. In the academic world, there survives a tendency which continuously refers again and again to famous figures in history, philosophy, science or literature, overlooking others from the vast reservoir of human culture. In the African American literature there can be traced a trend which is perhaps partially grounded in African tradition that accentuates signifying as an essential element in identity consolidation.

On the whole, even though societies construct their history with particular stress on those facts and events which are decisive in maintaining their cohesion and integrity, usually at the expense of other societies or groups, it will be shown in the next passage that some parts of history can be forgotten from other than power reasons.

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