“[Kevin] Baldeosingh […] uncritically regurgitates the defunct racist hypothesis that ‘darker-skinned people’ are judged less intelligent and ‘more primitive’ than ‘fairer-skinned people’.
“[…] During the first century of this era, Ethiopians were the majority in the town of Barygasa (now Baruch) in western India. By the time of the Mughal Empire, these ‘darker-skinned’ Africans, then known as Habshis and Sidis, loomed even larger in the political and intellectual life of Hindu and Muslim India.
“[…] One of the most famous, Malik Ambar, became de facto Sultan of Ahmadnagar in the Deccan…”
Dr Claudius Fergus hits back at Kevin Baldeosingh’s response to his initial column on race and history in the following Letter to the Editor:
Kevin Baldeosingh’s Wired868 article of 23 December is, in the words of Cheikh Anta Diop, a performance in “intellectual acrobatics.” Apparently, Baldeosingh’s primary objective was to demonstrate that he dabbles in history more than Dool Hanomansingh; his critique, however, is little more than scatter-brained intellectualism, designed to confuse rather than enlighten. His article uncritically regurgitates the defunct racist hypothesis that “darker-skinned people” are judged less intelligent and “more primitive” than “fairer-skinned people.”
A key objective in my previous article was to reject the intellectually untenable construct of Indians as “brown” and Africans as “black” and, more so, the implicitly racist assumption of the superiority of white-over-brown-over-black, the validation of which has undermined our best efforts at building a nation state from the morass of the colonial legacy of ethnic separatism in T&T.
Intentional or not, Baldeosingh seems determined to validate these absurd racist ideas. Despite his rebuttal, there are indeed millions of Indians of the same complexion as Hausa, Yoruba, Mandinga, Fula, Wolof, Bambara, Ashanti, and other ethnicities of West Africa. Just as well, there are also millions of native Africans with the same melanin density as Baldeosingh. I welcome informed criticism, not ‘balderdash.’
Ironically, despite his uncomplimentary posturing and disingenuous misapplication of historical quotes, Baldeosingh unwittingly agrees with almost all of my arguments or is unable to rebut them. He mostly skirts the issues with spin and sarcasm, for which he is well known in the world of media. A few examples should suffice to expose these flaws.
He cites Muslim fortresses as implicit evidence of conquest but none of the locations that he includes is south of the Sahara. Furthermore, his citation of John Parker reinforces my point. An irrelevant citation from Snowden is used to refute Budge; even so, new research has also rejected many aspects of Snowden’s claims. No serious scholar would assert that the term “Africa… was always synonymous with the modern terminology of words like ‘Negro’ and ‘black.’” I certainly did not make that claim, as Baldeosingh mischievously implies.
Baldeosingh is clearly trying to obfuscate the reader who might be ignorant of the evolution of Europe-informed historical geography and ethnography of Africa. Roman imperialists first coined the term “Africa” to supersede the name Carthage (now Tunisia); Renaissance Europeans redeployed “Africa” to the whole continent.
“Ethiopia” was a shifting concept, much more so than Africa. Notwithstanding Baldeosingh’s discomfort, the term was indeed relevant to a large swathe of territory extending into south Asia to cover all the regions with high concentrations of people with “burnt faces” (aethiops), which really meant “people kissed by the sun.”
Although the Axumites had appropriated the term Ethiopia after their conquest of Kush in the fourth century, Islamic geographers avoided the term, substituting it with al-Habasha (Abyssinia) and Bilad as-Sudan, the latter coinciding geographically with the Mande Muslim empires of Mali and Songhai.
Europeans were totally dependent on Islamic geography for knowledge of the interior of Africa until the nineteenth century, but kept the term Ethiopia alive because of Scripture, which they adapted to eighteenth-century human taxonomy as Homo Aethiopicus (Ethiopian Man).
From that time also, free Africans in the Caribbean and the USA were embracing Ethiopia as a pan-African identity. European cartographers of the 1840s showed Ethiopia as the vast hinterland extending from 3 degrees North. Latitude to the Cape Colony in southern Africa.
Up to that time it was then commonly accepted by Arabs and Europeans that the former Axumite Empire was Abyssinia. Following the victory of Menelik ll over the Italian army in 1896, the victors re-appropriated and formalised the term Ethiopia as a symbol of their independence in the era of the European scramble for the continent.
The English appropriation of “Negro” as an ethnographic term has no meaning outside of the context of the transatlantic slave trade. Before the sixteenth century, Englishmen largely referred to dark-skinned Africans as Moors or Blackamoors. It is no coincidence that the first use of the term “Negro” in English to describe Africans was in 1555—the same year that John Lok returned from West Africa with five captured Africans. English trafficking in Africans continued in earnest with John Hawkins from 1562. The translation of “Ethiopian” in ancient texts as “Negro” in English is often anachronistic.
Interestingly, the English equation of Negro = slave sometimes applied to Chinese and south Asians. English historian, Peter Fryer (Staying Power), in an explanatory note to a commentary on English pageant performers in mid-seventeenth century, states: “It should be borne in mind that the word Negro in this period could mean an Asian as well as an African (or person of African descent). Sometimes a performer is identified as one or the other, or the costume provides a clue.”
The English mostly trafficked out of West African seaports. In time, the region that supplied them with captives was called Guinea. To the English, Guineans were “negroes”; “negroes” were slaves. By the time England became the world’s leading trafficker in Africans in the early eighteenth century, their slavers were trafficking more and more in people from the collapsed Songhai Empire which roughly equated with Bilad as-Sudan.
Not surprisingly, their cartographers began to superimpose “Negroland” onto the Arabs’ Bilad as-Sudan. This transliteration led to a blurring of distinctions between the peoples of the Savannah and the peoples of the Forest—all were now “negroes,” that is, potential slaves.
The contextualising of “Negro” with transatlantic human trafficking becomes more evident with the curious exclusion from the “Negro” label of the so-called Bantus of East Africa; so too, the Khoisan of southernmost Africa. This externally imposed racist taxonomy brainwashed some African peoples into thinking they were of different races—one of the most tragic consequences was the Rwanda genocide.
Baldeosingh’s claim that Arab conquerors met only “fairer-skinned people” in Southeast Asia and “darker-skinned people” in Africa is pandering to Anglo-American racist diatribe, notwithstanding his citation of the “eminent” Orientalist, Bernard Lewis.
Didn’t the Arab invaders encounter the Copts of Egypt, the Libyans (Tamahu) and the Berbers of the Maghreb? Are these also Baldeosingh’s “darker-skinned people?”
Interestingly, when the Arabs launched their first invasion of truly “darker-skinned people” of Nubia (south of Egypt), they suffered their first decisive defeat. Chancellor Williams (The Destruction of Black Civilizations) writes, “An Arab historian of the period felt compelled to admit it was the most devastating defeat ever suffered by an Arab army.”
So much for Baldeosingh’s implicit presumption of the superiority of brown over black!
Baldeosingh did not advance what it was that made poet Malinius’ evidence superior to Strabo’s, Pliny’s, Herodotus’ or other ancient sources that Budge relied on. Poets are well known for embellishing historical facts with fantasy. I prefer to rely on geographers, ethnographers, travellers and historians.
Sociologist St Clair Drake (Black Folk Here and There) affirms that when the first wave of Arab jihadists reached Pakistan during the seventh century—melanin demographics still supported the Ethiopian nexus in many parts.
Drake writes, “Here in this peripheral [to India] area, Blacks lived in a unique type of Diaspora, a place where the somatic norm image of many of the indigenous peoples were similar to that of the Negro Africans, except for straight hair.”
Indeed, up to late nineteenth century, linguist Augustus Keane (Ethnology) mentions the “Ethiopic, Negro, or Black Division” in his human taxonomy, dividing the group into “A. Western (African) Section” and “B. Eastern (Oceanic) Section,” the latter including the people of the Andaman islands of India.
In his well-illustrated book, Sex and Race, JA Rogers avers, “the earliest East Indians were ‘the Negritos’… The next were the pre-Dravidians, another Negro type of taller build; and then the Dravidian.”
Those so-called Negritos may just as well be called pre-Indians, since they predate the peoples to whom the term India was first applied. Remnants of “Negritos” are still to be found in India; the best-known survivors are the Jarawa, who are mostly restricted to the Andaman Islands.
So, where do you draw the line with the Ethiopian type? Were the ancient geographers really wrong in acknowledging an Ethiopic India?
During the first century of this era, Ethiopians were the majority in the town of Barygasa (now Baruch) in western India. By the time of the Mughal Empire, these “darker-skinned” Africans, then known as Habshis and Sidis, loomed even larger in the political and intellectual life of Hindu and Muslim India. Baldeosingh should “equate the two facts” that he expounded with the geography of caste and primitivism in the subcontinent under Muslim rulers.
Undoubtedly, as he affirms, “after the conquest there were changes;” among those changes was the new reality that Indians had to contend with top-level administration and naval dominance of Sidis. One of the most famous, Malik Ambar, became de facto Sultan of Ahmadnagar in the Deccan.
Ambar was a patron of Hindu scholars and appointed Brahmins as officials and tax collectors—so much for Baldeosingh’s “inferior darker-skinned” people in India.
Arguably the greatest Muslim traveller of imperial Islamic times, Ibn Battuta, testified in the 14th century that Sidi seamen sailed regularly between Africa and India; with their main base in Janjira, they protected travellers such as Battuta; they would later protect Indian Muslims on Hajj and European ships against piracy; they also assisted in the resurgence of Hindu power in the Deccan.
Does Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ so-called massacre of military restorers of slavery take away anything from the epochal achievement in advancing human freedom that the Haitian Revolution represents and that Marx acknowledged? These same black “primitive” and “less advanced darker-skinned people”—as Baldeosingh labels them—defeated the French and the English and liberated Santo Domingo from Spanish rule.
Baldeosingh’s attempt to take down Dessalines betrays a lack of understanding of Caribbean history and a disdain for authentic Caribbean heroes. Had Dessalines failed against Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces, slavery would have been restored in Haiti, and emancipation delayed in every colonial empire. It was a free Haiti that assisted Simon Bolivar in delivering South America from Spanish colonialism.
Since Baldeosingh cites CLR James conveniently, let me also cite him from the same text, The Black Jacobins. As for the mischief implicit in Baldeosingh’s targeting of Dessalines, James affirms: “From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and, at the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind… And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them.”
Baldeosingh’s prejudice is implicit in citing Dessalines’ massacre without recognising that it was retaliation for an earlier massacre of blacks by French troops under orders of General Charles Leclerc, sent by Napoleon to restore slavery. After more than 300 pages of denying that the revolution was a race war, James finally concedes that Leclerc deliberately drowned over 1,000 Africans “in one stroke” in the harbour of Le Cap—thus, it was he who “started the race war.”
General Donatien-Marie-Joseph Rochambeau, who assumed command after Leclerc’s death, also agreed to carry on with the genocide. James graphically recounts: “Leclerc had proposed a war of extermination, and Rochambeau waged it… by attempting to exterminate blacks and Mulattoes as well.”
That was 1802; Dessalines’ desperate counter-offensive to save the revolution was in 1805.
To conclude, if the proverbial pot calls out the “kettle”, it is simply trying to raise the kettle’s consciousness of the fact that the fire has done the same to both of them—but some kettles need a karmic dispensation (samsara) to comprehend this wisdom. My professional track record speaks for itself.
But since Baldeosingh obviously thinks otherwise, I invite him to enquire of any of those who have been my students over the decades to try to find a single piece of evidence of prejudice toward them, overt or perceived.
I suggest that he should then do the same for his own career; the findings might shock him.