This must have been the motto of Thomas Jefferson�s
slave-girls, by whom he sired a number of mulattos. Eternal vigilance, he observed,
is the price of liberty. When democrats repeat these lines, they go weak at the
knees -- and that�s when I offer them a chair.
He also said: �I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal
hostility against every from of tyranny over the mind of man.� Over the body of
man was, of course, an entirely different matter. And when we ask those said
democrats -- now ensconced in my chair -- what the words mean, they are at a
loss to explain. After all, we have no kings to keep a wakeful vigil against.
Perhaps they are afraid of military coups? But then vigilance will hardly help
It is clear, of course, that Jefferson meant that we have to
be vigilant otherwise we�ll be enslaved -- just as those poor blacks under him
had been captured and sold in the land of the free. The anxiety of the slave
had become the neurosis of the master.
In �darkest Africa,� a constant vigil was necessary to elude
enslavement. Oloudah Equiano, a slave from the region of the Gambia, had the
following story to tell. �Generally, when the grown people in the neighbourhood
were gone far in the fields to labour the children assembled together in some
of the neighbours� premises to play; and, commonly, some of us used to get up a
tree to look out for an assailant or kidnapper . . . One day, as I was watching
at the top of a tree in our yard, I saw one of those people come into the yard
of our next neighborhood but one, to kidnap, there being many stout young
people in it. Immediately . . . I gave the alarm of the rogue, and he was surrounded.�
Unfortunately, Equiano himself was not so lucky. He was kidnapped and sold to
the English, who sold him in the West Indies. However, his experience was not
atypical of the 11 million slaves transported to the Americas over 600 years.
Vigilance was necessary for the slave-merchants as soon as
the slaves were on board -- indeed, they were most apt to rebel in sight of
shore. �From the moment the slaves are embarked,� wrote an Angevin businessman,
�one must put the sails up. The reason is that these slaves have so great a
love for their country that they despair when they see that they are leaving it
for ever . . ." There was one insurrection every eight to 10 journeys,
with most of them occurring near shore.
The fear of insurrection was constantly present among the
white population. In 1730, William Gooch, lieutenant-governor of Virginia,
wrote home to London that there were 30,000 slaves in Virginia -- in a
population of 114,000 -- �and their numbers increase every day as well by birth
as by importation. And in case there should arise a man of desperate courage
amongst us, exasperated by a desperate fortune, he might with more advantage
than Catiline kindle a servile war.� The poor fellow appears to have had his
history garbled by terror -- he must have meant Spartacus!
Eternal vigilance was also required to keep slaves unfree.
For -- how evil of them! -- they tended to run away.
Eternal vigilance is the price we must pay in this country
if we want to hang on to our wallets. We must be constantly on our guard lest
some goon -- sponsored by one of the political parties -- surprises us in the
middle of the road. And he does not even require the cover of darkness and the
stars -- he who has the cover of a political party can dispense with such natural
Japan was caught napping for 200 years by Commodore Perry --
while his brother was busy tracking down slave ships in North America! One
sibling helped to enslave a whole nation even as the other helped suppress the
loss of liberty of individual slaves. And how many peoples -- how many
civilisations -- would have been spared the white man�s burden had they been
more vigilant? If the Mayans and Incas had been vigilant against those �heroes�
of discovery -- Cortez and Pisarro -- two civilisations would still have been
extant! And who can forget the stirring lines of the first scene of the rural
Bangladeshi play Nawab Sirajuddowla?
The Nawab laments that he had not heeded the advice of his ancestor to be
eternally vigilant against the East India Company! And if the �Red� Indians
had, instead of welcoming Columbus who �discovered� them, skewered him and his
ilk for sheesh kebab, they would
still have been around -- and not merely in the Song of Hiawatha and John Wayne movies!
It is too late, of course, for eternal vigilance against the
Western world -- so why do intellectuals in this country mouth these words as
though they were munching manna? Now, we have to be eternally vigilant against
them. They mimic the West African kings who sold their fellow countrymen to the
Europeans for a few cowry shells. Indeed, greed would drive these potentates to
sell even their own wives and children to the highest bidder! So why should not
our home-grown potentates sell people beyond their family down the river? What
will induce me to sell 140 million people for the benefit of my family and
myself? A trip to New York? A conference -- no, make that a seminar -- in
London? Or perhaps the modern equivalent of cowry shells -- cash?
For that is how the slave trade was conducted. John Locke
would invest some 200 sterling pounds in the enterprise, the money would be
used to buy colored beads and trinkets, and the village elders and leaders on
the malarial coasts of West Africa would gladly hand over their brothers for these
baubles. And just as today it is maintained that it is all for the good of the
natives, so in those days of yore it was argued that an African was better off
as a slave in white hands than as an African in Africa!
We must be vigilant against these arguments, and the whole
seductive siren song of freedom sung by the enlightened choir of our society.
Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches
English as well as economics. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in
Postcolonial Text (on-line); Altar Magazine, Online Journal, Left Curve
(2004,2005) and The Whirligig in the United States; in Britain: Mouseion,
Erbacce, The Journal, Poetry Monthly, Envoi, Orbis, Acumen and Panurge; and in
Asiaweek in Hong Kong; Chandrabhaga and the Journal OF Indian Writing in
English in India; and Himal in Nepal. He is also a freelance journalist. He and
his wife love to tour Bangladesh.