Online Journal
Front Page 
 Special Reports
 News Media
 Elections & Voting
 Social Security
 Editors' Blog
 Reclaiming America
 The Splendid Failure of Occupation
 The Lighter Side
 The Mailbag
 Online Journal Stores
 Official Merchandise
 Join Mailing List

Commentary Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2008 - 00:59:09

Eternal vigilance
By Iftekhar Sayeed
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jan 8, 2008, 00:56

Email this article
 Printer friendly page

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 there.

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 auxiliaries!

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.

Iftekhar 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.

Copyright © 1998-2007 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor

Top of Page

Latest Headlines
Bush's visit to the Middle East: triumph of form over substance?
From the safety of his bubble, Bush begins Middle East visit
Europe and the USA -- different perspectives
Eternal vigilance
Will we end up bland and boring?
The Bourne paradox: the hunted as hunter
Now congressional Democrats are attacking free speech
A riposte to �Criminals with badges: How the police create crimes�
2007: Annus Mirabilis and the "Smiling Garden of Eden"
The war on Mithraism!
As Planet Earth struggles with ecological damage, America's appetite remains insatiable
2008: So what�s new?
Bilawal and the Bhutto curse
Criminals with badges: How the police create crimes
From a sun-splashed Rose Bowl to wintry Iowa
Happy New Year, people
Afghanistan does not exist: Viva Pakistan!
Machiavellian Musharraf
We all are prisoners now
Iran, US engaged in a lethal Chess game