Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Annual Customs of Dahomey

In the kingdom of Dahomey, a Fon empire in West Africa, there was a yearly celebration called the “Annual Customs”. Here’s a report from the time:

The military operations of the French against Dahomey have caused public attention to be directed more than ever before to this little-known country, whose name for many years has been a synonym for savage cruelty, for of all the tales of barbarity which Africa has given to the world, and they are innumerable, no one has ever exceeded the story of Dahomey. The atrocities which are an every-day sight in this out-of-the-way corner of the Dark Continent are all the more terrible in that they are perpetrated in the name of religion, and every massacre, however hideous, is really a sacrifice.

The religion of the Dahomans is a form of nature worship. They believe in one great supreme being, whom they consider too far removed from earth to concern himself in the least about human affairs, but who delegates his power to a host of inferior deities, who have their homes in the fields, the forests, the springs; who preside over the crops, the rains, and the sunshine. To these sacrifices are annually made with great pomp and ceremony of things as precious as the worshipers can procure. Nothing is more precious than human life, and the King, who rules Dahomey like a demi-god, being regarded as such by his people, makes every year such sacrifices as he deems becoming to the dignity of a monarch who terms himself the brother of the stars. These annual sacrifices are called the “customs,” and every year from sixty to one hundred victims are put to death, partly in honor of the gods and partly to carry news to the dead.

The Dahomans believe in the immortality of the soul, and also that every soul enters the other world in precisely the same condition in which it leaves this; that a king is forever a king; that a slave can never hope for freedom. Every year, when the season for the “customs” approaches, a certain number of persons, sometimes the King’s own subjects, sometimes captives taken in war, are selected for the sacrifice. The native Dahomans are alone intrusted with the duty of bearing the King’s messages to the dead, and each, in turn, is brought to the King on the great day of the festival. The supreme ruler of Dahomey whispers into the ear of the doomed man the message he is to convey to the other world, and he is immediately decapitated. In Dahomey no sanctity is attached to human remains. The bodies of the victims are dragged to the suburbs of Abomey, the Capital, where clouds of hungry vultures wait for the coming feast, and in a few hours nothing is left of the unhappy victim but the bones. Nor are these interred, and hundreds of acres of ground in the vicinity of the Capital are strewed with the whitened relics of mortality. The skulls alone are preserved; carefully cleaned, they become trophies, and are seen everywhere in the vicinity of the Capital, on door posts, on poles, on the cornices of the houses, while the walls of the temple are almost entirely composed of these ghastly reminders.

If you didn’t read that: every year, in the central holiday of the society, the King of Dahomey sacrificed dozens of slaves.

This account is from 1893, so it can’t mention the other part of the rite; it had already died out by then. In earlier years, however, the king sold some of the still-living slaves to European traders. In 1893, of course, slavery was banned in almost all Western-held land.

The account concludes:

The French war in Dahomey is a part of a long conceived plan to build up in the western part of Africa a French coloinial empire of grand dimensions. Already in possession of Algiers and Tunis, the French aspire to the control of the Western Sahara, the Valley of the Niger, and a large part of the Guinea coast. The Sahara is by no means the desolate sandy desert that has been depicted in schoolbooks, but abounds in oases which are capable of supporting a large population. Experience has shown that in many places water may be obtained by sinking artesian wells, and this being the case, the desert may yet blossom like the rose. A railroad has already been projected to connect the Algerian possessions of France with the coast of Guinea, but complete subjection of the hostile tribes of coast and interior is a necessity before such a line can be built, to say nothing of its maintenance. Tho French military operations against Dahomey are therefore in line with the French progress southward through the Sahara; Dahomey must be conquered before the French African empire can exist. Many months ago the war was begun by French aggression from the French colonies in Guinea, and has beengoing on with varying success ever since.

The Amazons fight well, and the character of the country through which the French have been forced to make their way renders progress very slow. Having passed the coast, they are now penetrating the forests and mountains a few miles inland, but the Amazons are skillful in bush fighting and the French are placed at no small disadvantage, having repeatedly fallen into ambuscades. Of their ultimate success but little doubt can be entertained, for their superiority of weapons and their military training gives them an advantage that the untrained courage, even of the Dahoman Amazons, cannot overcome, and their conquest of the county will remove one of the most appalling blots on the face of the earth. Civilized races are not commonly gentle in their dealings with savages, and the stories from time to time made public of French cruelty to their prisoners may be all true; but even when all this is taken into the account, the establishment of a responsible government in Dahomey and the abolition of the horrid sacrifices will rid Africa of one of its most terrible curses, the wanton destruction of life.

One year later, the French won their war, and Dahomey was made a French protectorate. Ten years after that, French Dahomey was incorporated into the empire. It became independent in 1960, and, like most postcolonial countries, became the site of a proxy war between the world powers: there were a number of coups d’état, ending in the establishment in 1975 of a Soviet-aligned Marxist-Leninist state, the People’s Republic of Benin. The leader of the coup, Mathieu Kérékou, is an interesting character: he allegedly admitted the failure of Marxism in 1989, instituted democracy, and stepped down, only to be re-elected in 1996.

But there’s something else to note here: there is no more human sacrifice in Benin.

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American slavery

…as in slavery of Americans. And Europeans.

How many know that perhaps 1.5 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved in Islamic North Africa between 1530 and 1780? We dimly recall that Miguel de Cervantes was briefly in the galleys. But what of the people of the town of Baltimore in Ireland, all carried off by “corsair” raiders in a single night?

Some of this activity was hostage trading and ransom farming rather than the more labor-intensive horror of the Atlantic trade and the Middle Passage, but it exerted a huge effect on the imagination of the time—and probably on no one more than on Thomas Jefferson. Peering at the paragraph denouncing the American slave trade in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, later excised, I noticed for the first time that it sarcastically condemned “the Christian King of Great Britain” for engaging in “this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers.” The allusion to Barbary practice seemed inescapable.

One immediate effect of the American Revolution, however, was to strengthen the hand of those very same North African potentates: roughly speaking, the Maghrebian provinces of the Ottoman Empire that conform to today’s Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. Deprived of Royal Navy protection, American shipping became even more subject than before to the depredations of those who controlled the Strait of Gibraltar. The infant United States had therefore to decide not just upon a question of national honor but upon whether it would stand or fall by free navigation of the seas. …

[O]ne cannot get around what Jefferson heard when he went with John Adams to wait upon Tripoli’s ambassador to London in March 1785. When they inquired by what right the Barbary states preyed upon American shipping, enslaving both crews and passengers, America’s two foremost envoys were informed that “it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

North African slave raids in Europe began before 1000 AD, and only ended in 1830, with the French conquest of Algeria.

The professional intelligentsia: the brightest of our society?

Ross Douthat wrote a NYT opinion piece on Haidt’s studies of political bias in academia and the revival of reactionary political thought.

The NYT has a comments section, with a tab called ‘NYT Picks’. There are ten NYT Picks for Douthat’s article. Here’s one of the ten.

I consider the “professional intelligentsia” as the best informed and brightest of our society. Particularly in the sciences, these people are trained to be objective fact finders. Perhaps Ross might consider their left tilt not as some sort of cultural disease or selfishness but rather as the way they choose to a better world and a better society. Given my choice between following scientists and university professors or our conservative demagogues preaching the apocalypse over health care for the poor, I can assure I will proudly align behind the brains.

Jonathan Haidt, apparently, is a ghost in a horror movie. Some people can see him, and some people can’t. I pointed Topher Hallquist to Haidt a while ago; soon after, he wrote a post called American Conservatism Is Intellectually Bankrupt, which mentioned Haidt only to dismiss him offhand, with no indication of familiarity with what Haidt says beyond “gee, maybe there ought to be more conservatives in academia”.

Haidt’s claim isn’t that diversity of ideas is itself a necessary good. He’s not calling for flat-earthers in geology departments—not that Hallquist would see the difference. What he says instead is that it would be good for his field if its Overton window didn’t shut out the majority of this country’s population: if there were more conservatives in social psychology, it would be less likely to fall victim to obvious errors, such as defining “not formally taking a female colleague’s side in her sexual harassment complaint against her subordinate (given little information about the case)” as inherently immoral, calling left-wing authoritarianism “the Loch Ness Monster of political psychology” as Robert Altemeyer did, failing to rigorously investigate stereotype accuracy, or trying to measure ‘moral foundations’ by asking survey-takers about their support for conservative political positions  and then acting surprised when liberals and conservatives appear to have different moral foundations. I won’t summarize all of this set’s writing here; it’s all available online, and it’s not hard to read.

Now consider Jose Duarte’s report of being rejected from a position for disapproving of Jimmy Carter’s position on Palestinian terrorism. Does what Duarte thinks of Jimmy Carter have anything to do with his ability as a social psychologist? Does evangelical Christianity have anything to do with the ability in linguistics of the Ph.D. candidate mentioned in Hallquist’s post? (Note that Christians are probably overrepresented in linguistics relative to other academic disciplines, because missionaries.) I would be surprised if Hallquist believed in a General Factor of Correctness.

Haidt’s other claim is that this ideological skew in academia is recent. Specifically, it happened sometime after 1990. Was liberalism proven to be objectively true sometime between 1990 and 2000? Of course not. But something happened. What could it be?

If you didn’t click that link: it goes to a Google ngrams display for ‘culture war’. The term’s usage rate started rising from near zero in the early ’90s and hasn’t shown any sign of going down. If the political polarization of America into two distinct pseudo-ethnic factions began at the same time as the polarization of social psychology…

Progressives today believe in all sorts of prejudice: overt classism, unconscious bias, hatred of the Other, and so on. But, as that NYT comment shows, they don’t think any of that applies to them.

At least not when it comes to the people they truly hate.

Against white nationalism

In a counterfactual America with a 100%-white population, there would still be the question of the different types of white people. This may not seem like a big issue, but it was in Yugoslavia.

In America, some white people (‘SWPLs’) live in Brooklyn, dye their hair pink, and blog about communism; and others (‘crackers’) live in the South, go to church, and blog about conservatism.

Are communism and conservatism about ideas? Of course not. Conservatism is a convenient pretext for disapproving of SWPL overreach, and communism is a convenient pretext for calling for the destruction of crackers. (If you’re wondering what that could look like: in Rwanda and South Africa, the state turned a blind eye to mass ethnic violence; in Tibet, the state encouraged mass migration to neutralize the original population; and in the United States, the state separated children from their families and forced assimilation.) The cracker says, “Get off my lawn!”, and the communist replies, “There are two Americas and one is better than the other. It’s time for a Third Reconstruction. It’s 2016.”

This, like the Second War of Secession (sometimes known as the “American Civil War”), would happen even in a white-nationalist US. There would have been differing economic interests between the 1800s North and South even if there hadn’t been a single slave in it (and if the more colorful sources from the period are to be believed, even the differing economic interests were a pretext), and there would be cultural differences today. Of course, Britain considered supporting the Confederacy as a check against the Union, and Russia has for almost a hundred years been inflaming the inevitable cultural conflict to check American interests. (Yes, it’s still doing it; yes, America did, and does, the same thing in Russia. But we are Americans, not Brits or Russians, so we must support American interests.)

There are perhaps other reasons to oppose white nationalism, but why worry about the weaker argument given the existence of the stronger? It simply wouldn’t accomplish its proponents’ goals. In a hypothetical white nationalist America, one side (read: [pseudo-]ethnicity) or the other would eventually realize both the possibility and the utility of ending white nationalism in order to advance its own interests against those of its traditional enemies. In other words: ‘white’ is not a nation. And no one will ever convert Massachusetts to Odinism.

There’s always the Swiss model.