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The Agony of Asar

October 31st, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments


Jacobus Capitein was a slave forcibly taken from his parents in Ghana at age 8 in 1725. He was given as a gift to a trader in the Dutch West India Company named Jacobus van Goch. This owner reportedly treated him as an adopted son and sent him to school in the Hague, where in 1742 Capitein penned a doctoral thesis on slavery that defended the institution and the right of Christians to hold slaves. It may be that his motivation was to argue in favor of baptism for slaves in response to another minister of the time, Godefridus Cornelisz Udemans, who had argued that slaves who had been baptized had to be freed after seven years. Whatever the motivation, the thesis provides a counterpoint to the abolitionist slave narratives that would arise contemporaneously such as that of Olaudah Equiano in 1745 and, much later, American narratives such as that of Frederick Douglass (1845).

During the lifetime of Jacobus Capitein the views he expressed in his treatise fit very neatly into the popular thinking of the age. Europeans were transporting slaves across the Atlantic by the millions and being rewarded with huge profits. The common sentiment was that slavery was a natural if unfortunate fact of life, sort of like the way we think of homelessness today. The abolitionist movement was nascent, though during the next century it would bring about an end to the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire and hopelessly deadlock US politics.

Part of the reason for the really astonishing change in public attitude brought about by the abolitionists was the compelling nature of the slave narrative, of which there were many. In the case of the Douglass narrative, the author calmly and without bitterness chronicled the life of a plantation slave in the American south. His eloquence (it remains easily accessible to this day) and the train-wreck fascination of the details of the story caused many to question the justice of the institution of slavery itself, adding momentum to the abolitionist cause. Yet the very existence of Capitein’s treatise allowed those who were comfortable with slavery to deny its brutality and destructiveness.

We should always celebrate the good fortune of those whose encounters with authorities do not smell of institutionalized racism, and we should praise and hold up as examples those officials who are able to carry out their duty in a professional manner. But we must not allow these positive stories to lull us once again into the tempting daydream of denial. One anecdote does not a truth make. Institutionalized racism is real, measurable, and destructive.


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