Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Sultan of Bangassou

I have mentioned Sultan Senoussi several times already. But he was just one of the Sultans of the Haut-Oubangui. To his south ruled the Sultan of Bangassou. He received pride of place in French reports about the rapacious natives. They claimed his people were cannibals who reserved the most-tender flesh of children for their ruler. They characterized his rule as authoritarian, capricious and violent.

I recently discussed this with Thierry, a friend who is a direct descendent of the Sultan of Bangassou. Thierry related a story his grandfather used to tell. He lived in a village undisturbed by outsiders. When they heard gunfire, they thought it was thunder, and shook their heads at the strangeness of thunder on a sunny day. One day, they heard the sultan's raiders from afar. They all ran toward some caves just beyond their houses and hid. But Thierry's grandfather sensed something, he wasn't sure what, and he pulled his family out of the cave, and they ran through the bush. When the raiders arrived, they immediately figured out the village hiding spot, and they gathered thatch, packed it into the cave's opening, and set it ablaze. All inside perished. The raiders then set about pillaging the village; their salary for service to the sultan was free rein to reap the spoils of the areas beyond his domain. (Not unlike the warrior-king system in Norway, mentioned in this post.)

Thierry's grandfather and his young family survived, of course, thanks to the grandfather's premonition. But before long they were incorporated into Bangassou as slaves. With the growing French presence, at around the age of ten Thierry's father went to work for an administrator as a houseboy. A few years later, he and one of the sultan's daughters fell in love, and eventually won the agreement of their families to their union. Thus the son of a slave became royalty.

This suggests one oft-cited difference between slavery of the trans-Atlantic system, the model most Americans and Europeans are familiar with, and slavery in a place like Central Africa. Social mobility tended to be much greater in the latter. Any tendency to romanticize such "traditional" systems, however, is quickly arrested by the memory of all the people who stayed in the cave.

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