Against Common Sense: The Middle Passage and the Holocaust as Instances of Genocide

06/02/2013 18:14

Karolína Bacigálová

Introduction

The history of mankind has witnessed a large number of examples of human rights abuses and violations all over the world. No one knows for sure whether there had ever been time when people were truly equal, peacefully living in a just society. From time immemorial people have been divided into various strata based on the rules of a given caste or class system. Thus one might have found him or her in a position superior or inferior relative to other people. Having a higher social status has always meant having the power to direct people, to rule over them, to take away their belongings or even their lives. Those of an inferior status have often been deprived of their rights being forced to subordinate to the will of their masters. However, since not all those people had been willing to suffer such cruelty, thousands of years ago wars became an inseparable part of human relations. Gradually, there were more enemies than friends among people inhabiting the world. Naturally, wars have produced still more and more hatred, hostility and suffering.

 

Throughout the history there have been many crimes against humanity but only few of them were equally or more painful than the Middle Passage and the Holocaust. They have much in common, yet several differences can be noted. One of the truths that concern those who fight for human rights is the fact that despite the number of total casualties in both cases exceeded one million, the former has not been and will most probably never be officially recognized as an instance of genocide – unlike the latter. The aim of this seminar paper is first to briefly clarify what was behind the two above-mentioned infamous events, then to point out the reason for the Middle Passage having failed to be officially labeled as a genocidal massacre and finally to examine the parallels and differences between the Middle Passage and the Holocaust while relating both to the term ‘genocide’ (which will be explained, too).

 

The Middle Passage

The term ‘Middle Passage’ commonly refers to the forced transportation of African slaves in inhuman conditions from the West African coast to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade that lasted from the middle of the sixteenth century until the 1860s.[1] The attribute ‘middle’ corresponds to the fact that the passage in question was the middle portion of a triangular trade voyage which began and ended in Europe. The ships left Europe and sailed for the slave markets in Africa, where a variety of products from Europe was often traded for slaves who were then shipped over the Atlantic Ocean - so called Middle Passage - to the Caribbean, where they were sold or exchanged for colonial products which were after that transported back to Europe.[2] Usually 10-40% of the slaves died during the journey or soon afterwards.[3]

 

The Holocaust

The word ‘holocaust’ is of Greek origin (hólos - ‘whole’ and kaustós, ‘burnt’) meaning ‘sacrifice by fire’.[4] In the course of the twentieth century it started to be used in connection with the mass, systematically planned persecution and murder of large numbers of Jews (and some other undesirable population groups such as Roma people or the disabled) by the Nazis and their collaborators from the summer of 1941 until 1945.[5] The Nazi seizure of power in January 1933 was followed by a quick realization of their ideas according to which Germans were ‘racially superior’ and the ‘inferior’ Jews were considered a threat that had to be eliminated as soon as possible.

 

Genocide

The term ‘genocide’ was first coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who managed to escape the Nazis, in 1944.[6] However, the expression describes a phenomenon that was known hundreds or even thousands of years ago. It originally comes from the root words genos (Greek for ‘family, tribe, or race’) and -cide (Latin for ‘killing’).[7] Mainly from the 1940s on, one was confronted by dozens of scholarly definitions of genocide, each judging the events it refers to from a different point of view.[8] Thus the need to provide a definition that would be officially recognized and respected in international law soon arose. As a response, the international legal definition of the crime of genocide was formulated in Article II of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. It says

               

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a. Killing members of the group;

b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.[9]

 

Even though this is the only legal definition of genocide, it is not generally accepted and respected. The evidence is a large number of scholars disagreeing with it (either finding the list of possible victims too narrow or that the need to prove intent is too demanding[10]) and therefore offering their own alternative definitions.[11]

 

A careful examination of the above definition makes it clear that the single reason for the Middle Passage not having been officially acknowledged as genocide are the tricky words intent and deliberately. While Germany’s intention and long-wished-for plan to destroy all the Jews of Europe (commonly referred to as the ‘Final Solution’[12]) was more than obvious, it is highly disputable whether there was or was truly not the intent to kill so many African slaves during the Middle Passage trade era. However, does that piece of information really matter? Is it really so crucial after all? Many might have argued that those hundreds of thousands of African people who died during the Middle Passage was ‘just’ an undesirable side effect. The argument might have been that to purposefully kill those slaves would defy all logic for the desire was to keep them alive in order to sell them later. However, when taking into account the fact that approximately 1.8 million people died during the capture, transportation and landing[13], probably the only relevant question raised should be whether it is really appropriate to play with words and let them defeat humanity while pretending the good intentions (or refusing bad intentions) on the part of the traders.

 

In fact, had not it been for the words intent and deliberately included in the definition of genocide given in the UN Convention, the Middle Passage would have apparently been acknowledged as an instance of genocide years ago without the slightest hesitation. With this assumption in mind, let us more closely look at the above articles of the UN Convention’s definition of genocide (a. - e.) and examine whether what happened during the Middle Passage and the Holocaust eras is relevant and corresponding to the conditions under which an event can be officially referred to as genocide (while ignoring the two words in question for the present). However, it is important to realize that this is possible only to a certain extent because of the limited length of this seminar paper.

 

Parallels and differences between the Middle Passage and the Holocaust

  • a. Killing members of the group

Generally, most merchants tried to avoid killing slaves since they did not want to deprive themselves of the profit from selling them.[14] Yet, there were numerous cases of murder.  Once the Africans were kidnapped or captured, merchants forced them to walk in slave caravans to the European coastal forts usually not closer than 1,000 miles distant.[15] Since they were shackled like beasts and underfed, naturally only about a half survived and those who tried to escape as well as those who were too sick or exhausted to keep up with the others were often killed, often with torturing lashes.[16] Those who survived these death marches would later - after spending several weeks on a ship in horrible conditions - choose to die themselves. Suicide by jumping overboard became such a serious problem that captains decided to frighten the slaves by bloodthirsty sharks that followed the ships. It happened probably more than just once that a captain took a slave, lowered them into water on a rope and let the sharks bite off the lower part of their body and thus cause a very slow and painful death.[17] There was even an extreme case when the captain decided to intentionally drown his slaves just to get the insurance compensation for his lost ‘cargo’.[18]

 

Most authorities claim that during the Holocaust about six million Jews were killed.[19] At first the Nazis used mass shootings. After the Jews were arrested or captured, they would be placed along huge mass graves (or in case there were none, the captives were forced to dig their own graves), and finally they were shot so that they fell directly into the graves.[20] A different killing method used was suffocation preceded by forcing the Jews into hermetically sealed mobile trucks into which the gas from the engine was exhausted in order to kill those inside.[21] Last but not least, large concentration camps were built with several gas chambers constructed inside. The single purpose of those was killing the captives by forcing them inside where they were gassed to death after inhaling exhaust fumes or a highly poisonous Cyclone B.[22]

 

  • b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

Shackles and cuffs that were too tight, whipping until one could see pieces of flesh being cut out by torturing lashes, force-feeding by placing coal or fire near the lips of those who refused to eat or pouring the melted lead on the slaves’ bodies were only some of a total number of means a crew used to mistreat the African slaves.[23] Except for serious bodily harm, the slaves must have suffered depressions due to the loss of family, security, their own humanity and most importantly their freedom. Women who did not suffer in irons paid a high price for their freedom by being the object of constant sexual harassment and even rape, which in many cases naturally resulted in nightmares and insanity.[24] Mothers went often mad after their babies, who were considered incapable of surviving the passage, were thrown overboard by members of a ship’s crew.[25]

 

Probably the most infamous source of bodily harm against defenseless Jews was Doctor Mengele, known for carrying out horrible tests on adults and children in order to understand the limits of human body and to test his own scientific theories. He used to let people soak in icy water in bitter cold in winter just to find out how many minutes a person could survive before freezing.[26] Carrying out anaesthesia-free operations such as amputation of legs, arms or stomachs as well as injecting microbes of various diseases to little children (who became either disabled or lost their lives soon afterwards) to measure their resistance to them was part of Mengele’s daily routine.[27] The psychological shocks that people received after entering the concentration camp and the torture they underwent afterwards often resulted in their going crazy and in frequent suicide attempts. The Jews would attack the guards because they knew they would be shot right away, they would throw themselves on electrified wires or hang one another in case of mass suicide.[28] Sexual abuse and rape was an efficient way of shaming and degrading women, causing them pain, agony and misery. These feelings led to their increasing desire to commit suicide - some were successful, others not.[29]

 

  • c. Inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part

 

It may seem paradoxical that even though healthy slaves were far more valuable for the merchants, the conditions in which they had to live were unbearably harsh. The traders would stack as many Africans as possible in one ship thinking of them as ‘cargo’. It was common that the minimum number of slaves shipped was 300 (some ships carried even twice as much) while the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean could take from a month to more than 150 days depending mainly on weather conditions.[30] Merchants did so because they believed that a high number of packed slaves would increase their chances of a good profit; although a lot of slaves would die, they still would have more than enough left.[31]  Besides the fact that the men were chained together and forced to lie shoulder to shoulder in a ship that was hot, sweaty and airless, because of a lack of sanitation facilities they had to lie in their own and others’ waste, vomit and blood.[32] In such conditions various diseases spread extremely fast. Their growing weaker and weaker was supported also by the poor food rations provided only twice a day.[33]

 

It has been claimed that “the Nazi cruelty went far beyond the point of making people work as slaves.”[34] In concentration camps people were often forced to work to death under severe conditions. They had almost no time to take a rest and if they had they were forced to sleep in three-tier wooden bunk beds under leaky roofs in overcrowded barracks.[35] These barracks lacked not only heating or insulation but also appropriate sanitary facilities, thus prisoners frequently suffering from diarrhea made the space inside unlivable.[36] Camp prisoners received meals three times a day but since they were often working hard most of the day and then sometimes woken up soon after midnight, their physical exhaustion often ended in death.[37]

 

  • d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group

 

As already mentioned, rapes and forced sexual intercourses were common during the Middle Passage. However, since the passage from Africa to the Caribbean did not last more than half a year, there was probably no need to impose measures intended to prevent births. The strategy might have been just the opposite - the more slaves, the better. Thus, even though it is probably not possible to speak about the direct prevention of births, there were many indirect ways to do so. Under psychological pressure several pregnant women decided to prefer abortion to bringing a child into slavery, many had committed suicide or were thrown overboard being considered too weak and thus invaluable.[38] Last but not least, repeated rapes often resulted in a woman’s infertility.

 

It happened very often that as a consequence of psychological shocks suffered after coming to a concentration camp, women stopped menstruating and became infertile.[39] This fact was frequently misused by the SS who organized brothels usually for themselves or occasionally even for selected prisoners.[40] Even despite numerous forced sterilizations, several pregnancies resulting from the rapes occurred. In such cases, the Nazis decided who would survive - a child, a mother, both or none.[41] Thus the fear in the women of not surviving could quickly end in their going crazy or in spontaneous miscarriages.

 

  • e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

 

It is hard to judge whether the transfer of children during the Middle Passage as such was forced or not since most parents did not naturally want to leave their children behind so they automatically took them aboard with them. However, given that the transport of the adult slaves was forced, it is possible to conclude that the transfer of children could not have been voluntary, especially when realizing that children were sold as manual workers, too. What is more, children did not live in good conditions either. They were treated as bad as women but better than men since they were not chained and on some ships they were allowed to move about the slave deck freely.[42] However, sometimes they were killed because African men and women used them as means to communicate with one another and occasionally also to plan rebellions.[43]

 

In accordance with the Final Solution, the extermination of the Jews included also children. Thousands of Jewish children did not manage to avoid forced transportations to concentration camps. Many of them died on the trains after a few days. Sometimes the fittest or those teenagers who claimed to have a skill were chosen for manual labor, while babies and small children considered unproductive and hence “useless eaters” were sent straight to the gas chambers.”[44]

 

Conclusion

As shown above, the Middle Passage and the Holocaust have much in common. However, the extent to which they are similar is limited by centuries that separate them. While the procedures and instruments used to (mis)treat the captured people - either the African slaves or the Jews - changed over time, the basic principles of (mis)treating them were much the same. When taking into account the fact that the outcome of both events is comparable as to cruelty and mass killings involved, it is shameful that while the Holocaust can be justly referred to as genocide, the Middle Passage has been deprived of this very right just because the intentions to kill so many African slaves have not been proven. In their definition of genocide, John Thompson and Gail Quets aptly claim that intents do not count because “destruction of a social collectivity by whatever agents, with whatever intentions” [45]  is nothing but genocide. It seems that only if definitions stopped ruling over common sense, there would be hope for people to learn to judge the events justly and correctly and call them by their true names.

 

Works Cited

African Holocaust. Dark Voyage: Hell Bellow Deck. African Holocaust Online. .

Brooks, R. L. African Americans. Enotes.com Online.

.

Dougherty, J. M. (ed.). Genocide/Slavery: Curriculum Guide. New Jersey, New Jersey Amistad Commission Press, 2010. 60 p. .

Holocaust Museum & Learning Center (HMLC). Education: Common Questions. Holocaust Museum & Learning Center Online. .

Hooper, Ch. African Experience in the Latin America and the Caribbean. Christopher Hooper Online, 2004. .

Jacobsen, J. M. Women's Sexuality in WWII Concentration Camps: ... Tool for Survival ... Tool for Oppression. In: UC Berkeley’s English 1B, Section 7, 2000. .

Jewish Virtual Library. Living Conditions, Labor and Executions. Jewish Virtual Library Online. .

Lester, D. Suicide and the Holocaust. New York, Nova Science Publishers, 2005. 199 p.

Lovejoy, P. E. The “Middle Passage”: The Enforced Migration of Africans across the Atlantic. Toronto, York University Press, 2005. 24 p. <https://pzacad.pitzer.edu/~hfairchi/pdf/Blacks/MiddlePassage.pdf>.

Pettersen, K. The Middle Passage: From Africa to America. UNESCO ASPnet Projects Online. <https://sites.google.com/site/dnscbaspnet/tst-passage>.

Rediker, M. The Slave Ship: A Human History. London, John Murray, 2008. 464 p.

Rice, A. Creating Memorials, Building Identities: The Politics of Memory in the Black Atlantic. Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2012. 244 p.

Romaniw, S.  Remembering the Millions Who Perished in Ukraine’s 1932 -33 Famine – Act of Genocide. Maidanua Online, 2011. .

Story of Africa. The Middle Passage. BBC Story of Africa Online. .

The Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Methods of Mass Murder. The Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Online.

<https://www.holocaust-education.dk/holocaust/massedrapsmetoder.asp>.

United Nations. 2010 Education Working Group Paper on the Holocaust and Other Genocides. United Nations Online. 22 p. .

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). At the Killing Centers. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Online. .

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Children during the Holocaust. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Online. .

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Introduction to the Holocaust. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Online. <https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005143>.

University of Michigan Student Projects. The Zong Ship. University of Michigan Student Projects Online. .

Wolfe, B. Slave Ships in the Middle Passage. Encyclopedia Virginia Online. 2012. .

Yahya, H. The Truth About Holocaust. Islam Denounces Antisemitism Online. <https://www.islamdenouncesantisemitism.com/thetruth.htm>.

 


[1] Lovejoy, P. E. The “Middle Passage”: The Enforced Migration of Africans across the Atlantic. Toronto, YUP, 2005, p. 1.

[2] Pettersen, K. The Middle Passage: From Africa to America. UNESCO ASPnet Projects Online. <https://sites.google.com/site/dnscbaspnet/tst-passage>.

[3] Hooper, Ch. African Experience in the Latin America and the Caribbean. Christopher Hooper Online, 2004, p.2. .

[4] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Introduction to the Holocaust. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Online. <https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005143>.

[5] Holocaust Museum & Learning Center (HMLC). Education: Common Questions. Holocaust Museum & Learning Center Online. .

[6] Dougherty, J. M. (ed.). Genocide/Slavery: Curriculum Guide. New Jersey, New Jersey Amistad Commission Press, 2010, p. 6. .

[7] Romaniw, S.  Remembering the Millions Who Perished in Ukraine’s 1932 -33 Famine – Act of Genocide. Maidanua Online, 2011. .

[8] See, United Nations. 2010 Education Working Group Paper on the Holocaust and Other Genocides. United Nations Online, pp. 11-16. .

[9] Ibid: p.11.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See, e.g. Dougherty, J. M. (ed.). Genocide/Slavery: Curriculum Guide. 2010: pp. 10-11.

[12] Holocaust Museum & Learning Center (HMLC).

[13] Wolfe, B. Slave Ships in the Middle Passage. Encyclopedia Virginia Online. 2012. .

[14] Story of Africa. The Middle Passage. BBC Story of Africa Online. .

[15] Dougherty, J. M. (ed.). Genocide/Slavery: Curriculum Guide. 2010. p. 15.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Rediker, M. The Slave Ship: A Human History. London, John Murray, 2008. p. 40.

[18] See, e.g. University of Michigan Student Projects. The Zong Ship. University of Michigan Student Projects Online. .

[19] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Introduction to the Holocaust. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Online. <https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005143>.

[20] The Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Methods of Mass Murder. The Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Online. .

[21] Ibid.

[22] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). At the Killing Centers. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Online. .

[23] African Holocaust. Dark Voyage: Hell Bellow Deck. African Holocaust Online. .

[24] Hooper, Ch. African Experience in the Latin America and the Caribbean, 2004: p.12.   

[25] Brooks, R. L. African Americans. Enotes.com Online. .

[26] Yahya, H. The Truth About Holocaust. Islam Denounces Antisemitism Online. <https://www.islamdenouncesantisemitism.com/thetruth.htm>.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Lester, D. Suicide and the Holocaust. New York, Nova Science Publishers, 2005. p. 115.

[29] Jacobsen, J. M. Women's Sexuality in WWII Concentration Camps: ... Tool for Survival ... Tool for Oppression. In: UC Berkeley’s English 1B, Section 7, 2000. .

[30] Story of Africa. The Middle Passage. BBC Story of Africa Online. .

[31] Pettersen, K. The Middle Passage: From Africa to America. UNESCO ASPnet Projects Online.

[33] Hooper, Ch. African Experience in the Latin America and the Caribbean, 2004: p.10.  

[34] Yahya, H. The Truth About Holocaust. Islam Denounces Antisemitism Online. <https://www.islamdenouncesantisemitism.com/thetruth.htm>.

[35] Jewish Virtual Library. Living Conditions, Labor and Executions. Jewish Virtual Library Online. .

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

38 Rice, A. Creating Memorials, Building Identities: The Politics of Memory in the Black Atlantic. Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2012.  p. 191.

[39] Jacobsen, J. M. Women's Sexuality in WWII Concentration Camps Online.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Wolfe, B. Slave Ships in the Middle Passage. Encyclopedia Virginia Online. 2012.

[43] Ibid.

[44] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Children during the Holocaust. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Online. .

[45] United Nations. 2010 Education Working Group Paper on the Holocaust and Other Genocides. United Nations Online. p. 14. .

 

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