Monday, July 25, 2016

Slavery in British East Africa

Annamaria on Monday

My British East African series is based on the Ten Commandments.  Each story has a plot thread based on the sin of the commandment.  And another based on a sin that has no commandment.  But that I think should.  In The Idol of Mombasa, the second in the series, the sin of the commandment is idolatry.  The other sin is slavery.

When I first started working on the book a couple of years ago, I mentioned the themes to Stanley Trollip.  He immediately said he thought the slave trade had ended well before 1912, when the book is set.  I figured that—as happens with me—I had chosen a topic so obscure that even a person as knowledgeable as Stan would think my story far-fetched.  I had some work to do to make my plot plausible.

I hit the books again.  My further research bore out what I had already learned: In East Africa, slavery did not disappear abruptly the day the British declared it so.  As one of my characters says, “…like every beast, slavery has a tail, and we are dealing with that tail here.”

Let’s take a look at why it took longer for slavery to be stamped out in East Africa.

The black lines represent slave trade routes in the Middle Ages.

In the late Nineteenth Century, the territory that is now Kenya was a protectorate of the British government—a step on the way to becoming a colony.  That is all of it but a ten-mile swath of the coast, which belonged to the Sultan of Zanzibar.

Arabs had been trading slaves from there since the 700s, long before any European put a foot on that shore.  Over the centuries, the Sultanates of the Middle East took African slaves to work for Persia as sailors, to dive for pearls in the Gulf, to fight as troops for Omani.  And mostly to work in houses as domestics and sex slaves.  Some were shipped as far away as China.

They used Mombasa as their shipping point, and the mixture of genes and cultures between the city’s African population and the Arab traders gave rise to the Swahili people and language.  Africans as well as Arabs traded slaves.

When the Brits arrived in East Africa, slavery was an entrenched way of life.  It might have been against British law everywhere else, but it was an important part of the local culture and sanctioned by Shari'a law. 

Also, when the Protectorate of British East Africa was declared, His Majesty’s administrators had a bitter rival for the goodies available to be plundered from Africa—the Germans in German East Africa (now Tanzania) to their south.  The Sultan still had hegemony over the BEA coast.  If the Brits did not make nice with him, he might favor the Gerries and cut them out.  The Brits’ allies in this matter were Arabs who were themselves slave owners and slave traders.

So the British East African Administration never fully committed to enforcing their own anti-slavery laws.

In the end, they prevailed with the Sultan, if paying him 250,000 pounds sterling for the right to govern the coast in his name can be called prevailing.  At least they won out over the Germans.

Little by little, the Brits tried to cut down on the number of people enslaved—by declaring 1474 existing runaways as free men, by declaring that children born after 1 January 1890 were free.  This gradual approach put the government on the outs with the passionate anti-slavery forces on the home front.

In response the government argued that slavery on Zanzibar and along the British East African coast was far more benign than the well-known horrors of the Caribbean.  They could offer as proof that the Qu’ran instructed good Muslims to be kind to their slaves and set them free when they died.

In 1897, the King’s administrators convinced the Sultan to make slavery illegal.  But nobody told the slaves.  If they found out and wanted to bolt, they had to prove that they had the means to support themselves as freemen by showing a contract of employment.  The police ramped up their enforcement of the vagrancy laws to keep the household slaves in their place.

So slavery continued in this area well into the Twentieth Century.

In my story, I wanted to include some low level slave trading, as well as slave possession.  I gave the British a pragmatic fictional reason for turning a blind eye to slave trafficking on the coast in 1912.  It served my story to imagine this.  Just this past Friday, while boning up on my facts to write this blog, I found a new article on the subject.  Here is quote from “The Windmill of Slavery: The British and Foreign Antislavery Society and Bonded Labor in East Africa” by Opolot Okia. 

Moreover, unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the British efforts against slave trading in these areas were more lethargic and gradual and were conditioned more by specific, local circumstances than some amorphous but inexorable anti slavery logic.” (The Middle Ground Journal: Duluth, 2011)

The institution was not finally abolished by law until the 6th of July 1909.

The Idol of Mombasa set two and half years later in January of 1912.  I hope you will read the book.  Then you can tell me if my story of slavery in East Africa is in keeping with the actual history of the place.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Go-Shuin-Cho: the Pilgrim's Book

--Susan, Every Other Sunday

Historically, devout Japanese would undertake pilgrimages to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. These pilgrimages had many purposes, from the pursuit of knowledge to an attempt to gain merit and curry favor with the "Kings of Hell" who judged the soul of the deceased (and determined his or her eternal fate) in the weeks that follow death.

Many pilgrims carried a Shuin-cho (or Nōkyō-chō), a special notebook in which the temple's priests (or the kannushi, at a Shinto shrine) would place a special stamp, often supplemented with handwritten calligraphy.

Left to right: shuin from Nanzen-ji, Ootoyo Jinja, & Ginkaku-ji

The custom dates at least as far back as the Edo period (1603-1868) and continues to this day. No longer confined to religious pilgrims, go-shuin-cho ("go" is an honorific) are popular with religious and secular visitors; relatives of religious Buddhists and Shinto practitioners lay the stamp books open across the coffin of a deceased relative, as a sign of the merit they acquired (by visiting shrines and temples) during life. For secular visitors (including many foreigners), collecting shuin is an alternative to more traditional souvenirs, and provides a lovely reminder of their shrine and temple visits. (And no, it's not considered inappropriate or rude to collect shuin for other-than-religious purposes. Many, many people do, including many Japanese visitors.)

During my trip to Japan last summer, I started my first go-shuin-cho and had it stamped at each of the shrines and temples I visited. The book itself costs about ¥1000 (roughly $10.00 U.S.) and can be purchased--conveniently enough--at almost any temple or shrine that offers shuin.

My shuin-cho (the covers differ - this one shows the pavilion at Ginkakugi, where I bought it)
Each shrine and temple offers a distinct shuin, or stamp, usually in return for a small donation (typically in the ¥200-500 / $2-$5 range). Some places have pre-printed, pre-calligraphied pages that visitors can insert or paste into their books, but most have a monk or priest "on duty" to stamp and write calligraphy in visitors' individual books during temple hours.

After stamping the book in vermilion ink and writing the inscription, the calligrapher typically inserts a slip of tissue to protect the stamp from smearing or bleeding across to the next stamped page. In the image below, the paper on the right-hand side is a slip of tissue that (conveniently) explains the shuin for an English-speaking visitor.

Sometimes, the tissue serves double-duty as a translation aid. 

Upon arriving at each shrine or temple, my son and I went straight to the proper building and deposited our books (with a donation -- it's nice to leave one, even at places that don't have a set charge for shuin). The monk or priest gave us a numbered claim tag, much like the ones you see at restaurant coat-checks in the United States. When we finished visiting the site, we returned and retrieved our stamp books, one beautiful memory closer to full.

Left to right: Kasuga Taisha, Tofukuji, Fushimi Inari Taisha 

Most go-shuin-cho have 40-60 "pages" - though, in truth, they're a pair of hardback covers connected by a single, accordion-folded sheet, which allows for proper display of the stamps across a coffin -- or, in less morbid circumstances, in photographs like these:

Yes, that's my couch. Don't judge.

The slips on top of the pages are the tissues, which I removed to take the pictures.

A better view of the pages - and the couch.

Some stamps contain the name of the patron deity, as well as the shrine name, date, and vermilion stamp. At some shrines and temples, the calligrapher is male, while others have female priests (or shrine caretakers) who attend to this duty.

While many people find the calligraphy difficult to read, for me, each page brings back a special memory of a highly sacred space. For example, I obtained this shuin at Itsukushima, a sacred Shinto shrine on Miyajima--an island off the coast of Hiroshima:

That day (June 15 - as it says on the lower left side of the page) was also my mother's 70th birthday. We spent the night at Iwaso, a 160 year-old ryokan (traditional inn).

and took a walk along the shore to see the Great Torii by night:

That stamp reminds me of much more than words, or a check-box on a temple list. It recalls a host of precious memories, reminding me not only that I visited, but that I saw and felt this place as well.

I don't know how much merit a non-Buddhist can obtain from collecting go-shuin, but I know that the book and its stamps have a great deal of merit to me.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Mykonos, Confidentially Speaking.


The first issue of Mykonos Confidential hit the lanes and beaches of my island home eleven years ago.  Since then it’s become the often imitated, but never equaled, summertime bible of the passions, pastimes, and peccadillos of a place like no other. 

As its publisher, Petros Bourovilis, wrote in his editorial piece welcoming readers to this summer’s issue, “Since the beginning the objective was a magazine that would capture the essence, soul and energy of the island. We have made it all these years.”

In June, Petros asked if I’d write an article for the magazine describing how life on the island has changed during my time here. No constraints, no editorial guidelines, just tell it as I saw it.  That was a difficult offer to refuse, and so I accepted. The magazine came out a week ago, and I’m pleased to say that no lynch mobs have appeared at my door.  But the summer’s still young.

I titled the piece, “It’s All About Balance,” and consistent with what some say is my determination to live dangerously, I’ve decided to share my published thoughts with a broader audience.  So, with the blessing of Mykonos Confidential, here are those reflections on my thirty plus years on Mykonos.

“As long as the soufflé rises, don’t worry about the earthquake.”

I actually never cared much for soufflés, and certainly am not a fan of earthquakes, but somehow that phrase popped into my head when Mykonos Confidential graciously asked if I’d write a piece about our island for its Summer 2016 issue.

If I’ve learned anything from my years of creative writing it’s that when the muse beckons, listen.   So, armed with that image of a soufflé, and my commission to capture the essence of modern day Mykonos compared to my memories of thirty-plus years past (I shall not say how many “plus”), I set off on my quest.

My original appearance in Mykonos Confidential

As the serendipitous Fates would have it, I found inspiration on a glorious early June Saturday afternoon in a gala birthday party thrown by two of my favorite people at a beach club synonymous with the best of the modern day Mykonos experience.  It came to me in a vision of epic proportions, laid out almost as clearly as the day’s cloudless bright blue sky and sparkling turquoise to ultramarine sea, with all the necessary characters in place about me ready to play their parts amid the perfect setting for telling the tale. 

The cast at play at Jackie O's Beach Club

Thirty years ago, one of the owners of the birthday celebration venue first visited Mykonos.  It was a very different time.  But then again, so too were the days thirty years before his initial visit. Back sixty years, Mykonians impoverished by World War II and Greece’s post-war conflicts struggled to scrape by anyway that they could, be it in the island’s barite mines, off the land or sea, or from a fledging tourism industry.  Beach life as we know it today did not exist, and the best land was viewed as agricultural, away from the seashore.  It was daughters who inherited the seaside land…but that’s another story.

By 1986 beaches were popular, and tavernas sat close by many. But rarely did a hotel, sparingly a home, and none of the clubs in the form we now take for granted.  Today, their absence is an exception, growing more so every year. Whether that’s good or bad is not for me to judge, just observe. And so I shall, through these snapshots of some of those who came to celebrate on that Saturday afternoon.

The party celebrated the 50th birthday of one of the island’s pre-eminent restaurateurs, one half-of a couple that’s infused the island with grand ideas and exquisite execution.  It’s not been easy. It never is for new ideas to take root on such gritty island ground, or to survive the trampling down and nibbling away by the nature of the beast known as island ways.  That creature thrives among herds of old allegiances and family ties conditioned to keep new ideas and their practitioners at bay.

Birthday boy Egidio and Niko.

The story of the birthday boy and his partner’s successes on the island is one of determination, skill, and flexibility, not unlike that of the two who created the birthday venue, for each couple measures its businesses on the island in terms of decades rather than generations.  In other words, they’re newcomers.

So how did they succeed?  To me the answer is simple: They grasped the shifting desires and tastes of the island’s clientele, while never losing sight of Mykonos’ natural beauty as its quintessential draw, and that staying in synch with the unique physical and psychological nature of the island is paramount to success. 

Respect for its beaches and the constancy of its architecture is what makes Mykonos the draw that it is, not trendy foreign tastes attempting to make it seem like somewhere else.  Madison Avenue-style display windows imposed on classic Cycladic structures—and their rapidly spreading minimalist modern progeny—are not thinking outside the box, but an unimaginative denigration of the island’s historic natural beauty. Visitors come not looking for the shop or bar or fashion they know back home.  They come looking for Mykonos.

Those who hosted the party get it.  That is why they prosper.  And they also take care of their people, both employees and guests.  It is the essence of Mykonos hospitality: an appreciation of people.

Which is precisely what that party was all about, friends from around the world gathered together to celebrate in a place of joy.  I saw old faces and new. Greeks, non-Greeks; gays, non-gays; locals, non-locals; rich, non-rich, all there in abundance listening to 80s music, grazing on modern cuisine, drinking what they desired, wearing as much or little as they wished, dancing, sunning, playing, perhaps even praying, but all smiling and doing whatever made them happy.  

I stood watching old Mykonos stories being remade by the young in their own words, and though time will fly by for them surely as quickly as it has for me, I can assure each one that those memories will always remain the property of their maker—and just as fresh as the new memory I most cherish of that afternoon.

It began as a flashback to more decades ago than I care to remember, when one of the island’s great foreign beauties was captured au natural windsurfing at sunset.  The photo became a postcard, the image a legend.  She’s a grand friend and great lady who emigrated here long ago, and represents so much of Mykonos’ past. 

We sat chatting through much of the party, and deep into the late but still hot afternoon, as the happy hordes danced poolside, and the drag queen show drifted off into memory, she slipped away to poolside, dropped her wrap, and slid into the pool the same as she once appeared on that postcard. 

Not a soul turned to gawk, or say a word. She did it as unnoticed as a golden, falling leaf.  I looked beyond the edge of the pool to buildings going up on the other side of the bay, each so out of touch with the island’s natural beauty and past that one longs for them to crumble.

Then my friend emerged from the pool, dried, and gracefully dressed, demonstrating her propensity for creating memorable moments out of the simplest of ingredients.

Much as a determined soufflé will rise against the earthquake.

Let us all rise.