Timeo tenebris


There are some things of which we rarely speak; we did, at one time perhaps, but times have changed. Societal norms and cultural permissions have shifted; there are caveats, locked doors, and windows with blinds pulled down for our protection… or somebody’s protection -the people aren’t always named for fear that… for fear that what? It’s hard to know when speech is restricted and documents redacted, or locked away.

Sometimes, too much is protected; sometimes those being hidden may want a voice. May need a voice. But even in their silence, history piles up like washing hanging on a line to dry. It will not dry in the closet. It will not dry just sitting in a basket. Some things need to be aired. Some things need to be seen.

Of course, those things may be too embarrassing to air. They were not meant for public scrutiny, because they were neither bought, nor discarded by someone else -they were stolen. Captured by force, perhaps, or exchanged as payment on a debt. They were not meant to count -not really: they are the spoils of aggression. Booty.

Archeology and anthropology are interesting fields of study and ones which my readings have only skimmed through superficially at best. The diffusion of items among various cultures, I assumed, was likely the result of trading, but I would have thought that the technologies for their production would have been guarded by each nation. It is the guarantee that each has something that others will trade for.

Eventually, no doubt, secrets about their production would leak out, or be sold -it’s how societies evolve, I assumed- and if it got no more exciting than that, I would move on to another article. Another subject. Diffusion of knowledge, while no doubt important, is still much like watching wallpaper fade. It fails to engage my undivided attention for long… Okay, at all…

But I happened upon an essay that touched on a method of spreading ideas that, in my 21st century naïveté, and abhorrence of anything to do with subjugation or bondage, had not occurred to me: captives. https://aeon.co/essays/how-captive-peoples-enriched-the-cultures-of-their-captors

It was written by Catherine M Cameron, now a professor emerita in the department of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder and an archaeologist. ‘The fact is that archaeology lacks a well-developed body of theory for understanding how beliefs and technologies spread from one group to another: the grey and monolithic idea of ‘diffusion’ masks what actually happened. Real people had to meet in order to transfer real cultural practices.’ But who were they, she asks, and why would anybody care? ‘When strangers appeared, why were locals interested in the objects, dress styles, tools or languages they brought with them?’

The question puzzled the author until she saw an early photograph of a young captive woman who was wearing the tattoo of her captors and seemed to have adopted some of their customs. Cameron wondered if it might work both ways, ‘that captives were indeed very likely one way in which technologies, ideologies, styles and more were passed from one society to another.’

I am obviously not at all au courant with anthropological wisdom, and so I have to admit I hadn’t given much thought to the possible value that the knowledge of captives might have for their captors. Innocent, unsuspecting, unworldly -call it what you will, but it came as a surprise to me, for some reason. In retrospect, of course, I think that I have been influenced by the egregious history of European (and, of course, North American) use of African slaves. These are not what Cameron was referring to; African slaves were decidedly not mere ‘trophies’ that one tribe captured from a neighbouring village; the African slaves were specifically kidnapped by force and by foreigners and targeted for labor. They had little or no chance to assimilate in the entirely foreign lands to which they were transported. They were not captured ‘enemies’, they were merely chattel -slaves, property, innocent like animals. Slaves, I think, are different.

No, it seems to me that the captives the author describes were more booty than commodity, and (likely) captured as trophies as much as to serve in an unpaid labour force. Cameron goes through some of the literature and her own studies on small-scale societies, their skirmishes, as well as the taking of captives, their treatment, and/or assimilation.

As she says, ‘The most difficult thing to understand is what captives might have taught their captors. Once a group adopts a new practice (food, clothing style or language, etc), it is theirs. They have little reason to remember that it was introduced from another group, especially by a lowly captive. So much of the evidence for that kind of relationship tends to disappear… The accounts show that captor societies were interested in different ways of doing things… In many cases, captors actively mined their captives for useful information despite enslaving them or holding them in low regard.’ Some of this information, of course, comes from the narratives of freed captives, albeit often with an understandably biased interpretation of events.

But, somehow the idea of even accepting the wisdom of captives suggests a change of relationship, an affirmation of a shared humanity -something decidedly absent in the treatment and interaction with the African slaves shipped like cattle around the world. In today’s zeitgeist, it is perhaps difficult to parse the difference between ‘slave’ and ‘captive’ -both are taken from their homes, and forced to labour for their captors against their wills. Both are therefore prisoners with few, if any rights, although in the case of African slaves, they were not enemy combatants, captured in the heat of battle. An enemy, at least, is often accorded some respect.

And yet, without trying to justify the capturing, let alone the enslaving of another, for whatever reason, I am still heartened that we are open to learning from them, no matter what status they have been accorded. It suggests that we value them and what they have to offer. It suggests there is hope for us, as well as them. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran:

‘Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.” For the soul walks upon all paths. The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.

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