Scattered witnesses

THE BLACK DIASPORA by Ronald Segal, Faber pounds 17.50
Click to follow
THIS monumental book has been under construction for four decades, ever since Ronald Segal fled South Africa with ANC leader Oliver Tambo in the back of his car, death threats and the Sharpeville massacre behind them, and settled down to a dissident writer's exile in England. As editor of Penguin's African Library, he wanted to commission a history of black Africans outside their continent. It would encompass the 400-year atrocity of slavery, and the subjugation, resistance, and struggle to freedom of the millions the trade scattered to the Caribbean, both Americas, and Europe. "Such a book needs a hundred scholars working for 20 years," despaired Segal's first choice of author, back in the early 1960s; now Segal has bravely (recklessly?) decided to write it himself.

In the preface he explains how he charted a route through such a vast, diffuse subject. Instead of trying for some unattainable - or unreadable - completeness, he sought to follow "the adventure of a single mind", using existing scholarship about the diaspora and his own reportage and knowledge. This more modest aim also gives Segal a ready defence against the charge that he, being white, should not try to give a definitive, objective account of black experience. Like his reviewer, he's only being subjective.

The book opens with the full horror of slavery: a "reasonable estimate" that more than ten million Africans were kidnapped and carried across the Atlantic in suffocating holds, between one and two million of them dying en route. Starting with the Portuguese traders' arrival in the Zaire river estuary in the 15th century, Segal tells the story quietly, his outrage showing only in the details.

But black Africans were not only the victims of the enslaving machinery Segal so dispassionately describes. Some of their rulers collaborated profitably, assembling packages of people for sale and demanding bribes from the traders: "Thomas Phillips, of the Hannibal from London, reported indignantly in 1694 of having had to pay six slaves' worth of cowries to the King of Whydah ... 'for leave to trade, protection, and justice'." And slave resistance accompanied the slave trade from the start: there are records of slaves running away from their masters in Peru as early as 1550.

In the book's second and best section, the accumulation of in-cidences of this "insurgent spirit" becomes a revelatory history, as subversive as Christopher Hill's unearthing of a forgotten 17th- century English radicalism in The World Turned Upside Down. To counter the myth of slave passivity, Segal produces a Scots mercenary, baffled at encountering escaped slaves using sophisticated guerrilla tactics, and describes how runaway slaves in Brazil founded jungle statelets of 20,000 people and forced neighbouring plantations to trade with them. The most significant of these slave revolts was in Haiti, where Toussaint l'Ouverture drove out the French and his rivals in a prototype of the wars of liberation fought in Cuba and Vietnam. Segal follows the tragedy of Haiti's post-revolutionary history in detail, as a depressing example of how black could oppress black (albeit often on the orders of a mixed-race mulatto elite). He is frank with the facts - awkward for a liberal - of Haitian revolution-aries seizing the plantations of their French masters with slaves kept intact. From here, with Toussaint's ideals betrayed and his spoils contested, the way was clear for two centuries of spiralling infighting between the ex-slaves, culminating in the Duvaliers' secret police and sell-out of their new nation to America.

Elsewhere the black experience in exile was less cruel. In Barbados slavery gave way to paid serfdom and, with pained slowness, independence and democracy, while in Britain, where the first Africans arrived with the Roman army, slaves were rare and exotic enough for racism to have little popular basis until the 19th century. Olaudah Equiano, a slave who had earned his way to freedom in Monserrat, became a powerful activist in England for slavery's abolition during the late 17th century, joining the radical Corresponding Society in 1792. Racial prejudice came later, "reformers" like William Cobbett railing against integration: "This defiance of the dictates of nature, this foul, this beastly propensity, is, I say with sorrow and with shame, peculiar to the English."

Segal's comparative approach, keeping each chapter to the history of the diaspora in a single country, works well when the histories are as compelling and contrasting as those of blacks in Haiti and England. But with little cross-referencing or analysis, his story of black experience across the Caribbean in particular becomes at times both too scattered and too repetitive. It lacks a sense of the physicality of the diaspora - a sense of geography and climate acting on people, and not just vice versa - and this prevents it attaining the texture of teeming, epic history contained in a book such as Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean World.

As if sensing this lack, the last third of the book switches tone to present-day reportage and conclusion, as Segal travels all over the diaspora to see how its different members have fared since slavery. His eye is keen: Barbados is "a colonial conservatory" still, where Victorian morality lives on; Brazil's non-black rulers realise that black slums "disappear with distance"; and in Detroit black Americans face the abyss, 30 years after their Civil Rights struggle, as the annual arson of Devil's Night despairingly hollows out their city. Despite all his evidence, however, Segal is not pessimistic. He concludes with a lovingly expert examination of the diaspora's fertility in music, art and language (in Jamaican creole a chi-chi bus is a bus with doors opened by compressed air). "The Diaspora ... has yet to free itself," he admits, but it "has a great purpose, for which its history has prepared it: to speak not only for its own freedom, but for the cause of freedom itself." All utopian rhetoric, of course - except that Nelson Mandela might have said it.