War:Memory

What happens if you stand in a moment like this?
—Dionne Brand
IN MEMORY OF
ARTHUR JOHN
BYNC WAVELL mc
COMMANDANT
THE OFFICERS AND MEN
OF THE ARAB RIFLES
WHO LAID DOWN THEIR
LIVES IN DEFENCE OF
MOMBASA AND THIS
COAST DURING
THE GREAT WAR

I sit looking at recovered and restored cannons, next to one of the phallic memorials with which men like to be remembered, marveling, not for the first time, at the memory-making, memory-stealing, memory-hoarding capacities of war. We live in aggressively militarized times, when the distinction between the war-killed and the peace-killed becomes insignificant, a bureaucratic exercise in tallying and official declarations—“war has not been officially declared.” Monuments to phallic death, with their pre—viagra fantasies of eternal erections, become newly threatening.

A monument to an obsolescent empire becomes a daily reminder of perpetual war.

I’m struck, again, by how much I loathe the unethical references to “THE GREAT WAR” and “WORLD WAR,” labels that minimize the death-making of “skirmishes,” “rebellions,” “riots,” “uprisings,” “clashes.” One keeps asking how a war is to be understood, what losses count, what monument-making (un)remembers.

A man sits astride a cannon.

I enter Fort Jesus.
*
In conversation with Yvonne Owuor, I discover that, despite my protests otherwise, I am also a descendant of the waters. English came on a ship, we say. And while I am standing on the ruins of an empire the Portuguese were never able to hold and build, I feel the weight of all the recovered and restored cannons I can see. Looking out from the fort’s ramparts onto the ocean, seeing the defending carronades—guns with heavy bore, developed in 1779 by the British Navy, for short range battering of ships and buildings—I begin to see the fantasies that fueled empire building. Looking out from here, it seems possible, and even inevitable, to desire all that one surveys.
*
Polite signs everywhere bear elaborate names—“Passage of the Steps,” “Passage of the Arches”—and even more polite warnings that “graffiti” and suchlike will destroy “our heritage.” I smile at every little bit of defacing graffiti I see, every “X WAS HERE,” even as those names—Mary, Steve, John, Moses—testify to imperial success.

A room titled “Portuguese Paintings” grants gravitas to crudely executed 500-year-old graffiti. Even crude graffiti racializes. I’m grateful for the insistence with which so many have insisted on penciling their names on this room’s walls, a riposte to the crude images, a list of names from those whose ancestors would never have been deemed able to write, draw, imagine, respond.
*
The Fort is a series of warrens: too-high stairs and too-low doorways that lead to more stairs and more doorways. A guide leads schoolchildren aged, perhaps, from 6 to 9: he uses a random “uingereza” to describe those who once populated this place, and I wonder if, for him, that name captures all whiteness.

A brief, educational exhibition on slavery begins,

After consistent struggle by individuals, the abolitionists, religious and other relevant groups, slavery was gradually abolished in different parts of the world.

A list of names follows: England, France, the U.S.A., Zanzibar, Mauritania

As always: where is Haiti?

To ask, “where is Haiti?” is to ask a paradigm-changing question, one that foregrounds black resistance, black collaboration, black agency, black history making, black world-making. It is a dangerous question. A question that colonial-era museums, such as this one, cannot allow.

Founded in 1960, this museum attempts to mask the end of empire. From 1895 to 1958, the British used it as a prison. Little remains from that period. The carefully-curated museum, assembled from donations by British-sounding names, traces a history of the region from the 8th century through the 19th, a period of invasions: here, one sees the Arabs, the Chinese, the Portuguese, the English, and, rarely, an item that might be identified as “indigenous” or “local.” An emergent Kenya exists nowhere in this memory-making place. It is, in fact, against project Kenya. Against an imagination that sees this space free from domination.

The displayed objects are discrete: one is not to imagine this region as a vibrant place of exchange and travel, a place of mixing and blending, a place where lives were made and remade, pasts forgotten and presents imagined.

As I look at “bullet pouches” from the 19th Century, two young women enter the exhibition space. One poses in front of multiple objects while the other takes photographs. They are absolutely uninterested in the displayed objects, in this plunder framed as history. I approve. There is nothing for them here.

As I prepare to leave, a sign catches my eye, a translation from an inscription now too faded to read: It says that a twenty-seven-year-old Fransisco de Seixas de Cabriene was commander of this fort. That he came to subject the people of the Coast, to quell rebellions, to inflect punishment, to chastise locals, to make them pay tribute.

Another museum, another group of school-age children. How, I wonder, will they remember this trip.
*
I now carry Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return with me, a work that Baldwin could not—was not permitted to—imagine.

History, after all, is a permission giver.

Brand offers me water memories. I came to the coast even though—or perhaps because—I hate beaches. If I believed more in wind-persistent-memories, I might say that sand, that most abrasive of soils, more easily retains the pain- and loss-memories of the snatched away, the neck collared, the names erased because their burden could not be borne. Water memories are steal-away memories, stolen-away memories, soul-stealing memories.

Sirens linger on soul-abrading sand.