SULLIVANS ISLAND, South Carolina (AP) – The minister of culture and heritage for the West African nation of Guinea has written books about slavery. He still choked back tears Wednesday viewing an exhibit on this South Carolina sea island where tens of thousands enslaved Africans first set foot in North America.
Ahmed Cisse said seeing pictures of cramped slave ships and drawings of children in chains at an exhibit at Fort Moultrie was the first time he really felt the impact of slavery and the moral responsibility Africa has for it.
Cisse, who speaks French, is in South Carolina with several other officials looking for technology and the know-how to preserve sites in Guinea associated with the slave trade.
Such sites are threatened by development and the race to exploit Guinea’s rich resources including diamonds, gold and bauxite.
“One of my greatest ambitions is to bring forth and illuminate the history of Guinea, because a people without history cannot survive,” he said through an interpreter.
The visit was arranged by University of South Carolina anthropologist Ken Kelly, who has been working to uncover the slave connection between South Carolina and Guinea.
Five years ago he did a preliminary dig in the Rio Pongo area of Guinea, an area important for slavers into the 1800s after the international trade was legally abolished. One Charlestonian named Stiles Lightburn married a tribal queen who sold slaves in the Rio Pongo. Kelly plans to return in January for another dig.
Kelly said the connection between South Carolina and Guinea is significant.
“People are certainly aware of the connections to Sierra Leone and rice-growing. But in the historic period of the slave trade, often when documents spoke of Sierra Leone, they spoke of the entire area of what is today Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia,” he said. “The people referred to as coming from Sierra Leone were as likely as not coming from Guinea, as well.”
Cisse and his delegation took a tour of the fort, looking from the Visitor Center to the end of the island where so-called pest houses once stood. Some slaves were quarantined for a time before being sold across the harbor in Charleston.
Cisse said the issue of slavery doesn’t seem as painful in Africa as it is in the American South.
“What has not been studied enough is the impact slavery has had in Guinea and in Africa in general,” he said. “It was a great loss to the continent of African because the boldest, the strongest and the youngest were taken.”
He said Africa has a moral responsibility for the slave trade because when Europeans came with their guns and trinkets, slaves were sold by African kings.
He asked National Park Service Ranger Michael Allen why a common history in America doesn’t seem to be embraced, whether people came as slaves or as refugees from a potato famine in Ireland.
Allen quoted former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who once called slavery the birth defect of the American nation.
“The reality is for the early portion of American history, people of African descent were considered chattel, slaves, property and subhuman,” he said.