The slaves of Guantánamo – Zomai: “There, where the light is not allowed”

The detainees of Guantánamo Bay Detention Centre share much with the slaves who, over a century before, lived and worked in the lands of eastern Cuba.

 The first link in this chain occurred to me with the closure of a Birmingham firm that made handcuffs, leg-irons, manacles and “nigger collars” to shackle slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, and handcuffs used on Gitmo detainees in recent years. 

Moazzam Begg also reflects on the historical parallels on a Stop the War meeting at Goldsmiths’ University London.

I also found a brief Huffington Post article in which David Bromwich contemplates the similarities between slavery and torture, arguing that:

“Torture and slavery have something in common. They are expressions of a power that admits no restraint on itself. They issue from the instinct for domination, hardened by a savage self-protectiveness. Yet a slave might always assert his freedom by choosing to die. This last resort has been denied to the Guantanamo prisoners. If they refuse to eat, they are force-fed intravenously. We keep them alive, and starve them of justice, and kill them by inches. Is this done to prevent their becoming martyrs? But they are already martyrs from the terms of their imprisonment. The force-feeding is really the last refinement of state coercion and cruelty.”

Let’s consider some of the similarities.

The following aspects of the treatment of human beings refers both to enslaved Africans of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and detainees of the War on Terror, especially in Guantánamo Bay. We should be aware, of course, that Gitmo represents the tip of the iceberg of those detained in secret detention centres around the world. 

I have outlined all the similarities between the two historical periods in a page of notes that I used for a seminar given for the School of History at the University of Kent in February ’09.


Just as the Europeans did not plunge into the interior of Africa to capture people for slaving, but traded for people already enslaved from raiding parties by other African nations, so too, were many of the detainees of Guantánamo captured for bounty and sold to the US ground forces, often outside of the arena of combat. 

Clive Stafford-Smith transcribes the verdict of one of his clients held at Gitmo, Ahmed Errachidi: 

‘I was not “captured”,’ he said scathingly. ‘I was in a car going to Lahore so I could get a plane out. We were stopped by the Pakistanis. […] There was an American who was speaking English, which I understood. They were talking about prisoners. The Pakistani had a small case and I heard them counting out money. Imagine the feeling of being sold, and becoming his! Later an Arab-American military policeman in Bagram told me that I had cost them five thousand dollars. I am a hostage and traded commodity.’ (Bad Men, p.168). 

The journey from initial capture to detention still in the home territory often very long, and often the captives subject to torture and abuse. 

A factor of captivity being the enforced notion that the captives will never again see their family, village or community. In the slave-trading port of Ouidah, in Benin, captives were forced to march around the ‘Tree of Forgetfulness’ prior to being held in the dungeons in preparation for the Atlantic crossing. The objective of this tree-circling was to enforce amnesia – especially so that the spirit would not pine for home. 

Slave traders rounded up men, women and children, at times trapping them with nets.  

Their catchment area stretched deep into Africa, even as far as Ethiopia and Sudan.  

Once caught the slaves were forced to walk in chains, hundreds of miles to Ouidah.  

Once there, they were subjected to a brutal process of brainwashing.  

They were made to walk around a supposedly magical tree, called the Tree of Forgetfulness  

Taken down the slave route that I followed, they were made to walk around a supposedly magical tree called the Tree of Forgetfulness.  

Men had to go round it nine times, women and children seven.  

This experience, they were told, would make them forget everything – their names, their family, and the life they had once had.  

As if this was not enough, the slaves were then locked into a dark room, built to resemble the hulk of a ship.  

In the local language this room was called Zomai, meaning literally: “There, where the light is not allowed.”  

Its foundations are still visible and the place still seems to exude evil spirits and terror. (BBC

Captives in the War on Terror have reportedly been drilled with the same sense of forgetfulness, forced to accept the reality of their permanent captivity.

“I certainly believed that I was going to spend the greater part of my life and perhaps even face execution, which was what I was told quite often.” (Moazzam Begg, interviewed in documentary Taxi to the Dark Side [watchable on YouTube, if it’s not soon pulled for copyright]).

In captivity the captives are mixed and separated from kin – dividing language, religion, culture, homeland, even race – and thus reducing solidarity based on shared cultural traditions. Bagram Air Base, Kandahar, and other holding facilities housed men in specifically mixed environments. The detainees of Guantánamo apparently represent 46 different countries, and numerous different and mutually unintelligible languages. 

Extraordinary Rendition. Atlantic Transportation.

Bound and transported across the Atlantic in brutal conditions, often chained, manacled, beaten, sensorially deprived. ‘The European and American slave ships’, writes James Walvin, ‘represent slavery at its most brutal and inhuman’ (Slave Trade p. 1).

And taken to the tropics – indeed, the bay of Guantánamo was a principle entry port for the slaving vessels in the 18th C. 

Once in Cuba, the captives (slaves or detainees), are stripped (if they are not already nude), examined, and reclothed in the new uniform of captivity. 

The deliberate mixing of language, culture, etc. continues. 

Once in captivity, slaves/detainees are housed in barracoons, chained, manacled, overlooked by a watchtower, guarded by dogs, punished for infringements, abused. In the barracoons, living conditions are harsh, mosquitoes, rodents, and disease are rife. 

“It wasn’t a full day in Gitmo if you didn’t see a banana rat, more likely a platoon of them. Take a rat, make it uglier and more possumlike, and there you have the unofficial mascot of Guantánamo Bay. They feared almost nothing and were so numerous that their droppings had to be the principal component of Gitmo soil.” (Erik Saar and Viveca Novak, Inside the Wire, p.33). 

The captives are different from the captors, in terms of race, language, religion and nationality. They are treated as children (detainees in Gitmo are offered Disney movies and McDonalds Happy Meals as rewards for collaboration in interrogation). They are labeled as barbarous.

In captivity, slaves/detainees suffer disorientation, homesickness, despair. They have no defense, and no means of understanding the roots of their captivity. Escape is impossible. Suicide is common. Their body itself does not belong to them. Slaves took the names of their masters, families were separated, newborns were treated as livestock offspring, etc. In Gitmo, biological functions, such as bowel movements, are in public view. In particular, in captivity, the nature of the abuse often takes the form of sexual abuse.  Whilst many writers have analysed the particular relationship between general physical abuse and sexual abuse in the US treatment of detainees, one article entitled Whores on Terror  in issue 137 of the Beast viscerally examines the sheer horror of this abuse, asking in particular:

What’s so sick about it is that the sexual nature of the torture seems so unnecessary. I mean, even if we were going to torture them, we could have stuck to waterboarding, pulling some fingernails or just beating the shit out of them. But menstrual blood smeared on their faces? Ass rape? What kind of people do that? What possible purpose does that serve that outweighs becoming known as the country that ass-rapes people? We couldn’t get enough answers, or false confessions, or whatever we were looking for, from regular brutality? We had to go all BDSM on these people?

A chief and interesting difference is the concept of PRODUCTIVITY. Slaves worked the cane harvest, the mills, the docks, the coffee plantations, the domestic duties, etc. What is the product of the Gitmo detainees? A fascinating, if slightly wild and ultra-literary study by Susan Willis called Guantanamo’s Symbolic Economy deals particularly with the idea that the detainees of Gitmo are working on the Intel Harvest – they are the producers of intel. Although the reality of this is that the intel gained from the interrogation is mostly worthless (despite Cheney’s [both Pa and daughter] ceaseless protestations to the contrary), nevertheless, Willis’s proposals are thought-provoking. 

Erik Saar expresses this lack of productivity – and the high price such absence has cost: 

“I felt as if I had lost something. We lost something. We lost the high road. We cashed in our principles in the hope of obtaining a piece of information. And it didn’t even fucking work. […] What the fuck did I just do? What the fuck were we doing in this place? […] Most of America was asleep, but I was wide awake, defending freedom, honor fucking bound. There was no honor in what we had just done. We were grasping, and in doing so we had spit on Islam. Our tactics were way out of bounds. What we did was the antithesis of what the United States is supposed to be about.” (p.228-9)

Above all, captives are denied their basic identity, their names, their background, and their voice. 

Slaves/detainees are still transported even after the supposed end of the ‘trade’.

“On May 1, President Bush stood on an aircraft carrier with a big banner hung behind him declaring MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. […] That month two more flights left the island carrying a total of eighteen detainees home. But another one arrived bringing new captives; I wasn’t sure how many were on board, but I heard there was a net gain.” (Saar p.230). 

“LONDON (Reuters) – Abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has worsened sharply since President Barack Obama took office as prison guards “get their kicks in” before the camp is closed, according to a lawyer who represents detainees.” (

We’ll soon be able to celebrate the anniversary of the promise to close Gitmo within one year… 

Here’s an illuminating article published in Huffington Post in Jan ’09.


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