Reflections on Trapped Miners in Chile

Posted September 1st, 2010 by
Category: Modern issues Tags: , , , ,

Harold Fields is a regular guest contributor who appears in the film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Harold is active in restorative justice and racial reconciliation projects in Denver and around the nation, and his work with the Tracing Center includes serving on its board of directors. The opinions expressed are his own.

I have watched and listened to stories about the 33 trapped miners in Chile with great interest and empathy.  It is a blessed miracle that these men had survived for 17 days after the August 5th mine collapse before rescuers learned they were still alive.  It seems that the whole world was stunned by the initial estimate that it would be Christmas before the men could be freed safely.  Just today I am hearing that this goal might be accomplished by October, due to international cooperation from Germany who is sending a more powerful engine.

What strikes me are the parallels and differences from accounts of the conditions of captured Africans in Ghana during the Triangle Trade.  In the documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North and in Tom DeWolf’s book Inheriting the Trade, we learn of the conditions in the Cape Coast Castle dungeons where people may have been kept for months until there were enough to fill waiting ships.

In Chile the 33 miners are trapped in a space containing 530 square feet.  They have been advised to separate the space into different areas – one for resting and sleeping, one for food, another for exercise and diversion, and the rest for waste.

At Cape Coast Castle the captured people were crowded into 5 dungeon rooms, according to Kofi Anyidoho in the Traces documentary.  Each room was approximately 15 x 30 feet, or 450 square feet.  As many as 1,000 people were forced into these 5 dungeon rooms.  In his book Tom DeWolf clarifies that there could be 1,000 men and 300 women at one time.

Do the math and you will figure out that for the space the 33 Chilean miners occupy, the slave traders would force 306 people in the same space!  When members of the DeWolf family visited these dungeons they found “three small openings, about eight inches wide and two feet tall, in the wall far above provide the only access to fresh air, but there is no way for it to circulate.”  Then consider that the workers who were preparing these dungeons to become a museum had to dig through a foot and a half of human waste and excrement that was building up and drying over the years.  The “high waste” marks are still visible. This is testament to the process of filling up these rooms over and over again for a long time.

We don’t even force animals into those kinds of cramped spaces.  To their captors these people were just cargo, needed for their economic profits.

In the NPR story “Trapped Miners Face Dangerous Isolation,” Professor Lawrence Palinkas from the University of Southern California makes this statement: “I’m certain there are important lessons we can learn about human adaptation and human resilience in the face of such great adversity.”

And I believe he is right.  But I also wonder what could be learned from the experience of millions of captured Africans who were brought to these dungeons in chains, kept there for weeks and months, then had to endure a trip across the Atlantic Ocean that may last for another set of months.  What about their mental health?  How did they deal with the trauma of surprise capture followed by imprisonment?  Can we look back to history to learn lessons of how the strong survive?

The miners from Chile do have the advantage that they have familiarity with confined spaces.  And they have fortunately had some training in surviving a mine disaster.  I am assuming the miners speak a common language which contributes to the social organizing necessary to sustain them for the weeks and months of their confinement.  And they are fortunate to be able to send and receive communications from their families.  The Africans had to be creative to bridge the differences in tribal and village languages, if at all.  But it is true that their captors did everything they could to discourage any organizing. Ahh, Management!!

I do feel that those of us who are descendants of those Africans who survived were fortunate to have handed down to us the survival skills of our ancestors.  And we have had to sharpen them and create new ones to match a changing landscape that still has the deep values of domination imbedded in it.  And we have been willing to share these skills with the world.  NASA, do you still need some advice about surviving long periods of isolation?

The miners know that the hard part of getting them out is still ahead.  The plan is to bore a 26 inch diameter tunnel that’s half a mile long.  Each person will be lifted out one at a time.  It reminds me of the Door of No Return which was a design feature at most West African slave castles.  It was a small opening where each captured person was forced to pass through on the way to a ship to prevent the rebellion of groups of people.

I join the millions of people who look forward to seeing the miners rescued as soon as possible.  I pray that their mental, physical, and emotional health can recover from this trauma.

At the same time I hope that the lessons and stories from a strangely connected past will not be forgotten.  Not to care is even worse – perhaps sociopathic.

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