Friday, May 02, 2008

A tale of two slaves

Recent time spent in Chile has prompted some thoughts about its position in relation to Australia. So what does it mean that Australia speaks the same language as the masters of globalisation, England and USA? Does this give Australia a privileged status in the South, or prevent it recognising its shared marginality with countries like Argentina or Chile?

One way of thinking about this is to imagine the scenario of two slaves:

There were two slaves, John and Juan. John is the descendent of a local family who had been slaves for many generations. Juan was captured during a raid on a foreign country and purchased in a local slave market.

While John and Juan were both equally good with their hands, they were quite different in important ways. Juan was by far the more handsome of the two. Having once been a freeman, Latin slave had elegant manners and style. However, Juan still had trouble understanding English and always felt a foreigner. Being an Englishman himself, John was much more confident, despite his crude manners.

Their master, Mr Bull, was a merchant with a thriving business selling and buying spices from overseas colonies. He was blessed with a beautiful daughter, Mary, who was the object of devotion by many young men in the town. Mr Bull and his daughter were callous towards their two slaves. They enjoyed throwing them bones at mealtime and laughed heartily as John and Juan scrambled after the scraps of food.

Both John and Juan were captivated by the beauty of the daughter. John even fantasised that one day he would be freed and could marry Mary. Any attention from Mary, even if was abusive, was taken as a sign of affection by John. ‘Get me a bag of cinnamon, boy’ she would shout, and he would feel honoured to be singled out for this important mission.

For Juan it was a different story. While he could well appreciate the beauty of Mary, he had no delusions that a day would come when he could ever win her heart, or gain acceptance in the Bull family. He knew he didn’t belong. Instead, he would content himself with the occasional small theft of food or wine. Sometimes he would be caught and whipped harshly. But he grew more clever and deceitful.

So the two slaves sit together in the evening, chewing on what bones were left for them. John says, ‘Hey Juan, you dirty Latin thief, pity you’re not smart enough to respect the ways of the Bulls and avoid the lash.’ Juan knew enough English to understand the meaning of these words. But rather than answer directly, he would dwell in his resentment, ‘You think you’re so special, being English. But in the end, we’re both scum in the eyes of the Bulls. At least I can see that.’

So John and Juan endure their bondage, divided from each other as much as from their masters. It’s a shame. Perhaps if they worked together they could collaborate on an escape—John’s understanding of the master tongue combined with Juan’s guile.

Can Matilda learn to tango?