The Movement of the Water: White Guilt, Slavery, Freedom
Cobra Verde by Werner Herzog is a movie about slavery. From beginning to end, in the heat of an African sun, or a Spanish plantation, the brutality of slavery leers upon us like a thick, brazen pomegranate. Yet, counterposed to slavery is the problem of freedom, our “hero,” Fransisco de Silva, first bandit and then slave trader. De Silva lives for freedom, he is known not to ever wear shoes, and when asked why, it is because he trusts nothing, not even shoes. On his own raw bare feet he roams the lands.
When De Silva happens to come across the wealthy sugar owner Don Octavio in a marketplace in Spain, Don Octavio hires him to work with him on his plantation, impressed by his ability to subdue a particular slave in the town square. Yet Don Octavio did not realize he had just taken in the famous libertine De Silva...Within a couple days De Silva has impregnated multiple of his daughters and proved absolutely unamenable to plantation life. Rather than killing him, the owners and businessmen send him on an impossible mission to attempt to reopen the slave trade in Ghana (the British had recently outlawed the slave trade).
The movie is essentially cut into two. Where first we see De Silva’s libertinism and the cynical brutality of the rationalistic slave owners, second we see, in the oppressive heat of Africa, the barbaristic brutality of the African kings and warlords who end up enslaving and selling their own people.
The depiction of the Africans as “barbaric” and “savage” is intentional. In truth, it underscores the barbarism of the whole affair. The cynical, rationalistic meeting the Spanish slave owners have before sending De Silva away, and the bizarre bloodthirsty rituals of the Africans – they come to the same. Slavery is the great common bond. As is money today…
Yet why does our “hero” take so much to this new job, why does he become such a fantastic slave trader? De Silva is in love with freedom, there are many moments when we see him charging and screaming, almost pointlessly. He does the slave trade because he never serves anyone but himself.
Of course though, at the end we have our resolution: the truth of the horror of slavery, to enslave is to be enslaved. Yet isn’t it still relevant that our “hero” is white? Even when De Silva first realizes this guilt (“slavery is a crime”), he is the white man, the white man’s burden. It seems we have a kind of primitive “white guilt,” the pathological bedrock of all of today’s liberalism. Yet this is not so, for De Silva is not really the hero.
When De Silva realizes that the slave trade has itself enslaved him, the ending scene comes as nothing short of a revelation. De Silva desperately tries to escape. He runs down to the water and tries to drag a small boat into the ocean. We see him lurching unsuccessfully, the rope burning and cutting into his back, a true slave. At last he falls over and he descends into the incoming tide as it washes upon him, throwing him this way and that.
Everything is in this final scene. The movement of the water. The movement of the water is the key, the key to the question of slavery, of guilt, of morality, of freedom. The ocean turns him this way and that, and we cannot help but see this quality of baptism, him being purified from his guilt.
At what cost does this purification come, and why should we care about the guilt of this individual, who was himself a slave trader? The ocean is all encompassing, for it flows, and turns, sometimes rough sometimes smooth, for no reason. Nature has contradictions, violence’s and evils within it. The problem of moralism is that it doesn't realize this fact – that evil is a part of Nature. De Silva is absolved not as an individual, but he is absolved because in the end, it is Nature alone, sparkling under that same hot sun, that rolls, turns, and destroys all things.
If there is freedom, it is not the freedom to exploit ("the free market") or even the illusion of being an individual always with free choices. We can only hope for freedom if we first understand the movement of the waters...