What was happening in Africa during the time of the slave trade?
Europe's Trojan Horse, Africa's Achilles Heel
Why Slavery Happened
Traitors and Collaborators
African Responsibility and Africa's Response Ability
An estimated 12 million people were transported in chains from Africa to the Americas over a period of about 340 years. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was an industry that tore mothers and fathers from their children. It was an industry that gave evil men and women full license to abuse the innocent as they pleased. Even after the final conclusion of the trade, the mass enslavement of human beings continued well into the next century (the last century from our perspective).
Within the narratives that survive today are stories of cold-hearted torture and bloody murder. Slavery was a painful experience. Slavery is still one of the most difficult topics to discuss.
As a result, there is a lot of confusion about the extent of the slave trade in Africa and the role that Africans played in the process.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting a Yoruba prince here in the United States where I live. As a matter of fact, he just so happened to be a classmate of mine and the subject of that class was U.S. History.
At this time in my life, I was grasping for anything that I could find on the greatness of Africa. I studied the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai in the West. I studied the great kingdoms of Benin, Kongo, and Ethiopia. I just got done binge-watching the "Hidden Colors" documentary film series directed by Tariq Nasheed. (This was then considered a rite of passage in that loose circle of social media Blacktivists which has come to be known as "the conscious community.")
I was woke and I was hungry for more.
I heard so much about this prince. I only met one other African before and she was also from Nigeria. After all my research, I wanted to learn from a more genuine perspective about African history. Who better to learn from about Africa than an African? What was Africa like in times past? What is Africa like today? This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I made up my mind to see him.
Some time after our class was over, a friend told me where I could find this prince. As his custom was, he was at work in the tutoring center on campus. When he was through, I called him outside. He thought he was done for the day. Little did he know, he was just starting another shift...with me.
For the next hour or so, we had a conversation about some of the topics that were covered in class. I brought up the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the impact that it had on African people across the diaspora.
The prince proceeded to share his understanding based on the history that was passed on to him by his family.
"The way they teach it here," he said, "that is all a lie. It never went like that at all. Africans never sold our people into slavery. That never happened. It was THEM who came and took people away from us!"
The man was a giant. His voice boomed through the quiet of the night.
Just then, it started to rain.
He pulled me aside with his massive arms. "Just think about it for a second. Imagine how it would have looked to us - a group of us Africans - to see somebody who is part of our family - a family member - walking with chains on their neck and chains tied around their feet. It would have been very upsetting to us. We would have said, 'Hey...wait! Hold on. What is going on here? What is happening? Are you okay? Why do you have these things on you for? Who has done this to you?' So if you hear them say that Africans sold other Africans into slavery, don't believe that. It is all a BIG lie."
Or is it?
As much as we would all like to believe (myself included) that Africa was a paradise during the 400 years that Africans in the Americas and in Europe were suffering under the oppression of the British, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch, the Swedish, and the Danish, and that Africans were not active participants in the world economy until after the colonial bomb was dropped on the continent, that supposition could not be further from the truth.
And yet, we hear it all the time.
One of the most popular quotes on the history of slavery is credited to the Jamaican poet, singer, and social commentator Allan Hope, better known by his stage name Mutabaruka. It says:
Slavery isn't African history. It interrupted African history.
"Taking a Break"
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
Photo by David Lee (via Flickr)
Fun Fact: a similar authentic 19th century portrait exists of Harriet Tubman. See it here.
Victims of a system that continues to victimize us, separated from our homelands and our ancestral heritage over thousands of miles, and forced to work for the benefit of another group of people every passing year until the day we die, how easy it is for us to sing this redemption song!
The notion that we have always been one united people with one common enemy bestows a certain virtue of character upon Africans everywhere. A homogeneous Africa transcends creed and color. This version of African history elevates Africans everywhere to heights of absolute legend. Suddenly, every intricate detail is forgotten and slavery takes its place among the most epic struggles of mankind. It is a familiar story - the hero's journey. And the climax is all-too-familiar: the hero vs. the villain. David vs. Goliath. Leonidas vs. Xerxes. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader.
Except that things are slightly different now. This time around, the hero has home court advantage. Victory is guaranteed.
The physical phase of this "United War on African Slavery" ended a long time ago. But a new army brought it to a psychological front. The proponents of this war allege that their plight is a righteous one. It is they who now wield the pen of history.
If the pen is mightier than the sword, then there is still hope for the African. And so they march on, raising for their battle cry another famous proverb. This one is most skillfully immortalized by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart:
Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.
"A Walking Paradox"
by Carlos Latuff
published in La Jornada on January 3, 2008
(Source: Deviant Art)
It would seem that the ghost of that lion has returned from the hunt with a vengeance for the blood of the boastful hunter-turned-historian. And if he will not have the prize, then at least he will claim it.
The conflict over the truth of history has reached a final showdown between Africa and Europe in which the underdog emerges the champion. This is the Wrestlemania of the century. This is the bedtime fairy-tale that we have all been waiting for. We all long for that happily ever after. It is almost irresistible. It is almost revolutionary.
Except that it's not.
A psychology that distorts the history of inter-African relations during the time of the slave trade, Franco-Senegalese historian Sylviane A. Diouf says, is one that bears 'negative repercussions.'
We are 150 years too late for that revolution. That ship has already sailed, along with thousands of floating coffins. Millions of Black bodies remain unaccounted for.And the carnage continues.
We have reached an age in which those who survived the inconceivable are too cowardly to conceive those events which produced their very existence.
The struggles of a race that braved lifetimes of labor are now overshadowed by the insults of juvenile jokers who cannot survive a second of sensible dialogue. They flood social media with memes claiming that the slave trade was all a lie written by liars. First, the Holocaust and now slave trade deniers. I never thought I would live to see the day!
Nowadays, we question everything about proven history. We question if slavery happened "as they say it did."
We seem to have a "question everything" mentality. And each time an answer is presented, we question that answer. Well, I say it's about time that we question our questions, too!
In light of what your ancestors endured, is it too much work for you to lift a finger and turn a page? Is it too much work for you to lift a finger to your phone and press it to the screen? To push a button on your computer keyboard? To do just a smidgen of research? Even for the ancestors?
They crossed a whole ocean for you. Will you meet them halfway?
We are so much in denial about our history that we go as far as to question our identity. "African-Americans"? Are we American? Are we even African?
Such is the impact that slavery had on our people.
A moderate sense of skepticism is healthy. Introspection brings healing. But this line of questioning, when taken to the extremes, betrays our claim to freedom and progress. The redundancy of this questioning suggests that we are not actually free to use our inalienable God-given brain; neither are we advancing in our capacity for reason. Are we even conscious? Perhaps, we ought to question if we are truly alive!
As for me, I am VERY MUCH alive! I have two eyes to see. I can see my own reflection. I can read. I have two ears and I am not afraid to use them. From my own mouth, I hear the voice of my people. I listen. I am 'Black.' I am proud. I am a child of Africa. I am a researcher.
I know what they called me. I know who I am.
In this age of information, I have no excuse. The most pressing of all questions that I need to be asking myself is not - who were my ancestors? The question I should be asking is - how shall I remember them?
(Ok. Rant over.)
And so we begin our quest for answers...
What was happening in Africa
during the time of the slave trade?
As I outlined in my first article on the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the earliest Europeans who came to Africa for slaves acquired them through force by pillaging coastal communities and stealing people away.
But this is only half of the story. This is the half that we have all heard in some shape or fashion. For many people of African descent, in the course of our education on the subject of African slavery, it seems that the other half has never been told.
This portrait was created in Brazil. It was made to commemorate the arrival of an ambassador from the province of Sonho (also called Soyo) within the Kingdom of Kongo, whose given name was "Miguel de Castro." Miguel is a Portuguese name and likely given to him after he was baptized into Christianity. We may never know his original name but for the purposes of our discussion, we will stick with Miguel.
One day, the king of Kongo, Garcia II, sent out a group of ambassadors by sea to restore the honor of his people.
Times were tough in Kongo. For many years, the king reigned supreme in the land. That all came to an end shortly before Garcia inherited the throne.
The governor of Sonho, Daniel de Silva, had been stirring up mischief among the people. This rebel "duke," as the Portuguese called him, went about daily, preaching in every village he could about the tyrannical regime that ruled them. "It is time for a change," he railed, "No longer will we live as slaves under the thumb of this government. No longer will we pay tribute of our hard-earned property to support this corrupt system. No longer will we serve the King of Kongo. The time has come for a new leader!"
Time after time, the king sent messengers to the chief warning him about the repercussions of defying his authority. Time after time, these warnings were ignored.
Sonho had conquered and annexed a number of sub-provinces under the authority of the kingdom. They were now large enough to rule themselves. To make matters worse, this chief amassed a company of loyal followers whose numbers rivaled that of the royal army.
The Kingdom of Kongo was now at a crossroads.
Kongo was on the verge of a civil war.
King Garcia II of Kongo receiving missionaries
From Historical description of the three kingdoms of Congo, Matamba and Angola (1687),
For this war, King Garcia needed allies who were powerful enough to bring the rebel army under submission. He needed allies who could help him to maintain his dominion in the land for years to come.
Where could he find such a mighty nation?
The Dutch and the Portuguese (since 1484) maintained an active presence in Kongo territory.
Both were constantly at war over land and resources in Africa and in the Americas. The sounds of European musketry and canon fire was nothing new to the Kongolese.
The Portuguese at times supported the kingdom in their wars, but always for their own interests. This time, they would try the Dutch.
And so it was that the king sent some of his ambassadors on a mission. They were to retrace the path where those strange White men arrived on the coast every year to trade with the people of Kongo.
Cover and Title Page of John Ogilby's America
(Source: New York Public Library - 1, 2)
The king knew that it would take more than a chest of gold and a pile of elephant tusks to convince the people of Europe that a war in Central Africa was not only necessary, but economically expedient.
Sure, the Portuguese desired ivory, copper, and other goods as usual. The promise of these commodities lured the Dutch to that region as well. But for the development of their colonies in the New World, said French historian Robert Cornevin (1919-1988), what they wanted most of all was "manpower."
It is obvious that these "Negroes" were intended for slavery as Ogilby indicates that 200 of them were 'brought as a present' for the Dutch colonial governor of Brazil, Johan Maurits a.k.a. John Maurice (1604-1679), and an additional unspecified number of them were apportioned 'for the West-India Company.' A letter from the king (now in the National Archives of the Netherlands) indicates that number was 500.
The Kongolese were intentional in this arrangement. They knew exactly what it was they were doing. Kongo had strict rules against the enslavement of people who were born as free citizens of their country and they aggressively pursued the freedom of innocent Kongos who were sold illegally (That all changed by the 18th century as Kongo descended into anarchy). But they had no use for these troublemakers. Just as European governments banished their lawbreakers to penal colonies in the Americas, in Africa (Kongo notwithstanding), and in Australia, these African leaders were apt to dispose of their enemies in a land where retribution was well out of reach. It seemed like a fair deal. Even without receiving anything in return, this was a win-win situation. As the kingdom of Kongo dispossessed the rebels of their land and people, they were securing their own prosperity.
Maurits was exceedingly grateful. At that moment, plantation "inventories" were dwindling in Dutch Brazil. Africans were deserting the mills and swarming his settlements in droves. The Portuguese, too, were giving them "the business." Six years earlier, Maurits resorted to storming the Portuguese fort Elmina on the West coast of Africa to clear the way for the slaves he "needed" in Angola. Those very slaves just landed right at his doorstep.
John Ogilby continues the story:
Not long after, there came Agents from Sonho, to beseech Grave Maurice that he would not assist the King of Congo...
Ogilby's source for his information was likely the Dutch historian Caspar Barlaeus' (1584-1648) Natural History of Brazil.
The capital of Sonho is situated where the mouth of the Congo River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. There is a city named "Congou" in the east, possibly the location of the Kongo capital of Ambese. Towards the south, we can see Angola.
Note that this side of the Atlantic closest to Africa is referred to as "Oceanus Aethiopicus" or the Ethiopian Ocean. The inhabitants of this region - thousands of autonomous communities varying in creed and in color - were known to the people of Europe by the umbrella term of "Ethiopians."
The map's title translates to "The Christian kingdoms of Congo in Africa" (Rulers of both Kongo and neighboring Sonho were baptized by Catholic priests from Portugal). "Description of the Kingdom of Congo" is written across the top and on the back of the page is the description itself in French by Flemish cartographer Petrus Bertius (1565-1629).
Here we have evidence that Africans were capable of maritime travel to the Americas of their own free will during the time of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. But how did they get there?
Ogilby does not tell us how these Africans traveled. We can assume that they used vessels similar in form to the caravels and the galleys which were already engaged in the traffic of African people across the Atlantic. For his purposes, the King of Kongo had access to at least one ship with a deck capable of seating a large crew and/or the potential for a hold full of slaves.
I would expect the arrival of an African ship in the New World and in Europe to be a cause for great excitement among the people. But no such ship appears in the painting of the ambassador.
By all indications, Europeans aided in the process.
Professor and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has said that Africans visiting Europe did so on slave ships. Believe it or not, it was not unheard of for royals from Kongo to write letters requesting the Kingdom of Portugal to send them an armed pick up. Alfonso I (1456-1543) applied on behalf of his children and so did his brother-in-law, Manuel. In 1604, Kongo ambassador Antonio Emanuele (?-1608) traveled to Bahia, Brazil on one of these ships before making his way to the Vatican.
We learn from Ogilby that one of Garcia's ambassadors sailed directly to 'the Hague,' a reference to the seat of government in the Netherlands. If his goal was to request help from the Dutch monarchy, what purpose would it serve them to venture out into the unknown? Why not just go straight to the Hague to begin with?
The answer has something to do with the long-established tradition of gift exchange between European and African governments.
Europe's Trojan Horse, Africa's Achilles Heel
The first known embassy from Africa to Europe, formal or informal, took place in 1306. In 1402, two Ethiopian ambassadors brought gifts of spices and animal skins to the government of Venice. This meeting was recorded in a 16th century Ethiopian text called Homily on the Wood of the True Cross. Two years later, three Ethiopian ambassadors arrived in Rome for indulgences, remittance of sins "for fellow countrymen," and to acquire "saints’ relics." As time went on, companies of regal tourists arrived regularly from the Congo as well.
The main purpose of these journeys was to establish friendly relations. Religion played a major role in the process as both Congo and Ethiopia were Christian nations and leaders from both of these kingdoms recognized the authority of the pope in world affairs. To demonstrate their acknowledgement of said authority, all representatives of government were compelled to kiss the pope's feet.
After Italy, Portugal was a prime destination for African visitors. One of the earliest embassies from the Congo was in 1514. Another group arrived from Benin the following year. Ethiopia sent messengers there, too, as Portugal became a major player in the politics of their region. The kingdom of Ethiopia saw Christian Europe as an ally against the encroachments of their Muslim neighbors.
The kings of Kongo were in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade for a long time. Alfonso I sent regular shipments to Lisbon. On one occasion, there were two loads totaling 530 Mbundu captives.
By sailing slaves directly to the colonies, King Garcia was saving Portugal the "hassle" of doing it themselves. As a gesture of peace and goodwill, he sent even more slaves to Brazil - 200 of which were designated as a personal gift for Maurits along with a golden chain.
It should come as no surprise to us that Miguel and his two servants wear traditional Dutch clothing. Ethiopian ambassadors, who were normally ranking officials, continued to wear their own garments in Europe. Congo ambassadors, as glorified family members of the king, were not held to the same code. They were known to sport the most luxurious apparels in the locale upon their arrival to Portuguese courts. Only in Papal Rome was European fashion considered a requirement for all foreigners.
In the context of these paintings, the clothing hints at a friendly relationship between the Sonho dignitaries and the Dutch.
What about the use of word "servant" in the captions?
It is difficult for us to judge the relationship between Miguel and his attendants. They pose in a way that is typical for portraits of African servants in Dutch society. Miguel has a certain determination in his gaze as he contemplates the future of his people. Unlike Miguel, Pedro and Diego are not allowed to represent themselves as serious subjects. They are forced to justify their presence with props, daring the viewer to assess their own worth, and effectually, reinforcing common prejudices.
Marchesa Cattaneo was a Genoese noblewoman.
Mary Stuart was the daughter of the King of England.
We know that in many wars across Africa, prisoners were captured by both sides of the conflicts and sold as slaves.
This was happening long before the arrival of even the Arabs on the continent. When Europeans came to Africa, they took advantage of a system that was already in place. They offered to buy captive Africans from the groups that were already at war. As a result, they provided an incentive for more captives. Over time, the wars increased, depleting Africans from the continent in massive numbers.
The entry for the year 1543 on The History Files' website, citing in part, The International Geographic Encyclopedia and Atlas (1979), says this:
The Portuguese are primarily interested in increasing their private fortunes (especially through capturing Africans and selling them into slavery), despite the attempts of King Manuel I of Portugal to channel the efforts of his subjects into constructive projects. Following Alfonso's death, they play a major part in weakening the kingdom and reducing the hold of the capital (renamed São Salvador) over the provinces. Kongo declines rapidly and suffers major civil wars.
Dutch history professor Mariana Françozo provides us with the details of a letter at The Hague, which she estimates to be dated around 1640. The French document, addressed from one entrepreneur to another, outlines a strategy to beat out the competition in order 'to gain entry into the slave trade' in Angola. The secret? Bribe the local rulers with some 'very nice things' and 'refreshments' then ask the king to send some of his subjects to pick up his gifts. The message is essentially this: Be extra nice to the Africans and you are sure to win their favor.
Portrait of Johan Maurits as the master of the order of the Knights of Malta
(Source: National Museum in Warsaw)
Apparently, Maurits took this advice. To both the King of Kongo and the governor of Sonho, he gave a cloak with gold and silver embroidery, a hat made of beaver fur with gold trim, and a silver sword.
Many of the gifts Europeans brought to Africa were ordered by the kings themselves. But Africans got the short end of the stick. As the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney (1942-1980) wrote:
The European slave trade was economically, totally irrational from the viewpoint of African development.
Still, that did not stop Africans from engaging in the trade for 'assorted rubbish' that was mostly 'of the worst quality even as consumer goods.'
Broteer Furro (c. 1729-1805), the son of a king from a tribe called Dukandarra in Guinea, recalled that a messenger informed them of a tribe conducting raids in the area with 'a numerous army...furnished with...all kinds of arms...[and] instigated by some White nation who equipped and sent them to subdue and possess the country.'
The messenger's tribe were a peaceful people. They were not prepared to fight a war so they decided to join the Dukandarra. The prince welcomed them in. Days later, this massive army advanced on Dukandarra country, prompting the refugee tribe to flee. Furro noted that this tribe was never heard from again. The invaders demanded a ransom of livestock from the Dukandarra, but even after these demands were met, they attacked Dukandarra just as they had done to the surrounding communities. As a young boy, at 'six years and a half,' Furro watched these Africans torture his father until he died.
Furro trembled as he related this story to his biographer at 69 years of age.
The shocking scene is to this day fresh in my mind, and I have often been overcome while thinking on it.
After this army plundered their way to the coast, they were attacked by a stronger nation, at which point, Furro was taken first to a dungeon, then on board a slave ship bound for Barbadoes. He ended up in the United States.
National Gallery of Canada
(Source: British Library)
In response to a letter from a White friend, Jack Wingrave, about how 'canting' and 'deceitful' Black people are (referring specifically to the people of India), the African abolitionist Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729-1780) reminded his British compatriot about the 'uniform wickedness' of his own countrymen in the East and West Indies and especially in Sancho's native Guinea.
Here is an extract:
In Africa, the poor wretched natives blessed with the most fertile and luxuriant soil – are rendered so much the more miserable for what Providence meant as a blessing [commerce]: the Christians' abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty Kings encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them strong liquors to enflame their national madness – and powder – and bad fire-arms – to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.
He continues with an admonition against attributing all of the wars and slaving to the Africans.
I mentioned these only to guard my friend against being too hasty in condemning the knavery of a people who bad as they may be--possibly--were made worse--by their Christian visitors.
The great "generosity" of Europe was nothing but a Trojan Horse.
As Europe did to the Americas, Africa was conquered from the inside out.
They left the toy, then Greece took Troy.
Due to its location, Sonho was a hotspot for the slave trade. Sonho's long association with the culture of Kongo indicates that the rebel government was liable to continue the trade in order to fund the Sonho independence struggle. They needed weapons after all and it mattered little by what means they were obtained. Alas! It was not the arrow that fell Achilles but the poison that killed him.
In the course of their revolution, there was little difference between Sonho's caste system and that of Congo. In the usual tradition of diplomacy, "Count Daniel" arranged for a gift of six or seven slaves to 'sell' for 'articles' when his embassy arrived in Brazil. Like the United States, long after its independence from England, Sonho was resigned to sustain itself in a way that was already familiar - the slave trade.
Why Slavery Happened
What we can say definitively about this chapter in Africa's history is that the slave trade was viewed by some Africans as a means of survival. In the words of Dutch historian Albert van Dantzig (1937-2000), who served as a history professor at the University of Ghana, "The simple truth [is] that it was better to sell than to be sold."
Contrary to popular belief, African survival was not exclusively contingent upon European terms in the sense that all Africans were forced to participate in human trafficking in order to maintain good relations with Europeans. This was undoubtedly the case for many kingdoms and chieftainships in Central Africa early on and an overwhelming majority of West Africans as the trade progressed into the late 18th century. But for communities like Kongo, human trafficking provided for a certain amount of leverage in political affairs.
Profits were used to pay for commodities, to "return" tithes (literally "taxes" paid to the churches for religious services), to repay loans, and to cover the costs of tuition and board for the king's relatives studying in Europe.
Apart from King Alfonso I's (c. 1456-1542/3) 1514 letter to King John III (1502-1557) calling out the illegal un-Christian activities of Portuguese and Kongo merchants alike, there is scarcely any evidence that a desire to end the slave trade from within the continent was born purely out of moral considerations. Slave trading, even for Africans, was business as usual. Under pressure from European abolitionists in the early 19th century, many sovereigns defended the trade as a divine right and a cultural inheritance. It was only when the karma set in, when their actions came full circle, when members of their own family were dragged to the coasts, never to be seen again - THAT is when these simpletons snapped out of their stubborn stupor. They sent frantic pleas, they scrambled for spies, they paid ransoms. For some it was too late. Before they knew it, they found themselves strapped to the very ships they were stocking!
That is not to say African rulers did not exercise caution in their dealings with Europeans. Even in Kongo, there were royals who resisted the Portuguese. In 1528, Alfonso I threatened to banish them from his kingdom over the issue of slavery. Towards the end of his reign, he survived an attempt on his life by Portuguese assassins at his church. At one point, Garcia himself pushed for Kongolese "control" of the slave trade. His successor, António I, was dispatched in battle and beheaded by Portuguese authorities for his "insubordination." Wary of a sudden surge in slave traffic, he had refused free passage to gold prospectors. Again, it was recorded that rebellious kings of Kongo were 'punished' in 1794.
That episode from 1640s Brazil was not the first or the last time that the people of Kongo enlisted help from a European army. When the Portuguese overturned Dutch dominance in the North, the Kongolese made concessions of land and riches in exchange for victory against Sonho. On the other side, their mortal enemies in Sonho joined themselves to the Dutch. It is also worth noting that Kongo was not the only nation in Africa to form alliances with European powers. Similar engagements were held a century before this between the British and the inhabitants of what is now Ghana and Sierra Leone. In addition to these alliances, some African kingdoms recruited European mercenaries in their armies.
The bottom line here is that there were African empires that exploited the trade in an effort to consolidate power. The aim of all empires is expansion. This was true of Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Expansion was best implemented through the annihilation of competitors, the monopolization of commerce, and the acquisition of superior firepower.
Man's inhumanity to man is 'human nature' (said Sancho), and thus has it been since the dawn of civilization.As she considered the paradox of Africa's role in the enslavement of her own people, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) referred to 'the universal nature of greed.'
Of course, that does NOT mean that we are any less accountable for our actions then as we are now. That does not absolve any party to the cruelties of slavery. What it DOES mean is that we have a responsibility to rectify past injustices as much as it is in our power to do so.
The call has gone out: Reparations Now. The nations of Europe and the Americas are being held to task with respect to their role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. What about African monarchies, African noblesse, and African dynasties? What about the role that they played?
Guyanese poet Grace Nichols wrote that no mater how many times we try to 'rinse the taste of treachery' from our mouths,
It isn't easy to forget what we refuse to remember.
Too many Africans remain in denial about their most elemental connection to the history of the diaspora. Much of this history on the slave trade is not being taught in African schools.
Some people argue that Europe benefited more from the slave trade than Africa did and that Africa was the victim.
Sure, as Walter Rodney tells us, 'there was no servile class waiting to be shipped.' This was certainly true for the traditional kingdoms of West and Central Africa (excluding Alfonso's Kongo), and applied, for the most part, even to the Muslim Futankobe (Fulani). If they were not sold or executed, captives and prisoners were used in ritual sacrifice or as soldiers.
The constant extraction of the young and able-bodied lead to a shortage of labor and security. The destruction of agrarian (farming) communities led to a shortage of food. Those who could sustain themselves were left to a course of isolation (think Wakanda).
Van Dantzig concluded his report on the "Effects of the Atlantic Slave Trade on Some West African Societies" by saying:
Most...areas which fell victim to slave raiders failed to pool their forces together...often retreating into areas which offered natural defense. Mutual distrust and fear among these people, suspecting other communities of planning raids or individual "panyarrying" on their own people prevented political unification...Caught up in a kind of vicious circle...they...preyed on their neighbors in order to make up for their loss. Because of their constant mutual distrust they did not unite, and therefore remained an easy prey to the slave raiders.
Rodney wrote that on a whole, Africa experienced 'a loss of development opportunity' and 'a direct block' to its 'spirit of technological innovation.' An over-emphasis on trade led to a stagnation in production.
Opportunists assumed various roles in the system. There were overzealous warlords, brokers who served as middlemen between the European ship captains and indigenous rulers, supervisors and servicemen who ran the dungeons on the coasts, canoe-men who brought the slaves to the ships, and at sea, there were guardians who were paid to keep the "cargo" in check. Whether they knew it or not, they too were victims of the system they supported. Some of these workers were slaves themselves.
Nat Amarteifio, a local historian and former mayor of Ghana's capital city, Accra, said in a radio interview last month that is was during the colonial era that the African role in the slave trade was forgotten. Everyone - the chiefs and the ordinary people - made a deliberate decision to forget about it.
They created a mythology that we were innocent bystanders whose land was raped by Europeans.
Amarteifio admitted that in his younger years, while serving as a tour guide at various historical sites, he helped to perpetuate this myth.
The Akwamu still have the keys to Christiansborg Castle in Accra, which they once captured from the Dutch as part of a scheme for them to dominate the slave trade.
The King of Congo Receives a Legation [of Europeans]
From Detailed Descriptions of the African Regions (1668), page 580
Then there is this notion - even in the diaspora - that the 20th century colonial exploits on the continent by the imperial powers of Europe neutralized any former advantages that African communities had one over another because all Africans were subjected to the same system of oppression without respect to their property or their heritage. The idea is that colonialism, too, interrupted African history.
The middlemen category, he insists, came to be dominated in the West by the Lebanese and Syrians, and in the East by Arabs. Furthermore, the Africans who did engage in the markets were self-employed, while the Europeans operated as a network and leveraged their capital from the slave trade to invest in other markets. Trading firms conspired together to fix prices. Europeans paid only the bare minimum for African goods as desperate peasants caved in to their every whim. Colonial administrations disposed of the existing elites and riddled their subjects with heavy taxes. As a result, Africans were forced to work for the colonizers against their own interests.
So what now?
Have those who participated in the trade no grounds on which to acknowledge its impact? Should Africa forego that process of reconciliation that will bridge the gap between her children at home and her children abroad? Shall we demand the royal family of Abomey, former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, and former Beni president Mathieu Kerekou to retract their longstanding apologies? Shall we end the ceremonies of remembrance? Shall we strip those horrible landmarks of their signs and memorials?
Shall we observe and enforce no legislation and no action on the continent to inhibit further fallout and to prevent a recurrence?
Shall we remember one half of our history and forget the other?
Shall we continue to bear witness to all the proofs of the slave trade in Europe and in America while we pretend those cannons and cannonballs in African courts do not exist?
I say no! I say Never!
Let us acknowledge the whole truth or none at all.
Let us tell it as it is.
The truth is that the exploitation of Africa started long before the colonial era and just as there were Africans who "sold out" during the colonial period, we must understand that there were Africans who captured and sold other Africans during the time of slavery. In some cases, the descendants of the collaborators who traded African people for trinkets were called upon to conquer Africa once again.
Central African nations in rebellion were subjected to punitive expeditions every year until they agreed to submit. Some of the groups that were conquered joined European armies to conquer other tribes. These same tribes became the first colonial regiments. And as in the United States, slave catchers formed the original police forces.
They were already engaged in the language, the culture, the objectives, and the methods of the oppressors. It was a smooth transition.
The Igbo abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) tells us that it was a group of Africans who kidnapped his sister and himself in broad daylight. African traders dragged him miles away from home until he reached the coast. He had this to say of his captors and their acquaintances:
...Indeed, I must acknowledge, in honor of those sable destroyers of human rights, that I never met with any ill treatment, or saw any offered to their slaves, except tying them, when necessary, to keep them from running away.
From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789)
(Source: UK National
Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (1705-1775), a prince of Borno in modern Nigeria, claimed that a merchant from the Gold Coast of Guinea took him to see 'the White folks' and to see 'houses, with wings to them, walk on water.' 'He would bring me safe back again soon.' His family trusted that merchant, but the king, considering Gronniosaw his rival, sold him to a Dutch ship captain.
Europeans brought the oven. Europeans set the table.
Africans cooked the food. Africans carried the platter.
On the subject of slavery, Gates wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times:
There is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa.
That is quite a controversial statement.
But is there any truth to it?
The following is by no means a comprehensive list of the tribes who were involved (and their kingdoms/domains in parentheses).
In Angola, there was the Mbundu (of Ndongo and Matamba) best known for their leader Queen Nzinga Mbande (c. 1583 - 1663) and there was the Imbangala (of Kassanje). 1
In Cameroon, there was the Douala. 2
In Togo, there was the Ga 3 and the Ge (of Genyi) 4
In Burkina Faso, there was the Watara (of Kong). 5
In Benin, there was the Fon (of Dahomey). 6
In Mali, there was the Fulani* (of Toucouleur) and the Serawoollies/Mandinka (of Kaarta, Woolli, and Bambara). 7
In Senegal, there was the Fulani* (of Futa Toro and Khasso) and the Soninke (of Jaaga). 8
In Ivory Coast, there was the Fon and Aja (of Allada and Whydah). 9
In Gambia, there was the Mandinka (of Kaabu). 10
In Guinea, there was the Fulani* (of Futa Jallon). 11
In Sierra Leone, there was the Temne (of Koya) 12 and the Mandinka (of Wassoulou) up through the reign of Samory Touré from 1878 to 1898. 13
In Nigeria, there was the Edo (of Benin), which stopped selling directly to Europeans before 1530. 14
In Ghana, there was the Akan (of the Asante and the Fante) who took captives from between each other in times of war to sell as slaves. 15
*It should be noted that these Fula, while an African people, were known to profess their kinship with a foreign non-Negro people (White as Scottish traveler Mungo Park (1771-1806) observed or as French archivist Armand d'Avezac (1800-1875) and German scholars Johann Christoph Adelung (1732-1806) and Johann Severin Vater (1771-1826) reckoned, Arabs.)
Some people ask why Africans never tried to rescue their fellow Africans from slavery in the Americas. The journey of the Sonho embassy is proof that the ability for Africans to travel and to send messages to Europe and to the Americas was not limited to a small circle of kings.
It is evident that at least a few Africans knew where the ships were heading. Were they aware of the horrendous treatment their neighbors suffered along the way and during their time overseas?
After his experiences in Grenada, having endured the Middle Passage and being captured before that by African 'ruffians,' the Fanti abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano (1757-1791) wrote:
...Seeing my miserable companions and countrymen in this pitiful, distressed, and horrible situation, with all the brutish baseness and barbarity attending it, could not but fill my little mind [with] horror and indignation. But I must own, to the shame of my own countrymen, that I was first kidnapped and betrayed by some of my own complexion, who were the first cause of my exile, and slavery; but if there were no buyers there would be no sellers.
So far as I can remember, some of the Africans in my country keep slaves, which they take in war, or for debt; but those which they keep are well fed, and good care taken of them, and treated well; and as to their clothing, they differ according to the custom of the country.
But I may safely say, that all the poverty and misery that any of the inhabitants of Africa meet with among themselves, is far inferior to those inhospitable regions of misery which they meet with in the West-Indies, where their hard-hearted overseers have neither Regard to the laws of God, nor the life of their fellow-men.
Didn't African people staff the ports? Didn't African people watch their fellow-men and women go after they were whipped and branded? Didn't African people listen when those who returned from that hell told all?
Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann, a Ghanaian archaeologist who claims ancestry with one of the Dutch governors of Christiansborg Castle, discovered in her research that the Akwamu Empire sent a spy to case the castle.
He studied the site, and its occupants and operations, including the ships’ arrivals and departures as well as those of traders, merchants and others who worked and visited the castle.
Once Christiansborg was taken, that spy declared himself the new governor and continued to run the castle under the Akwamu imperial flag.
He invited English and Dutch ships’ captains to trade with him at the castle, where he entertained them lavishly, and frequently ignited canons in their honor.
Asameni occupied the castle for a year and a half, until negotiations resulted in the Akwamu returning the castle and captives to the Danish, in exchange for 1,600 pieces of silver.
It is easy for us to view African opportunists as puppets to the Arab and European capitalists. It is easy to claim that all Africans who worked against other Africans were compromised in some way, shape, or form. Of the Fulani, we can blame Islam. Of the Kongolese, their Christianity. We are happy to contend that all slavery can be boiled down to these elements. Thus, no matter the extent of African collusion, all culpability rests outside the continent.
But did Africans have no part in the prosperity of Kongo, Abyssinia, Mali, and Songhai? Does Africa owe the totality of these civilizations to European Christianity and Arab Islam?
The evidence is clear.
Africans made attempts to rescue members of their own tribes, their own families, and, in the case of Muslims, their own religion. There are at least 61 incidents on record in which Africans launched attacks against slave ships from the outside. Many of the methods that they used are outlined in Dr. Diouf's book Fighting the Slave Trade: West African Strategies (2003). However, as Diouf concedes, these were not attacks against the industry itself. Neither were they attempts to protect an entire continent from foreign influences. Rather, they were meant to counteract the effects of the trade on very specific communities defined along political, territorial, and ethnic lines.
African Responsibility and Africa's Response Ability
In every century, African people, acknowledging the reality of their displacement, have labored for African Unity.
Haile Selassie, as the first president of the Organization of African Unity (the precursor to the African Union), said in his acceptance speech:
There are others whose hopes for Africa are bright, who stand with faces upturned in wonder and awe at the creation of a new and happier life, who have dedicated themselves to its realization and are spurred on by the example of their brothers to whom they owe the achievements of Africa’s past.Let us reward their trust and merit their approval.
When he declared from Ethiopia that 'many of them never set foot on this continent,' he was speaking of Marcus Garvey.
When he said 'others were born and died here,' he was talking about Prince Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori (1762-1829), who though born into a family with a history of denying Africans their heritage (by way of the slave trade), and being sent on the Middle Passage to spend 40 years of his life in another country, not only found his way to his brothers and sisters in Liberia, but struggled to redeem his new-found American family.
From the Colonization and Journal of Freedom (1834)
(Source: New York Public Library)
During that formative meeting of the OAU, Kwame Nkrumah, the president of Ghana, stated that we are not Africans because we are born in Africa. We are Africans because Africans because Africa is born within us.
What did Garvey and Sori have in common?
It's simple: they would not leave their family behind.
There are still others lost in a foreign land, who long to be home.
My fellow Africans, I beg you. Reconsider:
How shall you reward their trust and merit their approval?
With all the facts before us, history proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Africans were not a unified people. If Africans were united centuries ago, then the constant state of war that ripened the continent for the colonial era would not have been. If Africans were united, then Africa would be stronger today. African unity is not yet fulfilled. With this acknowledgement of our past failures, a unified Africa in our era will not allow petty inter-tribal squabbles to divide us. We will not run to another land for aid when we can work out our own issues together. The position of Africa before the slave trade was that Africans did not acknowledge each other as one family. 200 years later, are Africans yet free?
Let us remember the anthem that hailed our independence:
Our liberty is meaningless unless all Africans are free.
All Africans. This means Africans at home AND Africans abroad. African unity is meaningless until ALL Africans are united.
Since the time Ghana gained its independence, the Ghanaian government has openly recognized the people of the African diaspora in the Americas and in Europe as part of the African family. In recent years, they have offered land and citizenship. These efforts have become even more pronounced with President Nana Akufo-Addo's "2019 Year of Return" campaign to encourage the resettlement of those whose ancestors were forcibly removed from Africa. This effort coincides with the United Nations' "International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024)" with the theme of "recognition, justice, and development."
The UN initiative was originally geared towards the participation of the international community. But, considering Africa's historic role in international politics and economics, I believe that it is the people of Africa who should be leading the way. In the context of African empowerment, African people should determine the direction this restoration effort will take. With this is mind, I have reproduced the following outline for the restoration of the diaspora from the continent.
For Africa, Recognition is defined as securing the right of African people from the diaspora to be treated equally; providing for research and education on slavery, the slave trade, and the transatlantic slave trade and the role(s) that Africans from each state played; gathering information on the condition of the diaspora; and including the diaspora in the affairs of the continent.
For Africa, Justice towards the people of the diaspora is defined as the introduction of measures to ensure equality before the law, combating xenophobia, and honoring the memory of the victims of slavery. I would add to this citizenship, property rights, and helping members of the diaspora (at their own discretion) to reacquaint themselves with African cultures, African traditions, and African languages, which were stripped from their ancestors.
For Africa, Development is defined as adopting measures to guarantee the free participation of the African diaspora in the decision-making process in regards to African development on the continent and the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom. Concrete measures should be taken to facilitate gainful employment, access to quality health services, and decent housing.
By UN standards, this is what it will take to restore the people of the diaspora. Sure, Africa is not perfect. African people in the diaspora are struggling and African people on the continent are struggling to help themselves. How about we help each other?
Since this initiative started in 2015, what steps have we seen from outside the continent? What about within the continent itself? Ghana is doing its part, but Ghana cannot carry the other 53 countries. Where do our priorities lie? If Africa will not dare to redress the errors of a known past, how will Africa prepare itself to address the challenges of an unknown future?
Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Tanzania have partnered to dedicate land towards the African Union's "Wakanda One Village" project. The message is clear: brothers and sisters, welcome home.
How long will this welcome last? When we look towards South Africa, Nigeria, Sudan, and Uganda, we must question: are Africans who already live in Africa welcomed at home? There is still more work to be done.
When we look back in the year 2024, what gains will all of us as Africans have made to meet our own needs for African recognition,Africanjustice, and African development? Will we meet these objectives in this century or the next?
Only time will tell.
[This article was originally formulated as a rebuttal to an opinion article by Dwayne Wong (Omowale) by the title "Why Didn't Africans Rescue Us?"
I have questioned and I have answered.]
Scientific Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
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