May 07

A CHAT ABOUT THE TRANS-ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE

 

SO  WE WERE SOLD BY OUR BROTHERS. REALLY?

BY CAMERON DUODU

Cameron Duodu engages in serious conversation with the African Diaspora–about the slave trade and other matters. He writes: “Some killing, or rampage, or raid, or kidnapping, took place in Africa every single day, of every single week, of every single month, of every single year, for over 400 years, before some Europeans like Clarkson and Wilberforce woke up and organised the abolition of the slave trade! …Africans do share the blame for part of this horrendous blot on the history of the world. But as every economist will tell you, it is those who create a market for the provision of certain goods or services who are responsible for that market’s operational effectiveness.

That is how capitalism has thrived in the world for all these years and continues to operate …”

**********

One of the most disorientating events in my life occurred when my 12-year-old son came back from his school in Peckham, southeast London, one afternoon, all upset.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

It took him some time. Finally, he said: “A boy called me an African shithead!”

I was shocked out of my mind. One of the reasons why I had chosen that particular school for him was that it had a lot of black students in it. The headmaster, too, was black. This wasn’t at all common in Britain in those days, or indeed, even today.

I felt comfortable putting my child there because I wanted to prevent him from being subjected to racial abuse or discrimination – something he had never experienced in Ghana. Yet here he was, telling me he had been abused in precisely the way I had gone to such pains to avoid.

“Who was the boy? ….Did you report him to the headmaster?” the questions rolled out.

“No; if I had reported him, he and his gang would have targeted me for future bullying.”

I felt completely helpless. It is true that if you make a fuss in your child’s school and an offending pupil is punished or expelled, life could subsequently become hell for your child in the school. The only solution would then be to remove him to another school.

But finding schools that were near enough from home, for him to be able to walk or catch a bus easily to and from school, wasn’t easy. There was also the question of obtaining satisfaction. Did one just leave an uncouth racist boy alone to continue his taunting of other kids?

As I was tossing all these issues up in my mind, my son let out the following sentence: “What upset me most was that he was a Jamaican boy, black just like me!”

“WHAT!?” I exclaimed., unable to believe my ears.” You mean he was black?”

“Yes, dad.”

I was so shocked I was bereft of words. I simply couldn’t believe my ears. Finally, I calmed down and told him: “Okay, when you go to school tomorrow, seek him out; be very friendly and explain patiently to him that when he insults you because you are an African, he is insulting himself; because all the black people in Jamaica originally came from Africa. But most don’t know that because they are not taught the real history of their origins in their schools.”

“All right. I’ll do that, dad.”

“Remember to do it, ok? And do be very polite and patient, because it isn’t the boy’s fault.” I said. “The type of education he has received in England, or that which his parents probably received in England–or Jamaica, for that matter and passed on to him–would not have enabled him to realise that he has African ancestry, or, in case he knows about his African ancestry, that there is anything about it for him to be proud of.

“So you’ve got to explain to him that the Jamaicans and the Africans were once one people, living peacefully in Africa. But out of greed, Europeans came there in boats, and first used guns to forcefully seize as many Africans as their boats could carry, and later turned it into a so-called ‘trade’ in which some very corrupt African kings and notables collaborated, to take our people away to North and South America, and to the Caribbean countries like Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada, Antigua, Trinidad and Cuba. The Europeans used these kidnapped Africans as slaves there for about 400 years. The slaves cultivated tobacco, sugar, cotton and other crops for their masters, who grew incredibly rich out of these products.

“Tell him that he should ask his parents to read the book, Capitalism And Slavery, by an islander like themselves, Eric Williams, the former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, and explain its contents to him. Then he will understand how the industrial revolution in Europe was financed; he will get to know who laid the foundation for the riches that you see in towns like London, Liverpool and Bristol, in England.“Tell him that it is because of the common struggle carried out against the injustice of slavery–and the colonialism that followed it, or slavery on African soil itself–that countries like Jamaica have become independent, just like the African countries from which the Jamaican people were taken away in the first place. They and us, therefore, share a common history, though the cruel way in which the European slavers deprived the slaves of the right to speak their own African languages, or to talk about the countries they had left behind, has turned the Diasporans into total strangers to Africa. The only African thing left for them is their black skin–or the remnants of their black skin, since so many of them have had their blood mixed with European and others.

“All the black people in England who have settled here from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, were once Africans just like us. So, you must insist, if they insult an African, they are literally insulting their own selves, because they are of African origin. They may not know where Africa is; nor care about it even if they did know; because they think they are Jamaicans or Trinidadians, and there is no one to explain their ancestry to them, since their own parents may be none the wiser.

“Even where they know about their African origins, they may have seen films, or read books, in which Africans are depicted as savages who live in trees and feed on human flesh. That is why so many of them would rather pass themselves off as ‘Black Britons’ than even admit that they are Jamaican or Trinidadian.

“You see, when they admit that their ancestry is from the Caribbean, they also admit that they are of African origin, and who would like to be associated with savagery and cannibalism? Do you understand? That is the result of hundreds of years of brainwashing. Yet it cannot be denied that every black person can trace his origins to Africa. In fact, there are studies now that show that every human being originated from Africa! Have you heard about that?”

Falsehood

My son nodded, But this was all very heavy and complex stuff. There was too much of it, and I knew that I would have to go over the issues with him several times later, before he would even begin to absorb a fraction of it. I was paying for my son to be educated, but unless I took a firm hand myself in his education, he wouldn’t obtain the information necessary for him to know about himself and people who were black like him.

To the British educational system, blacks simply didn’t exist as a people in their own right, but as a people to whom others did things! The British; then if time permitted, the French; the Spanish; the Portuguese and the Dutch. History as taught in Britain was about the Kings and Queens of England (Harold The Great; William The Conqueror); British wars abroad; the British Empire–all viewed solely from a British standpoint. Yet we were paying for this “co-education” that pretend that the world did not exist unless Britain was involved.

I went on: “All black people come from the same roots. But because these other blacks were taught history by their slave masters, they brainwashed them into believing that they were not taken forcibly from Africa by the Europeans but sold to the whites voluntarily by their brother Africans!

This falsehood has been passed from generation to generation amongst the blacks outside Africa, and so some of the blacks in the Diaspora have the greatest contempt and actual hatred for Africans. I mean, you would hate your brother if you were made to believe that he voluntarily sold you into slavery, wouldn’t you?”

Over the years, I have had to deal with this issue again and again whenever my relationship with an African-American or Caribbean friend has blossomed to such a high degree of intimacy and trust that we can share ideas very frankly without hurting each other. From these discussions, I have come to realise that the damage that the misunderstandings about the slave trade have wrought on our two psyches is incalculable. Whatever we Africans say, our black brothers and sisters suspect, at a pretty visceral level, that the Africans were somehow responsible for selling their ancestors to the Europeans.

It is not easy to counter this, for one can easily give the impression to one’s black brothers that one is in denial over the ignoble role played by some Africans in the slave trade, or wants to defend the Africans who took part in it. For there is absolutely no doubt at all that many Africans did collaborate actively with the slave traders and did very well, economically, out of the trade. But the proportions of their role, shameful as it was, must be understood, otherwise a great injustice would be done to them, and by extension, to all Africans.

Of course, the Europeans employed African interpreters, African agents and African mercenary soldiers in their quest for slaves. But as every economist will tell you, it is those who create a market for the provision of certain goods or services who are responsible for that market’s operational effectiveness.

That is how capitalism has thrived in the world for all these years and continues to operate–create a market for crack cocaine amongst the black youths in the ghettoes of America and someone (most probably another black) will supply it.

So, the European interpreter tells the African agent that the European slave master wants “200 people”. And the African agent says, “Tell him I’ll need to recruit 50 trained mercenaries, each supplied with a gun and munitions, for the job. I shall also need neck and leg irons, and chains for the hands and arms.”

The slave master supplies everything, including the irons, which he has had forged specially in Europe and brought to Africa. The slave master then goes to sit in his castle–which is custom-built to accommodate slaves and keep them in the most fearsome and heinous conditions–and waits, entertaining himself with gin and – African women. The place was called “The Whiteman’s Grave”, isn’t it? What little time one had must be used for enjoyment to the full!”

In a few days’ time, the African agent brings him his 200 slaves. He pays the agent the agreed “commission”, puts the slaves in his specially-built slave ships, and departs. In the Caribbean or the Americas, he can sell each slave for about 30 times his capital outlay in Africa. He is happy.

Those who buy the slaves off him use them, in as brutally “efficient” a manner as possible, to get them to produce sugar, cotton, tobacco, tea, silver, tin, copper or gold. They too are happy, for they sell these products to Europe and make huge profits. With the profits, they set up factories to manufacture textiles, alcohol, glass beads and other goods that fetch a good price in Africa and other countries in the Southern Hemisphere. Then they use the proceeds from their sales in Africa to purchase more slaves … And hey presto, the circular trade has recommenced all over again.

One of my best friends, the novelist ND, from Jamaica, used to view the problem from a Marxist standpoint. “You see, Cameron, in Ancient Africa, you had a feudal system built around your chiefs, and those chiefs, like all aristocrats–especially those in the European societies which Marx analysed in such a painstaking manner– divided humanity into classes At the bottom were the “disposable” working classes and the serfs. So when they were approached by the European slave traders, they had people – such as war prisoners – whom they could readily sell to the whites fr guns and gin and other idiotic things like mirrors and beads”.

No, no, that’s not at all what happened, “ I countered. “Chiefs in most traditional African societies– not all, mind you; I do know of one or two in what was then Dahomey, or Benin, who were worse than any European slaver you could think of! –but generally speaking, the African chiefs did not, and do not, wield the type of power over their ‘subjects’ as could be found in European and other feudal societies. Every chief has a council composed of famiy-heads.

“In Akan societies in Ghana, for example, we emphasise the sacredness of the individual human being with this maxim: Obiara yƐ obi dehyeƐEvery person is somebody else’s presumptive heir.” This means that everyone is to be regarded as a potential aristocrat in his own family or clan. So the society is immutably bound to recognise the worth of each and every member of that society, as an equal member with full rights.

“The overall chief has his own family/clan, and his heirs can only come from it. But alongside his, and parallel to it, each of the other clans from which he draws the council of ‘elders’ (with whom he is obliged to rule), has its own ‘head’. Like the chief, power devolves to these elders through the matrilineal system. This means that the ‘elder’ can only be succeeded by his own mother’s son; his mother’s sister’s son; or his sister’s son.

“So, each individual has two sets of families to which he matters greatly– his father’s (to whom he owes allegiance and from which he can seek protection) and also, his mother’s (which opens the doors of inheritance to him). No such person can be caught and sold by a “chief”, But of course, if the chief possesses war-captives, usually from another ethnic group, he will sell those he doesn’t need for his own purposes, if offered the right price.

“But you cannot turn a prized individual who forms a crucial part of the society into a serf or slave overnight and sell him. Both his families would be at your throat with hammer and tongs. Indeed, if that person’s elder lodged a complaint with the council of elders, alleging that the chief had sought to, or had actually, maltreated, or tried to turn a member of the elder’s family (his putative heir!) into a slave (akoa) this complaint could form the basis of a charge that could lead to the chief himself being destooled (i.e. legally deposed).

“Now, could a European earl, or duke, or baron, or king, be deposed legally without war? And on account of the mere maltreatment of one of his subjects? But in Akan society that could, and did, happen! So the powers of those who wielded authority were circumscribed, and they had to obey the law themselves, or get booted out.

“That is why there were no internal or intra-ethnic slaves within Akan society. In fact, slaves only made their way into Akan society largely as a result of war. War captives–who were strangers presumed to be hostile to the society, until they proved otherwise, and therefore did not possess the rights accorded to members of the society–were shared amongst the captains of the society’s victorious army as spoils of war. But even then, they had to be treated according to certain strictly laid-down rules.

“Most of the time, the war-captains consciously integrated the captives into their own families. That way, the captains provided automatic protection to the captives and their offspring against maltreatment. In fact so valuable were the good fighters among the war-captives known to be that they were deliberately courted by the society to accept full integration into its fold, They were given women from good families to marry, and it was an offence, punishable by death, for anyone to attempt to trace the antecedents of another person; that is, to unravel another person’s family tree, without the express authority of the chief’s court. For, of course, insults to integrated war-captives would inevitably lead to the destabilisation of the society if not its disintegration.

“But, if, say, two people were fighting over the succession to a stool, then the contestants could try and demolish each other’s claims of ancestry, before the elders who had to adjudicate over the case. In that instance, they were allowed to trace their own ancestry in detail and similarly debunk the claims of the other contestant – if they knew the family history of the opponent. Other than that, if anyone wanted to dissect and expose another family’s ancestral secrets, he would be severely punished for attempting to weaken the super-structure upon which authority in the state or town or village was built.

“It was recognised, in a fit of enlightened self-interest, that a wanton dissection of family and clan histories was divisive to a society that could be attacked at any time and the whole fabric of the nation threatened. Suppose the best contemporary warrior descended from a war-captive who had killed many local captains n a war before being captured, but who had subsequently become so well-integrated that he had been transmogrified into a super-hero of his new society? Were the antecedents of a person whose prowess was so crucial to the society’s survival, to be dragged up at everybody’s whim and caprice?

“What I am trying to tell you, ND, is that in Akan society, at any rate, the worth of the individual is equated with the worth of the society as a whole. that’s, of course, when the society is working at optimum efficiency. The ideal is that each individual had his or her inviolable rights, and as such, could not be sold or even treated like a serf — as happened under feudalism in Europe. The commonest thing any Akan man or woman who felt that someone else was trying to oppress him or her would be to ask the would-be oppressor angrily, “Why? Do you think I am your servant?” (AdƐn w’akoa ne me?)

“Will you believe that some of the gold-producing areas of the Akan territories were so rich that they bought slaves from the Portuguese, who shipped them to Elmina Castle (in modern-day Ghana) from Benin, Sao Tome and Principe and thence, to the interior of Ghana? (See Forests of Gold by Ivor Wilks, Ohio University Press, 1993; ISBN 0-8214-1056-3).

“The Akans sold some of their own war -captives, yes. But even that was done sometimes to spare them from being put to death. You see, the Akans believe that when a chief or other aristocrat dies, he goes to live in a parallel world called Asamando (home of the ghosts, or the spirit world) and that when their servants are killed with them, then those servants would go there to serve them. They prepare the servants very well psychologically, by treating them extremely well whilst they are alive. You have probably heard about the murder of a sub-chief of Akyem Abuakwa in 1943, upon the death of the Okyenhene, Nana Sir Ofori Atta The First. That was a great anomaly: sub-chiefs do not get killed when their Paramount Chief dies. It was probably an opportunist move by some hangers-on of the State Council to get rid of a sub-chief who asked too many questions about how state funds were used, at State Council meetings.

“B definitely, when a ‘big’ person like a chief died in Akan society in the past, a lot of people could ‘get lost’; that is, they would be secretly killed and buried with the ‘big’ person. And war-captives were sometimes kept for this purpose – unless they proved that they would fight well for their new state.

“But if a European slave trader came and made it known that he wanted to buy slaves, and there were some war–captives being kept with an eye to being sent to Asamando with their owner when he eventually passed away, the owner might well decide that he could dispense with some future services at Asamando in exchange for cash in the here and now!

“Eventually, cash became more and more useful than the strict observance of the ancient custom of dispatching servants to Asamando to serve their masters there. (One could always “placate” the departed ones by slaughtering loads of sheep for them! Of course, the fact that by selling them, the -owners of war-captives saved them from death, does not in any way excuse the idea of selling a fellow human being. But we must recognise, in all honesty, that at the tie, selling the person was a far better alternative than than putting him to death.

“In any case, we cannot judge those people with the standards of today. For they were not the only superstitious brutes of ancient times. At that time, the Spanish were burning people for witchcraft; the English were drawing and quartering petty thieves for stealing bread; and other members of the European aristocracy were sporting themselves with the heads of decapitated peasants.”

My friend, JM, an African-American novelist, also used to take me up merciless on the “stupidity” of the African chiefs. “For Christ’s sake, Cameron, if they were going to sell human beings, why not sell them for something important, but mere cloth? Glass beads? Mirrors? Gin and Schnapps Knives? I mean that was dumb!”

“Yes, I agree, JM. But that wasn’t the entire story. You know, the Europeans who benefited from this trade were the same ones who wrote its history. They wanted to prove to their fellow Europeans how clever they were at outwitting the African ‘natives’, whom they held in utter contempt. Look, in that era, Africa was being divided by outsiders and everywhere one looked, there was deliberately-incited inter-ethnic warfare. Jealousies over the trade routes that led to the European forts (where guns could be bought) also played a large part.

“You must understand that the most sinister and most common cause of inter-ethnic warfare was the importation of guns from Europe. The fear that one’s neighbours might obtain guns and attack one with them was constant. You had rifles whilst your neighbours possessed only ‘Dane guns’ (a long and primitive gun)? You were top man.

“The European slavers knew that the Africans wanted guns badly. So a slaver would go and tell Ethnic Group A that Ethnic Group B had just come to purchase weapons that could arm 5,000 men. But that particular European preferred to trade with Group A! Yeah. That was why he had come to reveal the secret of Group B to them.

What do you think Group A would say? Of course, “Give us guns to defend ourselves against Group B”.

The European slaver would then say, “You know guns cost a lot of money.” The chief of Group A would look downcast and say, ‘We don’t have much gold at the moment.”

“European Slaver (comforting his ;new friend.): ‘Don’t worry. Just bring me your war–captives.’

“Ethnic Group A: Oh, is that all you want? How many do you want?’ “

European Slaver: ‘Ten slaves per each gun.’

“And the deal would be struck. Then, Group A, in the belief that it was only carrying out a defensive pre-emptive strike against Group B, would attack it. Sometimes, Group B would be completely taken by surprise and be unable to defend itself. At other times, the same European slaver would have delivered the same secret message of arms purchases to Group B as well! So, the two ethnic groups would fight to the death–both probably using arms supplied by the same European slaver. He would have nothing to lose. If Group A didn’t bring him slaves, Group B would. Or both Groups would be so weakened after the battles that the European slaver could send mercenaries soldiers to go and capture slaves from each of the groups.

“The most crucial point I would like you to take on board, my dear JM, is this: These incidents of trickery and sheer incitement to genocide were carried on as a matter of course–as the principal modus operandi of the slave traders– for 400 years! Some killing, or rampage, or raid, or kidnapping, took place in Africa every single day, of every single week, of every single month, of every single year, for over 400 years, before some Europeans with a conscience, such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, woke up and organised the long and arduous campaigns that eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade Britain!

 

“Please ask yourself: How did the African people manage to survive the sheer devastation of societies; the disruption of economic activity; the morbid depression that descends upon a people when their loved ones are torn away from them by wars on a daily basis like that? They took our ancestors away from their land, and just imagine what happened to those that survived the sea journey in those hellish boats; think of the incredible cruelty of those devilish crews on the slave ships; of the slave rebellions that were brutally repressed; the throwing overboard of sick slaves-! That is how our people were treated in order that huge fortunes could be made for European merchants in North and South America and the Caribbean.

 

“At that time, Africa already had long enjoyed trade links to Arabia and Asia, through the Mediterranean Sea. We were acquiring technology steadily. So, left alone, Africa would have become as economically powerful as the rest of the world. But the slave trade tore our social systems to shreds and as a consequence, we were consumed economically.

The story about beads, glass and mirrors obtained in exchange for human beings is just the sensational part of the folklore. The core activity, the massively profitable enterprise which is hidden by the history books they write for us to read, was the supply of guns to procure – and in exchange for – slaves.’

R, another African-American novelist, is particularly angry over the failure of Europe and America to acknowledge the contribution that Africans have made to the wealth they enjoy. He states: “They throw African-Americans into the despond of unemployment; inadequate welfare payments; inferior education and uninhabitable ‘project’ housing uptown. In Europe, too, Africans are only regarded as immigrants against whom the doors of ‘Fortress Europe’ should be clammed shut. Black people, originators of the world’s wealth, are being heaped on the dustbin of the world economy everywhere.”

I reply: “R, you would be even more angry if you knew the full extent of Africa’s contribution to the wealth of Europe and America. I can’t do better than suggest that you read The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas (Simon and Schuster 1997; ISBN 10: 0684810638.) His introduction alone offers a marvellous chronicle of the connection – not too often highlighted by other historians – between the wealth of some well-known names in American and European history, and the obnoxious slave trade.

“But to fully appreciate what the slave trade was really about, you must read and continue to read–for instance, about the following people and their publications (easily found in a Google search): Thomas Clarkson, Mungo Park, Olaudah Equiano, and William Wilberforce. It’s a never-ending story, but without knowing as much about it as possible, you live in a world of blissful ignorance and can make all sorts of assumptions about how your brothers sold your ancestors to European slavers.

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