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Date: Tue, 31 Aug 1999 06:35:35 -0400
Message-Id: <199908311035.GAA27728@lists.tao.ca>
From: Art McGee <amcgee@igc.org>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Slavery: Africa's case
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Slavery: Africa's case

By Baffour Ankomah, in New African
September 1999

A Ghanaian friend recently reminded me of how "history" basically means "HIS-story" - the story of the conqueror, not the vanquished. In Africa's case where oral (as against written) tradition has always been the norm, there is no written record of Africa's side of the slavery story. It has all been a one-sided story told through the eyes of the white man, a point finely put by Adam Hochschild in his recent book, King Leopold's Ghost.

"One problem, of course," Hochschild writes about the history of Congo, "is that nearly all of this vast river of words is by Europeans or Americans...and this inevitably skewed the way that history was recorded... Instead of African voices from this time, there is largely silence."

For example, the very important point of "what might have been" has been swept under the slavery carpet. If the Africans had not collaborated with the Europeans, what would have happened?

The answer is not far fetched. The record of European conquests around the world is enough indication.

First, there is unanimity among historians that the Portuguese who started the Transatlantic Slave Trade, used kidnapping as a way of getting their first African slaves.

Gomes Eannes de Zurara, the Portuguese chronicler attached to the court of the Portuguese king, Henry (the Navigator) wrote that the Portuguese first used "war on the blacks" in 1444 to capture the first slaves.

"[The Portuguese] shouting out 'St James, St George and Portugal', at once attacked [the Africans], killing and taking all they could," Zurara wrote. "Then might you see mothers forsaking their children, and husbands their wives, each striving to escape as best as they could. Some drowned themselves in the water, others thought to escape by hiding under their huts, others stowed their children among the sea weed, where our men found them afterwards."

In his 1997 book on the slave trade, Hugh Thomas records correctly that, "West Africa had known slavery on a small scale before the coming of Islam", and before the coming of the Europeans. Hochschild even puts it better.

"The nature of African slavery [before the arrival of the Europeans]," he writes, "varied from area to another and changed over time, but most slaves were people captured in warfare. Others had been criminals or debtors, or were given away by their families as part of a dowry settlement...In other ways, African slavery was more flexible and benign than the system Europeans would soon establish in the New World. Over a generation or two, slaves could often earn or be granted their freedom, and free people and slaves sometimes inter-married."

The Africans never sold their slaves as "commercial items" until the arrival of the Arabs, and later Europeans. For the Africans to change their mind and "sell" slaves on the huge scale as we see in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, means something dramatic happened to their mind-set.

Zurara chronicled that from 1444 onwards, the "Portuguese caravels, sometimes four, sometimes more, used to come to the Gulf of Arguin [in modern day Mauritania] well armed, and, landing by night, surprised some fishermen's villages".

Over time, the Africans decided to fight back and defend themselves "with considerable intelligence", and inflicted heavy casualties on the Portuguese.

As their losses increased, Henry (the 'Navigator', the first in the line of European monarchs to benefit greatly from slavery), ordered his men to change tactics. Instead of seizing the Africans by force, they would now "buy" them.

"A captain named Joao Fernandes apparently initiated this change, on the explicit orders of King Henry", writes Hugh Thomas. "He offered to stay on the coast of the Bay of Arguin in 1445 in order to gather information, in temporary exchange for an old leader of the region. Fernandes did remain in Africa for a year, [and] won over the local people..."

Notice Hugh Thomas' use of "won over". You "win over" somebody when you gain his support or consent. The first move always comes from the one trying to "win over" the other. In the case of slavery, the Europeans used bribery and deceit to "win over" the Africans to "sell their own people". In modern parlance, one would say they took advantage of the nave African kings, as they still do with modern African leaders.

In any case, if the Africans had not succumbed to the wiles of the Europeans, they (the Europeans) would have used their superior guns to subdue the Africans anyway, as they did during the years of colonialisation. The record is there.

For example, when the Asantes in Ghana refused to come under British rule, Britain fought a series of wars (1873-74) to subdue the Asantes (finally in 1900). The Asantes succumbed not because they now wanted British rule, but because Britain's superior firepower overcame them. Britain used force!

An African-American archaeologist, Theresa Singleton, who worked at a site in Elmina (Ghana) in the early 1990s, wrote recently: "In 1873, the Asantes marched toward the coast to confront the British invaders. To stop the Asantes and their allies - the Fantes inhabitants of Elmina - the British bombarded the town of Elmina from the ramparts of Elmina Castle and destroyed it. The part of the town immediately adjacent to the fortress was never rebuilt, and has been the focus of archaeological research since 1985."

So, in effect, if the Africans had not "sold their own people," the Europeans would have used superior force to get the slaves anyway. Records show that before 1950, what the Europeans wanted anywhere in the world, the Europeans got it; first by stealth and deceit, and that failing, by force.

Take the Americas (especially USA, Canada, and Brazil), the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, (even South Africa and Zimbabwe) - the Europeans just seized the land by wiping out the native people (sometimes poisoning their waterholes or giving them "gifts" of poisoned blankets as they did in America). The natives who were fortunate not to be killed, were carted into "reservations" where they still live in America and elsewhere.

So, in a way, one can say with some qualification, that it was somewhat a "blessing" that the Africans collaborated with the European slavers. The alternative would have been total catastrophe, a complete extermination of our people and seizure of our land as happened in the Americas, Australia New Zealand etc, and as the Germans tried to do in Namibia, where they wiped out nearly 70% of the Herero people between 1887 and 1907. Or as Belgium's "philanthropic" king, Leopold II, did in Congo where between three and five million Congolese were killed by Leopold's agents between 1890 and 1910.

Today, neither Germany nor Belgium is offering any compensation for killing these African people in Namibia and Congo, yet Germany is happy paying compensation to the Jews.

Therefore, the modern excuse that Africans "sold their own people", and, thus, do not deserve reparations, is neither here nor there. The Europeans would have had their way, anyway.

Then comes the vexing question often asked by both white and black anti-reparationists: Who is to receive compensation? And how much is human life worth?

The answer is simple. How much are they paying to the Jews? It's just a simple matter of multiplication.

And who should receive it? They know where they "bought" the slaves! They know where the descendants and heirs of the slaves live. And this must be paid by both the Arab and Western former slaving nations.

Another very important bit of slavery swept under the carpet is the "disappearance" of the descendants of African slaves in Europe and Arabia. Where did they go? At least, in the New World one can point to the offspring of the African slaves.

The Arabs were the first, and last, to take African slaves out of the continent, long before the Europeans arrived and long before abolition in 1870. But today we don't see any large concentrations of blacks in Arabia.

Similarly, the first millions of Africans enslaved by Europeans were taken north into Europe. It was not until 1530 that King Joao III of Portugal (he of Congo) agreed that slaves could be shipped directly from Africa to the Americas. So, where are the descendants of the African slaves shipped into Europe between 1440 and 1530?

Records show that some were shipped down to the New World. But not all.

In Britain (which became the biggest slaving nation), the lie is often told how black people started coming to the "mother country" in large numbers only after World War II. So where did the descendants of the African slaves shipped to Britain, go?

The same question can be asked of Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands and Switzerland (even Switzerland!).

In the 1780s, Jacques Necker, a Swiss economist who had recently been dismissed as minister did a study of Switerland's finances, and wrote a pamphlet denouncing Swiss hypocrisy: "How we preach humanity yet go every year to bind in chains 20,000 natives of Africa," Necker wrote. Historians record that his pamphlet sold like hot potato - 24,000 copies in a very short time.

In the case of Britain, Peter Fryer reveals in his 1988 book, Black People in the British Empire, that black "presence [in Britain] goes back some 2,000 years and has been continuous since the beginning of the 16th century or earlier".

Gretchen Gerzina, in her brilliant book, Black England, published in 1995, adds that: "By 1596, there were so many black people in England that Queen Elizabeth I [who herself participated in the slave trade and benefited greatly from it] issued an edict demanding that they leave.

"At that time, slaves provided a lifetime of wageless labour for the cost of the initial purchase, and increased the status of the owner. Alarmed that they might be taking jobs and goods away from English citizens... the Queen issued another ineffectual edict, then finally commissioned a Lubeck merchant, Casper van Senden, to cart them off in 1601."

Some of them were shipped out to the New World. But not all. As Gerzina's research showed, 167 years after Queen Elizabeth had shipped out the Africans, "in 1768 Granville Sharp and others put the number of black servants in London [alone] at 20,000, out of a total London population of 676,250." So where are the descendants of these African "servants"?

Hugh Thomas tells how in 1799, the then British prime minister, William Pitt (a great abolitionist himself) had taunted the anti-abolitionists during a debate in the House of Commons: "On this occasion," Thomas reveals, "[Pitt] said ironically that the opponents of abolition evidently thought that 'the blood of these poor negroes was to continue flowing; it was dangerous to stop it because it had run so long; besides, we were under contract with certain surgeons to allow them a certain supply of human bodies every year for them to try experiments on, and this we did out of pure love of science'."

There is the rub! The Africans were used for medical experiments by European surgeons! But surely not all of them disappeared under the surgeons' knives? So where are their offspring?

All said and done, nobody gets reparations paid to him on a silver plate. To this day, Africa has done almost nothing about this matter. Bernie Grant, the Labour MP in London, laments the striking indifference of African leaders in the matter. "But I'm not waiting for [them]", he says. "I just carry on with what I'm doing. Because the issue at stake is more important than that. It's to do with the people of African descent, and not necessarily the people from Africa."

Copyright (c) IC Publications Limited 1999. All rights reserved.

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