There is a need to look holistically at African history, good and bad. If African people are to be educated to face a new reality on the eve of tne twenty first century, we must know about the good times as well as the bad times. We must also know that history has not made Africa and Africans an exceptional case. In the great unfolding of history, Africans have played every role from saint to buffoon and we need to learn how to live with the good as well as the bad. We need to understand the triumphs as well as the tragedies in our history. At the end of what I have been alluding to as the last of the three golden ages in Africa, we entered a period of internal and external tragedy, partly of our making, but mainly imposed on us by foreigners in search of new land, new energy and new resources. We made the terrible mistake of thinking some foreigners could settle our internal "family" disputes. Instead of settling our family disputes, the foreigner turned us, one against the other, and conquered both. This is the great mistake we made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries at the end of Africa's third golden age. It is the greatest mistake we are making right now. This mistake grows out of our misinterpretation of our greatest strength which is our universal humanity.
As a people we have always been hospitable to strangers. The weakness in this noble gesture is that we have not been alert enough and suspicious enough to examine the intentions of the stranger that we have invited into our homes. All too often in our history strangers come in as guests and stay as conquerors. This is, at least in part, how and why the slave trade started. You cannot explain the slave trade and vindicate or rationalize the European participation in the slave trade by saying some Africans were in the slave trade and sold slaves to the Europeans. In some instances and in some regions, this was basically true. You cannot excuse the European slave trade by saying that slavery was practiced among the Africans before the Europeans came. In some instances and in some regions, this is also basically true. But the system of internal servitude in Africa that existed in some parts of Africa before the coming of he Europeans and the chattel slavery imposed upon Africa by the Europeans had no direct relationship, one to the other. In the African system of servitude which deserves critical analysis, families were broken up but not a single African was shipped out of Africa. In no way am I trying to say or imply that this system was good. My main point is that it was not the same as the European system. The European slave trade was a three continent industry that brought about a revolution in maritime science, international trade and a system of mercantilism that had not previously existed in world history. No Africans had this kind of international contact or were in a position to establish it at this juncture in history.
For more enlightenment on this subject, I invite you to read the following books, Black Mother, The Years of Our African Slave Trade: Precolonial History, 14501850, by Basil Davidson, Forced Migration, by Joseph E. Inikore, Christopher Columbus and The African Holocaust, by John Henrik Clarke and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, by Walter Rodney.
Like most world tragedies the Aflantic slave trade, or the European slave trade, started slowly, almost accidentally. At first the Europeans did not visit the coast of West Africa looking for slaves; they were searching for a route to Asia for the spices and the sweets they had heard about because they needed something to supplement the dull European food of that day. In general they needed new energy, new land and new resources. Plagues, famines and internal wars had left Europe partly exhausted and partly under-populated. In the years between the first European entry into West Africa from about 1438 to the year of Christopher Columbus' alleged discovery of America in 1492, there were no slaves of consequence taken out of Africa because there was no special work outside of Africa for slaves to do. The creation of the plantation system in the Americas and the Caribbean Islands set in motion a way of life for Europeans that they had not previously enjoyed. This way of life and the exploitation of the resources of the Americas and the Caribbean Islands, after the destruction of the nations and civilizations of the people referred to as "Indians," renewed the economic energy of Europe and gave Europeans the ability to move to the center stage of what they refer to as world progress. This was done mainly at the expense of African people who are still not thoroughly aware of their impact on every aspect of world history. Education for a new reality in the African world, must train African people to understand the nature of their contribution to the different aspects of world history, past and present, and the possibilities of their future contribution.
If slavery was the African people's holocaust, we should not be ashamed of saying so. We should have no hesitation in using the word "holocaust" because no one people has a monopoly on the word and I know of no law that gives a people the right to copyright a word as though it is their exclusive ownership. In relationship to this subject I have previously said that slavery was already an old institution before the European slave trade. However, the European slave trade in Africa is the best known and best recorded in the history of the world and also, in my opinion, the most tragic. The neglected tragedy of this system is that it did not have to occur at all. Had the European entered into a genuine partnership with the Africans instead of reducing them to slaves there would have been more goods and services to be had, both for the Europeans and the Africans, through contract labor.
The European slave trade in Africa was started and reached its crescendo between 1400 to 1600. This was also a turning point in the history of the world. Europe was emerging from the lethargy of the Middle Ages. Europeans were regaining their confidence, manifesting a new form of nationalism and extending that nationalism into racism. The African had goods and services that the European needed, and the European had the basic technology that the African needed. Had the African needs and the European needs been considered on an equal basis, there could have been an honest exchange between African and European and the European could still have had labor in large numbers without the slave trade and the massive murder that occurred in the slave trade. This idea, only a dream in the minds of a few men, could have changed the world for the better had it been seriously considered.
Slavery is taught as though it is something that victimized only African people. Slavery is an old institution. It is as old as human need and greed. It grew out of a weakness in the human character and the need to cover-up that weakness by dominating other people. In teaching about slavery, the one thing African people seem not to know is that for most of their existence on this earth they have been a sovereign people, free of slavery. The period of their enslavement is the best known and the best documented in history in comparison to other slave periods in history. When other people were the victims it was comparatively short. Feudalism in Europe, a form of European enslavement of Europeans, no matter what you call it, lasted much longer. This is why a holistic view of history is needed in order to understand this particular part of history that relates to a single people. This is where so-called Black Studies Programs missed both the objective and the subject in the study of slavery.
In evaluating the African slave trade, there was another "Middle Passage" often neglected by most scholarsthe Arab slave trade. It is often forgotten that the Arab slave trade in East Africa and the slave trade from North Africa into Inner West Africa was protracted and ruthless. Sometimes the Arabs from the north who were Moslem enslaved Africans in the south who were also Moslems, thereby violating one of the most basic customs of their faiththat no Moslem should enslave another Moslem. There is a small library of books on this subject that most scholars have chosen not to read, thereby making the Arab slave trade the best kept secret in historyalthough it is not a secret at all. Of the many books and documents that I have read on the subject, Slavery in the Arab World by Murray Gordon, 1987, and The African Slave Trade From the 15th to the 19th Century, in The General History of Africa: Studies and Documents 2, UNESCO,1979. I find the most informative the UNESCO book, especially the chapter, "The Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean."
Like most strangers to Africa the Arabs entered Africa, allegedly. as friends. The Africans who are curious and uncritical about new people, new religions and cultures treated the Arabs as well as they treated other strangers. The Arabs were not always kind in their spread of Islam in Africa. In fact, they were usually ruthless and often disrespectful of societies and cultures that existed in Africa before they arrived. In North Africa the two wars of Arab conquest that came in the seventh and tenth centuries, the first being religious and military, broke the back of Roman influence in the area and replaced the corrupt Roman regimes. At first the Arabs were welcomed in North Africa as a replacement for the ruthless Romans. When the North Africans and Berbers discovered that the Arabs were also ruthless, although in a different way, it was too late because the Arabs now had the military upper hand.
Another aspect of Arab conquest, generally neglected, is the spread of Arab influence in East Africa through accommodation and sexual conquest. Many times the Arabs moved down the coast of East Africa rendering the service of the much needed East African coastal trade. Soon after this, Arabs began to marry or cohabit with African women. This in turn resulted in a generation of African-looking Arabs. These Arab half-breeds facilitated the spread of the trade inland at a time when the Arab face was held in suspicion in this part of Africa. In the fierce competition in the West African slave trade, the Portuguese were driven from West Africa around to East Africa. The Arab slave trade, moving from north to east met the Portuguese slave trade moving up from the south. These two slave trades complemented each other and culminated with the establishment of one of the largest slave trading forts, in the history of the world, on the Island of Zanzibar. This event is well documented in any good history of East Africa, including the Cambridge History of East Africa, and The Cambridge History of Africa. Basil Davidson's A History of East and Central Africa to the late 19th Century, and certain chapters on East Africa in his Lost Cities of Africa is a popularization of the subject. There are two old but valuable books on the subject, East Africa and Its Invaders by Reginald Coupland, and the chapters on East Africa in the book, The Colonization of Africa by Alien Races, by Sir Harry Johnston.
While the East African drama of slavery was unfolding with the Arabs and later with the Portuguese as the protagonists, the larger drama in West Africa was changing the course of history. The Africans, all along the coast of West Africa were being subjected to a form of humiliation never before known, in quite the same way, in their history or human history. The collecting of Africans, sometimes prisoners of war from other Africans, the movement of Africans from the hinterlands to the coast, where very often seven out of ten lost their lives, were forms of unrecorded genocide. This is one of the numerous missing statistics in the attempt to estimate the number of Africans who died in the slave trade within Africa, the number of those who died in the slave dungeons waiting for shipment to the Americas, and the number of those who died on the journey to the Americas. The precise figures will never be known. Good estimations in this case are the best that we have.
There are a number of books describing the tragic living conditions in the slave forts and dungeons along the coast of West Africa. Books written by Europeans tend to tone down the tragedy. Books written by African scholars tend to be academic and objective to the point of being noncommittal to the tragedy of slavery. The following is a brief description of some of the conditions in these slave dungeons. In the early slave trade the forts sometimes contained between three hundred to five hundred captives. During the eighteenth century most forts had been adaped to the larger scale slave trade and they held many hundreds more. There were sections for the female captives and sections for the male captives. There were smaller and more tortuous dungeons for the rebellious and unruly captives. The conditions within and around these slave holding castles were great tragic horror stories. Within the castles there were no beds, no drinking water, no installed toilet facilities, and no means of day by day sanitary maintenance. The apartments of the slave traders and captains were directly above the main holding dungeons. And they lived there in luxury and were unmindful of the misery and degradation one or two floors below.
These conditions were forced upon a people who had never done European people any harm or had ever allied themselves with the enemies of the Europeans in any way. The Europeans who forced this condition upon African people professed to believe in a loving God who was no respecter of kith, kin and geographical boundaries in the dispensing of his mercy and understanding to all human beings. In their action toward the Africans that would last for more than three hundred years, the Europeans were saying that Africans had no soul or humanity, no culture or civilization worthy of respect, and that they were outside of the grace of God.
The long journey across the sea was another tragic story of misery. Figuratively, the slave ship was a floating city of prisoners presided over by a crew of ruffians gathered from the human scum of Europe. The period of the European slave trade in Africa is best known to us because it is the best-documented. However, the documentation is often confusing because it was created by people who were trying to justify the slave trade. Most people, especially Europeans who created most of the documents on the slave trade, write about the subject with the intent to make the victim of slavery feel guilty and to vindicate the perpetrators of this inhuman trade.
There is probably more dishonesty related to the interpretation of this subject than any other subject known to mankind. The African slave trade, like African history, is often written about, but rarely if ever understood. This misunderstanding probably grows out of the fact that we nearly always start the study of the African slave trade in the wrong place. The germ, the motive, the rationale for the European aspect of the African slave trade started in the minds of the Europeans in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries. And this slave trade could not have started at all had there been no market for it. The slave trade started when the Europeans began to expand into the broader world. And the market for slaves was created by Europeans for European reasons. The story of the European slave trade in Africa is essentially the story of the consequences of the second rise of Europe.
The peopling of the so-called new world by African people in the Americas and the Caribbean Islands was an enterprise of monumental proportions. This act would change the status of Europe and the world forever, and the Africans brought to the new world would be transformed into a new kind of people, neither wholly African nor wholly American. They would not easily adapt to their new condition though they gave their slave master, in some cases, the impression that they were doing so. They did not easily give up their African way of life, in spite of the attempt to destroy and outlaw it. This was the basis of massive slave revolts throughout the Caribbean Islands, South America, especially Brazil, and the more than two hundred and fifty slave revolts recorded in the United States.
Every attempt was made through the church and through oppression to deny that Africans hid a revolutionary heritage. There is documentary proof that Africans fought on the shores of Aftica to keep from getting on the slave ships. After being forced on the slave ships they continued the fight. Some fought to keep from being taken off the slave ships. Many, many more continued the fight once they got here. In parts of South America, and on some lslands in the Caribbean where the slaves outnumbered the Europeans, some Africans bypassed the auction block, fled into the hills and the forests and never became slaves at all. Some of these Africans who escaped slavery were called Maroons. The best books on the subject are, The Maroons, by Mavis Campbell, Maroon Societies, by Richard Price, and The Haitian Maroons, and Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James.
The drama of African survival in what is called the new world went beyond drama itself. In conditions that defied human imagination, for a protracted period lasting over three hundred years, Africans, using various techniques, pretenses, and acts of both submission and rebellion, went beyond survival and prevailed in order to live and still be a people in spite of the massive effort to destroy every aspect of their humanity. Part of what kept them alive, away from home, is that they would not give up their African culture in spite of being consistently pressured to do so. Many Africans, away from home, depending on the prevailing conditions that could change any day or any moment, had to become two persons in a single body. Some went beyond schizophrenia and changed their personality to suit the prevailing situation in order to survive so that the next generation could prevail.