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Africa's Guilt?

Good for Henry Louis Gates for boldly noting, in a NY Times op-ed, that most American slaves were captured by Africans in Africa before being shipped to the Americas.  He is not saying whites are free of guilt, but only that blacks aren't free of it themselves.  The issue, like most such issues, is complex.  Good to see a Lefty doing nuance on an issue that is usually demagogued.  Here's a sample of his reasoning:

While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, 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. . . .

How did slaves make it to these coastal forts? The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred. . . .

For many African-Americans, these facts can be difficult to accept. Excuses run the gamut, from "Africans didn't know how harsh slavery in America was" and "Slavery in Africa was, by comparison, humane" or, in a bizarre version of "The devil made me do it," "Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries."

But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. . . .

African monarchs also sent their children along these same slave routes to be educated in Europe. And there were thousands of former slaves who returned to settle Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Middle Passage, in other words, was sometimes a two-way street. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to claim that Africans were ignorant or innocent.

The real story is that what was novel in the West in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the moral argument against slavery.

Categories > History

Discussions - 3 Comments

Yes, anyone who has read anything about slavery knows this, but here again we see how "novel" it is to hear the plain truth about global slavery.

And I agree that abolitionism was the unique creation of some Western elites. It is important to note, however, that abolition was advocated by a tiny minority of people in this country. When the Civil War started, it was strictly about secession for people, both North and South.

In short, abolition was a social movement that really picked up steam as a justification for the horrors of the Civil War. And yes, there is ample historical proof of this.

I say this only to balance the perspective. I wouldn't want us to break our arms patting ourselves on the back.

Why was secession an issue, Redwald? Why did states wish to secede?

I saw that article and it is fun. Is Gates becoming more conservative?

Oh Kate, I guess you're bored today, and I guess there's never ever a bad time to have yet another "Was the Civil War Mainly Caused by the Slavery Debate?" debate.

But Redwald is right about it being long known historical fact that most of the slaves were captured by Africans, not by white slavers. Alex Haley probably knew that too, but deliberately chose for "poetic" reasons to depict the far more atypical case of a white-directed slave-taking raid in his Roots--reasons of "poetic justice" perhaps subconsciously nurtured by many years of critically listening to/writing about Malcom X's and the Nation of Islam's nonetheless captivating poison of rage.

Of course I'm guessing. I know no more about Alex Haley than the average reader of Malcolm X and watcher of Roots. Anyone know more about the making of Roots?

The fact that an academic like Gates has to mention elementary facts means little--but to do so in the NYT does deserve kudos, and particulalry his highlighting the irony that several of the more powerful W. African kingdoms so often celebrated by black power narratives (as "stolen history") were essentially built on the slave trade.

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