African-Americans and Africans both at home and in diaspora blame the West for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But last week, Nigerians on Twitter acknowledged the fact that white traders didn’t load their ships without help from Africans themselves after an article by The NewYorker published an Igbo woman’s family history.
The history of the transatlantic slave trade as told from the side of Africans is not a secret, and yet, does not carry the same gravity as that of the British, French and Portuguese who engaged in these practices. A lot of this has to do with the scale and the objective with which it was practiced. Slavery in Africa mostly revolved around domestic and cultural practices and there were a number of societies and kingdoms which kept slaves before there was any regular commercial contact with Europeans, including the Asanti, the Kings of Bonny and Dahomey. Selling someone into slavery could be a way of discharging a debt and a convicted murderer could choose slavery as an alternative to capital punishment.
However, with the appearance of Europeans desperate to buy slaves for use in the Americas, the character of African slave ownership changed. The sheer number of slaves taken was unprecedented as the trade was shaped and driven by commercial forces of profit and new patterns of consumption. In the past, slavery had a social and cultural context, rooted in kingship, which imposed definition and restraints on the slave master relationship. In the 15th century the chief goal was profit and the conditions for slaves were very harsh.
Slavery became a commercial venture, one that local chiefs benefited from massively. People benefited too as they positioned themselves as middlemen in a business that would overthrow even the gold trade of Ghana. Whereas people erstwhile became slaves for reasons rooted in local disputes, and wars, with the rise of a large commercial slave trade, driven by European needs, enslaving your enemy became less a consequence of war and more a reason to go to war.
The destabilisation of the economy and loss of man power did not dampen the seeking of material goods such as plates and umbrellas, and power by the village chiefs though. And this trait is one still often seen in leaders of African nations who amass great wealth and maintain a do-all attitude in power at the expense of the nations they govern. After Britain officially declared all slave trading illegal, King Gezo said in the 1840’s he would do anything the British wanted him to do apart from giving up slave trade. The King of Bonny (in what is now the Nigerian delta) was dismayed at the conclusion of the practice.
“We think this trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself.”
Others like the King of Benin (now part of Nigeria) who had allowed major slave trafficking in the early sixteenth century only began to see to its eradication when he could see this was draining the kingdom of male manpower. Afonso I, King of the Congo similarly saw the slave trade rapidly grow out of control to the detriment of his authority and the wealth of his kingdom.
In hindsight, we often feel remorse that these things happened and our great great grandfathers took part in the trade. Trips to places like the Barracoon of 40 slaves, a former slave hold owned by Seriki Faremi Williams Abass in Badagry, Lagos, Nigeria paint a solid picture of what the times were back then. Asides from the factual events of the history of slavery, there is not much else to discuss especially as the profits of slave trading did not lead to expansion (or diversification) of economies in Africa on any significant scale, but also because there continues to be a lack of nation building and national identity by those who remained back on the continent. Western regrets about slavery, therefore, have a different character because there, slavery is embedded in the wealth and prosperity of such nations.
For most African nations, it is simply just another case of knowledge kept in the rooms of history occasionally dusted of its cobwebs but never fully understood, both in magnitude and ripple effects. History in schools is barely taught and when it is, comprises a huge collection of dates to be recalled on the day of examination. Elements of history are effectively obliterated by Western religions like Christianity, which make sure that these pasts are abandoned and forgotten, and not confronted or at least documented. The effects of a partial history are recurrences often found in the evidences of contemporary human and child trafficking, and the huge immigration crisis facing most African nations due to poverty and substandard living conditions, resulting in yet another scale of loss of manpower.
While there is great effort—not without resist—ongoing in the Americas to reconcile the stigma that African Americans still face from a 400 year old history, Africans have barely even scratched the surface in terms of words and deeds. A huge part of this reconciliation comes from the awareness and responsibility for one’s actions or one’s part of the story in the tales of history. And the world may not fully move on without Africa’s acknowledgement for its part in a story that is still being unfolded today.
While some African nations like Nigeria cite the legality of the trade as an excuse for its actions, a few African nations have taken a step forward in confronting the past. The Republic of Benin publicly acknowledged — in broad terms — its role in the slave trade. In 1999, President Mathieu Kérékou visited a Baltimore church and fell to his knees during an apology to African Americans for Africa’s role in the slave trade. Ghana’s 2006 apology to African-Americans for slavery, by contrast, was largely a business decision. It formed part of a strategy to forge a stronger tourism economy, and closer ties to America, by making it easier for black Americans to visit, emigrate, own land, invest, and start businesses in Ghana.
It is for the best that we at least begin now to have these discussions in order to build solid African nations no longer held subject to the strangleholds of their past. But whatever way we choose to go, as G. T. Basden once said, “It will probably be a long time before all traces of slavery disappear from the minds of the people.”