In our Junior Secondary School (JSS) history books, we learned about names, dates and places on the African continent that were so distant that they might as well have been on the moon. We learned about the importance of Fernando Po, the Bight of Benin and our own Cape Coast castle in Ghana – all essential to European trading activities in West Africa. We learned that the first Europeans to come to West Africa were the Portuguese who were quickly followed by the Dutch. They came to trade guns and beads for gold and ivory. A few centuries later the rest of Western Europe joined the fray, only now they needed a new commodity to trade in order to satisfy their labor needs in the New World. So we learned that the Europeans traded (and raided) for slaves.
They began to trade in slaves.
The more I meditate on that statement, the less I find that it is true. The Spanish, Portuguese and the Dutch (and the British, and the French, and the Belgians, and and and…) didn’t come to Africa for ‘slaves’; they came for People.
They came for men, women and children.
They came for men with deep belly laughs and high-pitched caterwauls when they mocked the women they loved.
They came for crafty little girls who liked to do cartwheels when they thought no one was looking.
They came for 10-year-old boys who raced around the village in contests to determine who was swiftest.
They came for women who loved to eat cocoyam and hated the sight of snakes.
They came for youth who were in the middle of courtships, who had stolen kisses and risked forbidden touches at sunset.
They came for grandchildren who were the pride of the elders, the blessed fruit and the evidence of their years of dedication to the values that their clan upheld.
They came for artisans, metal workers, weavers, hairdressers, midwives, farmers, fishermen, noblemen and noblewomen.
They came for both the princess and the pauper.
They might have come for the drunkard too, but he wouldn’t have survived the middle passage so they spared him by putting a bullet in his head and/or chest.
They came for friends who were on the cusp of settling an old quarrel.
They came for architects who designed and oversaw the building of magnificent cities in the Songhai Empire.
They came for scholars and they came for griots.
They came for the holders of ancient history.
They came for the warriors and they came for cowards.
They came for shy little boys and brazen little girls who grooved to the rhythm of drums that could imitate the sound of water.
They came for the drummer.
They came for the spiritual and those who mocked the afterlife alike.
They came for women who loved nice things and men who loved to compliment women wearing nice things.
Europeans never came for slaves. They came for people like YOU and ME.
But because our worldview of Africans is so completely Eurocentric – that we can sit in classrooms and learn about these events as if they were just events and not the horrific lived experiences of people we all have a kinship to – we can confidently and comfortably rattle off dates and the names of forts for a passing grade. Has it ever occurred to any history student in our Ghanaian schools (if they even still teach history any more) that the people who were captured during the genocide and kidnappings were never slaves to begin with? How do you ‘trade in slaves’ from the African coast when these men, women and children all lived free? Africans that were abducted from the continent did not become slaves until they set foot in Europe or the New World, where they (and their descendants) would be become chattel. It is when that slave owner in Charleston or Kingston stripped an African of his/her identity, swapping the name Mansa for a meaningless appellation like Platt. The process of becoming a slave is not complete until a person’s humanity is completely ripped from them. The terrors unleashed in so-called seasoning camps in the Caribbean where men and women were broken to insure compliance and the horrors of torture cells on Butler Island and plantations all across the Deep South are what produced generations of slaves. To quote a line from LeVar Burton’s reproduction of Roots ‘You don’t buy a slave. You have to make a slave.’
What we learned about – what the Europeans did when they forced millions of Africans onto floating death traps and what we continue to refer to in common parlance – was a brutal, mass forced migration, not a ‘trade in slaves’.
Our ancestors and abducted kin were people whose lives mattered. Lets honor them as such when we discuss their plight.