The idea that “Africans sold each other” into slavery is not a new one, but it is one that is generally advanced by the poorly educated or those wishing to shift the bulk of the blame from European participation and place it on the shoulders of the Mythical African. Mythical because before a person born in Africa is anything, he/she is Ewe, Fula, Mende, etc. No person of African descent responds to the question, “Where are you from?” with “I am from Africa” unless they are i) outside of Africa and/or ii) in conversation with someone who is unfamiliar with the concept of ethnicity with the continent. (Most Americans fall into the latter category.) This will then beg the request from the inquisitor to say something African, after which it will be painstakingly be explained that there is no such thing as a language called ‘African’.
Africa is not a cultural monolith. No one knows this better than the native children of her lands. So it was with great disappointment (but very little shock) that I read comments from a supposedly seasoned Ghanaian journalist voicing his support for the idea that the Trans Atlantic slave trade was a ‘choice’, in concordance with a 2015 article featuring a Confederate flag waving Black woman making that very assertion. He says:
As is often the case where Manasseh Azure (the journalist in question) is concerned, many lesser read and worse informed people came out in support of his comments. Like Trump and the poorly educated he professes to love so deeply, these people form the bulk of his fan base. One blogger took the time to take him to task, and provoked a collective sigh of relief from those of us who cannot stand to see ignorance – and the damage it can cause – go unchallenged and unchecked. In his post Manasseh Azure-Awuni and the Fallacy of Africans Selling Their Own Into Slavery, Umar the PhD Candidate diligently explains why this is a false narrative and how foolish it is to continue to advance it. Umar says that the idea that slavery was a ‘choice’ is about as accurate as saying that the Holocaust was a ‘choice’ for the Jews (and Poles and persons with physical and mental disabilities) that perished as a result of Hitler’s manic genocide. Umar echoes my thoughts precisely, and I hope that you will take the time to read his article.
But for the people – like Manasseh – who are averse to in-depth reading, here is a crash course on how what we have come to know as ‘race’ has functioned over the past four centuries.
- “We” did not go North to capture our brothers and sisters in exchange for booze. The system of the slave trade was a well-organized machine. When the Europeans eschewed trade in goods for trade in flesh, a new class of ‘merchant’ emerged from the hinterland. Two of the most infamous of these were Samori and Babatu Zato, slave raiders who swooped in from the north and made captives of people as far down as the Akuapem range. They then sold their captives to Fante and Ga middlemen on the coast who traded them to the British. This system replicated itself all over the Slave Coast in what would become French, Portuguese and Belgian held territories.
2. Like Pan Africanism, whiteness is a novel construct. In the formation of the colonies in the New World, Anglo Saxon Protestants brought with them deeply xenophobic sentiments for other Europeans – Catholics (Irish and Italians who tended to adhere to the Catholic faith) specifically. In the founding of Georgia, for instance, it was written in the colony’s by-laws that freedom of worship was to be granted to all prospective colonists “except papists. Remember, these New World colonizers were escaping religious persecution from the Catholic Church; persecution from their “white brothers and sisters”. These xenophobic attitudes did not change for centuries. Despite the fact that there are few people more pale in complexion that those of the Gaelic Islands, advertisements regularly discouraged Irishmen from seeking employment therein. In order to advance socially, some Europeans took on Anglicized identities in order to be accepted by the (white) mainstream. Anthony Dominick Benedetto – for example – is widely known as Tony Bennett. He was born in 1926.
Likewise, ‘blackness’ is a new idea necessitated by the slave trade. After being shorn, branded and baptized, captives were stripped of their identities. No longer were they Igbo or Akan. They were the property of the Dutch East India Company, assigned a number, sold on a black and delineated as a buck or breeding wench. The homogeneous (manufactured) black identity did not exist until it encountered violent whiteness.
3. It is treacherous to assert that the enslaved were complicit in his/her own oppression. Though there were some groups who readily participated as sellers in the slave trade, there was always resistance to the enterprise both in Africa and abroad. Some resistance took place in the form of violence, where family members of the captured made gallant – but often failed – efforts at rescue attempts from forts and dungeons. Other forms of resistance took shape by relocating entire villages in hard to reach places. It is believed that Nzulezu, Ghana’s “stilt” village is an example of this. The use of chains and tethers to keep the enslaved shackled to the ships that ferried them to their prison plantation was necessitated by the frequency with which captives leapt over the edge of schooners to a watery grave. It is not in the nature of any human to accept the conditions of forced bondage. Many Africans fought tirelessly against the slave trade. Queen Nzinga of Mbundu (now Angola) fought the Portuguese against the expansion of the trade in her realm.
She waged a 30-year way against their invasion, as her weakling brother was too placid to do so.
4. Individual or clan participation in the slave trade was never about ‘booze’; It was about power. It’s sexy to try to convince oneself of that the idea of the ingenuous, narcissistic, hedonistic personification of the African mind is a valid one. My, wouldn’t it all be so simple to explain away the poor decisions Africans have made – and the disastrous generational effects – on the fact that we are just plain stupid? After all, who kidnaps and sells their neighbor for a shot of Jack Daniels? To propose this would be to give credence to the foolish idea that clans and federations traded a foothold in their nations in exchange for ‘beads and rum’, when we have anthropological evidence that gold and cowries were a widely used medium of exchange and used to adorn the bodies of young girls for something as seemingly mundane today as the advent of menses. The process of exchanging ideas, trading in guns and finally in the sale of flesh is not one that happened overnight. As they have done wherever they have conquered, Europeans decided that trade no longer suited their best interest and ownership was the preferred course. This would only happen by deception and force. After being bullied about for centuries, clans and societies with weaker military forces saw an opportunity to gain real power and threw their support in with the invader, doing his bidding in exchange for what would hopefully be bigger and better crumbs. Perhaps a job as a clerk, a messenger, a chance to fight and die in an imperial army, or to rid oneself of any traces of the frailty associated with your clan’s name. Why be Quarcoe when Quayson was so regal and rolled so much more sweetly off the tongue?
That there was any alcohol involved was merely in celebration for finally ‘winning’ against one’s enemies, and not the end goal in itself.
In conclusion: The study of the trans Atlantic slave trade is one that scholars devote their entire careers to. An evil enterprise spanning 400+ years cannot be summed up in 4 bullet points. It is appalling that anyone who considers himself part of the intellectual class would ever dismiss that factors that contributed to is rise and success as a result of Africans looking to get drunk. The sentiment smacks of self-loathing, and should be exercised from the mouth and minds of anyone harboring such thoughts.