A hundred and fifty years after France abolished slavery | by Elikia M’bokolo

by Oct 17, 2011Africa

The impact of the slave trade on Africa
On 27 April 1848 Victor Schoelcher, the French under-secretary of state for the colonies, signed a decree abolishing slavery. To force the decision through, he had warned of the danger of a general uprising if nothing was done. Resistance by the slaves themselves was thus of capital importance in the French government’s decision, and freedom, when it came, was due more to Africa’s own efforts than to a sudden burst of humanitarian feeling on the part of the slave traders.

The course of human history is marked by appalling crimes. But even the hardened historian is filled with horror, loathing and indignation on examining the record of African slavery. How was it possible? How could it have gone on for so long, and on such a scale? A tragedy of such dimensions has no parallel in any other part of the world.
The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth). Then more than four centuries (from the end of the fifteenth to the nineteenth) of a regular slave trade to build the Americas and the prosperity of the Christian states of Europe. The figures, even where hotly disputed, make your head spin. Four million slaves exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean (1).

Of all these slave routes, the “slave trade” in its purest form, i.e. the European Atlantic trade, attracts most attention and gives rise to most debate. The Atlantic trade is the least poorly documented to date, but this is not the only reason. More significantly, it was directed at Africans only, whereas the Muslim countries enslaved both Blacks and Whites. And it was the form of slavery that indisputably contributed most to the present situation of Africa. It permanently weakened the continent, led to its colonisation by the Europeans in the nineteenth century, and engendered the racism and contempt from which Africans still suffer.

While specialists squabble about the details, the basic questions raised by the enslavement of the Africans have scarcely varied since the eighteenth century, when the issue first became the subject of public debate as the result of the efforts of abolitionists in the Northern slave states, the demands of black intellectuals, and the unremitting struggle of the slaves themselves. Why the Africans rather than other peoples? Who exactly should be held responsible for the slave trade? The Europeans alone, or the Africans themselves? Did the slave trade do real damage to Africa, or was it a marginal phenomenon affecting only a few coastal societies?

Trade or go under
We need to take a fresh look at the origins of the Atlantic slave trade. They shed light on the enduring mechanisms that established and maintained the vicious spiral. It is not certain that the European slave trade originally derived from the Arab trade. For a long time the Arab slave trade appears to have been a supplement to a much more profitable commerce in Sudanese gold and the precious, rare or exotic products of the African countries. Whereas, despite some exports of gold, ivory and hardwoods, it was the trade in human beings that galvanised the energy of the Europeans along the coast of Africa. Again, the Arab slave trade was geared mainly to the satisfaction of domestic needs. In contrast, following the successful establishment of slave plantations on the islands off the coast of Africa (Sao Tomé, Principe, Cap Verde), the export of Africans to the New World supplied the workforce for the colonial plantations and mines whose produce (gold, silver and, above all, sugar, cocoa, cotton, tobacco and coffee) was the prime material of international trade.

The enslavement of Africans for production was tried in Iraq but proved a disaster. It provoked widespread revolts, the largest of which lasted from 869 to 883 and put paid to the mass exploitation of black labour in the Arab world (2). Not until the nineteenth century did slavery for production re-emerge in a Muslim country, when black slaves were used on the plantations of Zanzibar to produce goods such as cloves and coconuts that in any case were partly exported to Western markets (3). The two slavery systems nevertheless shared the same justification of the unjustifiable: a more or less explicit racism with a strong religious colouring. In both cases, we find the same fallacious interpretation of Genesis, according to which the Blacks of Africa, as the alleged descendants of Ham, are cursed and condemned to slavery.

The Europeans did not have an easy time establishing the trade in “ebony”. At first, they simply raided the coast and carried people off. The powerful images in Alex Haley’s Roots (4) are confirmed by the Guinea Chronicle written in the middle of the fifteenth century by a Portuguese, Gomes Eanes de Zurara. But the regular exploitation of mines and plantations required an ever larger workforce. A proper system had to be established to ensure a steady supply. In the early sixteenth century the Spaniards began to issue “licences” (from 1513) and asientos or “contracts” (from 1528) under which the state monopoly on the import of Blacks passed into private hands.

The great slaving companies were formed in the second half of the seventeenth century, when the Americas, and other parts of the world which the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and various papal edicts had reserved to the Spaniards and Portuguese, were redistributed among the nations of Europe. The whole of Europe – France, England, Holland, Portugal and Spain, and even Denmark, Sweden and Brandenburg   shared in the spoils, establishing a chain of monopoly companies, forts, trading posts and colonies that stretched from Senegal to Mozambique. Only distant Russia and the Balkan countries were missing from the pack – and they received their own small contingents of slaves via the Ottoman Empire.

In Africa itself, sporadic raids by Europeans soon gave way to regular commerce. African societies were drawn into the slavery system under duress, hoping that, once inside it, they would be able to derive maximum benefit for themselves. Nzinga Mbemba, ruler of the Kongo Kingdom, is a good example. He had converted to Christianity in 1491 and referred to the king of Portugal as his brother. When he came to power in 1506, he protested strongly at the fact that the Portuguese, his brother’s subjects, felt entitled to rob his possessions and carry off his people into slavery. It was to no avail. The African monarch gradually allowed himself to be convinced that the slave trade was both useful and necessary. Among the goods offered in exchange for human beings, rifles took pride of place. And only states equipped with rifles, i.e. participating in the slave trade, were able to resist attacks from their neighbours and pursue expansionist policies.

The African states fell into the trap set by the European slavers. Trade or go under. All the states along the coast or close to the slave trading areas were riven by the conflict between national interest, which demands that no resource necessary to security and prosperity be neglected, and the founding charters of kingdoms, which impose on sovereigns the obligation to defend the lives, property and rights of their subjects. The states involved in the slave trade strove to keep it within strict limits. In 1670, when the French requested permission to establish a trading post on his territory, King Tezifon of Allada made the following clear-sighted reply: “You will make a house in which you will put at first two little pieces of cannon, the next year you will mount four, and in a little time your factory will metamorphosed into a fort that will make you master of my dominions and enable you to give laws to me (5)”. From Saint-Louis-du-Sénégal to the Congo estuary, the local societies and states mostly succeeded in pursuing an ambiguous policy of collaboration, suspicion and control.

In Angola, Mozambique and certain parts of Guinea, however, Europeans got directly involved in the African warfare and trade networks with the help of local black accomplices or half-castes who were the offspring of white adventurers. These adventurers had a reputation that was unenviable even in an age of extreme cruelty. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Portuguese lançados (those who dared to “take off” into the interior) were described as “the seed of the devil”, “the essence of evil”, and “murderers, thieves and degenerates”. In time, this group of intermediaries grew large enough to constitute, at several points along the coast, the class of “merchant princes” on whom the slave trade came to rest.

How profitable was it? Scrupulous accounts were kept of the slaving ships’ outgoing cargo. They give us a very clear picture of what was traded in exchange for millions of African lives. Rifles, gunpowder, brandy, cloth, glassware, and ironmongery. A surprisingly unequal exchange? Perhaps. But the same sort of thing is still going on today. The countries of the North stop at nothing to convince African heads of state to import white elephants in exchange for mediocre personal profit.

Clearly, the ideological weapons used to justify the slave trade reflected neither the reality nor the dynamics of African society. Africans, like all other peoples, had no particular liking for slavery. Slavery was generated and maintained by a specific system. While the revolts of black slaves during the Atlantic crossing and in America are well documented, there is much less awareness of the scale and diversity of resistance to slavery within Africa. Both to the Atlantic slave trade as such and to the slavery in Africa which it induced or aggravated.

One long neglected source is Lloyd’s List. It throws unexpected light on the rejection of the slave trade in the African coastal societies. It is packed full of details of damage to vessels insured by the famous London company from its foundation in 1689. The figures show that in more than 17% of cases, the damage was due to local rebellion or plundering in Africa. The perpetrators of these revolts were the slaves themselves, assisted by the coastal population. It is as if there were two separate interests at work: the interest of states that had allowed themselves to become incorporated in the slavery system, and the interest of free peoples who were under constant threat of enslavement and were moved to act in solidarity with those already reduced to slavery.
As for slavery within African society itself, everything appears to indicate that it grew in parallel with the Atlantic slave trade and was reinforced by it. It similarly gave rise to many forms of resistance: flight, open rebellion, and recourse to the protection afforded by religion (attested in both Islamic and Christian countries). In the Senegal valley, for example, the attempts by certain monarchs to enslave and sell their own subjects gave rise, at the end of the 17th century, to the Marabout war and the Toubenan movement (from the word tuub, meaning to convert to Islam). Its founder, Nasir al-Din, proclaimed that “God does not permit kings to pillage, kill or enslave their peoples. He appointed them, on the contrary, to preserve their subjects and protect them from their enemies. Peoples were not made for kings, but kings for peoples.”

Further south, in what is now Angola, the Kongo peoples invoked Christianity in the same way, both against the missionaries, who were compromised in the slave trade, and against the local powers. At the beginning of the 18th century a prophetess in her twenties, Kimpa Vita (also known as Doña Beatrice), turned the slave traders’ racist arguments on their head and began to preach that “there are no Blacks or Whites in heaven” and that “Jesus Christ and other saints are black and come from the Congo”. Similar appeals to religion are still a feature of demands for freedom and equality in various parts of Africa. Clearly, the slave trade was far from marginal. It is central to modern African history, and resistance to it engendered attitudes and practices that have persisted to the present day.

A continent of “savages”
The ideas of abolitionist propaganda, which certain ways of commemorating the abolition of slavery tend to reinforce, should not be accepted uncritically. The desire for freedom, and freedom itself, did not come to the Africans from outside, whether from Enlightenment philosophers, abolitionist agitators or republican humanists. They came from internal developments within the African societies themselves. Moreover, from the end of the 18th century, merchants in countries bordering on the Gulf of Guinea, who had mostly grown rich on the slave trade, began to distance themselves from slavery and send their children to Britain to train in the sciences and other professions useful for the development of commerce. That is why, throughout the 19th century, African societies had no trouble responding positively to the inducements of industrialised Europe, which had converted to “lawful” trade in the produce of the land and was henceforth hostile to the “unlawful” and “shameful” trade in slaves.

But the Africa of the 19th century was very different from the continent which Europeans had encountered four hundred years earlier. As the Trinidadian historian, Walter Rodney, has tried to show, Africa had been drawn by the slave trade down a dangerous path, and it was now well and truly underdeveloped (6). The racism rooted in the slave-trade era blossomed anew in these propitious circumstances. European discourse on Africa now centred on the “backwardness” and “savagery” of the continent. On the basis of such value judgements, the West was postulated as a model. African upheavals and regression were attributed, not to real historical developments in which Europe had played a part, but to the “innate nature” of the Africans themselves. Emergent colonialism and imperialism cloaked themselves in humanitarian garb and invoked “racial superiority” and the “White Man’s burden”. The former slave-trading states now spoke only of liberating Africa from “Arab” slavers and the black potentates who were also engaged in slavery.

However, once the colonial powers had carved up the continent between them, they took great care not to abolish the slavery structures they had found in place. Any change would have to be gradual, they argued, and “native” customs had to be respected. Slavery thus persisted within the colonial system, as we can see from the League of Nations surveys conducted between the two world wars (7). Worse still, in order to drive the economic machine, they created a new type of slavery in the form of forced labour. “Whatever it is called, nothing can disguise the fact that forced labour is de facto and de jure simply the reintroduction and promotion of slavery (8).” Here again, to look no further than the French example, the impulse for freedom came from Africa. It was due to the efforts of the African deputies, led by Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Léopold Sédar Senghor, that forced labour was at last abolished in 1946.

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