From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Built on the bodies of slaves: how Africa was erased from the history of the modern world
Date October 17, 2021 12:00 AM
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[ The creation of the modern, interconnected world is generally
credited to European pioneers. But Africa was the wellspring for
almost everything they achieved – and African lives were the
terrible cost.] [[link removed]]

BUILT ON THE BODIES OF SLAVES: HOW AFRICA WAS ERASED FROM THE HISTORY
OF THE MODERN WORLD  
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Howard W French
October 12, 2021
The Guardian
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_ The creation of the modern, interconnected world is generally
credited to European pioneers. But Africa was the wellspring for
almost everything they achieved – and African lives were the
terrible cost. _

African-civilizations-map-pre-colonial.svg: Jeff Israel (ZyMOS)
INFORMATION derivative work: Monsieur Fou , This image was marked with
a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

 

It would be unusual for a story that begins in the wrong place to
arrive at the right conclusions. And so it is with the history of how
the modern world was made. Traditional accounts have accorded a
primacy to Europe’s 15th-century Age of Discovery, and to the
maritime connection it established between west and east. Paired with
this historic feat is the momentous, if accidental, discovery of what
came to be known as the New World.

Other explanations for the emergence of the modern world reside in the
ethics and temperament that some associate with Judeo-Christian
beliefs, or with the development and spread of the scientific method,
or, more chauvinistically still, with Europeans’ often-professed
belief in their unique ingenuity and inventiveness. In the popular
imagination, these ideas have become associated with the work ethic,
individualism and entrepreneurial drive that supposedly flowed from
the Protestant Reformation in places such as England and Holland.

Of course, there is no denying the significance of the voyages of
mariners such as Vasco da Gama, who reached India via the Indian Ocean
in 1498, Ferdinand Magellan, who travelled west to Asia, skirting the
southern tip of South America, and Christopher Columbus. As the author
Marie Arana has elegantly said of Columbus, when he sailed west, “he
had been a medieval man from a medieval world, surrounded by medieval
notions about Cyclops, pygmies, Amazons, dog-faced natives,
antipodeans who walk on their heads and think with their feet –
about dark-skinned, giant-eared races who inhabit the lands where gold
and precious gems grow. When he stepped on to American soil, however,
he did more than enter a new world: he stepped into a new age.”

Although these famous feats of discovery dominate the popular
imagination, they obscure the true beginnings of the story of how the
globe became permanently stitched together and thus became
“modern”. If we look more closely at the evidence, it will become
clear that Africa [[link removed]] played
a central role in this history. By miscasting the role of Africa,
generations have been taught a profoundly misleading story about the
origins of modernity.

The first impetus for the Age of Discovery was not Europe’s yearning
for ties with Asia, as so many of us learned in school, but rather its
centuries-old desire to forge trading ties with legendarily rich Black
societies hidden away in the heart of “darkest” west Africa.
Iberia’s most famous sailors cut their teeth not seeking routes to
Asia, but rather plying the west African coastline. This is where they
perfected techniques of mapmaking and navigation, where Spain
and Portugal
[[link removed]] experimented with
improved ship designs, and where Columbus came to understand the
Atlantic Ocean winds and currents well enough that he would later
reach the western limits of the sea with a confidence that no European
had previously had before him, of being able to return home.

Well before he mounted his expeditions on behalf of Spain, Columbus,
an Italian from Genoa, had sailed to Europe’s first large, fortified
overseas outpost, which was located in the tropics at Elmina, in
modern-day Ghana. European expeditions to west Africa in the mid-15th
century were bound up in a search for gold. It was the trade in this
precious metal, discovered in what is now Ghana by the Portuguese in
1471, and secured by the building of the fort at Elmina in 1482, that
helped fund Vasco da Gama’s later mission of discovery to Asia. This
robust new supply of gold helped make it possible for Lisbon, until
then the seat of a small and impecunious European crown, to steal a
march on its neighbours and radically alter the course of world
history.

Bartolomeu Dias, another Portuguese explorer who knew Elmina well,
rounded Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in 1488, proving the existence of
a sea route to what would become known as the Indian Ocean. But no
onward voyage to Asia would even be attempted for nearly a decade
after that, when Da Gama finally sailed to Calicut (now known as
Kozhikode in India). The teaching of history about this era of iconic
discoveries is confoundingly silent not only on that decade, but on
the nearly three decades between the Portuguese arrival at Elmina in
1471 and their landing in India in 1498.

It was this moment, when Europe and what is nowadays styled
sub-Saharan Africa came into permanent deep contact, that laid the
foundations of the modern age.

The elision of these three pivotal decades is merely one example of a
centuries-long process of diminishment, trivialisation and erasure of
Africans and people of African descent from the story of the modern
world. It is not that the basic facts are unknown; it is that they
have been siloed, overlooked or swept into dark corners. It is
essential to restore key chapters such as these to their proper place
of prominence in our common narrative of modernity.

Starting in the 15th century, encounters between Africans and
Europeans set the most Atlantic-oriented Europeans on a path that
would eventually propel their continent past the great civilisational
centres of Asia and the Islamic world in wealth and power. The rise of
Europe was not founded on any innate or permanent characteristics that
produced superiority. To a degree that remains unrecognised, it was
built on Europe’s economic and political relations with Africa. The
heart of the matter here, of course, was the massive, centuries-long
transatlantic trade in enslaved people who were put to work growing
sugar, tobacco, cotton and other cash crops on the plantations of the
New World.

The long thread that leads us to the present began in those three
decades at the end of the 15th century, when commerce blossomed
between Portugal and Africa, sending a newfound prosperity washing
over what had previously been a marginal European country. It drove
urbanisation in Portugal on an unprecedented scale, and created new
identities that gradually freed many people from feudal ties to the
land. One of these novel identities was nationhood, whose origins were
bound up in questing for wealth in faraway lands, and soon thereafter
in emigration and colonisation in the tropics.

As Portugal started to venture out into the world in the 1400s – and
for nearly a century this meant almost exclusively to Africa – its
people were among the first to make another conceptual leap. They
began to think of discovery not merely as the simple act of stumbling
upon assorted novelties or arriving wide-eyed in never-before-visited
places, but rather as something new and more abstract. Discovery
became a mindset, and this would become another cornerstone of
modernity. It meant understanding that the world was infinite in its
social complexity, and this required a broadening of consciousness,
even amid the colossal violence and horror that accompanied this
process, and an ever more systematic unmooring from provincialism.

The fateful engagement between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa produced
civilisational transformations in both regions, as well as in the
wider world – ones that, looking back today, produced an
exceptionally crisp division between “before” and “after”.

Back then, Europeans were mindful of this reality. As late as the
1530s, well after the start of Portugal’s more famous spice trade
with Asia, Lisbon still recognised Africa as the leading driver of all
that was new. João de Barros, a counsellor to that country’s
crown, wrote: “I do not know in this Kingdom a yoke of land, toll,
tithe, excise or any other Royal tax more reliable … than the
profits of commerce in Guinea.”

But as remarkable as Barros’s acknowledgment of African vitality
was, his omission of slavery as a pillar of the relationship was
equally notable. It may have been the first time that the centrality
of Black bondage was simply passed over in an informed account of
modernity in the west. It would not be the last. When Barros wrote,
Portugal overwhelmingly dominated Europe’s trade in Africans, and
slavery was beginning to rival gold as Portugal’s most lucrative
source of African bounty. By then, it was already on its way to
becoming the foundation of a new economic system based on plantation
agriculture. Over time, that system would generate far more wealth for
Europe than African gold or Asian silks and spices.

Sounding like an updated Barros, Malachy Postlethwayt, a leading
18th-century British expert on commerce, called the rents and revenues
of plantation slave labour “the fundamental prop and support” of
his country’s prosperity. He described the British empire as “a
magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power
[built] on an African foundation”. Around the same time, an equally
prominent French thinker, Guillaume-Thomas-François de Raynal,
described Europe’s plantations worked by African enslaved people as
“the principal cause of the rapid motion which now agitates the
universe”. Daniel Defoe, the English author of Robinson Crusoe
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but also a trader, pamphleteer and spy, bested both when he wrote:
“No African trade, no negroes; no negroes, no sugars, gingers,
indicoes [sic] etc; no sugar etc, no islands, no continent; no
continent, no trade.”

Postlethwayt, Raynal and Defoe were surely right, even if they did not
comprehend all of the reasons why. More than any other part of the
world, Africa has been the linchpin of the machine of modernity.
Without African peoples trafficked from its shores, the Americas would
have counted for little in the ascendance of the west. African labour,
in the form of enslaved people, was what made the very development of
the Americas possible. Without it, Europe’s colonial projects in the
New World are unimaginable.

Through the development of plantation agriculture and a succession of
history-altering commercial crops – tobacco, coffee, cacao, indigo,
rice and, above all, sugar – Europe’s deep and often brutal ties
with Africa drove the birth of a truly global capitalist economy.
Slave-grown sugar hastened the coming together of the processes we
call industrialisation. It radically transformed diets, making
possible much higher worker productivity. And in doing so, sugar
revolutionised European society.

In sugar’s wake, cotton grown by enslaved people in the American
south helped launch formal industrialisation, along with a second wave
of consumerism. Abundant and varied clothing for the masses became a
reality for the first time in human history. The scale of the American
antebellum cotton boom, which made this possible, was nothing short of
astonishing. The value derived from the trade and ownership of
enslaved people in the US alone – as distinct from the cotton and
other products they produced – was greater than that of all of the
country’s factories, railroads and canals combined.

Now-forgotten European contests over control of the African bounty
partly built the modern world, by strengthening fixed national
allegiances. Spain and Portugal waged fierce naval battles in west
Africa over access to gold. Holland and Portugal, then unified with
Spain, fought something little short of a world war in the 17th
century in present-day Congo and Angola, vying for control of trade in
the richest sources of enslaved people in Africa. On the far side of
the Atlantic, Brazil – the biggest producer of slave-grown sugar in
the early 17th century – was caught up in this same struggle, and
repeatedly changed hands. Later in that same century, England fought
Spain over control of the Caribbean
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Why did faraway powers contend so fiercely over such things?
Tiny Barbados [[link removed]]provides an
answer. By the mid-1660s, just three decades or so after England
initiated an African slave-labour model for its plantations there –
one that was first implemented in the Portuguese colony of São
Tomé little more than a century earlier – sugar from Barbados was
worth more than the metal exports of all of Spanish America.

Amid this story of military struggles for control of land and slaves,
and of the economic miracles they produced, another kind of conflict
is visible: a war on Black people themselves. This involved the
consistent pursuit of strategies for beating Africans into submission,
for making them enslave one another, and for recruiting Black people
as proxies and auxiliaries, whether to secure territories from native
populations of the New World or joust with European rivals in the
Americas.

To say this is not to deprive Africans of agency. The impact of this
warfare on Africa’s subsequent development, however, has been
immeasurable. Nowadays, the consensus estimate on the numbers of
Africans brought to the Americas hovers about 12 million. Lost in this
atrocious but far too neat accounting is the likelihood that another 6
million Africans were killed in or near their homelands during the
hunt for slaves, before they could be placed in chains. Estimates
vary, but between 5% and 40% perished during brutal overland treks to
the coast, or while being held, often for months, in barracoons, or
holding pens, as they awaited embarkation on slave ships. And another
10% of those who were taken aboard died at sea during an Atlantic
transit that constituted an extreme physical and psychological test
for all those who were subjected to it. When one considers that
Africa’s total population in the mid-19th century was probably about
100 million, one begins to gauge the enormity of the demographic
assault that the slave trade represented.

This war on Black people raged just as fiercely on the western shores
of the Atlantic, as did the resistance. Societies of runaways bent on
freedom came together in many places, from Brazil and Jamaica to
Florida. It is often remarked that Africans themselves sold enslaved
people to Europeans. What is less well known is that in many parts of
Africa, such as the Kingdom of Kongo and Benin, Africans fought to end
the trade in human beings once they understood its full impact on
their own societies. Enslaved people resisted in numerous shipboard
revolts, or by simply taking their own lives at sea rather than submit
to bondage.

In most of the New World plantation societies, the average remaining
lifespan of trafficked Black people was reckoned at seven years or
less. In 1751, an English planter on Antigua summed up the prevailing
slaveowner sentiment this way: “It was cheaper to work slaves to the
utmost, and by the little fare and hard usage, to wear them out before
they become useless, and unable to do service; and then to buy new
ones to fill up their places.”

I was lucky to be introduced to Africa while still a university
student, first as an enthralled visitor during college breaks, and
later living there for six years after graduation. I cut my teeth as a
journalist writing about Africa and travelling widely, and I married a
woman who had grown up in Ivory Coast, but whose family was from a
nearby part of Ghana. I wasn’t at all aware of it at the time, but
it was within a few miles of her ancestral village that Europeans
first stumbled upon the abundant sources of west African gold that
they had been searching for feverishly for several decades in the 15th
century. It was a discovery that changed the world.

I left west Africa to join the New York Times_ _in 1986. Three years
later, my first assignment as a foreign correspondent was to cover the
Caribbean basin. Here were gathered some of the most important staging
areas for subsequent global transformations. Specialists aside, few
imagine that islands like Barbados and Jamaica were far more important
in their day than were the English colonies that would become the
United States. The nation now known as Haiti most of all. In the 18th
century it became the richest colony in history, and in the 19th, by
dint of its slave population’s successful revolution
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Haiti rivalled the US in terms of its influence on the world, notably
in helping fulfil the most fundamental Enlightenment value of all:
ending slavery.

Now and then during my time in the Caribbean, I could see glimmers of
this region’s extraordinary role in our global narrative. One one
occasion, in the Dominican Republic, I stood knee-deep in seawater
witnessing an archaeological dig that sought to identify a wreck from
Columbus’s first voyage. Another time, I hiked a verdant peak in
northern Haiti where Henri Christophe, that country’s early Black
leader, built a formidable fortress, the Citadelle Laferrière
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with 365 cannon to defend the country’s hard-won independence from
France. Other hints came when I wandered into the mountains and
rainforests of Jamaica and Suriname, respectively, and was thrilled to
be able to make myself understood speaking bits of Twi (the lingua
franca of Ghana, which I had learned while courting my wife) as I
spoke with the descendants of proud runaway slave communities known
as maroons [[link removed]]. But
back then, I still had no big picture in mind; like most
correspondents, I was too busy following the news to pursue sweeping
historical connections very far.

Even knowing the silence and enforced ignorance that surround the
central contribution of Africa and Africans to the making of the
modern world, I have often been surprised by just how difficult it can
be to access some of the physical traces of this history, or to find
local forms of remembrance that raise this African role to its proper
dimension. I have seen this in many places that have shaped our common
history, such as Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
where the publicly established sites of Atlantic memory are few. I saw
it in São Tomé
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the island where the slave-plantation-complex model that would drive
wealth creation in the North Atlantic for four centuries appeared for
the first time, fully formed – a fact for which there is nary a
plaque or commemoration.

My biggest surprise came in Barbados, whose slave-produced sugar,
arguably more than any other place on earth, helped seal England’s
ascension in the 17th century. I visited the island not long ago,
determined to find as many traces of this legacy as possible, only to
discover how thoroughly they had been hidden or effaced. Among my top
priorities was to visit one of the largest slave cemeteries anywhere
in the hemisphere, which included the excavated remains of nearly 600
people. It took me several attempts just to find the cemetery, which
had no signage from any public road. Few local residents seemed aware
of its historical importance, or even of its existence.

All I discovered when I drove down a bumpy dirt road, proceeding as
far as I could until instinct told me to get out and walk, was a
modest clearing alongside an active plantation whose cane had grown as
tall as I am. There was a faded sign attached to a rusty iron post. It
proclaimed the site to be part of something called “The Slave
Route”, but it provided no further information. With the sun racing
downward in the western sky, I paced about, snapped a few photographs,
and then finally collected myself as the wind whistled through the
cane. I tried mightily to conjure some sense of the horrors that had
transpired nearby, and of the abundant wealth and pleasure that the
sweat of the dead had procured for others. 

But the most egregious forms of historical erasure do not involve an
assortment of mostly small, former slave-trading or plantation
societies scattered around the Atlantic Rim. The most important site
of erasure, by far, has been the minds of people in the rich world. As
I write these words, the US and some other North Atlantic communities,
from Richmond, Virginia, to Bristol, England, have recently
experienced extraordinary moments of iconoclasm. We have seen
the pulling down of statues
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people who were long perceived to be heroes of imperial and economic
systems built on the violent exploitation of people extracted from
Africa.

For these gestures to have more lasting meaning, an even bigger and
more challenging task remains for us. It requires that we transform
how we understand the history of the last six centuries and,
specifically, of Africa’s central role in making possible nearly
everything that is today familiar to us. This will involve rewriting
school lessons about history just as much as it will require the
reinvention of university curricula. It will challenge journalists to
rethink the way we describe and explain the world we all inhabit. It
will require all of us to re-examine what we know or think we know
about how the present-day world was built, and to begin incorporating
this new understanding into our everyday discussions.

In this task, we can no longer hide behind ignorance. Nearly a century
ago, WEB Du Bois
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already affirmed much of what we needed to know on this topic. “It
was black labour that established the modern world commerce, which
began first as a commerce in the bodies of the slaves themselves,”
he wrote. Now is the time to finally acknowledge this. 

_Adapted from Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of
the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, by Howard W French,
published by WW Norton & Co and available at guardianbookshop.com
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