Saturday, September 22, 2018

George B.N. Ayittey, PhD -- Myths about African Participation in the Slave Trade

"History can be written from three perspectives: from that of the victor, a neutral observer and that of the vanquished. Much of Africa’s history was written by the colonialists (the victors) and obviously the victims of colonialism see things differently."

 Much of Africa’s history was written by the colonialists (the victors) and obviously the victims of colonialism see things differently. For example, seeing no boxes with “ballots” written on them or a building with “Parliament” written on it, many European colonialists jumped to the conclusion that Africans were laboring under horrible and despot chiefs. Therefore, colonialism was good for the Africans because it liberated them from their terrible rulers. This was one monumental nonsense.
True, there were no boxes with ballots written on them and no building with Parliament written on it but that did not mean the essence of democratic governance was unknown. That mythology was as nonsensical as the claim that since there were no hamburgers in the village, so Africans did not eat.
 That mythology originated from their failure to make a distinction between the existence of an institution and different forms of the same institution. There are different types of food. The absence of one type – hamburgers – does not mean a complete absence of other types of food. Similarly, there are different types of democracy. Democratic decisions are taken by majority vote or by consensus. In traditional Africa, decision-making is by consensus. The absence of voting did not mean Africans were living under terrible despotic Chiefs.
 There are many other myths about Africa – in particular, African participation in the slave trade. Written from the African perspective, the following seeks to demolish these myths.

MYTH No. 1: Africans were selling themselves off into slavery before the Europeans on the continent.
 It is true there was slavery in Africa but not the inhumane chattel variety. Slaves in Africa enjoyed certain rights and privileges. Generally, there were no slave markets in black Africa because of the value black Africans place on humanity. The slave markets that were in Africa, according to historians, were in North Africa (or Arab North Africa) - in such places as Fez and Tripoli.
 Slaves generally were principally war captives from inter-tribal warfare. Say there was a war between two neighboring tribes – the Ashanti and the Fante – and 5,000 Fantes were taken prisoner. The Ashanti King had the following options:
 1.     To keep the 5,000 Fantes in prison, which means he would have to feed, clothe and shelter them - an expensive economic proposition;
2.     To kill them, a very inhumane prospect; or
3.     Sell them off as slaves and use the proceeds to purchase weapons to defend his Ashanti people;
4.     Absorb and integrate the war captives into Ashanti society, a long, arduous and dangerous process since safeguards must be put in place to ensure that former combatants would pledge allegiance to a new society and authority.
 Which option do you think the Ashanti King would take? If you said the third option, you are right because it was the most humane and economically expedient. The Ashanti also chose option 4, absorbed former war captives (slaves) into their society. To make their
integration into Ashanti society as smooth as possible, even the Ashanti King was forbidden to disclose the slave origins of any of his subjects.
 Now, the more important issue is this. YES, the Ashanti King did sell Fante prisoners of war as SLAVES and therefore participated in the slave trade. BUT the Ashanti King did NOT sell his own people - an important distinction. It was the Europeans who failed to make this distinction, which has been the source of much mythology about the slave trade.
 The Europeans made no distinction between the Ashanti King and the Fante slaves. To the Europeans, it was a BLACK African King selling BLACK Africans. Therefore, Black kings and chiefs were selling their own kind or people. Nonsense. To the Ashanti King, the Fantes were NOT his people but rather the Ashanti.
 Recall that about that time in history, medieval Europe was also fighting tribal wars -  between the Flemish, French and the Germans. They were also enslaving one another. But you don’t hear the expression, “The Europeans were enslaving their own kind?” do you? Rather, you read of Germans taking French slaves and vice versa.  So make the same distinctions in Africa - The Ashanti King taking Fante slaves, etc.

MYTH NO.2. “African chiefs just went to the market and just grabbed their people to sell off as slaves.”
 You often hear this from African Americans but it is not true for four reasons. First, no African chief can do this and expect to remain chief. He would be removed. As chief, his prerogative is the survival of his tribe. Second, he would be committing an ethnic suicide if he were to sell off his own Ashanti people into slavery. Third, it did not make military sense. He would be depopulating and weakening his own tribe to the benefit of a stronger neighboring tribe. Fourth, their clans would rise up to protect the victim. More importantly, there were traditional injunctions against that. To test this, go to Onitsha market, grab and beat up .Hausa market trader. The entire Hausa ethnic group would go to his/her defense. In fact, many tribal wars started precisely this way – from a dispute or conflict between two individuals. Furthermore, as Ashanti King or chief, one of his role is to minimize any external threat to his people. And if this means depopulating or selling off the entire Fante tribe into slavery the better off his Ashanti people would be. It would mean less competition for resources.
 MYTH No. 3. “Africans are brothers and sisters and it is treacherous for them to participate in the slave trade.”
 Again, tribal or ethnic distinctions are important in Africa. To think that Africans consider members of another tribe as “brothers and sisters” is totally ridiculous – an exercise in grand delusion. Why would a Hutu government in Rwanda slaughter more than 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994? Or tell the Igbo that the Hausa are their brothers and sisters in 1967.
 Before the twentieth century, many societies in the world practiced some form of slavery. Prisoners of war, political opponents and religious dissidents were often enslaved in Old England. For example, in 1530, in England, under the reign of Henry VIII, a vagrant picked up for the second time was whipped and had half an ear cut off; taken for a third time, he was “to be executed as a hardened criminal and enemy of the common weal” (Marx, 1915; p.806). Seventy-two thousand vagrants were thus executed during that reign. In the time of Edward VI (1547), “if anyone refused to work, he shall be condemned as a slave to the person who denounced him as an idler” (Marx, 1915; p.806). The owner of such a slave might whip him, chain him, and brand him on the cheek and forehead with a letter “S” (for Slave), if he disappeared for two weeks. If he ran away a third time he was executed. An idler vagabond caught on the highway was branded on the chest with a “V” (for vagrant). The same laws were in effect during the reigns of Elizabeth (1572) and of Louis XVI in France. The supporters of Monmouth’s rebellion in England were sold by the Queen.   Cromwell’s Irish and Scottish prisoners were sold to the West Indies and non Muslims who opposed the Sokoto jihad were sold to North Africa.
 Criminals in Europe and Africa could be executed, transported or sold. Europeans favored execution; Africans favored sale.
 “In the eighteenth century there were 300 different offences in Britain for which one could be executed. In Dahomey, there were only two, for the king preferred to sell rather than execute his troublemakers. Those who could not pay their debts were sold for life or until the debt was paid. Among the Yoruba, debt slaves (pawns) were called Iwofa, among the Asante Awowa, and among the Europeans indentured servants. About a quarter of a million white debt slaves entered America before the nineteenth century” (Boahen and Webster, 1970; p.69).
 In pre colonial Africa, social conditions were such that,
 “All the white minorities living in Africa might own Black slaves, but slaves and white masters alike were all subjects of a Black Emperor: they were all under the same African political power. No historian worth his salt can permit the obscuring of this politico social context, so that only the one fact of Black slavery emerges from it” (Diop, 1987; p.92).
 There was, however, an important distinction between the slave/master relationship in Africa and that in Europe between serf/lord, which is often overlooked. In Africa, slavery was more of a social distinction without economic consequence than fact. The African slave, “instead of being deprived of the fruits of his labor, as was the case with the artisan or the serf of the Middle Ages, could, on the contrary, add to it wealth given him by the `lord’” (Diop, 1987: p.2). Slaves of the kings of Mali and the Askias of Gao “enjoyed complete liberty of movement. Thus an ordinary slave of Askia Daud, a native of Kanta, was able to carry out a pilgrimage to Mecca without his master’s knowledge” (Diop, 1987; p.153).
 To avoid the ugly connotations associated with commercial slaving, Vaughan (1986) suggested the use of limbry: “Existing data, albeit tenuous, suggest that about 80 percent of African societies had limbry” (p.174). In contrast to commercial slavery, African “limbries” “were not on the whole mistreated, dehumanized or exploited” (Vaughan, 1986; p.174).
 The privileges accorded them, however, varied from tribe to tribe. In Nigeria, the treatment of slaves was by no means harsh; nor was their lot deplorable. The majority were integrated into the society and the respective families of their owners in order to retain their loyalty, prevent rebellion and get the best out of them (Falola, 1985; p.99). The slaves were free to some extent; they could intermarry among themselves, own property and redeem themselves if they had the means.
 Among the Lobi of Gabon, slaves were considered as “new children.” The Massangou of the Chaillou Hills in Gabon, incorporated slaves (war captives) into the entire community to replace those lost in war. In Dahomey, the children of slaves were free people incorporated into the master’s family with all the rights except the right to inherit political leadership (Simiyu, 1988; p.59). But in Senegal, slaves (djem) were closely associated to power. They were represented in royal courts and many became de facto ministers (Diop, 1987:2).
 More importantly, Boahen and Webster (1970) pointed out that:
 “Slaves had many privileges in African kingdoms. In Asante, Oyo and Bornu, they held important offices in the bureaucracy, serving as the Alafin’s Ilari in the subject towns of Oyo, as controller of the treasury in Asante, and as Waziri and army commanders in Bornu. Al Hajj Umar made a slave emir of Nioro, one of the most important of the emirates of the Tokolor empire, and in the Niger Delta states slaves rose to become heads of Houses, positions next in rank to the king. Jaja, who had once been the lowest kind of slave, became the most respected king in the delta, and was no exception; one of the Alaketus of Ketu, and Rabeh of Bornu, rose from slave to king (p.69).
 Since slaves faced few barriers to occupational mobility or economic advancement, there was hardly any need for a tumultuous social revolution, such as the French Revolution in which the exploited overthrew their lords. Slavery, of course, was never under any circumstances an ideal institution and there were cases of slave revolts. One example was the revolt under Afonja in the Oyo empire. Another was the Koranko revolt in 1838 against the Susu of Sierra Leone. Led by Bilale, the Koranko ex slaves built a fortified town to offer freedom to runaway slaves. In Calabar, the slaves united in an organization called the Blood Men, and forced the freeborn to respect their human rights (Boahen and Webster, 1970; p.70).

 MYTH NO. 4: The Europeans were the ones who introduced chattel slavery into Africa.
 In pre-colonial Africa, the Europeans and Arabs were battling each other to subjugate Africa. By the 17th century, North Africa, inhabited by the Berbers, was already under Islamic conquest. For centuries, the Berbers have fought – and are still today – fighting Arab imperialism in Morocco and Algeria, where Arab names, religion and culture are being forced upon them. The Berbers had their own language, music and culture until the region was effectively Arabized as Islam spread a thousand years ago. According to the Amazigh (Berber) Cultural Association in America, a Moroccan law, enacted in Nov 1996 and referred to as Dahir No. 1.96.97, “imposes Arabic names on an entire citizenry more than half of which is not Arabic”. The Berbers in Algeria, too, are up in arms. Fed up with years of discrimination and persecution at the hands of the Arab majority, Berbers, who make up 20 percent of Algeria’s 32 million people, seek more autonomy in the eastern region of Kabylie. They were the original inhabitants of North Africa when invading Arabs introduced Islam. Old tensions erupted into violence after a Berber schoolboy died in police custody in April 2001. Street clashes in Kabylia between the police and Berber militants left more than 100 protesters dead. "The Berbers also want the government’s police force, which they accuse of being partisan, to withdraw from Kabylie, and they want their language, Tamazight, to be recognized as an official language” (The New York Times, June 30, 2003; p.A4).
 West Africa was saved from Islamic conquest by the Sahara, which served as an effective bulwark against Islamic expansionism. In East Africa, Islam made inroads in the 17th century – peacefully at first but with diabolical intentions at a later state. While the Europeans organized the West African slave trade, the Arabs managed the East African and trans-Saharan counterparts.  For the trans-Saharan slave trade, an estimated 9 million captives were shipped to slave markets in Fez, Marrakesh (Morocco); Constantine (Algeria); Tunis (Tunisia), Fezzan, Tripoli (Libya); and Cairo (Egypt). No black African will ever forget that in the 19th century, over 2 million black slaves were shipped from East Africa to Arabia, a slave trade operated by Arabs.
 The Zanzibar slave trade, with an annual sale that increased according to some estimates from 10,000 slaves in the early 19th century to between 40,000 and 45,000 in the mid‑19th century, was at its height during the rule of Sayyid Said (1804‑1856 ‑ born 1794), sultan of Muscat and Oman…  
 Enslaving and slave trading in East Africa were peculiarly savage in a traffic notable for its barbarity. Villages were burnt, the unfit villagers massacred. The enslaved were yoked together, several hundreds in a caravan, and on their journey to the coast, which could be as long as 1280 kilometres…It is estimated that only one in five of those captured in the interior reached Zanzibar. The slave trade seems to have been more catastrophic in East Africa than in West Africa (Wickins, 1981; p.184).
 Diseases such as smallpox and cholera, introduced by marauding Arab caravans penetrating the interior in search of slaves, decimated entire local populations and were far more devastating than the actual export of slaves to Indian Ocean markets.  According to Gordon (1989),
 “One particularly brutal practice was the mutilation of young African boys, sometimes no more than 9 or    ten years old, to create eunuchs, who brought a higher price in the slave markets of the Middle East. Slave traders often created “eunuch stations” along the major African slave routes where the necessary surgery was performed in unsanitary conditions. Only one out of every 10 boys subjected to the mutilation actually survived the surgery.
The taking of slaves – in razzias, or raids, on peaceful African villages – also had a high casualty rate. The typical practice was to conduct a pre-dawn raid on an unsuspecting village and kill off as many of the men and older women as possible. Young women and children were then abducted as the preferred “booty” for the raiders. 
Young women were targeted because of their value as concubines or sex slaves in markets. “The most common and enduring purpose for acquiring slaves in the Arab world was to exploit them for sexual purposes. These women were nothing less than sexual objects who, with some limitations, were expected to make themselves available to their owners…Islamic law catered to the sexual interests of a man by allowing him to take as many as four wives at one time and to have as many concubines as his purse allowed. Young women and girls were often inspected before purchase in private areas of the slave market by the prospective buyer (p.35).
 Some of the African slaves were shipped to Iraq, where they were inhumanely treated. In the latter part of the 19th century, they revolted and were subsequently placed in the Iraqi army. According to Walusako Mwalilino, a Malawian historian, “From 1859 to 1872, between 20,000 and 25,000 slaves were shipped to southwest Asian ports” (The Washington Times, Sept 21, 1995; p.A14). But the Arab slave trade continued well into the 20th century. According to Thomas Cantwell, an American reporter, “the last interdicted slave ship was in 1947, a dhow from Mombasa” (The Washington Post, June 4, 1994; p.A18).  American reporter, Timothy Williams, claimed that,
 “Officially, Iraq is a colorblind society that in the tradition of Prophet Muhammad treats black people with equality and respect. But on the packed dirt streets of Zubayr, Iraq’s scaled-down version of Harlem, African-Iraqis talk of discrimination so steeped in Iraqi culture that they are commonly referred to as “abd” — slave in Arabic — prohibited from interracial marriage and denied even menial jobs.
Historians say that most African-Iraqis arrived as slaves from East Africa as part of the Arab slave trade starting about 1,400 years ago. They worked in southern Iraq’s salt marshes and sugar cane fields.
Though slavery — which in Iraq included Arabs as well as Africans — was banned in the 1920s, it continued until the 1950s, African-Iraqis say.
 Recently, they have begun to campaign for recognition as a minority population, which would grant them the same benefits as Christians, including reserved seats in Parliament.
“Black people here are living in fear,” said Jalal Dhiyab Thijeel, an advocate for the country’s estimated 1.2 million African-Iraqis. “We want to end that” (The New York Times, Dec 2, 2009; p.A22).
 The official Libyan and Arab line on slavery is that: “The Arab countries are a natural extension to the African continent. The African Arabs, or those who carried the indulgent message of Islam, were the first to effectively oppose slavery as inhumane and unnatural. The claim that Arabs were involved in the trade at all is a mischievous invention of the West, made in order to divide the Arabs from their brothers and sisters who live in the African continent” (New Africa, Nov 1984; p.12). Nonsense.
 During the black struggle for civil rights in the United States and independence in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, Afro-Arab differences and ill-feelings were buried. Black leaders, seduced by the fallacious premise that “the enemy of my enemy must be my friend”, made common cause with the Arabs. In the United States, many blacks dropped their "European” or “slave” names and adopted Islamic ones. In Africa, black leaders entered into alliances and sought support from Arab states for the liberation struggle against Western colonialism. Grand Afro-Arab solidarity accords were pompously announced. Drooling, grandiloquent speeches announced meretricious Afro-Arab summits. Little came out of them, and since independence, black Africans have gradually realized that the Arabs regard them “expendable”. The Arabs are just as ready as the French to use them as pawns to achieve their chimerical geopolitical schemes and global religious imperialism/domination.
Ayittey, George B.N. (2006). Indigenous African Institutions. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Transnational Publishers.
 Boahen, A.A. and J.B. Webster. History of West Africa. New York: Praeger, 1970.
Diop Cheikh Anta. Pre‑colonial Black Africa. Westport: Lawrence Hill & Company, 1987.
Falola, Toyin. "Nigeria’s Indigenous Economy.” in Nigerian History and Culture. ed. Olaniyan, 1985.
 Gordon, Murray (1989).  Slavery in the Arab World. New York, NY: New Amsterdam Books.
Martin, Phyllis M and Partrick O'Meara eds. Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
 Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Chicago: Kerr, 1915.
 Simiyu, V.G. “The Democratic Myth in The African Traditional Societies,” in Democratic Theory and Practice in Africa. eds. Walter O. Oyugi et. al. Portsmouth, NH: 1988.
 Vaughan, James H. “Population and Social Organization,” in Martin and O'Meara, 1986.
 Wickins, Peter (1981). An Economic History of Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 George B.N. Ayittey, PhD
Washington, DC