Half-truths, myths, and other factual inaccuracies surround the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which lasted nearly 450 years (1440 - 1870). The Portuguese, expert navigators that they were, were the first to explore the coastline of the continent in about 1440: "By 1480, they had reached areas south of the equator, setting up trading stations along the coast (e.g., the Gold Coast) and on islands (e.g., Fernando Po)" [off the coast of Nigeria]" (Falola 110).
Over the next four hundred years, the Dutch, English, French, Spanish, Danes, and Americans all participated in the trade in human beings in order to satisfy the demands of sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantation owners in the Caribbean, in Brazil and other countries in South America, and in North America.
In conversations about the trans-Atlantic slave trade in our country, one often hears the argument that "Africans enslaved their own people before the slave trade, so slavery was something they were used to." This statement falls into the category of the half-truth. Slavery was indeed practiced in Islamic regions of Africa (in north Africa, West Africa, East Africa and in parts of southern Africa). However, as historians remind us, there were many qualitative differences between the kind of slavery practiced in African societies and that practiced in the Caribbean, in South America, and in our own regions in the New World. In African cultures, slavery was considered a temporary state, akin to indentured servitude. One could serve one's time as a slave, and then move out of this condition through marriage, adoption, or through having fulfilled the period of service one was contracted for. This type of slavery was wholly different from the chattel slavery that existed on the plantations, where the slave's owner possessed the bodies of slaves, as well as any offspring that would be born from them (in the case of female slaves).
As an index of how tendentious the topic of the trans-Atlantic slave trade can sometimes become, we can take a look at the Comments page in a recent New York Times article
. The article appeared in the travel section of the paper and recounted a trip one family took back to Cape Coast, Ghana to trace their ancestors' capture and journey through the Middle Passage. (Ghana is located in the middle of the coast of West Africa, to the west of Nigeria.) In the days immediately after it was published, the article ignited furious debate over the slave trade and its legacy, before The Times
editors decided to cut off comments at 75. Understandably, this is an emotional topic for all Americans.
When I read Matt's posting on the article, I had to respond (see "cwk," below).
New York Times’ Readers’ Picks: comments on “On Slavery's Doorstep in Ghana” by Russell Shorto, January 30, 2015:
Matt California 31 January 2015
Why is it that the story of slavery cannot admit that the tribesman, chiefs and marauders
were Africans selling their own neighbors? There was no duplicity on the part
of the European slavers and American Markets involved as the author seems to
suggest that the local Africans were tricked with alcohol. Everyone except the
actual slaves equally consented to the slave trade. To omit African culpability
is to rewrite history and whitewash the capability of a one human, any human,
to sell another human. Flag 15Recommend Share this comment on Facebook
Share this comment on Twittercwk San Francisco 31 January 2015
that Africans sold their own people into slavery grossly oversimplifies the
issues, even as it repeats a familiar western narrative intended to exonerate European slavers. As Joseph C. Miller has shown in his definitive work Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade 1730-1830, European merchants working all along the Atlantic coast of Africa extended credit to African chiefs in exchange for ivory, wax and rubber exports--credit that allowed African traders to purchase guns and other desired goods. An inflationary economy ensued, and European merchants called in the debts. In this state of hyper-inflationary trade on the slave coast, in order to keep the whole trade enterprise afloat, violent seizures of African slaves grew more andmore common, and ever greater numbers of slaves were brought from the interior of west central Africa--all in order to feed this European merchant capitalist system that was brought to Africa's shores. There is plenty of blame to go around in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the economic system propelling the trade--one that incentivized the trade in human beings--was a system brought to West African shores by European merchants.
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