A philosopher and a poet in South Africa looks at the history of the slave trade and what it means in the modern world
By Sanya Osha
Toyin Falola, in his major book ‘The African Diaspora: Slavery, Modernity, and Globalization’ , displaces three major kinds of prejudices about Africa: First, that in speaking of the continent one cannot but wince and recoil in embarrassment; second, there is no way of representing Africa without unremitting negativity; finally, Africa has always been peripheral, with little of historical value, and has subsequently remained in that position within global history and the accompanying circuits of ideas, goods and humans.
However, Western hegemonic discourse always seeks to downplay the impact of the transatlantic slave trade and instead over-emphasises the role played by Africans in its entrenchment. In other words, the theme of African complicity is always strummed. Henry Louis Gates Jr further popularised the theme of African complicity in the trade in his controversial television series, Wonders of the African World  in which he fails to highlight the complexities regarding what actually transpired during the transatlantic slave trade. As a counter to this pervasive theme, the conditions for the emergence and development of the Afrocentric paradigm were fostered by the likes of Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, Kwame Nkrumah, Cheikh Anta Diop and Molefi Kete Asante . This has been necessary as an antidote to the insistent colonisation of historical memory orchestrated by anti-Black Western-centric discourse.
Falola, in general terms, debunks the façade of African complicity in the transatlantic slave trade based on the fact the Africans who participated in it were often forcefully co-opted. And were also secondary given their roles as traditional chiefs who were acting to save themselves and their political constituencies within the unceasing whirlpool of widespread violence and mayhem to which they had been hurled by external factors and actors. This aspect of the reality is probably not as well known as it ought to be. Instead racist attitudes directed at Africans became even more prevalent to justify their continued enslavement and traumatisation.
It ought to be pointed out that slave labour contributed in a major way to the incorporation of the New World into the global economy. Research by Eric Williams and Joseph E. Inikori reveals that millions of slaves were captured in the despoiled territories of Angola, lands north of the Congo River, the Gulf of Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon, Zaire and, of course, West Africa, which provided the majority of the captives. African historians, such as Inikori, estimate that twelve million captives were taken from Africa between the 1500s and 1860s. The peoples from these various parts of Africa yielded the blood and sweat required to build the entire New World, comprising the Americas and its surrounding regions as we know them today. Accordingly, radical Afrocentrists push the cause of reparations, which in Western political circles, is a volatile and largely unpopular topic, demonstrating how pervasive and disfiguring racism continues to be.
The economies of Great Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal and France would not be what they are presently without the transatlantic slave trade. Brazil would not have become a major producer of sugar without the slave trade. Neither would the Dutch have been able to create profitable plantations in the West Indies, nor would the English have been able to accomplish the same in Jamaica and Barbados. The same applies to the French in Domingue. None of this is emphasised in mainstream scholarship. Instead, it is more convenient to distract and talk about African complicity, indolence and lack of recognizable subjectivity. In relation, nothing is mentioned about African instances of resistance.
Sylviane A. Diouf’s volume of collaborative papers ‘Fighting the Atlantic Slave Trade: West African Strategies’ , sheds considerable light on the theme of African resistance to the heinous trade. She begins by demonstrating that the term “trade” conceals the genocidal impact of European activities in Africa during the era. On the other hand, “Holocaust” or “genocide” immediately connote crimes against humanity and therefore are treated as such. Arguably, the transatlantic slave trade has received no similar treatment.
One key point is that the African communities directly affected by the trade did not enter into any legitimate business deals with slave raiders. Western historians tend to focus on the commercial aspects of the Western and African encounter and not its impact at the human level in the communities where captives were forcefully taken.
There are also commercial aspects of the encounter which are more studied than others. Indeed, an economy emerged in Africa dealing with the building of barracoons, the manufacture of leg irons, chains and handcuffs. These relate to the innately violent nature of European activities in Africa.
Diouf informs us that once Africans had discerned the genocidal motives of the intruders, concrete steps were taken to avert disaster where possible. Communities moved to remote areas to avoid detection, secret societies were formed to gather and share knowledge, women’s organizations were founded to protect communities, as were youth militias, children became sentinels and venomous plants and insects were groomed and deployed to shield villages and communities.
However, the violence of the trade was self-replicating in the sense that communities were compelled to raid other communities in order to secure European arms to protect themselves. They also had to exchange captives in their custody with those in other communities. And so the disruptive cycle of raiding, capture and exchange continued. These unfortunate dynamics aren’t usually understood by peoples of African descent in the West who sometimes blame continental Africans for selling them into slavery.
Africans who had first-hand knowledge of the trade such as Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, Mohammed Said, Muhammed Kaba and Olaudah Equiano were able to furnish insightful accounts regarding the realities of the trade.
Sylviane Diouf argues that orality and African memory resources are key to understanding what occurred during the slave trade, and should not be disregarded for being merely symbolic or allegorical and not clinical. It is important to note that memory and oral sources were largely based and strengthened by drum dialect, rituals, songs, proverbs, epic poetry, tales of migration, genealogies of chieftaincy and other resources of oral knowledge and their preservation.
Arguably, abolitionism still ought to be a big issue in both popular and scholarly discourse but isn’t. It also ought to be discussed in the context of sifting the multiple legacies of slavery within contemporary times. What is apparent is that slavery continues to be an issue in some parts of Africa as a result of the repercussions caused by the transatlantic slave trade. As late as the 1880s, slavery still existed in Brazil and Cuba. In Africa, due to its unequal and uneven incorporation into the global economy, it lasted until the 1930s.
Unfortunately, in Mauritania and the Sudan, slavery has not been completely abolished and its existence can also be traced to the transatlantic slave trade. In Mauritania, there are three major racial classifications notably, the Beidan or the Berber/Arab who are regarded as “white moors”. This set of people own land, large business enterprises and slaves. In other words, they constitute the dominant class in society. At the opposite end of the socio-economic strata, are the Abid who are black slaves usually owned and grossly exploited by the Beidan. In the middle of these polarities are the Haratin who are freed men and women socially above the Abid, but still much below the dominant Beidan in that they aren’t allowed to marry above themselves nor can attain a socio-economic status comparable to the Beidan. As recently as 1997, President Moussa Ould Sid’ Ahmed stated that resistance to slavery constituted an affront to his democratic administration.
In the Sudan, the situation is no different. Slave-raiding operations and the devastation associated with them are commonplace. Women and children are routinely raped and economically abused in a manner similar to the racial lines established in Mauritania. In this case, the Baggara and northerners of Arab extraction abuse and dominate the Dinka who reside in the south. Abolitionist organizations such as the US based American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG) and Anti-Slavery International (ASI) have both pressured the US Congress to desist from trading with the oppressors of Sudan. Indeed, the cases of Mauritania and the Sudan are a shame to our common humanity.
In the same vein, young girls from Africa continue to be shipped off to the underworld of prostitution in Europe and exploited in a manner akin to slavery without safety nets or adequate financial remuneration or compensation. When they grow too old or ill for sex work they are promptly discarded. Arguably, this form of human trafficking doesn’t always receive the level of attention it deserves. It can be said that the formal abolition of the trade and processes of decolonisation that subsequently occurred have not completely displaced the structures, mechanisms and practices of the trade which are embedded in the global economy. And rather than discuss reparations in conjunction with the impact of the devastation caused by slavery, Western reactionaries would rather argue for the recolonisation of the African continent.
Sanya Osha is a philosopher, novelist and poet living in Pretoria, South Africa. His most recent publications the novel ‘On a Sad Weather-Beaten Couch’ (2015), a volume of poetry ‘A Troubadour’s Thread’ (2013) and a work of scholarship, ‘African Postcolonial Modernity: Informal Subjectivities and the Democratic Consensus’ (2014). He works at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria.
 Falola, Toyin, ‘The African Diaspora: Slavery, Modernity, and Globalization’. New York: University of Rochester Press, 2013.
 Wonders of the African World, Dir. Henry Louis Gates. TV Mini-Series distributed by PBS Home Video, 1999.
 Asante, Molefi Kete, ‘The Afrocentric Idea’. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
 Diouf, A. Sylviane, ‘A Fighting the Atlantic Slave Trade: West African Strategies’. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.