I always find it difficult to talk or write about slavery in the New World and the Atlantic World as it has such a powerful legacy in my own country, the United States of America, as well as the whole of the Americas (North and South), and of course my own family. There have been so many myths and lies and half-truths regarding the enslavement of black Africans in the former European colonies of the Americas that it is no wonder that many Americans (North and South) and Europeans and the rest of the world spend their whole lives in ignorance and denial about the grim legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and the impact it has had on all of our respective societies.
I welcome the effort being made by the U.K. to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1807) as it helps to bring out into the open a public discussion and recognition of the role that various people and entities played in this most despicable of human endeavors AND the commemoration helps to remind us all that the legacy of slavery is still with us in so many ways today, especially when you stop to think that there are more people enslaved today in 2007 than has ever been in human history. In other words, we all have a burden of great shame to bear in regards to the subject of slavery, one of the most ancient and enduring atrocities in the human experience and world history.
So, hats off to U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and many others in the U.K. who have put such a great effort into making this 200 anniversary commemoration a memorable event for many of us and to use it as a Call to Action for people everywhere to become more engaged in helping to end modern-day slavery.
One thing that our team project on the history of blacks and Africans in Europe has helped me to understand is that one cannot go through life using tragic events caused by the acts of contemptible personalities in history like a blunt weapon to bludgeon one’s so-called enemies into submission or death. People are going to believe what is comfortable for them to believe and ignore and deny everything else, no matter how much truth another opinion or indisputable factual evidence you present, everything else will be rejected___ oft times violently rejected as we clearly see everyday on our televisions and read about in the press. History, religion, literature, and the media (news, entertainment) has been so abused and misused by people seeking power over others down through the ages to grossly mislead people and pit one idiot group against another that it is absolutely awful.
Slavery and abolition played a pivotal role in the history of my home, Saint Louis, Missouri and the surrounding tri-State region (Kansas, Illinois, Iowa: see Bleeding Kansas era before the American Civil War). Slavery not only affected black Africans but also the indigenous tribes of the region (also see Mississippian culture and Cahokia) and the European settlers who entered this frontier around 1699 in search of land and gold and animal furs; escaping the misery that they had left behind in Europe. If my African-American ancestors who had arrived at the confluence of the great Mississippi and Missouri rivers in 1790 had decided to crossover to the Missouri side and settle in the bustling frontier outposts of what would later become Saint Louis, they probably would have lost their hard won freedom. I presume that they were freed from bondage shortly before or after the American Revolutionary War with England, 1775-1783.
Note: Although the early history of European presence in the area starts with the expeditions of Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette (1673), the first settlement at what is today Saint Louis, MO. didn’t begin until almost 100 years later with the arrival of Pierre Laclède and his 13-year old stepson René Auguste Chouteau and a group of 30 men in 1763. These territories were actually controlled by the Spanish royal court (a particularly brutal and murderous government for black African slaves in the colonies) but after the end of the French - Indian War (1754-1763) and the 1763 Treaty of Paris that gave all lands east of the Mississippi river to England the small settlement of Saint Louis began to grow rapidly. By the time my early American ancestors showed up in the area the settlement of St. Louis had grown to the enormous size of approximately 1000 people. Massive!
Napoléan Bonaparte, who worked out a deal with President Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. government administration of 1801 to purchase the vast Louisiana Territory had re-introduced black slavery into the French colonies and territories in 1803. For more on the history of St. Louis click here and here ( also see: history and heritage of Missouri including St. Louis).
As a young man growing up in St. Louis, Missouri I had the privilege to know and be close friends with an old southern couple, Mr. and Mrs. Wofford, who hailed from the great State of Mississippi. Mr. Wofford had worked as a black sharecropper (a farmer without land) in rural Mississippi if I remember correctly, and he and his wife would spend hours talking with their lovely grand daughter and me about life in the early 20th Century rural South. We affectionately addressed them as “Big Mama” and “Big Papa”, an expression used by many people of the southern United States of that time to describe a grandparent. Big Mama was a very pretty petite woman and Big Papa was a strapping, strong man of about six feet (1.85 meters) in height.
I can clearly picture Big Mama rocking back and forth in her favorite chair on their front porch (veranda) during a warm summer evening while enjoying a chew of tobacco or pinch of snuff discreetly lodged in her cheek explaining to us “citified youngsters” what slavery and post-Civil War America was like for black folks and white folks alike. She recalled stories that had been handed down to them from their own grandparents and relatives and older friends, many who had labored the great majority of their lives as slaves in America’s Deep South. I learned everything I needed to know about “slavery and forgiveness” from these two beautiful people who helped to shape my own life in such a powerful way. Of course I have learned even more about the horrible institution of human slavery since my youth, and although I have been able to improve and expand my knowledge on Big Mama’s lessons about slavery, I struggle to this very day with the “forgiveness” part. Can’t do it, forgive whom? They all dead, those who dunnit, aren’t they? Non?
So, I’ve come up with a few brief essays for the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in the U.K. and I am dedicating this humble effort to the memory of Mr. and Mrs. Wofford, who have both passed away from us. Big Mama would be tinkled pink that the British are struggling to come to terms with this terrible legacy in their history, and I can imagine that she would be mighty proud that her “adopted grandson” would speak out with a message from the Colonies. Big Mama’s own message for the citizens of the United Kingdom and the world would be quite simple and to the point:
“Look into the mirror of your history and face up to the Truth, then get on with your lives and make sure you don’t behave as bad as those lost souls who came before you.”
The “Jewels in the Jungle” Essay on Slavery – Part I
It has not escaped my attention while researching information necessary to compose the articles and posts for our Black History in Europe project that slavery has played a key role in the lives of Africans and Europeans alike for hundreds of years. Dr. Kate Lowe, co-editor with T.F. Earle of Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge, 2005) has eloquently written about the complexity of problems surrounding this sad legacy of European history in the introduction to her book. There were many, many people involved from several nations, races and religions. Attempting to place blame on any one race of people or nation would be a terrible mistake in my opinion and an injustice to all the people who have suffered under the misery of human enslavement down through the ages. This scourge of human suffering has been with us for several millennia and practically all human beings have been affected by slavery in some way or another. Slavery is not a black & white thing and it never was… it has affected humans on the Earth from the time that our first ancestors raided neighboring villages in war and conflict and enslaved the survivors who were probably women and children. We are talking about 10’s of thousands of years ago (see National Geographic magazine’s special feature The Human Journey, Human Origins March 2006 issue). Slavery has been around for a very long time!
The glorious empires of the Antiquity, those of the Eastern world and the Middle East, of Africa (Nubia and Kush, Egypt, Ethiopia and the Land of Punt, Mali and the kingdoms of the Sahel, the Kingdom of Kongo, Great Zimbabwe), the Western world with the Greek and Roman empires and the ancient peoples of the Americas, all of these great periods in human history were overshadowed by the brutal and inhuman practice of slavery.
That’s why it was so strange for me to see in a BBC News article a photo of U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair apologizing to the President of Ghana, John Kufuor, for Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. That’s why it was so confusing to hear the newly elected Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, himself an African by birth, demanding that the U.K. Government make a clear and formal apology for slavery. Should it not be that the governments of Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, Niger, Mali, Congo, Tanzania, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and many other African nations also be making an apology to the descendents of the transatlantic and the trans-Sahara and trans-Sahel and Indian Ocean and Arab slave trades? I mean let’s make this an equal opportunity deal here and not leave any nation out that was deeply, deeply involved.
The Ashanti kings of the Gold Coast of West Africa and kings and rulers of several African countries (Saharan and sub-Saharan) did not stop the wicked trade of human beings for sale to Europeans and Arabs until the beginning of the 20th Century. Hell, the trade in slaves from Africa has never stopped and continues right up to this very day! So let’s lighten up on demands for apologies because the way I see it, everybody is guilty in some way or another. If you need an apology from someone, go look into the mirror and pray, “Lord, I sure am sorry for (conciously or unconsciously) supporting and/or ignoring modern-day slavery”.
I know that some folks reading this will feel insulted and that’s fine. Be insulted. You should be insulted especially if you can’t accept that the few facts listed below are just the “tip of the iceberg” in regards to Africa’s own involvement in the peculiar institution of human slavery
Source: The Story of Africa – Slavery - BBC World Service website and radio program. A history of the continent from an African perspective (authored by African writers and historians).
Growing Rich with Slavery
In the early 18th century, Kings of Dahomey (known today as Benin) became big players in the slave trade, waging a bitter war on their neighbours, resulting in the capture of 10,000 [slaves], including another important slave trader, the King of Whydah. King Tegbesu made £250,000 a year selling people into slavery in 1750. King Gezo said in the 1840's he would do anything the British wanted him to do apart from giving up slave trade:
"The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth…the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery…"
Some of the descendants of African traders are alive today. Mohammed Ibrahim Babatu is the great great grandson of Baba-ato (also known as Babatu), the famous Muslim slave trader, who was born in Niger and conducted his slave raids in Northern Ghana in the 1880's. Mohammed Ibrahim Babatu, the deputy head teacher of a Junior secondary school in Yendi, lives in Ghana.
"In our curriculum, we teach a little part of the history of our land. Because some of the children ask questions about the past history of our grandfather Babatu.
Babatu, and others, didn't see anything wrong with slavery. They didn't have any knowledge of what the people were used for. They were only aware that some of the slaves would serve others of the royal families within the sub-region.
He has done a great deal of harm to the people of Africa. I have studied history and I know the effect of slavery.
I have seen that the slave raids did harm to Africa, but some members of our family feel he was ignorant…we feel that what he did was fine, because it has given the family a great fame within the Dagomba society.
He gave some of the slaves to the Dagombas and then he sent the rest of the slaves to the Salaga market. He didn't know they were going to plantations…he was ignorant…"
The young Moroccan traveler and commentator, Leo Africanus, was amazed at the wealth and quantity of slaves to be found in Gao, the capital of Songhay [Songhay empire], which he visited in 1510 and 1513 when the empire was at the height of its power under Askiya Mohammed.
"...here there is a certain place where slaves are sold, especially on those days when the merchants are assembled. And a young slave of fifteen years of age is sold for six ducats, and children are also sold. The king of this region has a certain private palace where he maintains a great number of concubines and slaves."
The ruling class of coastal Swahili society - Sultans, government officials and wealthy merchants - used non-Muslim slaves as domestic servants and to work on farms and estates. The craftsmen, artisans and clerks tended to be Muslim and freed men. But the divisions between the different classes were often very flexible. The powerful slave and ivory trader Tippu Tip was the grandson of a slave.
The Omani Sultan, Seyyid Said, became immensely rich when he started up cloves plantations in 1820 with slave labour - so successful was he that he moved the Omani capital to Zanzibar in 1840.
PUNISHED FOR KEEPING SLAVES
The Asanti (the capital, Kumasi, is in modern Ghana) had a long tradition of domestic slavery. But gold was the main commodity for selling. With the arrival of Europeans the slaves displaced gold as the main commodity for trade. As late as 1895 the British Colonial Office was not concerned by this.
"It would be a mistake to frighten the King of Kumasi and the Ashantis generally on the question of slavery. We cannot sweep away their customs and institutions all at once. Domestic slavery should not be troubled at present."
British attitudes changed when the King of the Asanti (the Asantehene) resisted British colonial authority. The suppression of the slave trade became a justification for the extension of European power. With the humiliation and exile of King Prempeh I in 1896, the Asanti were placed under the authority of the Governor of the Gold Coast and forced therefore to conform to British law and abolish the slave trade.
SLAVERY DECREED BY THE GODS
In 1807, Britain declared all slave trading illegal. The king of Bonny (in what is now the Nigerian delta) was dismayed at the conclusion of the practice.
"We think this trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself."
End of BBC World Service Story of Africa excerpt
Round 1500 Portugal gained control of Zanzibar and most of the East African coast. In 1698 Arabs from Oman ousted the Portuguese. In 1792 Britain signed a treaty with the Sultan of Muscat providing British protection for Zanzibar in exchange for Omani support against any French thrust via Oman towards India. So started a gradual British involvement in Zanzibar affairs.
The Omani arabs only started to take a serious interest in Zanzibar, when Sayyid ("Lord") Said, Sultan of Muscat since 1804 (family tree), encouraged merchants to trade with, or move to, the island, and to expand into mainland Africa. In 1840 he moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar, where he presided over a flourishing trading empire….
The Zanzibar slave trade
The slave trade from Zanzibar had started soon after the Arab conquest, initially for the date plantations in Arabia. Although slaves were also supplied to Persian and India, it was the establishment of sugar and clove plantations in Mauritius and Reunion in the 18th century which led to the greatest development of the trade.
In 1811, just four years after Britain had abolished slavery, Said opened the Great Slave Market in Zanzibar; a year later he introduced cloves to the island, generating a significant need for slaves on the island itself. In 1822, the Sultan's dependence on British naval strength allowed Governor Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar of Mauritius (which under French rule had been a primary destination of slavers from Zanzibar) to send Captain Fairfax Moresby, senior officer at that island, in the Menai to conclude a treaty limiting the slave traffic to the Sultans own (East African and Arabic) dominions, and forbidding any trade of slaves to Christians. A later treaty, effective from 1847, and negotiated in 1845 by Colonel Atkins Hammerton (appointed as the first British Consul at Zanzibar in 1841) further limited - in theory - the traffic from Zanzibar to the Sultan's African dominions between Lamu in the north and Kilwa in the south.
Prevention of incursion by other European powers was the initial reason for a British naval presence on the East African coast. To this were later added protection of British traders, and suppression of the slave trade. This last factor only became prominent round 1860, when the Foreign Office requesting a ship permanently on the station for that purpose. Lack of knowledge about the trade, and a desire not to offend Britain's ally, the Sultan, were responsible for the later development of the anti-slavery issue on the East coast than on the West coast. The explorations of David Livingstone, Richard Burton and John Speke increased the interest of the British public in the area.
The small number of British cruisers on the station, and the fact that large numbers of comparatively small dhows were involved in the slave trade, meant that much of the navy's patrol work had to be done in ships boats, often working independently for days on end.
Poor communications with home, and lack of explicit instructions from the Admiralty, meant that the ship's commanders had to decide how to proceed in individual cases; destruction of captured dhows on the spot was often considered to be the only viable alternative. Protest against this procedure led in 1869 to the giving of full powers of adjudication to the Vice-Admiralty Court at Zanzibar (established in 1866, then only for slavers captured within the Sultans dominions), to which all captures had then to be taken, and to "clarification" of the general instructions to the commanders on the station (often irrelevant, being based on those for the West African station), which in fact only made them more unclear. These aspects, together with the small number of ships on the station (generally not more than two; see for example Cumming's report for 1872) meant that the navy's impact on the slave trade was minimal.
My good friend Reza, an Iranian exile who has lived here in Germany for almost 30 years and I have been discussing this Black History in Europe project for weeks now with great fervor and interest and excitement. Reza often reminds me as he describes the ancient history of his own beloved country Iran that it was the famous Persian king Cyrus II (ca. 576-530 BC) of the Achaemenid Empire (559– 330 BC) that first forbid slavery in his empire, making him one of the first slavery abolitionists in history.
I can hear my friend Reza now as I write this article, “Kurush (Cyrus), my King, said to all of the people of ancient Persia:
“In my land there will be no slavery, slavery is verboten! All people are welcome in my kingdom. All religions are welcome in my kingdom, for I am Kurush the Great, the king of kings.””
An excerpt from Wikipedia about Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great):
During his reign, Cyrus maintained control over a vast region of conquered kingdoms, achieved partly through retaining and expanding Median satrapies. Further organization of newly conquered territories into provinces ruled by vassal kings called satraps, was continued by Cyrus' successor Darius the Great. Cyrus' empire demanded only tribute and conscripts from many parts of the realm.
Cyrus' conquests began a new era in the age of empire building, where a vast superstate, comprising many dozens of countries, races, religions, and languages, were ruled under a single administration headed by a central government. This system lasted for centuries, and was retained both by the invading Seleucid dynasty during their control of Persia, and later Iranian dynasties including the Persian Parthians and Sassanids.
In 1992, he was ranked #87 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history. On December 10, 2003, in her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Shirin Ebadi evoked Cyrus, saying:
I am an Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great. This emperor proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that he 'would not reign over the people if they did not wish it.' He promised not to force any person to change his religion and faith and guaranteed freedom for all. The Charter of Cyrus the Great should be studied in the history of human rights.
End excerpts from Wikipedia on Cyrus the Great
The Slavery Essays - Part II coming soon
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