04 December 2008

Culpability for slavery: plenty to go around

Between the 1440s, when Portuguese mariners first began to kidnap and to purchase Africans, and 1867, the year of the last recorded slaving voyage to the Americas, some 12 million men, women, and children were turned into commodities and exported from the continent. …

By the end of the first millennium AD [five centuries before the advent of the Atlantic slave trade], captives were also being taken across the Sahara, over the Red Sea, and from the coast of East Africa, destined for servitude in North Africa and the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and throughout the Indian Ocean. Much of this commerce was in the hands of Muslims. … [H]istorians estimate that over more than 1,000 years, these combined trades may have involved a similar number of victims: perhaps another 12 million Africans. … [M]ost victims of [the ‘Muslim’ trades] were destined for some sort of domestic servitude, including concubinage. Twice as many African men as women were therefore transported across the Atlantic, whereas it is estimated that twice as many women as men were carried to the Muslim world. …

The slave trade was barbaric and exploitative, a crime against humanity. But by emphasizing these features, the tendency has been to portray Africa and Africans simply as passive victims. … John Thornton argues that far from simply being victims, Africans very much held their own in the balance of power in the Atlantic in the era of the slave trade, controlling the terms of the trade and dominating exchanges on the West African coast.

This argument has been controversial. Not because of the issue of Africans selling other Africans: there is no doubt that with only a few partial exceptions … Europeans were restricted to the coast throughout the history of the trade, purchasing their slaves from powerful African middlemen. Indeed, slave testimonies reveal that it was common for captives to pass through the hands of multiple owners as they moved down the elaborate commercial networks to the grim barracoons and dungeons of the coastal ports.

(John Parker & Richard Bathbone, African History: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 78-81)

Like most American children, I suspect, I was taught in school that Africans were passive victims of European slave traders. As an adult, I have often been told that I, as a descendant of Europeans, owe a debt of culpability to descendants of Africans. No one ever mentioned that the Muslim slave trade was well established half a millennium before Europeans entered the market. No one pointed out that it was primarily Africans who captured and sold other Africans into slavery.

I'm not justifying the actions of European slave traders or American slave owners. What they did was, indeed, “barbaric and exploitative, a crime against humanity.” However, those who would make political capital of this crime against humanity would seem to have a moral obligation to examine the entire historical picture, and not just the piece that builds their case.

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