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Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (iWN file photo)
Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (iWN file photo)
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By *Jomo Sanga Thomas

(“Plain Talk” March 25, 2022)

 “The term ‘scramble for Africa’ is commonplace, but the unacknowledged reality is that what created the ‘Atlantic world’ was the scramble.” — Howard W French

“Africa,” commented the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, “was a guest in the 20th century.” In his novel Sardines, Farah noted: “In this century, the African is a guest either in Africa or elsewhere… if not a guest, then a slave to a system of thoughts”.

Africa needs to reinstate itself into history and modernity to throw off a lingering unease at being peripheral. That would represent a corrective both moral and factual, as for several centuries, Africa has been elbowed aside in the story of the development of the modern world. To rise above the status of mere guest, the continent needs to reassert itself back into the centre of this story. Reclaiming its proper role, the author Howard W French argues persuasively, would represent a decisive step in countering centuries of racist ‘diminishment, trivialisation and erasure’ of Africans from history.

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In his highly acclaimed work, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World (Norton/Liveright, 2021), French upends the traditional narrative of the Age of Discovery. He details the role that Africa played, with its vast human and mineral capital, in creating European ascendency. Howard French convincingly maintains that “more than any other part of the world, Africa has been the lynchpin of the machine of modernity”.

This precept has gradually been written out of the story, though earlier European writers knew differently. In the mid-16th century, the Portuguese historian João de Barros wrote, “I do not know in this Kingdom a yoke of land, toll, tithe, excise or any other Royal tax more reliable … than the profits of commerce in Guinea.” There was gold and ivory, but an omission in his admission of Africa’s contribution to Portuguese wealth was what became known as ‘black gold: slavery.

The conventional narrative is that Portugal was intent on reaching the riches of Asia and that Africa represented a vast continental impediment. ‘The continent is rendered a mere obstacle, and if trade with it is mentioned at all, it is merely as a sideshow, wrote French. The reality was that throughout much of the 15th century, Portugal, a small nation, became rich by devoting its meagre resources to exploring and then exploiting the west coast of Africa.’

But the African “sideshow” narrative, taught as gospel, remains prevalent. Howard French’s alternative proposition is simple: “It is a bedrock feature of how the West has explained its path to modernity by erasing Africa from the picture.” Instead, Africa represented a treasure trove of gold and enslaved Africans for marginal Portugal.

By the 1480s, French writes, “African gold gave such a significant boost to Lisbon that the vaunted search for a route to Asia, long preferred as the standard explanation of Europe’s expansionary motivations during the Age of Discovery, was all but suspended. Portugal was simply too busy in Africa, where the returns remained extraordinarily high.”

In a reversal of modern Western assumptions, tales of fabulous African wealth reached medieval Europe with reports of magnificent royal progress by the Malian emperor, Mansa Musa. He set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 with a 60,000 strong entourage.

Musa distributed sacks of gold wherever he went and overwhelmed the sultan in Cairo with his wealth. The speed with which word spread to Europe is reflected in maps by the end of that decade, which ‘fueled dreams of a land of unlimited wealth in gold that was simply awaiting discovery in Africa.’

Thus began the Age of Discovery. It was first the wealth extracted from Africa, then the trade in Africans, argues French, “that set the creation of an Atlantic world into motion”.

Trade in enslaved Africans soon exceeded the value of gold in driving Europe’s expansion, notably providing the black labour, which created the fantastic wealth of sugar-producing Caribbean islands. Howard French forcefully noted, ‘the Empire was making the British state, not the other way round.’

There was a steep price for European ascendancy. Beyond the 12 million shipped across the Atlantic, the average lifespan of the human chattels who survived that cruel ocean crossing was seven years. The term ‘scramble for Africa’ is commonplace, but the unacknowledged reality is that what created the ‘Atlantic world’ was the scramble for Africans.

The consequence for Africa was colossal: depopulation, weakening local traditions and destabilising authority structures. The drawing by Europeans of arbitrary boundaries took little or no account of geography, nor ethnic and linguistic ties. The cavalier disregard of regional histories allowed Western scholars to sneer that Africa had no history.

This erasure allowed generations of Westerners to flatter themselves that European colonists have bestowed the blessings of modernity on a backward continent.

In contrast, Howard French presents a terse resumé of the ‘benign’ colonial footprint: “By the late 1930s, France had a mere 385 colonial administrators commanding the destinies of 15 million African subjects. British Africa, with 43 million people, had a roughly comparable 1,200. By the late 1950s, the dawn of the independence era for the continent, out of a population of 200 million sub-Saharan Africans, European stewardship had produced only 8,000 secondary school graduates. Half of them were from just two colonies, Britain’s Ghana and Nigeria. In France’s territories, only about a third of school-aged children received any primary education.

Instead, starting with the devastation of the slave trade, what Europeans left were called ‘shatter zones’, where there has been a continuing erosion of trust. The aftermath of colonialism has left multiple mental and emotional scars. The crudity and degradation of slavery led to a pervasive sense of white superiority. A mirror image from the humiliated and demeaned is the absence of persuasive alternative self-determination which contributes directly to the contention that Africa remains a “guest” in the modern world.

In many post-colonial countries, black people still feel uneasy, like guests in their own homes, while white tourists or settlers are perfectly at ease.

To reverse this disconnect does not require that we rewrite history. Instead, we need to question the dominant Western narrative of the past 600 or so years, frequently shaped by self-justifying Europeans. Howard French’s deeply researched book tips much of that standard interpretation on its head.

However, if Africa is not to remain a guest in the modern world, Africa needs to write itself back into history. If we don’t, no one else will.

— A Brian Rostron Review

*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

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