By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Oct. 21, 2022)
Guest column by David Commissiong, Barbados Ambassador to CARICOM
Now that Caribbean governments have launched a serious effort to secure the payment of reparations for the tremendous damage inflicted on the people of Africa and the African Diaspora during the centuries of European orchestrated slave trade and enslavement, a number of “fifth columnists” are seeking to confuse the issue with allegations that our African ancestors not only collaborated with the European enslavers, but were so accepting of the slave trade that they refused or neglected to resist it.
The cold hard undisputed facts of history speak otherwise! So, before considering the issue of Africans who collaborated with the European enslavers, let us look at methods by various European powers that traded in Africans on the west coast of Africa.
Take Portugal — the first European nation to establish a trans-Atlantic slave trade — and Britain, the European nation that developed the largest slave trade.
Portugal commenced the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1444 with a raid on the African territory known as Mauritania. Gomes Eannes de Zurara, a courtier of the Portuguese Royal Family, described the event in his “Chronicle of the Discovery of Guinea” thusly:
“Most of the captives … had been taken in a village where … they (the Portuguese), shouting out, ‘St. James, St George, and Portugal’, at once attacked them, killing and taking all they could. Then might you see mothers forsaking their children, and husbands their wives, each striving to escape as best they could. Some drowned themselves in the water, others thought to escape by hiding under their huts, others stowed their children among the seaweed, where our men found them afterwards…”
The British “trade”, started with the two voyages of Captain John Hawkins in 1562 and 1564. In 1878, the Hakluyt Society chronicled the “The Hawkins Voyages”:
“Hawkins sailed with three ships from England in 1562 … in the River Sierra Leone, he captured at least 300 blacks, partly as he said, ‘By the sword, and partly by other means’… In 1564 … Hawkins set out on a second voyage … The new expedition again made for the River Sierra Leone … and every day, went on shore: “to take the Inhabitants … burning and spoiling their townes”.
So, we can see from these two examples that this so-called “trade” began with European criminals inflicting murder, mayhem and terror on defenceless towns and villages along the west coast of Africa. No talk of collaborators in these beginning phases of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade!
Following these mass kidnappings, the Europe enslavers went on to devise several other means of procuring enslaved Africans: befriending Africans and inviting them onto the European ships where they were then kidnapped; constructing castles or fortresses along the West African coast for the purpose of collecting and storing enslaved Africans; purchasing enslaved Africans from African collaborators; putting in place European or mulatto “middlemen” who were stationed in Africa to raid for and collect “slaves”, and engaging in the opportunistic kidnapping of individual Africans whenever the opportunity presented itself.
The fifth columnists wish to focus on the role played by African collaborators — as if every system of oppression does not feature some members of the victimised group who collaborate with the oppressors! However, it should be noted that even as Euro-centric a historian of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as Hugh Thomas, the English author of “The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade”, confirms the longevity of the practice of the direct European “stealing” or kidnapping of Africans:
“In 1702, the Africans near Cape Mesurando complained to Willem Bosman of the Dutch West India Company that the English had been there, with two large vessels and had ravaged the country, destroyed all their canoes, plundered their houses, and carried off some of their people as slaves … In 1716, the monarch of Fooni received five men from the Royal African Company’s chief agent on the River Gambia whose mission was to kidnap the people and make them slaves…”.
But if the fifth columnists insist that they wish to focus on the issue of African collaborators, perhaps we could pay some attention to how some of these collaborators got involved in the process of collaboration in the first place. Take the case of Bandi, a 1620s King of a state in the territory known today as Angola. Hugh Thomas tells the story in his “History of the Atlantic Slave Trade” as follows:
“A new Portuguese governor of Luanda, Luis Mendes de Vasconelos, embarked on a campaign designed to finish with the threats of the continuously hostile Ndongo, for good or evil. He captured that monarchy’s capital at Kabasa, and the Ngola (or King) fled … He (then) defeated a native chief named Bandi, on whom he imposed an annual tribute of one hundred slaves.”
And so, while there might have been some Africans who collaborated because they adjudged, in their own self-interest, that there was a profit to be made, there were several who had collaboration imposed on them via European conquerors demanding a tribute of slaves, or because they found themselves in a dangerous and unstable environment in which a choice had to be made between collaborating with the enslaver and saving one’s own skin, or remaining apart from the enslaver and becoming a victim of the process of enslavement that was fast engulfing the African continent.
It should also be noted that some of those who collaborated came to regret it after the full consequences of the slave trade became apparent, and ultimately attempted to resist and extricate themselves from the tentacles of collaboration. King Afonso of the Congo and Queen Nzinga of Angola are good examples.
King Afonso had initially collaborated with the Portuguese enslavers, but by 1526 he was writing to the King of Portugal complaining that the slave dealers were depopulating his kingdom — “There are many traders in all parts of the country … They bring ruin… Every day people are kidnapped and enslaved, even members of the King’s family” — and went on, unsuccessfully, to appeal to the Portuguese monarch to replace the slave trade with a more constructive type of trade relationship.
Queen Nzinga, for her part, went to war against the Portuguese and their slave trade regime in Angola, and in the words of Hugh Thomas: “She eventually established herself as the strongest military power in southern Angola, and the Portuguese failed to deal effectively with her…. She never became the reliable purveyor of slaves for whom successive governors of Luanda hoped.”
But the issue of African collaborators is completely routed and dismissed by the recognition that ultimately, in the long scheme of history, not even the most willing and “successful” of African collaborators benefitted materially from the trans-Atlantic slave trade or the associated system of racialised chattel slavery! Eventually, all of them were set upon, conquered and exploited by the said European enslavers who followed 400 years of slave trading with 100 years of colonisation and domination of the entire African continent!
The Ashanti people in Ghana, Togo and Ivory Coast participated in the European slave trade, collaborating with the Dutch in particular, and extending their empire. But what was the ultimate fate of the Ashanti? By the mid-19th century, the British colonialists had decided that the Ashanti “empire” had to be dismantled and the Ashanti brought under British control. Thus, in 1874 the British Government launched a ferocious military campaign against the Ashanti, using the latest in European weaponry. The end result was the defeat of the Ashanti army and the sacking of Kumasi, the kingdom’s capital. This military defeat led to the disintegration of the Ashanti “empire” and the temporary deposing of the Asantehene, or King of the Ashanti!
No serious reparations activist would be looking towards the Ashanti in modern-day Ghana as a target for reparations payments. If we are serious about reparations, we must focus our attention on the governments and institutions that launched, orchestrated, maintained and profited immensely from the twin enterprises known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and chattel slavery. The national governments of Western Europe, the various royal families of Europe, major European multi-national corporations such as Barclays Bank and Lloyd’s of London, and elite European families. This is where the real wealth extracted with devilish cruelty from the sons and daughters of Africa over 400 years is to be found!
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].
Well done Jomo. I’m tired of hearing ‘black people’ say African were responsible or partly responsible for the trans Atlantic Slave Trade. To me it’s the same as saying the Jews were responsible for the Jewish Holocaust. The murder and rape of the African continent continues to this day. European history is a library of lies.
With respect Sir, it is a futile and unkind act to try to convince West Indians that Great Britain (or indeed any other European country) will pay reparations for the Atlantic Slave Trade anytime soon. The reasons for this are varied: slavery has been with us from time immemorial and counted whites, Arabs, blacks and all other races in its despicable register, documented from the times of Egyptians enslaving Ethiopians and Jews onwards. Slavery in West Africa is still in existence today, with over 660,000 estimated in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
It is not good enough to ‘cherry-pick’ certain passages out of Thomas, H. The Slave Trade 1997, Chatham: Mackays of Chatham; he himself quotes Voltaire in his Chapter: The Slave Trade, A Reflection: “whilst it was difficult to defend the conduct of Europeans in the slave trade, that of Africans in bartering each other was even more reprehensible” and “‘Man-stealing’ accounted for the majority of slaves taken to the New World, and it was usually the responsibility of Africans.” This debate will run and run.
What should be remembered is that Great Britain was the first country to end slavery and to attempt to get other Europeans to adhere to this principle. Modern day slavery is still an impediment to equality. Instead of thinking of others to blame, or to wait in vain for compensation which will never be paid, let us instead hang on to what we all have in common, let us work together to end modern-day slavery, and let us treat each other as brothers and sisters now. Working towards an egalitarian society is something which is within our reach.
Jomo, you are right. The people who saying Africans are responsible for the trans Atlantic slave trade are wrong. Saying that is like saying the Jews are responsible for the Jewish holocaust. Any argument they use to justify it or blame it on African is ludicrous, stupid.
Comments are closed.