Of African descent
The trans-Atlantic slave trade did come to an end. It has been almost two centuries past, but the trauma of that episode is not wearing off as fast as it is desired. That era was certainly a defining moment for the slaves and their children yet to be born.
A change in this story plot is desirable. New narratives which are indicative of the African spirit, and its great stake in the world’s progress – not as an exception to those who scaled through barriers by their individuality, but collectively, and in general terms.
The African American Civil Rights Movement established the foundation. President Nelson Mandela in dispelling apartheid, raised the profile of his race; President Barack Obama, as the forty-fourth President of the United States of America, showcased global leadership of an African descendant. There is also, Professor Onwuka Dike, Africa’s foremost historian who dispelled the generally held view that there was no African history beyond that which recorded the history of African’s relating with Europeans.
Before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, there were African civilizations and kingdoms. Royalty and pedigree. Innovation and enterprise. That Africa is the cradle of humankind, is well known. Crucial is the acknowledgement that science reckons with the fact that humans originated from Africa and thus of a founding stock.
Bryson’s, A Short History of Everything, makes it clear, that while there are anticipated exceptions which science would place on record, as per the migrations and origins of races, ‘there’s more diversity in one social group of fifty-five chimps than the entire human population,’ reason being that ‘we are recently descended from a small founding population.’
We are essentially, of one kith and kin. America’s declaration of independence, affirms that, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
The slave trade had haunting stories of human brutality, and the burden of proof on humanness lies with any villain. Mungo Park wrote about his encounter with slaves he met in Mali who could not comprehend the manner and the number of slaves that were being aggressively obtained: They were all very inquisitive, but they viewed me at first with looks of horror, and repeatedly asked if my countrymen were cannibals. They were very desirous to know what became of the slaves after they had crossed the salt water. I told them that they were employed in cultivating the land; but they would not believe me; and one of them putting his hand upon the ground, said with great simplicity, ‘have you really got such ground as this, to set your feet upon?’
A deeply rooted idea that the whites purchase the slaves for the purpose of devouring them, or of selling them to others that they may be devoured hereafter, naturally makes the slaves contemplate a journey towards the Coast with great terror, insomuch that the slavees are forced to keep them constantly in irons, and watch them very closely, to prevent their escape.
West African slaves were sought en masse to cultivate plantations of cotton, tobacco, sugar, etc., in the British colonies of the Americas and the Caribbean. The agricultural products from these exploits were needed by the European based industries. It was very profitable business. Bringing an end to slave trade was no mean feat, as the pro-slavery group had all to gain, save for the dignity of the ‘black life,’ which the abolitionist movement campaigned for.
In what is today, the Niger Delta region, the interest was primarily in slaves. However, when other natural treasures became slightly apparent, attempts to grab bits of land commenced. But this was met with resistance. The expectation was to displace the people, but the kings and people of the region would never dream of such! This was because the kings regarded themselves as equal to any other ruler in any other part of the world. Based on this, the Europeans accorded them great measure of respect. It was the opposition and suspicion that the Europeans eventually overcame.
Adam Smith approved the maintenance of fortified trading posts in West Africa, noting that although Europeans possessed ‘numerous and thriving colonies’ in the West Indies and America, in Africa, ‘it was more difficult to displace the natives, and to extend European plantations over the greater part of the lands of the original inhabitants.’
It can be presumed, that if the traders could dispossess the people of old, natives could have been slaves in their own land. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was a dent in what the Africans stood for. Those who got involved in the trade, moved into the hinterlands to look for other people, but not theirs. The enticements they encountered were many scales tempting, and the quest for personal wealth, curtailed the African glory. In 1807, the Act Abolishing the Importation of Slaves was enacted. The illegality was a trump card to reinforce human dignity, and thereafter, violators breached a fundamental human right.
To date, there have been many successes and victories for the African heritage, but time and again, something creeps into the mainstream discourse to indicate that we are not there yet.
Recently, the Church of England apologised for past links to slavery, having benefitted financially from the trade. According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, “the time has come to take action in response to this shameful past.” The organisation has pledged a fund of 100million pounds over the next nine years for ‘a better and fairer future for all.’
Would there be a conveyance of forgiveness and reconciliation as well? Just as our great father Madiba taught us? For President Nelson Mandela said, upon his release from jail, that ‘reconciliation does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict, but reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.’ To heal. To bridge the divide. To build.
In Africa, the wounds of the trans-Atlantic slave trade are not felt as grievious, as with those who crossed the Atlantic, but the soul of the continent, is left wanting. Many in recent years, are fleeing its shores and borders in want of European and American pastures. There are schools of thought who think that those of African descent, born and raised in the lands across the Atlantic, could lend their support and collaborate in resuscitating the African continent.
That era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was certainly a defining moment for the slaves and their children yet to be born. Two centuries past and gone. On both sides of the Atlantic, dwells those of African descent.