Ending the Slavery Blame-Game

23oped_ready-articleInline Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the NYT:

For centuries, Europeans in Africa kept close to their military and trading posts on the coast. Exploration of the interior, home to the bulk of Africans sold into bondage at the height of the slave trade, came only during the colonial conquests, which is why Henry Morton Stanley’s pursuit of Dr. David Livingstone in 1871 made for such compelling press: he was going where no (white) man had gone before.

How did slaves make it to these coastal forts? The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.

Advocates of reparations for the descendants of those slaves generally ignore this untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade, choosing to believe the romanticized version that our ancestors were all kidnapped unawares by evil white men, like Kunta Kinte was in “Roots.” The truth, however, is much more complex: slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European buyers and African sellers alike.

The African role in the slave trade was fully understood and openly acknowledged by many African-Americans even before the Civil War. For Frederick Douglass, it was an argument against repatriation schemes for the freed slaves. “The savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia,” he warned. “We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave trade than to stay here to work against it.”

Brad DeLong comments:

1. The first generations of African kings who began selling slaves to European traders for guns indeed did not know what slavery was like on the other side of the Middle Passage–they thought it was like slavery in Africa, where if you become a slave you then become part of a single household in which you have roughly the status of the very poor third cousin. But slavery in the Caribbean was a much harsher and more vicious institution–as capitalist slavery driven by production of staple cash crops so often is.

2. Once the slave trade was started and once the kings of Africa knew what they were doing, no individual African kingdom along the coast can back off and stop. If it does, the guns and ammunition stop coming–and it gets conquered in short order by its coastal neighbors who are still engaged in the slave trade.

3. Only when European consumer demand for Caribbean staple crops appears–only when the profits from slave agriculture and thus slave-raiding become really large–is it worth African kings' while to start substantial slave-raiding in the interior (and is it worth the Europeans' while to start shipping people across the Middle Passage).

That Henry Louis Gates makes fun of these arguments doesn't make them untrue.

And so I reject the quitclaim deed he offers: just because there were people with skin of another color on another continent who aided and conspired with my ancestors in their crimes does not mean that I am quits of all obligations as I sit here still enjoying the fruits of their crimes.

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