It’s been a very busy couple of weeks, as the last half of April so often is. Usually that leaves me with a mind like a blown-out tire for the week where everything calms down, and this year has been no exception. I’ve patched up the old cerebellum a bit now and I’m ready to resume blogging.
One of the discussions that happened while I was snowed under with work involved Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s New York Times op-ed about slavery and reparations. Gates argued that because Africans themselves were the principal slavers who fueled the Atlantic slave trade, the question of reparations is a permanently vexed one.
Africanist historians have been round the bend on this conversation before many times, not just about the overall issue of African participation in the slave trade, but specifically about Gates’ interventions into that discussion. After his Wonders of the African World television series, there was a well-attended panel at the African Studies Association meeting that year which pilloried Gates for his many perceived slights to Africa and Africans.
The reaction this time among scholars has been a bit more muted (so far), perhaps because of the favorable attention to Gates among scholars in Black Studies following the events that lead to the “beer summit”. Maybe it’s also because the argument for reparations has become more muted anyway in recent years, and because the fact of African participation in the slave trade is so firmly established for Africanists that it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for a public debate about it.
That said, I do have a few things to add to the discussion as it has developed across listservs and blogs.
First, that we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which the basic facts of the Atlantic slave trade in West and Central Africa between 1550 and 1850 are not at all known to the American public. In my survey course on West Africa in the era of the slave trade this semester, I’ve definitely had some students for whom the issue of African participation was a novel and upsetting revelation.
Second, some of the conventional strategies that both scholars and public intellectuals use to argue that we should just move along, nothing to see here, don’t entirely hold water. A couple of prominent examples:
a) “Of course we know that some corrupt African kings or leaders sold their own people. There was bad leadership then and there’s bad leadership now that preys on community; this is just more reason to put our trust in community rather than leaders.” This is a very reassuring political angle on the issue that flatters a lot of contemporary progressive and radical politics. Unfortunately it really doesn’t describe the totality of African participation in the slave trade. There are certainly examples of hierarchical, centralized states in West and Central Africa where rulers or court elites controlled the slave trade and expanded slave raiding largely out of self-interest. Dahomey is the most frequently cited example, and Kongo would be another.
The problem is that there are also a number of examples of organized slave raiding and trading that originated from social institutions that were more integrated into communities and less a case of a hierarchy above and outside of the everyday life of towns and villages. In some cases, they resembled merchant companies, in other cases they were built up out of age-grades, religious or spiritual societies or other social networks. On an even less-organized basis, it was not necessarily that uncommon for members of extended kin networks to sell more vulnerable or marginal members of their own families as the power and reach of the Atlantic slave trade grew in the late 1600s and 1700s. Or for members of one village to raid a neighboring village without any command from a king or paramount ruler of some kind.
That might invite an opposite distortion, of portraying West and Central Africa at the height of the slave trade as caught up in a Hobbesean war of all against all, and that largely wasn’t the case, either. (There were a few places where the social order broke down almost completely, as in the civil war that engulfed the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo.) Slave raiding and slave trading was socially organized, and it was extremely heterogenous in its distribution. Some societies or communities didn’t engage in it at all or actively tried to disengage from or escape the Atlantic world, some societies largely engaged in defensive raiding, and others invested heavily in the Atlantic trade. Sometimes those variations had a lot to do with location, sometimes a lot to do with accidents, sometimes a lot to do with the choices and preferences of European buyers and the shifting politics of national and mercantile competition among Europeans, and sometimes it had to do with the choices that Africans themselves made, rulers and ruled alike.
All of which amounts to a typical scholarly gambit: “It was more complicated than that”. But in this case, the complications ought to defeat any simple attempt to isolate African participation to a convenient group of mustache-twirling villains just as it also defeats Gates’ somewhat bizarre notion that there was a unitary “Africa” which participated in and can be blamed for its part in the African slave trade.
b) Which raises common response #2: things were different back then. There was no “African people” and hence slave traders weren’t “selling their own people”. The meanings and implications of slavery within African societies were very different from slavery in the wider Atlantic world. In societies defined by the difference between kin and strangers, there wasn’t a concept of individual freedom for West and Central Africans to invoke–or betray. The moral, social and political framing of violence, embodiment, identity and so on were not the same as we imagine them as today.
All of which strikes me as an extension of a crucially important point about early modern history in general. Namely, that it was not a mere prologue to the world of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and that we should be scrupulous about reading the modern back into it. If you don’t study early modern history in its own terms, you more or less completely eliminate any element of contingency from modernity. This is why it’s such an important field of study in history departments, but also why it’s often hard to get students to understand how central it really is. Because to approach it correctly, you have to confound expectations that you’re simply tracing modernity to its roots or its infancy.
You don’t want to confound those expectations completely, of course, because there are important causal connections between the world of 1500 or 1650 and the world of 1750 or 1850. But this is perhaps the single most important area where the first task is to make the familiar strange before you allow people to go back to finding what they expected to find.
This, unfortunately, has some unsettling implications for the Atlantic slave trade. It means most importantly that we can’t just argue that African participants were operating within unfamiliar social contexts, that their subjectivities and identities were not what we expect them to be, that slavery meant something different to them in their world, and not perform something of the same kind of defamiliarization exercise on European and American actors involved in the early modern slave trade as well.
In many of the responses to Gates, there is an attempt to hold steady the moral and political culpability of European and American actors while arguing for the alien character of African societies in the same time period. Before the mid-1700s, I think that’s a hard balancing act to pull off. The entirety of the Atlantic world in the 1500s and 1600s is different in fundamental ways: violence, freedom, suffering, personhood and much else didn’t mean what they meant later. It’s not that sailors and captains and financiers running the slave ships and the slaving business were innocent, but that the terms under which we would convene a court of transhistorical judgment are vexed no matter who is in the dock.
After 1750, I think the moral, social and political underpinnings of the Atlantic slave trade increasingly tilt towards our own frameworks and outlook, but that also goes as much for West and Central African participants as it does for European and American ones. As concepts of freedom are born out of dialectical encounter with slavery, as resistance to slavery as a phenomenon grows, as the legal and political institutions we associate with the Enlightenment come into being, the context and meaning of slavery changes, but that potentially stretches well into Atlantic Africa as much as anywhere else. If you start to hold traders and bankers and sailors and overseers responsible because they had other choices, because there was a possibility for opposition, you have to start imagining that African participants also have responsibility.
Now what you do with that imagination is a different question entirely, including whether or not you think some kind of reparations, however structured, are necessary or possible. Because at least one other complex dimension of the Atlantic slave trade is that the wealth it created accumulated very differently (or failed to accumulate) in West and Central African societies from how it accumulated in Europe and the Americas. And that, as far as the consequences of the trade, is perhaps the single most important issue of all. In that sense, African participation and Euro-American participation are completely different in their nature.