In my middle school history class in Ghana, my teacher once made a passing comment that between the 16th and 19th centuries, some local chiefs in West Africa collaborated with European merchants in the Slave Trade. One problem with learning history at that relatively young age is that most students are unable to fully grasp the significance of some issues and ask appropriate questions. That was certainly the case with me.
In the ensuing decades, I have read quite a bit, and also listened to thousands of conversations not only in Ghana, but also in America and elsewhere, about Slavery. The blame for that human tragedy has mostly been placed squarely on the white merchants who transported captives from Africa, and the slave owners who subsequently inflicted unspeakable violence and death upon them in America. I have always been fascinated by the rarity of discussion on this matter of cooperation, and the level of culpability that should be assigned to those West African chiefs.
This question returned to mind after I watched a segment of a recent PBS NewsHour broadcast. The story was about a slave ship carrying a group of American merchants who sailed to Dahomey (present-day Benin) in West Africa and returned with 110 slaves to Mobile Bay, Alabama in 1860. That voyage is said to have occurred more than four decades after importation of slaves had been outlawed in the U.S.
There was no mention in the broadcast of who sold the slaves to the merchants in Dahomey, but I was curious. According to information I later found, the seller was the King of Dahomey. His soldiers had captured four thousand people in wars with other tribes in the region. Those prisoners were held in a warehouse, from where the ship’s captain was offered the slaves for $100 per head.
It is extremely important for Africans and African Americans to acknowledge the shameful role that our ancestors played in the Slave Trade. We have thus far failed to do so adequately, and that has had some grave implications for Africa. Because we haven’t learned the right lessons, we are repeating many of the mistakes our forbearers made.
From books such as The Looting Machine by Tom Burgis, A Continent for the Taking by Howard French, and Thieves of State by Sarah Chayes, one gets the sense that contemporary African leaders similarly have no trouble selling their countries’ resources to outsiders for pittance. They do not exchange human beings for their rewards, but the effects of their actions are equally consequential. For millions of our unfortunate brothers and sisters in Africa, the continent has become uninhabitable because of crushing poverty and lack of economic opportunities, forcing them to flee to other places that will not admit them.
Along their desperate journeys, thousands have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, while others have been trapped in modern-day slavery. There have been several accounts lately of some of the horrendous treatments that these poor people suffer at the hands of their “owners.” This should shock the conscience of the world as much as the centuries-ago Slavery did.
It is always convenient to blame one’s problems entirely on external factors. But doing so can lead to a form of blindness—an inability to see what could otherwise be a sensible path to remedy. Africans have traditionally blamed the continent’s myriad problems on Slavery and Colonialism. That is largely correct. But a more accurate teaching of history in our schools could help convince the present generation that we have been—and continue to be—partly responsible for our predicament. That would in turn drive the kind of self-examination that is required to enable us take proper charge of our affairs.
Human trafficking across Africa, mistreatment of African migrants in Libya by their fellow Africans, and other similar atrocities are all taking place in plain view currently. The African Union has been shockingly silent on these matters. If we—leaders and ordinary citizens in Africa—are unwilling or unable to speak up and act on behalf of our own people, then we forfeit some of our right to criticize others elsewhere for comparable things they have done—or are doing.
Africa should learn from what contemporary Germans have done to deal with their Nazi history. They have openly confronted that ugly chapter, including the complicity of some of their ancestors, and vowed to never let that history repeat itself. Going through a similar exercise would be enormously beneficial for Africans.