Excavating the role of Africans in the creation of the modern world – The Mail & Guardian

In early September 2021, a statue of Robert E Lee, who fought on the losing confederate side of the American Civil War, was taken down in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the confederacy. Lee had good company. Two months earlier, in São Paulo, protesters set fire to the statue of Borba Gato, a 17th century Portuguese “fortune hunter”, who enslaved indigenous Brazilians. A statue of Belgium’s King Leopold II in Antwerp had a similar fate. From Colombia to New Zealand, South Africa to France, statues, busts, plaques and other memorials tied to the history of enslavement and colonisation have been pulled down. 

In Born in Blackness (Norton), Howard French, career foreign correspondent and former New York Times bureau chief in the Americas, Africa and Asia scrutinises the received history of “the West”. He fills in crucial gaps and pulls down the assumptions, narratives, and myths that exclude Africans and Africa from the formation of the modern world. Anakwa Dwamena spoke to French about this and other themes from his book. 


This book challenges the common narrative of the historical relationship between Europe and Africa, particularly the idea that European nations were presumptively somehow always superior to their African counterparts — whether in wealth, scientific knowledge, state power or technology. I was struck by a point you make, that the high demand for guns from the African states, for instance, actually fuelled and, ultimately, led to Europe’s mastery of the technology.

Most of what we’re taught about African history — and, indeed, about the history of the modern era, and the history of the Atlantic world — completely skips this era. This was one of my primary motivations in writing this book. I make the argument that the primary impetus behind the creation of the modern world, as we understand it — and for Europe’s separation, politically and economically speaking, from other previously more powerful parts of the world — was not the complex of Judeo-Christian ideas nor the Protestant work ethic, or even the scientific method. 

I don’t say that because I don’t think there was nothing at all to these things. But that’s all we heard for the past 500 years, to such a degree that it smothers out everything else; so much so, that we have lost sight of what is hiding in plain sight: that it was the expropriation of billions and billions of man hours of African labour, and the seizure and expropriation of millions of square miles of territory, in the so-called New World, that gave Europeans the wherewithal that forms the very basis of the creation of the Westby which I mean the condominium between Europe and the New World.

The creation of this West would have been utterly impossible, unthinkable, without the expert expropriation of these billions and billions of man hours of labour. I go into some degree of detail about not just the crude creation of wealth and power in Europe’s ascent, but also the effects of all of this on European society and culture; and on English first, and, subsequently, British society and culture. 

Especially, in the period before the Industrial Revolution, in which I say, for example, the effects of all of the newly abundant and cheap calories derived from African labour in the New World revolutionised the English, and subsequently the European, diet; and gave English workers, and subsequently other European workers, the caloric basis to increase their productivity. There were new crops in great quantities, like coffee and cocoa, a bit later tea, together with sugar, which is the most important economic product of this entire era. 

They utterly transformed the civic culture, through the creation of the coffee shop, which is another outgrowth of African slave labour. Africans grew the coffee. Africans grew the sugar that made the coffee palatable. Suddenly then, newspapers thrived in the coffee shop, because for the first time you had a captive audience of people who, instead of being drunk in a tavern, are sitting around drinking stimulants, and a culture of discussion of the affairs of the day based on published information, known as the newspaper, takes root for the very first time.

How did you embark on this book in the first place?

It’s really a combination of factors. The first is the remarkable personal coincidence that I have worked in prolonged ways in so many parts of the world that serve as the backdrop for this history. So I would have to have been a pretty insensitive person not to have begun to try to stitch together a big picture of these things. 

I also spent more than a decade working in East Asia, and one of the mostly silent, but ever-present sentiments or ideas that runs through societies there has to do with Asia’s relationship to the West. Why is it that the West became ascendant at the time that it did? Especially given that East Asia’s civilisations are older and had long been richer. What brought that about? What was innate to Western versus Eastern civilisation? How much of this was foreordained? How much of it is fated to be semi-permanent or much longer lasting? 

Because questions like these were in the air everywhere I went in Asia, it helped to jar me, or jostle some of the big picture questions I had about the Atlantic world that that were partly an outgrowth of my personal experience, and got me to think on a longer timescale, in historical terms, about how it happened that the West rose the way it did. 

When I scratched around the story of Africa’s role in this, I saw that having Africa or Africans at its disposal turns out to have been the primary reason why Europe, and subsequently what we call the West, came to be ascendant over the East. The East didn’t have an entire continent whose resources, both natural and human, it could train to its own purposes. It only had its own resources and its own labour. 

I say that if Europe had not had the benefit of [Africa’s] natural resources, and then subsequent centuries of African labour, Europe would have been a marginal player in world history in the era that’s under discussion. I don’t mean to say by this, however, that Europeans had no talents or no qualities, or that they wouldn’t have had their own fair share of achievements.

Without this drain of natural resources and labour, what level of development would you imagine the African continent could have been capable of?

All right, so this is a question that fascinates me, and that I first began to explore in my very first book, A Continent for the Taking. We can’t really say anything with certainty with big picture counterfactuals about how things would have worked out. There’s just too much complexity involved. But a couple of things stand out to me. 

One of them is that Africa in the late Middle Ages — and, indeed, in the early modern era — was in the process of quite advanced state formation in some places. Kingdoms in present-day Ghana, Nigeria — what is commonly called Sudanic Africa — were among them. The other big example is Kongo, spelled with a K, and there are others. 

The speculative counterfactual answer to your question that seems most persuasive to me is that if Africa had not had the accidental history of the 15th and 16th century, whereby the Portuguese and, subsequently, other European powers, begin to engage south of the Sahara — first to trade for large quantities of gold, and then seduced African powers into the trade in slaves; if those things had not happened, Africa as a continent, especially the Atlantic part of the continent, would have been afforded much more time and space to advance or to continue this process of state formation. 

In the book I also make a very detailed argument about the demographic effects of the slave trade. Here, I’m making a political argument that if Africa had been afforded more space and time in that critical era, then African states would have continued on their development and probably would have emerged much larger and more extensive — geographically speaking — as well as more populous and, therefore, more powerful and more capable of resisting or holding their ground, vis-à-vis European powers. If the contact had come later, one can imagine a scenario whereby maybe gun technology would have spread in Africa. Buying guns from other places, but maybe, also, the development of guns made in Africa, because there were quite exquisite metal-working capabilities on the continent.

You express surprise, on arrival at important historical sites — whether in Ghana, or Barbados or the Canary Islands — at how little locals are aware of their own histories. What did this suggest to you about our current understanding of the world we live in?

I talked about going to places like Barbados — which was the first place that Britain or, at the time England, initiated its plantation complex, and where extraordinary wealth starts to be produced from the fruits of African labour — and being stunned by the absence of monuments in what is now and has been, for some time, an independent country, with a government run by people who are descendants of Africans. 

This created a shock of awareness in me. I’m American, and I’m deeply familiar with the lack of that very thing in my own society. I also found that when I went to Brazil, home to the largest black population of any society outside Africa. 

I go to Ghana, which played such a foundational role in the creation of the world — the world that is at the heart of my book — and a society that, in the past 70 years, has played a foundational role in the creation of the modern politics of independence for Africa. But, even in Ghana, there is very little awareness of the true nature of the beginnings of this world; very little public effort at remembrance, and of celebration and exploration of this history. 

This created a pain, and urgency, as a person of African descent, to speed up this excavation and to become more active in the digging up of this history; to become more willing to probe deeply into the past, or the beginnings of the modern age, and to cast off the very pat explanations we have about how we arrived at this moment. Erasure is mostly not an active, or certainly not a violent thing. It’s mostly a subliminal thing. 

African Americans have for centuries been taught versions of history that write their ancestors out of the picture. Through a series of images and archetypes that are present in literature, and advertising, and entertainment, and one thing after another, we have been subliminally induced to devalue ourselves, or our ancestors and their role in building the world that we all live in. So this notion that our ancestors might have played a really important role in building the modern world is something that is building momentum. 

WEB du Bois helped to start this reflection off a century ago, but we’re only just now achieving some momentum; we’re excavating our way out of this deep hole, where we, as people of color, allow ourselves to be invested in understanding these stories and to reassess our own central role in the building of the world. 

The time has come to finally bring those stories to a broader public and force a reckoning in terms of understanding that the modern world was not built just by Europeans — based on the most positive kinds of European values that we are all taught to celebrate — and to respect that a lot more was involved.

Let’s talk about Kongo with a K, which you spend quite some time on. It completely blew my mind, as a precolonial state that had longstanding, equal diplomatic relations with Europe and the Vatican until being undone by internal wars of succession.

I first encountered this as a foreign correspondent working for The New York Times, covering the Mobutu period in then Zaire [after Mobutu was overthrown in 1997, a new government changed the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo]. And the story of this kingdom has been with me ever since in a haunting, persistent way. 

I discovered the correspondence between the king of Kongo, and the king of Portugal; in it, the king of Kongo is more or less imploring the king of Portugal to suspend the slave trade. He’s saying to the king of Portugal: I thought we were brothers. But now, what’s happening is by the avarice of your people, you’re destroying my kingdom. And the king of Portugal replies, listen, that’s too bad. I’m terribly sorry. But people are the only thing that you have that we value, and we wish to purchase them.

But when I got to work on this book, and dove into the archives, I discovered a much thicker history even than I had suspected back then. The Portuguese arrived in Kongo just a few years after they arrived in Elmina. When the Portuguese come ashore, it becomes clear to the Kongolese that the Portuguese have as a Christian religious symbol, the cross. Well, by extraordinary coincidence, it appears that the cross was already one of the most important religious symbols in the Kongolese religion at the time. So on this basis, the Kongolese are intrigued enough to be seduced into an initiation into Christianity. 

A church is built very quickly there. The Portuguese take a few Kongolese back to Europe, and train them in Portuguese. And then they visit the Kongolese capital, M’banza Kongo. Political relations are established. All the Kongolese royalty begin to learn Portuguese, become fluent in the language and literature, and use the language as a means of mastering Christianity and in government. The Kongolese king sends all kinds of envoys, including his children and the children of other nobles, to go to school in Europe. 

Kongolese priests begin to be ordained by the Catholic Church, and by the Vatican itself. There are bishops serving as representatives in the Vatican. They acquire an understanding of the statecraft of Portugal, and of other European countries. There’s no question whether the Portuguese could conquer these people. The Portuguese had no ability to project force in anything like the numbers that would have been required to conquer anybody.

Reading this section, I couldn’t help but think about how a number of enslaved people came directly to the New World with firsthand experience in confronting European powers. You talk a bit about this too in the section on the Haitian Revolution.

This is another one of these powerful coincidences that make history so fascinating. The eventual success of the Haitian Revolution was probably, in part helped, by the fact that many of the Africans who were imported to Haiti, as enslaved peoples, in the 18th century came from areas in Africa that had advanced states involved in very complicated warfare. 

As the commonly received story of slavery in the West would have it, Africans had few qualities, except their being able to work in hot conditions bending over cropland, producing commodities for Europe. But these Africans — who came from nearby part of what is now Angola, and from places like Benin and Nigeria, and in Ghana, for example — all had experiences often directly of having been subjects of pretty advanced states. So they had an awareness of not just what it meant to be free as an individual, but to be part of a polity that was independent and self-governed. 

On top of that, they had an experience in many of these examples, especially the ones I’ve just cited of Kongo, Angola, Benin, and Nigeria, places in Dahomey, for example, and in Ghana, of intense and highly organised warfare. They already had really complicated ideas about how the world is made up, what it means to be a free person, and what it means to have your own polity and what it means to fight a war. 

So the French didn’t really know what they were getting into in that sense. When the Haitian Revolution came together, those capacities and experiences were a resource for people like Toussaint L’Ouverture, who was able to lead these black armies to extraordinary and history-making political victories against a series of white armies.

Any other themes or regions we haven’t touched on that you would like to share a bit more about?

I guess there’s one thing that we haven’t really talked about, and that is the history of the US itself. We don’t learn about how the Haitian Revolution utterly changed the course of American history. It made Napoleon, who had ambitions on many fronts, desperate to liquidate his enormous position in continental America. He sold the territory that comprises the Louisiana Purchase for a pittance, to the US, and essentially created a nearly continental-size country called the US. 

Americans talk of the expansion to a continental-size country in terms of the pluck and the courage and willingness to conquer “the untamed West”. But this all begins with Haiti. Once this happens, the Mississippi River Valley becomes a site of economic exploitation on a very large scale by white people. These territories became the focus of cotton cultivation. And cotton cultivation, like sugar cultivation, was performed by black people, the descendants of people brought from Africa in chains. 

Cotton became, in a shockingly brief period of time, the world’s most important commodity, and the only commodity that other countries were basically desperate to buy from the US. It was the largest export of the US, incomparably greater than any other product from the beginning of the 19th century until the Civil War. 

That cotton, which was essential to England, and its Industrial Revolution, was produced by the descendants of people brought from Africa in chains, enslaved peoples, and so cotton in this era replaces sugar and is the most important factor in the driving of this ascension of the West and the rise of the US as an economic power, as well as the deepening of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.

You argue for a reappraisal of the African’s role in the creation of modernity. What do you hope to see come out of engagement with this work?

I think that we have an opportunity now to overcome something inflicted on us, but also something that involves a degree of self-infliction, through short-sightedness and sometimes petty chauvinism. African Americans, for a very long time, have been disinclined to be deeply interested in Africa. In a previous era, we were actually actively encouraged to be disinterested in Africa and, furthermore, to be ashamed of Africa; to seek to distance ourselves from Africa. 

By the same token, Africans have, through some strange process, sometimes found it attractive to disclaim or express a disdain for members of the African diaspora, especially African Americans. Yes, they can consume some of the culture here and there at the margin. But there’s this petty chauvinism that one still comes across: where Africans talk about African Americans and people in other parts of the African diaspora as inferior or fundamentally different from them, or irrelevant to their lives.

I say this is a self-inflicted wound, because it is so tragic. The greatest resource that Africans and Africans in the diaspora have is each other. Understanding their history, which is a common history, is the way to grasp that and to restitch the world back together with more coherence; a world where we take on a deeper understanding of the profound ways in which our histories have always been intertwined. 

We share responsibility for the creation of everything you can point to in the world. And that is our product as much as it is of a Judeo-Christian thing, or a scientific method thing, or a Protestant work ethic thing, or any other thing that you can point to. For our own good, we need to come to that realisation and begin to work across the ocean and build and restore those bridges. That is vital to reclaiming or restoring our proper place in each of these scattered parts of the Atlantic world in the bigger, broader world.

This is an edited version of an article first published by Africa is a Country.



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