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Feature Article of Thursday, 29 April 2010

Columnist: Akurang-Parry, Kwabena

Ending the Slavery Blame-Game by Henry L. Gates Jr.

“Ending the Slavery Blame-Game” by Henry L. Gates Jr.: Some Perspectives

**Kwabena Akurang-Parry, Ph. D.

LET me state some caveats that my effort at interrogating the conclusions of Professor Henry Louis Gates do not mitigate the marginality and chattel nature that reconfigured the lived-experiences of enslaved Africans worldwide, nor does it exonerate slave-holding societies in Africa as well as some African states’ participation in the Atlantic slave trade. Second, I do understand Gates to mean that the blame for the Atlantic slave trade should be debited to both Africans and Europeans/Americans, consequently reparations should also be the responsibility of Africans. Third, this is not about reparations, but more so about querying and rethinking some of Gates’ historical arguments and conclusions from the standpoints of “Akan” oral history wedded to “Western” sources, indeed, a bold departure from most of the commentaries framed around “Western” sources.

CAREFUL readings of Gates’ efforts at illuminating the Atlantic slave trade and the quest for reparations, pivoted on Obama’s presidency, illustrate Gates’ subtle preoccupation with blaming Africans for the slave trade. Gates’ present essay, full of inaccuracies and spiced with dizzying barber-shop narratives, revisits his perspectives on Africa and the Atlantic slave trade couched during his Conradian scholarly-tour of Africa, packaged as and standardized as homegrown African history for his conservative audience and sponsors.

THE viewpoint that “Africans” enslaved “Africans” is obfuscating if not troubling. The deployment of “African” in African history tends to coalesce into obscurantist constructions of identities that allow scholars, for instance, to subtly call into question the humanity of “all” Africans. Whenever Asante rulers sold non-Asantes into slavery, they did not construct it in terms of Africans selling fellow Africans. They saw the victims for what they were, for instance, as Akuapems, without categorizing them as fellow Africans. Equally, when Christian Scandinavians and Russians sold war captives to the Islamic people of the Abbasid Empire, they didn’t think that they were placing fellow Europeans into slavery. This lazy categorizing homogenizes Africans and has become a part of the methodology of African history; not surprisingly, the Western media’s cottage industry on Africa has tapped into it to frame Africans in inchoate generalities allowing the media to describe local crisis in one African state as “African” problem.

GATES writes that “Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Asante dominated the Akan gold trade and exported gold overseas; thus, they didn’t have to sell slaves to import gold. In sum, Asante had access to gold in the area described by Kwame Arhin as Greater Asante. Absolutely, the slave trade contributed to the expansion of Asante, but Asante’s political economy was not wholly dependent on the export of slaves. What is also clear is that the profit from the sale of slaves was used in purchasing guns, the most important commodity that facilitated both the military defense of individual African states as well as the supply of slaves to the Europeans. For its part, the Kongo state was already prosperous before the advent of the Portuguese in 1483. Although, slavery and slave trade were a part of the political economy of the Kongo, it was by no means the dominant one. The people of the Kongo dealt in iron, copperware, pottery, and textile goods, and had extensive markets as well. It was the Portuguese presence that intensified the incidence of slavery and eclipsed other forms of economic ventures just as much as the Portuguese, British, Dutch, etc. presence increased and reconfigured the institutional mechanisms of enslavement in West Africa.

ADDITIONALLY, Gates notes that: “some African monarchs also sent their children along these same slave routes to be educated in Europe. And there were thousands of former slaves who returned to settle Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Middle Passage, in other words, was sometimes a two-way street. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to claim that Africans were ignorant or innocent.” Even if Africans knew about the conditions of slaves in the Americas, there was very little that the so-called 90 percent of “Africans” enslaved by fellow “Africans” could do to thwart their enslavement. In other words, they did not choose enslavement over freedom. Besides, Africans educated in Europe were pedagogically conditioned to accept the demonization of people of African descent in currency, and when they returned home imputed similar inferiorization to other Africans. For example, Gates should know that Jacobus Eliza Johannes Capitein, an African intellectual giant educated overseas had even defended the slave trade. Capitein was born in 1717 in the Gold Coast and sold into slavery to Jacob van Goch, an official of the Dutch West Indian Company then operating in the Gold Coast. Capitein accompanied his master to the Netherlands, studied and attained advanced degrees, and in 1742 chronicled One of the most covered themes in the book is Capitein’s sustained perspectives on compatibility of slavery and Christianity. Thus, it is fair to conclude that some of those who had acquired European higher education like Capitein had assimilated dosages of Eurocentric pedagogies and epistemologies then in currency and which had informed their education. This should not be difficult to understand: throughout the early colonial period some Africans who hailed colonialism belonged to the educated elite. In contemporary Africa, it is the educated elites that have increasingly championed the movement away from composite African values by happily latching onto neocolonial tastes and values, in fact, seismic cultural shifts called Globalization in some quarters.

THERE are a number of subtle suggestions which undergird Gates’ essay of blame-game that are plucked from the works of Linda Heywood and John Thornton whose conclusions are shaped by the extant Eurocentric records. One is the notion that wars in precolonial Africa were mostly geared toward the acquisition of slaves for the Atlantic market. Oral history/traditions amply illustrate that some wars in precolonial Africa, even during the period of the Atlantic slave trade, also served as conduits of freeing slaves. Historians of slavery in Africa, mostly non-Africans, have overemphasized the colonial conquest and its consequent wars as auspicious moments that enabled slaves in Africa to take to the pathways of freedom. Conversely, warfare among precolonial African states and African wars of resistance to incipient European domination in the precolonial 19th-century, both of which contributed to slave flights and reunited deserting slaves with their families, have not garnered the attention they deserve. For example, in 1730-31, when Akyem Abuakwa assisted the region of Akuapem to wean the inhabitants off Akwamu domination, a large number of Akuapems, who had been enslaved by the Akwamus, returned to their families in Akuapem and public celebrations were used to welcome them home. Also in the aftermath of the Asante resistance to the budding British imperialism in 1873-74, “slaves,” according to colonial and Christian missionary reports as well as newspaper accounts, left their slave-holders in Greater Asante and its coterminous regions, including Bono, Adansi, Asante-Akyem, Denkyira, etc. and returned to their families and communities. Of course, not all fleeing slaves were able to return to their respective homes in a timely fashion, and about this, the reports describe massive “refugee” movements in the area between the Pra, Ofin, Birim, and Densu Rivers, notably encompassing parts of Akyem Abuakwa, Denkyira, Gomoa, Agona and Fante territories. Even war-scares, such as the ones which occurred between the Akuapems and Krobos in the l8th and 19th centuries, also triggered slave flights and some of the fleeing slaves found their way home, or built slave villages that would form the nucleus of some Krobo and Akuapem satellite communities.

ECONOMIC motives, according to Gates, are what compositely explain the “role Africans themselves played” in the Atlantic slave trade as suppliers of the European slave traders’ appetite for slaves. Although, direct economic reasons may be used to explain the European involvement in the age of capitalism and slavery, it does not fully explain African states’ participation in the Atlantic slave trade. More than economic gain was the pernicious gun-slave-cycle that compelled African states to arm themselves with European-made guns, the most important commodity of the Triangular Trade to West and West-Central Africa, both for protection and as a means of acquiring war captives to sell to European slave traders in order to paradoxically procure more guns for protection. In my view the participation of African states was conditioned more by political motives for protection than short-term economic gains.

GATES argues that since European slave traders lived in the coastal trading posts, the blame for the Atlantic slave trade wholly lies with Africans who captured fellow “Africans” in the interior and sold them to Europeans. His argument is an attractive proposition obviously quarried from the historiography. Unlike “Western” sources that inform much of the historiography, the use of oral history allows us to interrogate Gates’ conclusions at several levels. First, 1871, Gates’ date for the so-called European exploration of the interior of Africa, is wrong: long before 1871, Europeans had visited the interior parts of the continent. Oral history collected by scholars at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, shows that during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, “aborofo/oburoni”[whites] visited the interior of what is today Ghana, broadly defined as the region between Greater Asante and the littoral stretching from Edina [Elmina] in the west to Keta in the east. Even granted that Europeans never set foot in the interior of West Africa and West-Central Africa, there is no doubt that their presence in the trading posts along the coast enabled them to influence politics that led to wars of enslavement, and the example of Portuguese predatory activities in the Kongo may be summoned to elucidate this conclusion. Second, oral history shows that some indigenous rulers in the Gold Coast and European agents held regular meetings regarding the on-going slave trade in the precincts of the castles and forts. During such durbars or “palavers” Asafo Mma [so-called Companies] or lineage-based warrior groups exhibited their weaponry and demonstrated their military skills defined by warrior “traditions” to the delight of all. Third, the extant literature illustrates that the forts and castles served as permanent hegemonic sites that enabled some European states to influence economic, social, and political developments in both the coastal and immediate interior regions. Finally, the bolts of supply and demand were not tied to space and physical presence: some European/American states’ demand for slaves existed and African states like Asante and Dahomey supplied it; more importantly, the Asante and Dahomian supply curves met the European/American slave traders’ demand along the lines of proliferation of European-made guns which fueled the political economy of destructive gun-slave-cycles in much of West and West-Central Africa.

FURTHERMORE, Gates, like most Western interpreters of slavery, slave trade, and abolition, attributes abolition solely to non-African agency. The Atlantic slave trade was as much a trade in “commodities” as it was in diffusing prevailing osmotic abolition ideologies in the Atlantic world. Even if we assumed that abolition began in the West as a staple pearl of the historiography would have us believe, the movement of osmotic ideas was also assimilated by Africans, unless Gates and others want to argue that Africans did not know the meaning of freedom, or were incapable of constructing and applying freedoms during the global abolition epoch. In fact, recent research amply suggests that the seeds of abolition in the Gold Coast had been nursed by the Gold Coast educated elite long before the British colonial agents implemented abolition in 1874-75, and the Gold Coast educated elite led by Timothy Hutton Brew, for example, argued that the British colonial government’s abolition policy was woefully inadequate.

Like most of Gates’ applications of episodic and evanescent evidence, he cites the example of a few African leaders’ acknowledgements of African participation in the Atlantic slave trade as evidence that Africans have accepted blame for the trade. Indeed, he stretches the facts to suit his conclusions. African leaders have not accepted wholesale blame for the Atlantic slave trade. Rather, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana and others commented on the role of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade, but did not impute blame to Africans. Additionally, Gates does not explain the diplomatic contexts in which such apologies were demanded and rendered. The more important question that Gates should examine in juxtaposition with the African leaders’ acknowledgement of the role of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade is this: has any European/American leader, to borrow his words, “fall[en] to his/her knees and beg[ged] African-Americans' forgiveness for the ‘shameful’ and ‘abominable’ role [Europeans/Americans] played in the trade”? The answer is a resounding no!

I SUPPORT reparations in the sense of creating equal opportunities for all, for instance, access to social mobility in the form of better educational facilities for the descendants of enslaved Africans worldwide. In my view, instead of UNESCO and Western governments and their capitalist institutional agents, the beneficiaries of the Atlantic slave trade, using millions of dollars to fund numerous, albeit recycled, conferences on slavery in Africa, Atlantic slave trade, abolition, slave routes, etc. that use mostly European/American sources to marginalize African voices, such “global-family” funds should rather be used to improve educational facilities, etc. for the victims of the Atlantic slave trade in Africa, the Americas, Europe, Middle East, etc. This approach would help restore the voices of the descendants of the victims of the Atlantic slave trade to history.

FINALLY, let me reminisce over what my late father, who was a repository of oral history, told me when I returned to my beloved Ghana to gather oral history for my Ph. D. dissertation. We were discussing the relevance of my topic, which was abolition of domestic slavery in the Gold Coast, when the question of reparations came up. The Old Man ran his fingers through his lush, but savannah-like beard, and said that “Present-day Africans and African Americans descended from both the African slave-traders and the enslaved Africans so why should one group apologize to the other for the sins of their “fathers” [Nananom a won ako won akyi]? To this day, I have not found answers to that question, but what I can infer from it is that Africans and African Americans, in fact, people of African descent worldwide, should build bridges of “racial” harmony that speak truth to hegemonic powers and their institutional enclaves instead of stoking fires that have the potential to burn such needed bridges! May be Professor Henry Louis Gates has all the answers.

**Kwabena Akurang-Parry is Professor of History at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, USA. He may be contacted at kaparr@ship.edu

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