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9. BLACK AFRICA DEFENDED, HISTORY AND PEOPLE (March 2006)
There is something about Africa and Blacks that has brought out the disregard and contempt even in educated Western men and women, and made them say that there was nothing there; people, yes, though inferior people, but nothing worth calling history or civilization. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), in his Philosophy of History, said that Black Africa "is not a historical continent; it shows neither change nor development". Hegel called Africans "non-historical peoples". So confident was he of these judgments that he didn't even let his ignorance of African history stand in the way of making them. Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, published in 10 volumes between 1933 and 1954, seems to almost shake with disdain when, in his endless work, he makes one of his rare comments on Africa: "The Black races alone have not contributed positively to any civilization-- as yet....We shall find that in Africa the plateau was no more productive of a 'civilized' society than the tropical forests of the great river valley [Congo River]....His primitive social heritage was of so frail a texture...he came to America spiritually as well as physically naked...a simple and impressionable mind...childlike spiritual intuition...." etc. I looked to H.G. Wells, a more politically progressive writer than Toynbee, whose The Outline of History is subtitled The Whole Story of Man, but the story is whole without some of its parts: Black Africa is barely mentioned. He admits, though, that those Black slugs did manage to fly a little when they had some lucky white wings attached:
"To the south of the civilized zone, in central and
southern Africa, the negro was making a slower progress,
and that, it would seem, under the stimulus of whiter tribes
from the Mediterranean regions, bringing with them in
succession cultivation and the use of metals. These tribes
came to the black by two routes: across the Sahara to the
west as Berbers and Tuaregs and the like, to mix with the
negro and create such quasi-white races as the Fulas; and
also by way of the Nile, where the Baganda (= Gandafolk)
of Uganda, for example, may possibly include some
element of a remote white origin."
That's from the updated (by Raymond Postgate) edition of 1961.
Even a work as recent as Jacquetta Hawkes' The Atlas of Early Man, which covers 35,000 BC to 500 AD, published in 1976, by which date it's hard to make excuses for any writer, gives Black Africa three sentences. One. And then there's the other two. She seems to include Black Africa in a few other sentences primarily referring to Egypt and North Africa.
And I'm not even discussing the more violently racist work which has littered the discussion for centuries. A recent example would be J. Philippe Rushton's Race, Evolution, and Behavior, published in 1995. He'd object to my calling his production "violently racist". He considers the conclusions reasoned and objective, as do others who write like him. Rushton, an exceptionally learned man, marshals a mountain of what he considers scientific evidence (and much is) to make an open and almost refreshingly unapologetic case for Black inferiority, and the inferiority of their societies in the Old World. We will return to him later.
We can't now, because it's 1483-- and all the works we've mentioned have yet to be written, and attitudes haven't hardened. Even Christopher Columbus is still a year away from his first attempt to interest a European monarch in this idea he has, this...inspiration, for what will turn out to be the most important journey in the history of the human race. But the first Western ships have already sailed south to Africa. Indeed, it was in Spring of 1441 that a Portuguese expedition of 2 caravels set off down the Atlantic coast of Africa, barely reaching what is now western Mauritania, and taking Portugal's first slaves by sea. Another expedition of 5 ships in the Summer of 1444 went a bit further south. A chronicler of the voyage, Gomes Eannes de Azurara, wrote how
"On the following day, the eighth in the month of
August, the crews put the boats in order at an early hour
because of the heat and led the  captives ashore. It was
truly a wonderful sight to see them all standing there, for some
were fairly white and well-formed, some were as yellow as
mulattos, and some were as black as Ethiopians and so
revoltingly ugly and misshapen that one regarded them as
creatures from a lower world...Some lowered their tear-
splashed faces, others bewailed themselves loudly and turned
their eyes to the heavens, and still others struck themselves
in the face and threw themselves to the ground. There were
those who sang lamentations...."
Columbus himself voyaged once, maybe twice, to Africa in the 1480's, commanding
one of the expeditions. His journeys were as far as present-day Ghana. But by
then the Westerners had gone even further. By 1483 the Portuguese Diogo Cao had
reached the mouth of the Congo. The natives called the river the Zaire, Cao
named it Rio Sao Jorge, but it would come to be known as the Congo River, after
"Mani Congo"-- "Chief of the Congo"-- the title of the King.
Diogo Cao sailed just a bit up the River, not far enough to reach Mani Congo's
court, though he did send several Portuguese-- 4 Franciscan monks-- on to the
court with gifts. His relations with the Africans he met were friendly and
honorable, a rare exception to the bloody Conquistador ethos of his time, and
the Congolese reciprocated. As a chronicler of this particular voyage, Luca
Wadding, a Franciscan friar, put it, Cao "saw the black heathen Ethiopians
[sic], who in mind as in behaviour are amiable...Their movements were confident
and fearless, and he treated them well." When Cao sailed back to Europe it
was with 4 Congolese on board as free passengers, not captives or slaves, with
the assurance they'd be returned to their land after their trip to Portugal was
finished. (Which they were, and as Christians.)
They were hardly the first Black Africans in Europe. There had been Blacks in Europe since ancient times, often but not always as slaves, and they were accepted as normal human beings, good and bad. And in more recent times King Wedem Ar'ad of Ethiopia had sent a 30-person-strong delegation to Europe in 1306. The Ethiopians visited Spain, France and Italy before returning home. Their main goals, being Christians, were to establish an alliance with the Europeans against Islam, and to reinforce their tenuous ties with Christians in distant lands. The trip was long and hard and dangerous, but Ethiopians continued to make it on occasion. By the 1400's they were asking Europeans to in turn travel to Ethiopia and include among them experts in such areas as architecture and metalwork (gold and silver), and in fact a 1450 Ethiopian mission to Italy did gather some such craftsmen and brought them back. The 4-man Congolese delegation reached Portugal in 1484, and was quickly followed by a Beninese delegation in 1486, 2 from Senegal in 1487 and 1488, and another from the Congo in 1488. One of the Senegalese delegations included Bumi Jeleen, effectively the King of the Jolof people. (Jeleen's maternal half-brother, technically the King, had asked Jeleen to run that kingdom for him, as he "preferred to devote his life to the pursuit of pleasure.") (Africa's Discovery of Europe: 1450-1850, David Northrup, 24) There was no feeling on the Portuguese's part that they were dealing with inferiors, either in Europe or back in Africa. "King Jeleen had a commanding presence", and the chronicler Rui de Pina commented on how he displayed "great ease, majesty and considerable gravity...with all the eloquence of a Greek prince...shrewd judgment and very natural dignity.' " (Ibid., 25)
Many of the Africans who met the first European expeditions showed eagerness, in a dignified way, to learn from them, not to become them, but to learn from them. The Europeans, for their part, respected the Africans as beings...though the devilish worm that forever gnaws at Western minds was at work.
They respected them. And, while never doubting the superiority of their own European and Christian civilization, were often quite impressed. Olfert Dapper, a Dutchman, who published a book on Africa in 1668-- he had never been there himself, but drew on accounts by contemporary and earlier Dutch visitors-- offered a view of the royal palace in the city of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, by the Dutch merchant Samuel Bloemart:
"The king's court is square...and is certainly as large
as the town of Haarlem, and entirely surrounded by a
special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is
divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and
apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and
long square galleries, about as large as the [Stock]
Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another,
resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with
cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their
war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean."
It is so interesting how cultures and peoples so firmly assigned to inferiority
centuries later by persons who never actually experienced them could have had
such an opposite effect on the Westerners who were actually there at the time.
This phenomenon was observed in Africa as in the New World and elsewhere. For
instance, Pedro Sancho de la Hoz, a Conquistador with Pizarro, wrote of the Inca
capital Cuzco that "The city...is so beautiful that it is worthy of being
seen in Spain. It is full of lordly palaces and there are no poor people in
sight." Cortez's Conquistadors, looking down into the Valley of Mexico for
the first time and finally gazing on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, were
awestruck. One of them, Bernal Diaz, wrote "...we were amazed and we said
it was like the enchanted things related in the book of Amadis because of the
great towers, temples and buildings rising from the water....Gazing on such
wonderful sights, we did not know what to say or whether what appeared before us
The city of Benin, while not on Tenochtitlan's level, still was an impressive sight to a European's eyes. Its population in 1600 was about 65,000, one of the largest cities in Black Africa, a population about the same as or even bigger than Antwerp, Hamburg, Florence or Madrid. Within its walls it well featured 2 of the primary characteristics of all advanced societies-- social stratification and specialization. As in the cities of Europe, craftsmen organized themselves in guilds, about 50 of them: ironsmiths, brassworkers, bronzeworkers, woodcarvers, ivorycarvers, weavers, doctors, leatherworkers and others. The city and the Kingdom of Benin surrounding it were also the location of one of Africa's greatest schools of sculpture, producing works that are now treasured by museums around the world, though it wasn't until the 20th Century that the Western eye could appreciate them. As for the city's (earthen) walls, Fiona Macdonald in Ancient African Town claims that "The walls in and around Benin City are the second largest man-made structure after the Great Wall of China." (30)
It is simply not true that Africans were unchanging and uninventive and lacking in effort and reach as human beings. Not far from Benin, still in Nigeria, in what was then an ancient kingdom of the Yoruba people, are the remains of an earthen wall 100 miles long and 70 feet high and surrounded by a moat, enclosing an area of about 550 square miles, dated to the 900's AD, built apparently for spiritual reasons, and called Sungbo's Eredo, after Sungbo, the African woman who legend says had it constructed. Now "Much of the Eredo lies in ruins, or hidden in the nearly impenetrable rain forest, ignored by locals and Government officials alike....the country has drawn relatively few archaeologists...Many of the country's museums have been looted; and when artifacts are discovered in digs, they are usually sold overseas...." ("A Wall, a Moat, Behold! A Lost Yoruba Kingdom", Norimitsu Onishi, N.Y. Times, 9/20/99, A4)
It is important to understand that civilizations and societies rise and fall like the tides, and what's unshining today may once have shone, may indeed have had a richness and complexity the present state of things doesn't indicate. Yet, inevitably, people make sharp judgments. There are endless examples of this phenomenon. A for instance. Findings by modern archaeologists indicate that the current (technologically) backward condition of Amazon tribesmen is the result not of an eternal lag, but of the breakdown, after the European onslaught, of a once far more complex and developed Amazonian civilization, and the result too of their desperate attempt to flee from the Europeans deeper into impenetrable jungle, where their lives became inevitably poorer. (Or what they hoped was impenetrable.) There are so many similar examples-- Cambodia after Angkor Wat's fall, the Native American Mound Cultures of the Southeast with civic centers like Cohokia and Etowah, and the Congolese themselves.
Today the Congo is indeed a torn and tragic land. And a backward one. But is that a reflection of Africans' fundamental nature-- a gene for torn, a gene for tragic, and 100 genes for backward?-- or does it reflect one of the consequences of a modern, worldspanning civilization which builds unprecedentedly and by its nature seemingly must tear greatly too, and tragically, and especially has in the last 100 years? In other words, some societies are left as road kill.
A civilization from whose effects there seems to be no escape, no matter how distant your nation, how deep the jungle.
Certainly, when the Europeans first explored the Congo region-- not that it was ever a paradise, because no place is-- there turned out to be much they in fact liked and admired and were impressed by. The Italian Filippo Pigafetta-- who worked with a Portuguese, Duarte Lopez, who had traveled to the Congo in 1578, to produce A Report Of The Kingdom Of Congo And Of The Surrounding Countries in 1591-- wrote how
"These people are...simple, sincere and loyal....it is
necessary to relate the wonderful manner in which the people
of this and the adjacent countries make various kinds of
stuffs, such as velvets with and without nap, brocades,
satins, taffetas, damasks, and suchlike....Every one who
possibly can dresses in these garments, for they have the
quality of resisting water, and are very light. The Portuguese
also use them for tent cloths, as they are wonderfully proof
against both rain and wind....This belt, as we have said, is of
exquisite workmanship....The country is peculiarly rich in
mines of silver and copper...It also abounds in all manner of
produce....The whole plain is fruitful and cultivated...and from
the white flour excellent bread is made....The variety of trees
is so great as to produce sufficient fruit to supply nearly the
whole population with food. Amongst them are citrons, lemons,
and, above all, luscious orange-trees....The gardens produce
every kind of vegetable and fruit, such as melons, water-melons,
cucumbers, cauliflowers, and many others of like kind....King
Dom Diego [his Christian name], a man of noble mind, witty,
intelligent, prudent in counsel....Pipes and flutes are also played
with great skill at the king's court, whilst the people dance
somewhat in Moorish fashion, with gravity and dignity."
These Europeans were welcomed first as gods and then as brothers and teachers,
and treated with the kindness and consideration and open hospitality that so
many early travelers to Africa comment on. The great Ibn Battuta, the Marco Polo
of the Islamic world, traveled to Mali in the 1350's, and tells a characteristic
story: "One day I had gone to the [Niger River] to accomplish a need when
one of the Sudan [a generic Arab term for Black people] came and stood between
the river and me. I was amazed at his ill manners and lack of modesty and
mentioned this to somebody, who said: 'He did that only because he feared for
you on account of the crocodile, so he placed himself between you and it.'
" (Ibn Battuta also comments on "the security embracing the whole
country, so that neither the traveler there nor dweller has anything to fear
from thief or usurper.")
My favorite story of this kindness of Africans is an incident that happened along the coast of Mozambique in 1589:
"...Africans in southern Mozambique who encountered
survivors of the Sao Thome wreck in 1589...made the refugees
welcome, offered them shelter, and came to stare. The
'women of the village gathered to see the white women, as
something marvelous, and all night they gave them many
entertainments and dances.' At another village a few days
later, the African women also marveled at the unfamiliar sight
of their European sisters trudging toward their village, and,
'seeing them so weary and distressed, made signs of
compassion, and drawing near caressed and fondled them,
offering them their huts and desiring even to take them there
at once.' " (Africa's Discovery of Europe: 1450-1850, David
Famous is the account by Mungo Park, the British explorer who recklessly traveled through West Africa sometimes alone in the 1790's, and could have died many times and in many places had Africans not reached out to him with pity and kindness (Really, by the 1790's they should have known better.):
"I set off for the village; where I found, to my great
mortification, that no person would admit me into his house...
and was obliged to sit all day without victuals, in the shade
of a tree; and the night threatened to be very uncomfortable...
About sunset, however...a woman, returning from the
labours of the field, stopped to observe me, and perceiving
that I was weary and dejected...with looks of great compassion,
she took up my saddle and bridle, and told me to follow her.
Having conducted me into her hut...she said she would
procure me something to eat...and returned in a short time
with a very fine fish...called to the female part of her family,
who...lightened their labour by songs...and the words,
literally translated, were these.--...'The poor white man,
faint and weary, came and sat under our tree.--He has no
mother to bring him milk; no wife to grind his corn.
Chorus. Let us pity the white man; no mother has he....' "
And these are the people so many White writers pounded with hate and contempt for centuries.
"In Natal in 1589 and again in 1593, the Africans
decided, on the basis of the Europeans' light coloring, that
they had come from the sky, rather than from the sea. One
old man joyfully shouted to his village, 'Come, come and
see these men who are children of the sun.' " (Northrup, 18)
The 1500's were a unique time, a time that could happen only once in human
history: the great coming together of the human family after 10's of 1,000's of
years of separation. And it was given to the West to determine the course of
this in-gathering-- and, perhaps, set the tone of human history for all time to
come. They were like guides given their choice: to take their charges down a
tunnel of light or a tunnel of darkness, either journey for eternity. No other
group of humans was ever blessed with such an opportunity.
Now I don't mean to use this essay to add to the romanticizing of Africa, or Black people, or to make excuses for Africans out of guilt or pity or ignorance or-- characteristic of many Whites now-- a conscious or subconscious envy of them and actual kind of lust to transform into them. The Africa the explorers discovered showed great beauty and accomplishment combined with the dangerous and the dispiriting. Not every Black was kind to Whites. (And, as always, the women were kinder than the men.) Sometimes Whites were robbed or cheated or killed. The first two happened to Mungo Park, and on his second trip to Africa he died in an ambush. Indeed, his entire expedition was wiped out. Nothing proves the essential humanity of Africans more than that they were a mixed bag.
But surely, taken overall, this was not a primitive land the Europeans had happened upon. It was not at all comparable to Polynesia, or Melanesia, or Micronesia, or Australia, or Tasmania or much of North or South America. It was cuts above. The best of it was certainly more advanced than the more backward parts of Europe, such as Finland or the Ural-Volga region or some other areas. If you're looking for primitive-- we only mean technologically, no value judgment implied-- you have to look elsewhere, to people like the Polynesians, who had no cities, no metal, no pottery, no writing, no loom textiles outside of the crude bark thread cloth of the Maoris in New Zealand, simpler art, simpler agriculture, and no large domesticated animals (pig, dog and chicken only). Yet somehow Whites have never ranted against Polynesians, never questioned their humanity or capacity the way they have with Blacks-- whose societies were objectively more advanced. Indeed, as is well known, the West has deeply romanticized and praised Polynesia. Even peoples like the Australian Aborigines or the tragic Tasmanians south of them (wiped out to the very last one by the Whites, except for a few mixed-bloods-- a Final Solution so clean and brutal, and total, that it still gives Adolf Hitler a hard-on as he burns eternally in Hell)-- without agriculture, with no domesticated animals other than dogs (and the Tasmanians didn't even have those), tools so simple they're comparable to what other people were using in the Ice Age (neither even had bows and arrows), the most rudimentary of governments, naked or at most wearing skins, housing crude huts or lean-to's, where they didn't simply settle for lying on the ground beside a fire (which possibly the Tasmanians didn't even know how to make)-- even these two peoples have never had to bear the sustained opprobrium Whites have directed at Africans and their New World descendents. J. Philippe Rushton actually speaks of "Negroids and the Australian aborigines" in the same damning breath, even though African civilization was an order of magnitude higher. The simple, undramatic truth-- equally unsatisfying to racists at one end and racial cheerleaders (Martin Bernal: "Among the group now known as 'Afrocentrists' there is little or no doubt about black African origins of European civilization.") at the other-- is that, on average, Africans were in the middle of the pack in the run of civilization-- behind, on average, most of Europe and some of Asia, and ahead of everybody else. Why then the fury of argument about them, the continual reaching for evidence to prove them dead last amongst humanity for capacity, the search for every possible proof from IQ tests to the Bible-- when the truth is so obvious and unexceptionable? I think we need to go deep into the psychology of the accusers, not the accused.
The fact that Black Africa learned some of civilization's techniques from others over the millennia-- though not nearly as much as many people think-- is no mark against them. An eagerness to learn, to advance, from whatever source, and a capacity to do so-- is in fact an indicator of energy and intelligence. By contrast, the Australian Aborigines-- though fundamentally as intelligent as other groups-- basically closed themselves off from outside influences. And, yes, there were such influences-- the Aborigines' isolation wasn't complete. Just across the narrow Torres Strait in the north were the agricultural Papuans, with whom the northernmost Aborigines had some contact. Unquestionably, Indonesians voyaged to Australia, though how far back is uncertain. Possibly, Chinese junks reached Australia, even a few Polynesian vessels too. But the Aborigines basically went on as they had.
Most Africans, on the other hand, were open to change. In April of 1491 the hope of at least a good portion of the Congolese people to receive the knowledge and faith of the Europeans appeared to be answered, as a large group of Portuguese, including missionaries and craftsmen, approached the Kingdom's capital. Waiting to greet them was King Nzinga a Nkuwu, who within a month would be baptized and renamed Joao the First.
The welcome by the Congolese was open-hearted and rapturous. Pigafetta writes:
"So great was the multitude who ran to see the
Portuguese Christians, that is seemed as if the whole
country were covered with people, who loaded them
with kindnesses, singing and making sounds with cymbals
and trumpets, and other instruments of the country. And
it is pleasant to add that for 150 miles between the
sea-coast and San Salvador [as the capital was to be
renamed] the roads were all clean and swept, and
abundantly furnished with food and other provisions for the
Portuguese...the Portuguese being honored as heroes
for bringing the King the gift of faith, for the welfare of
his soul, and to every one alike the light of God and
eternal salvation...Within three miles of the city, all the
Court came to meet the Portuguese with great pomp,
and with music and singing...and so great was the crowd
that not a tree or a raised place but was covered with
people running together to see these strangers...The king
awaited them...seated on a throne....rose from his seat,
and showed by words and countenance the great joy he
felt at the arrival of the Christians, and sat down again
in presence of his people. These last, immediately after
the speech of the king, with songs and music, and
other signs of delight, also manifested their satisfaction
with the embassy, and as an act of submission, prostrated
themselves three times on the ground...."
One is reminded here of some of Cortez's procession to Tenochtitlan, though the
Africans' emotions were more genuine and less mixed with fear than the Indians',
or, on a smaller scale, the full-hearted friendliness and joy with which the
Native Americans greeted Columbus, as he wrote in his ship's log on October 14,
1492, his third day in the New World: "...and the people came to the beach,
shouting and praising God. Some brought us water; others, things to eat...and
others shouted in loud voices to everyone on the beach, saying, 'Come see the
men from Heaven; bring them food and drink.'...They threw themselves on the sand
and raised their hands to the sky, shouting for us to come ashore, while giving
thanks to God."
These were indeed pivotal moments in the history of man, and one wonders where morality and kindness could have taken us.
Jeleen, the de facto King of Jolof, was eventually sent back to his land after his conversion. The returning expedition looked grand, 20 ships in all, an enormous fleet for the 1400's. The main reason it was so large was that the Portuguese were looking to place a puppet Christian King on an African throne. But something went wrong.
"Soon after arriving in Senegal, the captain of the fleet, fearful of dying of a tropical disease, killed King Jeleen and sailed straight back to Portugal...The kingdom remained in the hands of the rebels [who didn't want a Christian King or a Portuguese puppet] and the plans for its conversion to Christianity were abandoned.
King Joao [of Portugal] was deeply saddened by Jeleen's death, but he left its perpetrator unpunished. [So was he really "deeply saddened"?] (Africa's Discovery of Europe: 1450-1850, David Northrup, 25-26)
Something went wrong in the Congo too. The Portuguese began burning the unconverted Africans' religious sculptures, attacked polygamy, and began interfering in the workings of government. But King Joao/Nzinga a Nkuwu's successor King Afonso continued the Christianization and Westernizing of his land. It was hard, though. His people were being enslaved by the Christians. In 1526 he wrote poignantly to his "brother" in Portugal: "...the merchants are taking every day our natives, sons of the land and the sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives...they grab them and get them to be sold....We beg of Your Highness to help and assist us in this matter...."
But actually the clergy who'd been welcomed with open arms were involved in the enslaving! "We even know of the revealing case of a priest, Father Ribeiro, who sold the sacerdotal objects in order to buy slaves!....In the Kongo and Angola the clergy openly participated in the system of slavery. The bishops and missionaries had slaves for their personal service and for their plantations." (Daily Life in the Kingdom of the Kongo, Georges Balandier, 81) In neighboring Angola the Jesuits would end up employing 3 of their own ships in the slave trade. (Primitive Peoples Today, Edward Weyer Jr., 169-170)
The angel-demons had indeed arrived, the Gods-Who-Are-Devils with all their magical and hard ways.
You can see it in Columbus' log, his mind ticking and tocking, back and forth, evolving the possibilities, the whole next half-a-millennium laid out in advance:
"I want the natives to develop a friendly attitude toward us because I know that they are a people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Faith more by love than by force." (October 12, 1492, first day in the New World)
"They ought to make good and skilled servants...." (October 12, 1492)
"I have been very attentive and tried very hard to find out if there is any gold here....I cannot get over the fact of how docile these people are." (October 13, 1492)
"...these people are very unskilled in arms." (October 14, 1492)
"...I cannot stay long enough to see everything. I must move on to discover others and to find gold." (October 17, 1492)
"...they are the best and gentlest people in the world....(December 16, 1492)
"They have no arms and are naked...A thousand of them would not face three Christians, and so they are suitable to be governed and made to work...." (December 16, 1492)
"...I am sure that I could subjugate the entire island...." (December 26, 1492)
Not that the Indians, or the Congolese, were pristine. Both had slavery before the Great Ships arrived. King Afonso wasn't so much upset by the slave trade going on-- he had agreed to it, and thought to profit by it-- as that his own people, including noblemen! and relatives! were being caught up in it, not just foreign Blacks as he'd expected. A successor to the Congolese throne, Garcia II, wrote of the slave trade in the early 1640's that it was "our disgrace, and that of our predecessors, that we, in our simplicity, have opened the way for many evils in our kingdom...." But it was too late. The pact had been made. The foreign goods, the metalware, those amazing things called firearms, Portuguese troops when needed, all had been delivered for the warm Black bodies. "...the evils were too great to be checked, let alone stopped...and in 1665 a Portuguese army, invading Kongo, smashed the king's armies in a decisive battle. From that time onward...the kings were seldom more than Portuguese puppets, and the Kongo kingdom fell apart in conflict and confusion." (East and Central Africa to the Late Nineteenth Century, Basil Davidson, 271)
Long before, Tenochtitlan, the city Diaz and the other Conquistadors had gazed on, or gaped on, had been destroyed, the Spaniards erecting a new European-style city on its ruins, ruling over a new nation where the natives were second-class citizens at best, at worst slaves. And those docile beings Columbus had praised, sized up and targeted all at the same time?-- "the best and gentlest people in the word"-- the Indians of the Caribbean islands-- they had been wiped off the face of the Earth, close to every single one of them, in one of the greatest Holocausts of all time.
The speed, and the stunning cruelty, with which the Spaniards fell on the Caribbean, have few parallels in human history, despite all that would follow in that history. It began with Columbus on the island of Hispaniola (today divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic) on his return from Spain. He was now aided in rule by his brothers Bartholomew and Diego.
Nobody admires Columbus more than the historian Samuel Eliot Morison, twice his biographer, especially as one sailor to another. Columbus was unquestionably the greatest sailor of his time, and perhaps the greatest "dead reckoning" sailor who ever lived, but he was to the Indians as a demon leaping on you from your nightmare:
"For almost a year the Columbus brothers were
occupied with subjugating and organizing Hispaniola in
order to obtain as much gold as possible...and armed
men were sent to force the natives to deliver a tribute
of gold, the alternative to being killed...the only way they
could get enough to pay the tribute was by continual,
unremitting labor...Even after the tribute was cut down
fifty per cent, it was impossible, for the most part, to
fulfill. Indians took to the mountains, where the Spaniards
hunted them with hounds; many who escaped their
torturers died of starvation; others took cassava poison
to end their miseries." (Christopher Columbus, Mariner,
Samuel Eliot Morison, 99)
When Columbus reached Hispaniola the population was about 250,000 according to
some scholars, as much as a million according to others. By 1542 fewer than 500
"The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide." (Ibid., 99)
The Europeans came to the New World from lands that had labored long in darkness after the fall of Rome. They were children of the Black Death and an infinity of other plagues (many diseases of dirtiness), before which the quackery they called medicine was helpless, of the Little Ice Age, which at its worst made a full measure of even primitive civilization impossible, of societies so backward and prideless in personal hygiene that men and women lived their whole lives unwashed and caked with their own feces (see my essay on the history of toilets), of serfdom and slavery, houses barely warmed, streets barely lit, people starved for the material, of famines that swept millions away, of endless centuries of meaningless warfare where men hacked at each other as if cutting away poisoned meat, hacked and chopped at each other and felt nothing or felt elation-- and of a religion that nonetheless exalted each moment of this miserable existence and glorified each and every Christian as the elite of humanity-- and also a religion most comfortable with the enslavement and degradation of others:
"Slaves, be obedient to the men who are
called your masters in this world...."
The Epistle of
Paul the Apostle to the Ephesians, 6:5
"Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids,
which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen
that are round about you...."
"And ye shall take them as an inheritance
for your children after you, to inherit them for a
possession; they shall be your bondmen for
A millennium-and-a-half of the greatest and purest of the religion's minds encouraged their children to strike and strike hard:
"Slavery has been imposed by the just
sentence of God upon the sinner."
"Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one of
the principal saints of the Catholic Church, said
slavery was one effect of Adam's sin. He believed
it was morally justifiable and an economic
(Slavery I: From the Rise of Western
Civilization to the Renaissance, Milton Meltzer, 211)
Nay, even him called Him:
"And Jesus answering said unto them,
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's,
and to God the things that are God's. And they
marvelled at him."
The Gospel According To
St. Mark, 12:17
Thus even the very God of the Universe bowing his head to the Caesars, Kings and
Conquistadors, and giving them free rein.
The superior civilization and its people-- they must be superior, since they conquered the world and do better on IQ tests and make more money-- but objectively, brutalized, damaged and fundamentally dissatisfied people, emotionally and physically starved, and achingly greedy, and thinking the laws of the Universe demanded it-- fell upon that world with a demonic and over-confident savagery that will stain humanity till the end of time:
"In spite of himself, the unfortunate Inca
was dragged into the quarrels between Almagro
and Pizarro...Held responsible for isolated Indian
attacks on the Spaniards, he was imprisoned, at
first in his palace and later at Sacsahuaman. The
scoundrels who guarded him raped his wives in
front of his eyes. As if that was not enough, they
amused themselves by using his nose as a candle
snuffer and by urinating over his body, the body
of a living god." (The History of the Incas, Alfred
"The priests...refused to give the slightest
religious instruction to their flocks even while
using police methods...sins were expiated by
whippings...three hundred strokes for singing and
dancing in the old style...." (Ibid., 171, 174)
It is almost impossible to believe what happened. 1 or 2 witnesses could be
dismissed, 2 or 3 accounts, but not centuries of testimony of what they did.
Father Bartolome de Las Casas, one of the few Spanish Christians with a soul, whose father and uncle sailed with Columbus, who followed his father to the New World in the 1490's, who personally knew Cortez, Pizarro and the Columbus family, and spoke over a dozen Indian languages, who made 14 journeys throughout the West Indies, Court Chaplain to the King of Spain, copier of the log of Columbus which we've quoted from (otherwise it would have been lost), widely traveled throughout Mexico, Central America and South America as it was being conquered, indeed, accompanying some of the very expeditions that conquered, and an eyewitness to what they did, Bishop of Chiapis, transcriber of other eyewitnesses, a half century in the New World, wrote in his Devastation of the Indies:
"And they put the captives in chains and
made them carry heavy loads...The result was
that the number of captives soon dwindled, most
of them dying from exhaustion, so that from four
thousand captives there remained only six. They
left the dead bodies on the trail. They were
decapitated corpses, for when a captive sank
under the heavy load, the Spaniards cut off his
head, which fell to one side while the body fell
to the other while the captives chained together
continued their march without interruption....
Among other massacres there was the one in a
big city of more than thirty thousand inhabitants,
which is called Cholula...The Spaniards had
asked for five or six thousand Indians to carry
their cargo. When all the chiefs had come, they
and the burden-bearers were herded into the
patios of the houses....Then, at a command, all
the Spaniards drew their swords and pikes and
while the chiefs looked on, helpless, all those
tame sheep were butchered, cut to pieces....And
since he did not provide food for his Indians he
gave them permission to eat the enemy Indians
they captured. And thus he had, in his royal
kingdom, a butchery of human beings, where, in
his presence, children were killed, cooked, and
eaten, and where men were killed merely for
their hands and feet which were esteemed as
delicacies....The Spaniards broke up marriages...
took for themselves the wives and daughters
of the people, or gave them to the sailors and
soldiers....one woman (thinking to soften the
hearts of the Spaniards) tied her year-old child
to her foot and hanged herself from a beam. No
sooner had she done this than the dogs arrived
and tore the child to pieces....one of them told
the son of a chieftain of a certain village to come
with them. The boy still said No, he did not want
to leave his country...The Spaniard unsheathed
his dagger and cut off the boy's ears, first one,
then the other. And when the boy said again
that he did not want to leave his land, the
Spaniard cut off his nose, laughing as he did
so...This Godforsaken man boasted about
this act in front of a venerable religious, and
also said that he worked as hard as he could
to get Indian women with child, for when he
sold them as slaves he would be paid more if
they were pregnant....finding no game, and
wanting to satisfy his dogs, he took a baby from
its Indian mother and with his sword sliced off
the child's arms and legs for the dogs to share....
Scholars have tussled, raged and argued with each other for generations about
what the original Native American population was. It was supposed to be small,
the people were primitive. As the years passed, it was more and more understood
that a Holocaust of unprecedented scope happened in the New World, that the
original populations were far greater than originally estimated, their
civilizations more advanced, and a once-fancied total as low as 8 million was
probably as high as 100 million. As many as 30 million of them lived in Mexico,
and within 75 years of Columbus' coming it appears 90 % of them were dead.
Indeed, it is possible that 90 % of the entire New World native population was
wiped out. In all books the cause is given primarily as disease, especially
smallpox. It is indeed true that some kind of great tragedy was unavoidable,
because the Native Americans had lived in almost total genetic isolation from
the rest of the world for over 10,000 years, and their bodies were intensely
vulnerable to the new diseases. But disease alone couldn't have wiped out 90 %,
or, even if it could, their civilizations wouldn't have fallen as a result
without some extra push. While deeply sick the Indians were also forced to fight
wars against an overwhelming foe determined to conquer them, and this foe kept
them from their fields at harvest time, destroyed their infrastructure, brought
death to so many that soon there weren't enough hands to plant and harvest--
many of those 90 % died of starvation, not disease, or of disease brought
on by malnutrition and reduced immunity. And it has been the aim of the West,
consciously, unconsciously, to finally demoralize the rest of the world, to convince
it of its essential inferiority and even ludicrousness, so its people would
surrender their ways and their selves to whatever was to follow. That is a
capsule description of the last 500 years of human history. You could even say
that World War II was simply an argument within the victor's camp as to which of
their ways would finally rule a conquered world.
And in the Western Hemisphere this breaking of the minds and hearts of the people by the West succeeded. "Wholesale demoralization and simple surrender of will to live certainly played a large part in the destruction of Amerindian communities. Numerous recorded instances of failure to tend newborn babies so that they died unnecessarily, as well as outright suicide, attest to the intensity of Amerindian bewilderment and despair." (Plagues and Peoples, William H. Mc Neill, 182)
Are you now thinking that this essay, initially about Africa, has gone off course? No, it has not. Beginning some 560 years ago there came to the ancient African continent the same challengers the Aztecs and the Incas and the Tasmanians and others would have to face, with the same fate in store for the Africans if they proved as weak. Indeed, there were Europeans who fought on two fronts, and if they survived would one day be able to tell their grandchildren of swordplay against both Africans and Amerindians. After the early 1400's it is simply no longer possible to discuss, or, if you want to, judge any civilization by itself. How it met the coming of the West is part of the test, and by that standard the Africans proved powerful. Challenge-and-response-- that is Arnold Toynbee's standard of judgment-- and, though he thinks little of Africans, even by his standard they would now do well.
The Africans had gold, Indeed, the first great West African kingdom, Ghana (not to be confused with the present-day nation, which is much to its southeast), rose by at least the 700's AD (and perhaps as early as late Roman times), and reached its zenith by gaining a monopoly of the gold trade from West Africa to the Arab world. As the Iranian scholar Ibn al-Faqih wrote around 900 AD: "In the country of Ghana gold grows in the sand as carrots do, and is plucked at sunrise." (Actually, the gold fields were just south of Ghana's border, but Ghana controlled the trade.)
Now in truth, Africans didn't value gold as highly as Europeans did. Iron, copper, brass and bronze ranked higher. A cultural difference. Indeed, there's nothing inherently so valuable about gold. It's what shines in the mind-- and to Europeans it blazed like holy fire, so great was their attraction to it.
"I must move on to discover others and to find gold."
To it would be joined an even greater hunger, for the strong Black bodies to work as slaves in the New World, especially needed to replace the Indian slaves. Because the Indians were dead. Especially needed to dig and plant and harvest and produce those basics of Western trade and wealth-- the meaningless (gold), the unnecessary (sugar and coffee) and the harmful (sugar, rum and tobacco).
Like Columbus, who would have sailed to the New World under a Portuguese flag had they financed him, the Portuguese had ticking minds, shifty eyes and hungry hearts. They too praised, sized up and targeted at the same time, and if the Africans proved weak they were dead men.
We've already seen that the Africans responded more vigorously to the arrival of the aliens than did the Native Americans, or indeed any of the Asian peoples. There were no Amerindian equivalents of the delegations the Africans sent to Europe. Individual Amerindians were taken to Europe, but they did poorly there compared to the Africans. As for the Chinese, who'd known about Europe, albeit it in a vague and disinterested way, since Roman times at least, they stubbornly and contemptuously stayed away, though they more than had the capacity to travel to Europe by land or sea. (Chinese ships were far larger and more technologically advanced than European vessels. Indeed, in the 1400's the Chinese made their famous and well-documented voyages to East Africa and the Middle East under Admiral Zheng He and others. And, as they'd done when the Portuguese arrived, the Africans sent envoys back on the foreign ships to visit, and learn from, China. Chinese accounts tell of how the Africans paraded giraffes and other animals at the Emperor's court, and some beautiful paintings survive showing these events.)
Africans picked up European languages quickly, as various Western groups arrived. Sometimes in pure form, sometimes as creoles or pidgins. Thus the Black Africans, who'd already mastered 4 linguistic families-- the Niger-Kordofanian (including the Bantu languages), Afro-Asiatic (which includes Hebrew, Arabic and Ancient Egyptian), Nilo-Saharan (the languages of various peoples in West, Central and East Africa), and Khoisan (best known among the Bushmen)-- added a fifth: the Indo-European (sometimes called the Indo-Hittite). A French traveler, Alexis de Saint-Lo, who went to Senegal in 1635, found Portuguese spoken all along the coast. The King of Benin spoke Portuguese to his first English visitors. In the early 1600's a Guinean King spoke French; his wife spoke Dutch. (She'd been a Dutchman's girlfriend.) Jacobus E. J. Capitein, a West African orphan sold to a Dutchman and taken to Holland in 1728 as a boy, learned Dutch, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, graduated from Leiden University and was ordained. Good Christian that he became, he ended up offering the same cant defense of slavery most Christians then did, explaining how Christianity "demands only spiritual freedom in order that we can worship God, not necessarily external freedom."
The West Africans had complex trade networks in operation long before the first European ships arrived, but they put their linguistic skills to use with these new people, sometimes as independent traders and sometimes by going to work for them. And, yes, that trade included the slave trade.
Impressive as all of this was, it proved frustrating to the Europeans. Their preference was for direct control, for conquest. They certainly preferred taking to trading for. So they tried to do it with the Africans. But the "direct approach" that worked so well in the New World barely took. We have already seen that the Jolof rebels proved too strong for the Portuguese to place their puppet, Jeleen, on the Jolof throne. Thus in the end the Portuguese ruthlessly murdered Jeleen, of no further use to them, and sailed away. In 1446 a Portuguese slaving ship in Senegambia was attacked and boarded by Africans, the crew wiped out almost to the last man. Another heavily-armed Venetian ship was fought to a ceasefire in 1456. The Congolese seized a French ship for illegal trading in 1525. A Portuguese attempt to capture the Bissagos Islands off Guinea in 1535 was thrown back. In 1693 a big Danish fort in present-day Ghana was seized by Africans and held until ransomed for gold. More impressively, in 1693, on the other side of Africa, the King of Mwanamutapa (where was the famous stone fortress of Great Zimbabwe, built by Africans with no help from ancient Egypt or Atlantis or mysterious Whites, primarily in the 1300's and 1400's, with stone walls over 800 feet long, 32 feet high and about 19 feet thick), sick of Portuguese depredations in his land (Mwanamutapa was rich in gold), invited the King of Urozwi, the Kingdom to his south, to hurl the Portuguese back. This that King did. "His soldiers swept down on the Portuguese, utterly surprising them. They killed all the Portuguese soldiers and settlers they found at Dambarare, as well as some Indian traders, flayed two Dominican priests alive, and marched on the remaining Portuguese outposts." (East and Central Africa to the Late Nineteenth Century, Basil Davidson, 264) The Portuguese were thrown out of Mwanamutapa. Another Portuguese army, seeking re-entry and revenge, sailed from India (where Portugal then had some coastal holdings), and this army too was utterly defeated by the Africans.
The Africans were fully capable of meeting the Europeans as intellectual equals, trade equals, and, if necessary, war equals. (And the deadliness of African diseases to Whites, and the unhealthiness of the climate to them, of course helped too.) Perhaps part of the origin of the myth of African inferiority came from European frustration at being blunted by them, unable to control them, to do to them what they'd done to so many others. Up until the end of the 19th Century the Africans were quite, quite unconquered by the Europeans, outside of South Africa and some coastal seizures. Just how tough and able and advanced the Africans and their descendents were, how they could do things to the Europeans no other people the Europeans had met could do (and how the Europeans hated them for these unexpected humiliations, and lashed back with demeaning words and concepts, if nothing else, for the great White fear, deep deep down, was that the Blacks were-- in fact-- in some ways-- superior), was shown by the great Haitian revolt of 1791. The slaves rose, overthrew the French colonial government, and went on to defeat armies sent by Spain and Britain, and finally an enormous army sent by Napoleon (who called the Haitian leader, Toussaint L'Overture, son of an African chieftain, a "cockroach", and no doubt worse). 60,000 French soldiers and sailors died before Napoleon conceded defeat and withdrew in 1803, Haiti winning its independence.
What the Europeans wanted to do to the Africans early on, what they would have done if they could have, is shown by what they did do to the Swahili mini-states along the East African coast. The Swahili culture, which began to grow up in the 900's AD, was one of those vigorous "mutt cultures" made up of a hybrid of peoples-- New York City is a great contemporary example-- devoted not to conquest but to gaining wealth. A mix of African, Arab, Persian, Indian and Indonesian (by way of Madagascar), it was a center for African, Middle Eastern and Asian trade centuries before the Europeans arrived. The Portuguese tried to fit themselves into the mix and probably could have if they'd been smart enough and patient enough and moral, but sensing weakness they hadn't sensed anywhere else in Africa forced their inner Cortez/Pizarro to the surface, and they simply exploded into that violence and cruelty which has characterized so much of Western history-- when Westerners thought they could get away with it:
"They brought a new and savage piracy to the
Indian Ocean....They spared no violence...They wrecked
and looted and burned with a destructiveness not
known before in these lands of Africa and Asia....
When the people of Mombasa came back to their
fire-blackened city...they found 'no living thing there,
neither man nor woman, young or old, nor child however
small: all who had failed to escape had been killed and
burned.'....Faza suffered worse still. The Portuguese
not only sacked it, but are said to have killed every living
thing they found, men, women and children, even down
to the household dogs and parrots....Another big
consequence of all these burnings and battles was
the gradual depopulation of some of the cities. People
left them in fear and despair. A few dwindled never
to recover...Others went into a long decline. None of
them ever regained the brilliance of the years before the
coming of the Portuguese." (East and Central Africa to
the Late Nineteenth Century, Basil Davidson, 116-130)
But this time the Conquistadors failed. By the mid-1600's the Portuguese had
been mostly thrown out of the Swahili world, partly by 2 bigger European powers,
England and Holland, partly by the revived Omani Arabs, who'd long been active
along the Swahili coast. Of course, the Portuguese never reaped more than a
smidgen of the riches they'd hoped for, any more than a twisted husband who says
he wants love reaps any by spending every day of his marriage raping his wife.
Had the Africans been united they would have been unconquerable, and never colonized. Had they been morally greater their future was brilliant. Alas, in the end, just humans with darker faces. That, and not some imagined inferiority, is the real tragedy of the African.
Greed, moral weakness, and the seductions of the slave trade-- these in the end were the worms that would gnaw through and finally roar through Africa, hollowing it out and leading to its fall.
Not every African was infected. But at the top-- and Africa, being an advanced land, knew social stratification-- the infection was widespread and deadly.
The Europeans had little the Africans actually needed. The Africans made iron and their own tools, cotton cloth so fine the Europeans sometimes traded for it, even sold some of it in the Caribbean, ivory goods so excellent Europeans purchased them in large quantities for themselves, had such a rich and varied suite of domesticated plants and animals-- combined with their living on a continent that was still a natural paradise teeming with animal, fish, bird and plant life-- that no one need ever go hungry unless they lived on marginal land or were caught up in war or suffered some natural disaster. Among all the eyewitnesses of old Africa that I've read there is not one account of famine or even malnutrition except in the circumstances mentioned. And the basic health and progress of Black Africa was shown by the rise of its population between 200 and 1800 AD from around 10 million to about 60 million, despite all the millions stolen for slavery, a greater percentage rise than in Europe or Asia over the same period.
But while the West offered little actually needed, they produced much that was wanted. But then, that is the essence of Capitalist desire, isn't it?
It's a seeming paradox of economic life that those with the most are also the most driven to new consumption, so that growth in large scale trade is fueled by a hunger for the unnecessary, which is sometimes also the harmful. The paradox disappears when you understand consumption beyond the basics is a psychological phenomenon, and fundamentally involves feeding the senses after the body's been fed, and satisfyingly flattering the ego. The famous "triangular trade" that grew up-- rum and other liquor, cotton and wool goods, iron bars, guns and trinkets from Europe to Africa, then slaves to the New World, and finally cotton, coffee, tobacco and sugar (or its product rum) back to Europe, involved goods nobody actually needed (except maybe cotton back to Europe), but that they wanted. America's triangular trade was even simpler-- rum and trinkets to Africa, slaves to the Caribbean, sugar plus molasses to make rum back to America. Homo sapiens had gotten along without all of these things for several hundred thousand years, but suddenly it "needed" them. Occasionally I'll look at a Hummer in Manhattan, perhaps inching crosstown at rush hour at a speed slower than walking, or a businessman checking his $2,500 watch to see the same time that's on the $50 watch, or take a call in my radio job on some medical show from a wealthy suburban diabetic whose overeating and obesity now threaten him with blindness, amputation and death-- and I understand the triangular trade better. The current multi-billion dollar world trade in mind-altering drugs is a latter-day equivalent. If all mind-altering drugs suddenly disappeared life would go on, yet millions have been convinced they are necessary for existence. In the 19th Century Britain felt it had to force opium addiction on China to create some kind of hunger for trade, where virtually none had previously existed among the self-sufficient Chinese. A British official, then, offered true words about Africa in 1853 when he wrote: "It may be safely affirmed that from our first settlement on the coast until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, we did not confer one lasting benefit on the people."
Fernand Braudel, in The Structures of Everyday Life, speaks of the revolutionary implications of creating consumer dissatisfaction: "Is fashion in fact such a trifling thing?...Can it have been merely by coincidence that the future was to belong to the societies fickle enough to care about changing the colours, materials and shapes of costume...?" (323) The Africans suddenly felt deep longings in the mind.
"In fact, the consumption of cloth...is a
means of demonstrating prestige, because its
principal use is as much bodily decoration as
protection from the elements....Thus [Wilhelm
Johann] Muller [a 17th Century German traveller],
in describing Gold Coast cloth consumption,
chided the people for their vanity in hoarding
and displaying cloth and for the great public show
that wealthier members (and even commoners)
of society made when going out. With this in
mind, we can understand better the dynamics
of the demand for European cloth...he observed
that the price paid for cloth often was determined
more by its prestige value than any measure of
its utility....European cloth was imported into
these areas to tap the ever-changing demands
of a discriminating consumer who had already
become accustomed to using large quantities of
cloth and could be counted on to purchase more,
especially if it was different and new....In this
context, it is easier to understand why Africans
also demanded a wide range of trinkets and
beads...Various beads were long manufactured
in Africa...But even more than in the case of
cloth, beads were valued for their prestige and
foreignness, and even perhaps for the outrageous
price!" (Africa and Africans in the Making of
the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, 2nd Edition,
John Thornton, 50-52)
And with how much even greater force then did a spectacularly new product like
guns affect the African mind, especially the minds of the power elite, who
wrestled for a prestige so high it could end in their being treated as something
sacred, and who might win for their senses the pleasure of mountains of gold and
harems numbering in the hundreds. These hungers, not hunger for basic food,
drink, clothing and shelter, are what drive men and change, even change that in
the end overturns essential balances and destroys.
The Italian Gio Antonio Cavazzi, who was in Africa in the 1650's and 1660's, sneered that "for a coral necklace or a little wine, the Congolese would sell their own parents, their own children, or their brothers and sisters...." It is the saddest truth of African history that its elite betrayed their own people and subverted African strength in order to gain the things slaves bought. The idea that the Europeans actively stole slaves through force, while not quite a fantasy, does not represent the typical reality of the situation. It did happen, but not often, and more often early on. For an example of the hard way to get slaves, and an illustration why the hard way faded, we can look in the 1560's at the Englishman John Hawkins, financially backed by various rich and powerful Britishers (one would become Lord Mayor of London), who in 1562 sailed 3 slave ships to West Africa and obtained 300 Black slaves "partly by the sword and partly by other meanes" and crossed the Atlantic to sell them in Hispaniola. This expedition was so profitable that even Queen Elizabeth invested in the second.
The second expedition, departing in 1564, initially went well, but the difficulties soon encountered showed why a different modus operandi would be preferable in Africa:
"The men of the fleet were kept busy
going ashore every day to capture the negroes,
burning and spoiling their towns, and many were
taken....Captain Hawkins and his men were in
high spirits over their success...but on reaching
the [latest] negro village...some two hundred
negroes fell upon them and many of Hawkins'
men were wounded and all driven back to the
boats in confusion...." (Slave Ships and Slaving,
George Francis Dow, 24-25)
After sailing on to a new place
"The ships had difficulty in watering...Soon
after anchoring, the empty water casks were put
ashore and filled with water...While the men were
ashore, some of them at their boats, they were
set upon by negroes and a number were wounded.
The negroes also cut the hoops of twelve of the
water butts [casks], which was a serious loss
considering the water supply required for so many
people during the voyage to the West Indies."
In other words, it was do-able that way, but it was hard.
Meanwhile, other Europeans had been learning an amazing lesson. It really wasn't necessary to splash ashore on a strange coast and then slog your way through a swamp or jungle in your heavy European woolens or armor to find a village whose inhabitants you might or might not succeed in capturing and dragging back to your boats. All the while exposing yourself to armed attack, or those dreaded African diseases.
You could also just land, build a coastal fort (then called a "factory"), hunker down with your goods, and await delivery. The Portuguese, in 1481, were the first to do this, in present-day Ghana, and increasingly this became the way the Europeans got their slaves.
It was so much more pleasant. "The soldiers in the forts seldom were called upon for active duty and spent their time in smoking, drinking palm wine and gaming." (Ibid., 3) And making love to their Black or Mulatto girlfriends. (Often these women freely chose the Europeans, for emotional or material reasons, but some had been "lent out" by Kings, chieftains and Black merchants.)
"Few slaves came from the coastal peoples.
Protecting their own, they bought or captured
people in their rear, and in turn these Africans
supplied themselves with people still farther back.
The slaving belt probably extended several hundred
miles into the interior....The gun trade became part
of the vicious slaving circle. Africans sold guns for
slaves and used the guns to take still more slaves."
(Slavery II: From the Renaissance to Today,
Milton Meltzer, 31)
The victims were gathered up by other Blacks in wars, either wars that would
have been fought anyway or wars gotten up to get slaves, in raids, by
kidnapping, by the sale of criminals (or, just as likely,
"criminals"), the sale of debtors, or by other means.
It must be remembered that to Africans the Kingdoms or tribes next door, sometimes even the people in the next village, were as much "others" as Europeans. Africans had no more sense of themselves as one people than did Native Americans. Thus it was not hard for Black to war on Black for slaving or other reasons, just as it was easy for Germans and Russians to slaughter each other by the millions in World War II.
"Small communities were disrupted or completely destroyed. A late-nineteenth-century estimate by Hourst for the Mission Demographique du Niger claimed that for each captive taken, nine others probably perished in defense of villages or through abandonment and starvation." (Slavery in Africa, Miers and Kopytoff [eds.], 174) An American Black, Martin Delany, who visited Africa in the mid-19th Century, reported that "Whole villages in this way sometimes fall victim to these human monsters, especially when the strong young men are out in the fields at work, the old of both sexes in such cases being put to death, whilst the young are hurried through some private way down to the slave factories usually kept by Europeans...and Americans, on some secluded part of the coast."
As Henry Louis Gates Jr., Chairman of Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department, has put it (and how much it must have cost him emotionally to say these words): "The image of slavery we had when I was a kid was that the Europeans showed up with these fish nets and swept all the Africans away. Rubbish. It's like they went to a shopping mall. Without the Africans there wouldn't have been a slave trade."
The reader may think it odd that I include this brief, damning account of Africans' participation in their own enslavement in an essay entitled "Black Africa Defended". But a great measure of amorality in a civilization is not only compatible with its being advanced, it sickeningly seems to be part of the recipe for advancement, certainly if Western history is a guide. Indeed, one answer to the question historians have been asking about China for generations, why it instead of the West didn't conquer the world, may be that, amoral as it was, Chinese civilization wasn't amoral enough, and therefore never tapped into the ultimate energy of demonic hunger the way the West did.
Before the coming of modern technology, the greater a civilization was the more likely that slavery and/or serfdom and/or class oppression and wide social stratification would be characteristic of it. Whether we are looking at ancient Greece and Rome, both with economies based heavily on slavery, or pre-modern China and Russia with their vast armies of poor peasants, serfs and slaves supporting tiny elites, India with slavery and the caste system, or indeed the United States, which had human slavery into the 1860's, and even today has an elite hungry for dirt-cheap, even semi-slave labor both at home and abroad, we see that a really big civilization oppresses on a big scale, builds enormous machines of oppression that also function as wealth-creating machines (for some), and these machines dwarf the small machines of oppression and wealth-creation that hunter-gatherer or the simpler agricultural societies create. For Africa to have participated in the slave trade on this scale required considerable social organization, both public and private, sophistication and experience in trade, powerful war-making capacities among its leaders and people, advanced agriculture (which made Africans far better farm slaves than Native Americans), a certain level of technology, a class system and the creation of elites, and a hunger, especially among those elites, for consumer goods beyond the basic and, ideally, beyond any necessity. In the area of slavery, as in other areas, Africa displays its advanced state, taking its place about midway up the scale.
Even educated people don't understand just how advanced Africa was and how its progress was speeding along, as well as how much of that progress was the result of its own inventiveness, not a gift from the Egypt of the Pharaohs or magical Whites or the survivors of Atlantis or perhaps ancient Greeks appearing 1,000's of miles from where they actually lived-- among the many absurd candidates put forward over the centuries to try to deny Africans' capacity and explain away their progress. As a single for instance regarding the "They couldn't have done this on their own" school of thought, we only have to look at 2 of the African Kingdoms we've discussed, Congo and Mwanamutapa (of Great Zimbabwe), both far distant and isolated from Western civilization, yet advancing just as fast as or even faster than many other African societies. Yes, Africans had fewer technological "things", and no advance in human history compares to the techno-scientific Big Bang of the West over the last 500 years, but Africa was advancing and inventing too, and if it was a few thousand years behind the West that's still just an eye-blink in the course of time.
And the genesis of this impressive being-- the Black man?
Where the Black man, the Negro, came from, where he first appeared, where and when his first home on Earth was, is not specifically known, though it was probably somewhere in West Africa. So little archaeological work has been done in Africa, and the warm climate is not conducive to preservation. But in fact science can't tell us exactly when any of the races appeared, or where. (And I don't want to get into a discussion here of the validity of the concept "race". If the word makes you uncomfortable substitute "population group" and let's keep going.) I'm a little hesitant to use William Howells' Mankind So Far as a source in this area, since it was published in 1944, but Howells, who recently died, was an anthropologist of uncommon sense and clarity of thought and expression, and what he said then has hardly been superseded: "Antiquity in the Congo is almost an utter blank, so that we cannot approach the Negro from the past. At the same time we cannot find ancient signs of him anywhere else. North Africa has been 'White' as far back as Homo sapiens can be traced, even in such times as a different climate might have made the Sahara passable to a primitive people...and we find no indications of Negro occupancy, or paths of travel." (279-280)
30 years after Howells wrote that little had changed: "Unfortunately, the pre-neolithic [pre-5000 BC or so] fossil record of Western Sudan [i.e., non-forested West Africa] is almost a complete blank." (The People of Africa, Jean Hiernaux, 150)
And now, some 32 years after that, archaeological findings are still sparse for West and Central Africa.
It's easy to treat a people as non-historical or even non-existent when you hardly bother searching out their past, and even they don't.
But a little's been found over the last few generations and it confirms that West Africa is the likely birthplace of the Negro, and that he lived in its forests and grasslands, including, when conditions were better than now, the Sahara.
During the Ice Age Earth, with a few regional exceptions, was drier than today, sometimes vastly and catastrophically so. Similarly, the Warm World now settling on us (see my global warming essay) will be generally much wetter.
Dry as it is now, vast as it is now, the Sahara during the last Glacial Period (110,000 BC - 8000 BC) was vaster and drier yet. Brian Fagan (The Journey From Eden, 67-68) considers the worst of the period to have been from around 90,000 BC to 8000 BC. For much of this period the Sahara was nearly uninhabited, some of it totally so, and travel across it was impossible. During the most extreme cold periods, such as between 16,000 BC and 10,000 BC, the southern border of the Sahara was as much as 500 miles south of where it is now. Most of Africa's rain forests simply dried up and disappeared. "The modern rain forest stretches from the Atlantic to eastern Zaire, which is closer to the Indian Ocean. During glacial maxima, it seems, the rain forest shrank to three small patches, one near each end of its present extent and the third in between, in southern Nigeria and Cameroon." (Children of the Ice Age, Steven M. Stanley, 109) The tiny group of humans who fathered the Black race lived in incredible isolation from the rest of humanity, apparently in 1 or 2 of these forest patches, and the limited amount of lighter woodland and grassland around them. It requires intense genetic isolation and powerful evolutionary pressure to create a race, and those conditions were met in the Ice Age. "...the Sahara effectively sealed off sub-Saharan Africa from the rest of the Stone Age world for more than 80,000 years. Modern humans could have migrated north out of sub-Saharan regions before 90,000 years ago, or after 10,000 years ago-- but not in between." (The Journey From Eden, 68)
And yet, as if to reward the Africans for their tenacity during the period of cold, starting about 12,000 BC the world began to warm, and to emerge from its strict climatic regime. Now, as if by magic, as warm settled in, the vast desert moistened and bloomed to an extent almost unimaginable today. The period from about 8000 BC to 3000 BC was the Sahara's golden age.
Most historical maps of Africa get it wrong. Even Colin McEvedy's otherwise excellent Penguin Atlas of African History gets it wrong, for instance showing Lake Chad in 8000 BC and 2750 BC as it is today (or rather recently was, since, like the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union, Lake Chad is now dying, partly as a result of massive irrigation diversions and other human damage). Lake Chad would have been larger at both dates, and should have been joined on the maps by other waters no longer existing. In fact, precipitation increased so much that vast inland seas appeared in the Sahara. It would have been possible to travel from almost the Atlantic coast all the way to the Nile by a great system of rivers and lakes and seas, almost none of which has survived to the present. Rivers that no longer exist flowed into the Nile from east and west, and the Nile itself was a higher river, and flooded more broadly. It's also possible a river flowed from the Tibesti Mountains, in the heart of the Sahara, all the way to the Mediterranean. Had it survived it might have created another great ancient civilization to match those of the Nile, Tigris/Euphrates and Indus. The Tibesti River would have dried up by 3000 BC, as Earth's climate changed, about the same time the Kuwait River did. The Kuwait River, which unquestionably existed, was 530 miles long, averaged 5 miles wide and 50 feet deep, ran from the center of the Arabian Peninsula, and emptied into the Persian Gulf in present-day Kuwait. It too could have engendered an ancient civilization had it lasted. Praised as they are, the peoples of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley could not have built their civilizations without those flowing gifts from nature, which other equally talented people were not so blessed as to have. Some of it's just luck.
In the Sahara, there was grassland, even trees, throughout what is now barren waste. The waters were filled with fish, the land with game. Elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes and others long gone were there for the hunting, and still exist in the wonderful prehistoric paintings and rock engravings, over 30,000 of them, that are found throughout the Sahara. And people poured into this quasi-paradise from north, south and east, and nature's newly minted Whites and Blacks now met.
The Sahara was a creative cauldron, and the Blacks who moved into it proved as creative as the Whites (ancestors of the present-day Berbers), if not more so. This Sahara saw the first great explosion of African art. Though much is made of Egypt as a supposed influence on Black Africa, in fact it appears artistic influence went in the other direction:
"...the art of the Egyptian Nile flourished
much later than that of Saharan and Sudanic
Africa. The Saharan pictures of oxen with discs
between their horns are much earlier than the
representations of the cow-goddess Hathor,
and the Saharan falcon is likewise earlier than
the forerunners of Horus shown on Egyptian
Predynastic tombs. The same is true of the ram
carrying a sphere, which is a very early
predecessor of the ram of Amon...Similarly,
the silhouettes thought to be reminiscent of
the Hyksos, the Pharaoh and so on--- because
the insignia they wear are the same as those
seen on the sovereigns of the Nile valley---were
widespread in the Sahara at a time when Egypt
was still inhospitable marshland." (General
History of Africa, Volume 1, Abridged Edition,
UNESCO, J. Ki-Zerbo [ed.], 294)
Typical Egyptian artistic motifs-- the falcon (Horus), the Pharaoh's crown and
others-- have also been found in Nubia, the largely Black land to Egypt's
south-- and date to before the beginning of Dynastic Egypt.
The Sahara was also one of the birthplaces of pottery. The earliest pottery remains there date from as far back as around 7750 BC, almost as far back as the Ice Age. "The directionality of the spread of this ceramic technology remains a matter of debate, although Close (1995:32) states that 'it was probably invented along the southern side of the Sahara.' " (Ancient Egypt in Africa, O'Connor and Reid [eds.], 99) This pottery predates that of Turkey, the next nearest source of pottery invention, by a good 750 years at least. And after the Saharan people invented it, it took another 2,000 years, maybe even longer, for pottery to appear in North Africa, so it probably came from the south (though an east-to-west transmission from Egypt was also possible). (And it should be added that over in East Africa, in what is now Kenya, pottery has been discovered that dates back to 7000 BC, or a little earlier.)
The people who flourished in this blooming Sahara were Black, White-- and the results of all their partnerings. A mutt culture, vigorous, hungry and creative-- enjoying, and improving upon, the fruits of a suddenly warmer and richer world. Maybe one day there'll be at least one author to put aside the overdone story of the Cro-Magnons-- and give them a book of their own.
However, as we take a look at the continuing progress, the change, the invention, the history, that now unfolds in the Sahara (and also in lands to its south) it has to be emphasized that it is Black people who are responsible for much of it. Negroes. Les Noirs. As UNESCO's General History 1 says: "It is not easy to identify the Sudanic or Congolese negroid type in the earliest strata...However...its presence in the Sahara seems to predate and predominate that of any other human group." (108) Frank Willett's classic study African Art, in its discussion of the paintings and rock engravings we mentioned, says that after the Ice Age ended "There follows a sudden reoccupation by large numbers of people...In the southern Sahara they often lived by fishing and hunting hippopotamus; skeletal remains suggest that they were Negroes." (48) Writing about some of the limited skeletal remains found from the post-Ice Age Sahara in The People of Africa, an extremely detailed study of Africa's physical anthropology, Jean Hiernaux says of one group: "Judging by their features as a whole, this group of neolithic [New Stone Age] skeletons from the southern Sahara may be considered to belong to populations ancestral to the present peoples of West Africa." (131) and of another group "This speaks for a local evolution without any important population replacements." (131) The reason to quote these experts is to forestall the counter-arguments of those who'd try to reserve credit for Saharan developments to an ancient White population only (though, as we said, Whites were there too).
We need to address and dismiss the existence of pseudo-White Black people, such as H. G. Wells' "quasi-white" Fulas. The Fulas, or Ful, or Fulani, are apparently one of the oldest tribal groups in Africa, and many experts believe they are descendents of peoples who lived in that better prehistoric Sahara. Many who know more about Africa than H. G. Wells have written of them as being quasi-White or part-White or pseudo-White or crypto-White or semi-White simply because their shade of brown is a little lighter than that of some of the peoples around them and their features a little thinner. Throughout the colonial period Europeans were obsessed with anointing this group or that group as honorary semi-Whites because their skin tones or features appealed more to European sensibility. The Europeans would also say, or intimate, that these peoples' accomplishments were due to ancient White forbears. They would anoint them as overlords above lesser (i.e., darker, or those they thought were darker) Blacks. Sometimes with tragic results in the longest run. The Watusi (Tutsi) were so anointed. The fact that peoples like the Fulani and the Watusi were pastoral peoples whose simple lifeways were far lower down civilization's (technological) scale than those of "blacker" peoples like the Yoruba, Dahomeans or Asante didn't weigh at all. Now in fact Fulani, in all the pictures I've seen, always look like Black men and women to me. And it turns out that's what science shows them to be. "The data from both blood genetics and anthropometry clearly indicate that the Ful are a variety of West Africans. On these grounds, we may suppose that they descend from the same evolutionary line as the other inhabitants of West Africa, that is from populations like those of neolithic Sahara." (The People of Africa, 137) This doesn't mean that there's never been a Fulani with even a little White ancestry. Living on the fringes of the Sahara as they have, or even in it, the number can't be zero. But they're Black people, and part of the Black story, as are any other native people of West and Central Africa. Interestingly, when physical anthropologists investigated the relation of Caucasoids to the "tall, noble, semi-White" Watusi/Tutsi, as well as those shorter, less appealing (to European eyes) Hutu the Tutsi ruled over, it turned out that "In skin color, the Tutsi are darker than the Hutu...on an average the lips of the Tutsi are thicker than those of the Hutu....In the development of a number of body proportions with age, which appears to be largely determined by heredity, the Tutsi are more different from Europeans than the Hutu....These comparisons do not lend support to the idea that the Tutsi are a mixture of Caucasoids and West Africans." (Ibid., 61) Both the "whiteness" and the "inherent superiority" of the Watusi/Tutsi were White colonial fantasies, based on romanticizing the lifeway of those tall, willowy herders. In a sense, the denial of Black African progress and inventiveness from prehistoric times on is another kind of White fantasy, or call it an anti-fantasy.
And when H. G. Wells wrote that "cultivation and the use of metals" were brought to Black Africa "by whiter tribes from the Mediterranean" he was writing in a great tradition, one that even continues to this day. It enables a J. Philippe Rushton to write in Race, Evolution, and Behavior (1995) that "The Negroids and the Australian aborigines achieved virtually none of the criteria of civilization." (142), among which criteria are "They [meaning any peoples] cultivate food plants...They domesticate animals...They have knowledge of the use of metals...." (Ibid., 142) It enables a far more knowledgeable and enlightened scholar like best-selling author Jared Diamond to write of "Africans' ready adoption of Eurasia's Big Five mammals [cow, sheep, goat, pig, horse] when they were finally introduced to sub-Saharan Africa. African peoples who acquired those Eurasian mammals...thereby gained a huge advantage over other African peoples...." ("Zebras and the Anna Karenina Principle", Jared Diamond, Natural History, 9/94, 6), or for the following sentence to actually appear in Newsweek in 1997: "In Africa, every worthwhile crop originated north of the Sahara...." ("Location, Location", Sharon Begley, Newsweek, 6/16/97, 47)
Now in fact there is tremendous, though not absolutely clinching, evidence that Black Africans domesticated one of the Big Five mammals-- cattle-- on their own, and may even have been the first to do so. The old theory was that cattle were domesticated only once-- from an animal population in Turkey and Greece-- around 6000 to 6500 BC, and that all the domesticated cattle in the world, including those in Black Africa, are descendents of these first domesticates. But recent mitochondrial DNA studies show that's impossible, that in fact you have to go back as far as 20,000 to 24,000 BC to find the common ancestor of African and European/West Asian cattle. Detailed studies of cattle all over Africa by Belgian geneticist Olivier Hanotte found the greatest genetic diversity amongst Central African cattle, suggesting the earliest African domestication there, nowhere near any outside source. ("Gene Study Traces Cattle Herding in Africa", Ben Harder, 4/11/02, news.nationalgeograpic.com) What genetic input exists in African cattle from European/West Asian or Indian stock dates from far more recent times. Studies done in an entirely different field, linguistics, of the Nilo-Saharan family of languages-- spoken by some of the Black peoples of West, Central and East Africa-- attempting to recreate a prehistoric Proto-Northern Sudanic language family-- show such root words as "cow", "to drive" and "to milk". "On the basis of known historical changes in some of the language, Ehert estimates that the Proto-Northern Sudanic language family, which includes the first root words indicating cattle pastoralism, should be dated about 10,000 years ago." ("Are the early Holocene cattle in the eastern Sahara domestic or wild?", Fred Wendorf and Romuald Schild, Evolutionary Anthropology 3, No. 4, 1994) And studies done in Chad show strong evidence of cattle domestication there by 7000 BC. ("African Pastoral: Archaeologists Rewrite History of Farming", Brenda Fowler, N.Y. Times, 7/27/04, F2) Indeed, many experts (granted, not all) now accept, or are willing to seriously consider, the possibility of an extremely early and independent domestication of cattle by Africans, possibly the first ever cattle domestication. As for independent domestication of crops in Black Africa, that case is now so open-and-shut it's not even worth spending time on it. At most, Black Africans, or some of them, got the idea from outside, then went and found their own plants to domesticate. And as for Newsweek's statement that "In Africa, every worthwhile crop originated north of the Sahara...."-- what exactly are coffee, the kola nut (from whence Coca-Cola), the oil palm (from whence Palmolive Soap and other soaps), watermelons, sorghum, several species of millet (pearl millet is the world's sixth-leading cereal crop), yams, gourds, okra, African rice (different from Asian), sesame and numerous others? Indeed, the rest of the world could do well to adopt some of Africa's indigenous crops. Just looking at the grains we find that
"African grains tend to be hardy, less
dependent upon large amounts of water or
irrigation....pearl millet tolerates heat and
drought better than other major cereals...Fonio
...is probably the world's fastest maturing
cereal...does well in poor, sandy soils, is
unusually high in several amino acids and
nutrients and has a reputation as one of the
world's best-tasting grains. Despite its potential,
Fonio has drawn little attention from agricultural
researchers....African rice...comes in several
types, some of which mature very quickly for
multiple plantings...Sorghum thrives on marginal
sites where other grains fail....Tef...is rich in
protein and iron, and well-balanced in amino
acids, but research on it has been scant.", and
so on. ("Research Yields Underused Source
of Food in Africa: Grains", Warren E. Leary,
N.Y. Times, 4/23/96, C4)
Or we could look at Kram Kram, collected wild in the Sudan and Chad, which
contains 9% fat-- possibly the highest energy content of any cereal-- and around
21 % protein, which is about twice the level in most wheat and corn.
Yet even many Africans have turned from these excellent foods, taught to despise them as primitive and second-rate by the West, and also forced, on a wide scale, after colonization, to give up their native crops and grow export crops benefitting Western masters and corporations, whatever the effect on native health. As I said, in all my reading, apart from specialized situations, I have never read an eyewitness account of pre-colonial malnutrition or starvation in Africa. "However, the region's [West Africa's] wealth went into decline during the second millennium and it appears that the modern famine-stricken population is actually less than was comfortably supported up to the sixteenth century. The region around Jenne [about 230 miles southwest of Timbuktu], described by a local scholar in the middle ages as rich, blessed and favoured by the Almighty, and a site which had been occupied since the third century BC, is now chronically dependent upon international aid and relief work." ("Sahel", darkage.fsnet.co.uk/PottedHistories.htm)
As for when Africans began growing their own crops, John Reader, who is often skeptical of claims of early African inventiveness-- he's not yet convinced, for instance, that Africans independently domesticated cattle-- writes that current evidence indicates "the process of domesticating indigenous African cereal crops was underway, 8,000 years ago." (Africa: A Biography of the Continent, 163) Some experts would push it back as far as 7000 BC, making it contemporaneous with agricultural developments elsewhere. And preceding agriculture in Egypt by 1,000 years or more. And unlike Black Africans, with their enormous suite of indigenous crops, the Egyptians domesticated no plants on their own, simply taking what arrived from the Middle East or from Black Africa (sorghum).
We need to discuss this subject of connections/influences between ancient Egypt and Black Africa, because it's become a red herring when talking about prehistoric Black Africa-- or shall we call it a black herring then? Different sides have long used ancient Egypt as a club to intimidate or batter the other. The Africans invented nothing-- it all came from Egypt (as did Western civilization) or Egypt, North Africa and Arabia. Or even better, ancient Egypt was itself a Black civilization, Socrates was Black, the ancient Egyptians were the first to fly, etc., etc. Of course, the whole subject is irrelevant, isn't it-- everyone knows aliens built the Pyramids!
The truth, as often, is dissatisfying to extremists. There were of course some Black people and some mixed people in ancient Egypt, as well as some Northern Whites-- but the Egyptians then were what they are today-- predominantly swarthy Semitic Caucasians. (As I saw with my own eyes on my 2005 trip to Egypt.) As for the supposed connections and influences flowing from Egypt out into the vast Black hinterland, you'd think, to read some things that have been written, the Pharaohs regularly sent out traveling Universities of Civilization to raise up the Black hicks. As we've already seen, the Blacks were perfectly capable of domesticating crops and animals on their own, and developing their own arts-- indeed, influences and inventions flowed in a reverse direction as well. But additionally, such easy talk negates the extraordinary difficulties of transportation and communication then, especially over the vast distances involved. The Egyptians didn't even have much contact with the nearby Mesopotamians! The truth is, apart from some contact with the Nubians (who weren't entirely Black) to their direct south, and an occasional voyage to Punt (located by scholars anywhere from the Red Sea coast of Sudan to Somalia), relations between ancient Egyptian civilization and Black Africa were tenuous to the point of nonexistent. Any influence that did pass from Egypt would likely be indirect, by way of Nubia and ongoing intermediaries. The consensus among most of the scholars writing in the anthology Ancient Egypt in Africa is that "the evidence used to affirm Egyptian influence on Africa, at least after 4000 BC [long before what we call ancient Egyptian civilization developed], is so insubstantial as to be negligible...." (12)
Thus the often-stated contention that Black Africa received metallurgy from ancient Egypt must also be questioned. Nor is it certain that it received metallurgy from anywhere, though the best case can be made for receipt from North Africa. The Black Africans never had a Copper Age or Bronze Age. They passed directly to the Iron Age (where they passed to metallurgy at all), and since no other peoples in the world passed, on their own, directly from stone and wood to iron it weighs against independent invention. But receipt from ancient Egypt is unlikely.
As I learned anew when writing my global warming essay, if you try to nail a concrete fact down with 10 experts you can get 10 different opinions, and if you add 10 more experts you can get 20. So I read that the first Black Africans outside of Nubia to have metallurgy were the Nok people in Nigeria, except it was somewhere else, on the fringe of the Sahara, except it wasn't, it was really in Central Africa. And when did any of these people begin their ironworking? That's a bit difficult to nail down too.
General History of Africa, Vol. 1, Ki-Zerbo (ed.) : About 400 BC (Nok)
Africa: A Biography of the Continent, John Reader: About 600 BC (Nok)
Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, John Thornton: 600 BC "or even earlier" (fringes of the Sahara)
Ancient Egypt in Africa, O'Connor and Reid (eds.): 800 BC or earlier (Central Africa)
In truth, we don't know. It was some time in the first millennium BC, somewhere. Future archaeological work, far more than has so far taken place in Africa, is needed to say for sure. That's why I'm so amazed to read this author or that author confidently declaring that Black Africa got its iron technology from Nubia or North Africa. The fact is neither Egypt nor Nubia ever developed iron technology. (They had copper and bronze.) Finally, in 670 BC, the Assyrians conquered Lower (i.e., northern) Egypt and that's when the Egyptians got iron technology. It had spread throughout southern Egypt by the mid-500's BC, and the Nubians had it by the later 500's BC. (Many of the Western and Northern Europeans didn't have iron metallurgy till the 500's BC also.) If the earlier dates for non-Nubian Black Africa hold, those people had developed iron technology before the Egyptians or Nubians or many Europeans received it.
What about North Africa as a source? (The authors who like to put down Black African inventiveness are sweating at this point.)
The pace of civilization in North Africa didn't really step up until the Phoenicians, originally from what is now Lebanon, established some scattered settlements on the North African coast, of which Carthage, in present-day Tunisia, would become the most powerful and famous. No Phoenician, or for that matter Greek, objects have been found in the central or western part of North Africa dating before the 700's BC. As we have seen, there is at least an outside possibility Black Africa had developed iron technology on its own by then. Moreover, the Phoenicians had little interest in trading with lands to their south: "...it was the slow day-to-day poking about the Mediterranean that kept the Phoenician mercantile enterprise ticking...." (The Sea Traders, Maitland A. Edey, 66) They didn't look south in a major way until defeated by the Greeks in the Battle of Himera (in Sicily, some of which the Carthaginians held) in 480 BC. After that, "Taking stock of their situation...They withdrew into a kind of shell...and concentrated on expanding Carthage's African holdings [which never went far inland] and building up its resources. They did this for 70 years...trade with internal Africa was intensified. Caravan routes picked their way south through the Sahara to certain reliable oases for an expanded traffic in gold, ivory and slaves." (Ibid., 135)
But 480 BC is very late, and it's likely the Black Africans had iron before then.
Granted, it's not impossible that Berbers, carrying goods south (the Phoenicians themselves didn't make the trip) all the way to Black Africa, brought either ironworking or at least the idea of it to the West Africans. It's also possible they didn't. Time and new findings will tell. Either way, it was a close thing, and only prejudice proclaims without a doubt that Black Africa had to take what it couldn't invent. Of course, if the earliest Central African dates hold, the whole discussion is moot. It should also be pointed out that the Berbers themselves are partially Black, ranging from 5-10 % Black DNA in the north to 50 % or more in the southern Sahara, though these percentages might have been somewhat less in Phoenician times. So even if Berbers did bring ironworking to West Africa, it could be a case of Black people bringing the metallurgy to other Black people.
Now, I have elsewhere criticized "racial cheerleading", puffing up a people's past to make their present-day descendents feel better about themselves, help their "self-esteem". But it isn't racial cheerleading to show the obvious: After the Ice Age ended, virtually all of humanity sprang into action, its genius liberated by the better conditions, and Black Africa was in the race, running forward at a moderate pace.
And even if the Africans were at times takers and users of others' invention, that would not diminish them, as long as they took and used vigorously, as every advanced civilization does at times.
No people can invent everything.
Even two of the peoples most universally admired for their technological genius, the Chinese from 500 BC to 1500 AD, and the Americans from the 19th Century on, displayed the excellent gift of taking. As regards the Chinese, for all the firsts they accomplished after 500 BC (printing, paper, paper money, porcelain, gunpowder, guns, rockets, the compass, the rudder, eyeglasses, drilling for and use of natural gas and petroleum, playing cards, fishing reels, almost the steam engine, plus breakthroughs in mathematics [for instance, negative numbers] and pure science, and on and on), it's amazing the extent to which they were takers before 500 BC. They didn't work iron till after 500 BC, possibly later than the sub-Saharans, and they had no metallurgy at all till around 1700 BC, if not a century or two later, thousands of years after the Whites (from whom they almost certainly received the idea, or the technology itself). Many major crops, such as wheat and barley-- "the names for wheat and barley are derived from the character lai, which means 'come', suggesting that wheat and barley had come to China from somewhere else." (The First Farmers, Jonathan Norton Leonard, 55)-- and even soybeans and rice-- came from elsewhere. And it appears the only animals the Chinese domesticated on their own were the silk moth and, relatively recently, carp. Indeed, it looks from archaeological findings that the two most progressive and inventive centers of prehistoric Asian agriculture were Thailand and, believe it or not, New Guinea (to which we owe sugar cane and bananas). It appears that both had agriculture while the Chinese were still hunting, fishing and gathering. As for writing, it arrives in China a millennium-and-a-half or more after it appeared in the Middle East. "That this invention was somehow triggered by contacts with the literate societies of western Asia is possible." (The Birth of Writing, Robert Claiborne, 22) Even an invention as basic as the wheel eluded the Chinese, coming first to Middle Easterners, and perhaps Ukrainians, shortly after 3500 BC. If any Chinese scholars are reading these words, no doubt they're apoplectic. But it's been known for over a century that the Tocharians, an Indo-European people, were living in Chinese Turkestan from around 2000 BC on, and are one of a number of possible conductors to China of advanced technology from elsewhere. As Discover put it in their April 1994 issue: "China's oft-repeated claim that outsiders never influenced its early culture has been undermined by the startling discovery in Xinjiang of more than 100 well-preserved Caucasian corpses dating back to 2000 BC." ("Fleshing Out History", Paul Hoffman, Discover, 4/94, 6)
As for the United States-- the world's current Alpha Civilization-- whose foundation stones are Capitalism, democracy, and technological innovation-- it's amazing the extent to which it has been a taker. Forget about all the fundamental inventions and discoveries of humanity which made America possible-- domesticated crops and animals, writing, metallurgy, and so on-- an extraordinary percentage of man's recent scientific and technological breakthroughs and inventions, which Americans think characterize their society, are really the work of Europe: the steam engine, the gasoline engine, the diesel engine, the automobile, ships, trains, movies, radio, electric theory, atomic theory, Quantum theory, recordings, photography, Aspirin, Cocaine, Insulin, antibiotics, bicycles, batteries, fiber optics, jets, linoleum, matches, motorcycles, lawn mowers, paper clips, parachutes, radar, ballistic missiles, seat belts, the tank, thermometers, tires, toilets, Velcro and on and on-- but how marvelously America has marketed or improved them!
The object here is not to put down Chinese or Americans, people of full capacity who at times have shone more brightly than others. It is to engender humility in judgment, to understand that creativity goes in historical cycles, that sometimes it isn't even there and that other times it explodes, and that circumstances and even chance have as much to do with progress and invention as any inherent capacity, which is in fact evenly and generously distributed by nature throughout the human race, yes, even unto the Australian Aborigines and Tasmanians (had they been allowed to live). It comes and it goes, and its ways are sometimes mysterious. It is why peoples now rated among the highest-- say, the Koreans, or the Finns-- invented nothing. In their cold, hard northern lands, struggling just to survive, beset in addition by natural disasters and invaders-- it was all they could do just to invent themselves and keep themselves alive. Finally, the inventions of others enabled them to break from their primitive level. The Koreans didn't work iron till after the Black Africans, and as for the Finns some remained Stone Age hunters into the Middle Ages, or even after (certainly some Lapp Finns). Yet no one puts down the Koreans or Finns for low capacity, even though they lagged.
This applies then to Africans too, for the extraordinary difficulties in living on their continent, which sometimes made just surviving their greatest triumph, and it's not fair to ask for more, though sometimes they provided well more. Many of the obstacles Black Africans faced were far greater than those faced by Europeans or East Asians or Middle Easterners. There are the animals, for instance. We haven't talked about them yet. Africa was, still is, an extraordinarily dangerous place. Europeans haven't faced anything comparable since the Ice Age, after which many of their continent's largest and most dangerous animals died out, making life easier and much more secure. For raw animal terror Africa is hard to beat, yet the Africans have persevered through it and triumphed over this obstacle. History writers give no sense, no feel. You have to read accounts of the great White hunters to get the full force of this terror in your gut:
"Singing softly under her breath, the
girl removes the dried gourd from atop her
head and, feeling the crispness of night-cold
sand between her toes, steps into the water
at the edge of a bar. She slowly wades out a
few yards toward deeper water where she may
fill her container fully without drawing in bottom
sediment. Dunking the worn, brown vessel,
she watches the river slide smoothly into it,
filling it almost to the brim. She grips it carefully
with both hands, about to make the single,
fluid motion to lift it back onto her head. But,
it is too late. She has time to see the last ooze
of stealthy movement and the burst of foaming
speed before long, thick spikes of teeth slam
together over her wrist and arm. She has time
to look into the slit, flat, cat-like eyes of
living death before the irresistible, numbing
wrench pulls her flat, choking her with water.
Terror courses through her 14-year-old body,
but she is gagging too badly to scream as her
arm is broken and dislocated at the shoulder.
Her free, groping hand feels the hard armor
of the creature's back as the current of the
Munyamadzi closes over her. She will live
another 45 awful seconds, her brain still
working in unspeakable horror as she
fights the relentless grip. Then, with a sigh
that releases a string of wobbling bubbles
in a silver chain to the surface above,
unconsciousness yields to death." (Maneaters,
Peter Hathaway Capstick, 65-66)
"He had awakened when his wife
stirred to a call of nature. He told her not
to go outside, but she insisted. Anatomically
unequipped, as was he, to perform the
function through the door, she had stepped
out into the night, and the lion had immediately
nailed her. The man, named Teapot, heard
the struggle and the first scream and bounded
off his mat to the door. His wife had reached
it and was gripping a crossbar that formed
a frame for the lashed-on tshani grass. He
recoiled in terror as he saw the lion pulling
her by the leg until she was suspended off
the ground between his mouth and the door
frame. Suddenly, the upper hinge had broken,
and the woman lost her hold. The lion
immediately swarmed over her upper body
and, with a crush of fangs, dragged her
quickly off." (Death in the Long Grass,
The diseases were, still are, overwhelming in their terror, their power.
Africans live, work, love, raise families, persevere through, defy or succumb to
unending epidemics-- not just AIDS or Malaria, terrible as they are-- but an
army of diseases whose names scarcely register with Westerners. Just looking at
the parasitic diseases alone makes you shudder. And many of these diseases have
the cruel effect of sapping energy or ripping at the mind, which has caused some
outsiders to blame sick people for laziness or stupidity. There's Sleeping
Sickness, which can kill within weeks or months, but before it does slurs the
speech, makes walking difficult, confuses the mind, or hammers you with
headaches. There's Onchocerciasis which causes eye lesions that can lead to
blindness (which is why it's also called River Blindness). Guinea Worm (Dracunculiasis),
which burns with pain, makes agricultural work or school impossible-- because a
worm larvae has gotten into you and then after a year takes up to 2 months to
ooze out of a skin blister-- as a 2- to 3-foot worm. Tapeworms, which sap
agility, weaken concentration, cause epileptic seizures or death. Horrors like
Noma (Gangrenous Stomatitis), which eats away your lips and cheeks, and then may
go after your bones-- or genitals, or Ebola Fever (a viral, not parasitic,
disease)-- where the blood pours out of every orifice in your body, eyes, ears,
nose, mouth, gums, ass, or pours out through your skin as if it had turned to
wet, porous paper toweling (or others have compared Ebola-stricken skin to pulp
or tapioca pudding), and your internal organs liquefy, and you vomit them out as
a black sludge, before you die. And these are just a few examples of what
Africans have fought against over the ages.
The heat is enervating, draining, as is the blanket of humidity. The soil is surprisingly poor, overall, outside of volcanic areas and a few favored regions, yet Africans invented the agriculture needed to prosper in their land. And even then great clouds of locusts might suddenly descend and make it all for nought. The inadequacies and evil in human nature could make life even more difficult, and then in the 1400's came, as if from nowhere, as if from a dream, these strange, hairy-faced, ill-smelling, thickly-dressed, straw-haired, albino-skinned, ghost-eyed creatures with their insatiable hunger for living bodies, which they sailed away with by the millions, and yet through it all the Africans persevered and progressed, under conditions that would have utterly defeated the Europeans or Chinese, singing and dancing to the music that would one day conquer the world, worshipping their many spirits and lesser gods while the Supreme God-- who almost all Africans believed in-- hid from them, essentially indifferent or distant, as they believed. The Africans married and had affairs and raised huge families to carry life on, and managed to offer enough resistance to the Whites that those new ones for the most part were unable to seize their lands, as they had seized so many others', in some cases wiping peoples off the face of the Earth so the seizure would be sure to stick. It was a story filled with individual tragedy and failure, but the story of the Black African as a whole was a triumph, and even a triumph in the New World, where the African took the best shot the White race had and remained standing, and lived to see how finally the Whites-- out of envy, jealousy, guilt, admiration or a sickness-- appeared to want to turn their own cultures and selves Black.
If only now we could say all ended well, and forever Africa will be happy.
In the 19th Century the Whites went through a transformation of force, by uniquely analyzing and partly taking on the power of nature in a way no other people, even the Chinese, ever had, and then, in a frenzy of pride, deep in evil, hungry for everything, and driven by their religion too, they seized Africa.
It happened suddenly. It seemed impossible even in the early 19th Century. Yet in 1884, at the Conference of Berlin, Europeans who knew little or nothing about Africa except that they wanted it, drew their meaningless yet dangerous lines all over their inadequate maps, setting the stage for centuries of strife and death.
The Africans resisted strongly. Yet it was if the man you were boxing in the ring grew to twice his original size as the rounds passed, and twice his strength, and twice his speed. Now the Europeans had Quinine and could shrug off Malaria. Other medical advances also protected them, their equipment was much better-- even small new things like thermoses and sunglasses were important-- their ships grew to immense size and no longer needed sails, they had trains, they were on their way to automobiles and planes, their self-confidence was godhuge, and they still had the hardness and courage then that their descendents have largely lost. And their weaponry was becoming wondrous. It was a combination of spirit and materiel without precedent in human history.
You could see its results, for instance, in a place like the Kingdom of Asante, in present-day Ghana, a Kingdom which had, by general consensus, the best army in Black Africa, an army that was praised throughout the 19th Century by the British, not just for its bravery but for its tactics and sense of organization.
"Its discipline was unique among African
armies and, in fact, very few preindustrial armies
anywhere were able to inculcate such discipline.
Officers gave orders and they were obeyed. Troops
marched with precision and maneuvered precisely,
their muskets held at exactly the same slope, and
they fired volleys on their officers' orders....The
Asante troops unfailingly impressed British officers
with their courage, or pluck, as they usually called
it. Most of these white officers were themselves
such conspicuously brave men that it took a great
deal to impress them, but Asante valor impressed
them in battle after battle." (The Fall of the Asante
Empire, Robert B. Edgerton, 255-256)
But, while earlier in the 19th Century the sides had fought each other with
single-shot flintlocks-- granted, the British ones better-manufactured than the
Asante's "trade guns", the powder and ammunition of higher quality,
and the British better-trained-- by the end of the century the British had
deadly long-range repeating rifles, machine guns and mobile modern artillery
which no amount of African bravery and discipline could overcome.
So, for a time, the Africans lost their independence.
We had seen earlier how disease ravaged the New World, and made the West's conquests so much easier. But it wasn't just that the Indians lacked immunity to Western disease. Their conquest broke millennia-long balances-- ecological, spiritual, material, agricultural-- as well as their hearts-- and this absence of balance killed too. What now happened to Africa, and what continues to this day, is the destruction of old balances, and the inability to find new ones. For individuals perhaps, but not for the people as a whole. Pre-colonial Africa was not a paradise, it was imperfect and flawed, but in its own way it worked in toto, and since it was ever-evolving and progressing, it could have worked even better had the Whites only come morally, as teachers and good businessmen, not exploiters, enslavers, butchers and conquerors.
Africans had kept up some genetic ties with Whites-- interestingly, modern science has shown that Whites are actually genetically the closest race to Blacks-- so they weren't savaged by disease to the extent the Native Americans were, but a little-known yet still overwhelming Holocaust struck Africa after colonization, as Europe tore the continent's long- and carefully-constructed balances to pieces. "The inhabitants of the Belgian Congo before 1880 were estimated to number about 40 million; by 1910 the figure had dropped to 15.5 million, and was 9.25 million in 1933. The record from French West Africa is still more shattering: it states that the population of one area was 20 million in 1911; by 1921 it was reduced to 7.5 million and was down to 2.5 million in 1931....Certainly the years between 1885 and 1930 mark the most unhealthy period of African history...." ("Bid The Sickness Cease": Disease In The History Of Black Africa, Oliver Ransford, 76)
This shattering had numerous causes. As we mentioned earlier, the Europeans forced many Africans to stop planting food crops to feed themselves and instead plant plantation crops and export crops that Europeans could sell for their own profit (reserving a pittance for the actual workers, where those workers weren't simply slaves). Thus rubber trees and rubber vines, tobacco, tea, sisal, coffee, cocoa and similar crops were forced on land that once raised food. The main reason the Belgian Congo's population dropped from 40 million to 9.25 million between 1880 and 1933 (one region once holding 40,000 was down to 1,000 by 1903) was that it was turned over to King Leopold II of Belgium, a Hitler, who converted it into a gigantic slave state to produce rubber (even as Europe prided itself on having "abolished" slavery and the slave trade). Just as Columbus had set impossible gold quotas for the natives of Hispaniola, meting out punishment and death to those who failed to meet them, so the Belgian King did the same for rubber.
"The machinery of force employed to
make the natives collect the rubber for nothing
was as follows: Some 2000 white officials scattered
over the country were in charge of areas, each with
their force of African soldiery...If still not produced
punitive measures were taken...The native
guards quartered in the village were termed
'sentinels'...'they kill without pity.' It was also
reported that of those forced into the forests
to get rubber but half returned." (Slavery Through
The Ages, George MacMunn, 188)
In researching this essay I had to look at sickening pictures of Congolese with
their hands and noses cut off by overseers or "sentinels". Some gaze
at or hold up severed limbs.
Leopold was allowed to rule the Congo as a private fief from 1885 to 1908, and though his atrocities became known worldwide, and created some outrage, he was never punished. Grotesquely, he had named his quasi-concentration camp the "Free State". Joseph Conrad's name for it was better-- "Heart of Darkness".
Of course, sometimes Europeans simply seized land for their own farmers. One rationalization, heard even today, was that African farmers were inefficient compared to Westerners and needed and/or deserved to be replaced. Land was not just seized from Black farmers. Sometimes pastoralists too had their land taken. Another justification was the higher moral evolution of Europeans. But assuming that was high to begin with, Europeans often degenerated morally when they got to Africa, with lives characterized by what came to be called "White mischief".
Hunger for things deeper in the Earth than roots-- especially diamonds and gold-- also characterized colonialism. Black migrant labor, paid a pittance, worked the mines for the Whites, who had a good deal. (In the 12 months to March 1890 De Beers Consolidated made over a 50 % profit on its diamond sales.) The mine land had originally been African, but either brute force or slick maneuvers in colony courts took care of that. Many Africans were driven to work in mines by agricultural impoverishment, compounded by the impoverishment wrought by colonial "hut taxes". Conditions in the mines obviously were hard, even appalling, at worst a kind of semi-slavery. As is usually the case in unregulated Capitalism, as profits soar for a few, workers are nonetheless squeezed relentlessly. In Southern Africa mine wages dropped from about 15 shillings a week in 1896 to 13 shillings a week in 1913. Safety and health? Please. Over 70,000 died of mine accidents in South Africa in the 20th Century, and even more of disease. The journeys from their villages to the mines were long and hard, malnutrition rife (workers often weren't paid enough to meet minimal food needs), their barracks unsanitary, working temperatures cold. Just in the Johannesburg mine area alone over 40,000 Black gold miners were swept away by Pneumonia in the early 20th Century. By 1910 more than 1 in 3 South African miners died of Pneumonia. About 1 in 10 were dying of Tuberculosis.
Migrant labor, forced labor, impoverishment, loss of land, the increasing monetization of life (pre-colonial Africa had had currency of its own, but nothing like what followed), the ability of colonial nations to hurl workers vast distances within their empires to satisfy labor needs, or to establish "resettlement programs", and, yes, improvements in transportation and even the enticements of life in the ever-growing cities, led to unprecedented population movement within Africa, and people from one region brought their diseases to regions that hadn't known them and had little resistance to them. (No doubt HIV-like diseases had flared up and then sputtered out through Africa's history, never able to spread widely because people generally didn't move far or fast.) The breakup of families didn't help, as Black migrant or forced labor was male, the men living for long periods away from home, in barracks, the women left behind with the children trying to manage as best they could, and the men, turning to prostitutes, catching more STD's than their ancestors had ever dreamt of or heard of. Africans had always been an intensely family-oriented people, generally within a polygamous framework, even (like the Chinese, another polygamous people) worshipping their ancestors, and this separation of men from women and children was the shattering of still one more ancient balance. It's interesting, and sickening, how White Christian civilization has always prided itself on being more strongly committed to family ties and sexual responsibility than other peoples, yet its thrust-- and this includes that civilization in its family-shattering, hyper-sexualized Late Capitalist phase-- has often been to weaken or destroy both.
Just one last key example of a balance destroyed, and then we will, however sadly, conclude.
Rinderpest, a viral disease that attacks animals, not people, had a long and ancient history, but did not exist in sub-Saharan Africa. Late in the 19th Century it was brought to Africa, either by Italian troops looking to conquer Eritrea and Ethiopia-- they failed with the latter, smashed by the Ethiopians (with some help from a lot of excellent European weaponry and even some Russian artillerymen) at the Battle of Adowa in 1896, a defeat causing such bitterness and desire for revenge among the Italians that it played its role in the rise of Mussolini (who said of Adowa that his "whole imagination was engaged" by it)-- Italian troops had brought food cattle with them to Africa in the 1880's-- or the rinderpest arrived with the imported cattle of colonists-- or both. By 1890 the disease was raging through East Africa-- it was to spread further-- killing vast numbers of both game and domesticated cattle, sheep and goats. With the death of so many of its favorite 4-legged targets, the tsetse fly turned increasingly to humans, infecting them with Sleeping Sickness. Between the loss of food sources (both domestic and wild), increased poverty (through the loss of stock), malnutrition and weakened immunity, and the increase in Sleeping Sickness, there was a vast death toll among Africans. It's been estimated, for instance, that two-thirds of the Masai died within a year of rinderpest's arrival. As in the New World, many Western colonizers looked on the great suffering not with pity but with a smile of pleasure. As the British colonial officer Captain Frederick Lugard wrote of what he saw in East Africa in the 1890's: "Powerful and warlike as the pastoral tribes are, their pride has been humbled and our progress facilitated by this awful visitation. The advent of the white man had not else been so peaceful." The spread of the tsetse fly made a good deal of formerly productive agricultural land uninhabitable, and it remains uninhabitable to this day, another balance undone.
The widespread colonization of Africa was brief, lasting little more than 2 generations. Full control wasn't achieved until the early 1900's, then World War I sapped some of Western civilization's pride and morale-- not to mention killing almost 20 million people-- the Depression struck little more than a decade after the War ended-- then World War II, leaving its stark truths about Western nature, especially after the Holocaust, and further dissolving the West's pride and spirit-- and by the early 1940's it was clear colonialism's days were numbered-- Franklin D. Roosevelt pretty much laid down the law about that to the Allies, especially the British. As Life Magazine put it in October of 1942: "One thing we are sure we are not fighting for is to hold the British empire together...." By 1960 most of Africa was independent again, and the rest of it would soon follow. But often what now appeared were actually pseudo-nations, absurdities drawn up by 19th Century Europeans without the slightest concern for, knowledge of or interest in Africa. The results were often tragic, and will continue so, as the natural nations of Africa attempt to re-establish themselves through war, though only Eritrea has so far succeeded. More often the results have been the likes of a Biafra or Sudan, the first part of a Nigeria which is at least 3 natural nations-- Yoruba, Ibo and Hausa-- and the second at least 2-- an Islamic north and a Black Christian/Traditionalist south. Westerners (and over-Westernized Africans) still pooh-pooh such aspirations as "tribalism", a dirty word, though somehow it's all right for tribes like the Macedonians or Azerbaijanis to re-establish themselves from the ruins of artificial absurdities like Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, or for the Palestinians or Tibetans to wish to, or for tribes like the Luxembourgers (population 463,000), Icelanders (294,000) or Tongans (110,000) to have full nationhood, while the Hausa (24 million), Yoruba (19 million) and Ibo (18 million) are denied. Another ancient set of balances missing. Westerners may think it's only logical-- but with how much serenity would the Americans accept having Florida and Georgia detached by a conference of East Asians and smashed together with Cuba and Haiti to form Flocugeha, with Fidel Castro assigned as its leader?
As we said earlier in this essay, what began in the 1400's represented a one-time-only opportunity (in this cycle of history) to get world civilization right, and, as what happened happened, now it's too late. Too many balances-- ecological, spiritual, moral, material, climatic, agricultural, others-- have been smashed beyond repair, except in a stretch of time so long it must necessarily be meaningless to most humans (10's or 100's of millennia). This essay defended the Africa that was, when it was allowed to be itself, but though what I've written is true sometimes it strikes me as meaningless truth, an argument won after the argument no longer matters. Just as young Americans today easily accept others of different races in a common youth culture, sharing each other's dress and music and language and drugs and even bodies and laughing at the racial hangups of their parents and grandparents the way they laugh at their sexual hangups, so I think many will accept my arguments of equality-- while feeling there's nothing they can do about an African tragedy that nonetheless has happened. And write them off. And it is a tragedy. Africans have been thrown off balance, the way Europeans were thrown off balance first by the Mongols and then the ravages of the Black Death and the Little Ice Age, and it would have been easy for an alien-- or a Chinese-- visitor in the mid-1300's to have looked on them as hopeless, primitive and tragic losers in civilization's race, with no future. It took half a millennium but they found their great future, because they weren't crippled in their quest, in their search, by outsiders, who suppressed their qualities and possibilities. Instead they went forth and crippled others. "Never Again"-- such cheap words. "Ever Again" seems more apt. Holocaust after Holocaust has now unfolded in Africa since World War II, to the West's substantial indifference, though they are as much the result of Western actions in the past as they are of the evil and the mental incoherence that plagues Africans' minds-- primarily the male mind-- as often as they have the minds of others. Over 800,000 dead in Rwanda, 2-1/2 million dead in Sudan's Civil War, 3 million or more in the Congolese Civil War, 300,000 killed by Idi Amin, 2 million children alone dead of starvation in the Biafran War, 400,000 dead in the recently concluded Angolan Civil War, or maybe it's 800,000. To yawns. But let Alex Rodriguez strike out with 3 men on base against Boston and you'll see the rage.
As I was in my global warming essay (and global warming is going to ravage Africa), I'm optimistic too in the longest run for the African people in a way that must seem meaningless to most readers. The distinctions-- Black, White, Yellow, Asian, African, European, satisfactorily dissolve into a common mess, old railing arguments about each other increasingly irrelevant and laughable, former judgments that served no purpose discredited-- but the situation is chilling. It has been satisfying to drive one more stake down into the pathetic body of a vampire, but that work done and finished and forgetting him I stand up straight, look around, and whistle at the darkness. It'll all be all right in the end, our common capacity is too great, surely, for the human story to end any other way. But oh how difficult and broken a journey we've now made for ourselves, Africans, Europeans, and every other, hand in hand though some will deny it, it's a single story finally, everyone crippled, unfortunately wounded, it'll be harder now.
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