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Harmony to Holocaust
The Portuguese reached the Gold Coast of Africa in 1439. At first, they were impressed with the culture they found. As they worked their way down the coast "[t]hey found people of varying cultures. Some lived in towns ruled by kings with nobility and courtiers very much like the medieval societies they left behind them." (Obadina). Many years later, a visitor from Holland was equally impressed and records his impressions of Benin City in 1600: "As you enter it, the town appears very great. You go into a great broad street, not paved, which seems to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes Street in Amsterdam... The houses in this town stand in good order, one close and even with the other, as the houses in Holland stand..." (qtd. In Obadina). Clearly, at this early stage, the Europeans had a fairly positive view of the African cultures. True, they probably considered them somewhat exotic. But the feeling is that they also considered them "dignified and equal parties in civilization." (Hooker).
Slave Exports from Africa on the Trans-Atlantic Route
Number of Percentage
Slaves of Total
Had these initial impressions been sustained, the history of the world (most especially Africa) would have been much different. However, the Atlantic Slave Trade did occur, subjecting the continent to four centuries of depredation. Moreover, the intensity of the suffering endured by the African people should be described nothing short of a Holocaust ("The Maafa"). The following tables provide some figures to put all of this into perspective. Although sterile and removed from the stark reality of the horror these men, women and children experienced, they do bear out the vast extent of the crime against Africa. Consider both the sheer number of slaves transferred ("Origins"), as well as the extent of the African continent which was affected ("The Trans-Atlantic") - both of which are depicted on the nearby tables.
Trans-Atlantic Imports by Region (1450-1900)
Region of Number of Percentage
Slaves of Total
Blight of Benin
Blight of Biafra
Africanist vs. Afrocentric Point-of-View
Faced with these figures, one finds it hard to remain completely 'objective' in the classical sense of the term. This is particularly the case considering the even higher range of human loss when indirect deaths are included in these figures. Remember that many thousands perished on the slave ships, during the tribal warfare, on the forced marches, in the holding pens, and as a result of the famines (which resulted from the devastating slave raids). If all of these casualties are included, the final figures could reach as high as 200 million (Obadina). Recognizing these facts, this paper will analyze the Atlantic Slave Trade from an Afrocentric point-of-view rather than from either a Eurocentric or even Africanist perspective. In other words, this paper will "make little or no apology for presenting material from an African perspective or for identifying emotionally with African history." ("Conversations"). For example, the type of mistake made by Henry Louis Gates in his "Wonders of the African World" series (where he compares Ethiopian kings of Africa to Knights of the Round Table in Europe) will not be repeated here. Instead the paper will "seek to present an insider's perspective which more overtly embraces an African identity." ("Conversations").
The Effect of the Atlantic Slave Trade on African Culture (in General)
The impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on specific cultures will be detailed below. For now, it is important to understand how African culture in general was impacted. And certainly, continental trading patterns were early victims of the slave trade. From early days, trading had been initiated and controlled by the Arabs from the north and east. However, after 1550 (when the Europeans started to quicken the pace of discovery), the routes changed their orientation "from the Sahara to the seacoast, and as the states of the savanna declined in economic importance, states along the coast increased their wealth and power. Struggles developed among coastal peoples for control over trade routes and access to new European firearms." ("Part III"). The effect of this shift then affected the nature of migration patterns. Tribes and cultures that lived in the coastal regions moved inland in an effort to avoid slave-raiding parties looking for human booty. This resulted in a redistribution of populations within the continent ("Part III").
The transformation which occurred in African society was revealed by Olaudah Equiano, an ex-slave who wrote of his experiences. In his description of how slaves were obtained, he reveals the level to which ruling chieftains had stooped in their attempt to ingratiate themselves with the Europeans (qtd. In Obadina):
When a trader wants slaves, he applies to a chief for them, and tempts him with his wares. It is not extraordinary, if on this occasion he yields to the temptation with as little firmness, and accepts the price of this fellow creature liberty with as little reluctance, as the enlightened merchant. Accordingly, he falls upon his neighbours, and a desperate battle ensues...if he prevails and takes prisoners, he gratifies his avarice by selling them."
African rulers had become part of an endless cycle at this point. They were being used by the Europeans (who took little risk, themselves) and being forced to do all of the difficult tasks. The Europeans would provide the firearms, the Africans would send out raiding parties at the risk of their fellow tribe members, and then trade the captured slaves in for what ever the Europeans had to offer. By the nature of the arrangement, the chiefs now had a vested interest in keeping the slave trade alive. And they were further drawn to this arrangement because:
c]ontact with Europe opened new images of the world for the African elite and presented them with products of a civilization which as the centuries passed became more technologically differentiated from their own. The slave trade whetted their appetite for the products of a changing world." (Obadina).
The abolitionist Thomas Buxton wrote in 1840 about this "crux of the African condition." He made crystal clear to his audience that Africans had fallen into a trap laid by the Europeans. As Africans received more good from Europe, this familiarity created the desire to continue enjoying the fruits of this civilization. Soon these material goods became essential to ordinary life in Africa (at least psychologically speaking). The end result was clear? "To say that the African, under present circumstance, shall not deal in man, is to say he shall long in vain for his accustomed gratification." (Obadina). Buxton was saying, in essence, that African rulers had become almost addicted to the pleasures of the European life-style. Like a drug user in withdraw, they would be willing to do anything to obtain that which they desired.
The observations made by Tunde Obadina above are echoed in "The Maafa: A Holocaust of Greed." In this reading, the situation on the African continent resulting from the slave trade is described as one of pure chaos. Kingdoms would rise and fall depending on how well they filled the individual 'slave-quotas' dictated by the Europeans. Cultural continuity was almost a contradiction in terms as established groups would pass from the scene in quick succession, one after the other. So to ask if the African cultures were affected by the slave trade is go about understanding this situation in completely the wrong way. The effect was a given. Better to ask exactly how much damage was done to African culture as a result of the trade in Africans. This much is clear, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was "an event which destroyed peoples and whole cultures, an event which would destabilize a continent, changing it forever."
The Effect of the Atlantic Slave Trade on Specific African Cultures
Although the diversity and actual number of cultures on the African continent was quite large, they began to combine during the period under study here. This amalgamation continued throughout this trading era and historians now recognize a number of larger empires/kingdoms on or near the western coast of Africa: Mali, Asante, Songhai, Kongo, Dahomey and Benin. Needless to say, there are a host of other examples. But these are the specific empires and kingdoms that are consistently referenced in the literature of the slave trade ("Part II").
During the early slave trading days, the Mali Empire was defeated by the Songhai Empire of the western Sudan area and then this kingdom fell to Morocco before the close of the 16th century (well before the slave trade moved into full gear). However, "[d]uring the breakup of the Songhai empire, an intense period of slave activity occurred in west Africa at the hands of...European traders." ("Part III"). And it was shortly after this that the Ashante Empire arose on the Gold Coast. This group most certainly supplied slaves to Britain in order to get firearms. These weapons were then used in…[continue]
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