“Africa Has Been the Linchpin of The Machine of Modernity”

By Jan Servaes*

BRUSSELS (IDN) — This remarkable quote appears on page 6 of Howard French’s latest book, published in October 2021, “Born in Blackness. Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World. 1471 to the Second World War“. In doing so, he casts a lot of doubt on traditionally held opinions about Africa over the centuries.

Howard French, professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York and former bureau chief of the New York Times in the Caribbean and Central America, West and Central Africa, Tokyo, and Shanghai, tries to make it clear that the way we think about history is often wrong.

The thesis he develops in this book is that Europe’s conquest of the world was not driven by a “desire for ties with Asia,” but rather how the economic domination of Europe, the entrenchment of democracy in the Americas, and the fulfilment of so-called Enlightenment ideals all resulted from Europe’s predatory involvement with the “darkest” continent.

The rise of the West depended on West African gold exports, which stimulated the European economy, and the trade in African slaves that produced sugar in Caribbean islands and cotton in the pre-war American South. These developments were central to the rise of British and American capitalism, French argues, and led to regulated production processes that became models for industrial labour regimes.

That process begins, French argues, with the Age of Discovery. The impetus for what culminated in the creation of multiple European empires that stretched across continents came not from a quest for the East, but from a “centuries-old desire to forge trade relations with legendarily wealthy black societies” in Africa that were home to vast amounts of gold and an “inexhaustible source” of labour. It was along the west coast of Africa that Europeans “perfected techniques of mapmaking and navigation,” where ship designs were tested and improved, and where sailors learned to understand the winds of the Atlantic.

French believes that restoring Africa’s true place in world history and current events is a step in the fight against the racist “reduction, trivialization and erasure” of Africans from world history. To this end, French traces “the deeply intertwined and tragic history of Africa and Europe that began with geopolitical clashes in the fifteenth century.”

The author focuses on the role of African gold, sugar, and slavery in shaping the modern global economy. Throughout, French debunks numerous historical myths, including many that render Africans powerless victims rather than important actors.

For example, he recounts how Portugal stopped plundering African lands for slaves in the 1440s, choosing instead to enter into trade agreements with powerful African leaders who profited from selling their own people. French also describes the ways in which—despite being portrayed as a backward continent—African industries were more advanced than European ones. The Portuguese were particularly interested in textiles and metalwork that Africans produced using complex techniques that were unknown in Europe. The author argues that these early beginnings shaped the modern era until the African independence movements of the World War II era.

Africa does not exist

When they conquered control of the continent, Europeans hardly took into account African history, the legacy of indigenous empires, or pre-existing African states. They ignored considerations of the mosaic of dominant cultures and local languages as they divided and then subdivided regions. They paid little heed to long-standing patterns of local identity, local trade, or even ethnic rivalries and animosities. “Africans themselves were not consulted” (p. 147). This was abundantly clear at the so-called Berlin Conference in 1884, when Africa was “mapped” by the major powers. This continues to have an impact up to this day.

The rich diversity of Africa’s many different communities was brought together in a single category of “blackness” that obscured and ignored proud histories and cultures and treated all inhabitants of the continent and their descendants as one and the same. That was ironic, of course, since populations were deliberately dispersed in the Americas and the Caribbean to prevent family and kinship groups from communicating with each other, reducing the likelihood of rebellion against the heavily outnumbered Europeans. This is where the term ‘creole’ comes from, “a distinctly new class of culturally and often racially mixed people who were the literal offspring of this kind of intercontinental contact” (p. 139).

For example, in 1661 a law was passed in Barbados (called “the cockpit of Europe” by French) —which was subsequently adopted in Antigua, Jamaica, South Carolina and beyond—declaring Africans a “pagan, brutal and insecure, thus dangerous kind of people”, and that white owners therefore gained almost complete control over their lives.

French discusses the magnitude of the gruelling workload expected of slaves and how it has increased over time, explaining how this hastened the industrialization and modernization of Britain. How, in other words, “creoles” raised the standard of living for people living on the other side of the world.

According to French, it would not be until 1938 that Eric Williams (of Trinidad) defended his PhD at the University of Oxford (published as Capitalism and Slavery), and sparked a discussion among academics. Williams had the audacity to argue that, without Africa and the slave-plantation agriculture in the Caribbean, there would never have been an explosion of wealth with rapid industrialization in the nineteenth-century West.

“What made Williams’s thesis all the more remarkable is that the Western scientific traditions had given almost no serious consideration to the quite obvious possibility that plantation colonies, slave labour, the slave trade, or the sugar plantation complex, individually or together, may have ever made a serious contribution to the industrialization of Britain or to the rise of the modern West in general” (p. 155).

The Discovery of the New World

The ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’ is invariably attributed in our history books to Bartolomeu Dias’ voyage around Africa’s Southern Cape in 1488, Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Caribbean in 1492, Vasco de Gama’s arrival in India in 1498, and the first trip around the world of Fernao Magalhaes in 1519. Our history books ‘forgot’ to report that before that time the Vikings and especially the Chinese during the Ming Dynasty had already organized spectacular and large-scale exploration trips to South-East Asia, India and Arabia from 1405 onwards.

“The Chinese stand out as the most spectacular explorers before the Western Europeans, but they were certainly not the only ones” (p. 38). The peoples of South Asia and Arabia were already very familiar with the monsoon cycles in the Indian Ocean. Malay peoples had long ago mastered the exploration of the entire South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, as far as the African island of Madagascar. Indigenous navigators in the South Pacific had even visited South America.

“DNA analysis recently revealed that 800 years ago, Polynesian populations were infused with Native American genes, presumably from Americans who landed on those islands on their return journey to the South Pacific. Genetic studies have also shown that indigenous peoples in the Amazon have strong ties to indigenous peoples in Australia, New Guinea and the Andaman Islands, which is only possible if there were trans-oceanic journeys in prehistoric times … And the Incas too may have made long-distance sea voyages” (pp. 38-9).

The statement, long emphasized in our history books, says it was the coveted Asian markets for spices and silks that forced European kings and queens of the late Middle Ages to invest in seaworthy ships to enable figures like Columbus to brave the unknown and discover a road by sea to the East. “Such a conclusion betrays an unwillingness or inability to think that Africa has any intrinsic importance or value” (p. 41).

Few views have proved so persistent and misguided as the belief that Europe’s global rise was due to some kind of superiority. French therefore argues that the idea that medieval Europeans had an advantage over Muslims, South Asians, or East Asians in science or technology cannot withstand that reality. Even in terms of navigation, the Europeans lagged behind quite a bit. Also dubious is the once-common belief that there was something unique about Christianity with its cultural virtues of reason, innovation, and frugality.

The decades of Afro-European contact have been fundamental to the birth of the modern world, and to the development of the West and Africa to this day. Yet, French argues, they are barely mentioned in most accounts of Western history. Western culture has long sought to perpetuate the ideas of precolonial Africa as a space of unadulterated primitivism and lack of human ability to advance.

Therefore, “this leap from savage to slave—meaning a supposedly seamless progression from the Iberian-led ‘discovery’ of sub-Saharan Africa to the birth of a trade in slaves into the New World—feels for many like a transition that hardly merits explaining. The Europeans were manifestly superior in every way that mattered, and with the takeover of the Western Hemisphere and mass death of that part of the world’s (also supposedly primitive) indigenous people, a large new labour force was needed to supplement the efforts of white settlers” (p. 70).

The slave trade

According to current estimates, about 12 million to 12.8 million African slaves were shipped across the Atlantic between the 16th and 19th centuries. About 1.5 million died during the journey. But probably more Africans died during the slave raids and wars in Africa and forced marches to ports. Of the slaves shipped to America, the bulk went to Brazil and the Caribbean. French explains in detail how places like Elmina (in Ghana) and the island of Sao Tome played an important role in this Transatlantic slave trade and the development of the plantation model.

At the time of the first contacts between Europeans and Native Americans in 1492, there were about 60 million “Indians” or 10 per cent of the world’s population at the time. In 1600 56 million of them had died as a result of diseases and infections imported by the ‘whites’ (p. 124).

Spain’s obsession with extractive mining has greatly influenced her vision of the New World, leading to what has been called “the highest stage of feudalism.” While the Portuguese favoured commercial and maritime ventures and took a relatively hands-off approach to the colonial economy, Spain sought to micro-manage its colonies and closely monitor all economic transactions.

Unlike the Dutch, the English and the Venetians, Portuguese rulers did not allow merchants to organize colonial rule. Unlike the Spanish, the Portuguese tolerated the creation of large autonomous domains in their overseas territories. But they could not stop colonial administrators, priests and soldiers from trading on their own account.

Most slaves were “worked to death”, according to French, the lifespan of trafficked people was estimated to be seven years or less. It was cheaper, wrote an English settler on Antigua in 1751, “to work slaves to the utmost, and by the small cost and hard use, to wear them out before they become useless and incapable of service, and then buy new ones to fill their places”. Black lives literally didn’t matter—except to make their “owners” rich.

It was not only slavery that destroyed parts of Africa, but the process of slavery itself. In addition to the 12 million people shipped across the Atlantic, an additional 6 million died in or near their homelands while hunting slaves.

This put extraordinary demographic pressure on African domestic societies, changing agriculture and changing gender relations, as it was mostly healthy young men who had to do the hard work in overseas colonies. Slavery led to fragmentation, rifts and warfare with weapons—especially rifles—sold by Europeans, forcing neighbouring countries to compete and turn against each other in an effort to protect their own populations from forced captivity.

But French also affirms that Africa’s socio-political conditions at the time made local rulers complicit in the development of the slave trade, and that slavery had long been introduced in Africa (—”albeit in a more benign form”—) before the Europeans arrived. He also acknowledges that earlier stories had to be based on colonial records, as little about it can be found in the records of African institutions.

Lessons for the future?

Born in Blackness dramatically recalls the lives of important African historical figures whose stories have been repeatedly obscured and erased over the centuries, of unimaginably wealthy medieval African emperors who traded with Asia; to Congo sovereigns who fought heroically against the European powers of the 17th century; to ex-slaves who freed Haitians from slavery. In doing so, French tells the story of gold, tobacco, sugar and cotton—and the greatest commodity of all, the millions of people brought in chains from Africa to the New World, whose reclaimed history helps fundamentally explain our present world.

Some footnotes are an important story in themselves. For example, the Jewish community based in Mallorca has played an important role as an intermediary between Africa and Europe. This was partly due to the long trading traditions of the Jews and partly to the fact that members of their religion, unlike the Christians, were allowed to travel freely and even live in Islamic North Africa (p. 49).

French concludes his book with an appeal to his US readers:

“The main thought I would like to leave readers with is that of the crucial participation of Black people in their own liberation and in the preservation of the young American union. This was the second extraordinary act of the African diaspora in making the New World safe for democracy, coming sixty-one years after the Haitian Revolution. A central task of this volume is to challenge us to ask why such things have not been accorded far more prominence in the ways they are taught and remembered. And in doing so, to highlight the immense work that lies ahead for the United States if it is to understand itself more fully” (p. 415).

The problems of historical heritage, of race and racism, and of inequality are among the most important issues of today. The future of Africans, faced with climate change and migration, as the defining topic of tomorrow, is of concern to everyone.

French has a smooth pen. He enlivens his story with personal anecdotes and details that make his report captivating. But readers who are looking for a more systematically constructed and structurally ordered overview are somewhat starved at the end of this 500-page thick volume. The great merit of French is that he has thoroughly shaken up our ‘image’ of the world, of Europe and Africa. But the puzzle remains, and French has certainly succeeded in returning Africa to its rightful place in world history. [IDN-InDepthNews – 23 January 2022]

Howard W. French (2021). Born in Blackness. Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, Norton-Liveright, New York, 500pp. https://wwnorton.com/books/born-in-blackness#!

*Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands, and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change. https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-981-10-7035-8

Image: Covers of ‘Born in Blackness’. Sources: Amazon and Hugenduble

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