African American History Breakthrough Series
We are proud to continue to celebrate the history of African Americans, highlighting the breakthrough series of ideas, theories, events, and technological inventions, which changed and shaped the lives of African Americans, and Americans in general, and the world.
The Breakthrough Series places the ideas, theories, events, and technological inventions of African Americans in their proper historical context, that is, in the grand sweep of history. For example, the enslavement of Africans in the Americas is located with the rise and maturation of European Capitalism, and the Harlem Renaissance is placed in the context of the Marcus Garvey Movement and rise of a black cultural intellectual class that gave definition to a new African American identity.
The European “Slave Trade:” The Trafficking of Africans to the Americas
The conquest and subjugation of Africa begins in the 16th century with Europe’s domination of the seas and subsequent control of international trade. The conquering of Africa was a gradually process, occurring over a period of 400 years. As noted elsewhere, historian Walter Rodney observes that what is referred to as the “triangular trade”—Europe, Africa, and the Americas—which Europe initiated, was not commercial trade in the normal sense of the concept, trade between consenting nations, but rather the imposition of physical and social violence, resulting in the enslavement of Africans, the underdevelopment of Africa and the overdevelopment of Europe.
Africa’s downfall and takeover was brought about with the confluence of external and internal factors. The first and most critical external factor was the Europeans superiority and dominance of ships and military capacity, which allowed them to gain control of the world’s waterways. By controlling the seas, Europe took the first step towards controlling and transforming trade and the acquisition of goods, guns and technology and the exchange of scientific knowledge.
Second, Europe’s monopoly of knowledge about international exchange system seen as a whole,” for Western Europe was the only sector capable of viewing the systems as a whole.” The strategy behind international trade and the production that supported it was firmly in the hands of European nations, especially the sea-bound nations. They owned and directed the sea-going vessels and controlled financing of the trade. Africans had little clue as to the tri-continental links between Africa, Europe, and the Americas.
Moreover, while the initial contact and exchange of goods between European nations and various African ethnic groups was fairly even, this quickly changed, as the sea-trading nations, through their capitalist production, was able to duplicate and mass produce most of the goods which these ethnic groups had to sell. And, as the dominant European nations, through capitalist expansion, extended their reach to the Americas, labor became, and specifically, “slave labor” became a priority and focus.
With the diminishing of African goods, and the need for slave labor, Europeans allocated to Africa the role of supplier of human captives to be used as slaves in the Americas and other parts of the world. Hence, the European strategy for acquiring slave labor was to make Africa’s central and primary export human captives on a mass level. This strategy involved both open warfare against African ethnic groups and the fomenting and taking advantage of ethnic rivalries by pitting one ethnic group against another in an existential battle for survival.
Third, Europe’s supremacy in technology, advanced by scientific knowledge; borrowing; and discovery, provided it with mass consumer production capacity, long distance ship travel, and advanced military weaponry. Over time this allowed European trading-nations to envelope control and direct the local and regional economies of Africa, dictate the terms and conditions of trade agreements and what was to be traded (African captives), build military allies with African groups, nation-states at war with other African in the region, and foment and encourage fighting between and among the various African populations.
Next, the internal divisions and strife among African ethnic groups and nation-states facilitated Europe’s conquest and control of Africa. It is important to note, however, that European nations conquered a collection of African ethnics groups and nation states, with difference allegiance and political interest, and not Africa as a unified political unit. Put simply, Africa, as a unified political continent. In fact, they did not identify as Africans, but rather as Asante, Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa, et al. At that particular moment in history, Africa exist only as a geographical continent, and thus, just as the the Saxons, Britons and Jutes did not have a concept or identity of being English before the 10th Century, Africans did not have a racial identity as Africans until late in the 18th century.
Therefore, once all of these factors were in place, the capturing, trading, and selling of African captives took on a life of its own, transforming Africa into a “slave” continent, where its industry was capturing other humans to be sold or traded. These “slave raiders” would spread terror and disrupt and dislocate populations, creating chaos and instability in the place of development and stability. The implications of all of this are as follows.
One, Africans, as Rodney notes “in the main, were not captured by Europeans, nor did individual rush to sell themselves—they were forcibly brought to the European buyers by other Africans.” Rodney furthers states “With the incentive of European goods”, Rodney writes, slave raiding became a profession, with persons dedicating themselves entirely to the service of the slave trade.”
Two, Africans did not engage in the “selling” of other Africans as “Africans,” but as members of various nation-states and ethnic groups who were often at conflict or war with other neighboring populations.
Three, while some of the internal conflict resulted in war and acts of aggressive violence, much of what was “termed ‘war’ were nothing more than robberies and manhunts,” resulting in the “violent seizure of persons for sale into slavery.”
In brief, the factors mentioned above are the core reasons for the decent of Africa from its glory days during the European “Dark Ages.” The complicity of the various African kingdoms, nation-states and ethnic groups in the slave trafficking of African captives should not be minimized or overlooked. They are blameworthy and deserving of the history’s judgment and criticism. However, Africa’s complicity does not absolve European nations who participated in the trafficking and enslavement of Africans, nor does it free them from kidnapping and killing that took place, resulting in the greatest crime against humanity recorded in history.
Maulana Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies
Walter Rodney, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545 to 1800
Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization