Wed | Aug 21, 2019

Ahmed Reid | What Orville Taylor got wrong

Published:Sunday | July 22, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Ahmed Reid

Within the last two weeks, the issue of Africa's culpability in the historic trafficking of our enslaved ancestors has been raised in your newspaper, one by Dr Orville Taylor, the other by Dr Glenville Ashby.

While Dr Taylor took it for granted that it was an accepted practice that "our own West Africans conspire[d] to sell us to the Europeans", Dr Ashby calls for more balance in our assessment of this aspect of our past. I would like to contribute to the discussion by showing that Dr.Taylor's argument ('Dark side of the World Cup'), which appeared in The Sunday Gleaner on June 24, 2018, is problematic.

I take issue with Dr Taylor's sweeping comment regarding Africa's role as it is clearly lacking in context, and a true understanding of historical facts.I found it surprising, too, that in encouraging Jamaicans to pay much closer attention to some countries' history, he did not exhibit the same level of care when looking at the history of Africa during European contact.

The question of Africa's participation in the historic trafficking of enslaved Africans to the West is a long-standing one because of the role played by some individuals and states, for example, the Fon of Dahomey (Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo (Angola), the Kongo (Congo), and the Akan of the kingdom of Asante (Ghana).

Dr Taylor, it seems, is echoing the sentiments of Lord Chesham, who, speaking for the British government in a debate on reparation initiated by Lord Anthony Gifford, argued that "African leaders were themselves active participants". This line of argument, also trotted out by well-known opponents to reparation who frequently write to The Gleaner, has been used to highlight Africa's culpability and to absolve Europe of the need to atone for the crimes committed against enslaved Africans.

Dr Taylor's argument ignores some fundamental facts. The motive and rationale for the kidnapping and trafficking of more than 15 million Africans to the Americas was strictly a European initiative. To ensure that their enterprise succeeded, they militarised Africa.

In their book, Trading Souls, Hilary Beckles and Verene Shepherd have shown that in Gambia in 1740, more than 430 gun flints, 71 pairs of pistols, 518kg of gunpowder and 16kg of lead balls were used as exchanged goods for enslaved Africans. European countries such as Portugal, UK, France, Spain, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Germany actively participated, invested financially, and benefited from the trafficking of Africans.


Mode of production


These countries conceptualised and then used enslaved African labour as the principal mode of production. (This is an important point, because even though slavery existed in Africa, it was NOT organised to facilitate the redistribution and transfer of wealth). These countries granted royal charters and gave state-sponsored companies exclusive licences to kidnap and traffic Africans.

Monarchs such as Louis XVI (France), King George I (UK), King Christian IV (Denmark) and King Gustav (Sweden) invested and profited from the trade. Of the 36,000 shipments from Africa to the Americas identified so far, most of the journeys originated in Europe were outfitted in major European cities (Hamburg, Liverpool and Copenhagen, etc), and captains and crews came from European towns.

Industries such as shipbuilding, insurance and banking emerged in these countries. These linkages, it has been shown (Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, 1944) 'fertilised' Europe's industrial advancement. Africa never created economies based on enslaved labour, and, according to Nigerian economic historian Joseph Inikori, unlike Europe, Africa's net gain was zero. Walter Rodney's book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, supports this point.

The trade in enslaved Africans lasted 400 years, and it encompassed an area stretching from the Senegambia region (Senegal) to West Central Africa (Angola), a coastal distance of more than 5,000 miles, as well as southeast Africa. This would have encompassed a multiplicity of kingdoms and ethnic groups.

Given the duration and scale of the trade, to make such sweeping generalisation based on the limited number of kingdoms involved is reckless and feeds the paranoia towards Africa held by so many Jamaicans who are not exposed to the truth about the African holocaust.

Furthermore, collaboration was not the norm. To suggest that Africans "conspire[d] to sell us" is not supported by the evidence. State-sponsored companies like Britain's Royal African Company, Denmark-Norway's Royal Chartered Danish West India & Guinea Company, and Brandenburg-Africa Company (just to name a few) were similar in structure to modern day drug-cartels. They had the motivation, money, arms and capabilities to destabilise African societies. There is evidence of this, but King Nzinga Mbemba's (Congo) letter of protest to the king of Portugal in 1526 is a useful point of reference:

"... We cannot reckon how great the damage is, since the mentioned merchants are taking every day natives, sons of the land and the sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives ... . That is why we beg of Your Highness to help and to assist us in this matter, commanding your factors that they should not send here either merchants or wares, because it is our will that in these kingdoms there should not be any trade of slaves nor outlet for them."


Need or greed?


In many instances, some kings, not having the means to withstand the destabilising forces of these companies, "collaborated" so they could save their kingdom. There were other kingdoms that were motivated by greed. But collaboration by a few should not condemn a whole continent and does not absolve Europe of its legal responsibility.

If Dr Taylor had taken the long view of history, he would have noticed many instances of collaborators working with oppressors. There were Jews (Jewish Councils-Judenraete) who collaborated with the Nazis, but the legal responsibility for the crimes committed against them was in no way affected by any collaboration.

The collaboration of these councils with Nazi Germany did not absolve the Nazis of the crimes committed, and rightly so. Nor should the participation of a few African kingdoms and individuals absolve Europe for the crimes committed. There have always been collaborators, but the most serious penalties under criminal law are reserved for those who organise the criminal enterprise and profit most from it.

European nations conceived the trafficking in enslaved Africans, put the enterprise into motion, controlled its operation, and were massively enriched by it.

Dr Taylor's throwaway comment fails to make clear the extent to which Africans resisted European enslavement. David Richardson and others have highlighted cases of African resistance. Ship captain William Snelgrave reported that Africans revolted aboard the ship Henry in 1721 and many claimed that their European captors were "rogue[s] to buy them, to carry them away from their own country; and that they were resolved to regain their Liberty if possible". Similarly, James Towne stated that Africans rejected Europeans enslaving them and taking them "from their own country" and their "wives and children."

Resistance by the Wolofs (Senegal) and other Africans in the north-west region was of great concern to enslavers. In fact, this level of resistance explains why so fewer Africans from the north-west region disembarked in Jamaica and other areas in the Americas.

There are cases of insurrection on ships, and some like the Abigail, experienced more than one. I will remind Dr. Taylor of King Mbemba's stance on European enslavement:

" soon they are taken by the white men they are immediately ironed and branded with fire, and when they are carried to be embarked, if they are caught by our guards' men the whites allege that they have bought them but they cannot say from whom, so that is our duty to do justice and to restore to the freemen their freedom".

This was the norm in West Africa. Unfortunately, over 15 million Africans paid the price for Europe's greed and determination to build an economic system based on enslaved African labour. Unlike most African nations that have participated in the trade, Europe has yet to apologise.

- Dr Ahmed Reid, from the City University of New York, is visiting professor at The Centre for Reparation Research at the UWI. Email feedback to and