Sun | Jun 4, 2023

Religion & Culture | Separating fact from fiction - Were Africans complicit in the slave trade?

Published:Thursday | August 16, 2018 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
In this January 2007 photo, then Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller greets Professor Chinua Achebe at the launch of activities to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade,

The Psychology of oppression - Why it is important to challenge the myths surrounding slavery (The Sunday Gleaner, July 8, 2018) stirred widespread interest among readers.

Of the many emails I received, there was one that more than stood out, an excerpt of which stated: "I read your columns and feel grateful that others are as sceptical about religion and Christianity in our small country.

"On slavery, though, I have always wondered how those Africans in the slave selling business did not get news of our fate over the 200 or so years they sold us into slavery. The trade went on for centuries. Did sellers realise that the slavery they practised (also abhorrent) was not the hell into which they were selling others?

"To be honest I think there needs to be a conversation between the diaspora exslaves and nationals of slave trading countries. The cobwebs of the mind - e.g., paralysis when told the mantra your own people sold you - need to be discussed ventilated so that myths and facts (some of which our slave selling brothers will want to deny) can be exorcised from our psyche."

I received a follow-up letter from this reader asking me with some urgency to address her concerns. No doubt, this is a weighty and very sensitive subject.

It was in 1998 that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, on this very subject, said to a packed room, "African chiefs were the ones waging war on each other and capturing their own people and selling them. If anyone should apologise it should be the African chiefs." This from a man said to be notoriously corrupt.

Remarkably, not a single mention did he make of the many African chiefs who waged war against the Europeans inside Africa. And not a single mention of the powers that profited from the colonial and postcolonial eras.




That Bill Clinton was a member of the audience begs the question: Was the Ugandan president peppering his words to win favour from his American master?

And in 2009, the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria wrote to tribal chiefs: "We cannot continue to blame the white men, as Africans, particularly the traditional rulers, are not blameless."

Again, no mention of the documented resistance against the interlopers inside Africa. Further, why should African chiefs be placed on the chopping block when the United States, Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, Italy, and Holland never apologised for their dastardly role in history's greatest tragedy?

Should we not question the motives and mindset of those quick to absolve Europe's culpability?

A few years ago, I interviewed the Ambassador of Benin to the United Nations (Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, January 4, 2012). During that encounter, he assured me that African governments are encouraging the black diaspora in the Americas to return to the motherland, even granting me a three-year visa, a driver, and an interpreter if I took up the offer.

Never did he mention purported African involvement in the slave trade and I thought it inappropriate to raise the issue.

Under different circumstances I met Kwame Peter, a Ghanaian during my daily two-hour commute to work. It wasn't long before we grounded politically and culturally. His is a success story, having moved to the US some three decades ago to become an accomplished professional in the medical field.

I requested an honest discussion on the subject in question.

Peter conceded that while Ghanaians are aware of the charge that they sold their own into slavery they strongly reject this view. "It is nothing but a myth," he argued, calling it "a distortion of truth to sow the seeds of division and hatred among black people."

He further explained, "First of all, what the white man saw in Africa was never called slavery. What the colonists saw were servants working the land. These servants either voluntarily offered themselves to the chiefs and the kingdom for some form of remuneration and security.

"They had the opportunity to go back to their families. In other situations, these servants were spoils of war. For example, the Ashanti Kingdom absorbed neighbouring lands after emerging victorious. But in no way was there the brutality and oppression that European slavery was known for. When the coloniser saw this system they said that Africans were used to slavery, which is a skewed and untrue."


Intention to Deceive


Peter went further: "In the early days of whites setting foot on African soil, there was always the intention to deceive. First, he invited the sons and daughters and those close to the chiefs to the distant lands promising education, trade, and prosperity.

"In the beginning, these Africans returned proving the trustworthiness of the arrangement. Eventually, when they had a footing in Africa and more Africans were taken away that trust was broken when the chiefs realised that what was once a return journey was now a one-way trip.

"This was the beginning of European raids to snatch slaves deep inside Africa. Many chiefs valiantly fought back. This is mentioned in some detail in your article. To peddle that we wilfully sold each other, knowing the consequences, is just part of an elaborate scheme to divide us.

"In Ghana and Africa, we don't give energy to that distortion. We dismiss it. We view Caribbean blacks and black Americans as Africans. It is you who don't consider yourselves Africans."

Peter decried what he called "another distortion" when asked if crossing the ocean as slaves (a view I heard growing up in Trinidad) invalidated our identity as Africans.

He explained: "While there is a belief that kings should not cross rivers because it rendered them spiritually impotent, one's identity is never compromised. An African is an African is an African."

Clearly, blacks in every land need closure on this issue, an issue that has led to mistrust and the emergence of radical religious outfits bent on perpetuating the self-destructive 'black-sold-each-other mantra.'

What is certain is that Africans should never be weighed down by collective guilt when there is ample evidence that they resisted European incursions. Moreover, it was the African who faced the tip of the spear during that sordid period.

Unfortunately, an interview or two cannot fully address this subject. Collaborative efforts by educators and cultural ambassadors in Africa and the Americas are needed more than ever to bring closure to this unsettling chapter in black history.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the award-winning author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend' and 'Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity'.Feedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby.