Comment & analysis
A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade
2006-02-02, Issue 240
Manu Herbstein’s first novel, ‘Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, recently published in South Africa by Picador Africa, won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Best First Book Prize. Set in the late eighteenth century, it tells the story of a young woman who is captured and enslaved in the West African savannah and transported to Brazil. Here, Herbstein reflects on the historical background to his novel and some of its contemporary implications.
Some forty years ago the distinguished British Professor of History, Hugh Trevor-Roper, told a BBC audience: "Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But, at present there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness…"
In 1772 or thereabouts, Ama is quietly going about her business at her home in the West African savannah. She is about to be overwhelmed by waves, tsunamis, of history, African and European history, of which she is almost entirely ignorant. Living, as she is, in a quiet, rural, pre-industrial society, we may excuse her ignorance. Given Trevor-Roper’s profession and status, his ignorance was inexcusable. Regrettably, except amongst specialists, that ignorance of African history remains widespread today.
I am not an historian. Indeed I am not any sort of academic. So I ask you to approach the potted historical background which I am going to offer you with some reserve. For one-stop access to the texts I have used you might like to look at the book’s companion web-site, www.ama.africatoday.com One further caveat: you should bear in mind that much of our knowledge of West African history is derived from European sources, which may be distorted by their unwitting ideological baggage.
Returning to my metaphor of tsunamis, what I am going to do is to describe briefly the dry land on which Ama (or Nandzi, to give her her birth-name) stands as the novel opens and then, again briefly, to describe each of the several waves of history which threaten to engulf her: the histories, if they can be separated, of Dagbon, Asante and Europe; and of gold, kola and sugar.
Human settlement in the West African Sudan
Until very recently conventional history has had it that the peopling of West Africa is, in terms of palaeontology, quite recent, beginning, perhaps, during the last ice age, a period when the Sahara was green. The recent discovery of hominid fossils in Chad may demand a major reassessment of this part of the story.
Be that as it may, the early immigration would in all likelihood have been gradual and slow and the numbers small.
Let me now slip into the historical present tense.
Over the course of many centuries the Western Sudan, the savannah country to the south of the Sahara, becomes populated. Many people live in acephalous societies, some of which, beloved of anthropologists, still exist. Ama’s people, who call themselves Bekpokpam, but are known to others as Konkomba, are one such. They develop, as one might expect, a culture which is intimately connected with their physical environment. So, to give just one example, their religious practices are concerned with protection from a sometimes hostile climate and with encouragement of fertility, both of the soil and of their womenfolk.
History is recorded, by and large, to reflect the glory of strong rulers. Since the Konkomba have no strong rulers, they preserve little of their history. What they remember, principally, is their “tsunami,” when they were overwhelmed by mounted invaders from the north.
The invaders call themselves Dagomba; their state is known as Dagbon.
In the 16th century or earlier, perhaps, the ancestors of the Dagomba live in the vicinity of Lake Chad. They are troubled by the depredations of the “white men from the desert,” that is, Bedouin raiders; and decide to migrate. For a generation or more they wander within the bend of the Niger River, surviving from the proceeds of occasional brigandry. In due course they settle in the vicinity of what is now the city of Tamale, in northern Ghana and towards the Togo border to the east, where they establish their capital, Yendi. This is the country of the Konkomba, some of whom submit and are absorbed by the invaders while others stubbornly retain their own separate identity.
In the early eighteenth century, through the influence of Hausa traders, Dagbon adopts Islam. The Hausa traders arrive each year, after the rains, in search of kola.
In early times, the tropical forest bars migration from the savannah down to the Atlantic coast; however the Volta River offers one way through. So we have a populated coastal strip separated from the savannah by a 200km wide belt of forest.
The natural environment of the tropical forest is a major factor in determining how, and how quickly, it is penetrated by man. The canopy of the forest is so dense that little light penetrates to the ground. The vegetation at ground level is consequently light. Adventurous hunters in search of game are the first humans to enter the forest. In due course some of them establish small settlements. The trees are enormous and closely spaced. It requires a great input of labour to clear areas for agriculture. The problems are exacerbated by the poor quality of tropical soils. After only three or four crops the nutrients are exhausted and decreasing yields force the farmer to clear new areas.
Powerful economic incentives are needed to make settlement viable. Of these there are two: kola and gold.
The kola tree is indigenous to these forests. Its seeds fall to the ground, where they may be collected. The kola “nut” is a pink and white seed about the size of a thumb. It has a mildly narcotic effect and is reputed to stave off hunger and thirst. Its economic value stems from the fact that Islam does not prohibit its use. In order to realize this value, labour is required to clear the ground beneath the kola trees, to gather the seeds and to transport them in head-loaded baskets to entrepôts beyond the northern extent of the forest. The market for kola encompasses the entire Muslim world.
From around the eighth century of our era, the kingdoms of the western Sudan, first, ancient Ghana, and then Mali and Songhai, are the most important suppliers of gold to the Mediterranean, exporting, on average, a ton of gold across the Sahara each year. West African gold makes a vital contribution to the monetization of the medieval Mediterranean economy.
School children in West Africa learn of Mansa Musa, the king of Mali who died in 1337. In making the hajj, Mansa Musa takes with him 100 camel-loads of gold and distributes so much of the precious metal in Cairo and Mecca that the bottom drops out of the market.
The trans-Saharan trade in gold reaches its peak around the end of the 17th century. In due course, the local surface deposits of gold become depleted and the Malians send exploratory missions throughout West Africa in search of new supplies. They discover a rich source in the forest of what is now the modern state of Ghana. By that time there is competition from European buyers at the coast.
The kola trade requires labour; so does the mining of gold. And so, too, does the establishment of agriculture, to support the miners and porters and the new aristocrats who are the descendants of the first settlers. Guns and powder purchased from the Europeans at the coast offer the means of obtaining that labour.
By the second half of the seventeenth century, gradual development of the forest economy has reached a level at which the establishment of a large centralized state is a viable project.
The Europeans: Portuguese, Dutch and British
During the period 1400-1600, Europe, emerging from the lethargy of the Middle Ages, witnesses the renewal of nationalism as well as the political transformation from feudalism to nation states. The exploration of the Atlantic leads to the establishment of Europe's commercial empires; and, in due course, to the industrial revolution. The Atlantic slave trade plays an important role in the growth of the European economy.
The Portuguese know that there is gold in West Africa: they aim to bypass the Saharan trade and get access to the gold through the back door. In 1482, five years before Bartholomew Diaz rounds the Cape, the Portuguese aristocrat Dom Diego d’Azambuja arrives, with several ships, at a village on the coast of what is now Ghana. His ships are laden with building materials and after negotiating with the local chief, he starts to build a brick and stone castle, which the Portuguese name Elmina. By 1486 d’Azambuja’s castle of St. George is substantially complete.
St. Georges Castle at Elmina is the oldest surviving European building in the tropics. It is a useful symbolic marker of the beginning of the process of the worldwide expansion of European power which we now call globalization.
In 1637, fifteen years before Van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape, the Dutch expel the Portuguese from Elmina Castle. They are to stay there for 235 years, until 1872, when, seeing neither economic nor political advantage in remaining, they sell the building, by then much extended, to the British.
I first visited Elmina Castle in 1961 or ’62. At the time it was being used as a training college for the Ghana Police Force and was not open to the public. I was living and working at Cape Coast, some 15km to the east of Elmina. One of the small colony of South African schoolteachers there, Manilal Moodley (who was later to become Zimbabwe’s first Ombudsman), was friendly with the Commander of the Police College. Mani took me with him on my first visit to the Castle. I was totally ignorant of its significance and that of the many other slave castles which line the Ghanaian coast. I have to admit that I remained in that state of ignorance for many years. I am comforted by the thought that I was not alone in this respect. My sister, the distinguished Ghanaian novelist, Ama Ata Aidoo, told me many, many years later: “I grew up in the shadow of those castles, but no one ever told me what they were or what they meant.”
The first chapter of Ama which I wrote is set in Elmina Castle and is based upon a story which the tourist guides still tell. It is now chapter 13. It had the advantage that, unlike the rest of the book, it required little research.
We return to the forest.
In the year 1700 Nana Osei Tutu establishes the Asante Confederacy, Asanteman, with Kumase as its capital. Its economy is based upon the export of kola and gold. It sells gold to the Dutch in exchange for guns. It uses the guns to expand its empire by conquest. Conquest of the surrounding states provides it with the labour it needs to mine the gold and gather and export the kola. It sells the captives in excess of its labour requirements to the Dutch and the English at the coast.
Asante imposes strict limitations upon the activities of foreign traders within its territory. The Europeans are confined to small areas around their castles and forts on the coast. The kola markets are on the north bank of the Volta River, which the Hausa traders are not permitted to cross. In order to consolidate its control of the kola trade routes, Asante invades Dagbon, first in 1744 and again in 1772. It stations a consul in Yendi, the Dagomba capital, to ensure delivery of an annual tribute. The tribute comprises so many sheep and goats, so many pieces of cotton cloth and so many of silk cloth; and 500 slaves. Asante concedes that none of the slaves will be Dagomba. So every year the Ya Na, the Dagomba ruler, sends out raiding parties to capture slaves for delivery to Kumase. Many of the captives are Konkomba. Nandzi, later to be known as Ama, is one.
The labour of slaves makes a substantial contribution to the Asante economy. However the slavery practised by the Asante differs so fundamentally from the chattel slavery of the Europeans, that it hardly makes sense to use the same word for the two practices. In Asante, slaves are absorbed into the population within a generation and became all but full citizens. Indeed Asante law encourages integration by prohibiting the public disclosure of the origins of any citizen.
By the end of the eighteenth century Asante has established political supremacy over the territories that comprise most of modern Ghana and east-central and south-eastern Cote d'Ivoire. It is a sophisticated, complex and wealthy state. It maintains large monetary reserves including its treasury's Great Chest, which when full contains some 200,000 oz., say 5 or 6 tons, of gold.
Europe and Africa
It is instructive to consider some aspects of the state of Europe at this time, the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Britain, emerging as the pre-eminent power, serves as an example.
In 1775 George III signs an order releasing from bondage the women and children, many of them younger than eight years old, who work in British coal and salt mines in conditions not much removed from slavery. The following year the British Parliament debates (and rejects) the first motion to outlaw slavery in Britain and her colonies. Another 32 years are to pass before the slave trade is outlawed and yet another 27 before the practice of slavery itself becomes illegal.
In Britain at this time, Roy Porter tells us, criminals are publicly whipped, pilloried, and hanged; until 1777 Jacobites' heads are spiked on Temple Bar. In 1800 there are some two hundred capital offences in England. Many specify death for small-scale theft such as pick-pocketing goods worth more than a shilling. The penalty for poaching is often transportation.
The British seldom bathe. Before cottons become cheap, clothes are difficult to wash; children in particular are often sewn into theirs for the duration of the winter. The use of underclothes is recent and not widespread. Chamber pots are provided in the dining-room side-boards of the wealthy, to save interrupting the conversation of the gentlemen. Food hygiene is no better than personal hygiene. The streets are full of the excrement of humans and horses. This is a world lit by candles and rush-lights.
There is not a single bathing establishment in London in 1800. By way of contrast, Thomas Astley, writing in 1745 of the ‘Gold Coast Negroes, their Persons, Character and Dress’, says: “They are very careful in washing their bodies morning and evening, and anointing them with palm-oil.”
In 1771 one hundred and seven slave ships sail from Liverpool, transporting 50,000 slaves from Africa. Colonial trade at the time amounts to one third of British commerce. In the 1780’s British slave traders top the international league, carrying more slaves from Africa than those of any other country. By 1790 British capitalists have invested some £70 million in the West Indian sugar economy, an economy which is based almost entirely on slave labour. During the 18th century British slave-traders transport a million and a half Africans. The slave trade is a vital pillar in the eighteenth century economy of the port city of Liverpool, underpinning the growth in its trade and shipping. It is not surprising that Liverpool merchants are amongst the most vocal opponents of legislation outlawing the slave trade in 1807.
Sugar and the slave trade
What was the slave trade all about? Here is one banal, if partial, explanation. In their voyages of discovery the Europeans found and took home three beverages: cocoa, coffee and tea, all of them bitter to the taste. This is what accounts for the dramatic rise in European consumption of sugar (In Britain, for example, 200,000lbs. in 1690; 5,000,000lbs. in 1760.) Add tobacco, rice and cotton, and the labour needed to cultivate these crops in the tropics, and there you have it.
Ama and the Legacy of the Slave Trade
The historian John Hunwick has written that he would “like to see slavery viewed from the perspective of the Africans who were victims of it.” But those Africans are long dead and have left hardly any documentary records of their experience. Who will speak for them?
The French historian Claude Meillassoux writes: “While the slave trade devastated the peasantry who saw their children, and especially their daughters, taken away by brigands or armed bands to be sold to dealers, it enriched the agents and traders in the towns as well as the nobility, the battle-hardened soldiers and the sycophants attached to the royal courts. By a perversion of memory, the sumptuousness of the plundering kings has left its mark on the area in its remembrance of the flourishing slave trade and the glories of the past, while the memory of their peasant victims has been effaced by their poverty.”
In Ama, I set out to recreate such a memory.
Lord Hugh Thomas, writes: “Any historian of the slave trade is conscious of a large gap in (the) picture. For the slave remains an unknown warrior, invoked by moralists on both sides of the Atlantic, recalled now in museums in one-time slave ports from Liverpool to Elmina, but all the same unspeaking, and therefore remote and elusive.”
I have attempted, in Ama, to give that unknown warrior a voice.
It is not for me to judge whether I have succeeded. The late Paul Hair, also a historian of the slave trade, believed that: “The feelings and sufferings of the slaves are partly unimaginable…Standard descriptions which concentrate on those aspects easily comprehensible to modern middle class sentiment cannot tell the whole story.” Perhaps he was right.
Four hundred years is a long time in human history as we perceive it. It is less than four hundred years since the disembarkation of Jan van Riebeck changed the course of South African history.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade lasted for four hundred years.
African slaves were sold in Lisbon as early as 1441. It was 1850 before the slave trade became illegal in Brazil and 1888 before slavery itself was finally made unlawful in that country. During those four hundred years European and American ships forcibly transported some twelve million African men, women and children to the far shores of the Atlantic. Millions more died on the journey to the coast, in the dungeons and barracoons in which they were assembled and in the course of the notorious Middle Passage.
By accident or good fortune, the Atlantic slavers by-passed South Africa: they took many slaves from Angola and some from Mozambique but none, to my knowledge from this country. We have, of course, our own story of the slave trade; but it is a different story.
I believe that Ama is an important book. In saying that, I make no claims for its literary merit: that is for others to judge. However, with the exception of perhaps two other somewhat obscure texts, both out of print, it is to the best of my knowledge the only attempt to tell this story from the point of view of an enslaved African, using the results of historical research now available to us. It is a story which should perhaps have been written by a Ghanaian. But West Africa is only now slowly beginning to emerge from a long period of collective amnesia regarding the slave trade. The damage to the psyche caused by the slave trade is buried deep in the individual and collective subconscious. One historian traces the institutionalized corruption endemic in West Africa back to practices developed during the period of the slave trade.
The situation on the other side of the Atlantic is quite different. When black pilgrims from the Americas visit the slave dungeons at Elmina and Cape Coast Castles, they are often overwhelmed by the experience and emerge tear-stained and emotionally drained. Many of them carry the pain of their families’ histories within them. It is transmitted from generation to generation. And the reason is not far to seek. From Argentina to Canada, in Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay, even Venezuela and, some say, even in Cuba, the descendants of African slaves are socially and economically disadvantaged; many suffer from chronic poverty and experience discrimination in every field. In the United States, the issue of slavery is one which few whites are at ease discussing with their black compatriots and vice versa. This is just one symptom of a deep and hardly recognized malaise in that country. Until the US, and in particular its educational system, comes to terms with the fact that it was constructed on a foundation of the gross abuse of generations of unwilling African immigrants, not to speak of the genocide inflicted upon its native inhabitants, that country will not sleep easy.
And what of Europe? Every person who lives in the countries of the Atlantic rim carries within him or her, the marks of the slave trade, like some unrecognized gene. We are all the descendants of those who suffered and those who, in one way or another, benefited. The Atlantic slave trade is the bedrock upon which the mighty edifice of globalization has been constructed.
We are diminished by our failure to confront this history. So long as a single person of African descent suffers discrimination on account of his descent, all Africans are diminished, Nelson Mandela is diminished, Thabo Mbeki is diminished, John Kuffuor, President of Ghana, is diminished. And it is not only blacks, not only Africans who are diminished: all human beings are diminished, we are all diminished.
Some Englishman has had the chutzpah to establish an African Commission. Has the time not come for Africa to set up its own Commission, a Commission on the State of the African Diaspora, a Commission tasked with the identification and exposure of all discrimination against people of African descent, whatever their nationality, in all countries; and the elimination of all forms of such discrimination? Perhaps we need an international Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with bringing into the open the great harm the people of Europe and their descendants worldwide have inflicted on other peoples in the course of their conquest of the planet. That might achieve some sort of catharsis which might lead us to a new world based on human solidarity rather than greed, patronage and charity.
In March 2007, I predict an epidemic of dislocated shoulders amongst members of the British establishment. This will be the consequence of their attempts to pat themselves on the back in celebrating the bicentenary of legislation making the slave trade unlawful. Would it be too ambitious to aim to celebrate in 2034, two hundred years after slavery was made illegal in the British Empire, the total elimination of its psychological and material effects? My hope is that the publication of this novel, might make a small contribution to that end.
© Manu Herbstein
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