BORN IN THE DARK
Africa, Africans and the making of the modern world, from 1471 to WWII
By Howard W. French
In 1444, the citizens of Lagos, in southern Portugal, witnessed a new spectacle. As they invaded the beach, some 235 newly arrived black captives were taken ashore. The surveillants separated families as desperate mothers hugged their children and threw themselves to the ground, absorbing the blows raining down on their backs. Prince Henry of Portugal, known in history as the "Navigator", presided over Europe's first major sub-Saharan slave market on horseback, and his official biographer, Gomes Eanes de Zurara, observed nearby . Abandoning his usual sycophancy at the anguish of the captives, Zurara bitterly protested that he could not help "weep piteously over their suffering" and found little solace in the thought of their pagan souls, if not their marked bodies would be saved. .
As Howard French painfully establishes, the Portuguese would soon get used to such views, and the unholy swindle of slavers - one life of hard work in exchange for a shot on the afterlife - would be
In place of Spain and Columbus, French, former Africa correspondent for Hfrance.fr, proposes Portugal as a real engine of modernity through its deep involvement in sub-Saharan Africa. This may surprise some readers, as Portugal of this period is best known for Vasco da Gama's 1498 voyage around Africa to India. For much of the 15th century, however, Portugal spent its meager resources exploring the West African coast.caine. Far from being a giant barrier between Europe and the luxury goods of India and China, Africa had its own attractions, foremost among which was gold.
Medieval Europeans awoke to the possibility of untold African riches when reports reached them of an incredibly magnificent expedition mounted by an emperor of Mali. This emperor, Mansa Musa, set off in 1324 on a pilgrimage to Mecca with an entourage of 60,000 people, including 12,000 slaves, distributing bags of gold along the way, including more than 400 pounds to the Sultan of Cairo. His journey was the talk of the century, and it kindled the imagination of cash-poor Europe. A heavily crowned Mansa Musa was depicted on a 1375 map laying out a huge gold nugget. "This king is the richest and noblest of all these lands, " the legend read, "due to the abundance of gold that isxtracted from his land. "Some have said he was the richest king in world history. Image
French offers this royal spectacular as the driving force behind the creation of the Western world. Direct mining for African gold by bypassing Islamic North African traders certainly featured high on Henry the Navigator's list, yet by the time the gold was found in quantity (in 1471, the year that the French took as the starting date for Africa 's entry into modernity, with the Portuguese fort of Elmina in Ghana as its key locus), Henry was dead for a long time. Instead, it was slavery that saved its skin, and slaves would soon overtake gold as the most valuable commodity in the expanding Atlantic sphere of Europe.
For the colonialists, it was only a rush for intoxicating wealth. African workers, or" black gold ", ardently cultivated sugar cane, or" green gold ", and later cotton, or white gold, which all turned into real gold. Again, it was the Portuguese who took the lead, modeling the slavery of the black plantations first on the Madeira and São Tome islands, then on an epic scale in Brazil. If the Spaniards discovered much of the New World and imported the diseases that depopulated it, argues French, the Portuguese discovery in Africa of the means of Mining overtook and survived Spain's mining frenzy as a productive economic activity. The Portuguese model was adopted in turn by the Dutch, French and British, who took it in turns. refined in Barbados into a cruelly effective system of profiteering that gave landowners quaso total on the lives of their captives and even allowed the murder to go unpunished. The net economic value of plantation slavery has been the subject of much debate: French cites convincing research but falls back on his (surely correct) intuition that rival powers would hardly have shed so much blood and treasures in their endless battles to control black labor though the margins at stake were slim.
"Born in Blackness " is studded with startling nuggets. It was news to me that colonial North American trade was directed overwhelmingly to the Caribbean, "the boiler room of the North Atlantic economy". At the end of the 18th century, white Jamaicans had an annual income 35 times that of the British in North America. French notes that more slaves were trafficked to Martinique, less than a quarter the size of Long Island, thanacross the United States, while the French prized little Guadeloupe so much that they traded it for all of French Canada. The evidence that Africans have made the New World economically viable is overwhelming, but in its zeal to assert its point, the French sometimes goes bankrupt. He draws a more or less straight line from plantation agriculture to labor, productivity measures, the birth of large companies, the emergence of commercial credit and capitalism, newspaper coffee culture, political commitment pluralism, English civil war, glorious revolution, enlightenment industrial revolution.
This stretches a well-made case. "Born in Blackness" is filled with pain, but also pride: pride in the endurance of millions of the oppressed, of the many uprisings and slave rebellions culminating in the Haitian revolution, which defeated "the very ideaof black slavery ”, and in the cultural riches of the African diaspora. Some of the more enlightening chapters deal with the nations of Africa themselves: policies like Benin, Kongo, and Mali that featured thriving urban centers, exquisite craftsmanship, and legal and administrative systems comparable to much of it. medieval Europe. Very early on, Portugal discovered the folly of sending soldiers to charge the beaches in plate armor and changed tactics to forge alliances, dealing with informed and articulate African leaders largely on an equal footing. and outsource the deadly business of capturing humans for slavery. Remarkably, no African state would be conquered by Europeans before the 19th century; our modern image of the continent dates back to 1885, when the imperial powers plagued it, creating arbitrary and dysfunctional countries that remained stranded. "The Africans themselves ", the Frenchman pointed out, "were not consulted ". which he attributes to the absence of a unifying African identity and to a raging thirst for imported silks, palanquins, guns and rum produced in Brazil by their former brothers. He maps the overwhelming cost of depopulation, chaotic regional wars, internal displacement, the erosion of social trust, and the unquenchable legacy he fondly describes as "the haunting echo of 'a wound that we carry through the generations ".
" Born in Blackness "is embellished with personal anecdotes, but the readers looking for a compelling story will be disappointed. The Frenchman repeatedly returns to his material like a restorer of images revealing a lost world as he calmly insists that we rewrite history. I found the book to be a gripping, humiliating and essential readtielle.