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Africa needs to write itself back into global history o...



The history of Africa is central to the story of the modern world — Africa needs to write itself back into history

The authour writes that Africa’s contribution to Portuguese wealth came from 'black gold'. or in other words, slavery. (Photo:

The term ‘scramble for Africa’ is commonplace, but the unacknowledged reality is that what created the ‘Atlantic world’ was the scramble for Africans.

“Africa,” commented the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah in an interview in 1999, “is a guest in the 20th century.” If his perception had the aura of truth then, it remains an uncomfortable indictment nearly a quarter of a century later. Earlier, in his novel Sardines, Farah had expanded on the idea: “In this century, the African is a guest either in Africa or elsewhere… if not a guest, then slave to a system of thoughts, a system of a given economic rerouting…”.

To throw off a lingering unease at being peripheral, Africa needs to reinstate itself into history and modernity. That would represent a corrective both moral and factual, as for several centuries Africa has been elbowed aside in the story of the development of the modern world. In order to rise above the status of mere guest, the continent needs to reassert itself back into the centre of this story. Reclaiming its true role, the author Howard W French argues persuasively, would represent a decisive step in countering centuries of racist “diminishment, trivialisation and erasure” of Africans from history.

In his highly acclaimed work, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World (Norton/Liveright, 2021), French upends the traditional narrative of the Age of Discovery. He details the role that Africa played, with its vast human and mineral capital, in the creation of European ascendency. A distinguished former New York Times correspondent and currently professor of journalism at Columbia University, Howard French convincingly maintains that “more than any other part of the world, Africa has been the lynchpin of the machine of modernity.”

This precept has gradually been written out of the story, though earlier European writers knew differently. In the mid-16th century, the Portuguese historian João de Barros wrote, “I do not know in this Kingdom a yoke of land, toll, tithe, excise or any other Royal tax more reliable… than the profits of commerce in Guinea.” There was gold and ivory, but an omission in his admission of Africa’s contribution to Portuguese wealth was what became known as “black gold”: slavery.

It was a lacuna practised in later accounting for the accumulation of European wealth, though French quotes a pithy equation in 1713 by Daniel Defoe, the trader, pamphleteer, spy and author of Robinson Crusoe, “No African trade, no negroes; no negroes, no sugars, gingers, indicoes etc; no sugar etc no islands no continent, no continent, no trade.”

The conventional narrative is that Portugal was intent on reaching the riches of Asia, and that Africa represented a vast continental impediment. This, according to the authorised version, had to be circumvented by edging down the coast till the Cape could be rounded, enabling Vasco da Gama to sail to India.

“The continent is rendered a mere obstacle, and if trade with it is mentioned at all it is merely as a sideshow,” wrote French. The reality was that throughout much of the 15th century, Portugal, a small nation, became rich by devoting its meagre resources to exploring and then exploiting the west coast of Africa.

But the African “sideshow” narrative, taught as gospel when I was a student at Rhodes University, remains prevalent. Howard French’s alternative proposition is simple: “It is a bedrock feature of the way the West has explained its path to modernity, by erasing Africa from the picture.” Instead, for marginal Portugal, Africa represented a treasure trove of gold and slaves.

By the 1480s, he writes, “African gold gave such a significant boost to Lisbon that the vaunted search for a route to Asia, long preferred as the standard explanation of Europe’s expansionary motivations during the Age of Discovery, was all but suspended.” To protect its access to gold from rivals, Portugal built the trading fort at Elmina, along with “elaborate supply and defensive logistics”. Later, he points out, “Portugal would not follow up on Dias’ breakthrough to the Indian Ocean in 1488 for nearly nine years. It was simply too busy in Africa, where the returns remained extraordinarily high.”

In a reversal of modern Western assumptions, tales of fabulous African wealth reached medieval Europe with reports of a magnificent royal progress by the Malian emperor, Mansa Musa. He set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, with a 60,000 strong entourage, including 12,000 slaves. Some reports credited him as the richest king in history.

Musa distributed sacks of gold wherever he went and overwhelmed the sultan in Cairo with his munificence. The speed with which word spread to Europe is reflected in maps by the end of that decade, which “fueled dreams of a land of unlimited wealth in gold that was simply awaiting discovery in Africa.”

This began the Age of Discovery, as along the coast of West Africa Europeans improved techniques of map-making and navigation. It was first the wealth extracted from Africa, then the trade in Africans, argues French, “that set the creation of an Atlantic world into motion.” 

Trade in slaves soon exceeded the value of gold in driving Europe’s expansion, notably providing the black labour which created the fantastic wealth of sugar-producing Caribbean islands. Howard French forcefully reaffirms the judgment that, “Empire was making the British state, not the other way round.”

There was a steep price for European ascendancy. Beyond the 12 million shipped across the Atlantic, the average lifespan of the human chattels who survived that cruel ocean crossing was seven years. The term “scramble for Africa” is commonplace, but the unacknowledged reality is that what created the “Atlantic world” was the scramble for Africans.

The consequence for Africa was colossal: depopulation, weakening local traditions and destabilising structures of authority. The drawing by Europeans of arbitrary boundaries took little or no account of geography, nor of ethnic and linguistic ties. The cavalier disregard of regional histories allowed Western scholars, from Hegel to Hugh Trevor-Roper, to sneer that Africa had no history.

This allowed generations of Westerners, including some South African whites today, to flatter themselves that European colonists have bestowed the blessings of modernity on a backward continent.

In contrast, Howard French presents a terse resumé of the “benign” colonial footprint: “By the late 1930s, France had a mere 385 colonial administrators commanding the destinies of 15 million African subjects. British Africa, with 43 million people, had a roughly comparable 1,200. By the late 1950s, the dawn of the independence era for the continent, out of a population of 200 million sub-Saharan Africans, European stewardship had produced only 8,000 secondary school graduates, half of whom were from just two colonies, Britain’s Ghana and Nigeria. In France’s territories only about a third of school-aged children received any primary education at all.”

Instead, starting with the devastation of the slave trade, what Europeans left were what have been called “shatter zones”, where there has been a lasting erosion of trust. Studies show that low levels of trust are likely to result in weak institutions, leading almost inevitably to chronic levels of corruption. So it is that, in Howard French’s summation, we too hear, “the haunting echo of a wound that one carries down through the generations.”

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire warned over half a century ago about the perils of the formerly oppressed internalising the values of the oppressor. Among post-colonial elites, status anxiety regularly resulted in a neurotic craving for conspicuous consumption. Here, too, that syndrome has produced massive state embezzlement, as though the previously oppressed feel an addictive compulsion to rival or surpass the cupidity of former masters.

The aftermath of colonialism has left multiple mental and emotional scars. The crudity and degradation of slavery led to a pervasive sense of white superiority. A mirror image from the humiliated and demeaned is the absence of persuasive alternative self-determination. One symptom of this malaise is that the most vociferous denouncers of “whiteness” and “colonialism” are routinely the crassest consumers of Western gizmos, from imported luxury cars to designer clothing and pricey cell phones. It’s a disorder dissected by, among others, Paulo Freire and Franz Fanon, and which contributes directly to Nuruddin Farah’s contention that Africa remains a “guest” in the modern world.

To shrink that mental map closer to home, Njabulo Ndebele, the former vice-chancellor of UCT, once remarked that in Cape Town, many black South Africans still feel uneasy, like a guest in their own home. The implication is that whites generally regard Cape Town as their own, so are perfectly at home.

To reverse this disequilibrium does not require that we rewrite history. Instead, we need to question the dominant Western narrative of the past 600 or so years, frequently shaped by self-justifying Europeans. Howard French’s deeply researched book tips much of that standard interpretation on its head.

It is perhaps indicative of our timid provincialism that this original work has been widely reviewed and praised in the West, yet hardly at all in South Africa. If Africa is not to remain a guest in the modern world, however, Africa needs to write itself back into history. If we don’t, no one else will. DM


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  • Africa did massively enrich Europe, but it was not the only source of Europe’s wealth. Some of the richest countries, Switzerland, Sweden, and Norway had little to do with Africa. Britain was wealthy before the scramble for Africa.
    Perhaps Africa’s role in enriching the Western World would be more readily acknowledged if Africa admitted that colonialism had brought the written word, buildings of more than a single story, medical knowledge, and many other benefits to a benighted Sub-Saharan Africa. It would also help Africa’s case if they admitted that it was Europe who forcibly supressed slavery two hundred years ago.

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