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Apropos to slavery & the Western World

Huzaima Bukhari

“We cannot continue to blame the white men, as Africans, particularly the traditional rulers, are not blameless”—The Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria addressing tribal chiefs

There are always two sides of a coin therefore any issue under consideration must be examined from all possible sides and of course the best is a balanced approach that helps in viewing things from a non-partisan and objective point of view. Therefore, while the white race may be accused of innumerable acts of infraction that has left this world with indelible scars, the so-called coloured races, in pursuance of their greed, have also played a significant role in converting this heavenly world into a hellish nightmare. 

Despite the fact that slavery was in existence from prehistoric times, its greatest impact was seen when the Atlantic slave trade nations comprising the Portuguese, British, French, Spanish and the Dutch, placed orders in large volumes for slaves to be shipped from Africa to North and South America. The business flourished with establishment of agencies on the African coasts that were responsible for purchasing men and women from the local African chiefs. The human cargo was then dispatched to the coastal areas, kept in chains in camps ready to be exported on the first available vessel. The actual number of purchased slaves was immense but due to high mortality rate it has been estimated that about 12 to 12.8 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic.

An interesting story “Africa’s role in slavery” by Martin Henry appeared in The Gleaner in its issue of 15 May 2019. He quotes Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston who bitterly complained that “the white people held my people in slavery here in America. They had bought us, it is true, and exploited us. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw was: My people had sold me … . My own people had exterminated whole nations and torn families apart for a profit before the strangers got their chance at a cut. It was a sobering thought. It impressed upon me the universal nature of greed.”

Martin writes that African kings were all too eager to supply the white traders with who they called criminals and prisoners of war awaiting execution. So rather than putting them to death, they found selling them more profitable while the buyers seem to be acting as rescuers offering them better lives, and in their lust for riches, the chiefs did not refrain from trading off non-criminals. Overwhelmed by this wave of trade that brought in its wake untold wealth and power, these chiefs had the audacity to send protest delegations to Paris and London when France and Britain outlawed slavery in the early nineteenth century. This can be referred to a period of awakening of the conscience of the West.

Basil Davidson, celebrated scholar of African history, in his book The African Slave Trade writes: “When Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807,it not only had to contend with opposition from white slavers, but also from African rulers who had become accustomed to wealth gained from selling slaves or from taxes collected on slaves passed through their domain. African slave-trading classes were greatly distressed by the news that legislators sitting in Parliament in London had decided to end their source of livelihood. But for as long as there was demand from the Americas for slaves, the lucrative business continued.”

From what transpired during those dark years, the total blame for African slave trade cannot be laid on the western world since the locals had a more formidable part in disrupting the lives of their own people. They took full advantage of this new form of commerce and exploited it to earn profits beyond their expectations. Tunde Obadina, a director of Africa Business Information Services has openly acknowledged Britain and other Western countries in their endeavours to end the slave trade even though the local rulers would have been happier with its continuance. So while slavery was getting to become an obnoxious business in the West in early nineteenth century, Mali legally abolished it in 1960 although there are yet cases of enslavement of hundreds of thousands in 2015 despite the law.

As of today, the military might and moral outrage of the West has successfully brought to the fore, the devious nature of slavery, stopping its prevalence around the world and ending years long of African resistance to its cessation. Ghanaian politician and educator Samuel Sulemana Fuseini has acknowledged that his Asante ancestors accumulated their great wealth by abducting, capturing, and kidnapping Africans and selling them as slaves while a diplomat Kofi Awoonor has also written: “I believe there is a great psychic shadow over Africa, and it has much to do with our guilt and denial of our role in the slave trade. We, too, are blameworthy in what was essentially one of the most heinous crimes in human history.”

At an observance in the year 2000 attended by delegates from Europe and the USA, officials from Benin presented apology tendered by President Mathieu Kerekou where he sought forgiveness and reconciliation for the notorious acts of his ancestors in the slave trade. Cyrille Oguin, Benin’s ambassador to the United States, acknowledged: “We share in the responsibility for this terrible human tragedy.”

The non-government organisation Africa Human Right Heritage, based in Accra, Ghana, supports the campaign for an apology. Baffour Anning, its chief executive, said: “I certainly agree with the Nigeria Civil Rights Congress that the traditional leaders should render an apology for their role in the inhuman slavery administration.” He said it would accord with the UN’s position on human rights. The Congress has argued: “In view of the fact that the Americans and Europe have accepted the cruelty of their roles and have forcefully apologised, it would be logical, reasonable and humbling if African traditional rulers … [can] accept blame and formally apologise to the descendants of the victims of their collaborative and exploitative slave trade.”

No matter how wretched the lives of slaves was and how much they may have suffered from the anguish of home-sickness, the truth is that their white masters would never have been able to possess them had their own people stood up in solidarity and strongly resisted their trade. If Omar Ibn Said had been alive today, he would have certainly been more appreciative of the West in liberating humans from slavery than the torture he experienced as an enslaved person.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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