Not All Africans Were the Victims of European Slavery – Some Were the Slavers

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As I mentioned in a previous post, a few days ago Bristol city council passed a motion brought by Green councillor Cleo Lake and seconded by Labour deputy mayor and head of equalities Asher Craig supporting the payment of reparations to the Black community for slavery. Bristol becomes the first town outside London to pass such a motion. Although the motion is a radical step, on examination it seems not so very different from what Bristol and other cities are already doing. Lake herself said something like the reparations weren’t going to be a free handout for everyone, or something like that. The motion, as I understand it, simply calls for funding for projects, led by the ‘Afrikan’ community itself, to improve conditions and create prosperity in Black communities so that they and their residents enjoy the same levels of opportunity and wealth as the rest of us Brits. This has been coupled with calls for ‘cultural reparations’. What this means in practice is unclear. It appears to me that it might include monuments to the people enslaved by Bristol and transported to the New World, the repatriation of stolen cultural artefacts or possibly more support for Black arts projects. But as far as I am aware, the city has already been funding welfare, arts and urban regeneration projects in Bristol’s Black majority communities, like St. Paul’s, since the riots forty years ago. It looks to me far more radical than it actually is.

The motion was passed by 47 votes to 11. Those 11 opposing votes came from the Tories. They stated that while the motion came from a ‘good place’, they were not going to vote for it because it was just reducing a complex issue to a binary. Mike in his piece about it says that it sounds like doubletalk to him. It does to me, too, but there might be a genuine issue there as well. Because Lake has made the motion about the ‘Afrikan’ community in Bristol as a whole, including both Afro-Caribbean and African people. Both these parts of Bristol’s Black community are supposed to qualify equally for reparations. Her eccentric spelling of the ‘African’ with a K exemplified this. She claimed that this was the originally spelling before Europeans changed it to a C. The K spelling indicated the inclusiveness of the African community. This looks like total hogwash. Western European nations use the Latin alphabet, which was developed by the Romans from the Etruscans. The Romans and the Etruscans were both Europeans. I am not aware of any Black African nation having used the Latin alphabet, let alone spelt the name of their continent with a K. The Berber peoples of north Africa have their alphabet, used on gravestones. The ancient Egyptians wrote in hieroglyphs. Coptic, the language of the indigenous Egyptian Christian church, which is descended from ancient Egyptian, uses the Greek alphabet with the addition of a number of letters taken from the demotic ancient Egyptian script. Ge’ez, the language of Christian Ethiopia, and its descendant, Amharic, also have their own scripts. It’s possible that medieval Nubian was written in the Latin alphabet, but it might also be that it was written in Greek. It therefore seems to me that K spelling of Africa is a piece of false etymology, invented for ideological reasons in order to give a greater sense of independence and antiquity to Africa and its people but without any real historical support.

At the same time there is a real difference between the experience of the descendants of enslaved Africans taken to the New World and the African peoples. Because the latter were deeply involved in the enslavement of the former. Some Europeans did directly enslave Africans through raids they conducted themselves, like the privateer Jack Hawkins in the 16th century. But mostly the actual raiding and enslavement of the continent’s peoples was done by other African nations, who sold them on to the Europeans. European slave merchants were prevented from expanding into the continent through a combination of strong African chiefs and disease-ridden environment of the west African coast. As a result, the European slave merchants were confined to specific quarters, like the ghettoes for European Jews, in African towns. Britain also mostly took its slaves from West Africa. The east African peoples were enslaved by Muslim Arabs, the Portuguese or by the Dutch for their colonies at the Cape or further east in what is now Indonesia.

Slavery also existed in Africa long before the arrival of the Europeans. Indeed, the kings of Dahomey used it in a plantation agricultural economy to supply food and cotton. They were also enslaved by the Arabs and Berbers of north Africa. The first Black slaves imported to Europe were taken to al-Andalus, Muslim Spain. The trans-Saharan slave trade survived until 1910 or so because the Europeans did not invade and conquer Morocco, one of its main centres.

Following the ban on the slave trade within the British Empire in 1807, Britain concluded a series of treaties with other nations and sent naval patrols across the world’s oceans in order to suppress it. Captured slavers were taken to mixed courts for judgement. If found guilty, the ship was confiscated, a bounty given to the capturing ship’s officers, and the slaves liberated. Freetown in Sierra Leone was specifically founded as a settlement for these freed slaves.

The reaction of the African peoples to this was mixed. Some African nations, such as the Egba, actively served with British sailors and squaddies to attack slaving vessels. I believe it was British policy to give them the same amount of compensation for wounds received in action as their White British comrades. Other African nations were outraged. In the 1820s there was a series of attacks on British trading stations on the Niger delta in order to force Britain to resume the slave trade. As a result, Britain fought a series of wars against the west African slaving states of Dahomey, Badagry, Whydah and others. On the other side of the Continent, Britain invaded what is now Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe partly to prevent these countries being claimed by their European imperial rivals, but also to suppress slavery there. In the 1870s the British soldier, Samuel Baker, was employed by the ruler of Egypt, the Khedive Ismail, to stamp out slaving in the Sudan and Uganda. Later on, General Gordon was sent into the Sudan to suppress the Mahdi’s rebellion, one cause of which was the attempt by the British authorities to outlaw the enslavement of Black Africans by the Arabs. The Sudan and Uganda also suffered from raids for slaves from Abyssinia, and we launched a punitive expedition against them sometime in the 1880s, I believe. Some African chiefs grew very wealthy on the profits of such misery. Duke Ephraim of Dahomey in the 18th century had an income of £300,000 a year, far more than some British dukes.

Despite the efforts to suppress slavery, it still persisted in Africa. Colonial officials reported to the British government about the problems they had trying to stamp it out. In west Africa, local custom permitted the seizure of someone’s relatives or dependents for their debts, a system termed ‘panyarring’ or pawning. The local authorities in Sierra Leone were also forced to enact a series of reforms and expeditions further south as former slaves, liberated Africans, seized vulnerable local children and absconded to sell them outside the colony. Diplomatic correspondence also describes the frustration British officials felt at continued slaving by the Arabs and the collusion of the Ottoman Turkish authorities. While the Ottomans had signed the treaty formally outlawing the slave trade, these permitted individuals to have personal servants and concubines. The result was that slaving continued under the guise of merchants simply moving with their households. The Turkish authorities were generally reluctant to move against slavers, and when police raids were finally launched on the buildings holding suspected slaves, they found the slaves gone, taken elsewhere by their masters.

Slavery continued to survive amongst some African societies through the 20th century and into the 21st. The 1990s book, Disposable People, estimated that there were then 20 million people then enslaved around the world. Simon Webb, the Youtuber behind ‘History Debunked’, has said in one of his videos that the number is now 40 million. Slave markets – real slave markets – have been reopened in Uganda and in Islamist held Libya following the western-backed overthrow of Colonel Gaddafy.

From this historical analysis, some African nations should very definitely not be compensated or receive reparations for slavery, because they were the slavers. Black civil rights activists have, however, argued that the continent should receive reparations because of the devastation centuries of warfare to supply the European slave trade wrought on the continent. Not everyone agrees, and I read a comment by one diplomat or expert on the issue that, when it came to reparations, it should be Black Africans paying the Black peoples of the Americas and West Indies.

Nevertheless, Lake’s motion states that all Black Bristolians or British are equal victims of British enslavement. This seems to be a view held by many Black Brits. A reporter for the Beeb interviewed some of those involved in the Black Lives Matter protest last summer when the statue of the slaver Edward Colston was torn down in Bristol. The journo asked one of the mob, a young Black lad, what he thought of it. ‘I’m Nigerian’, said the lad, as if this explained everything. It doesn’t, as the Nigerian peoples practised slavery themselves as well as enslaving others for us and their own profit.

It feels rather churlish to raise this issue, as I’ve no doubt that people of African descent suffer the same amount of racial prejudice, poverty and lack of opportunity as West Indians. If the issue was simply the creation of further programmes for improving the Black community generally, then a motion in favour really shouldn’t be an issue. At the same time, if this was about general compensation for injustices suffered through imperialism, you could also argue that Black Africans would have every right to it there. But the issue is reparations for slavery and enslavement. And some Black Africans simply shouldn’t have any right to it, because they were the slavers.

It would be difficult if not impossible to create schemes for improving the condition of Britain’s Black community under the payment of reparations without including Africans as well as Black West Indians. But it also seems to me that the Tories unfortunately also have a point when they complain that Lake has reduced it to a binary issue. She has, simply by claiming that all ‘Afrikans’ were the victims of British enslavement.

And it’s been done in order to create an inclusive Black community, which ignores the different experiences of slavery by the various peoples that make it up, against White Bristol.