Jhe way we think about history is totally wrong, says Howard W French at the start of this beautiful, powerful, and gripping book. The problem is not only that the peoples and cultures of Africa have been ignored and left out; on the contrary, that they have been so misinterpreted that the history of the world’s past has become part of a deep “false narrative”.
This process begins, French argues, with the Age of Discovery. The impetus for what turned into the creation of multiple European empires spanning continents came not from “desire for ties with Asia”, but from “age-old desire to forge trade ties with “legendarily wealthy black corporations” in Africa that were home to huge amounts of gold and an “inexhaustible source” of labor. It was along the west coast of Africa that Europeans “perfected the techniques of cartography and navigation”, where ship designs were tested and improved and where sailors learned to understand the winds of the sea. ‘Atlantic Ocean.
These experiences, dating mainly from the 1400s, were to prove instrumental not only for the colonization of the Americas and the opening of new trade routes to Europe. It turned out that the most important consequences were for the peoples of Africa. The scale of human suffering that followed Columbus’s crossing of the Atlantic is almost impossible to conceive, let alone describe: the modern consensus is that an estimated 12 million people were embarked on slave ships in appalling conditions.
Most were then worked to death, with the lifespan of trafficked persons estimated at seven years or less. It was cheaper, wrote an English planter in Antigua in 1751, “to work the slaves to the extreme, and by low cost and heavy use, to wear them out before they became useless and unable to do service, then buy new ones to fill their places.” Black lives literally didn’t matter – except to enrich their “owners.”
The disgusting way European wealth rested on the backs, bodies and lives of people abducted from Africa against their will and then enslaved thousands of miles away to work on plantations producing sugar, tobacco, cotton and more, supported not only Western empires, but also the standard of living in distant idylls like England. How lucky were the English to live on an island and be surrounded by the ocean, said a ruler of Dahomey (now southern Benin), one of Africa’s largest states. “We, on the other hand,” he said, “are surrounded by a variety of other peoples, speaking different languages and constantly having to defend ourselves with the sharpness of our swords.”
As French explains, it was not just slavery that devastated swaths of Africa; the same was true for the process of enslavement. In addition to the 12 million people shipped across the Atlantic, an additional 6 million lives were lost in or near their home countries in the hunt for slaves. This placed extraordinary demographic pressures on national societies, transformed agriculture, and changed gender relations, as it was mainly able-bodied young men who were needed to do the hard work in overseas colonies. Slavery led to fragmentation, fracturing and war fueled by weapons – especially guns – which were sold by Europeans, forcing neighboring states to compete and turn against each other for attempt to defend their own populations against transport.
It had other effects as well. The rich diversities of Africa’s many different peoples have been subsumed into a single category of ‘blackness’ that has obscured and ignored proud histories and cultures and treated all of the continent’s inhabitants and their descendants as one and the same. person. This was ironic, of course, given that populations were deliberately distributed across the Americas and the Caribbean to prevent family and kin groups from communicating with each other, thus reducing the chances of rebellion against the vastly outnumbered Europeans. .
Sometimes the dehumanization that French portrays so powerfully is hard to read. In 1661, for example, a law was passed in Barbados which was later passed in Antigua, Jamaica, South Carolina and beyond, which declared Africans to be a “heathen, brutal and uncertain and dangerous kind and that white homeowners should therefore assume almost total control over their lives. French discusses the magnitude of the backbreaking workload expected of slaves and how it increased over time, and discusses how this fueled Britain’s industrialization and modernization and how black lives raised the standard of living of people living on the other side of the world. .
Today, the importance of the role of transatlantic slavery is better known and more studied than it was in the past – and rightly so. This book, however, is much more than that, as the French offers a broader view of how and why the history of Africa and its peoples has been ignored, showing how the exploitation of the Americas and the Caribbean has brought ecological dividends that then reshaped the world.
French writes with the elegance expected of a distinguished foreign correspondent, and with the passion of someone who is deeply committed to making a correction. I wish he had gone beyond the mid-twentieth century to bring us up to date, not least because issues of historical legacy, race, racism and inequality are some of the most important issues in today – while the future of the peoples of Africa, which will be amplified by climate change, is the defining issue of tomorrow. It’s not a comfortable or comforting read, but it’s beautifully done; a masterpiece even.
Peter Frankopan is the author of The New Silk Roads (Bloomsbury)