SLAVERY: TEXTS AND SOURCES
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- In the
New York Times Howard W. French writes of The Atlantic Slave Trade: On Both
Sides, Reason for Remorse
- The New York
Times April 5, 1998
The Atlantic Slave Trade: On Both Sides, Reason for Remorse
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- From the moment the White House announced that
President Clinton would stop at Senegal's Goree Island, one of this
continent's most famous monuments to the Atlantic slave trade, a polemic
was re-launched in the United States and in much of Africa over how and
indeed whether Clinton should apologize for the centuries-long capture
and sale into bondage of millions of Africans.
For some, the very idea of an apology was offensive. Weren't Africans
engaging in slavery themselves well before the first Europeans came and
carried off their first human cargoes? Didn't African chiefs themselves
conduct razzias, or slaving raids, on neighboring tribes and march their
harvest to the shores for sale?
For others, though, the Atlantic trade in Africans was one of the
greatest crimes humanity has known, and remains one that has never been
"The Holocaust was certainly a great tragedy, but it only lasted a
few short years," said Joseph Ndiaye, the curator of the Maison des
Esclaves, the featured stop on Clinton's trip to Goree. "We never
stop hearing about the Holocaust, but how often do we dwell on the
tragedy that took place here over 350 years; a tragedy that consumed
tens of millions of lives?"
In the end, an appropriately solemn Clinton stopped short of an outright
apology for America's part in the slave trade, finding other ways to
express his regret as he focused on the future.
That Clinton so artfully chose to sidestep African slavery's long
history should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with its
cruel and complicated details.
Even today, few subjects are so prone to passionate disagreement. As
ever, people from each leg of the triangular Atlantic trade -- Europe,
Africa and the Americas -- still use the slave experience as a vacant
screen upon which they project their own misperceptions and
The Colonial View
In the United States, conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan recently
echoed a sentiment heard often from whites who resent attempts to make
them feel guilty for slavery:
"When Europeans arrived in sub-Saharan Africa, the inhabitants had
no machinery and no written language. When the Europeans departed, most
of them by 1960, they left behind power stations, telephones,
telegraphs, railroads, mines, plantations, schools, a civil service, a
police force and a treasury."
Even disregarding the wildly benign view of Europe's colonial legacy,
many historians say Buchanan's assumptions -- of a savage continent
being blessed with the gift of European civilization -- are as erroneous
as they are widespread.
Early European travelers to West Africa, in fact, found societies that
by many measures, from commonly available technology to general living
standards, were not so different from home.
"The smelting of iron and steel in West Africa was similar to that
in Europe in the 13th century, before the advent of power driven by the
water wheel," wrote Hugh Thomas, the author of "The Slave
Trade" (Simon & Schuster, 1997). "Senegambia had iron and
copper industries, and the quality of African steel approached that of
Toledo before the 15th century."
It would be dishonest to lay all of Africa's subsequent problems on the
slave trade. But most experts do not doubt that the forces unleashed by
Europe's demand for slaves, gold and other African goods radically
destabilized societies that were embarking on their own path toward
development, and laid waste to whole regions of this continent.
"The discussion of how Africa became what it did subsequent to 1500
very quickly becomes an argument over what the slave trade did to the
continent," said John Reader, a fellow of the British Royal
Anthropological Institute and author of "Africa, a Biography of the
"Africa clearly would not have had an easy time even if there had
not been an Atlantic slave trade," he wrote. "But one can
easily imagine entirely different trajectories for the continent."
A cold look at the nature of the Atlantic slave trade makes it very
difficult to overstate its impact.
Until recently, Africa's economic development has always been hindered
by low population densities. Africa's population in 1500 has been
estimated by some at 47 million. Over the next 350 years, between 10 and
15 million Africans were landed in chains in the New World, and 4 to 6
million more are thought to have died during their capture or the
Atlantic crossing -- a total of between 14 and 21 million people.
History has seen few social disruptions on that scale.
In the end, however, many specialists in African history consider the
process by which slavery worked to be as destructive as the sheer
Few African slaves were enchained by Europeans themselves. Instead,
massive slave raids, huge marches of captives from inland areas and
continuous rivalries between coastal kingdoms and local ethnic groups
were driven by demand for Europe's coveted goods -- cloth and candles,
grain, horses, spiced wine, pots and pans.
For centuries in Africa, ethical conventions had governed the taking and
use of slaves, who in most cases resembled the serfs of Europe more than
the chattel of the Americas. These suddenly dissolved.
"The trans-Atlantic slave trade vastly devalued human life compared
to what existed virtually anywhere on the continent before," said
historian Basil Davidson. "Things were not a peaceful Garden of
Eden in Africa beforehand. But all of the evidence combines to show that
the level of civilization in pre-colonial Africa was degraded and
depressed by the onset of widespread violence related to the slave
And here one begins to touch upon one of the cruelest ironies of the
slave trade and enter into an area that many Africans and
African-Americans are often unaware of or uncomfortable confronting
African slavery, albeit of a very different kind, began long before the
arrival of Europeans, and continued well after slavery's abolition in
the West. And the slavery of the Americas could never have approached
the scale it attained without the active and widespread collaboration of
Africans. Most troubling, perhaps, are how European perceptions of
Africans and their behavior lent seeming moral acceptability to the
The free-for-all among African societies to capture slaves from their
neighbors and rivals for sale to whites was deliberately stimulated by
the Europeans who anchored offshore with their cloth and trinkets. And
this same state of chaos comforted whites in their view of Africans as
Today Africans and African-Americans may often share a common view of
slavery as the evil work of whites. But the very notion of shared
Africanness so commonplace today existed only in the minds of foreigners
during the time of this trade. To Africans, their own divisions on
ethnic and linguistic lines mattered far more. The lack of solidarity
served, in the European mind, as another easy rationale for enslaving
Contrast this to the attitude Europeans took toward the New World's
Indians. Recorded instances of Indians selling each other into
plantation slavery are rare. Less than 100 years into the colonization
of the New World, calls were spreading for the abolition of Indian
"The Indians were seen by and large as a people unknown to the
ancients who had somehow remained innocent and noble," said David
Brion Davis, the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University."
At the very same time, mariners going up and down the African coast
spread tales of Africans as savage barbarians who sold slaves
1998 The New York Times Company