BORN IN BLACKNESS: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War
Author: Howard W French
In 1444, the citizens of Lagos in southern Portugal witnessed a novel spectacle. As they crowded the beach, some 235 newly arrived Black captives were driven ashore. Overseers dragged families apart as despairing mothers clutched their children and threw themselves on the ground, absorbing the blows raining on their backs. Presiding from horseback over Europe’s first sizeable market of sub-Saharan slaves was Portugal’s Prince Henry, known to history as “the Navigator,” and watching nearby was his official biographer, Gomes Eanes de Zurara. Abandoning his usual sycophancy in the face of the captives’ anguish, Zurara bitterly protested that he could not help but “cry piteously over their suffering” and found scant comfort in the thought that their heathen souls, if not their scarred bodies, would be saved.
As Howard French painfully establishes, the Portuguese would soon get used to such sights, and the slavers’ unholy swindle — a lifetime of hard labour in return for a shot at the afterlife — would be trundled out across four centuries to justify the shipment of 12.5 million Black bodies to the New World. In Born in Blackness, Mr French’s design is not to elicit revulsion but to fill an Africa-size hole in conventional accounts of the Age of Discovery and the rise of the West.
In place of Spain and Columbus, Mr French, a former Africa correspondent for The New York Times, proposes Portugal as the true engine of modernity through its deep involvement in sub-Saharan Africa. This may surprise some readers, since Portugal during this period is chiefly remembered for Vasco da Gama’s 1498 voyage around Africa to India. Far from being a giant obstacle standing between Europe and the luxury goods of India and China, Africa had its own allurements, and foremost among them was gold.
Medieval Europeans awoke to the possibility of untold African wealth when reports reached them of an impossibly magnificent expedition mounted by an emperor of Mali. That emperor, Mansa Musa, set out in 1324 on a pilgrimage to Mecca with an entourage 60,000 strong, dispensing sacks of gold as he went, including more than 400 pounds to the sultan in Cairo. His trip was the talk of the century, and it lit the imagination of specie-poor Europe.
The prospect of directly tapping African gold by skirting the traders of Islamic North Africa was certainly high on Henry the Navigator’s list. Yet by the time gold was found in quantity (in 1471, the year Mr French takes as the starting date of Africa’s entry into modernity), Henry was long dead. Instead, it was slaving that saved his skin, and slaves would soon outstrip gold as the most valuable commodity in Europe’s expanding Atlantic sphere.
To the colonialists, it was all one intoxicating rush of wealth. Once again, it was the Portuguese who took the lead, modelling Black plantation slavery first on the islands of Madeira and São Tomé, and then on an epic scale in Brazil. If the Spanish found much of the New World and imported the diseases that depopulated it, Mr French argues, the Portuguese discovery in Africa outlasted Spain’s mining frenzy as a productive economic activity. The Portuguese model was adopted in turn by the Dutch, French and British, who refined it on Barbados into a cruelly efficient system of profiteering that gave owners near total control over their captives’ lives and allowed even murder to go unpunished. The net economic value of plantation slavery has been much debated: Mr French cites compelling research but falls back on his (surely correct) intuition that rival powers would scarcely have spilled so much blood and treasure in their interminable battles to control Black labour if the margins at stake were thin.
The evidence that Africans made the New World economically viable is overwhelming, but in his zeal to press his point, Mr French sometimes goes for broke. He variously traces a more or less straight line from plantation agriculture to the division of labour, productivity metrics, the birth of large corporations, the emergence of commercial credit and capitalism, coffeehouse culture and newspapers, political engagement and pluralism, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment.
This is stretching a case well made. Born in Blackness is filled with pain, but also with pride: pride at the endurance of oppressed millions, at the many slave uprisings and rebellions culminating in the Haitian revolution, which defeated “the idea of Black slavery itself,” and in the cultural riches of the African diaspora. Some of the most illuminating chapters deal with the nations of Africa themselves: polities such as Benin, Kongo and Mali that featured thriving urban centres, exquisite artisanship and legal and administrative systems on a par with much of medieval Europe. Remarkably, no African state would be conquered by Europeans until the 19th century; our modern image of the continent dates from 1885, when the imperial powers divvied it up, creating arbitrary, dysfunctional countries that have stuck.
Mr French does not shy away from the ruthless complicity of many African leaders in the slave trade, which he blames on the lack of a unifying African identity and a raging thirst for imported silks, palanquins, guns and the rum produced in Brazil by their former brethren. He maps out the shattering cost in depopulation, chaotic regional wars, internal displacement, the erosion of social trust and the unquantifiable legacy that he movingly describes as “the haunting echo of a wound that one carries down through the generations.”