When the Slave Traders were themselves African

US Israel news and articles

Those whose ancestors sold slaves to Europeans (via Arab ships)now struggle to come to terms with a painful legacy

Redacted from an in-depth article By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

The Wall Street Journal Sept. 20, 2019 

This August marked 400 years since the first documented enslaved Africans arrived in the U.S. In 1619, a ship reached the Jamestown settlement in the colony of Virginia, carrying “some 20 and odd Negroes” who were kidnapped from their villages in present-day Angola.

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The anniversary coincides with a controversial debate in the U.S. about whether the country owes reparations to the descendants of slaves as compensation for centuries of injustice and inequality. It is a moment for posing questions of historic guilt and responsibility.

But the American side of the story is not the only one. Africans are now also reckoning with their own complicated legacy in the slave trade, and the infamous “Middle Passage” often looks different from across the Atlantic.

Records from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, directed by historian David Eltis at Emory University, show that the majority of captives brought to the U.S. came from Senegal, Gambia, Congo and eastern Nigeria. Europeans oversaw this brutal traffic in human cargo, but they had many local collaborators.

“The organization of the slave trade was structured to have the Europeans stay along the coast lines, relying on African middlemen and merchants to bring the slaves to them,” said Toyin Falola, a Nigerian professor of African studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “The Europeans couldn’t have gone into the interior to get the slaves themselves.”

The anguished debate over slavery in the U.S. is often silent on the role that Africans played. That silence is echoed in many African countries, where there is hardly any national discussion or acknowledgment of the issue. 

Some families have chosen to hide similar histories. “We speak of it in whispers,” said Yunus Mohammed Rafiq, a 44-year-old professor of anthropology from Tanzania who now teaches at New York University’s center in Shanghai. In the 19th century, Mr. Rafiq’s great-great-great-grandfather, Mwarukere, from the Segeju ethnic group, raided villages in Tanzania’s hinterland, sold the majority of his captives to the Arab merchants who supplied Europeans and kept the rest as laborers on his own coconut plantations.

Some families feel no qualms about publicizing their own history. “I’m not ashamed of it because I personally wasn’t directly involved,” said 58-year-old Donald Duke, a lawyer who ran for president in Nigeria’s 2019 elections. He is from the port town of Calabar, home to the Efik ethnic group of Nigeria’s Cross River state.

In the 18th century, some 1.2 million slaves were sold through Calabar, according to the Tulane University historian Randy J. Sparks. The Efik were mostly stevedores and middlemen. They negotiated prices between the white traders and their African partners from the hinterlands, then collected royalties. “Families like mine benefited from that process,” Mr. Duke told me.

The Zambian pastor Saidi Francis Chishimba also feels the need to go public with his family’s history. “In Zambia, in a sense, it is a forgotten history,” said the 45-year-old. “But it is a reality to which history still holds us accountable.” Mr. Chishimba’s grandfather, Ali Saidi Muluwe Wansimba, was from a tribe of slave traders of the Bemba kingdom, who moved from Zanzibar to establish slave markets in Zambia. He grew up hearing this history narrated with great pride by his relatives.

Mr. Chishimba decided that this gruesome history should be openly acknowledged and has since become popular in Zambia for his sermons, radio talks and articles on the impact of the slave trade. He uses them as an opportunity to “demonstrate the grace of God” even in so wicked a practice. He believes, for example, that mixing the races was always in God’s plan and the slave trade was an effective device for dispersing black people from Africa to other parts of the world. “What the devil meant for evil, God used it for good,” he said.

Still, my father does not believe that the descendants of those who took part in the slave trade should now pay for those wrongs. As he points out, buying and selling human beings had been part of many African cultures, as a form of serfdom, long before the first white people landed on our shores. 

“If anyone asks me for reparations,” he said sarcastically, “I will tell them to follow me to my backyard so that I can pluck some money from the tree there and give it to them.”

As for Mr. Rafiq, he agrees that Africans owe something to the descendants of slaves in America—a forthright acknowledgment of their own complicity in the trans-Atlantic trade. “Educated Africans need to rewrite their history, especially postcolonial history, which was a kind of restorative history that tended to marginalize issues like slavery,” he said. “Part of the compensation is telling the story of our part in what is happening to African-Americans today.”

Ms. Nwaubani is a Nigerian writer and journalist. Her debut novel, “I Do Not Come to You by Chance,” won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book.

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