The era of slavery on American shores began 400 years ago this year when the first boatload of slaves landed in Virginia and much has been written about that anniversary. But slave ships from Great Britain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and other countries didn’t do their work unaided.
There were hundreds if not thousands of African middlemen who procured the slaves for these ships. Are they not just as guilty as the white merchants who put them on their ships? Do these middlemen have descendants and if so, do they feel any shame at what their ancestors did?
Armed with a journalism grant, a Nigerian journalist set out to find those descendants and what she found was published Sept. 20 in the Wall Street Journal headlined “When the Slave Traders Were African.”
Not only that, but many of those descendants are bringing their faith into the question.
The segments I am reproducing are long, but the Journal’s paywall makes it harder for people to read it otherwise. And this is a must-read story:
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. 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.
The author then adds a stunning detail: Her own great-grandfather helped sell his fellow Igbo people to the slave traders in the 19th century. (She goes into a lot more detail about the dark side of that history in a New Yorker piece that ran last year.)
She traveled about Africa, finding a Muslim college professor whose Tanzanian ancestors helped people the Arab slave markets with his countrymen; a Nigerian politician whose family likewise benefited from the slave trade in Cross River State and a Zambian pastor, Saidi Francis Chishimba, whose ancestors profited from the slave markets.
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.
These Africans believe what goes around, comes around.
Some families feel cursed or burdened by their history and wish that they could be rid of it. “What our ancestors did wasn’t right,” said 48-year-old Teddy Nwanunobi, a journalist from southeastern Nigeria. “If they had thought about the consequences, they wouldn’t have done those things.” His great-grandfather was an Igbo slave trader, and Mr. Nwanunobi and his male relatives think that their own failure to produce children, in a patrilineal society, is a result of their family’s role in bringing other people’s lineages to an end. “I didn’t think twice about believing it,” Mr. Nwanunobi told me. He quoted a portion from the Book of Exodus, which refers to God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children…to the third and fourth generation.”
Similar Bible passages have become popular in certain religious circles in Nigeria. The pastors encourage their congregations to identify patterns in their afflictions and to investigate their histories for root causes, then to ask God for forgiveness, usually after a period of fasting. In collaboration with his younger brother in England, Mr. Nwanunobi is now making arrangements for priests to visit the family and advise on what steps to take to free them from their past. “If not, the family will continue to go down,” he said.
Can you imagine anything like that taking place in the United States?
The author adds that her own family had a time of fasting and prayer to repent for their ancestor’s part in the slave trade and were prayed over by an Anglican priest.
I can’t say there’s been a whole lot out there about African participation in the slave trade compared to the role Europeans played in it all. (Interesting fact: The largest importer of slaves was not the USA, but Brazil.)
Ten years ago, according to this 2009 Guardian piece, the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria urged tribal chiefs to apologize for their ancestors’ role in the slave trade, saying in part, "We cannot continue to blame the white men, as Africans, particularly the traditional rulers, are not blameless."
I’d be fascinated to know more about the idea of generations or places being under a curse from God because of slavery. Christian groups in America have been staging prayer vigils and prayer walks for years to repent for slavery and remove such curses. If something like that ever happens in Africa, let’s hope there are enough journalists with their ears to the ground to cover it.