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 segment I am reproducing is long, but the Journal’s paywall makes it harder for people to read it otherwise.
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.