AS may be expected a lot has been said on the Atlantic Slave Trade this year, the 200th anniversary of the abolishing of the trade by the European nations. To what extent in the prevailing image factual?
Apart from the problem of communication and competence of the primary sources of information, cultural differences and racism may account for misinformation on the trade.
Twentieth century historians, most of whom were European, are largely responsible for the world’s present image of the trade, which has put many West Africans on the defensive, especially in their relations with African-Americans.
Some of the historians probably know that their assertions are not established as facts. Writes Philip D. Curtin
: “An assessment of the trade based on what did happen, rather then what might have happened, can only come after weighing the evidence of detailed regional studies which historians of Africa are now only beginning to provide”
Meanwhile, he has personally contributed immensely to establishing the prevailing image through the assertions he has made as an authority on the trade, which leave little room for unsuspecting readers to imagine that what they read are not established as facts.
Contrary to popular belief, not all Europeans who came to West Africa during the slavery era died. Probably some 30 – 40 per cent survived, and some settled. They were dubbed lancado or tangomao. Most European historians on the trade have failed to write on this or the European settlements (Rodney and Matthews being notable exceptions) thus making the assertion that “Europeans bought, but Africans sold”, as Curtin maintains, seem reasonable. But is it? One class of Africans often roundly vilified on the trade are the chiefs. But which chiefs?
African rules of hospitality, especially in the past, dictated that rangers be made to feats home. Ultimately, the ruler was responsible for ensuring that the stranger to the community was well catered for. Hospitality may include a place to put up, feeding, and a wife from the community in the course of time. In cases where the guest has impressed the host, such marriages were sometimes initiated by the host as a way of establishing permanent relations.
In areas where European settlements or ports of call were sited, mulattoes, referred to as filhos de terra (Children of the soil) mushroomed with great speed. These mulattoes fell under the guidance, tutelage and influence of their lancado or tangomao fathers. Where their fathers themselves might once have had the benefit of an attempt at a good moral training during their childhood in Europe, these mullatto children had little. Their values in life were shaped by their fathers and their cronies, whose main livelihood was slavery, and, therefore, they gave up knowing little else.
Inevitably, the mulattoes soon outnumbered their white fathers, so that most popular lancado resorts in the 16th century were generally taken over by their mulatto children and descendants by the middle of the 17th century.
With time, the descendants of these mulattoes grew darker in colour as they intermarried with the natives, sometimes so dark as not to be easily made out from the natives.
The effectiveness of these mulattoes and other descendants of the lancado, or tangomao (in all their shades) in the slave trade stemmed from the fact that many of them were children of native African women from royal families and, based on matrilineal inheritance, they were royals. So that these mulattoes and their descendants had power and influence over the Africans by rights, which their European fathers and ancestors never had.
Furthermore, they understood the languages, had better insight into the culture, norms and differences among the peoples, which they exploited.
The mulattoes were aware that they straddled two worlds. Says Matthews of one of them, James Cleveland: “To sum unlike character in a Ten words, with a black man he is a white man, with a black man, a black man”.
Mostly however, the mulattoes tried “to identify themselves outwardly as a community with a different heritage and a different purpose (in life) from the mass of the Africans” 10. Of the mulattoes in the Sene-Gambian region Rodney quotes Jobson: “They call themselves (Portuguese), and some of them seeme [sic] same; others of them are mulattoes, between blacke [sic] and white, but most as blacke as the natural inhabitants”. Lajaille, a French ship captain who visited the Upper Guinea Coast in 1784, also gives us this picture: “Fifteen thousand Portuguese half-castes, mulattoes and blacks are spread throughout the immense country, preserving amidst poverty their (Portuguese) national pride”:
Ultimately these mulattoes were able to upset the power structure and capture political office even where it was previously forbidden by custom.
If they desired any office they entertained few scruples in muscling their way to power. Even where they did not officially pursue a substantive political appointment they effectively duplicated authority in their societies. They were powerful, to say the least.
For example, for a period of at least fourteen months over the years 1684 and 1685, the Captain-Major of Cacheu was held captive by the Afro-Portuguese female trader, Senhora Bibiana Vaz; and in 1728 the Royal African Company was sent packing from Sierra Leone by another Afro-Portuguese, Senhor Lopez.
These Afro-Portuguese on the Upper Guinea Coast became so powerful in the later half of the seventeenth century as to attempt to assert an independence from Portugal and set up a “Republic”, and impudent enough to request a dialogue with the king of Portugal himself on the issue.
In the middle of the 18th Century for example, the name of Henry tucker was a byword in Sierra Leone. He was regarded by the Europeans as a genial character, but the Africans held exactly the reverse opinion of him. His riches set him above even the traditional kings.
This ‘genial” character presided over the enslavement of thousands of his half-brothers, the native Africans. So also, decades later, was the image of James Cleveland who reigned supreme, spreading violence and fear in his wake for about thirty years, until his death in 1790.
To many Europeans who only casually visited the West African Coast however, once a personality reached the status of Henry Tucker they were “chiefs” or rulers. It was a problem of language and inadequate acquaintance-ship with the culture of the people. Writers Matthews (A slaver-turned-priest) in 1788: “In describing the customs and manners of distant nations we are under the necessity of using such expressions and phrases as suit our idioms. Hence, every petty quarrel, when perhaps there are only or a dozen combatants on each side, is in Africa called a war. It is the same also in speaking of their chiefs, or headmen who are all dignified by the European with the title of ‘king’”.
Such then was the background of some of the so-called African “chiefs” who sold their own subjects into slavery – at least, with respect to the Upper guinea Coast, on which detailed study is available. Most of them might be royals, but they only had their chieftaincy conferred on them by the ignorance of the European trader. European historians, especially Curtin, have seized on this and others to shift responsibility for the trade on Africans, but there are many holes in their argument. Detailed reading on this (with notes) is available at www.evattoh.com/books/misinformations.
It may not be impossible that some traditional African Chiefs actually collaborated with the lancado, mulatto and their descendants, but to generalize their actions may not paint a true picture of what probably happened.
The Ghanaian Times - Wednesday, November 21, 2007 Page: 21