The African role in the slave trade was fully understood and openly acknowledged by many African-Americans even before the Civil War. For Frederick Douglass, it was an argument against repatriation schemes for the freed slaves. “The savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia,” he warned. “We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave trade than to stay here to work against it.”
—Henry Louis Gates Jr.—"Ending the Slavery Blame-Game"I really don't know much about Henry Louis Gates Jr. except that I got a good laugh out of reports of his response to the police officer who asked him to step outside his own house. I did find very interesting his article about some of the inconvenient reality regarding reparations the destination countries of slavery to the descendants of those slaves. Frederick Douglass's argument against repatriation schemes echoes into debate about reparation schemes. I've been making a similar argument for ages, but then again it's probably easier for me to say, considering I'm the insouciant type whose 'forbear was not the one shuffled off in a coffle to Calabar for a ghastly journey and a ghastlier existence abroad.'
OK, to be sure we don't treat the history of the slave trade as gingerly in Nigeria as we do in the U.S. An old girlfriend of mine was from Arochukwu, and when I wanted to tease her (which was often) I called her "slave trader". She'd call me "bushman" It's all good. Of course I didn't dwell on the fact that my Mom is from near Calabar, where the Aros would typically sell all the slaves they'd captured in their raids on the Igbo interior (where my Dad is from).Nsibiri annals of Arochukwu secret societies. I'd personally work with our family lawyer to get us off because our name 'Ogbuji' clearly indicates that yams were our stock-in-trade, not heads. But just as US discussion of reparations is more about government compensation schemes than inter-family vendettas, I suspect the way to go for Africa would be hand over a bunch of oil rights to the reparees. I'm for that. "Good riddance," I'd say, and maybe given the Deepwater Horizon, the US might be a teensy bit less jealous of mineral rights as well.
(Photo from 'A Breakthrough in Yam Breeding')
Politics and not law. Jewish families have received reparations for slave labor in Nazi camps, and some people consider the favorable economic zoning given as a sort of ersatz autonomy to Aboriginal American groups a form of reparations. But I don't think precedents work in such a sociological pea soup. Maybe one day Palestinians will be able to command reparations for Israeli occupation, with funding provided through compensation for Russian Pogroms, and for the long process of disenfranchisement that led to the Warsaw Ghetto. Maybe one day Armenians will send a bill to Turkey, and Instanbul/Constantinople can set up an electronic exchange. Or heck, the Ibibio might send a bill to the Arochukwu, and a good number of North African and Middle Eastern countries might expect to cough up for those swept up in the Trans-Saharan slave trade. Going back a bit further, I'd find pretty poetic the idea of a dispatch to Rome from Addis Ababa for all that Carthago delenda est business. Sociological pea soup, I said.I did, however, find a central lesson for all this in Gates's piece.
But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. When Njinga converted to Christianity, she sold African traditional religious leaders into slavery, claiming they had violated her new Christian precepts.
Yes, that does sound quite Christian of her. It's the wide and well-traveled gate in contrast to Wilberforce's skinny porthole, so go figure that when 'President Mathieu Kerekou [sic] of Benin astonished an all-black congregation in Baltimore by falling to his knees and begging African-Americans’ forgiveness for the "shameful” and “abominable” role Africans played in the trade,' he did so in church. Oh well. Never mind trying to make sense of it all. I'll just hang out waiting for my own bill. If they come for me for any sins of my forbears, they should expect me to make payment from my ancestral yam barn.