By LENNOX FARRELL
If, in the 16th century’s Spanish Asiento (Spain’s annual quota for slaves), European imperialism for “overseas empires” was a vehicle, its fuel was Africa’s peoples. And its terminus was the Americas. The iniquity of this linkage between Europe, Africa and the Americas is described in an article, “Recovery, Not Discovery”:
“The history of this region can be described as the forcible replacement of the Original Peoples by Europeans, with enslaved Africans stolen from their lands to work the lands stolen from the Original Peoples.”
Three centuries later, enter the 19th century’s Berlin Conference (1885). The growing conflicts between the bandits of imperialism demanded some “civilized criteria by which to divide the spoils”. From this conference, convened by the “Iron Chancillor”, Germany’s von Bismarck, Africa now became both fuel and destination for European exploits. However, less than five decades later, the dawning of the 20th century, Europe’s “Scramble for Africa” unravelled, igniting World War I. It ended in a muddied stalemate: “How best to manage the pillage of Africa’s mineral wealth?”
Europe, divided, suspicious and calculating, re-armed. It had available the most homicidal armaments that science and civilization had to offer for the scripted mid-20th century’s “war to end all wars”: World War II.
While slavery and thievery had taken Europe four centuries to degrade the lives of 10 to 80 million Africans (estimated); by comparison, Europe’s 20th century inability to equitably divide the imperial spoils pillaged from Africa, slaughtered, over four years, 60 million Europeans (estimated).
Interestingly, the legacy of Adolph Hitler, the Fuehrer of White supremacist criminality, remains topical, partly because he set out to do in Europe what Europe had for centuries done in Africa: colonizing Europe, using genocide. In tandem, his confederate, Il Duce Mussolini sought to situate Italy – denied its slice in Europe’s 1885 division of the African cake – in the big league of European imperialists by invading the only African country not colonized, Ethiopia.
There is neither joy nor exulting to be had in the hurt of other humans, especially innocents. However, in history (including Africa’s), there appears to be an uncanny designer of aftermath: the proverbial, “Mills of the Gods”, in whose roster of dystopia, “they still grind slow, yet exceeding fine”. Today, these “mills grind, pitiless”. Primarily under the conceit of European supremacies, there is now unfolding, the 21st century’s hubris of global warming.
What are some key features of the European Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade? It began in 1441. In this era, under their savvy monarch, Prince Henry the Navigator, Portuguese sailors like Vasco da Gama had been commissioned to sail south, down the west coast of Africa to find a route to the East and its wealth. Five decades later, another monarch on the Iberian Peninsula, Queen Isabella – who with her husband, Ferdinand had freed Spain after 700 years of rule by the Moors – was now the most powerful monarch in Europe. Frustrated, however, about not being able to get past the Turks who now controlled the Silk Road and its riches in the East, she also commissioned another sailor, an Italian named Cristobal Colon (1492) to sail west to find the route east to the Indies.
The Spaniards subsequently introduced into the Americas, the trinity of horses, pigs and smallpox. These would forever change this hemisphere. Its people, like Europe’s, numbered 100 million. A century later these would be reduced by 90 per cent, many Amerindians never seeing a European, yet dying from European-borne illnesses.
Another feature of the Transatlantic Slave Trade linking Europe, Africa and the Americas is that it is considered to be the first example of globalization. Also, across the Mediterranean, there were the perennial conflicts between Christian Europe and Muslim Arabia. Each mutually slaughtering and enslaving the other. That was life. Life, too, were the epochal plagues and famines. According to John Hatcher, historian, the University of Cambridge, “in the space of seven years, half of the population of Europe (on one occasion had) died from the Black plague”.
Another plague took the lives of one-third the population of London. Coming from those eras is a Grimm’s’ fairy tale. And a children’s rhyme: “Ring around a rosie; A pocket full of posies. Atushka, atushka, we all fall down.” The rhyme describes the “rings” formed on the skin infected by postules from the Bubonic plague. The “rosies” were the flowers carried under one’s nose to avoid inhaling the miasma of death. “Atushka” was the fit of sneezing that seized the victims before they “all fall down” dead. And, possibly among the remaining vestiges of famines is the children’s story, “Hansel and Gretel”. In it, a “witch schemes to eat these two children”.
There were also the wars between the Catholics and the Protestants. Partly for this reason, England’s longest held colony was Ireland…800 years. Also, while Europeans were keeping fellow Europeans as serfs (opposing such inequalities was the signing of the Magna Carta, and much later the “self-evident truths” of the American Constitution), under English rule, the Irish population was reduced by two-thirds through genocides and enslavement to “the Barbados”.
Of the Africans, 48 per cent and 41 per cent were respectively shipped to sugar plantations in Brazil and the West Indies. And five per cent to America. Unlike the Arabian slavers who captured more women than men (for harems), the Europeans, by ratios of 2:1 enslaved more men than women for the plantations. However, as in Moslem Arabia, the Africans were not expected to reproduce and multiply. The average working-life of a slave on a sugar plantation was seven years. However, the ending of the slave trade – but not of slavery – by 19th century Britain changed that ratio. And living standards. Now, provision was made for foods like breadfruit from Polynesia (see Mutiny on the Bounty with Captain Bligh), and Maritime salted cod-fish – staples in West Indian cuisine today.
In the early years, too, the English, French, Portuguese, Spaniards and the Dutch were comparably competitive. By the 17th century, however, with the British Empire now being established “where the sun never sets”, they seized control of anything their “eyes fell on, and their eyes fell everywhere”. Thus the British Imperial anthem, “Rule Britannia” aptly describes this era: “Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves…”
Indeed! British seamanship had defeated, among other imperial competitors, Spain’s Armada. Also, under slavers like John Hawkins, British seamanship so enriched shareholders, that Queen Elizabeth I – the Good Queen Bess – from a £10,000 investment, earned so much profit, that during her reign, having fought nine campaigns against the Irish – on one occasion expenses of £100,000 against County Tyrone – she never had to raise taxes on the populace. Europeans also realized that becoming wealthy meant carrying out raids against non-Europeans.
In Africa, the populace first decimated were from the west coast regions of the Senegambia and the Bight of Benin. Having depopulated these regions, the slavers raided farther inland. They also changed the concept of “slavery” from that of a status which then included individuals by circumstance: captured in war, a debtor, etc. In fact, the word “slave” is a derivative from “Slavs”: White Europeans enslaved from the Balkans. This change in concept would however question, and reduce the very “human-ness” of Africans.
This is because, to the concept and practice of slavery, Europeans now attached ethnicity: African ethnicity.
To be continued: Europe’s enslavement of Africans and the Industrial Revolution.