Saturday, April 24, 2010

Confronting the truth about the Atlantic slave trade

It is estimated that between 1514 and 1866 some 3 million Africans were sold and shipped as slaves from the shores of Benin. In 1999, with bended knees, President Mathieu Kerekou of begged forgiveness from African-Americans for the role Africans played in the “shameful” and “abominable” trade in humans.

Senegal’s president Abdoulaye Wade, a descendant of generations of slave-owning and slave-trading African rulers has called for Africans, Europeans and Americans, to acknowledge publicly and teach openly about their shared responsibility for the Atlantic slave trade.

Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Awoonor has written: “I believe there is a great psychic shadow over Africa, and it has much to do with our guilt and denial of our role in the slave trade. We too are blameworthy in what was essentially one of the most heinous crimes in human history.”

In an Op-ed article (published April 23, 2010), Harvard professor Henry Louis (Skip) Gates argues that slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European buyers and African sellers alike. Gates narrates that for Frederick Douglas argued against repatriation on the premise that “the savage chiefs” who were accustomed to profits from selling their captives into bondage would not be any more receptive to moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia.

Given that slave trade was a complex business partnership between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, Gates argues that the larger question about reparations might be from whom they would be extracted.

Gates central thesis is that the culpability of American plantation owners neither erases nor supplants that of the African slavers.

Gates arguments will no doubt stir vigorous debate in the US. It is a debate he hopes President Obama will be a part of. Gates suggests that Obama is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong.

There are lessons here for Africa’s future. One hundred years from today Africa’s industry will need iron, copper and uranium. My progeny will petition China and India for reparations because their economies were built from Africa’s natural resources.

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