Review: Born in Blackness by Howard French
Howard French has been a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 2008. After teaching at the University of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in the early 1980s, he began a career in journalism, writing about the Africa for The Washington Post, The Economist and other publications.
After joining The New York Timeswhere he became a foreign correspondent and senior editor, he reported on Central America, the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, Japan and China, wrote a business column world for the International Herald Tribuneand was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Born in the dark is an extraordinary book that draws deeply on his decades of experience as he seeks to explain the circumstances of Africa’s history with the Europeans who were first drawn to the continent in search of gold and of slaves.
The motives of the Europeans might have been expressed in the idea of bringing “civilization” to Africa, but they rarely strayed from much more self-serving ideas of immeasurable wealth and taking precedence over their European rivals.
Gold as a catalyst for the slave trade
Beginning with the Portuguese sailors who opened up both the continent and the islands of West Africa, French’s tale is a bold tale of what has often been said, but with additional details that might have been overlooked. to the attention of many historians.
One particular detail stands out. The Portuguese colony of Elmina on what is now the Ghanaian coastline is particularly highlighted. Rather than being just one of a series of slave forts strung along the West African coast, French convincingly demonstrates that Elmina played a pivotal role in the history of European thirst for gold and slaves.
Long before leaving for America, Christopher Columbus had traveled with provisions to Elmina, Europe’s first major fortified outpost in the tropics.
French tells us about references to the search for gold in the journals of Christopher Columbus; and in the conversations of Christopher Columbus with Queen Isabella of Castile (part of modern Spain), the sailor justified his plan to cross the Atlantic by saying that rich reserves of gold would be found there.
Elmina, and the gold that the Portuguese were able to obtain there, greatly encouraged other European countries to launch voyages of discovery. In modern parlance, their quests could be described as driven by “fear of missing out.”
There was also the widespread belief in Europe of the legend of lands with immense gold deposits.
Undoubtedly, the accounts of the famous arrival of the Malian king Mansa Musa in Cairo in 1324, during his pilgrimage to Mecca, have gone a long way in supporting these beliefs. Twelve thousand slaves, each of whom is said to have carried a golden wand-shaped fan weighing four pounds, accompanied Musa.
For a time, Portugal did everything to control Elmina, building a fort where the gold could be safely stored before being shipped to Lisbon. Indeed, French informs us that Portugal’s main problem was obtaining the necessary trade goods to trade bullion from the Akan people, who controlled the richest gold-producing regions in the interior.
But then the Portuguese found a solution. They realized the value of slaves who could be seized from elsewhere and delivered to the Akan people, who would put them to work mining the metal.
Other Europeans, jealous of Portugal’s growing wealth, began to take an interest in West Africa. The result of this new rivalry led to Europe’s first colonial naval battle, between Portugal and Castile off Elmina.
Won by the Portuguese, the battle resulted in the arbitration by the Catholic Church of a new treaty. As French puts it, this resulted in “a papally sanctioned division of the known world with far-reaching consequences for the early modern era and far beyond.”
Under the Treaty of Alcáçovas, of 1479, Portugal would now enjoy rights to all islands already discovered and to be discovered beyond the Canary Islands – control essentially sanctioned by the Church of Sub-Saharan Africa.
However, Portugal’s hegemony over the gold trade in West Africa ended in 1652 when the Dutch (Protestants) seized Elmina and expelled the Portuguese.
Elsewhere, Portugal began buying slaves in Benin and later in Kongo (now Angola). These slaves were then transported to the island of São Tomé, before being delivered to the West African continent.
French writes, “As a buyer of slaves from elsewhere in Africa, Elmina was equally important as a catalyst for what became known as the Atlantic slave trade.
“In this, however, São Tomé deserves equal, if distinct fame – or infamy, which has so far largely eluded it. This 330 square mile island would be the last stop in the Eastern Hemisphere for growing sugar.
Portugal proved adept at developing the plantation model adopted in territories controlled by other Europeans in the New World, including the Caribbean and Brazil.
A taste of independence
One such location was Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the Caribbean, once France’s most profitable colony. By the late 1780s, Saint-Domingue was producing more wealth as the world’s largest producer of sugar and coffee than the rest of the French colonies combined.
“Like so many stories contained within these pages,” writes French of the first successful slave rebellion and the birth of the first independent black nation, “apart from lineaments so stripped they would be hard pressed to fill an almanac entry, the story of this revolution is hardly known or appreciated even among highly educated Western readers.
“For at least two reasons, the invisibility of this self-liberation by slaves, mostly recently landed from Africa, is particularly perverse and disturbing to Americans. This is because of the physical proximity to America of Hispaniola, the island where Haiti is located, and the disproportionate impact of the Haitian revolution not only on the size and shape of the United States, but on its very character as a nation and its emergence as a world. Power.”
The repercussions of the Haitian Rebellion have spread to the United States, and the author devotes the rest of the book to examining the facts and myths surrounding the American Civil War and the plight of First Nations Americans and slave laborers. African ancestry both in the Deep South and those who moved north to the so-called Free States.
Along the way, French reveals his fascination with the Delta blues and its hero Muddy Waters. In many surprising ways, this book provides a brilliantly argued case for recognizing Africa’s immense contribution to modernity.