Caveat emptor

Slavery in Africa today

Slavery in its various forms is surely the most despicable of crimes against humanity. Slavery as a practice goes back as far as historical records reach throughout Africa, the Middle East and Mediterranean. In the Bible as well as in the historical records of the Greek and Roman empires, slave trading was a common form of existence for the poor, socially disadvantaged and victims of war. Indigenous slavery in Africa was practised in various forms. Impoverished African families felt compelled to sell their children; captured enemies from tribal warfare were held as slaves and there were targeted kidnapping raids by African slave traders. Enslaved individuals could then be sold on to other communities in need of labor. African slave traders would also hold hundreds of captured slaves near the coastline to meet up with Arab or European slave traders

The killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 beneath the neck-crushing knee of an American police officer, while three other police officers aided and abetted, has once again globally ignited the democratic world’s protestations under the banner of the “Black Lives Matter” organisation. Whatever the background stories that may be presented during the trial, fundamentally the killer was a white male government official and the victim was an unemployed, drug-addicted black man with a criminal record. So the supremacist attitude of the white race that dates back to the days of African slavery has once again been highlighted as a continuing social injustice 155 years after slavery in the USA was abolished and 55 years after Civil Rights Act was passed.

The history of slave trading out of the West and central African region into Britain and America traces its origins back to the African Queen Marico, who had led her Manneh tribe from East Africa on a series of colonisation raids of West African tribes between 1545 and 1560. Queen Marico then took over trading arrangements with the Portugese who had already established trade links in this region that they named, Serra Lyoa (Lion Mountain), later corrupted to Sierra Leone. It was at this time that Britain followed the example of the Portuguese and began trading for, amongst other things, slaves who had been captured from tribes in West Africa and the Congo for the purpose of being traded. The British slave trade business was started by Sir John Hawkins with the support and investment of Elizabeth I in 1573. 

In 1607 Britain established its first permanent colony in America at Jamestown, Virginia. Twelve years later they introduced the first African slaves into their new colony. However this was not the first introduction of slavery in the Americas. Long before the Europeans arrived, slavery was common practice in the indigenous Aztec and Mayan societies as well as North American Indian societies. The distinction being that the Indian slavery in America was a consequence of taking prisoners of war and these prisoners being used by the enemy tribe as slaves rather than being traded as chattels. Nonetheless these prisoners of war were still taken by force from their homes and families and forced into slavery, so it is an academic distinction.

The practice of African slavery in America ultimately led to the American Civil War in 1861. Decades prior to that Civil War, in the early part of the nineteenth century, American Quakers had begun to address the treatment of Africans with a programme of repatriating freed slaves back to West Africa. Both Presidents James Monroe, from Virginia, and Andrew Jackson, from a poor white background in Tennessee, had been members of the American Colonization Society. The Society bought land from a ‘King Peter’ at Cape Mesurado, Western Africa, in 1821 for 500 bars of tobacco, three barrels of rum, five casks of powder, five umbrellas, ten iron posts and ten pairs of shoes. The land they purchased was just 60 kilometres in length and 5 kilometres width. In 1847 this strip of land declared its independence and became the new nation of Liberia populated by about 13,000 freed slaves from America whose repatriation was sponsored by the Society.

This American Colonization Society had followed the example of the British anti-slavery movement which had earlier established a freed slave region named Freetown in Sierra Leone. After slavery was made illegal in Britain, a British naval fleet was stationed there specifically to combat the slave trade. Freed slaves were returned to Freetown, Sierra Leone from Britain, South Africa, Nova Scotia and Jamaica.

This American colonisation programme in Liberia was effectively shut down by the Republicans in America who opposed the phasing out of slavery in favour of total abolition and who opposed repatriation in favour of integration within America as free men.

This American civil war officially ended in 1865 after the death of 600,000 Americans from a population of 30 million. Scaled to their current population that would be equivalent of 6.3 million deaths today. Having won that war Lincoln immediately released four million ill-prepared Africans onto the streets of the towns and cities of the South. Into an economy that had been totally crippled by four years of civil warfare. Into a hostile environment where every single Southern family would have known tragedy, trauma and death at the hands of the northern liberals on behalf of these Africans.

Not surprisingly, given the social and economic devastation of that terrible war, bitter inter-generational resentment between European-Americans and African Americans festered for a further ninety nine years until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed in the midst of violent racial rioting. A further fifty years later Americans of African descent are integrating far more readily amongst Americans of European, Middle Eastern, South American and Asian descent but still remain over-represented in the lower economic groups which is the root of ongoing racial disharmony.

Queen Marico of Sierra Leone, already mentioned, was not an isolated example of an African warrior queen. In the research for her book “Gender and Power in Sierra Leone”, author Lynda Day found there were many women leaders amongst the 13 Kingdoms and 200+ Principalities in both pre-colonial and modern Sierra Leone. In 1808, the British signed a treaty with Queen Yammacouba to establish Freetown for the repatriation of freed slaves. A few years later the 1825 treaty with British Governor Turner was signed by Queen Ya Kumba who exercised great power over that region in southern Sierra Leone. Later treaties include the 1885 treaty signed by Queen Messe of Massah in the Krim country. There were a number of other women of power mentioned in dispatches including Yoko who was Queen of Senehu and Ella Koblo Gulama, Paramount Chief of the Kaoyamba chiefdom.

You will recall the legendary Queen of Sheba and probably presume she was an historical, possibly mythical woman of enormous wealth and power. You may be surprised to know that the Queen of Sheba is alive and well today. Her Imperial Majesty, the Nubia-Sheba, Empress of the African Royal Kingdoms, the Queen of Sheba, Queen Shebah III is the descendant of the oldest matriarchal throne in Africa which originated in Kush, present-day South Sudan. Kush was once one of the great African empires for over 1,000 years and was an economic centre that operated a lucrative market in ivory, incense, iron and especially gold. The kingdom was both a trading partner with, and a military rival of, Egypt, even ruling Egypt as the 25th Dynasty.

Queen Shebah III now lives in Trinidad and Tobago, by choice, and is currently the Vice-President of the Arab-African Supreme Council for African Affairs which is headquartered in Egypt. The council is an organisation of high level professional Arab and African business people. She also heads the African Kingdoms Federation, an organisation that seeks to restore the federation of African kingdoms. Africa has a long history of wealthy and powerful kingdoms.

The Kingdom of Aksum, now Ethiopia was a trading superpower for 500 years, from the 2nd century. Its gold and ivory made it a vital link between ancient Europe and the Far East. In more recent times the Mali Empire, created around 1200AD by Sundiata Keita (the ‘Lion King’), was an enormously wealthy and powerful West African empire lasting to the 15th century. Legend tells that one of its emperors, Mansa Musa, while on a pilgrimage to Mecca in the 14th century, stopped en route in Egypt and spent so much in gold during his visit that its value plummeted in Egyptian markets for many years.

One of the largest empires in African history was the Songhai Empire which was formed in the 15th century from some of the former regions of the Mali Empire. This West African kingdom was larger than Western Europe and enjoyed a period of great prosperity thanks to a highly professional, decentralised bureaucracy and aggressive, co-operative trade policies. It reached its peak in the early 16th century under the rule of the devout King Muhammad I Askia, who conquered new lands and forged an alliance with Egypt’s Muslim Caliph. However internal tribal conflict eventually led to the collapse of this empire in the late sixteenth century. Tribalism was the force that undermined the prosperity of these once powerful and wealthy empires which should serve as a warning to social movements reverting to tribalism today.

Traders are traders, they buy and sell at a profit. It was no different in the slave trade. The British and American traders were the buyers and sellers, but the African slaves were captured by Africans under the orders of the local Queens, Kings and Paramount Chieftains. The plantation owners who bought slaves did not do so purely for the inhumane desire of owning slaves but as a commercial decision to enable them to most profitably supply tobacco and cotton to satisfy the global demand. Those ordinary global citizens who could not afford silk but desired the comfort of cotton and those who enjoyed a cigarette or pipe were the ultimate funders of the slave trade of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Tribal conflict is the primary reason why the powerful economic empires of Africa collapsed into their current state of economic poverty. Social injustice in Africa has become a way of life as a consequence of this tribalism and is manifested in practices of abduction, forced labour under armed guard, the confiscation of identity papers and passports and child labour. The diamond mines of Sierra Leone and Liberia and the Cobalt mines of the Dominion Republic of Congo (DRC) are dependent on slave labour. The DRC Cobalt mines were, in 2016, estimated by the Global Slavery Index to have had nearly 900,000 slaves including children as young as seven.

So if the cotton garment wearers and the tobacco smokers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries funded slavery back then, who today are the funders of the modern slave trade in the DRC? DRC supplies 60% of the world supply of cobalt. Follow the supply chain; the cobalt that is mined by slaves in the DRC is essential for the manufacture of lithium ion batteries that are used to power mobile phones, laptops, electric cars, bikes, mobility scooters and solar power generators and also in the manufacture of the powerful magnets needed in wind power turbines.

But the global protestors today are not attempting to redress the wrongs from Biblical times nor even the first 1500 years of the AD era. They are not even concerned about modern day slavery still practiced in Africa today. Today’s activists are solely focused on the period between the seventeenth century and nineteenth centuries when the African slave traders began selling their slaves via British traders to America; and more specifically they are focused on what those two countries have been doing to resolve the consequences of this diaspora in the time since slavery was outlawed both in Britain (1833) and in America (1865).

What futility is there in the destruction of the bronze ghosts of traders long dead who once facilitated the demand of the consumers of the day for tobacco and cheap cotton garments, no questions asked? What patronising tokenism in the Manchester City and Arsenal football players and the NBA American basketball players ‘taking the knee’ pre-match in a protest against race-based social inequality? Manchester City players are paid an average of seven million pounds a year, that is a weekly pay of 134,615 pounds; Arsenal a bit less at around five million pounds. American NBA players are paid just under $US8 million, or over $US150,000 per week, all of these are ‘plus sponsorships’. The average weekly wage in the DRC is just under six pounds or $US7. One week’s wage from one player would increase by tenfold the wage of over 2,000 African families. A thousand sport players giving up just one week’s wage would achieve this for two million of the poorest African families. Forget a token, cynical knee-bend; form a trust, show them the money.

What hypocrisy lies with the activists today using their smartphones and laptops to organise, record and disseminate their “Black Lives Matter” protests? Refuse to buy a device from a manufacturer that cannot prove social justice and a living wage for the African miners. If that costs you an extra 50% for your device, that is the price you should willingly pay for social justice.

So if you are checking your texts or posting a selfie on Instagram, or if you are driving your compact little electric car or handing your WAG the keys to the new Maserati, when you suddenly hear the peel of African bells ringing out for social justice, then: “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (John Donne, ‘No man is an island’).

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