BORN IN THE DARK: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 – WWII
Author: Howard W French
Price: $ 35
In 1444, the citizens of Lagos, in southern Portugal, witnessed a new spectacle. As they invaded the beach, some 235 newly arrived black captives were taken ashore. Supervisors separated families as desperate mothers grabbed their children and threw themselves to the ground, absorbing the blows that rained down on their backs. Prince Henry of Portugal, known in history as the “Navigator,” presided over Europe’s first major sub-Saharan slave market on horseback and his official biographer, Gomes Eanes de Zurara, was watching nearby. Abandoning his usual sycophancy in the face of captive anguish, Zurara bitterly protested that he couldn’t help but “weep piteously over their suffering” and found little solace in the thought that their pagan souls, if not their scarred bodies. , would be saved. .
As Howard French painfully establishes, the Portuguese would soon get used to such views, and the unholy slavery swindle – a life of hard work in exchange for a shot in the afterlife – would be spanned over four centuries. to justify the shipment of 12.5 million black bodies to the New World. In Born in the dark, Mr. French’s purpose is not to arouse revulsion but to fill a hole the size of Africa in the conventional narratives of the era of discovery and the rise of the West.
In place of Spain and Christopher Columbus, Mr. French, former Africa correspondent for the New York Times, proposes Portugal as a real engine of modernity through its deep involvement in sub-Saharan Africa. This may surprise some readers, since Portugal during this period is best known for Vasco da Gama’s 1498 voyage around Africa to India. Far from being a giant barrier between Europe and the luxury goods of India and China, Africa had its own attractions, foremost among which was gold.
Medieval Europeans woke up to the possibility of untold African wealth when reports reached them of an incredibly magnificent expedition mounted by an emperor from Mali. This emperor, Mansa Musa, left in 1324 on a pilgrimage to Mecca with an entourage of 60,000 people, distributing bags of gold in the process, including more than 400 pounds to the Sultan of Cairo. His journey was the talk of the century, and it ignited the imagination of cash-poor Europe.
The prospect of directly mining African gold by bypassing traders in Islamic North Africa was certainly high on Henry the Navigator’s list. Yet by the time gold was found in quantity (in 1471, the year that Mr. French takes as the starting date of Africa’s entry into modernity), Henry was long dead. Instead, it was slavery that saved its skin, and slaves will soon overtake gold as the most valuable commodity in Europe’s expanding Atlantic sphere.
For the colonialists, it was all an intoxicating rush for wealth. Once again, it was the Portuguese who took the lead, modeling black plantation slavery first on the islands of Madeira and São Tomé, then on an epic scale in Brazil. While the Spanish discovered much of the New World and imported the diseases that depopulated it, says French, the Portuguese discovery in Africa survived Spain’s mining frenzy as a productive economic activity. The Portuguese model was adopted in turn by the Dutch, French and British, who refined it in Barbados into a cruelly effective system of profiteering that gave owners near total control over the lives of their captives and even allowed murders to go unpunished. The net economic value of plantation slavery has been the subject of much debate: Mr French cites compelling research but falls back on his (surely correct) intuition that rival powers would hardly have shed so much blood and treasures in their endless battles to control black labor though the margins at stake were slim.
The evidence that Africans have made the New World economically viable is overwhelming, but in his zeal to make his point, Mr. French sometimes goes bankrupt. It variously draws a more or less straight line from plantation agriculture to the division of labor, productivity measures, the birth of large companies, the emergence of commercial credit and capitalism, the cultivation of coffee and newspapers, political engagement and pluralism, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment.
It’s stretching a well done deal. Born in the dark is filled with pain, but also with pride: pride in the endurance of millions of the oppressed, of the many uprisings and slave rebellions culminating in the Haitian revolution, which defeated “the very idea of black slavery” , and the cultural riches of Africa diaspora. Some of the more enlightening chapters deal with the nations of Africa themselves: political regimes such as Benin, Kongo and Mali that featured thriving urban centers, exquisite craftsmanship, and legal and administrative systems comparable to those of much of medieval Europe. Remarkably, no African state would be conquered by Europeans before the 19th century; our modern image of the continent dates back to 1885, when the imperial powers divided it, creating arbitrary and dysfunctional countries that got stuck.
Mr. French does not shy away from the ruthless complicity of many African leaders in the slave trade, which he attributes to the absence of a unifying African identity and to a raging thirst for imported silks, palanquins, guns and rum. produced in Brazil by their former brothers. He maps the overwhelming cost of depopulation, chaotic regional wars, internal displacement, eroded social trust, and the unquenchable legacy he fondly describes as “the haunting echo of a wound that we carry through the generations ”.