The Liverpool Museum website has a firsthand account of the story of an African boy, Ouladah Equiano violently forced into a life of slavery. It reads in part, “Generally, when the grown people in the neighbourhood were gone far in the fields to labour, the children assembled together in some of the neighbours’ premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant or kidnapper that might come upon us; for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents’ absence to attack and carry off as many as they could seize...One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood.”
The young man was thus taken from his country and taken to lands he had not seen before, sold for hundred and seventy two white shells and after six to seven months, arrived at the sea coast. A lot of Africans were kidnapped in this manner, others captured in battles, some sold off into slavery as payments for debts, and more sold as a punishment for crimes committed. They were then traded for goods which reduced them to no more than a commodity. The story of most African-Americans starts in a setting quite similar to Olaudah Equiano’s in Western Africa. It is a story of violence and dehumanisation that can never be forgotten or pushed under the rags of conciliatory denial.
The Portuguese are remembered as the first people to start enslaving Africans. They took captured Africans to Europe and the Spanish joined the growing industry, taking Africans to America in 1503. This marked the beginning of what was a macabre commercial enterprise dealing in people. BBC says, “Traders would export manufactured goods to West Africa where they would be exchanged for slaves from African merchants. The slaves were then transported across the Atlantic and sold for huge profits in the Americas.” It was an illustrious business that made many people but the victims rich. Traders in Africa were enriched just as merchants from the West also benefitted. What has been forgotten is how African communities resisted the trade in persons. The deliberate omission is an attempt to make the communities that remained culpable in a dirty system that only stole their loved ones from them.
The Untold Story of Resistance
It is a fact that there were certain African communities which worked hand in hand with Europeans to sell prisoners of war, criminals and even kidnap slaves for goods. Not much is then said of the resistance of such communities as Benin in what is now Southern Nigeria, and the Fante people of modern Ghana. Africa Speaks says Fante leader King Ansah had his people watch for ships and prevented them from coming ashore. In Benin, the people killed Europeans on sight while leaders in other parts of Africa only realised too late that the slave trade was really just exploitation and they gained little from it.
A Congolese king, Nzinga Mbemba wrote letters to the Portuguese after being awakened to the evil of slavery. In one letter he wrote, “That is why we beg of Your Highness to help and assist us in this matter, commanding your factors that they should not send here either merchants or wares, because it is our will that in these Kingdoms there should not be any trade of slaves nor outlet for them.”
Leaders like Mbembe were naive realised late into the trade that they were being compromised but others categorically resisted from the onset. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture says, “Africans started to fight the transatlantic slave trade as soon as it began. Their struggles were multifaceted and covered four continents over four centuries. Still they have often been underestimated, overlooked, or forgotten.”
Abdel Kader Kane, a Muslim leader of the Futa Toro region in Northern Senegal is renowned for having resisted the slave trade. When the French took three children in his jurisdiction, Kane sent a letter to the governor that said, “We are warning you that all those who will come to our land to trade (in slaves) will be killed and massacred if you do not send our children back. Would not somebody who was very hungry abstain from eating if he had to eat something cooked with his blood? We absolutely do not want you to buy Muslims under any circumstances. I repeat that if your intention is to always buy Muslims you should stay home and not come to our country anymore. Because all those who will come can be assured that they will lose their life.”
Communities relocated to defensive locations, left paths to villages overgrown and in the case of Ouladah Equiano, children took turns to guard each other. It was not enough. There remained corruptible individuals whose greed overpowered their humanity. These bad seeds helped perpetuate the dehumanisation of fellow black men and women. They set in motion a cycle of events that left many black men stuck with no other history but exploitation and oppression. However, let it be remembered that African communities did not sit back and watch in glee; they fought back.