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Ancient Egyptian Wisdom ... Daily Practice

Sunday, May 23, 2010


On April 22 the New York Times Op-Ed column published an article by Harvard University professor, Henry Louis Gates titled, “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game.” Professor Gates argues that Europeans and Africans are equally responsible for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, both sides profited from the arrangement and as a result the African American call for reparations isn’t workable. He believes since the U.S. now has an African American president, this debate can be properly put to rest. Such arguments are quiet disturbing, need to be challenged and require the many pointes made by Mr. Gates to be placed in proper perspective.

Professor Gates asserts that 90 percent of the blacks shipped to the new world and sold to Europeans were Africans enslaved by other Africans. However, he fails to mention that the institution of slavery was introduced to Africa by Asiatic and European people. Before the intrusion of these groups slavery in its contemporary definition did not exist. What could be classified as slavery in ancient Africa actually was indentured servitude. The people subjected to this circumstance were either imprisoned criminals, individuals who were being punished by requirement to perform menial tasks, prisoners of war and individuals working to pay off a debt. These people were not separated from their families, were allowed to marry within the family and society where they worked and could graduate through the social strata to become chiefs and kings. They were not dehumanized and were eventually released from this arrangement. This is a practice that goes back to ancient Kemet and Dr. Ivan Van Sertima explains that even the ruler of Kemet would spend one day during the year working with the indentured servants building the temples. For African people there was nothing demeaning about labor.

Many African centered scholars have conducted extensive field research on African civilizations and arrived at the same conclusion about slavery. Chancellor Williams for example spent 15 years doing research for his monumental work, “The Destruction of Black Civilization.” He traveled to North, South, East, West and Central Africa gathering data and learned that indentured servitude was practiced throughout the continent. In “Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust,” Dr. John Henrik Clarke relays similar findings in his travels and research specifically on slavery in Africa. In “Afrikan Theology, Cosmogony & Philosophy,” author Ekow Butweiku I explains that in his research conducted in Africa he learned that a system of wageless labor was practiced known as panyarring. Africans captured in wars were also subject to panyarring however, “they could move about freely and acquire property.” Thus, it can be concluded with much certainty that African people did not engage in the dehumanizing chattel slavery that Europeans instituted.

A friend of mine participated in an exchange program in Ghana for several months while in college. In her interactions with the Ghanaians they expressed anger that they and their ancestors were being blamed for the African Slave Trade. They explained that in the traditional Ghanaian language, there is no word for slave and that no such system existed there. It is quite surprising to hear that in this nation where the slave trade was initiated, there is no word to even describe the system on which it is based. However, the pre-existence of slavery on the African continent has often been used as justification for the holocaust implemented against people of that world. In actuality, the word slave is of European origin. According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary, the word slave comes “from the frequent enslavement of Slavs in central Europe during the early Middle Ages.” We must therefore recognize how problematic it is to use terminology from a European culture and understanding to define a system in Africa which has a totally different connotation. These are points that Professor Gates fails to take into consideration in his piece.

Slave raiders such as John Hawkins learned about the African system of wageless labor and decided that it could be exploited to enslave these people in the new world. Through guile and cunning actions Europeans instigated rifts between African nations and when the groups went to war with each other, captives would be purchased from the winner for transport to Europe and America. The number one weapon in their conquest was religion in the form of Christianity. Missionaries were often the first people sent in as spies in various African nations to befriend and convert African kings. The nation would subsequently convert after the king and then European mercenaries would commit their raids once the people had been subconsciously and spiritually conquered.

Sadly, there were Africans who got involved in slave raiding but such cases were manipulated by Europeans through force and the use of intoxicants. Enslaved Africans captured by the Europeans were used for the capture of additional victims. There were very few cases of independent slave raids by Africans for sale to Europeans. This circumstance clearly proclaims the so called slave trade as commerce purely instigated by European people because it was a demand driven business. Enslaved Africans were not just sitting on the shores of the gold coast waiting to be sold to the highest bidder.

Furthermore, if there were Africans benefiting from the slave trade as professor Gates asserts, what happened to the wealth they amassed from this commerce? The revenue generated during the African slave trade catapulted Europe and America into the industrial age!! If Africans took part in this industry, the logical outcome should be that they would have advanced economically and technologically as well. The reality of the situation is that they didn’t and the entire continent was subsequently underdeveloped due to population loss, the decimation of agriculture and an epidemic of wars.

While Professor Gates articulates the role Africans played in the slave trade, he doesn’t mention the resistance to the system on the continent. Individuals such as Queen Nzingha pioneered wars of defense and national solidarity against the Portuguese occupation of her land. She was able to gain the loyalty of Africans who were being used by the Portuguese as slave holders and waged guerrilla warfare with the enemy. While she had converted to Catholicism, she did so to use it as a means to empower herself and used it as a political tool when it suited her unlike many other Africans who became spiritually enslaved by the religion. Later on in life she even renounced her Christian name Anna and only went solely by Nzingha. Based on the facts presented, it is quite befuddling that Mr. Gates would accuse this African Queen of selling the very people she fought to liberate to the invading enslaver.

In his article, professor Gates also asserts “the African role in the slave trade was greatly reduced after 1807, when abolitionists, first in Britain and then, a year later, in the United States, succeeded in banning the importation of slaves.” However, all the slave trading nations were doing the same thing during this period. At this point in time revenue from the slave trade in the Caribbean was either static or in decline with the exception of a few islands. Furthermore, while abolitionists were fighting to stop the trade, they weren’t in support of emancipation for the slaves. Men like William Wilberforce who championed dissolving the slave trade in Britain opposed emancipation with the following argument, “Our object and our universal language was and is, to produce by abolition a disposition to breed instead of buying.” It wasn’t until 1823 that the idea of emancipation was adopted by abolitionists.

Another rationale for the cessation of the slave trade was international and inter-colonial rivalry. Upon investigation Britain learned that French and Spanish colonies were benefiting from the re-export of slaves shipped into British territories. This circumstance gave Britain more reason to abolish the trading system in hopes of slowing the progress of its rivals. Subsequently, the elevation of revolts also made the slave trade no longer profitable. The successful Haitian revolution led to an escalation of insurrections that spread fear throughout the colonies which further supported the movement towards abolition.

With the above facts inconsideration, the origin, nature and rationale for the African slave trade should place in its proper context that is truly responsible for its perpetuation. What Professor Gates has done in his piece is inadvertently or intentionally placed the blame on the victim for their enslavement, subsequently vindicating the enslaver. Europe and the U.S. still owe the descendants of enslaved Africans a great deal of reparations. This fact is something that is being ignored because the payments would be so vast that it would bankrupt and cripple so many of these nations. When high profile individuals in the African community such as Skip Gates comes out and makes such remarks, it gives these former slave masters reason to not entertain the reparations issue. The record must be set straight and thankfully many African scholars have organized themselves to address Professor Gates’ piece and continue the argument that justice is due to the former enslaved Africans of the world. It is the only way we can ever create a better world and live within the divine principle of Ma’at. The Kemites said it best, “Qualities of a moral order are measured by deeds.” Thank you for reading.


Slave: Etymology. http://www.britannica.com/bps/dictionary?query=slave

Did We Sell Each Other into Slavery?: http://www.africawithin.com/maafa/did_we_sell.htm

Williams, Chancellor. 1987, “The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D.,” Chicago, Third World Press

Clarke, John Henrik. 1993, “Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism,” Brooklyn, NY, A&B Publisher Group

Butweiku I, Ekow, 1999, “Afrikan Theology, Cosmogony & Philosophy,” Hampton, VA, The Lumumba Book Printers & Co.

Van Sertima, Ivan, 1984. “Black Women in Antiquity,” Piscataway, NJ, Transaction Publishers

Williams, Eric. 1970, “From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean,” New York, Random House, Inc.


Mhotep said...

Thanks for your refutation. It was insightful and encouraging

One point which may be considered is the following. To even call the system in Africa indentured servitude is inaccurate. Overwhelmingly, African social systems embodied what can be called "egalitarian communalism." In that system all were treated equal, not just considered to have been "create equal." That still is true today despite the fact such systems are being corrupted by foreign influence.

Today, in households all across Africa, people who are and are not directly related live together. The household has what is known as "house helps." The system allows a family member to live with others to help around their household in return for food, clothing and shelter. Doing so evens out the effort necessary to maintain the care of the society. Under such a system we all "fare well."

nickyjett said...

Thank you for sharing another perspective. Unfortunately, Gates is ordained to speak to the masses - and the uneducated and uninitiated will believe what his says - mostly because people don't read. Too bad this piece isn't a video too.

nickyjett said...

duplicate comment - so I can receive follow up comments.

Mr. I. M. BLACK said...

Thank You, knowledge and understanding is a wonderful thing when searching for the truth.