Africans Played a Major Role in the Slave Trade

Roundup: Talking About History

From NPRs Morning Edition (April 12, 2004):


During the 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from 1450 to 1850, some 11 to 12 million Africans were brought to the New World. Americans are still struggling to come to terms with the nation's history of slavery. Some West Africans also are trying to reconcile the complicity of African rulers and slave merchants. In this National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's John Burnett traveled to Benin, where he met a woman who's trying to tell the complete story of the slave trade and her own family's role in it.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

From 1620 to 1900, a region of Subsaharan West Africa that is now part of the nation of Benin was ruled by the kings of Dahomey. The story of these feared kings reposes in the memory of the tribe's oral historian, the griot. Here in the city of Abomey, once the capital of the Dahomean kingdom, the old man makes himself comfortable in a wooden chair. Neighbors sit nearby and squat on haunches as he begins to recount the royal epic.

BURNETT: Striking a cowbell for punctuation, the griot tells of the kings' voodoo guys, their armies of fierce female warriors, their battles, their conquests and their spoils: slaves.

BURNETT: Martine de Souza is a griot of a different sort. She's an amateur historian and a guide at the Museum of History in Ouidah, a small tropical city on the Atlantic coast of Benin. Martine has tried to compile stories about Ouidah when it was a thriving slave port 170 years ago.

Ms. MARTINE DE SOUZA: See, I remember the interview of one slave, Kujo Kazula(ph). He said that he was living in a peaceful village when a lot of women just came and catch them.

BURNETT: Detailed shipping records tell us that 2,034,600 slaves were sent from the area from Ouidah known as the slave coast. The kings of Dahomey viewed chattel as their most valuable trading commodity. Their soldiers fought wars and took captives in the region that is now Nigeria, Togo and central Benin. Some captives were put to work on the royal plantations, some were given as rewards to military officers and others were either sold to African slave brokers or directly to European slave traders. In return, the kings received guns, fine cloth, cowrie shells, alcohol and gold. The trans-Atlantic slave trade finally ended around 1850, though slavery is still practiced to this day in parts of West Africa in Sudan.

Professor ROBERT HARMS ("The Diligent"): The slave trade could not have endured for four centuries and carried nearly 12 million people out of Africa without the cooperation of a huge network of African rulers and merchants.

BURNETT: Robert Harms is a professor of African history at Yale University who has extensively researched the trans-Atlantic slave trade. His recent award-winning book about a French slave ship is titled "The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade."

Prof. HARMS: Most Americans think that ships would come from the United States or from Europe to Africa and the sailors would just get off and run out and grab a shipload of people and stuff them in the ship and bring them back, and I think that is a very condescending view of Africans. That view suggests that Africans were so disorganized that they could let that happen year after year after year after year. I think we need to see African societies as well-organized societies that participated in the slave trade because the ruling classes often felt they had something to gain from it.

BURNETT: Heritage tours of the old slave ports in Ghana, Senegal, Angola and Benin have become a popular form of cultural tourism for Africans and others in the African diaspora. Tourists come to the old Portuguese port in Ouidah, which now houses the History Museum where Martine de Souza works. In a bright yellow dress, she sits in a shady courtyard not far from the place where slaves were manacled together in dark, wretched, low-ceiling sheds awaiting the voyage to Brazil. In her soft-spoken manner, Martine tries to educate visitors who sometimes don't like what they hear.

Ms. DE SOUZA: That's the work we do every day here. If we have Africans who come for visits, 'Those Europeans, they did this.' I said, 'No, wait, please. We both did it. Don't blame only the Europeans.' I want them to hear that we African, we participated. We sold our own people to the Europeans. It's always a surprise for them and they became more angry with us. Sometimes I don't dare to tell them that I'm descendant of de Souza. Otherwise, maybe they'll hit me.

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