Built on the Bodies of Slaves: How Africa Was Erased from the History of the Modern WorldRoundup
tags: slavery, colonialism, racism, global history, African history, modern history
Howard W French teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.
It would be unusual for a story that begins in the wrong place to arrive at the right conclusions. And so it is with the history of how the modern world was made. Traditional accounts have accorded a primacy to Europe’s 15th-century Age of Discovery, and to the maritime connection it established between west and east. Paired with this historic feat is the momentous, if accidental, discovery of what came to be known as the New World.
Other explanations for the emergence of the modern world reside in the ethics and temperament that some associate with Judeo-Christian beliefs, or with the development and spread of the scientific method, or, more chauvinistically still, with Europeans’ often-professed belief in their unique ingenuity and inventiveness. In the popular imagination, these ideas have become associated with the work ethic, individualism and entrepreneurial drive that supposedly flowed from the Protestant Reformation in places such as England and Holland.
Of course, there is no denying the significance of the voyages of mariners such as Vasco da Gama, who reached India via the Indian Ocean in 1498, Ferdinand Magellan, who travelled west to Asia, skirting the southern tip of South America, and Christopher Columbus. As the author Marie Arana has elegantly said of Columbus, when he sailed west, “he had been a medieval man from a medieval world, surrounded by medieval notions about Cyclops, pygmies, Amazons, dog-faced natives, antipodeans who walk on their heads and think with their feet – about dark-skinned, giant-eared races who inhabit the lands where gold and precious gems grow. When he stepped on to American soil, however, he did more than enter a new world: he stepped into a new age.”
Although these famous feats of discovery dominate the popular imagination, they obscure the true beginnings of the story of how the globe became permanently stitched together and thus became “modern”. If we look more closely at the evidence, it will become clear that Africa played a central role in this history. By miscasting the role of Africa, generations have been taught a profoundly misleading story about the origins of modernity.
The first impetus for the Age of Discovery was not Europe’s yearning for ties with Asia, as so many of us learned in school, but rather its centuries-old desire to forge trading ties with legendarily rich Black societies hidden away in the heart of “darkest” west Africa. Iberia’s most famous sailors cut their teeth not seeking routes to Asia, but rather plying the west African coastline. This is where they perfected techniques of mapmaking and navigation, where Spain and Portugal experimented with improved ship designs, and where Columbus came to understand the Atlantic Ocean winds and currents well enough that he would later reach the western limits of the sea with a confidence that no European had previously had before him, of being able to return home.
Well before he mounted his expeditions on behalf of Spain, Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, had sailed to Europe’s first large, fortified overseas outpost, which was located in the tropics at Elmina, in modern-day Ghana. European expeditions to west Africa in the mid-15th century were bound up in a search for gold. It was the trade in this precious metal, discovered in what is now Ghana by the Portuguese in 1471, and secured by the building of the fort at Elmina in 1482, that helped fund Vasco da Gama’s later mission of discovery to Asia. This robust new supply of gold helped make it possible for Lisbon, until then the seat of a small and impecunious European crown, to steal a march on its neighbours and radically alter the course of world history.