The Igbo and the Slave Trade: Another Response to Yvette Carnell
In Muhammad Ali, the Confederate Flag, & Other Essays, I explored the adverse impact that the slave trade had on Africa. This chapter was also released as a separate kindle ebook titled “Africa: Land of Savagery and Violence.” I mention my book because space will not permit me to truly explore the impact that the slave trade had on Africa in this article, so for readers who are interested in learning more I offer my book as a resource to find out more information about the slave trade in Africa.
Providing a balanced and African-centered view of the slave trade is important because for many years European narratives and European perspectives have dominated the history of the slave trade. These narratives often depicted African chiefs and kings as greedy self-serving rulers who eagerly sold their own people into slavery. Such narratives were meant to both dehumanize Africans and absolve Europeans of their role in the slave trade. Such narratives also had a profound impact on how some of us in the diaspora view the enslavement of our ancestors.
Some African Americans distanced themselves from Africa over Africa’s perceived role in the slave trade. For example, Frederick Douglass opposed emigration back to Africa because he did not believe that the “ the savage chiefs on the western coast of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily see and accept our moral and economical ideas, than the slave-traders of Maryland and Virginia.” Douglass never traveled to West Africa. Martin Delany did, however. Delany was very well-aware that there were in fact savage African rulers who were involved in the slave trade, but he also offered a more balanced account of African civilization by demonstrating that West African society at the time was generally more humane than American society was, and much more accepting of African Americans. Delany was treated as family in Africa, so he was able to offer a more balanced view of Africa than Douglass was able to.
I write all of this to demonstrate that perspective is important to understanding the slave trade and this is one of the reasons why I disagree with the manner in which Yvette Carnell discusses the slave trade. The perspective she presents is not an African-centered one. In fact, Yvette is not even a serious scholar on the slave trade. A few articles from the New Yorker are not a substitute for doing the real research required to understand the slave trade and how it impacted Africa, yet Yvette’s analysis is almost based entirely from a few articles from the New Yorker. In fact, Yvette herself admits at 12:18 in the video that she only speaks about Nigeria’s role in the slave trade because she can’t research anything else.
In the video above Yvette speaks about the caste system in Nigeria and focuses specifically on the Igbo people. What we have to understand that is that the slave trade fundamentally transformed the culture in West Africa. Walter Rodney noted that “ one is struck by the absence of references to local African slavery in the sixteenth or even the seventeenth century” in the Upper Guinea coast of West Africa. Rodney further points out that in much of that region of Africa most punishments were dealt with through fines, but as a result of the slave trade, enslavement became a common punishment. Rodney gave the specific example of a case in the West African kingdom of Casanga in 1570. A man fell from a palm tree and died. His family was punished for this by being sold into slavery.
Rodney also wrote that deprivation of liberty as a punishment for a crime “makes its appearance in the seventeenth century when the process of law had become warped under the pressure of the Atlantic slave-trade, and there was hardly an offence which did not carry the penalty of sale into the hands of the Europeans.” In other words, prior to the slave trade there were parts of Africa where enslavement was not a punishment for an offense. This was something that came about as a result of the slave trade.
There were other areas in which the slave trade had adversely changed African society, but as I mentioned earlier space won’t permit me to give a detailed assessment of the impact of the slave trade, but I mention this so that readers understand that one of the results of the slave trade was that it gave raise to forms of domestic slavery that were non-existent in certain parts of Africa. This is not to say that there were no domestic forms of slavery in Africa prior to the slave trade, but where none existed the slave trade produced them in Africa. Where forms of servitude or slavery did exist, the slave trade expanded it.
During the period of the slave trade there were some African societies where the population of slaves outnumbered the free population. This was the case in Bonny, where slaves outnumbered freemen, although the children of slaves were regarded as being free — this is much different than the chattel slavery in the New World in which the offspring of slaves were also enslaved as well. The reason why there were so many slaves is because Bonny was one of the largest participants in the slave trade in West Africa. Many of the citizens of Bonny were people like Jaja, who was kidnapped and brought to Bonny. Jaja, who was a slave, later rose to be elected as a chief in Bonny and he would eventually found a kingdom of his own.
So when we are discussing the caste systems in West Africa we have to understand that this practice was in many cases the direct result of the impact of the slave trade in West Africa. This is not to imply that West Africa was completely egalitarian prior to the slave trade, but there was a massive increase in the local slave population as a result of slavery and the development of caste systems in West Africa was certainly impacted by this. African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade by Anne Bailey is a great book which focuses on the impact that the slave trade had in Ghana. Bailey writes: “Atlantic operations greatly increased and influenced the maintenance and growth of domestic slavery.” Bailey also writes about the stigma attached to being the descendant of a slave.
Yvette specifically mentions the Igbo slave traders without reference to manner in which the Igbo were themselves victims of the slave trade. Olaudah Equiano was an Igbo man who was kidnapped and enslaved in the Caribbean. Equiano’s father had a number of slaves and he described the difference as follows:
Those prisoners which were not sold or redeemed, we kept as slaves: but how different was their condition from that of the slaves in the West Indies! With us, they do no more work than other members of the community, even their master; their food, clothing and lodging were nearly the same as theirs, (except that they were not permitted to eat with those who were free-born;) and there was scarce any other difference between them, than a superior degree of importance which the head of a family possesses in our state, and that authority which, as such, he exercises over every part of his household. Some of these slaves have even slaves under them as their own property, and for their own use.
It is true that there were Igbo traders who were involved in the slave trade, but, as Equiano explained, the Igbo were also among the greatest victims of the slave trade because European slave owners specifically sought Igbo slaves to work their plantations. The reality is that the “slave trade” really was not much of a trade. The ethnic groups which were the most heavily involved in the trade were also groups that had suffered greatly due to the trade as well.
Moreover, the wealth that African slave traders made was not much relative to what Europeans made from the trade. In the “My Great-Grandfather The Nigerian Slave Trader” article, Adaobi writes: “My family inherited his canvas shoes, which he wore at a time when few Nigerians owned footwear, and the chains of his slaves…” This is the wealth that Nwaubani Ogogo was able to pass down to his family from his role in the slave trade. Nwaubani also built schools and churches, but the article indicates that this was after he was appointed by the colonial authorities in Nigeria. We also have to understand that during the period of colonialism, Africans had little political power themselves. This was especially important for the Igbo people since most Igbo societies were chiefless. The British colonial officials took it upon themselves to appoint their own chiefs from among the Igbo people. Nwaubani was one of those who were appointed as a chief by the colonial officials. Clearly the colonial officials would only appoint those who served their interests and assisted them with exploiting the African masses in Nigeria. This is why at times there were uprisings against the colonial chiefs in Nigeria. Funmilayo Kuti (the mother of famed Nigerian musician Fela Kuti) became very well-known in Nigeria for chasing away a local ruler named Ademola II. She saw him as being little more than a puppet who was serving the interests of the British colonizers. In another instance a chief named Nwogu was murdered by his rebellious people when he attempted to force them to labor for the colonial adminstration.
In Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust, Dr. John Henrik Clarke explained that Africans who were involved in the slave trade did not profit very much from that trade:
The kind of slavery that the European was about to introduce into West Africa had no relationship to the African system of indentured servitude. In the African system the slave was usually a loser in a local war. He was not enslaved separate from his family and no slave was sent outside of Africa. Some slaves with talent rose to be kings in the very house in which they had been slaves. The word slave in West Africa had an entirely different meaning than it had when used by the Europeans. The slave in Africa did not lose her/his humanity. Some African chiefs or kings became corrupt and went into the slave trade because they wanted to. The Europeans sold firearms to one African group to either protect themselves or capture another group. The European gunpowder, rum and cheap bric-a-brac coming from the embryo of what will eventually become the European Industrial Revolution, was traded for slaves.
This is important to understand because by the time the slave trade had ended and Europeans were moving to colonize Africa, the African elites that had participated in the slave trade did not built up the industries that Europeans were able to build. Kingdoms like Dahomey and Asante were primarily concerned with protecting their people from the slave trade, which meant increased militarization. In pre-colonial Africa there were very few kingdoms which maintained standing armies and most of those kingdoms emerged in West Africa during the period when the slave trade was going on. Dahomey was so militarized that it was known as the “Black Sparta.” Yvette does not mention any of this, nor does she mention the fear and insecurity that the slave trade created. One European observed that men “never care to walk even a mile from home without firearms…” King Naimbana in Sierra Leone complained: “[M]any of us African rulers are not happy about the slave trade going on in our country. It brings our country and people a lot of destruction and unhappiness.”
At around 15:48 Yvette tries to draw a parallel between the struggles of African Americans and the struggles of the descendants of slavery in Nigeria. There certainly are some parallels to be drawn, but Yvette misses the larger context, especially around 20:30 minutes in when Yvette attempts to compare racism in America to the caste system in Nigeria. This becomes even more ridiculous when Yvette cites data showing that on average African immigrants have more wealth than African Americans around 21:00 in the video.
Yvette attempts to imply that this wealth was the result of the Nigerian role in the slave trade. This reminds me of a Nigerian woman named Josephine, who was using stats and data to demonstrate that racism is the reason why African Americans are so poor.
Josephine speaks of inequality in America without mentioning the history of slavery or Jim Crow. She doesn’t mention the generations of racial terror and trauma that Black Americans endured. She doesn’t mention the destruction of Black businesses or the assassination of Black leaders. Josephine speaks of economic inequality in terms of statistics which are the devoid of any sort of social or historical context. Too often the struggles of Black Americans are often reduced to being numbers and nothing more. There is little sense that there are real suffering people behind the cold hard data.
Josephine’s family is from Nigeria. I am sure she would agree that to understand Nigeria’s poverty one cannot simply look at the statistics. Understanding Nigeria’s present day poverty would require some knowledge of the history of colonialism and how colonialism underdeveloped Nigeria. It would also require understanding Nigeria’s history of political instability, which includes various coups and military dictatorships. It would require understanding how pervasive corruption is in Nigeria’s politics, as well as the issue of tribalism in Nigeria, which has colonial roots. In short, statistics alone do not tell the full story of why Nigeria is poor, nor do statistics alone tell the full story of why Black Americans are poor.
Yvette does the same thing. She tries to draw a connection between the wealth that some Nigerians have and the Nigerian involvement in the slave trade based on stats which are devoid of any type of historical or political context. Yvette does not discuss colonialism in Nigeria or even Nigeria’s present day political realities. Moreover, as it relates to the Igbo people of Nigeria, Yvette doesn’t mention the Biafran War or the tribal massacres that the Igbo people endured. She also does not mention the fierce resistance that the Igbo put up against colonialism in Nigeria. One colonial officer described the Igbo as the “most troublesome” group.
The British sent many military expeditions out in an attempt to subdue the Igbo people. The conflicts with the Igbo people lasted from 1901 until 1917. In 1915 alone the British sent a dozen expeditions against the Igbo. The British forces eventually resorted to burning down the homes of the Igbo people. This is not unlike the racial terror that was inflicted on African Americans. After the Igbo were terrorized into submission, they were then forced to engage in unpaid labor for the benefit of the colonial administration — in other words, the Igbo were being used as a slave labor for the British in Nigeria. There’s a lot of history between the slave trade and the present that Yvette completely ignores.
Instead, she tries to present the narrative that Nigerians and white Americans alike profited from the slave trade at the expense of African Americans (or ADOS), but this simply was not the case. As African Americans were fighting against Jim Crow in the United States, Nigerians under colonial rule were also subjected to many abuses. This included segregated hospitals in Nigeria. As you would expect, the European hospitals provided better treatment. For a detailed again of the brutalities that were inflicted on Nigerians during colonialism see Colonialism and Violence in Nigeria by Toyin Falola. In her video Yvette glosses over the period of colonialism, but this was a very brutal period of history in Nigeria.
I write all of this to convey the point that the slave trade was much more complex than what Yvette is trying to present, but more so than educating readers about the slave trade I also want to make this piece relevant to the current demand for reparations. I have said before that the thing that I don’t understand about ADOS as a movement is that its co-founders reject Pan-Africanism, but then continue to make videos in which they speak on Pan-African matters that they are not completely informed about.
Nigeria is experiencing many problems of its own, as poverty there is on the increase and the government is still struggling to address the problem of terrorism. In the meantime, African Americans are living in a nation that could not even provide justice for Eric Garner. It was not Nigerian slave traders who were responsible for what happened to Eric Garner. Meanwhile, the HR40 bill which Yvette has opposed is gaining support in the House and Democrats in the Senate are working on their own version of HR40. At the 34 minute mark of the video Yvette raises a complaint that she has raised often about Nigerians playing African Americans in American films. Are these Nigerians the ones who are hindering the reparations movement in America?
Videos like this by Yvette Carnell aren’t helpful to advancing the issue of reparations which ADOS is fighting for, it doesn’t really help inform viewers about the slave trade in Africa, and it actually contributes to misinforming people about the various challenges that Africa continues to face.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.