Why Didn’t Africans Rescue Us?

One common complaint that I have been noticing a lot recently is the complaint that Africans on the continent did little to rescue those of us who were enslaved here in the Americas. The people who make such a claim do not seem to understand or appreciate how destructive the slave trade was in Africa. The African states which were entangled in the slave trade were struggling for their own survival. Aside from this, there were other factors for why Africans were not in a position to rescue those who were enslaved in the Americas.

We must first understand that in many cases Africans simply did not know what became of the captives. Few knew about the Middle Passage and the slave plantations. A very common belief among Africans was that Europeans cannibalized their captives. Some Africans starved to death on the slave ships because they believed that the food being served to them were the remains of prior captives. In other instances, the fear of being devoured led to uprisings on the slave ships. This belief was so commonplace that Portuguese traders in the Gambia were informed by Africans that “ the Christians ate human flesh and that all the slaves they bought they carried away to eat.” Olaudah Equiano recorded the fear that he felt about the possibility of being eaten when he was captured:

When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace or copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little I found some black people about me, who I believed were some of those who brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay; they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair. They told me I was not; and one of the crew brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine glass; but, being afraid of him, I would not take it out of his hand.

This is not to say that Africans did not have full knowledge of the Middle Passage and the slave plantations. An example of this is the fact that Antonio Manuel, an ambassador for the Kongo Kingdom, stopped in Brazil on his way to Europe to rescue people who were wrongfully enslaved — this is also an example of an African noble rescuing some that had been enslaved in the Americas. Overall, however, most Africans really had no way of knowing what was happening or the scope of what was happening. The Kongo Kingdom was overwhelmed by the onslaught and chaos caused by the slave trade, and it was eventually destroyed by the Portuguese. The Kongo was losing so many of its citizens to the slave trade that Afonso I complained that the slave trade was depopulating his kingdom. Some of Afonso’s own family members were captured and enslaved in Brazil. When Afonso spoke out against the slave trade he was nearly assassinated by Portuguese slave traders. This is an example of the type of chaotic situation which the slave trade created throughout Africa.

Those kingdoms which managed to survive had to become very militarized. In pre-colonial African history it was very rare to find kingdoms which maintained standing armies. Most of those heavily militarized kingdoms came into existence in West Africa during the slave trade. In my book Muhammad Ali, The Confederate Flag, and Other Essays I gave the specific example of Dahomey, which was so militarized that it became known as the Black Sparta. Dahomey’s development was in direct response to the slave trade. Contrary to what some might believe, the slave trade was not hugely beneficial for the African states that were involved. Dahomey is one of the most notorious slave trading states in West Africa, but conducting slave raids to acquire captives was a very costly exercise. Dahomey used some of the war captives acquired in these raids to replenish its ranks by replacing the men that Dahomey had lost in combat. During the period of the slave trade, Dahomey’s population stagnated and the kingdom also suffered from famine.

Oshay, one of the supporters of the ADOS movement, did a video in which he suggested that Ghana owes Black Americans reparations for the role that certain people in Ghana played in the slave trade. Considering that African slave traders were often paid in firearms, liquor, and cheap trinkets, I am not sure how much reparations Black Americans can truly expect to receive from Ghana. African kingdoms that were involved in the slave trade did not build industries from their role in the slave trade. If anything, the slave trade caused many African economies to stagnate.

In Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust, Dr. John Henrik Clarke wrote:

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.

In Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams explains the role that slavery played in building Europe’s industrial capitalistic economy. As Dr. Clarke explained, Africans who were involved in the slave trade were paid with “bric-a-brac.” There were some individual slave traders who became wealthy from the slave trade, but this also added to the chaos because these rouge slave traders were often able to acquire wealth and firearms from the slave trade, which allowed them to challenge the authority of the traditional rulers. The Kongo Kingdom became a victim of this, as the slave trade allowed many provinces to break away and declare their independence from the Kongo.

The “mulatto” middlemen who were involved in the slave trade also became very wealthy and powerful in West Africa, and were sometimes able to establish themselves as rulers. Walter Rodney explained that often times “mulatto chiefs displayed a ruthlessness which must have stemmed from the fact that, for the first generation or two, they were scarcely restrained by rules and custom.”

The slave trade placed tremendous stress of African societies. There was the ever-present fear of being kidnapped and taken away. No one, including the family members of the ruling class, were safe from the slave trade. In fact, even the slave traders themselves were not safe. There is the example of Daaga, a slave trader who was captured and taken to Trinidad where he led a rebellion. For centuries the slave trade was an unstoppable force in Africa that was beyond the power of any one ruler or one kingdom to completely stop, so very often rulers were forced to make compromises with the Europeans. Nzinga was one such ruler. She fought the Portuguese for decades, but she was never able to successfully defeat them, so she was forced to compromise with them. As cruel as this may seem, the decision many African rulers were faced with was protecting their own people at the expense of other ethnic groups and other kingdoms.

One of the factors that contributed to the decline of the Oyo Empire were internal disputes about whether or not Oyo should involve itself in the slave trade. This was a dilemma which many African rulers were confronted with. Involvement in the slave trade meant access to European goods, especially firearms. On the other hand, slave raiding was expensive and costly, and directed energy away from more productive endeavors. Yet in many cases slave raiding was necessary for survival because Europeans would often arm one ethnic group against another ethnic group.

People like Oshay who think that Africans should be made to pay reparations for their role in the slave trade seem oblivious to how devastating the slave trade was for Africa. Scholars such as Walter Rodney and Eric Williams have demonstrated that the slave trade and colonialism contributed greatly the rise of the European capitalist economy. The slave trade and colonialism also underdeveloped Africa and has limited Africa’s potential. President Sékou Touré of Guinea stated: “The relation between the degree of destitution of peoples of Africa and the length and nature of the exploitation they had to endure is evident. Africa remains marked by the crimes of the slave-traders: up to now, her potentialities are restricted by under-population.”

The main focus on this particular article is not the impact of the slave trade on Africa, but I mention this to give the reader some idea of how devastating and chaotic the slave trade was for Africans. Most African kingdoms struggled just to survive the onslaught brought about by the slave trade, so this idea that African kingdoms were in a position to sail to the Americas to rescue the millions who were enslaved on the other side of the world is not an idea that is based on reality.

Aside from the fact that many Africans did not even know about the slave plantations in the Americas, the second thing to keep in mind is that Africans simply did not have the capacity to travel to America and rescue those who were captive. Abu Bakr II is well-known for abdicating the throne of Mali to explore the Atlantic Ocean. What became of him after is unknown. Some scholars like Ivan van Sertima and Gaoussou Diawar have argued that Abu Bakr did successfully arrive in the Americas, but Abu Bakr never returned home, so at best Africans could have only hoped for a successful one-way trip to America. Keep in mind that Abu Bakr had previously sent a fleet of boats to explore the ocean and only one boat returned, so Abu Bark himself was likely aware that the journey he was undertaking was a very dangerous one. Apart from Mali, there is no evidence that any other West African state even attempted such a vast exploration of the Atlantic Ocean.

Africans did not have naval fleets. Africans certainly did not have anything that could withstand the naval powers of the Spanish Armada or the British fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada. African boats were able to navigate rivers such as the Niger River, but there simply was never any reason for African nations to build up strong naval capabilities or establishing seafaring capabilities. Africans were not looking for a new trade routes like Christopher Columbus was when he arrived in the Caribbean. Kingdoms such as Mali and Songhai were so wealthy that foreigners came to those kingdoms to trade, not the other way around. Africans were also not driven by a desire for global conquest or colonization, as Europeans have been. So the factors that drove Europeans to develop the seafaring capabilities which allowed Europeans to engage in the Trans-Atlantic did not exist in Africa at the time. In short, Africa was simply not prepared for the onslaught of the European conquests.

The slave trade was not only horrible for those who were captured and sold. It was a very devastating and traumatic experience for the ones who escaped being captured. This point should be understood because as African Americans, West Indians, and Africans, we have all been victimized by the slave trade. As Lansiné Kaba explained:

The legacy of the Atlantic slave trade has diminished the dignity of every black person, regardless of his or her intrinsic qualities. Thus all blacks-rulers, traders, and war captives alike- became victims or potential victims.

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.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store