“Assessing the people of America’s past by today’s standards would compel us to cast the majority of our heroes as villains.” That seemed to be the line taken by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas last week in his opinion piece for the New York Times. It caused great outrage, the Opinion Editor had to resign, and Cotton was roundly abused for ‘defending slavery’.
He probably deserved that. What he actually said was that the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the United States saw slavery as the “necessary evil upon which the Union was built.” That would sound all right in a classroom, if you then explained that otherwise the slave-owning southern states would not have agreed to a federation of all thirteen colonies.
It sounded less well coming out of the mouth of a senator who wants to ban federal funding for a project to improve the teaching of the history of slavery in American schools. Senator Cotton is one of President Trump’s loyal soldiers, trying to whip up a white racial panic and consolidate the boss’s ‘base’. But that’s not the point.
The point is that I changed one word in that quote, and that it wasn’t Cotton who said it. It was Nigerian journalist and novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, and what she actually said, in an opinion piece for the BBC, was this: “Assessing the people of Africa’s past by today’s standards would compel us to cast the majority of our heroes as villains.”
She was talking specifically about her great-grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku, who was a widely respected trader in tobacco, palm oil, and slaves in southeastern Nigeria in the early 20th century. The Atlantic slave trade had been banned by the European empires a century before, but slavery was still a flourishing domestic business in Nigeria and many other African countries.
Her great-grandfather became famous by defying the British colonial authorities, who were trying to stamp out slavery within Nigeria. They had confiscated some of his slaves, and he marched right up and demanded them back, waving a trading license that dated back to the previous century.
They were taken aback, apologised, and returned his slaves. Indeed, they were so impressed by his boldness and self-confidence that they subsequently appointed him ‘paramount chief’ of his region. So he became a local hero in his own day, and is still a hero to Ms Nwaubani’s family.
Slavery was normal in most pre-modern societies, including almost all the kingdoms and ethnic groups of sub-Saharan Africa. Africans had sold slaves north to various Islamic empires in the Middle East for centuries before Europeans showed up on the coast in ships. They were just another set of customers buying in the same market.
Most enslaved Africans didn’t travel more than a few hundred kilometres from home, of course. It is estimated that in the 18th century one-third of the people in what is now Senegal were slaves who belonged to other Senegalese. But the ones who were sold to foreigners probably suffered even more.
Historians believe that around one-fifth of the ten million Africans transported to the Americas over more than three centuries died on board ship. The fatalities among the estimated 17 million African slaves sold to Arab traders and forced to walk across the Sahara or carried around the India Ocean in ships during ten centuries were probably just as high. What awaited the survivors when they arrived was pretty appalling too.
But Ms Nwaubani is right. The past is a different country, and it’s pointless to judge people by standards they would not even comprehend. Worse, it is a distraction from the business at hand, which to clear up the ghastly heritage of racism that slavery has left in America.
It is noteworthy that there is no comparable heritage of guilt and racism in the African countries that sold the slaves. Everybody, slaves and masters, was from the same group, and everybody was involved one way or another. We used to do it, now we don’t, end of story.
Why is it so different in the European countries, and above all in the United States? My guess is that it’s because slavery, uniquely in the world, had completely died out in Europe by a thousand years ago. When 16th-century Europeans reached West Africa, it was quite new to them.
They took to slave-owning readily enough, but they had no traditional framework in which to think about it. Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku didn’t need to justify owning slaves by telling himself they were inferior. He’d bought them fair and square. What’s the problem?
Whereas American plantation owners had to come up with bizarre racial fantasies to explain to themselves why it was right to own other people – and their great-great-grandchildren are still struggling with those fantasies today.*