Africans Sometimes Sold Other Africans Into Slavery

(p. C1) Records from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, directed by historian David Eltis at Emory University, show that the majority of captives brought to the U.S. came from Senegal, Gambia, Congo and eastern Nigeria. Europeans oversaw this brutal traffic in human cargo, but they had many local collaborators. “The organization of the slave trade was structured to have the Europeans stay along the coast lines, relying on African middlemen and merchants to bring the slaves to them,” said Toyin Falola, a Nigerian professor of African studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “The Europeans couldn’t have gone into the interior to get the slaves themselves.”

The anguished debate over slavery in the U.S. is often silent on the role (p. C2) that Africans played. That silence is echoed in many African countries, where there is hardly any national discussion or acknowledgment of the issue. From nursery school through university in Nigeria, I was taught about great African cultures and conquerors of times past but not about African involvement in the slave trade. In an attempt to reclaim some of the dignity that we lost during colonialism, Africans have tended to magnify stories of a glorious past of rich traditions and brave achievement.

But there are other, less discussed chapters of our history. When I was growing up, my father Chukwuma Nwaubani spoke glowingly of my great-grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku, a chief among our Igbo ethnic group who sold slaves in the 19th century. “He was respected by everyone around,” he said. “Even the white people respected him.” From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 1.4 million Igbo people were transported across the Atlantic as slaves.

Some families have chosen to hide similar histories. “We speak of it in whispers,” said Yunus Mohammed Rafiq, a 44-year-old professor of anthropology from Tanzania who now teaches at New York University’s center in Shanghai. In the 19th century, Mr. Rafiq’s great-great-great-grandfather, Mwarukere, from the Segeju ethnic group, raided villages in Tanzania’s hinterland, sold the majority of his captives to the Arab merchants who supplied Europeans and kept the rest as laborers on his own coconut plantations. Although Mr. Rafiq’s relatives speak of Mwarukere with pride, they expunged his name from family documents sometime in the 1960s, shortly after Tanzania gained independence from British colonial rule, when it was especially sensitive to remind Africans of their role in enslaving one another.

. . .

The Zambian pastor Saidi Francis Chishimba also feels the need to go public with his family’s history. “In Zambia, in a sense, it is a forgotten history,” said the 45-year-old. “But it is a reality to which history still holds us accountable.” Mr. Chishimba’s grandfather, Ali Saidi Muluwe Wansimba, was from a tribe of slave traders of the Bemba kingdom, who moved from Zanzibar to establish slave markets in Zambia. He grew up hearing this history narrated with great pride by his relatives.

In 2011, he decided to see the place of his ancestor’s origin and traveled with his wife to Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. As they toured a memorial in what used to be one of the world’s largest slave markets, the photos of limbs amputated from runaway slaves and the airless chambers that once held dozens of slaves at a time shocked him into silence. “It brought a saddening in my heart that my own family lines were involved in this treatment,” he said. “It was so painful to think about.”

. . .

(p. C3) . . ., my father does not believe that the descendants of those who took part in the slave trade should now pay for those wrongs. As he points out, buying and selling human beings had been part of many African cultures, as a form of serfdom, long before the first white people landed on our shores. And though many families still retain the respect and influence accrued by their slave-trading ancestors, the direct material gains have petered out over time. “If anyone asks me for reparations,” he said sarcastically, “I will tell them to follow me to my backyard so that I can pluck some money from the tree there and give it to them.”

Mr. Chishimba takes a similar view. “Slavery was wrong, but do I carry upon my shoulders the sins of my forefathers so that I should go around saying sorry? I don’t think so,” he said. Mr. Duke doesn’t believe that Africans should play much of a part in the American reparations conversation, because the injustices the descendants of slaves suffer stem primarily from their maltreatment and deprivation in the U.S. “The Africans didn’t see anything wrong with slavery,” he said. “Even if the white man wasn’t there, they would still use these people as their domestics. However, because the white man was now involved and fortunes were being made . . . that was when the criminality came in.”

For the full essay, see:

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. “THE SATURDAY ESSAY; When the Slave Traders Were African.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 20, 2019): C1-C3.

(Note: ellipsis within the last quoted paragraph was in the original; other ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay was updated Sept. 20, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)

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