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The way we think about history is entirely wrong, says Howard W French at the start of this magnificent, powerful and absorbing book. The problem is not just that the people and cultures of Africa have been ignored and left to one side; rather, that they have been so miscast that the story of the global past has become part of a profound “mistelling”.
That process starts, argues French, with the age of discovery. The impetus for what turned into the creation of multiple European empires stretching across continents did not come from the “yearning for ties with Asia”, but from a “centuries-old desire to forge trading ties with legendarily rich Black societies” in Africa that were home to huge quantities of gold and an “inexhaustible source” of labour. It was along Africa’s western coast that Europeans “perfected techniques of map-making and navigation”, where ship designs were tested and improved and where sailors learned to understand the winds of the Atlantic Ocean.
These experiences, mainly dating to the 1400s, were to prove instrumental not only in the settling of the Americas and the opening up of new trade routes to Europe. As it turned out, the most important consequences were for the people of Africa. The scale of human suffering that followed Columbus’s crossing of the Atlantic is almost impossible to conceive, let alone describe: modern consensus is that around 12 million were put on slave ships in appalling conditions.
Most were then worked to death, the lifespan of trafficked people reckoned to be seven years or less. It was cheaper, wrote one English planter on Antigua in 1751, “to work slaves to the utmost, and by the little fare and hard usage, to wear them out before they become useless and unable to do service, and then to buy new ones to fill up their places”. Black lives literally did not matter – other than to make their “owners” rich.
French offers a wider view of how and why Africa and its people’s histories have been ignored
The disgusting way that European wealth rested on the backs, bodies and lives of people taken from Africa against their will, and then enslaved thousands of miles away to work on plantations producing sugar, tobacco, cotton and more, underpinned not only western empires but also the standards of living in faraway idylls such as England. How lucky the English are to live on an island and be surrounded by the ocean, said a ruler of Dahomey (now southern Benin), one of the largest states in Africa. “We, on the other hand,” he said, “are hemmed in by a variety of other peoples, speaking different languages and constantly having to defend ourselves by the sharpness of our swords.”
As French explains, it was not just slavery that devastated swathes of Africa; so too did the process of enslavement. In addition to the 12 million people shipped across the Atlantic, another 6 million lives were lost in or near their homelands in the hunt for slaves. That placed extraordinary demographic strains on domestic societies, transformed agriculture and changed gender relations, as it was mainly able-bodied young men who were in demand to do the hard work in colonies overseas. Slavery led to fragmentation, fracture and warfare fuelled by weapons – above all, guns – that were sold by Europeans, forcing neighbouring states to compete with and turn on one another in an attempt to defend their own populations from being carted away.
It had other effects too. The rich diversities of the many different people of Africa became subsumed into a single category of “blackness” that obscured and ignored proud histories and cultures and treated all the inhabitants of the continent and their descendants as being one and the same. That was ironic, of course, given that populations were deliberately distributed in the Americas and Caribbean to prevent family and kinship groups being able to communicate with each other, reducing the chances of rebellion against the Europeans who were heavily outnumbered.
At times, the dehumanisation that French describes so powerfully is hard to read. In 1661, for example, a law was passed in Barbados that was then adopted in Antigua, Jamaica, South Carolina and beyond that declared that Africans were a “heathenish, brutish and uncertaine, dangerous kinde of people”, and that white owners should therefore assume near total control over their lives. French discusses the scale of the back-breaking workload expected of slaves and the way that rose over time, and explains how this fuelled the industrialisation and modernisation of Britain and how black lives raised standards of living for people living on the other side of the world.
These days, the importance of the role of transatlantic slavery is better known and more studied than it was in the past – and rightly so. This book, though, is about much more than that, for French offers a wider view of how and why Africa and its people’s histories have been ignored, showing how the exploitation of the Americas and the Caribbean brought ecological dividends that then reshaped the world.
French writes with the elegance you would expect from a distinguished foreign correspondent, and with the passion of someone deeply committed to providing a corrective. I wish he had gone beyond the middle of the 20th century to bring us up to date, not least because problems of historical legacy, of race and racism and of inequality are among today’s most important issues – while the future of the people of Africa, which will be magnified by climate change, is the defining topic of tomorrow. This is not a comfortable or comforting read, but it is beautifully done; a masterpiece even.
Peter Frankopan is the author of The New Silk Roads (Bloomsbury)
• Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard W French is published by WW Norton & Co (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply