Advocates of reparation for the descendants of slaves generally ignore the untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the slave trade, choosing to believe the romanticized version that their ancestors were all kidnapped unawares by evil white men, like Kunta Kinte was in Roots. The truth, however, is much more complex: slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European and Muslim buyers and African sellers alike.
Historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90% of those African slaves shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and sold to Muslims and European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites, Muslim nations, and European traders, slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.
The African role in the slave trade was fully understood and openly acknowledged by many African Americans, even before the Civil War. For Frederick Douglass, it was an argument against repatriation schemes for the freed slaves. “The savage chiefs of the western coasts 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 accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia,” he warned. “We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave trade than to stay here to work against it.”
Our new understanding of the scope of African involvement in the slave trade is not historical guesswork. Thanks to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, directed by the historian David Eltis of Emory University, we now know the ports from which more than 450,000 Africans were shipped out to what is now the United States. The database has records of 12.5 million people shipped to all parts of the New World from 1514 to 1866. About 16% of U.S. slaves came from eastern Nigeria, while 24% came from the Congo and Angola.
Through the work of Professors Thornton and Heywood, we also know that the victims of the slave trade were predominantly members of as few as 50 ethnic groups. This data, along with the tracing of black’s ancestry through DNA tests, is giving us a fuller understanding of the identities of both the victims and the facilitators of the African slave trade.
For many African-Americans, these facts can be difficult to accept. Excuses run the gamut from “Africans didn’t know how harsh slavery in America was” and “Slavery in Africa was, by comparison, humane” or, in a bizarre version of “The devil made me do it,” “Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries.”
The sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the Kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. When Njinga converted to Christianity, she sold African traditional religious leaders into slavery, claiming they had violated her new Christian precepts.
Many elite Africans visited Europe in that era and they did so on slave ships following the prevailing winds through the New World. African monarchs also sent their children along these same slave routes to be educated in Europe. And there were thousands of former slaves who returned to settle Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Middle Passage, in other words, was sometimes a two-way street. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to claim that Africans were ignorant or innocent.
Source: Ending the Slavery Blame-Game by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a professor at Harvard and author of “Faces of America” and “Tradition and the Black Atlantic”