Grace in Cage, Grace Jones, courtesy © 1978 Jean-Paul Gaude

5- Why Slavery Happened

Towards a Black Consciousness

There are (at least) six main reasons that help explaining why, since the late 17th century, many Europeans started to consider Black Africans an inferior race, to the point of commercialize Africans as slaves, and for 300 years:

Mali, man carrying doors, photo © circa 1972 Boris Spremo, courtesy Toronto Public Library.

Over three centuries, between fifteen and twenty million people were abducted and shipped as slaves. The extensive use of guns made it possible. A large percentage died in the trips becaue of sicknesses, and it is well documented they resisting fiercy; many were assassinated. Quite similar to Persia, Greece and Rome, in Africa there were three types of slaves: through conquest, due to unpaid debts, and those whose parents gave them as slaves to tribal chiefs, who would eventually sold them to Arabs, Ottoman or later European buyers for goods (rum, spices, fabrics). When the Atlantic slave trade increased, local networks providing slaves multiplied. At the end, it almost completely destroyed local African economies and later political stability, because villages' labour forces were missing. The consequences of this are still visible in some countries in the 21th century.

  • The rudimentary European scientific community: proto-doctors, proto-anthropologists and proto-biologists miss-interpreted first hand observations of explorers and drafstmen who unveiled archaic cultures living in prehistoric time in deep tropical Africa, ignoring that in the same continent, Black cultures produced highly developed civilizations like the Empire of Mali, with its exquisite cultural and scientific centre Timbuktu, or the Ashanti Empire. The fact that slavery happened in the exact moment when Europe started the race for science discovery, found the academic community with rudimentary conceptual tools, mixed with emotional states, rather than a rational state of thinking; they rejected reasoning, putting themselves too close to the primitive observed cultures, and they failed till the extent of not considering these peoples as humans.
  • Christianity, Theologists and the Eucharist act. The Eucharist act***, magical event where Christians eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood, can be considered a sublimation ceremony of cannibalism. Somehow they put an end to it, but in Christianity's imagination and most of the Western world, it was somehow kept in the back of our minds.**** The Kindgoms opted for civilizing; the Vatican, for immediate evangelization; the Traders, for eslavement.



Stowage of the British Slave Ship Brookes under the Regulated Slave Trade, act of 1788. Courtesy: US Library of Congress.

Interestingly, at that time, it seems educated Europeans did not mind slavery but instead reacted with horror when noticed that some of those humans living in the pre-iron age still practiced it. In South America, where it was also frequent, were the Jesuits -not the Vatican- who got involved in the evangelization of indigenous cultures, like the Guaraní people, who were at a similar level of developmen than those African cultures; Jesuits did and unparalleled educational work, building villages, schools, theatres, libraries, even fighting slavery.***** This happened in Africa but the extremely difficult hot environment put a limit to the enterprise. 


* Imperial Egypt based it existence out of slavery (3170 BC onward), building its strength and monumental architecture thanks to slaves. After the fall of the New Kingdom (1070BC), The Kingdom of Kush (785BC - 350) an ancient kingdom in Nubia at the confluences of the Blue Nile, White Nile and the Atbarah River (actual Sudan and South Sudan), extensively traded slavery. They were the ancestors of the actual Nubian-Sudanese. In the Ashanti Empire, the slaves were taken from enemies in wars, but it seems they did not trade with them. Their destiny went from having the possibility to acquire wealth by marrying with some master's family member, to being sacrificed (like in many archaic civilizations, they believed slaves would follow their masters after death). Slaves could own other slaves, and could request a new master if the slave understood was being mistreated. Slavery was also present in The Ghana Empire (circa 700 - 1240, known as Awkar), but not primarily. Around 1100 they were committed traders of gold, ivory, horses, weapons and spices; they imported tools and books from Europe. Most notably, The Kingdom of Kongo (1390 to 1891) in west central Africa (actual northern Angola, Republic of the Congo, western of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and southern Gabon), practiced trade slavery as core of their commerce and wealth. The kingdom consisted of several provinces ruled by the Manikongo; at the arrival of the Portuguese, they sold and provided millions of slaves in the late 17th century. Slavery also existed between small tribes, that helped the Arabs, that systematically crossed the Sahara, twice a year, to capture Black Africans in fierce massacres, transported the survivors through the desert to be sold in North or East Africa, and from there even to far lands like Persia.

** In the Eucharist act the service is called Holy Communion (Catholic, Latin), or Lord's Supper (Protestant tradition) or the Mass (Catholic, Anglo-saxon); the bread and wine are referred to as the body and blood of Christ. An endless theological controversy arises about how substantially or symbolically this should be interpreted, but the former is widely accepted as transubstantiation (Roman Catholic Church).

*** Slavery existed in Germanic tribes in Roman times but was not frequent; Vikings used to enslave English, Celts, Visigoths. In South America the Araucanos, known today as Mapuches (actual Chile) used to cross the Andes to riot, kill, capture and enslave Tehuelches, natives of Patagonia (actual South Argentina). It is recorded that both in old China and India slavery happened since ever.

**** The process took a few centuries to refine, from verbal terminology to symbology. Carefully kept in the Vatican archives, it is known by scholars and Freemasons. To put things in context, Europeans suddenly found prehistorical tribes lost in the deep jungle, in modern times, something unacceptable.

***** The Jesuits taught Guarani people how to read and write, hygiene, arts and crafts, music, sculpture, all sort of industrialized artisan processes based on their existing craftsmanship. They analysed and gave Guarani language a grammar, keeping it as their mother tongue, producing translating dictionaries. They founded libraries, all this in what is now Paraguay, South of Brazil and north of Argentina. The success of these enterprise, organised independently from the Vatican, produced a war by Spanish and Portuguese, supported by the former, which lead to the total destruction of the Jesuit cities and infrastructure. Only ruins remain.

Read the next chapter, At Least We Know What Happened, here.


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