By now we all know from the avalanche of media that slavery began in America four hundred years ago, in 1619, with the arrival of a Dutch ship off the coast of Virginia with some African slaves they traded to the Virginia colonists for some supplies.
Furthermore, we are still struggling to deal with the legacy of African slavery. In late August, Gov. Kay Ivey was falling all over herself to apologize for some gag interview or show she did while an undergraduate at Auburn University 52 years ago, including appearing in blackface. Prominent African Americans across the state were equally adamant in calling for her resignation, citing her racist past.
It is time to cool off, ladies and gents, and take stock of some facts about African slavery in the Western world, of which we are a part but not the whole, by any means.
As is often the case with “American” historians, or more exactly, historians of the United States, they tend to be a bit myopic and think of America as just North America. African slavery was introduced into the Western Hemisphere, or the Americas (North, Central, and South), about one hundred years before 1619 by Spanish and Portuguese traders.
The background was the rapidly dwindling indigenous people in the face of the advancing Spanish conquest, and diseases, in the 16th century which came with heavy demands for labor on the growing sugar plantations. Africans had been imported into southern Europe, especially Spain and Portugal, for the preceding half-century, so why not just send some to the Americas?
Since the first half of the 15th century, the Portuguese had been exploring down the coast of Africa. Just before mid-century they arrived in the area of Senegal and captured some Africans to be brought back to Portugal and sold into slavery.] Soon thereafter they discovered that it was more efficient, less confrontational, and quite a bit safer to deal directly with powerful African kings and chiefs along the coast and up the rivers of West Africa. The Portuguese bought slaves offered for sale by the Africans themselves.
The Portuguese simply took advantage of a slave system already well developed in West Africa. Indeed, African slavery was very much in existence and flourishing in such pre-colonial African empires as Dahomey and Ashanti (modern Benin and Ghana).
Historian John Thornton in his “Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World” noted that “the slave trade (and the Atlantic trade in general) should not be seen as an ‘impact’ brought in from outside and functioning as some sort of autonomous factor in African history. Instead, it grew out of and was rationalized by the African societies who participated in it and had complete control over it until the slaves were loaded onto European ships for transfer to Atlantic societies.”
In the last two decades of the 15th century, about 2,000 slaves per annum were bought by Portuguese traders on the African coast. Most were carried to Portugal and southern Spain where they were employed in domestic service in urban centers such as Seville.
The slaves in southern Iberia were rarely used in agriculture or plantation slavery as would develop in the Americas. Rather they fit into society, eventually becoming members of Christian brotherhoods, developing a significant free population that readily “adopted the culture, language, and religion of their masters,” as another historian, Herbert Klein, noted in “The Atlantic Slave Trade.”
On the other hand, the plantation slavery that developed later in the English colonies of the Americas was pioneered far earlier than the 17th century and the 1619 date that has eclipsed the news today. Plantation slavery evolved on the Atlantic islands, especially the Madeiras, the Canaries and Sâo Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea. By 1550, Sâo Tomé had more than 60 sugar mills and between 5,000 and 6,000 plantation slaves.
If we are to deal with the legacy of African slavery in the making of (North) America, and reparations for example, then why start with 1619? Go back to the 1450s, and even earlier, when slavery was common in Africa and the Portuguese interest in acquiring and selling slaves was built upon the common exploitation of Africans by other Africans.
From these facts we can deduce whatever truth one is interested in pursuing. But if you abandon or ignore the facts, your truth, too, becomes suspect.
Larry Clayton is a retired University of Alabama history professor. Readers can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.