African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Historic Contexts—Exchanging People for Trade Goods

Exchanging People for Trade Goods

When Europeans landed on the coasts of Africa they found societies engaged in a network of trade routes that carried a variety of goods back and forth across sub-Saharan Africa. Some of those goods included kola nuts, shea butter, salt, indigenous textiles, copper, iron and iron tools, and people for sale as slaves within West Africa. Gold, pepper, a little ivory, dried meat and hides were also exported in the Trans-Saharan trade routes along with a few “slaves” to the Middle East and beyond. Phillip Curtin estimates this trade to have been no more than 500–4000 “slaves” a year (1990:40–41).

From this trade and early West African slave trade by the Portuguese, a sizeable number of Africans ended up in Portugal and Spain. By the middle of the 16th century, 10,000 black people made up 10 percent of the population of Lisbon. Some had been manumitted. Some had purchased their freedom. Some were the offspring of African and Portuguese marriages and liaisons. Seville had an African population of 6000. These were some of the people accompanying Spanish explorers on the North American mainland. More importantly, this was the nascent beginning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Curtin 1990:40–11).

All of the Sub-Saharan African societies discussed above participated in the slave trade as the enslaved or as slavers, brokers. While Europeans created the demand side for slaves, most historians would agree with John Thornton that African political and economic elite and leaders, although capable of defending their countries from seaborne European marauders, did the primary work of enslaving, transporting and selling Africans to slave traders on the African coast (Thornton 2002:36).

Line drawings showing placement of leg shackles; drawn from originals in French museums.

Why Africans participated in the slave trade, given its drain on the most productive adults from Africa’s populations, is one of the enigmas of history. The seeds of rebellion, violence and war sown by the slave trade were perhaps even more disruptive to African societies. One answer might be that the institution of slavery already existed in African societies. However, slavery in Africa was different from the kind of slavery that evolved in the New World, particularly the English colonies, a topic discussed in the section below on Laws. The kind of slavery that became dominant on the American plantation was special,” in Curtin’s words, “different from slavery in most of the Muslim world and West Africa (1990:40–41).”

Most legal systems in Africa recognized slavery as a social condition according to Thornton. He comments that slaves constituted a class of people, captives or their descendants, over whom private citizens exercised the rights of the state to make laws, punish, and control. Although these rights could be sold, in practice people of the slave class who had been settled in one location for a sufficient time came to possess a number of rights, including immunity from resale or arbitrary transfer from one owner or location (Thornton 2002:43). Birmingham says there was no such thing as a class of slaves in Kongo, but that many people belonged to a transitory group of servile subjects. “These were people of foreign origin, people who had been outlawed for criminal acts, people who had lost the protection of their kinfolk, or become irredeemably indebted to others. They differed from those enslaved by Europeans in that under normal conditions they were likely to be reabsorbed into society (Birmingham 1981:32).”

Many of those enslaved and brought to the New World were people who had participated in local and long-distance trade. Depending upon their resources, they were skilled agriculturists; artisans of textiles, bronze, gold, ivory sculpture, jewelry and sacred objects; craftsmen of wooden tools, furniture, and architectural elements; as well as potters and blacksmiths. Others were skilled linguists in more than one African language and often one or more European languages as well. In some cases, they had developed trade languages that facilitated between group communication even among African people whose language they did not know.

Even though those who were enslaved became part of one of the most heinous of historical tragedies, Africans enslaved in North American and the few Africans who voluntarily migrated to the New World also became part of one of the greatest triumphs of human history. African people and their descendants helped to open the Western World, develop it, and create a new nation. Both stories are explored here in terms of their meaning in the African American perspective on heritage preservation and what constitutes African American ethnographic cultural resources.

Although the cultural achievements, social history, and contributions to the opening of the New World by African peoples were known to Europeans, this information somehow became lost in the myth and mendacity of a developing European racialized worldview that persisted well into the 20th century.

Why was African Heritage Lost?

Over time, a number of factors combined to obscure knowledge of Africa as well as the African American presence and contributions to exploration, settlement and the founding of America. The most important of these factors was the development of the concept of race differences that occurred in conjunction with the opening of the New World.

Renaissance thinkers used color as one of several criteria for the classification of people. The term “black” was used as an adjective to describe variations in skin color. In the 15th century when sub-Saharan Africans were first brought to Europe, people had little difficulty in seeing them as humans. By the end of the 15th century, when American Indians were brought to Europe, a shift occurred in European thinking. Europeans seeking explanations for why American Indians and Africans did not look alike and reasons why both were different from themselves began to gradually lump Indians and Africans together as examples of sub-human beings. They were viewed as the lowest human forms in the “Great Chain of Being” model of all living forms that had come down from the ancient Greek writers. Africans sometimes came to be called the “Missing Link” suggesting they were less than human but more than an animal.

Over the next 200 years as the economic importance of slavery grew, belief in the existence of different races of men became firmly established. It seems strange now that the Enlightenment movement that was based on notions of progress through reason and rationality could give rise to both the birth of a new nation based on the rights of man and an ideology that justified the enslavement of Africans.

Elements of the 18th Century European Worldview

  • Human differences in appearance and behavior are the basis for classification.
  • Ranking humans from high to low, based on the Great Chain of Being, is an vital aspect of systematic classification of human differences.
  • Outer physical characteristics of humans such as skin color, type of hair, body size or shape, are surface manifestations of inner realities such as intelligence and tendencies to different social behaviors.
  • Assignment of the highest rank to people with European physical attributes equated with superior intellect and “appropriate” social behavior, the lowest rank to people with African physical attributes equated with inferior intellect and “sub-human” behavioral tendencies.
  • Belief that physical attributes, behavior, inner tendencies and social rank are inheritable.
  • Beliefs that human “race-based” differences were created by nature or God so are fixed, unalterable and could never be bridged.

(Pandian 1985; Smedley 1993)

The 18th century scientist Linneaus, influenced by Enlightenment positivist doctrine to seek scientific explanation for natural facts, developed a systematic classification of human beings in the first half of the 18th century. Count de Buffon, also influenced by positivism, introduced the term “race” in 1749 to distinguished six (6) varieties of humans based on color, shape of body, and disposition. Building on these fundamentals, by the end of the 18th century, all the elements of a folk concept and world view of race were formulated and accepted as a hierarchy of human inequality based on people’s race.

Over time, the European race-based worldview was modified and extended by associated negative attitudes, beliefs, myths and assumptions about the world’s non-European people. Thus came into being myths about white superiority and black inferiority, about American Indians as “noble savages” about Chinese as “inscrutable Orientals” and other race-based stereotypes (Pandian 1985:70–95; Smedley 1993:25–28).

This kind of worldview did not permit acknowledgement of African people’s social history and cultural achievements. The European race-based worldview was used as a rationalization for conquest of American Indians, enslaving Africans, and colonialism. The need to reinforce notions of white supremacy, African inferiority and African enslavement resulted in a legacy of historical omissions, suppression and misinterpretation of African social history and cultural heritage. Ideas of white supremacy included notions of cultural supremacy as well.

On the balance, it is important to note that other factors also contributed to the lost knowledge of African social history and culture. Most African civilizations passed on historical knowledge through oral traditions. Documentation of African life and culture before the Transatlantic Slave Trade are mostly descriptions in Greek, Arabic, and Portuguese written by travelers, merchants, and monks.

Ideas of European cultural supremacy continued into the twentieth century and acted to suppress or misinterpret the African cultural heritage in African American culture. Even some African American social scientists, for example E. Franklin Frazier, misinterpreting the cultural patterns of their own people, viewed African American social and cultural patterns as pathological if they differed from Euro-American standard behaviors. E. Franklin Frazier was one of Herskovits most vehement critics stating in reference to Herskovits’ book Myths of the Negro Past: “Nevertheless, the reviewer…[Frazier]…cannot agree with the author that to establish the fact that the Negro had a ‘cultural past’ and that the Negro’s ‘cultural past’ still influences his behavior will not alter his status in America (Frazier as cited in Long 1975:565).”

In the early twentieth century, black and white sociologists projected a pathological view of “Negroes” ascribing deviations from European cultural behaviors as the result of the slavery experience in the New World (Long 1975:564). Attempting to uncover lost knowledge and refute myth, mid-twentieth century anthropologists, archeologists, and historians, many of African descent, began to reexamine and reassess available data and to extend the scope of their investigations to formerly untapped data sources. Even so, the notion of African American culture as developing during and after enslavement continued to be advanced by leading social scientists and continues in contemporary publications (Mintz and Price 1976, 1992).

More recent scholarly works revisiting the Transatlantic Slave Trade, African history, the history and archeology of colonial African Americans from the 16th century through the American Revolution refute earlier myths concerning African American culture. These scholarly works suggest the need for revisionist approaches to interpreting African American life and culture during the colonial period (Hollaway 1990; Midlo Hall 1992; Eltis 2001; Walsh 2001).

Who were the First Africans in America?

Portuguese exploration of the African coastline first brought West Africans in contact with Europeans. As Africans participated in trade with the Europeans they developed linguistic skills and came to understand European commercial practices, cultural conventions, and diplomatic etiquette. By 1491, Kongo royalty had converted to Catholicism and the King of the Kongo sent his sons to be educated in the royal court of Portugal and the Vatican in Rome. Other West African ethnic groups sent their sons to be educated in Portugal. Portuguese and West Africans, particularly people from West Central Africa, formed families in Africa and in Portugal and Luzo-Africans, a new class of people emerged from these families.

As the 15th century ended, Africans and Luzo-Africans lived in Portugal and Spain. Some were slaves and some free. At least two generations of Luzo-Africans had grown to adulthood. These are the kinds of people Berlin refers to as Atlantic Creoles. From their ranks, Africans, mostly but not exclusively men, sailed with the Portuguese and Spaniards for the New World (Thornton 1983; Berlin 1998:73; Restall 2000:171–205).

From the very start, lack of white labor hampered Spanish exploration and settlement of the circum-Caribbean and West Indies Islands. King Ferdinand initiated the African slave trade on September 3, 1501 in a letter to the Governor of Hispanola in which he said:

“In view of our earnest desire for the conversion of the Indians to our Holy Catholic Faith, and seeing that, if persons suspect in Faith went there, such conversion might be impeded, we cannot consent to the immigration of Moors, heretics, Jews, re-converts or persons newly converted to our Holy Faith, unless they are Negro or other slaves who have been born in the power of Christians who are our subjects and nationals and carry out our express permission” (Williams 1971:41–42).

In 1505, seventeen Africans were sent to work in copper mines in Hispaniola. Five years later, fifty more were sent, and so it began.

The Portuguese controlled the slave trade leaving African ports. A royal asientos or contract with the Portuguese was thus required to send Africans as slaves to Spanish America. The Portuguese slave trade monopoly and the Spanish government concern with heresy, led the Spaniards to turn first to the large population of Africans living in Spain for servants, soldiers, and other labor. Most of the Africans in Spain, or Ladinos as they were called, originated in the Kongo arriving on the Iberian peninsula by way of the Portuguese. From the Spanish point of view, Ladinos, had the advantage of being Catholic coverts, having knowledge of Spanish customs and language. Some of these Ladinos were manumitted, born free or had purchased their freedom and it was to them that the Spaniards first looked to supply labor for New Spain.

Physical Punishment of Slaves Hispaniola, late 16th century.

By 1511, Spanish settlements existed on all of the islands in the Greater Antilles and white immigration had become insufficient to solve the island labor problems. The cost of conquering the mainland Indians decimated the ranks of the Spanish Conquistadors. More significantly, Indian depopulation was the inevitable outcome of their slaughter during battles of conquest, succumbing to European diseases against which they had no immunity, and being exploited as slave laborers. Another reservoir of labor was required to explore, fight, and develop a subsistence economy and an export economy. Spain looked to Africa or at least to African people for a greater supply of labor (Williams 1971:41–42).

In 1517, an asiento was arranged between the Spanish Crown and private enslavers for the importation of four thousand Africans into Spanish Americas over the next 8 years. By 1540, thirty thousand had been imported into Hispanola and more than one hundred thousand into all the Spanish dominions (Williams 1971:41–42). These Africans helped explore and settle Puerto Rico, New Spain, Hispanola, as well as Florida and New Mexico, within the borders of the contemporary continental United States. The Spanish monarch, Carlos V, began issuing more and more asientos in the 1590s in order to expedite the importation of slaves. Africans

The africanization of Spanish American colonies would have long ranging effects on the course of African American heritage. The Spanish church, Spanish law, Spanish organization of slave labor and the encroachment of the other European powers on colonial Spanish holdings in Florida, the Mississippi delta, and the Southwest all combined to create a sizeable but scattered population of free African Americans and at least one free African American community in Spanish America. These long range effects of the influences, the development of free African American people and communities in Spanish America are explored further in Part II African American Heritage of this unit.

The positive outcome of Spanish colonialism in terms of the development of a free African American population, from the perspective of African American heritage, was overshadowed in significance by the Spanish transatlantic slave trade, a harbinger of things to come.