Black Slaves Were Not Kidnapped by White Slavers

Photo by British Library on Unsplash

I am confident that this article will receive no attention — that it will not be promoted or appear in recommendations — and that what ears befall it out of chance or misfortune will be deaf to its message. I am also confident that the people to whom such ears belong will, in the absence of confirming evidence, and based solely on their emotions and the color of my skin (if they look at my profile picture), regard me as racist. However, I refuse to subscribe or be subjected to false, destructive, enabling narratives about human history, and I therefore leave as a declaration of my refusal the following paragraphs.

There is a falsehood about American slavery being told by proponents of the political Left that has, in recent months, been gaining both popularity and consensus — a falsehood that, if adopted as truth, may be socially, culturally, and morally destructive in its implications. And this falsehood is that, during the Atlantic slave trade, Black Africans were kidnapped by White Europeans and forced into slavery.

If this falsehood sounds true to you, it’s either because you’ve heard it a lot recently, or because, per the prevailing, social-justice narratives of our time, it sounds like it could be true. However, it is false: Black slaves were not kidnapped by White slavers and then forced into slavery; they were kidnapped by Black slavers and then sold into slavery — meaning, Africans were active participants in and proponents of the Atlantic slave trade, and both the guilt and the responsibility of the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade are African’s — Black people’s — to share.

If this is the first time you’re hearing about this, then you either had incompetent or nefarious professors in college, are not subscribed to Crash Course on YouTube, have never heard of Thomas Sowell, or simply have not done literally any research on the Atlantic slave trade; even the first paragraph of the relevant Wikipedia article states that “The vast majority of those who were enslaved and transported in the transatlantic slave trade were people from Central and West Africa, who had been sold by other West Africans” — meaning, this information is readily available. And if you think John Green or Thomas Sowell or the guy who wrote that sentence on Wikipedia are just racist nobodys mouthing their biases on public platforms, then review the work they cite, or open a history book; anything published before 2012 will corroborate their racism.

I first learned about Africans selling Africans in the slave trade when I was in college, ten years ago, reading Marcus Rediker’s incredible, widely praised book The Slave Ship: A Human History. In this book, Rediker describes the economics and logistics of shipping millions of people (slaves) through and across the Atlantic Ocean. And it wasn’t easy; indeed, this feat was near impossible, and it required persistence, innovation, and coordination from multiple powers — including and especially African powers, as these were those that provided the slaves. What’s more, the life expectancy of Europeans in Sub-Saharan Africa during the 15th–18th centuries was less than one year — meaning, leaving their boats was a death sentence for Europeans, as they were simply unaccustomed to (and genetically unsuited for) African environments, and all who ventured inland from the coasts swiftly perished from disease. Thus, it was necessary for African merchants — not European merchants — to raid villages, wrangle villagers, and transport human spoils to the coasts, where such spoils could be exchanged for money, materials, and goods.

An important argument in The Slave Ship (and elsewhere) is that the slave trade was a global economic effort, and that all who participated in it did so willingly and in the name of capitalism. Indeed, the purpose of the trade was not to subjugate Black people for their Blackness; ideas about White supremacy did not emerge until centuries into the trade, when attitudes about slavery began to sour and White slavers began to construct stories to justify maintaining slavery as an economic institution. No, the purpose of the trade was to build nations, both by slave labor itself and by the money made from selling goods produced by slave labor — in other words, the purpose was to attain financial increase, thus enabling economic improvement and social and political advancement.

The problem with altering this aspect of history, of course, is that it excuses immoral behavior and enables further oppression: If you can construe yourself as a victim, then you can construe others (especially people you don’t like) as perpetrators, which both justifies your hatred of them and enables you to punish them. If you can popularize a false narrative about your experience that construes you as the hero and your (perceived) enemy as the villain, then you can justify vanquishing them. If you can propagate a story about your innocence and your neighbors’ guilt, then you can justify expelling them from your neighborhood.

The falsehood (or lie) that Black slaves were kidnapped by White slavers is convenient for those who believe and propagate it; indeed, it relieves them of the responsibility of its implications — meaning, Black Americans who insist that their ancestors were kidnapped by White Americans avoid having to contend with their own Black history. It is much easier to paint others (especially those most different from us) as evil than it is to recognize the evil within ourselves. Africans — Black people — sold their own people into slavery. And any morality that justifies this — or any lie that expunges it — is complicit in oppression.

Either we can rewrite human history to suit our selfish, myopic, irrational, and inconsistent needs and desires, or we can confront it, learn from it, and evolve. By ignoring or altering important facts from history, we enable the ideas and behavior that produced such facts to emerge again, thus creating an eternal cycle of human suffering. So what say we end the cycle?

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Mitchell Ferrin

Mitchell Ferrin

I write about writing and editing and also share occasional thoughts on things. mitchellferrin.com