Henry Louis Gates is Wrong about African Involvement in the Slave Trade

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/6/2010

Over the past twenty-five years I have had various exchanges, some quite useful and productive, with Henry Louis Gates. We have shared a couple of public meetings and dinners during conferences, book signings, and the like. However, we have rarely agreed on Black Studies, Black History, Afrocentricity, Black Nationalism, or the slave trade.

The recent essay on slavery and reparations in the New York Times (April 23, 2010) caused me to reflect on my previous critiques of several of Gates projects such as Encarta Africana, documentaries, and Wonders of the African World. Gates is a combative, assertive, and quite active intellectual. He is not a do-nothing or say-nothing person that would, given his opinions, be a good thing. Since that is not the case it is necessary to dismantle the superstructure Gates has created to defend the European’s gross violation of African humanity. Attacking the factual errors of Gates’ essay is essential for the plinths upon which the reparations argument stands.

First, we must get the terms of the argument straight. There is no African Slave Trade, no Transatlantic Slave Trade; there is only European Slave Trade across the ocean as there is the Arab Slave Trade across the desert. I say European Slave Trade because the motive for kidnapping and transporting Africans across the ocean was a European initiative. Gates attempts to show Africans as being equally culpable with Europeans in the enslaving of Africans in order to argue in his narrative superstructure that it is difficult to say who should pay reparations.

It is not difficult at all. One only has to ask the questions, “Who traveled to Africa in search of captives?” “Who created an entire industry of shipbuilding, insurance, outfitting of crews and ships, and banking based on the slave trade?” “Who benefited enormously from the evil and vile project of human kidnapping?” “What countries held the asiento from the Catholic Church and the King of Spain for regions of Africa used exclusively for capturing Africans?”

There are some fundamental facts. First, no African kingdom used slavery as its principal mode of production. Africa has produced no economies based on slavery. It was left to Europe to create a system of slavery where humans were chattel to be used as tools in the development of wealth. Seondly, in all massive enterprises where there are oppressors and the oppressed there will be collaborators. It is no secret that some of Afriica’s best minds, Fanon, Memni, Karenga, have isolated incidents of collaboration among victims of oppression. Blacks were police officers in the white minority regime of South Africa but one cannot blame apartheid on black people. So when Gates claims that Africans were involved in the slave trade one can accept this, but what one cannot accept is that Africans were equally culpable for the slave trade. Nor should one blame the Judenrats (Jewish Councils) of Germany for Nazi atrocities although they often collaborated with the Germans. Indians collaborated with the British colonialists in India and some Chinese collaborated with the Japanese in occupied China, and while there is no excuse there is certainly explanation for collaboration.

Collaboration is often the results of personal ambition, greed, or force. After the Portuguese kidnapped scores of Africans in 1444 and took them to Lisbon, the process of capturing Africans from isolated villages was perfected. With overpowering force, as when the Portuguese in l482, destroyed the main capital of Nana Kwame Ansah, whites started to use other Africans to assist with their agenda. By the time Columbus opened up the Americas for Europe in l492 the Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, French, Danish, and English were poised to use every device possible to entrap Africans. Like now, one way to gain access to the masses is through people who look like they are the same as the masses. There are and will be collaborators in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gates extends his reasoning in a distortion of fact. For example, he says that the whites did not go into the interior of Africa but this flies in the face of the facts. Perhaps whites did not enter the interior regions in massive numbers but almost every African nation that experienced the slave trade has evidence of white incursions and even some settlements in the interior during the period of the slave trade. Of course, it is true that some of this evidence is found in cemeteries littered in villages in the interior, such as the cemetery in Tafo, Akyem, in Ghana. So many whites died in the interior that it was called “the white man’s grave.”

Regardless to how unfortunate Gates’ essay is for scholarship and reason, there is something useful in it. The essay has refocused the attention of writers and scholars to the attempt to revise the collective text of the European world. Guilt is taken off of Europe for the slave trade and placed on black people. In fact, Gates sees blacks and whites as equally responsible for the slave trade. This is like blaming a battered woman for her own beatings. Gates is telling us that whites are saying, “You Africans made me do it.” What is useful is that Afrocentrists and Pan Africanists are now clearer about the dangers to our future than ever before. Those rooming in the so-called master’s house are in serious psychological crisis; our task is to make plain the truth and to defend African interests.

The arguments made by Henry Louis Gates remind me of the Texas Textbook Commission’s attempt to change history texts because they do not fit with its conservative views. Gates gives four examples of African kings or queens who participated with the Europeans in the process of capturing Africans. These examples are puny in the context of centuries of raids, wars, and battles in the African interior as well as on the coasts of Africa. Here is what Gates wrote, “There is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. These included the Akan of the kingdom of Asante in what is now Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern Angola and the Kongo of today’s Congo.” This entire statement is misleading. There has been little discussion of the role Africans played in slave- trading because the role of the collaborators was minor vis-à-vis the role of white slave raiders. The examples given of the Asante, the Fon, the Mbundu, and the Kongo are not evidence of a general support of the slave trade by African kings or queens; these are merely aberrations where they occur, not a universal pattern of African collaboration over a three hundred year period. Take the example given about the Asante. The Europeans met the Akan people in the 15th century yet there is no indication of Asante involvement in the slave trade during the 15th, l6th, and l7th, centuries and the examples given from the 18th and l9th centuries disregard the Asante attempt to prevent the European take-over of the interior. Indeed, Asante’s involvement was at the level of seeking to control the slave routes and to prevent the British from disrupting their kingdom.

Gates’ own Encarta Africana claims that Nzinga, a queen of the Mbundu in the kingdom of Ndongo, was “a leading opponent of Portuguese colonialism.” In fact, from 1639 to 1648 her armies attacked the Portuguese and forced them out of the interior and back into fortresses along the coast. She retired to the royal city of Matamba in l656.

In the 16th century when the Mani-kongo, called Affonso by the Portuguese, discovered that his trade with Portuguese was not based on mutual respect and that he would not be able to get the shipbuilders, teachers, and skilled craftspeople he desired from Portugal because the Portuguese wanted to make his people slaves, including his ministers. Thus, in l526, the Mani-Kongo attacked the Portuguese after sending a letter to King John III saying “You should here neither merchants nor wares because it is our will that in the kingdom of the Kongo there should not be any slaves nor market for slaves.”

Therefore, Asante, Ndongo, and Kongo have been flipped by this revisionist view espoused by Henry Louis Gates and others who would like to blame slavery on Africans.

The kingdom of Dahomey was involved with the D’Souza dynasty in its vile and horrendous promotion of the slave trade from Dahomey to Brazil for scores of years. but the corrupt, venal leaders of Dahomey during their collaboration with the Portuguese family is nothing more than an aberration. This is why the “selling” of “disposable captives of warfare” became a part of the rhetoric of Africans involved in the slave trade. Remember Africans were stolen from more than 100 ethnic groups, not just from the Fon of Dahomey, and the resistance of Africans, as recorded in my book, The History of Africa, far overwhelms the vile example of Dahomey. I offer these ideas in the spirit of a corrective on a corrosive essay but have little confidence that those who are anti-Africa and anti-African will learn anything.

Molefi Kete Asante is the author of The History of Africa and 70 additional books on African and African American history.

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