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How the West grew rich on gold and slavery: A review of Born in Blackness by Howard French

Book Review

How the West grew rich on gold and slavery: A review of Born in Blackness by Howard French

Born in Blackness by Howard French reveals how the riches of the West were extracted from Africa and the enforced labour of Africans. It should be compulsory reading for all secondary school and higher students not only all over Africa but throughout the West, says New African editor Anver Versi.

Of the billions of books written and published since the invention of writing, only a small number, in the hundreds, can be said to have profoundly changed the world by changing, permanently, our perceptions of ourselves, our relationships with others and our understanding of the world we live in.

Leaving aside the extraordinary influence of the Koran, the Bible and the Hindu Vedas on the beliefs, perceptions and behaviour of billions of people over a long span of time, and how it shapes history to this day, perhaps one can include Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and the Communist Manifesto by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx among other secular works, as also having a life-changing impact on our perceptions. 

The shattering of perceptions and the subsequent recasting of our vision in the light of the new discoveries represented by these works, is probably best summed up in the ‘before and after’ phenomenon that forms the basis of many of our education systems and allows us to better understand how the world came to be as it is and also how it can still be changed.

We at New African and an increasing number of Africanists, on the continent and in the diaspora, in academia, among the laity and in the global media, contend that Born in Blackness by the US journalist, author and academic Howard French deserves to be regarded among the pantheon of works that have changed the world. 

In the case of Born in Blackness, published only as recently as 2021, one cannot say it has changed the world yet but there is no doubt that it is impossible to read it with any degree of fairness and not have one’s concepts of the role played by Africa in the making of the modern world changed for ever.

I will go so far as to say that Born in Blackness should be essential reading for all secondary school and higher students not only all over Africa but throughout the West, as the central thesis of the work is that the wealth on which modern Western civilisation has been erected derived principally from Africa and the enforced labour of Africans. 

What is more, French argues powerfully that there has been a deliberate attempt to erase Africa’s central role from the Western civilisational narrative and, at best to relegate it to the margins. In the process, people of African descent, whether on the continent itself or in the diaspora, are also relegated to the margins of global civilisational discourse and made to feel the full brunt of racist attitudes and brutality.

The timing of the publication of Born in Blackness could also not have been more appropriate. While researching and working on his book, French could not have possibly known how the brutal act of a US policeman strangling an African-American by choking him with his knee, in full view of the world as it later transpired, would unleash the Black Lives Matter movement across the globe.

French could not have known that the movement would empower Blacks, Whites and those of any colour in between to demand an end to the blatant injustice meted out to Blacks in the diaspora, and the throwaway disregard for African lives and development on the continent. 

He would not have known that the movement would involve highly paid professional sportsmen the world over taking the knee in front of their massive global audiences, to keep alive the principles of justice and fair play for all. 

He could not have envisioned even a sport like Formula 1, traditionally the bastion for privileged Whites but dominated over the past decade by the extraordinary Lewis Hamilton, would join in the movement, with drivers taking the knee before every race in every venue it is held worldwide.

He could not have imagined that movie and television superstars and pop idols would throw themselves so enthusiastically into the movement and would take every opportunity to draw attention to race-based injustice in their own or other jurisdictions and open up creative space based on merit rather than colour, as had been the case before.

Howard French would have been pleasantly surprised if he had known that students from some of the world’s most prestigious and ancient seats of learning, like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, MIT and others, would seek to – and in many cases, would – topple centuries-old statues paying homage to slave traders of the past.

Could he have imagined as he spent days and nights trawling though often obscure documents to make his case, that august institutions such as Barclays, HSBC, NatWest Group, Lloyds Banking Group, the National Trust and English Heritage (the custodians of British country houses that were often built using colonial or slave wealth), and even the Bank of England would reassess their historical ties to the shameful trade in human beings and make changes as appropriate?

Right moment in history

Born in Blackness, subtitled Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, has landed with a solid thud on the discussion floor as the case for meaningful reparations for the wrongs done to the continent and its people takes on a new life. 

It also comes when, after decades of campaigning by dedicated cultural warriors – Black and White – Africa’s stolen artefacts and other treasures are slowly being returned to the continent. New African, through our columnist Onyekachi Wambu and his comrades, is proud to have contributed to this effort but a lot of work still needs doing.

In summary, Born in Blackness has arrived at just the right moment in history when, despite efforts of right-wing misanthropes in the UK and US to try and continue to push the issues of slavery and the treatment of Blacks under the carpet, the world is eager and ready to hear the new narrative. 

There will be frenzied efforts to counter the narrative as the implications are huge, not least in terms of self-esteem and the images of White heroism and upstanding character that have formed the cornerstone of so much fiction for so long. A re-examination of this image in the light of the new knowledge is already leading to drastic changes of scripts in film and TV as well as novels. So expect a vicious blowback, perhaps similar to that which greeted Darwin’s Origin of Species but eventually, the truth, once given the oxygen of life, prevails.   

Why has Howard French’s book created such seismic reaction on both sides of the Atlantic? “The way we think about history is entirely wrong, says Howard W. French at the start of this magnificent, powerful and absorbing book,” writes Peter Frankopan, the author of The New Silk Roads. “The problem is not just that the people and cultures of Africa have been ignored and left to one side; rather, that they have been so miscast that the story of the global past has become part of a profound ‘mistelling’.

“That ‘mistelling’ includes how we routinely think of the history of the modern world,” French writes. “Traditional accounts have accorded a primacy of place to Europe’s 15th-century Age of Discovery, and to the long-yearned-for maritime connection it established between West and East. Paired with this historic feat sits the monumental, if accidental find of what came to be known as the New World (America).”

This was indeed what was taught, and continues to be taught to school children across the world. It formed part of our history lessons in Mombasa, Kenya where we had an added incentive to stimulate our curiosity because in 1498, the Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama had indeed visited Mombasa on his historic voyage from Portugal via the Cape of Good Hope to India – the fabulous source of spices and other riches which, we were told was the long-sought destination of all the exploratory voyages. 

He was met with hostility in Mombasa and sailed on to Malindi further north, where he obtained the services of a Gujerati captain who knew about the Monsoon winds and guided him to Calicut in India, thus opening the sea route for Europeans to the countries of the Indian Ocean.

What followed was a period of brutality and devastation for coastal cities along African shores as well as in India and laid the foundation for Portugal’s long-standing empire in the East. 

It made the small European nation fabulously rich and powerful but the price paid by those it ruled over was terrible. A legacy of the heavy hand of Portugal, Fort Jesus, with its chilling door-plate boasting of the number of local people slaughtered mercilessly, stands to this day in Mombasa, where it now serves a much more fruitful and peaceful role as a museum.

This narrative of European explorers seeking a way around Africa, which was seen as no more than an obstacle containing weird monsters and cannibals, to reach the rich East has been repeated so many times that countless generations have accepted it as the true narrative of the events.

As a young African-American, French’s understanding of Africa and its place in the scheme of things was no different. However, he writes: “I was lucky to be introduced to Africa while still a university student, first as an enthralled visitor during college breaks, and later living there for six years after graduation. I cut my teeth as a journalist writing about Africa and travelling widely, and I married a woman who had grown up in Ivory Coast, but whose family was from a nearby part of Ghana.”

Gradually he began to see that the narrative that Africa had no real history before its encounter with Europe and not much of a civilisation to speak of was false. It had great civilisations and had been part of the axis of trade and ideas that flowed from west to east, to the then towering centres of invention in Arabia and Asia.

Europe for the most part, he discovered, had been excluded from this massive flow but had been aware that it existed. He says that in fact, the early Iberian explorers who ventured outside their comfort maritime zones and sailed down the coast of West Africa did so because they were looking for the fabulous cities of gold they had heard about for generations. 

These tales had more than a modicum of truth to them. The great empires of West Africa – Ghana, Mali, Songhai – were awash in gold, which they traded with people from across the Sahara and along the Great Silk Road as far as China and beyond. 

African gold-fuelled discovery

In the 14th century, Malian emperor Mansa Musa, who has gone down in history as the richest man who ever lived, packed so much gold and took such a large retinue of his court with him on a pilgrimage to Mecca that the price of gold fell for several years in the region. Interestingly, in Cairo, he narrated a story about his predecessor, Abu Bakr, who had sent several thousand well-provisioned boats to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to discover new lands long before Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain for the same purpose.

“European expeditions to West Africa in the mid 15th century were bound up in a search for gold. It was the trade in this precious metal, discovered in what is now Ghana by the Portuguese in 1471, and secured by the building of the fort at Elmina in 1482, that helped fund Vasco da Gama’s later mission of discovery to Asia,” writes French. 

“This robust new supply of gold helped make it possible for Lisbon, until then the seat of a small and impecunious European crown, to steal a march on its neighbours and radically alter the course of world history.”

“The idea of finding a way around Africa rather than acknowledging anything of interest there, persists in book after book on the topic of the Age of Discovery, providing an important foundation for a phenomenon that persists to this day. It is the bedrock feature of the way the West has explained its path to modernity by erasing Africa from the picture,” writes French.

This erasure became necessary, he argues, because to acknowledge it would have placed Europe’s dependence on African enforced labour at the centre of their rise as a power and this would not sit well with their Christian ethos or the carefully constructed narrative that it was something inherent in the White racial make-up that made them ‘superior’ to the ‘darker races’ and thus permitted them to break all bounds of decent humanity – and Christianity – in their dealings with them. 

“In the space of less than 199 years, from the early fourteenth century to the end of the 15th, the course of world history changed in more lastingly transformative ways than it had during any comparable period in previous human experience. Since that time, perhaps only the Industrial Revolution has changed human lives more,” argues French.

“It was during this time-span that all the world’s major population centres on each of the continents was brought into permanent and sustained contact with one another for the first time, generating the most profound of consequences. 

“Vast new empires were launched and with them were born immense movements of people and of goods, as well as plants, animals, foods and also diseases, transferred from one part of the world to another.

More than any other fact, mobility on a scale never witnessed before in all of history, became the new name of the game.

“And at the heart of this movement lay a terrible phenomenon, the mass trafficking of human beings who were transported in chains from the continent of their birth, Africa, to new and utterly unfamiliar places, first to Europe and then to what quickly came to be known as the New World. Its handmaiden of course, was the idea of race as a principle for determining a person’s enslavabliity.

“No one at the start of this era could possibly have imagined the consequences of this immense project, but it was on the basis of these brutal arrangements that a global economy was invented and our ‘modern’ world was born.”

The trade in slaves which made the plantation economy in the New World possible and led to the abundance of new crops like tobacco, cotton and above all sugar possible, soon surpassed the value of all the revenues from African gold and Asian silks and spices.

The African foundations of Europe’s wealth

Malachy Postlethwayt, an 18th-century British expert on commerce, called the rents and revenues of plantation slave labour “the fundamental prop and support” of his country’s prosperity. He said that the British empire was “a magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power [built] on an African foundation”. 

Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, wrote: “No African trade, no negroes; no negroes, no sugars, gingers, indicoes [sic] etc; no sugar etc, no islands, no continent; no continent, no trade.”

French goes into great, evidence-based detail of how at each step, it was the labour of the enslaved Africans and the enormous machinery that had arisen to capture them from Africa, transport them to the New World and work them ‘to the bone’ on the plantations that drove the economies of the West – and their constant wars and feuding over control of the trade that marked the era.

“More than any other part of the world,” he writes, “Africa has been the linchpin of the machine of modernity. Without African peoples trafficked from its shores, the Americas would have counted for little in the ascendance of the West. African labour, in the form of enslaved people, was what made the very development of the Americas possible. Without it, Europe’s colonial projects in the New World are unimaginable.”

As French says, his findings are not new; they have always been there in plain sight if only there was a willingness to look at them and acknowledge their truth.

These questions have been raised before. For example, Dr Richard Drayton a senior lecturer in imperial and extra-European history at Cambridge University and author of The Caribbean and the Making of the Modern World, writes:

“Profits from slave trading and from sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco are only a small part of the story. What mattered was how the pull and push from these industries transformed Western Europe’s economies. English banking, insurance, shipbuilding, wool and cotton manufacture, copper and iron smelting, and the cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, multiplied in response to the direct and indirect stimulus of the slave plantations.”

He goes on to argue that the colonial Americas were more Africa’s creation than Europe’s: before 1800, “far more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic. 

“New World slaves were vital too, strangely enough, for European trade in the east. For merchants needed precious metals to buy Asian luxuries, returning home with profits in the form of textiles; only through exchanging these cloths in Africa for slaves to be sold in the New World could Europe obtain new gold and silver to keep the system moving. East Indian companies led ultimately to Europe’s domination of Asia and its 19th-century humiliation of China.

“Africa not only underpinned Europe’s earlier development. Its palm oil, petroleum, copper, chromium, platinum and in particular gold were and are crucial to the later world economy. Only South America, at the zenith of its silver mines, outranks Africa’s contribution to the growth of the global bullion supply.

“The guinea coin,” he points out, “paid homage in its name to the west African origins of the flood of gold.”

He refers to a 2004 film called the Empire Pays Back in which a British academic theologian, Robert Beckford, asked why Britain had made no apology for African slavery, as it had done for the Irish potato famine? Why was there no substantial public monument of national contrition equivalent to Berlin’s Holocaust Museum? Why, most crucially, was there no recognition of how wealth extracted from Africa and Africans made possible the vigour and prosperity of modern Britain? Was there not a case for Britain to pay reparations to the descendants of African slaves?

The case for reparations

The magic word is ‘reparations’. It sends shivers down the spines of all the governments whose economies were built on the back of enslaved Africans, and bolstered by often brutal colonial practices in many parts of the world. Perhaps it is this fear of having to come to terms with the need at some point to pay reparations, in one form or the other, that has led to the erasure of the role of Africa in the making of the modern world and its prosperity. Africa, the biggest contributor to this advance, has come out with less than nothing, saddled as it is with debts and underdevelopment.

One of the doughtiest battlers for proper meaningful reparations over slavery and the slave trade is Kehinde Andrews, associate professor in sociology at Birmingham City University and author of the New Age of Empire: How colonialism and racism still rule the world.

“Reparations were paid out by the British government after the abolition of slavery – albeit to the slave owners. So great was the loss of wealth from the exploitation of human flesh that the equivalent of £2bn was paid, which has now been tracked by researchers at UCL.

“The latest calculations from researchers estimates that for unpaid labour, taking into account interest and inflation, African Americans are owed anywhere between $5.9tn and $14.2tn.”

Beyond that, he writes: “The underdevelopment of the African continent continues with corrupt trade policies and the domination of the economy from the outside. One in 12 children dies in sub-Saharan Africa before their fifth birthday, in large part because the continent continues to be crippled by ‘western development’ ”.

He points out that the issue is so clear that a federation of Caribbean countries (Caricom) is now demanding reparations, as is the Movement for Black Lives in America and the Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe.

“Nothing short of a massive transfer of wealth from the developed to the underdeveloped world, and to the descendants of slavery and colonialism in the West, can heal the deep wounds inflicted. But real reparatory justice would allow the developing world to build strong, sustainable economies that could eradicate global poverty. No one would need to live on less than a dollar a day and children would not die by the second.”

Nothing can be clearer or fairer than that. The curtain has been removed from the dark recess in which the crimes committed during the age of African slavery had long been hidden. Despite all the ‘anti-woke’ machinations of those who would like the myths to continue to rule the narrative of Western affluence, the truth can no longer be pushed back into an obscure corner.

Howard French, writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, says: “The most important site of erasure, by far, has been the minds of people in the rich world. As I write these words, the US and some other North Atlantic communities, from Richmond, Virginia, to Bristol, England, have recently experienced extraordinary moments of iconoclasm. We have seen the pulling down of statues of people who were long perceived to be heroes of imperial and economic systems built on the violent exploitation of people extracted from Africa.

“For these gestures to have more lasting meaning, an even bigger and more challenging task remains for us. It requires that we transform how we understand the history of the last six centuries and, specifically, of Africa’s central role in making possible nearly everything that is today familiar to us. This will involve rewriting school lessons about history just as much as it will require the reinvention of university curricula.

“It will still take a long time and many battles will still need to be fought before those who profited so hugely from the vilest of trades will accept their part and even more time and effort will be needed before the reparations, which are now the birth right of people of African descent, are made in a meaningful manner – but the first bricks have been laid and a new, more glorious monument will surely arise in homage to the suffering of all the millions of Africans without whose contribution in blood, sweat and tears the modern world in which we live would not have been possible. All it takes is a few determined people to keep on at it. History shows us that once a course has been set, the impossible is no longer so.”

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