Born in Blackness by Howard W Revue française – dehumanized in the Age of Discovery | History books

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The way of thinking the story is totally wrong, says Howard W French at the start of this beautiful, powerful and captivating book. The problem is not only that the peoples and cultures of Africa have been ignored and left behind; rather, that they have been so poorly expressed that the story of the world’s past has become part of a deep “mistake.”

This process begins, argues the French, with the age of discovery. The impetus for what turned into the creation of multiple European empires spanning the continents did not come from “the desire for links with Asia”, but from “a centuries-old desire to forge links with Asia.” trade links with legendary rich black societies “in Africa which were harboring enormous amounts of gold and an” inexhaustible source “of labor. It was along the west coast of Africa that Europeans “perfected the techniques of cartography and navigation”, where ship designs were tested and improved, and where sailors learned to understand the winds of the sea. ‘Atlantic Ocean.

These experiences, dating mainly from the 1400s, were to prove decisive not only in the colonization of the Americas and the opening of new trade routes to Europe. It turned out that the most important consequences were for the people of Africa. The scale of human suffering that followed Columbus’ crossing the Atlantic is almost impossible to conceive, let alone describe: the modern consensus is that about 12 million people were embarked on slave ships in poor conditions. appalling.

Most then worked until death, with the lifespan of trafficked persons estimated to be seven years or less. It was cheaper, wrote an English planter in Antigua in 1751, “to work the slaves to the maximum, and by low cost and hard use, to wear them out before they became useless and incapable of doing the job. service and then buy new ones to fill their places. ”Black life literally didn’t matter – except to enrich their“ owners ”.

The disgusting way in which European wealth rested on the backs, bodies and lives of people abducted from Africa against their will and then enslaved thousands of miles away to work on plantations producing sugar, tobacco, cotton and more, was the basis not only of Western empires, but also the standard of living in distant idylls like England. How lucky the English are to live on an island and be surrounded by the ocean, said a ruler of Dahomey (now southern Benin), one of Africa’s largest states. “We, on the other hand,” he said, “are surrounded by a variety of other peoples, speaking different languages ​​and constantly having to defend ourselves with the edge of our swords.”

As French explains, it was not only slavery that devastated swathes of Africa; the process of enslavement did the same. In addition to the 12 million people shipped across the Atlantic, an additional 6 million lives were lost in or near their home countries in the slave hunt. This imposed extraordinary demographic strains on national societies, transformed agriculture and altered gender relations, as it was mainly young able-bodied men who were in demand to do the hard work in the colonies abroad. Slavery led to fragmentation, fracture and war fueled by weapons – especially rifles – which were sold by Europeans, forcing neighboring states to compete and turn against each other for attempt to defend their own populations against kidnapping.

An 1875 illustration of an American slave auction. Photography: Transcendent Graphics / Getty Images

It had other effects as well. The rich diversities of Africa’s many different peoples were subsumed into a single category of “darkness” that obscured and ignored proud histories and cultures and treated all of the continent’s inhabitants and their descendants as one and the same. This was ironic, of course, given that populations were deliberately distributed throughout the Americas and the Caribbean to prevent family and family groups from communicating with each other, thus reducing the chances of rebellion against Europeans who were vastly outnumbered.

Sometimes the dehumanization that French so forcefully describes is hard to read. In 1661, for example, a law was passed in Barbados which was later passed in Antigua, Jamaica, South Carolina and beyond which declared Africans to be a “pagan kind, brutal and uncertain, dangerous And that white homeowners should therefore assume almost total control over their lives. French discusses the extent of the grueling workload expected of slaves and how it has increased over time, and explains how this fueled the industrialization and modernization of Britain and how the lives of the Blacks raised the standard of living for people living on the other side of the world.

Today, the importance of the role of transatlantic slavery is better known and more studied than it was in the past – and rightly so. This book, however, is much more than that, as French offers a broader view of how and why Africa and the history of its peoples have been ignored, showing how the exploitation of the Americas and the Caribbean has brought ecological dividends that then reshaped the world.

French writes with the elegance one would expect from a distinguished foreign correspondent, and with the passion of someone who undertakes to make a correction. I wish it had gone beyond the mid-twentieth century to bring us up to date, not least because issues of historical heritage, race and racism and inequality are among the most important issues in the world. ‘today – while the future of the peoples of Africa, which will be amplified by climate change, is the defining topic of tomorrow. It is not a comfortable or heartwarming read, but it is beautifully done; a masterpiece even.

Peter Frankopan is the author of The New Silk Roads (Bloomsbury)

Born in the Dark: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 – WWII by Howard W French is published by WW Norton & Co (£ 25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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