“What Black intellectuals said over a century ago [about capitalizing Negro] remains true today—semantics will not “solve the race problem.” (Elise Mitchell, “Black and African American,” Journal of the Early Republic 43 2023:85)
With this post, I continue my investigation into the demise of the term “Negro” and the origin of the term “African American.” The first post looked at the roughly simultaneous migration of three non-white people, Negroes from the American South, Italians from southern Europe, and Jews from Eastern Europe, and their quest to live the American Dream through the prism of baseball. The second post focused on the continued and unexpected use of the term “Negro” in 2023. That usage has continued beyond the posting of that blog. Now I turn to the term “African American” in the context of Africa being in the news on a constant basis.
Back in December, 1988, Jesse Jackson, at a news conference in Chicago, announced that the people at the conference preferred to be called “African-American.” The rancorous debates over negro, Negro, colored, black, Black, and Afro-American that had been waged for decades, sometimes dating back to the 1800s, now had been resolved. That debate and the dropping of the hyphen from African-American are outside the scope of this post.
To be called African-Americans has cultural integrity. It puts us in our proper historical context. Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base. African-Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity. There are Armenian-Americans and Jewish-Americans [and Israeli-Americans] and Arab-Americans [and Palestinian-Americans among others] and Italian-Americans [not Sicilian-Americans]; and with a degree of accepted and reasonable pride, they connect their heritage to their mother country and where they are now (“Leaders Say Blacks Want To Be Called ‘African-Americans,’” Associated Press, December 21, 1988, published in The New York Times).
There was a struggle for the term to be accepted. One obvious problem is that Africa is not a “historical cultural base” or a political entity. “Africa” is not even an indigenous term since it comes from the Greeks as does the term “Asia.”
What is the relationship between people in the African diaspora and those in Africa? (Mitchell, 91)
Let’s examine the presence in the news of Africa today. Do the Middle Passage People connect to the countries involved as part of their heritage? Do these African countries provide an historical cultural base such as Ukraine does for Ukrainian-Americans or Armenia does for Armenian-Americans?
At the time of Jackson’s announcement that “African American” was to be the term for Middle Passage People in the United States, the best known nation in Africa to these African Americans was South Africa. It was a country with a significant population of two races (plus Asian Indians). The apartheid system bore resemblance to the Jim Crow system African Americans knew in the United States, especially in the Confederate states. And, of course, it had a much-admired moral leader in Nelson Mandela as a counterpart of Martin Luther King.
But the demographics of the country are more complex than normally realized. As it turns out South Africa has black indigenous people too. These South Africans have been in the news since Amazon proposed building a commercial and residential development on a site of contention. The 37-acre parcel is thought to be where indigenous South Africans first fought colonial invaders. In 1510, Khoi warriors fought Portuguese explorer Francisco d’Almeida at the Battle of Gorinaiqua/Salt River. Thereafter it became sacred land. However some indigenous people welcome the prospect of a heritage center to the country’s First Nations and the jobs Amazon would bring.
The bitter internecine conflict among the multiple indigenous peoples has raised numerous questions. In particular, who has the authority to speak for the black indigenous people in South Africa? According to Michael De Jongh, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of South Africa, determining indigenous identity is a challenge. It involves the San people who have been hunter-gathers for thousands of years and the pastoralist Khoi who settled in the country about 2000 years ago. Then around 800 years ago black Africans (Bantu) began migrating to South Africa. After the Dutch arrived in 1652, they brought enslaved people from their colonies in Southeast Asia to work the land. Many intermarried with the Khoisan people and became known as the Cape Malay population. Beginning in 2019, South Africa passed legislation allowing for people to officially be recognized as First Nation people.
Chief Zenzile Khosian of the Gorinhalqua Cultural Council supports the Amazon project. Regarding his opponents who oppose Amazon, Khosian said:
“Many of them are led by chiefs with an I.Q. way below room temperature (NYT February 27, 2022, print). He has been called racist by Tauriq Jenkins who leads about two dozen groups fighting the development.
At last report in 2023, Amazon and its indigenous supporters have prevailed in the ongoing legal cases against indigenous opponents and the construction is proceeding.
Mandela Gets the Thomas Jefferson Treatment
Nelson Mandela is not the revered figure he once was in South Africa. This headline from The New York Times states the change:
“As South Africa Struggles, Mandela Goes from Hero to Scapegoat” (July 19, 2023, print)
Times have changed since Mandela became president in 1994 in the first post-apartheid election. The African National Congress no longer commands the same respect and awe it once did. Now it is a political party subject to issues like corruption, ineptitude, and elitism. Post-apartheid people question whether Mandela did enough to shift the structural balance in the country so white South Africans would not hold a disproportionate share of the nation’s land and the wealth gap would at least narrow if not disappear. One should keep in mind that Mandela like 9/11 is a memory to more and more people in the country and less and less an experienced person. Constantly changing mayors in the largest city of Johannesburg is not a sign of stability.
By coincidence, Mangosuthu Buthelezi died September 9, 2023. The obituary in The New York Times the next day reads “Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Zulu Nationalist and a Mandela Rival, Dies.” He was a hereditary chief of the Zulus, the largest ethnic group in South Africa. On his mother’s side, his ancestor King Cetshwayo inflicted a historic defeat in 1879 against the British at Isandwana. Buthelezi fought the African National Congress and killed black African opponents. He used the image of fierce warriors like Shaka Zulu who had united the Zulu kingdom in the 19th century. Even though Buthelezi often was the number three person in South Africa after Mandela and F.W. de Clerk and spoke for roughly 25% of the black population of the country, he is much less well known in the United States. He opposed the sanctions against South Africa that Jesse Jackson supported.
Back in August, there was a fire in an apartment building in Johannesburg that killed 75 people. It appears that the bulk of them were immigrants, legal and illegal, from other African countries. Race does not seem to have been a factor in the migration of these people to the comparatively wealthy Union of South Africa nor in the toxic attitude towards them. Here is the headline:
“After Fire, Anti-Immigrant Backlash Intensifies in South Africa” (NYT September 12, 2023, print).
The article describes ongoing problems with the police, fear of immigrants stealing jobs, and heightened anti-immigrant violence and rhetoric. In the current issue of Perspectives on History published by the American Historical Association, Trishula Patel observes that such African migrants to South Africa have been experiencing a slew of attacks throughout the century. These incidents were a symptom of a broader xenophobic narrative of immigrants stealing jobs from low-income South Africans. Needless-to-say, these people from Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe are black Africans.
In the midst of this racial/ethnic conflict, the popular chain restaurant Nando responded with a commercial that most people living in South Africa were not “indigenous.” It called on everyone from Afrikaners to Indians “go home,” “(It’s Always Time for a Cheecky Nando’s,” September 2023).
As we see. South Africa is a much more demographically and historically complex country than it was in the eyes of African Americans when apartheid was the enemy. It is a country of indigenous people and settler colonialism even before the arrival of the Europeans. Today, white people tend to travel to South Africa for two different reasons – one, for business to white business people and government officials and, two, to experience Africa in its “natural” state before even the indigenous people arrived or when the hunter-gatherers first arrived.
When Jesse Jackson refers to “our proper historical context,” “land base,” and “some “historical cultural context” that every ethnic group in this country has a reference to, how exactly does that apply to the Union of South Africa yet alone to the entire continent?
Sudan recently appeared on the front-page above-the–fold of The New York Times with the title “War Drives South Sudanese Back to Ill-Prepared Homeland (September 8, 2023, print). Sudan is one of the artificial countries in Africa created by Europeans, specifically, the British in this case. The following recap comes from Tim Jeal, Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (Yale University Press 2011). The bulk of the book deals with these great adventures to seek the source of the Nile in ancient times and through Victorian times. The last section deals with the consequences of the mainly 19th century search which continue to reverberate to this very day.
Samuel Baker, one of the explorers, in May 1871, raised the Egyptian flag over Gondokoro. The city on the east bank of the White Nile represented the upriver limit for European vessels before reaching the swampy, nearly impassable Sudd. He renamed it Ismailia and declared a new Egyptian province that extended as far south as Buganda and Lake Albert, deep into Africa. His anti-slavery actions earned the support of black African tribes and the enmity of Arab slave traders. His actions also heralded the “Scramble for Africa” which would partition a continent. Jeal notes:
… Baker’s recipe for creating new colonies , with a few steamers and a regiment or two, had little to do with adventure and a lot to with brushing aside legitimate African rulers, whose only crime was to have indicated they wished to remain independent in the face of superior might (343).
But the proposed Equatoria province with the extension of Egypt’s and Sudan’s border south failed with disastrous consequences.
In 1894, Parliament declared Uganda a protectorate. It incorporated Equatoria as its immense northern province. In 1898, Kitchener triumphed over the Madhists in the one-sided Battle of Omdurman on the west bank of the Nile opposite Khartoum, The battle has been likened to a mass execution. The combatants were like armies from different centuries. The victory made Britain the effective ruler of Sudan. It now controlled the entire White Nile.
France had been angling to create an east-west corridor, but was prevented from doing so.
By the terms of the Anglo-French Declaration … France allowed Sudan’s border to be stretched westwards at its expense and to incorporate Darfur within Sudan – an arrangement not considered momentous at the time, but of immense importance a century later when an independent Arab government in Khartoum was able to practice ethnic cleansing with impunity against Darfur’s black Muslims because they lived within Sudan’s legal borders. Before 1898, the Sultanate of Darfur had been fully independent (393).
Equatoria had been an entirely African territory in which the northern Arabs were considered invaders and exploiters. Britain then apportioned the failed province between Uganda and Sudan. Uganda received an influx of Nilotic people with whom the southern Bantu including the Buganda had nothing in common. The Arabs of northern Sudan expanded to include southern tribes. They derided the culture of the people whom they had long raided and enslaved.
An almost incalculable amount of suffering would spring from Britain’s decision to dispose of Equatoria so casually (398).
The actions of Sir Harold MacMichael who was the top civil servant in Sudan highlight the problem. He was stationed in Khartoum which he loved and avoided visiting the bog upriver to the south. Finally in 1927, he visited it and was “shocked to the core” per Jeal. It was a giant swamp or an endless mud-baked plain. The Dinka, Nuer, and Annuak who lived in this hot and treeless wilderness were a tall, physically graceful, and proud people who were absolutely determined to preserve their way of life in their remote and inaccessible habitat. According to Jeal, MacMichael “feared that it would be impossible to persuade such people to embrace ‘civilisation’ as the norther Arabs appeared to wish do” (399). Consequently since the area was of no economic value, MacMichael refrained from any infrastructure development there. The British administrators in Khartoum responsible for the south Sudan became known as “Bog Barons.”
There was a genuine fear among the Bog Barons that education per se might undermine a rich traditional way of life without putting anything of value in its place (401).
Jeal optimistically states that the south could have been saved from subordination and second-class citizenship in an independent Sudan, but no such political decision was made. The “south was now doomed to be subservient after independence” (402). Nor could the Nilotic people of south Sudan become part of Uganda with its Bantu-dominated south either. Yet the South Sudan was not going to accept absorption and control by the Moslem north. Ultimately, after a long and bloody “civil war,” these two areas separated and South Sudan became a new country. In the meantime, the black Moslems in the formerly independent kingdom of Darfur continued to suffer genocide from the Arab Moslem north.
A series of recent newspaper articles tell the tale about Darfur.
“Sudan’s War Sends a Fresh Wave of Refugees from Darfur to Chad,” (NYT, May 17, 2023, print).
“A ‘Dystopian Nightmare’ Unfolds in Sudan’s Battered Darfur,” (NYT, June 8, 2023, full-page print).
“Death and Displacement Return to Darfur,” (NYT op-ed column, July 5, 2023, print), which puts the current conflict in its historical context dating back to its Sudan’s creation.
“Sudan conflict brings new atrocities to Darfur,’ (AP in Gannett, July 30, 2023).
“UN: Sudan has plunged into humanitarian crisis,” (AP in Gannett, August 7, 2023, print).
“Left ‘Broken Pieces’ as Darfur Clashes Force New Generation to Flee (NYT, September 22, 2023).
The September 8, 2023, article mentioned above describes the desperation of people who had fled war in Sudan to South Sudan. Now they are returning to a country experiencing a vicious civil war that has generated over 5 million refugees. Fillipo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in an interview in South Sudan:
The very low level of funding in response to the emergency in Sudan and from Sudan is really shame. This needs to change (NYT, September 8, 2023).
What is the African American position on funding for Sudan, South Sudan, and Darfur and recommendation on what the United States should do there?
The failure of the term “African American” to create an African-based identity for Middle Passage People is illuminated by a recent article by a New York Times reporter “Sudanese Mourn 2 Teens Shot Dead by a Deputy” (September 19, 2023, print). The article is about second-generation émigrés who had fled the violence in South Sudan for the safety of Syracuse, New York. Chol Majok, a member of the Syracuse Common Council and former South Sudan refugee said:
“When we came to this country, we were looking for second chances in life. There is tremendous faith, in our community, in this country. And everything it has to offer…We have been just trying to tell to the community, especially as people that are in a position of leadership that are South Sudanese, is that we keep the faith, the faith that helped us cross the oceans and brought us to this land, that that faith still shines and still burns. And that’s what we lean on.”
Spoken like a true immigrant.
However, H. Bernard Alex, president of the Syracuse chapter of the National Action Network, in his comments differentiated between the “’African and African American communities who call Syracuse and Onondaga County home.’” He “acknowledged that there are sometimes differences between traditional Black communities and newly arrived African residents in Syracuse.”
“They have to try to fit in somehow with African Americans, in schools and neighborhoods. African American Americans are not always very kind to Africans.”
How does the term “African American” help Middle Passage relate the events in Sudan or to immigrants from there to the United States?
Moving south from Sudan, one encounters Ethiopia. The country is no stranger to civil war. It is a multi-ethnic country united by conquest in the late 19th century. That conquest was not due to the British, French, or Italians but was internally achieved. This independence is a point of pride in the country. However the unification was not complete. There is a bloody civil war between the Tigray and the central government as well as a simmering insurgency with ethnic killings with Oromia, the country’s largest state.
These ongoing and bloody conflicts have undermined the efforts of Ethiopia to address the issue of slavery in the country.
‘If you had money, you had slaves’: how Ethiopia is in denial about injustices of the past” (The Guardian, January 18, 2023, online)
Eight decades after slavery was abolished by imperial decree by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1942… the memory of slavery is preserved in Ethiopia: as fragments passed down by grandparents.
Histories of the country gloss over slavery and the subject rarely surfaces in public discourse. At the National Museum of Ethiopia in the capital, Addis Abada, none of the exhibits deal with domestic slavery, while in Dalbo (a town in southern Ethiopia), the chains once used to bind slaves have been melted down to make knives and farm implements. Little has been preserved.
According to Kiya Gezahegne, assistant professor in the social anthropology department at Addis Ababa University:
“We tend to ignore certain kinds of history that would shape the negative image of the country.”
Instead, official narratives focus on Ethiopia’s ancient Christian civilization and its reputation as the only African country to have successfully resisted European colonization.
The effects of slavery linger on decades after its formal abolition.
… in some areas the descendants of enslaved people are seen as impure and are marginalised, barred from participating in ceremonies such as funerals or marrying into other clans. In Addis Ababa, it is common to hear light-skinned highlanders refer to darker-skinned people from southern Ethiopia as “bariya” (slave).
A government reconciliation commission was created but its work was never published. The civil wars and ethnic-based politics have tended to take priority. A teacher in Addis Abada who declined to give his name said he grew up with “zero knowledge” that slavery once had been so widespread in Ethiopia. He went to say:
I see a lot of posts online about George Floyd, talking about how racist America is, and of course that’s an issue. But we also need to talk about inequality here. There are still ethnic groups looking down on others.
Scholars have begun to address the issue but that is a restricted audience. The 80th anniversary of the abolition of slavery witnessed no official commemoration.
There are internal problems as well. Ethiopia is fighting local ethnic militia in the northwestern Amhara region. This fighting follows one year after the conclusion the conflict between Ethiopia and the neighboring Tigray. The Amharas are the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. As part of the battle, Israel evacuated over 200 Ethiopian Jews and Israelis.
Meanwhile back in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to expel immigrant Eritreans from another war.
NIGER: IN THE NEWS MORE THAN THE UKRAINE
While Britain stymied the French effort to create an east-west corridor, the French were successful in carving out a huge swath of land in western Africa. Even after independence, many of these countries maintained diplomatic, economic, cultural and military ties to France. Lately these countries have increasingly succumbed to military rule. The most recent one is Niger.
These almost daily newspaper accounts of the ongoing developments in Niger note:
1. the “coup belt” for the six countries in three years with military takeovers
2. the presence and threat of Islamist militants
3. the presence and threat of Russian Wagner already exploiting the land
4. the declining presence and influence of the French
5. the declining presence and influence of the United States
6. the lack of power of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) to intervene.
7. the struggle by Niger to cope with sanctions and the impact on the people.
Literally, day after day, the events in Niger were covered by The New York Times starting July 28, 2023. Even my local paper has published a stream of articles on Niger, an unusual amount of display for an international event. It is safe to say that during the period at least in the printed newspapers I receive, Niger has received more press coverage than Ukraine has.
So far the United States has refrained from calling the events in Niger a coup. The reason is that if the United States designates the coup a coup, then it is obligated to halt military and economic aid to the country until democracy is restored. However, since nature abhors a vacuum, such action would simply create an opportunity for Russia to move in through Wagner. A national security waiver is possible. Carl Levan, professor at American University School of International Service, asks:
How low is the bar going to be set for democracy before the United States and African democratic forces say “There is a bottom level from which we will not sink”? (“The Tricky Matter of calling a Coup a Coup,” NYT, September7, 2023, print).
Now the trendiest accessory in Niger is a Russian (NYT, October 1, 2023, print). Jackson seems to have ignored the possibility that Africans could be pro strongman.
Every day I delayed writing this blog, another African country made the news. The most recent example occurred when the military seized power in Gabon. That action overturned the results of a disputed election. The incumbent Ali Bongo was denied a third term in office. A family dynasty of nearly 50 years has been ousted. The people celebrated.
The president had earned acclaim in the West for his stewardship of the rainforest with its flora and fauna. Apparently he was not so good at the trickling down portion of the oil wealth generated by this small country. As a headline in a full-page article in The New York Times put it:
“Why a Swift Coup Caught Gabon’s Leader Off-Guard: A darling of the West whose country tired of him” (September 1, 2023, print).
The latest as of September 8, is that the ousted President is no longer under house arrest. He is now free to leave the country.
It’s hard to keep up with all the coups that have swept across central and west Africa. While this one is still unfolding, it will be interesting to see if African Americans express any opinion about this latest coup.
NOT ALL PEOPLE IN AFRICA ARE BLACK
Periodically other African countries have made the news for similar reasons. Rulers are for life, elections are a sham, the wealth never trickles down. To go through each one would be too time consuming. Sometimes people vote with their feet and emigrate. Then they run into a double problem. People north of the Sahara now called Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the United States don’t necessarily consider themselves part of sub-Sahara black Africa.
For example, in Tunisia, Kais Saied, its president, said that sub-Sahara Africans were part of a secretive effort to turn Tunisia into “a purely African country with no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations” (July 21, 2023, print).
This conflict between the MENA and sub-Sahara peoples was brought to the fore in a new exhibit opened in the Netherlands. Here is the headline from a full –paged article in The New York Times;
Dutch Exhibit Links Egypt to Africa. Ire Boils over in Egypt: Critics Inform Museum that many Egyptians Do Not Identify Themselves as Africans (June 19, 2023, print)
According to the article, the “exhibit is framed as a useful corrective to centuries of cultural erasure of Africans.”
The Egyptian people are more likely to consider themselves part of MENA than of Africa. Darker-skinned Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans do not rate highly. As the article puts it, “their [Egyptian] culture and history are being erased in the Western quest to correct historical racism…. Suggestions that ancient Egypt is a cultural ancestor of modern-day Black people are central to some forms of Afro-centrism, a cultural and political movement that arose to push back against often racist, colonialist ideas about supposed inferiority of African civilizations to European ones” (June 19, 2023, print).
The articles on these events are only a glimpse into the refugee crisis.
On August 14, 2023, The New York Times ran a two-page article entitled “In Uganda, Renaissance for Distance Running” (print). According to the article, the exploits of these athletes have been concentrated among the Kalenjin,
… a community of nine closely related tribes descended from pastoralists that migrated south over the past few thousand years from the Nile River Valley. Most of the seven million Kalenjin today live in Kenya’s western highlands, where altitudes from 6,000 to 9,000 feet help them develop more oxygen-carrying red blood cells and greater lung capacity. Research has also shown that Kalenjin, on average, have especially thin lower legs and a high leg-length-to-torso ratio, which facilitates greater running economy, or the ability to make more efficient use of oxygen.
There Kalenjin in Uganda, too, and if it weren’t for the quirks of colonial history, there would be more: The original borders of Britain’s Uganda protectorate hashed out by mustachioed bureaucrats in 1894, encompassed the bulk of Kalenjin territory that is part of Kenya today.
Adjustment to the boundary in 1902, driven by the desire to unify the administration of a railway from the coast, unwittingly paved the way for Kenya’s future running triumphs. Yet the new line which cut through the crest of Elgon, severed one Kalenjin tribe, the Sabaot. The descendants of those left in Uganda, who number roughly 300,000, live primarily in three districts on Elgon’s western flanks…. (bold added).
Within any country, there are a plethora of tribes. Each has its own history and culture. Each also has its own relationship to other tribes regardless of current boundaries. European boundary lines create their own land base and historical-cultural context. For example, all Kenyans are not alike. As the saying goes it is easier for a Luo to become President of the United States than President of Kenya.
DAHOMEY AND BENIN: THE LAST SLAVE SHIP, HOLLYWOOD, AND HISTORY
One of the challenges in reconstructing Benin/Dahomey/Nigeria history is the shifting boundaries and names over the centuries. The national boundaries today are not necessarily those of the various kingdoms in the past. This shift can cause confusion. It automatically raises the issue of when African Americans are instructed to link to a cultural homeland in Africa, exactly which one kingdom or entity does that mean. And was it one which was based on slave trading with European merchants or one which was the source of the slaves the dominant kingdoms traded?
The Last Slave Ship
In 2018, what has been billed as the “Last Slave Ship” from Africa to the United States was discovered off Twelve Mile Island in the Mobile River. The ship was the Clotilda. The year of its sail was 1860. The beginning of the book about tells the story of how one individual was captured from the town of Bantè:
Oluale Kossola recalled that the Dahomeans approached at night. At day break, they broke down the main gate and terrorized the town. Kossola was still in bed but wakened with the commotion. He ran from gate to gate trying to escape to the bush but was grabbed by the raiders and tied by his wrists. He tried again to make a run for it but was captured once more. He watched as the assailants, men and women, decimated the population, capturing some, decapitating others. Taking the severed heads with them, the Dahomeans marched nineteen-year-old Kossola and the other captives. When they stopped along the way to smoke the rotting heads Kossola broke down (John Harris, The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage, Yale University Press, 2020, 1).
The destination was Ouidah, a port on the Atlantic Ocean. The Dahomeans sold 110 people to an American sea captain of the Clotilda, bound for Mobile, Alabama. The Dahomean King Gelele sent the raiders under the pretext that the Bantè’s ruler had not paid tribute. The raid was to secure captives for ceremonial sacrifice and for sale. Kossola remembers the raid as being bloody. Kossola, also known as Cudjo, was interviewed several times around 1930 by Zora Neale Hurston, an anthropologist and novelist.
Hollywood has its own Dahomey story to tell. The recent movie The Woman King is situated in the ancient West African Kingdom of Dahomey now part of the Republic of Benin. In a review, Ana Lucia Araujo writes the movie gets one thing right “by representing Dahomey as a centralized and militarized kingdom, and not a ‘tribe’ as popular movies tend to depict historical African states (“The Woman King Softens the Truth of the Slave Trade: The Dahomey had fierce female fighters. They also sold people overseas,” Slate, September 16, 2022).
The movie is set in 1823. At that time, Dahomey still paid tribute to the Kingdom of Oyo located in what today is southwestern Nigeria. By that time, the French and British forts at Ouidah had been abandoned. In the film, the prisoners taken in Dahomey’s war were likely to be taken into slavery, offered as human sacrifices to honor Dahomean deities, or transported to the coast for shipping to America, especially Brazil (Araujo).
In the film, the Mahi, a people to the north of Abomey and allied with the Kingdom of Oyo, seek to capture Dahomey. The female warriors or Agojie, called “Amazons” by Europeans and Americans, seek to prevent that. The reality is it was the Kingdom of Dahomey which attacked the Mahi. Everybody was willing to sell everybody else into slavery. It was just a question of who had the power to do so.
The Woman King depicts Dahomey as the good guys, while the Kingdom of Oyo, the Mahi, and the Portuguese and the Brazilians are portrayed as the bad guys. But in reality, both Oyo and Dahomey sold into slavery the captives they made in the wars they waged during the 19th century (Araujo).
… portraying Dahomey’s rulers and soldiers as pioneers as pioneers of Pan-Africanism, who fought to end the inhumane slave trade, misleads audiences who might know little of African history (Araujo).
The book and the movie need to be put into their historical context. To do so the following academic publications were consulted:
I. A. Akinjogbin, “Agada and the Conquest of the Coastal Aja States 1724-30,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 2/4 1963:545-566.
I. A. Akinjogbin, “Dahomey and Yoruba in the Nineteenth Century,” in J. F. Ade Ajayi, ed., A Thousand Years of West African History: A Handbook for Teachers and Students (Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1965), 314-331.
I. A. Akinjogbin, “The expansion of Ọyọ and the rise of Dahomey, 1600-1800,” in J. F. S. Ajayi and Michael Crowder, ed., History of West Africa Volume I, (New York: Columbia University, 1972:305-343).
J. C. Anene, “The Nigeria-Dahomey Boundary,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 2/4 1963:479-485.
David Henige and Martin Johnson, “Agaja and the Slave Trade: Another Look at the Evidence,” History in Africa 3, 1976:57-67.
J. D. Fage, Book review Dahomey and Its Neighbours, 1708-1818, I. A. Akinjogbin, Journal of African History 10/1 1969:179-181.
Kenneth Kelly, “Indigenous Responses to Colonial Encounters on the West Africa Coast: Hueda and Dahomey from the Seventeenth through Nineteenth Century,” in Claire L. Lyons and John K. Papadopoulos, ed., The Archaeology of Colonialism, (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, Getty Publication, 2002:26-120).
Kenneth G. Kelly, “Change and Continuity in Coastal Bénin,” in Christopher R. DeCorse, ed.,
West Africa during the Atlantic Slave Trade: Archaeological Perspectives (London: Leicester University Press, 2001:81-100.
Robin Law, Book review “Dahomey and Its Neighbours, 1708-1818 by I. A. Akinjogbin, Journal of Historical Society of Nigeria 4/2 1968:344-347.
Robin Law, “Royal Monopoly and Private Enterprise in the Atlantic Trade: The Case of Dahomey,” Journal of African History 18/4 1977:555-577.
Robin Law, “Dahomey and the Slave Trade: Reflections on the Historiography of the Rise of Dahomey,” Journal of African History 27 1986:237-267.
Neil Norman, “Hueda (Whydah) Country and Town: Archaeological Perspectives on the Rise and Collapse of an African Atlantic Kingdom,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 42/3 2009:387-410.
David Ross, “The First Chacha of Whydah: Francisco Felix De Souza,” Odu 2 1969:19-28.
David Ross, “European Models and West African History: Further Comments on Recent Historiography of Dahomey,” History in Africa 10 1983:293-305.
John C. Yoder, “Fly and Elephant Parties: Political Polarization in Dahomey, 1840-1870,” Journal of African History, 15/3 1974:417-432.
Based on them it is possible to present a history behind the book and the movie. As will be seen, scholars do not necessarily agree on it.
Ouidah is now in Benin. Once it had been West Africa’s largest slave port as part of the new Kingdom of Dahomey. There is a story to tell about these events.
Portugal arrived on what became the Slave Coast in the 1470s. There is no record of any trade there until 1553. The initial attempt with the kingdom of Popo failed. A few years later, trade succeeded. The kingdom of Allada, east of Great Popo, became a regular stop with small scale trade in slaves for plantations in Brazil and São Thomé. The French arrived in 1530, then the Englih in 1553, and last the Dutch in 1595. By the 1630s, the Dutch had supplanted the Portuguese. Soon after, the Dutch, Danes, Swedes, English, and French all were present in Allada, a new kingdom, founded around1575. Slave exports increased dramatically in the second half of the seventeenth century to meet the needs of the sugar plantations. The area became known as the Slave Coast.
The Hueda (Whydah) asserted its independence from Allada in the 1660s. By the first decades of the eighteenth century, Hueda had become increasingly powerful and wealthy. The capital city Savi’s growth followed the independence of Hueda and the growth of the slave trade. There is little archaeological evidence to suggest that Savi existed as a major settlement before European trade existed. It successfully dealt with multiple European nations by keeping the Europeans in check compared to other coastal West African states. The city lay six miles inland, beyond the reach of European ships. It did not allow them to fortify their inland settlements. European lodges were located within the palace precinct.
These people traced their ancestry to the Aja-Ewe who were comparatively recent arrivals in the area. The Aja-Ewe traced their own ancestry to Tado in Toga and before that to western Nigeria. Little is known about the predecessors in the land before the arrival of Aja-Ewe who then became the Fon people (Dahomey), Hueda, and Allada. Linguistically they were distinct from the Yoruba-speaking people most closely associated with modern Nigeria and the Oyo in pre-colonization time.
Origins of Dahomey
The competition among the European nations weakened the familial bonds among the Aja. There was constant unrest and wars among the Aja people. Contact with Europeans had been controlled through the coastal kingdoms of Allada and Hueda. During the second quarter of the seventeenth century slave trade accelerated. Allada was the main supplier until the 1670s when Hueda gained prominence. The people traded included not only criminals and war captives but imported from the interior kingdoms of Dahomey and Oyo. But the European presence was disruptive. The result was Oyo invading and burning Allada twice in 1680/1682 and 1698. Still by the 1720s, Hueda had separate chiefs for dealing with the French, English, and Portuguese. But the conflict between the Hueda and Allada provided an opportunity for one of the other Aja kingdoms to assert itself. Dahomey did.
The Dahomey kingdom originated in the 17th century around 1625 as a hinterland state while this was happening. One theory is that it originated as gang of bandits, a second that the founders were mercenaries, a third is that a prince from Allada defeated in a succession battle was the founder. This minor kingdom began expanding in the 18th century concomitant with the expansion of the slave trade. In 1715, Dahomey repudiated its allegiance to Allada. On March 30, 1724, Dahomey had destroyed the Allada kingdom. Three years later on February 26, 1727, Dahomey conquered the Kingdom of Hueda. Dahomey sacked and burned the city of Savi. Five thousand people were killed and ten to eleven thousand taken prisoner. Dahomey had then become the most powerful state on the Slave Coast. Now Dahomey had direct access to the Europeans including for importing firearms in exchange for people. Whether or not such access was a cause for the conquests is disputed among scholars. In addition, slave traders from the interior were obligated to sell the slaves first to the Dahomian traders and have no direct contact with the European slave merchants.
The nearby village of Glewhe then became an important port of trade. It was the second most important city in the expanded Dahomey. It became known as Ouidah. The city became the second largest supplier of African captives behind Luanda in modern Angola (which is not part of this blog since it has not been in the news lately).
Following the conquests by the Dahomean Agaja, Oyo invaded Dahomey almost annually from 1726 to 1730. The Oyo had a powerful empire. Its cavalry gave it the upper hand over the guns and munitions possessed by Dahomey. The latter paid tribute to the kingdom of Oyo from 1730 to 1823 when King Gezo defeated them. He also made his Amazons a regular contingent of the army which became the basis for a movie. By some accounts they equaled or surpassed the male army in reliability and valor. According to another scholar, the creation of the Amazon army shows how desperate the military situation was.
In 1807 the British abolished slave trade. For a country dependent of slave trade like Dahomey that proved a threat. By the 1840s British pressure on Dahomey to abandon the slave trade and switch to palm oil mounted. The Amazons participated in this political debate in favor of this transformation in opposition to the slave traders. The “Last Ship” to the United States in 1860 came at a time when Dahomey was abandoning the slave trade itself. The Dahomey kingdom ceased to exist in 1900.
Francisco Félix de Souza, the Legacy of the Slave Merchants, and Benin
When the records refer to “Portuguese they often mean “Brazilians.” There was a growing number of free Afro-Brazilians who returned to Africa and who participated in the slave trade to support the plantations and mines in Brazil. They were Catholics. The wealthiest and most influential one was the slave trader Francisco Félix de Souza.
He settled in Ouidah around 1800. He has been describe as an extremely ambitious person. He quarreled with Adandozan, the Dahomey king and ended up in prison. In 1818, a palace revolution forced the king from his throne. With the support of De Souza, Gezo, the king’s brother, staged a successful coup d’etat. De Souza’s reward appears to have been put in charge of Dahomean-European relations. The combination of his debt, the British Anti-Slave Trade Squadron, and rise of palm oil trade led to his undoing.
In Ouidah, there is a statue there to him as the father of the city. There is a museum in his honor as well. His descendants still live there as do the descendants of many slave merchants. The former kingdom still exists as tribal networks within the modern country of Benin. The groups they raided still exist as well. Some of the slave merchants are quite influential in the current nation and have a control over how the history of Benin is portrayed.
The memory of slavery is an embattled subject in Benin. The UNESCO project, The Slave Route: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage and the Door of No Return commemorated the deportation of more than one million people from Ouidah in the 16th to 19th centuries. The projects came to fruition in the 1990s due to the leadership of Nicéphore D. Soglo, the first democratically elected president of Benin.
…political scholars have remarked that the memorialization of slavery under Soglo’s regime ran in tandem with a general rehabilitation of the political and symbolic legitimacy of the ancient Kingdom of Dahomey — a kingdom that was deeply involved in the slave trade. …To complicate matters further, Soglo’s family connections tied him to the powerful Afro-Brazilian de Souza family, who were descendants of the infamous Francisco Félix de Souza (1754-1849), the most notorious slave trader in precolonial West Africa (“The Slaving Port of Ouidah and Monumental Discourse around the Atlantic Perimeter,” Saima Akhtar and David H. Colmenares, The Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices, online blog).
Benin is planning two museums in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute devoted to the slave trade. One problem is the conflict between the slave merchants and the slave descendants.
For over 200 years, powerful kings in what is now the country of Benin captured and sold slaves to Portuguese, French and British merchants. The slaves were usually men, women, and children from rival tribes — gagged and jammed into boats bound for Brazil, Haiti and the United States (“An African country reckons with its history of selling slaves,” Washington Post, January 29, 2018, online).
The memory lingers.
In villages where people were abducted for the slave trade, families still ask reflexively when they hear a knock on the door whether the visitor is a “human being” or a slave raider….
“This is still a country divided between the families of the enslaved and the slave traders,” said Olabiyi Babaola Joseph Yai, a professor of history and linguistics who taught for years at the University of Florida and worked for UNESCO before returning to Benin.
Benin has identified slavery as a way of luring Western tourists….which has proved to be somewhat of a surprise to the president’s tourism advisor. The descendants of de Souza are aghast at some of the possible changes like street renaming. The family still meets annually with the current king of Dahomey, a ceremonial position, in Abomey, the former capital of the kingdom of Dahomey.
This cursory review of Dahomey, Oyo, Hueda, and Allada mocks the validity of identifying oneself to a homeland “Africa.” Already by the 1730s, Dahomey had become part of the battle in Britain between abolitionist and anti-abolitionists in their Dahomey histories. Dahomey fared poorly as a stronghold of slavery and human sacrifice. British missions and missionaries failed. One can’t help but wonder how much those negative reports became representative for the images of dark, darker, and darkest Africa in the English-speaking world.
These histories by Europeans like a Hollywood movie have to be taken with a grain of salt in reconstructing Dahomey history. Dahomans have been described a cruel bloodthirsty savages bred for war and rapine. The motive for attacking the Mahi emanates from an insatiable thirst after blood. Or were these savage tyrants really enlightened despots? Or were they a military state whose warrior leaders successfully navigating relations with European buyers of slaves, the English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese meaning Brazilians?
The characteristics of militarization and human sacrifice had become part of the Dahomey image by the 1730s rendering them a Slave Coast counterpart to the Imbangala in modern Angola. A third trait of royal despotism subsequently became part of the Dahomey image. For W.E.B DuBois that image of Dahomey as despotic and militarized enabled him to claim that an originally peaceful society had been corrupted by its contacts with European slave traders.
Scholars have their own battles to tell in reconstructing the history of Dahomey. Consider the book on Dahomey and its Neighbours, 1708-1818 by I. A. Akinjogbin (1967). One book reviewer writing in the Journal of African History begins with calling it “one of the most original and exciting works of history to have come out of Africa during the last twenty years (J. DeFage, 10/1 1969:179). High praise indeed! In this view, the Dahomean king intervened to restore order among the coastal Aja people. To do so the Dahomean king established a new form of monarchy whereby people were loyal to the king and not to their kin.
Now contrast that with the book review of Robin Law. Akinjogbin is to be congratulated for uncovering European records at Ouijah. But Law then writes “there is no serious attempt to analyse the political structure of the Dahomean empire (Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 42 1968:345). The king/kin dichotomy is not based on any direct evidence. Plus the Dahomean king still revere Allada as the cradle of their dynasty and go through an installation there. All in all, though the book “cannot be regarded as a good book, it clearly is an important one.”
Along the same lines, a journal article by Henige and Johnson critical of the approach taken by Akinjogbin:
Undeterred by this handicap, Akinjogbin then uses these sources [from almost two centuries later] in a way which allows him to draw remarkably different conclusions… (H)e has overlooked testimony in his sources which seems to contradict his hypothesis.
There is no evidence that Agaja was antithetical to the slave trade. Rather after his conquest of Hueda and Alladah, Agaja expected business as usual.
The purpose here is not resolve the academic debates regarding the origin and success of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Quite the contrary. There us a debate within the academic community. This shows that a history exists in Africa just as it does for people from outside Africa. These permutations illustrate that there is a story to tell about the countries and people just as there is about the countries and peoples of Europe. The terms “African,” “West African,” and “Slave Coast,” do not reflect the full complexity of the people involved. It would be like saying “Europe,” “Eastern European,” and “Slavic” to understand the Russian-Ukrainian war. How does the term “African American” help the Middle Passage People to understand and connect to the people in Africa described here?
Besides the movie and the archaeological discovery, Benin has been in the news for its bronzes. To whom do they belong? In February 1897, Britain dispatched an expeditionary force of both British soldiers and African auxiliaries against the city of Benin in what is today southern Nigeria. In 1914, Britain, consolidated its Niger River holdings of multiple ethnicities some hostile to each other, some unknown to each other, into a single polity. The British named that entity Nigeria, another artificial country. Nigeria did not include the modern countries of Benin or Dahomey. Keeping track of all these entities over time can be difficult and one wonders about the allegiance of the people on the ground to these shifting countries.
The booty from that military excursion became known as the Benin Bronzes even though many are made of brass, a copper and zinc alloy. In recent years, there has been a growing clamor for the Benin Bronzes to be returned. Returned to whom?
One possibility was to the state of Nigeria even though it had not existed in 1897.
A second possibility was to the state of Edo, one of 36 states in Nigeria, where the current city of Benin is located. An Edo Museum of West African Art was to be built. A design was revealed in November 2020.
A third possibility is to the family of the oba or ruler of the city of Benin in 1897 when he was captured along with the Bronzes. While the current oba holds no political position, he does command tremendous prestige and reverence verging on awe (David Frum, “Who Do the Benin Bronzes Belong to?,” The Atlantic, October 2022).
Naturally, there are personalities involved in each possibility regardless of the option chosen.
This is not the place to untangle the familial machinations since 1897, the tribal conflicts in the artificial country, the religious split between Christian and Moslem, or the corruption and missing pieces from an earlier relocation of bronzes from defeated Germany to the national museum in the then-capital of Lagos. Nor about retaining the Benin Bronzes in western museums particularly the British Museum.
Since the major article in The Atlantic in 2022, there have been ongoing developments practically to this very day.
October 11, 2022: Smithsonian Returns 29 Bronzes to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria (Smithsonian newsdesk)
December 2022 Germany returns 20 Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian government out of more than 1000 held
March 28, 2023: Nigerian president issues official gazette decreeing that the Oba of Benin was the rightful owner of all Benin Bronzes and for their management once returned
May 10, 2023: Return of Benin Bronzes delayed after Nigerian president’s decree (Reuters)
The University of Cambridge Archaeology and Anthropology department has halted the return of 116 artefacts due to the recent decree by the Nigerian President.
June 4, 2023: Who Owns the Benin Bronzes? The Answer just got more complicated (NYT)
Plans had been underway to for a glittering new museum to showcase and protect the returned bronzes. Those plans were placed on halt with the decision of the Nigerian President to designate the Ewuare II, the current oba as the rightful owner. That decision only had been public recently and the Nigerian President has just stepped down from office. Swiss anthropologist Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin stated that since “the Kingdom of Benin traded slaves for the metal used to make the … the descendants of enslaved people should have been involved in negotiations about where they are displayed and who benefits from them.” Barbara Plankensteiner, director of the Museum am Rothenbaum, called the bronzes “colonial loot” which should be returned like any stolen property. She observed per the reporter “that much of the recent debate in Germany felt like a return to the colonial era, with newspaper columnists highlighting gory aspects of the Kingdom of Benin’s past, including slave trading and human sacrifice.” The oba plans to display the bronzes in Nigeria and around the world as “’ambassadors’” for his kingdom and culture.
July 13, 2023: Benin king to keep bronzes returned by the UK (Telegraph)
British museums intend to move forward with returning the bronzes despite the announcement that they will be the personal property of the oba. This decision has caused concern among some advocates for slavery reparations. The bronzes are called “blood bronzes.”
July 17, 2023: Repatriation of Benin Bronzes confirmed by British museums: Artefacts to be returned despite concerns over private ownership (The National News)
August 24, 2023: Nigeria Renews Call for Return of Benin Bronzes Following British Museum Thefts (Art News)
On August 16, 2023, the British Museum announced the theft of more than 1500 items by a former employee. That action and announcement undermined the traditional European argument that the Benin Bronzes could not be returned since they could not be protected.
The story is a still developing one:
1. Should the Benin Bronzes be returned?
2. If so, then to the national government, the regional government, or the descendant of the last owner, the current oba?
What do you think?
The Bantu have been mentioned in this sketch of current events of some countries in this post. The Bantu are not native to any of them just as Arabs are not native to many of the countries thought of as Arab today. The Bantu originated in western Cameroon. Around 4000 years ago, the Bantu people started farming oil palm and grains. Subsequently they migrated thousands of miles to the east and south in Africa. Through DNA testing, it has become possible to track the movement of peoples with far greater precision than previously possible. The result is a picture of African peoples that belies the image of a single people just as it does in Europe and the western hemisphere as well.
Scholars have been tracking these movements through a variety of techniques. These techniques include DNA, language, technologies, and archaeology. For purposes here, the point is not to recap the research on the Bantu migrations from western Cameroon into eastern and southern Africa, but to note the appearance of these newcomers who then became the new natives of the areas who had been around forever. For more about these developments see:
2023: “Moving Histories: Bantu Language Expansions, Eclectic Economies, and Mobilities,” Rebecca Grollemund, David Schoebrun, and Jan Vasina, The Journal of African History 64/1 13-37
1995: “New Linguistic Evidence and the ‘Bantu Expansion,’” Jan Vansina, Journal of African History 36:173-195.
1984: “Western Bantu Expansion,” Jan Vansina, Journal of African History 25:129-145.
1966: “The Problem of Bantu Expansion,” Roland Oliver, Journal of African History 7:361-376.
The lessons to be learned here are
1. there is no single African political entity
2. there is no single African cultural entity
3. there is no single African racial identity
4. there is no single African religious identity
5. there is no single African ethnicity.
Instead one finds multiple peoples of various ethnicities and migrations over hundreds and thousands of years with their own stories of slavery to tell that eventually became part of a larger global story involving Europe, Asia, and America. Much of this information can be gleaned just by following what traditionally is called the news in 2023 without even being a scholar in this area. Such observations are foundation to determining what should be taught in the schools and what it means to be African American based on Jesse Jackson’s dictum of Middle Passage People having a homeland in Africa.
JESSE JACKSON REVISTED
In the aftermath of Jesse Jackson’s proclamation of the name change to African American, Phillip Gay, Los Angeles Times (April 2, 1989) responded to Jackson’s comment about the need for a homeland as other peoples in the United States have:
…the overwhelming majority of black Americans are at least six or seven generations culturally removed from Africa. They speak no African language….They have no relatives in Africa, and they have never themselves been to Africa (“A Vote Against Use of ‘African American’”).
Along similar lines, Ben L. Martin, University of Missouri-Kansas City, identified a similar problems:
But black Americans ae not tied to a specific homeland by an identifiable culture, language, church history, or by family traditions like Greeks, Jews, Irish, Italians, or Armenians. Few American blacks know from which African state, ancient or modern, their ancestors came. Most, except for a few intellectuals feel little affinity for or loyalty toward any country other than the United States….The term African American can provide then only an artificial sense of homeland or nationality, for Africa is not a nation but a huge heterogeneous continent” (Political Science Quarterly 106/1 1991:89-90).
These comments are a reminder of Frederick Douglass wrote back in 1859:
Depend upon it, the savage chiefs on the western coast of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily see and accept our moral and economical ideas, than the slave-traders of Maryland and Virginia. We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave-traders, than to stay here to work against it. (“African Civilization Society,” February 1859)
Due to DNA testing, that situation has changed somewhat, still the question raised seems valid: affinity for and loyalty to the United States or to the continent of Africa as the land base or historical-cultural base?
In the current issue of Perspectives on History, James Grossman, president of the American Historical Association writes:
What is the purpose of denying young people as comprehensive a history of our nation as possible? Why is the FLDOE [Florida Department of Education] promulgating a history curriculum that hides central elements of our nation’s past and refers to enslaved people as “Africans” even after their families had lived in the United States for generations? These men and women were not Africans; they were Americans (referring to Black soldiers who fought in World War I or II) (“African American History in Florida,” September 2023).
The recent 60th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington addressed that question. Jamelle Bouie, The New York Times op-ed columnist, wrote about the anniversary and the original march (August 31, 2023, print). He wrote about the “long Black American struggle to realize the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the potential of Reconstruction.” He cited Bayard Rustin, one of the chief organizers of the March, who said that day:
We believe that the Negro community has an especially important role to play. For the dynamic that has motivated Negroes to withstand with courage and dignity the intimidation and violence they have endured in their own struggle against racism in all its forms, may now be the catalyst which mobilizes all workers behind demands for a broad and fundamental program of economic justice.
Of course, the best known speech from the March is Martin Luther King’s “I have an (American) Dream. Bouie ends his column by referring to the Declaration of Independence, the Lincoln Memorial, and the struggle for social equality in the United States by Black Americans. The effort by Jesse Jackson to give Middle Passage People an African homeland appears to have been a failure. As it turns out, Negroes already had a land base and some historical-cultural base right here in the United States.