rumba on the river


If the relationship got off to a rousing start, portents for the future were worrisome. Moors from North Africa were already common in Europe, captured for the information they could provide to explorers about their surroundings. "This need for information," says Davidson, "merged in Europe, as in Africa, with the commercial and social advantages of capturing persons who could be sold as slaves."7 By 1441 Portuguese sailors had seized their first captives from the southwestern Sahara. In 1444 another Portuguese crew rounded up, with seeming ease, an unfortunate cargo of 235 captives. "With this pathetic triumph the oversea slave trade may really be said to have begun. It spread with the daunting speed of a plague."8 Although the Portuguese were after gold at El Mina, it too would become a slave port. By the end of the fifteenth century the island of São Tomé was immersed in the morbid trade. And soon the mighty Congo River began to surrender the people who dwelled along it.

History is replete with tales of slavery long before the Portuguese landed in Africa. Europeans enslaved other Europeans, and Africans did the same to other Africans. Merchants from Egypt and the Islamic states of the Arabian Peninsula had been trading for slaves in eastern Africa for centuries. But early forms of slavery, unpleasant though they must have been, are thought to have been a kind of vassalage quite unlike the monstrous chattel system that would consume Africa following the Portuguese "discoveries."

In the latter stages of the fifteenth century, as Davidson points out in The African Slave Trade, the demand for slaves was small. They were a luxury that only the wealthy could afford—the period's equivalent, perhaps, of a nanny or housekeeper. But the discovery of the "New World," exploration and colonization in the Americas, opened slavery's flood gates. As Professor Ali Mazrui puts it, "From Africa's point of view, Christopher Columbus and his navigational skills have a good deal to answer for."9 The same could be said of Diogo Cão.

At first the Portuguese in Brazil and the Spanish in the Caribbean established tobacco and sugar plantations and enslaved the indigenous peoples, so-called "Indians," to work them. When harsh treatment and European diseases like smallpox and measles killed off the Indians, plantation owners replaced them with new laborers stolen from Africa. Soon Dutch merchants, followed by those from Britain, France, and even Denmark, joined an often violent competition to found colonies and plantations in the New World and to bargain for slaves with their African counterparts. In the words of historian Alan Scholefield, "Almost every European nation was engaged in it, each excusing itself by depicting the Africans as hopeless savages, at the same time blaming each other for treating them badly. The Dutch said the French were cruel, the French said the English were brutal and that the Portuguese were not only cruel but incompetent. The English made fun of the French for being excitable and of the Portuguese for baptizing whole shiploads of slaves before taking them to Brazil."10 Following the American revolution of 1776, U.S. merchants took up where their defeated British rulers left off, importing slaves to work the country's vast cotton fields.

For Nzinga a Knuwu, the Mani-Kongo whom Diogo Cão met, and his successor, Nzinga Mbemba, baptized Dom Affonso, the alliance with Portugal worked well at first. Thanks to Portuguese muskets the kingdom was protected from its enemies; Portugal provided markets for its textiles, ivory, and slaves; and missionaries, sometimes engaged in the slave trade themselves, came to build churches and schools and spread the word of Christ. But the slave trade grew so rapidly that there arose in the kingdom a great fear that they would be destroyed. "We cannot reckon how great the damage is," wrote Dom Affonso to the king of Portugal in 1526. "Merchants daily seize our subjects, sons of the land and sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives...Thieves and men of evil conscience take them because they wish to possess the things and wares of this Kingdom...They grab them and cause them to be sold: and so great, Sir, is their corruption and licentiousness that our country is being utterly depopulated."11 Trade patterns between African peoples were disrupted as they fought each other for captives to fill the relentless parade of hungry ships. Requests by the Mani-Kongo and other progressive leaders to share the benefits of new European technology, derived in part from slavery-generated capital, were answered with indifferent silence.

Slaves were the critical element in what has been called the "Great Circuit." Goods from Europe were shipped to Africa to be exchanged for slaves who would be shipped to the New World to work the tobacco and sugar plantations whose produce was then shipped to Europe and sold for tremendous profit. The capital generated by this murderous Great Circuit would eventually fuel Europe's industrial revolution, which, ironically, would reduce demand for slave labor and open the door for abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharpe to be heard. Little of these profits benefited Africa, save for the slave-trading African chiefs who amassed large arsenals and mountains of European trinkets.12

What had begun, in Davidson's words, as a "different but equal" partnership between Europeans and Africans degenerated into an orgy of greed justified by the most outrageous rationalizations. Africans came to be regarded as "sub-human," "savages," "heathens" by slavers who would pack their fellow human beings like sardines in dank ships' holds for the harrowing Atlantic passage. The slave trade sapped Africa's strength for more than four centuries from about 1450 to the 1880s, killing or stealing some 20 million of its hardiest souls—perhaps as many as 5 million from the area of the Congo River mouth alone—fracturing its institutions, and de-humanizing black and white alike. It was a holocaust of unparalleled proportions.13

The European-run slave trade was largely a coastal operation, but inhabitants of the interior would soon face-off with the slavers' successors, the "great" explorers and Christian missionaries, who were often one and the same. Slave traders had dared not venture inland too far for Africa's potent store of fevers lay in wait. To linger as they procured their sorrowful cargoes often meant to die. An old sailor's song warned:

Beware and take care
Of the Bight of Benin:
For one that comes out,
There are forty go in. 14

Early explorers, simply because their missions appeared to be less malignant, were not immune. In 1816, nine years after Britain had outlawed the slave trade, Captain James Tuckey of the British Royal Navy sailed up the Congo River on a purely exploratory expedition and paid for it with his life. Twenty-one of a crew of fifty-six died during a three-month stay in the river's lower reaches. Not until the connection between quinine and the suppression of malaria symptoms was recognized would the white man chart the heart of Africa.

Dr. David Livingstone, "an honest mid-Victorian Scot of humble parentage and simple upbringing, who has no doubt that God means him to do what he is doing and will help him do it,"15 understood the connection. His African experience began in 1841 when he went to southern Africa in the service of the London Missionary Society. Ten years later, after a series of small advances, he stood on the banks of the upper Zambesi River in today's Zimbabwe. His later travels were more impressive: first coast to coast crossing of the interior by a white man, Luanda to Quelimane (1854-55); exploration of the Zambesi valley (1858-63); and finally (1866-1873), from Zanzibar around the bottom of Lake Nyasa, north to Lake Tanganyika and Nyangwe on the banks of the Lualaba River, then south to Lake Bangweulu where, weary and ravaged by years in the tropics, he died.

A man of God intent on saving the African "heathens" whom he regarded as an inferior race, Livingstone was shocked to find that in East Africa the slave trade still flourished. On the Shiré River near Lake Nyasa during the Zambesi expedition he found clear evidence that slaving continued unabated: "cornfields reduced to a wilderness, emaciated natives by the river-side, children starving to death, corpses floating downstream."16

Although the Atlantic trade was waning during Livingstone's time, the Portuguese still raided Mozambique for slaves to be sent to Brazil and to plantations on the French islands of Mauritius and Bourbon (today's Réunion) in the Indian Ocean. Worse yet, Arab slavers from the north intensified their centuries-old operations, pushing south and westward with expanded violence. The impetus for this acceleration came from the Sultan of Oman who, in 1840, moved his capital from Muscat on the Arabian Peninsula to the island of Zanzibar. From his perch just off the East African coast the sultan controlled the island's thriving clove plantations and orchestrated a slave trade that, according to one estimate, took as many as 10,000 captives a year from the mainland and produced an incalculable toll of death and destruction.17 The sultan's African agents, the most famous of whom was a half-African, half-Arab, warrior-merchant nicknamed Tippu Tib (so-called, it was said, for the sound of his gun), pushed ominously westward beyond the Great Lakes into what is now eastern Congo.

Battered in the west by the Atlantic trade, bloodied in the east by the Arabs and Portuguese, Africa's social structures began to crack. In the words of Basil Davidson, "the inability of African institutions to resist slaving became a major cause of their overthrow."18 Britain's Thomas Fowell Buxton, a wealthy brewer and humanitarian, had already propounded his "'positive' doctrine—the doctrine that the Slave Trade could never be completely stamped out by preventive action at sea and that the only effective policy was to establish colonial settlements on African soil which would attack the Trade at its source directly by the promotion of 'legitimate' commerce and indirectly by the spread of Christianity and civilization."19 Now others adopted his line. The "three 'c's," (as Livingstone coined them) commerce, Christianity, and civilization would be Africa's salvation. Those who had ravaged the continent would now come to its rescue.

<<< PAGE 1

PAGE 3 >>>