The American Vision
Twisting the witness of history on kidnapping African slaves |
In fulfillment of a personal promise to respond to one commenter, the following addresses the issue of manstealing of Africans at the root of American slavery. While most people understand this point already, it may surprise you to find out that some (perhaps more than we realize) actually try to defend old southern slavery as a biblical practice, and this endeavor of necessity includes downplaying the reality of the kidnapping at its root.
Shocking as it may seem, some today argue that the original slave ship captains simply had no idea (just ask them!) that the slaves they bought were actually kidnapped, but thought they were legally incarcerated felons and debtors sold to them. Perhaps even more shocking, the commenter produces a couple quotations which seem on the surface to make this case clear from original sources and scholarship.
Unbeknownst to him, however, I was familiar with one of those sources and so knew the quotation was fishy from the start. The other turns out to be even more so.
For the first, we are told,
Alexander Falconbridge was a surgeon on British slave ships. His eyewitness testimony.
“But the extreme care taken by the black traders to prevent the Europeans from gaining any intelligence of their modes of proceeding; the great distance inland from whence the negroes are brought; and our ignorance of their language, (with which, very frequently, the black traders themselves are equally unacquainted) prevent our obtaining such information on this head as we could wish. “AN ACCOUNT OF THE SLAVE TRADE ON THE Coast of Africa.”
Marcus Rediker noted in “The Slave Ship” that the primary source was POWs, second was convicts convicted and sentenced to slavery and purchases at slave markets a long way from the coast. He noted that this was often linked to Islamic slave traders.
He noted that, “Slave ship captains assumed that the people they purchased had become slaves by war or judicial processes, but in truth they did not know-and did not care-how their cargo had been enslaved. That was not their business, testified one after another in parliamentary hearings between 1788 and 1791.”
An unsuspecting person may be shocked by some of these claims. Such a person, however, would be quickly relieved to hear what the commenter left out. When you read the rest of the works, you will see that the claims become laughable.
It just so happens that I am well familiar with the work of Alexander Falconbridge (you can read his famous booklet here), although the material I collected from him did not end up in The Problem of Slavery in Christian America. The claim from him sounded very fishy, and sure enough the account turned out to be deceptively edited. Far from being proof that kidnapping was out of the question, the fuller quotation begins with an admission of what everyone knew:
There is great reason to believe, that most of the negroes shipped off from the coast-of Africa, are kidnapped. But the extreme care taken by the black traders to prevent the Europeans from gaining any intelligence of their modes of proceeding; the great distance inland from whence the negroes are brought, and our ignorance of their language, (with which, very frequently, the black traders themselves are equally unacquainted) prevent our obtaining such information on this head as we could wish. I have, however, by means of occasional inquiries, made through interpreters, procured some intelligence relative to the point, and such, as I think, puts the matter beyond a doubt.
He goes on to give several such anecdotes which he either procured from eyewitnesses or witnessed himself. He concludes, “All the information I could procure, confirms me in the belief, that to kidnapping, and to crimes, (and many of these fabricated as a pretext) the slave trade owes its chief support.”
What the commenter who so selectively, and unwisely, quoted Falconbridge for his misguided point also did not relate was the basic fact that it was precisely from his eyewitness experience that Falconbridge quickly quit his post as a ship surgeon and . . . became a prominent abolitionist.
We’ll return to Falconbridge more tomorrow when we address the claim from Rediker. For now, let our Surgeon stand as proving the opposite of that which the commenter tried to use him to prove: the majority of African slaves were the product of kidnapping.
Of course, this does not surprise us. The best and most recent of scholarship today on African involvement in the slave trade is quite clear and open about this fact.
Western demand for slaves stimulated raids in many areas with little or no Islamic influence, and it grew and thrived with little or no help from Islam. This new demand was a “new force” which affected areas of Africa in new ways. Prior to western involvement, slavery within these parts of Africa was largely a parochial form of social dependency. Slaves may have been taken in tribal warfare, or may have been subjected for economic reasons. With increased demand, however, slaves became a valuable commodity. Warlords led raids for the express purpose of enslaving individuals for sale to Europeans, with the vast majority of victims being enslaved through warfare, kidnapping, or legal manipulations. Some substantial cases used religious deception and trickery with local oracles, but the end result was kidnapping nonetheless. The Atlantic slave trade in effect led to the creation of a political and social institution in Africa that “relied extensively on slavery,” decimated entire populations, and which had not existed as such before.
It was no subtle shift, but rather a “radical break in the history of Africa.” Slave exports rose drastically in the 1600s, then exploded in the 1700s, totaling about 6.5 million souls in that century alone. By the time the Atlantic slave trade was finally ended, it had exported 12.8 million victims. Another 12 million newly enslaved victims never left Africa: they either died during the enslavement processes, or were simply never sold. These atrocities, after 1700, were for the most part not the result of natural native wars, but of a phenomenon that would not have taken place without the demand and instigation from the West.
Christians today ought to be open and honest about this history, and about the Western Christian stimulus of it and slave trade in conscious light of it. Instead of trying to protect the reputations of our loved ones five generations back, or our alleged southern “heritage,” we ought to tell it like it is. Southern slavery was based on something worse even that the reception of stolen goods. It was the reception of what should never have been property to begin with. It was an abomination, and everyone either knew it or was warned of it. They may have ignored it or stopped their ears from hearing it, but history speaks. And we will receive an even worse sentence from history if we, too, settle for convenient half-truths or stop our ears, having as we do even greater and more detailed knowledge of the truth.
 Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, 18, 22.
 Lovejoy, 82–83.
 Lovejoy, 23.
 Lovejoy, 18.
 Lovejoy, 64–65.
 Lovejoy, 74.
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