Did the Africans have slaves even before colonialism?

Historians' dispute over slavery : How African elites collaborated with colonial regimes

The transatlantic slave trade is now considered one of the greatest crimes against humanity in modern times. Twelve million people were deported and enslaved by Europeans to the American double continent up to the 19th century, often under the most cruel conditions. This process forms the basis of anti-black racism for many post-colonial thinkers. And it establishes a cycle of colonial violence and dependency, which has repercussions in the USA and the sub-Saharan states. "Slavery is the bleeding wound under the scars of society," wrote the Ghanaian poet Opoku Agyemang.

And yet their legacy has long been suppressed, especially in the West African countries. Because the societies on the coasts were not only victims, but also perpetrators. This aspect of memory has only been a public theme for a few years. The national historiography that has been dominant for a long time has come under fire in countries like Ghana or Senegal. A real historians' dispute has broken out.

One of the leaders in this debate is the Senegalese historian Ibrahima Thioub, Rector of the University of Dakar. The 64-year-old has been researching the topic for over twenty years - and sees himself as a troublemaker in the debate. He sharply criticizes the West African elite and many of his fellow historians, especially those from the first generation after independence in the 1960s. This became clear at a performance in Berlin on Wednesday.

The own role was never discussed

"You have suppressed research on slavery," Thioub said now at the Franco-German Research Center for Social Sciences and Humanities Center Marc Bloch. A finding that the Israeli historian Ella Keren came to a few years ago when she was investigating Ghanaian historiography. Their conclusion: the historians did not address their own role in slavery because it did not fit into the picture of the glorious past of their own nation.

As early as the 1960s, the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney drew attention to the cooperation between African elites and the colonial regimes in his book "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa". They would have exploited the African masses together. Thioub also criticizes this. “My ancestors were involved in this process,” says the historian. The West African elites kidnapped their compatriots and handed them over to the Europeans for their own benefit. They would have built a slave system together.

"Not every black person became a prisoner"

The criticism that Thioub expresses shakes the self-image of many West African nations. The aim is not to question the fundamental responsibility of Europeans for the crimes of slave trade and colonialism, but to face the different and conflicting memories of this traumatic past.

The image of black people as a blanket victim obscures the balance of power and structures of exploitation on the continent. “All prisoners were black. But not every black person became a prisoner, ”warns Thioub. Those who only concentrate on skin color strengthen the common identity, but make a historical reading of the problem more difficult.

Slavery is far from history

Thioub certainly draws parallels to the current situation and the current migration crisis. It, too, was triggered by a tacit agreement between African elites and Western capital that aimed to exploit the masses. Slavery has been abolished, but by no means history. They survived in the devastation and kidnappings of civil wars, forced labor in the mines and on the plantations, and prostitution.

If you want to understand the so-called refugee crisis, you have to face the complexity of African-European history and its conditions of exploitation, says Thioub. It is just not enough to point your finger at the other.

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