Reacting to ‘Born in Blackness’
I used to know a lot about world history.
What I knew was a lot of facts that were used by professional historians to tell stories about the past. Most of the stories show that the world I’m familiar with has been the goal and thus the end of history all along, as Frances Fukuyama famously stated in 1992.
This model was already falling apart before I began reading Howard French.
It started for me with, “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States,” by Ruth Dunbar-Ortiz, which exploded some of my most deeply implanted ideas about history.
Everybody experiences an identity crisis when the reality of the Present Moment reveals itself
JoDe Goudy, Former Chairman, Yakama Nation
“Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War” reshaped what was left of my modern history story. It puts Africa at the center of the past 500 years of development, instead of the marginal position it is usually assigned.
I used to see the Portuguese navigators creeping down the west coast of Africa in the early 1400s as the start of some Euro manifest destiny about reaching the fabulous Indies.
Africa and the Americas were inconvenient obstacles.
Howard French, award-winning journalist and world affairs author doesn’t see it that way and now I don’t either. He doesn’t present new research; he just uses established research to tell the story very differently.
Historians don’t agree, of course, as to why Europeans started exploring and conquering and colonizing. There are multiple factors, some weighing more heavily than others. The only agreement is that it happened.
In 1415 the Portuguese captured the port town of Ceuta, located at the boundary of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1424 the Spanish captured Madeira and the Azores, off the coast of Africa north of the Canary Islands.
In both locations, the Iberian invaders rapidly employed techniques that have characterized modern chattel slavery ever since. Captured native people were enslaved and worked to death in the systematic production of a precious commodity, in this case, cane sugar. People from different tribal groups were intentionally mixed to inhibit solidarity. Domestic political prisoners were sent there. Political elites controlled the pricing and distribution.
Columbus wasn’t born yet.
Question: Why bother setting up plantations in the Americas and moving millions of enslaved Africans all the way there?
The plantation system was underway more than fifty years before Europeans stumbled onto the ‘new world.’ Why do it there and not in Africa where everything would be more convenient for them?
Answer: The ‘new world’ wasn’t the plan. Africa was the plan. But neither the Iberians nor any other Europeans could pull it off sustainably.
They couldn’t live there to run their plantations because they died, 75% of them in their first year, year after year. Some was due to African resistance, but more importantly, the Europeans had no resistance to the diseases of sub-Saharan Africa.
In Brazil and the Caribbean, an easy sail from western Africa, the situation was reversed. Lack of resistance to Euro germs killed native people in staggering numbers. Without the immunity factor, Europeans could not conceivably have colonized the Americas.
Europeans were driven from Africa by germs and forced to the Americas, which they conquered with germ warfare of their own.
Their victory came at a price — it eliminated most of the local labor force. To carry out plantation agriculture at a higher scale than ever before, the workers had to be imported and Europeans already knew how to do it.
The same African sources that supplied bodies in Ceuta and Madeira and other early experiments on the African side of the Atlantic began supplying African bodies for transport to a new world.
And so the system was set in place, enslaved Africans providing the labor that drove rapid scaling of production, for European benefit. First, sugar, and eventually, cotton, which directly launched the textile industry in England and became what we call the Industrial Revolution.
That is a very stripped down version of the way Howard French tells the story. The reality of human immune systems around the world enabled Europeans to use African labor to produce the modern world.
The value of African labor was well-understand at the time as a capital expenditure and an Asset Class of its own. In fact, most of the wealth in the Americas was in the form of enslaved people. They were the primary source and storehouse of Value.
Banking, insurance, and risk sharing grew into their modern forms based on the human wealth machine that Africa represented.
French ends this book at World War II.
I was once taught that the colonial period ended after the war, as Europe saw that domination and control was no longer possible.
Now I understand that colonial powers saw domination was no longer possible because people who lived in colonies defeated them in extremely hard-fought national wars of independence.
Portugal, first in, was last out, finally leaving Angola and Mozambique in 1974 when mid-ranking Portuguese Officers led a domestic revolution because they were no longer willing fight in Africa.
I am not reviewing French’s book now, except that he clearly indicates the past has been edited so the extraction of value from Africa can continue today.
Former colonizers withdrew but the economic arrangements remained intact with local elites well compensated to maintain the status quo.
A new wave of colonization is now underway — the Big Data wave, the Metaverse wave. Google is building its first data center on the continent in Nairobi now. Facebook/Instagram/Meta is using Influencers to draw young Africans into their closed platform.
Africa is the youngest continent. It needs that vital energy for its own development, for Africa, not for Google shareholders.
Addendum: Other ‘People’s’ Histories
I should have questioned the meaning of what I knew after I first read Howard Zinn’s, “A People’s History of the United States,” but I didn’t.
After reading Ronald Takaki’s, “A Different Mirror: A Multicultural History of the United States,” it began to dawn on me what a limited perspective I had adsorbed.
Of course I knew before reading, “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States,” by Ruth Dunbar-Ortiz, that many native people had been brutally exterminated and that’s about all I knew. What I have started to learn is who they were and still are, how they lived and governed themselves, and what they believed in.
What they believed in is a lot like what I have come to believe in. Many people around the world as well have come to view themselves in the 2020s as part of the natural system, not separate from it, not just taking whatever we think we need or want without consequence.
It is obvious now that the foundational values I was taught as a young person are not the values which actually drove the world then or still drives it now.
Human Rights and Equality dominate social studies curricula. But Property Rights and the way Law can be used to dominate others create the structure of our world and set the parameters for human activity.
Tom’s work has not appeared in The New York Times, New Yorker Magazine, The New Republic, the New England Journal of Medicine, or anything New at all.
He only publishes in obscure journals and, once upon a time, PBS Program Guides. Otherwise he just gives his work a URL and sends it packing on the web at places like Medium and Sub-Stack, where he enjoys a modest following.