History Debunked on Black African Complicity at the Beginning of the European Slave Trade

This is another provocative video from History Debunked’s Simon Webb. In it he describes how the modern European trade in African slaves began in 1442 with the Portuguese explorer, Antao Goncalves and a Black slave, Adahu. Goncalves, whom Webb calls Anton, had been commissioned by the Portuguese king, Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’ to acquire seal skins and oil. Eager to ingratiate himself with his royal master, Goncalves raided west Africa for slaves. One of those captured was Adahu, who spoke Arabic. Adahu explained that he was a chief and if he was set free, he would help the Portuguese acquire as many slaves as they wanted as he knew the local slave markets. Goncalves took him back to Portugal, where he impressed the king, and he and Goncalves went into partnership slaving. Although the Portuguese had acquired slaves through seizing foreign vessels before, and the Arabs had imported Black slaves into the Iberian peninsula for centuries before the beginning of the European trade in Black slaves, this marked the beginning of the modern slave trade.

Webb also points out that both Europeans and Africans attempted to cheat each other. Europeans attempted to pass off broken or substandard goods, like broken muskets to their African partners, while Africans adulterated the gold they used to purchase goods from the Europeans. Webb points out that this isn’t a popular view now, as it conflicts with the image of Africans as helpless victims. But he argues that the simple logistics of operating a mass slave trade means that Europeans had to have African assistance. They simply couldn’t have enslaved and carried off the large numbers they did if they had carried on capturing them directly, as they earlier had done. He also states that it is similarly mistaken that it was Europeans who brought slavery to America. Both the Aztecs and Maya enslaved their enemies, while in modern Alaska the Haida and Tlingit did the same so that about a quarter of the indigenous population may have been slaves.

I’ve said before that Webb is a man of the right, and that some of his facts may need to be checked. But as far as I can tell, he is correct. Hugh Thomas describes how Goncalves captured Adahu in his The Slave Trade, who says on page 55:

“These new captives included a local chief, Adahu, who spoke Arabic. He negotiated his own release, and that of a boy from his own family, on the understanding that if he were taken back to where he had been found he would deliver some black slaves in exchange.”

Black African involvement in the transatlantic slave trade has been mentioned in museums and documentaries. The exhibition on the city’s involvement in the slave trade at Bristol’s city museum in the 1990s, entitled ‘A Respectable Trade’, included it, and there was a documentary about it in the same decade on Channel 4. More recently a programme on the history of that part of Canada and America also discussed slaving by the Tlingit and gave the same proportion of the enslaved indigenous population in that part of north America at the time.

However, I do think there is a very strong drive to place the blame for slavery solely on White Europeans. I don’t think many Black Brits are now aware how their ancestors were enslaved by other Africans and there does seem to be a reluctance to state just how massively some African princes did profit from the trade.


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7 Responses to “History Debunked on Black African Complicity at the Beginning of the European Slave Trade”

  1. Brian Burden Says:

    This is not new. It’s a simple case of Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right. The complicity of African chieftains does not mitigate or make more acceptable the responsibilty of the European slavers. Plus, slavery is directly contrary to the Christian (European) ethic – the position taken by the Abolitionists in the USA, though there was quite an industry digging out Old Testament references justifying slavery.

  2. Brian Burden Says:

    In case my earlier post didn’t register: The fact that African chieftains may have been complicit doesn’t absolve the European slavers.

    • beastrabban Says:

      For some reason it was put in the to be approved queue, rather than passed automatically, Brian. You’re right – it doesn’t exonerate the European slavers, but it shows that Africans were hardly innocent either and unfortunately there does seem to be a movement to play down or omit their involvement in the slave trade.

  3. Brian Burden Says:

    I rather fear that if you go back far enough in any of the major world religions or search their texts closely enough, you will find the virus of racism lurking there in one form or another. Generally speaking, mainstream Jews have a more enlightened attitude on race than many US Christian sects. Bear in mind that Sammy Davis jr converted to Judaism because he saw it as free from racism, and if you watch the Marx Brothers films, you will find them notable for the fact that the occasional black characters are treated as human beings rather than comic stereotypes.

    • beastrabban Says:

      There was considerable Jewish support for the Civil Rights movement, Brian, including from some rabbis. Jackie Walker’s mother was a Black civil rights activist and her father was Russian Jew and the met at a Communist party event apparently.

  4. Steve Says:

    I get in trouble with this sort of commentary all the time but here goes. I think the fact that slavery occurred anywhere and with anyone as bad as it was allowed also for progress of culture indirectly as a byproduct of it. It may have been a terrible way to go about it but you can show many examples of shared culture that led to improvements and more diversity. One in the arts is the influence on music by the intermingling of cultures. Take African and Anglo contributions to the development of Jazz and Rock and Roll. That is merely one example but there are many others. Such development in no way excuses obvious inhumanity but to ignore the cultural associations and how it affected us is just denial. All the finger pointing blame ignores the factor that society had benefited by sharing of culture.

    • beastrabban Says:

      No, I agree with you. Slavery and the slave trade were and are wrong, every and at all periods in history, but bringing cultures together has produced benefits as you said.

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