Posts Tagged ‘Colin McEvedy’

No, Europeans Didn’t Introduce Ironworking to Africa during the Slave Trade

October 2, 2021

I have several times posted about and reposted some of the videos made by Simon Webb of the History Debunked channel. Those I’ve reposted are usually criticisms of Black Lives Matter or falsehoods repeated as truth in Black history. I’ve said that Webb should be taken with caution as he’s a Telegraph-reading Tory. Where he quotes historical and mainstream scientific texts, I think he’s correct. But occasionally he comes up with falsehoods of his own which show he needs checking. Yesterday he put up a video on the transatlantic slave trade and how it benefited west Africa. Now he’s right that the slave trade did bring some benefits to west Africa. The African states who supplied the European slave merchants, Dahomey and Whydah, for example, grew extremely rich. Duke Ephraim of Dahomey had an income of £300,000 a year, and the abominable trade plugged Africa into the wider global economy. According to mainstream academic historians, it introduced modern commercial methods into Africa and allowed capital accumulation.

But Webb seems instead to make a very curious claim. Noting that the Black African professionals people may meet tend to be Nigerian or west African, Webb says in this video that its because Europeans brought iron working and civilisation to Africa. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Webb claims, most buildings were made of mud. Bronze was used for decoration – I assume here he’s talking about the Benin bronzes, sculptured heads what were produced as shrines to the king’s spirit. But iron was unknown. This is bizarre, as it’s very much not the view of conventional historians and archaeologists.

I looked in Colin McEvedy’s The Penguin Atlas of African History (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1980) to see when sub-Saharan African entered the Iron Age. He notes on page 30 that iron-working communities emerged around Nok in what is now Nigeria c. 202 BC. Iron-working also existed in Nubia by AD 200. C. 200 AD is started reaching the rest of Africa as the Bantu peoples expanded east and south, pp. 34, 36. I don’t actually know why Webb should think that they only developed iron working with the slave trade. I think it perhaps comes from the fact that Europeans did trade iron bars for slaves. These were made into objects called manilas, shaped like bracelets. A few of them are on display in the slavery gallery in Bristol’s M Shed. Webb has said that metallurgical analysis has shown that some west African artefacts now at the centre of demands for repatriation, were ironically made using metals that could only have been introduced by European traders. I’ve no doubt this is true, but it doesn’t contradict the fact that Africans were perfectly capable of producing iron for themselves. It may just indicate that Africans were willing to import European iron because it may have been cheaper, better or more easily accessible than that domestically produced. Just a Britain now imports cars despite having a domestic car industry.

HIs claim that Africans also built in mud is also questionable. They certainly did in west and other parts of Africa, so that it’s largely true. The city of Whydah was built of wood, and the Dahomeyans certainly used mud brick to build their towns. But the Islamic states of the Sahara, including Nubia, built in stone. And the Swahili were using coral blocks to construct their cities from the 9th century onwards, roughly as the same time when the ancestors of the Shona built the fortress of Zimbabwe.

This seems to come from Webb’s view that Africa didn’t produce any real civilisations. This was very much the view of 19th and early 20th century historians. On the other hand, one commander of the West African Squadron, Captain Denman, testified to parliament that the mass murder of slaves by one of the African cultures was remarkable, given that the people there had made such progress in the arts of civilisation. Which shows that at that time in the 19th century, not all Europeans thought Africans were uncivilised savages.

I think its undoubtedly true that Europeans introduced modern science and technology to Africa during colonialism, even if this was to exploit the countries and their peoples. They also benefited from the introduction of modern education and literacy, when it was available. If Nigerians are more prevalent among Black African professionals in Britain, it may well be due to a number of factors that have little to do with the slave trade. It may simply be that Nigeria is a richer country than many other African nations, and so has a larger middle class able to afford an education. It also possesses its own university, though I don’t know if it has a medical faculty. It is certainly more populous than some African countries, with a population of about 100 million. It may also have stronger ties with the west and particularly Britain, so that it’s people go here rather than to France or Portugal, the other African colonial powers.

It is therefore far more likely to be due to the education, science and technology introduced to Nigeria and west Africa during colonialism, and the enduring ties with Britain forged during this period, that have led so many west Africans to migrate here rather than the slave trade. Which certainly did not, in any case, usher in the Iron Age in Africa.

African Resistance to the Ending of the Slave Trade

July 7, 2020

One of the most shocking aspects of the history of the slave trade is that its abolition was opposed by many African states. These were kingdoms like Dahomey that profited from the trade. As a rule, it wasn’t Europeans who conducted the slave raids. They were largely confined to merchant ghettos within the African towns and ports serving the trade. The actual warfare and slaving that brought them their human cargo was done by warlike African states. And despite being frequently cheated by European slave merchants – John Newton describes the various ruses used to do this in his 1788 Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade – many African princes grew extremely rich on the profits of the trade. Duke Ephraim of Dahomey was raking in £300,000 per year, an income that exceeded that of many English dukes.

These states were extremely reluctant to give up such a lucrative trade, and resented British insistence that they now turn to more legitimate items, such as palm oil and the other products they believed would be far more useful for British industry after abolition. At the very least, they thought it was hypocritical for their former customers and co-partners in the slave trade to now demand they stop it and lecture them on their wickedness for not doing so. One west African kingdom was so incensed at British refusal to continue slaving that they attacked a British trading fort in order to force them to take it up again. And for a short period bloodshed actually increased. The slave states were faced with keeping large numbers of captives, whom they could no longer sale. As a result there was a series of massacres as they murdered the excess slaves. One of the most notorious was the murder of 300 such captives, which was debated in parliament in one of the many meetings of the Committee of Inquiry held to investigate the slave trade. Some believed that the mass murder was actually human sacrifice, but other witnesses testified that this was not the case. When one of those testifying before the Committee, Captain Denman, was asked if he was surprised or shocked by the massacre, he replied that he was because of the considerable advances this African people had made in the arts of civilization. This statement is itself remarkable as it shows that while Europeans viewed African civilization as inferior, many of those charged with actively ending the slave trade knew it existed and were impressed with Black Africans as cultured, civilized peoples.

Colin McEvedy discusses these negative consequences of the ending of the slave trade in his The Penguin Atlas of African History (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1980) which I reviewed a few days ago. He writes

No one in Africa was going to say thank you for this [the ending of the slave trade]. Most West African states suffered a severe loss of revenue and, though the British granted some of them subsidies in compensation and, in the case of the principalities of the Niger delta, went to considerable trouble to encourage the production of palm oil as an alternative source of income, this was a period of relative impoverishment all along Africa’s Atlantic seaboard. Even the various categories of people who had supplied the slave trade with its raw material can’t be said to have benefited: criminals were once again handed over to the civil executioner and prisoners-of-war to the witch-doctor for sacrifice. This is the reason why the accounts of West African kingdoms in the nineteenth century are so blood-curdling: states like Dahomey that had built up a big slave-exporting capacity now had to consume a lot of unwanted human beings. Their ways of doing so provide a last bizarre flourish to what always had been a sad and sorry business. (p. 97).

This aspect of the slave trade also needs to be taught. Not to try to justify the trade, but to show that Africans were also actively involved in it and not mere victims. We need to remember this so that when the history of the slave trade is taught in schools, it isn’t presented as simply as evil White Europeans preying on noble Black Africans.

African History in Maps

July 5, 2020

Colin McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of African History (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1980).

This is another book which I though might be useful for those with an interest in African history and archaeology. Colin McEvedy wrote a series of similar books, showing the progress of history through maps. They were on ancient, medieval and modern history, as well as an Atlas of World Population, with Richard Jones. This does the same for Africa, using maps of the continent from geological times through to 1978. The earliest is of the planet 175 million years ago, when Africa was part of a single supercontinent, Gondwanaland. Subsequent maps show how this had split into the modern continents by about 50 million years ago. This is followed by a map showing the development of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Victoria. The book then goes on with maps showing the early pre-human and human sites, the emergence of the different racial populations and language groups, and the various African peoples and the great states and civilizations, beginning with Nubia, Egypt, and Carthage. It shows the great migration and movements of peoples and their dispersion across the continent, and its population at various points in history. The maps also show Africa with southern Europe and the near east to illustrate how the empires from these areas expanded into Africa, such as Rome, Persia and the Arabs. Sometimes the movement of conquest was in the other direction, such as Carthage, whose territory included part of modern Spain, and the Almoravids, who rule Islamic Spain and part of northwest Africa. Some maps are of the continent as it was known to the ancient and medieval geographers in 1350, as well as the travels of Ibn Battuta, the Portuguese voyages of 1482-8, Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India of 1497-8, population and trade routes c. 1600, the foundation of European enclaves and trading forts, the population in 1800 and the European geographer’s view of the continent the same year and then in 1856, the European exploration of the east African lakes, and their invasion and conquest of the continent. The emergence of the newly independent African states is shown in a series of maps from 1960 onwards. The last map is of the African population as it was expected to be in 2000.

The blurb for the book runs

This is a succinct account of civilisation in the continent that gave birth to the human species.

It is a fragmented and turbulent history in which the movements of peoples contrast with the creation of permanent states – Egypt, the earliest organized kingdom in the world; Carthage, the trading city that built an empire to rival Rome; Nubia; Abyssinia; Mali, the land of gold; Benin and Zimbabwe. Seamen probe its coast, traders cross its deserts and gradually the exploiters move in; and then, in the twentieth century, Africa finds the leaders it needs to re-establish its independence and create the nation-states of today.

Using the formula successfully established in his previous historical atlases, Colin McEvedy outlines this progress with the aid of fifty-nine maps and a clear, concise trext. Though his synthesis will be especially useful to those involved in the teaching of African history, its broad perspectives will undoubtedly appeal also to the general reader.

This is obviously a dated book, and I’m not sure if some of the anthropological language used to describe some of the African races would be acceptable today. For example, the book distinguishes between Negroes, Pygmies and Bushmen. Obviously much of the book is very much as Africa was seen by outsiders, such as Arab travellers like Ibn Battuta, and the European explorers and conquerors. This is doubtless partly because many African cultures did not possess a written language before the appearance of Europeans. They did possess their own oral histories, and the Islamic empires of north Africa and Christian Abyssinia/Ethiopia were literate. In the case of the Islamic states, this was in Arabic, which served as the official language in the same way Latin did in medieval western Europe.

Despite its limitations, I still think this might be useful for people with an interest in African history. The texts accompanying each map are short, often no more than two pages, so the book should be accessible to ordinary people and not just university students.