Monday, January 01, 2007

Resistance to Slavery: Background to Historical Pan-Africanism

Resistance to Slavery: Background to Historical Pan-Africanism

By Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire

When slavery as an economic system became the dominant mode of production in North America, parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, it had a devastating impact on the African continent as a whole. The Atlantic slave trade arose as a result of the efforts of western Europe to enhance its influence in the international system of trade. Prior to the 15th century, the status of western Europe in the world economic system was a marginal one. However, the advent of Portuguese and Spanish explorers during the mid-15th century created the mechanism for the beginning of the extraction of African human labor from the continent to western Europe and eventually to the so-called new world. The triangular trade grew out of the exchange of African labor for European goods. These human commodities were then transported to the western hemisphere to work on the plantations that served as the economic basis of the new European colonies.

From the beginning of the slave trade in Africa, it was reported through the records of the Europeans involved in this economic system, that there was resistance on many different levels. When the Portuguese reached the Cape Verde Islands during the 1440s, Prince Henry the Navigator had already developed a plan to circumnavigate the continent and outflank the Muslim traders who dominated the international trade routes in the region. Despite the military and social devastation carried out by Portugal during the latter part of the 15th century, many Africans fought diligently against the onslaught of the slave trade. Initially Africans were taken to various European countries where they became objects of curiosity as well as eventual prostelyzers for the Catholic religion which was predominant in many nations on that continent. Through the writings of various European explorers it is revealed that the stereotypical notions of African inferiority was not as uniform and widespread as they became after the full emergence of the triangular trade.

According to the African historian Joseph E. Harris:
"It was a combination of European attitudes about blacks and the demand for cheap labor that sired the Atlantic Slave Trade and New World black slavery. When the Portuguese arrived in Africa they began seizing Africans to take to Europe as 'curiosity pieces' which confirmed that 'new' land had been reached. The early African victims were honored in Portugal, taught Portuguese, and used as informants and guides for future Portuguese voyages to Africa. However, as the number of Africans increased in Lisbon they gradually were relegated to menial tasks, and by the middle of the fifteenth century, a lively trade in African labor (slaves) developed. Thus, even before the Americas were settled by Europeans, Europe witnessed the development of black slavery, especially in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Sicily. It has been estimated, for example, that between 1458 and 1460, from 700 to 800 slaves were exported annually from Africa to Europe, with an estimate of 35,000 for 1450-1500. Some authorities have calculated that from 50,000 to 100,000 Africans were taken to Europe during the whole course of the trade. Whatever the numbers, the point to emphasize here is that a half century prior to their settlement in the Americas, many Europeans (especially the inhabitants of Spain and Portugal, the two countries that spearheaded American settlement) had become accustomed to the enslavement of Africans."

However, despite this European demand for African labor, it has been recorded that as early as 1564 in Sierra Leone, a group of British traders led by John Hawkins were attacked by an army of indigenous people who wounded several of these men and drove them from the inlands back to their ships on the coast. By the time that these slave-traders had reached the shores, some 200 Africans were awaiting them. The ensuing battle resulted in the deaths of seven of Hawkins' most prized subordinates, including the captain of the ship known as the Salmon. The king in this area then began to mobilize a larger contingent of his military forces, which propelled Hawkins and his survivors to retreat to their ships and sail back to the Caribbean.

In another slave trading voyage, Hawkins was attempting to capture Africans along the Senegal River, when his group was attacked by the local people with bows and poisonous arrows. The Europeans then moved further east to avoid attack, eventually heading for the Spanish main. After this disastrous episode, James Pope Hennessy pointed out that it was well into the next century before the British embarked upon slave expeditions again. Preferring less hazardous means of acquiring slave labor, the British began during the 17th century to attempt negotiation and trade as the principal method of obtaining Africans for exploitation in the newly established colonies in the western hemisphere. Such episodes of resistance during the 16th century were repeated during the entire history of the Atlantic slave trade in Africa.

According to an article published in the South Carolina Gazette on July 7, 1759:
"A Sloop commanded by a brother of...Captain Ingledieu, slaving up the River Gambia, was attacked by a number of the natives, about the 27th of February last, and made a good defense; but the Captain finding himself desperately wounded, and likely to be overcome, rather than fall into the hands of merciless wretches, when about 80 Negroes had boarded vessel, discharged a pistol into his magazine and blew her up; himself and every soul on board perished."

By providing these historical instances of resistance to slavery on the continent of Africa, it provides a basis for further research in order to more fully document the origins of Pan-African revolt and consciousness. Since these actions by Africans in opposition to the Atlantic slave system occured in various regions on the continent, it illustrates that there was a pattern of response to the advent of European imperialism. Even during the height of the slave period in the western hemisphere, the relationships between Africans and their homelands would continue to occupy a prominent role in the political discourse on the question of legalized bondage and the status of manumissioned ex-slaves.

The above article was originally published as a chapter in the Pambana Monograph Series, Number 23, initially entitled "Pan-Africanism: Historical Analyses From The Grassroots." This book was issued during the Summer of 1998. The Pambana Monograph Series was distributed by the Pan-African Research & Documentation Center in Detroit.

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