Thomas 'Slave Trade': Enough guilt for all

November 23, 1997|By Gregory Kane | Gregory Kane,Sun staff

"The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870," by Hugh Thomas. Simon & Schuster. 810 pages. Two volumes. $37.50 per volume. Some 11,328,000 Africans were transported to the New World during the years 1440-1870. Some 4 million went to Brazil, 2.5 million to countries ruled by Spain, 2 million to the British West Indies and 1.6 million to the French West Indies. Only 500,000 went to the country that eventually became known as the United States of America. Such is the information you get from Hugh Thomas' marathon work on the Atlantic slave trade. And that's just in the appendix.

The figure of 500,000 of Africa's children making it to the United States is especially revealing. For too long egocentric Americans - black and white - have obsessed about the sordid history of slavery as if the scourge were ours alone. We have debated it, felt guilty about it and - the claims of latter-day Confederate supporters to the contrary - fought a Civil War over it.

But the numbers speak for themselves. Just under 4 percent of the blacks taken from Africa ended up in the United States. So in the guilt department, there are clearly countries who should have much more than the United States.

Thomas shows that it is the human race that should feel guilty about slavery. He doesn't begin his book in 1440, when the slave trade started as first a trickle of Africans being enslaved in various European countries. Thomas documents that slavery had existed in most societies since ancient times.

Eventually, slave trading became the thing of any person who wanted to turn a profit. The European villains were British, Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The African ones were Mandingo, Dahomean, Ashanti, Fulbe and others. Africans sold and Europeans bought. Whites sent cloth, metal, guns and gunpowder to the Africans. The blacks reciprocated by giving the West a labor force .

"The Slave Trade" is more than just the history of the trans-Atlantic peddling of human flesh. It is the story, in microcosm, of four continents: Europe, Africa, North America and South America. Thomas weaves a tale of merchants and slavers; of diplomats and clergymen; of philosophers, statesmen, abolitionists and rulers that readers will find surprisingly

engaging for a two-volume set of this length.

There are some rough spots, of course. Thomas makes the point several times that the dynasty that gave birth to the last great West African empire - the Songhai - was Berber in origin. "The people of Timbuktu had black skin but much Berber blood," Thomas writes, not very subtly hinting that those areas of Africa that showed advanced civilization were not completely black.

It smacks of white supremacist historiography that black scholars have become all too familiar with in recent years. But Thomas' main failing is that he cites not one source to support his contention that the beginning dynasty of Songhai was Berber. He certainly doesn't quote from the Tarik al-Fettach or the Tarik as-Sudan - two 16th century works about the Songhai empire that have survived to this day.

At another point, Thomas writes of "the great Moroccan army successfully sent south in 1591 to conquer the gold-bearing territories of the central valley of the Niger..." There were only 1,000 soldiers in that "great army." Three-quarters of them died in their trek across the Sahara into Songhai. It seems that Thomas needed to concentrate more on his African history before he wrote "The Slave Trade."

Gregory Kane, a columnist for the Sun, was half of a Sun reporting team that last year bought two slaves in Africa, freed them and then wrote a series of articles demonstrating that slavery is still practiced.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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