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Review: Born in Blackness by Howard French

Howard French’s extraordinary new book reveals how the modern world was shaped by Europe’s thirst for African gold and slaves.

Howard French has been a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 2008. After teaching at the University of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in the early 1980s, he began a career in journalism, writing on Africa for The Washington Post, The Economist and other publications. 

After joining The New York Times, where he became a foreign correspondent and senior writer, he reported from Central America, the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, Japan, and China, wrote a global affairs column for the International Herald Tribune, and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. 

Born in Blackness is an extraordinary book that draws deep on his decades of experience as he seeks to explain the circumstances of Africa’s history with Europeans who were first attracted to the continent in the search of gold and slaves.

The Europeans’ motives might have been couched in the idea of bringing “civilisation” to Africa, but they seldom strayed from far more self-serving ideas of immeasurable wealth and stealing a march on their European rivals. 

Gold as a catalyst for the slave trade

Beginning with the Portuguese mariners who opened up both the mainland and islands of West Africa, French’s narrative is a bold retelling of what has often been told, but with additional details that might have escaped the attention of many historians. 

One particular detail stands out. The Portuguese settlement of Elmina on what is now the Ghanaian littoral is given particular prominence. Rather than just being one of a string of slave forts strung along the West African coast, French makes a convincing case that Elmina was pivotal to the story of the European lust for gold and slaves.

Long before he sailed to America, Christopher Columbus had voyaged with provisions to Elmina, Europe’s first large, fortified outpost in the tropics.

French tells us of references to the search for gold in Columbus’s journals; and in Columbus’ conversations with Queen Isabella of Castile (part of modern-day Spain), the mariner justified his project of crossing the Atlantic by saying that rich supplies of gold would be found there.

Elmina, and the gold that the Portuguese were able to obtain there, did much to encourage other European countries to launch voyages of discovery. In modern parlance, their quests might be termed as driven by a “fear of missing out”. 

There was also the widespread belief in Europe of the legend of lands with immense deposits of gold. 

Undoubtedly, accounts of the Mali king Mansa Musa’s famous arrival in Cairo in 1324, on his pilgrimage to Mecca, did much to underpin these beliefs. Twelve thousand slaves, each of whom reputedly carried a wand-like fan of gold weighing four pounds, accompanied Musa. 

For a time, Portugal had it all its own way in controlling Elmina, building a fort where gold could be safely stored before being shipped to Lisbon. Indeed, French informs us that Portugal’s main problem was sourcing the requisite trade goods to barter for bullion from the Akan people, who controlled the richest gold-producing regions inland.

But then the Portuguese hit upon a solution. They realised the value of slaves that could be seized from elsewhere and delivered to the Akan people, who would put them to labour mining the metal. 

Other Europeans, envious of Portugal’s growing wealth, began to take an interest in West Africa. The result of this new rivalry led to Europe’s first colonial sea battle, between Portugal and Castile off Elmina.

Won by the Portuguese, the battle resulted in the Catholic church arbitrating a new treaty. As French puts it, this resulted in “a papal-sanctioned division of the known world with immensely far-reaching consequences for the early modern era and well beyond.”

Under the Treaty of Alcáçovas, of 1479, Portugal would henceforth enjoy rights to all the islands already discovered and to be discovered beyond the Canary Islands – essentially Church-sanctioned control of sub-Saharan Africa. 

However, Portugal’s hegemony over West Africa’s gold trade ended in 1652 when the (Protestant) Dutch seized Elmina and expelled the Portuguese.

Elsewhere, Portugal began to buy slaves from Benin and later Kongo (today’s Angola). These slaves were then transported to the island of São Tomé, before being delivered to the West African mainland. 

French writes: “As a purchaser of slaves from elsewhere in Africa, Elmina was equally important as a catalyst for what became the Atlantic slave trade.

“In this, though, São Tomé deserves an equal, if distinct renown – or infamy, one that has so far largely eluded it. This 330-square-mile island would be the last stop in the Eastern Hemisphere for sugar cultivation.”

Portugal proved adept in developing the plantation model adopted in territories controlled by other Europeans in the New World including the Caribbean and Brazil. 

A taste of independence

One such place was Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti) in the Caribbean, once France’s most profitable colony. By the end of the 1780s, Saint-Domingue produced more wealth as the world’s largest sugar and coffee producer than the rest of France’s colonies combined.

“Like so many of the stories contained in these pages,” French writes in discussing the first successful slave rebellion and the birth of the first independent black nation, “outside of lineaments so bare boned that they would struggle to fill an almanac entry, the history of this revolution is scarcely known or appreciated even among highly educated Western readers. 

“For at least two reasons, the invisibility of this self-liberation by slaves, most of them recently disembarked from Africa, is especially perverse and disturbing for Americans. That is because of the close physical proximity to America of Hispaniola, the island where Haiti is located, and the outsized impact of Haiti’s revolution not just on the size and shape of the US but on its very character as a nation and emergence as a world power.”

The reverberations of Haiti’s rebellion extended to the US, and the author devotes the rest of the book to examining the facts and the myths surrounding the American civil war and the lot of first nation Americans and slaves of African ancestry both in the Deep South and those that moved northwards to the supposedly free states.

Along the way, French reveals his fascination with the Delta blues and his hero Muddy Waters. In many surprising ways, this book provides a brilliantly argued case for recognition of Africa’s immense contribution to modernity.