Erasing Africa's role in the rise of the West

Not the history we learned in school: the Western world has its roots in African trade and resources, and was built on the lost lives and liberty of African people. So argues senior journalist and history author Howard W. French in this Carleton University School of Journalism lecture, based on his latest book, Born in Blackness.

'The bad side of the story is so immense that it takes active suppression,' says author Howard W. French

Senior journalist and history author Howard W. French argues that the Western world has its roots in African trade and resources and was built on the lost lives and liberty of African people. (Stuart Isett/w. W. Norton)

The West is telling a tale about its origins, says history writer and Columbia University professor Howard W. French.

"Every society, every civilization, looks for virtues within itself, within its own stories, to build myths about how they became great. And they don't explain their greatness by how they exploited other people."

The 'other people' in this case are Africans — whose early, independent achievements, and horrifying forced labour are the unacknowledged basis of Western prosperity and progress, argues French.

The longtime foreign correspondent and global affairs writer undertook extensive historical research for his latest book, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.

Foreign correspondent Howard French delivered a recent lecture based on the book, presented online by the Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication. The event was moderated by Carleton professor and CBC Ottawa news anchor Adrian Harewood.

Harewood described French's book as "a bold, unapologetically ambitious project [to] reframe our understanding of world history by placing Africa and Africans at the very centre of the making of the modern world."

Africa and exploration

Howard French began his talk with the Age of Discovery, re-examining the accepted notion that 15th century Portuguese explorers, and then Columbus, journeyed west in search of Asia. 

This was how Columbus was said to have "discovered" the Americas — an event that has been traditionally seen as setting Western modernity in motion.

Yet French complicates that narrative with the assertion that Abu Bakr the Second, emperor of the Muslim empire of Mali, took boats carrying West African gold on a trip to seek out new lands across the Atlantic. 

Documents associated with his successor show that Abu Bakr had also believed the world was round. And that his far-reaching, yet ill-fated expedition occurred a full century before those of the Portuguese and Columbus.

When Abu Bakr's successor, Mansa Musa, made a gold-laden pilgrimage to Mecca, news of these riches catalyzed Portuguese exploration, says French. 

In the 1375 Catalan Atlas, Mansa Musa is depicted sitting on a throne, holding a gold coin. He is considered to be one of the wealthiest people in history. (Wikimedia Commons)

He argues that "The Portuguese obsession was, in fact, completely bound up in questing for discovery in Africa."

Having explored the West African coast and set up a lucrative trading post in what is now Ghana, it was Portugal's wealth that inspired Columbus' quest, says French.

French notes that this challenges the frequent Western implication "that Africans have never been players of any significance or note in world history: that they are basically absent from the story."

Africa and exploitation

Howard French points to an agricultural discovery by the Portuguese, on an equatorial island off Central Africa, as leading to a central, horrifying development in the building Western prosperity: slavery. 

French says that the island of São Tomé "proved to be ecologically speaking, pretty much the perfect place to grow sugar. The one thing that's  missing is labour."

The growing and harvesting of this much-desired crop involved working with dense, sharp leaves, in punishing tropical conditions, which led the Europeans to force that labour upon Africans. 

On the basis of race, Africans were dehumanized as chattel, and their loss of freedom imposed on their children. French argues that the term "plantation" is a euphemism that needs to be rejected in favour of a more accurate phrase: "prison industrial labour camp."

"They're working under quasi-military supervision. They're being corporately punished constantly in order to eke ever-increasing production out of them. They're being worked to death, not as a byproduct, but actual business plan of the plantation."

It was the exportation of this annihilating "business plan" to the Caribbean and beyond, in the 16th and 17th centuries, by England, France, and America, that built the prosperity of the West, says French.

Born in Blackness documents the massive scope and impact of slavery, with "solid, financially based assessments of how much wealth was derived from what type of imperial activity by different nations," explains the author.

Shifting the story

The breadth of this exploitation of Africans challenges the traditional Western narratives of progress, which credit success through other sources, such as exploration and ingenuity.

Asked by moderator Adrian Harewood why the story of Africa's central role in the building of Western modernity has been erased, Howard French says:

"It is so monstrous in dimension, that it required of the people who founded these myths, and who have made long careers across decades and centuries weaving fantasies, building literature, making Hollywood on the basis of these myths, [that] it requires the erasure."   

**Special thanks to the Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication for this lecture. This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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