Incomplete Memories, Distorted Histories: The loud silence around Africa’s complicity in the slave trade
When will we have an honest conversation about Africa’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade?
A re-enactment of a slave raid at the opening of the Accra Reparations Summit, 14 Nov, 2023. Photo courtesy: Accra Reparations Summit.My high school history teacher was also the assistant headmaster. Mr. Ocran. He did not assign a history book; we took down copious notes from his lectures. I recall that there was not much discussion about the slave trade in Cape Coast. My high school was about five miles from one of the major slave holding pens, the Cape Coast Castle. We never took field trips there. In fact, the Gold Coast (now Ghana) has at least fifty forts and castles built by Europeans for trading (including slave trading) – more forts and castles than any other West African country . These forts and castles dot the coastline: big ugly scars on the face of the pristine shoreline.
Why would such historical omissions and silence make sense? Who did it serve that the history being told was incomplete? The victims of this evil trade are not the ones served by this silence.
For most of us growing up in the post-colonial milieu, the African history that we learned was corrective history; that which was meant to counter the colonial caricatures and stereotypes of a continent. The stand-ins for actual history were doses of African studies – we used Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as an allegory of how African cultures have been assaulted and survived. We read Peter Abraham’s Tell Freedom to come to terms with racial apartheid on the African continent, but we could not possibly understand it. The Heinemann African Writers Series (with writers like Amos Toutoula, Dennis Brutus, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ama Ata Aidoo, Kofi Awoonor, Wole Soyinka) provided many of the narratives we needed to fill in the gaps of history that National Consciousness would not allow us to learn. The history of West Africa’s slave trading past seemed forbidden. The stain and stigma of the sordid past was visually everywhere around us – the monstrous castles and forts along the coast – and yet were rendered invisible by the fact that we could neither read nor learn about them.
The local histories of slavery may have been diminished on purpose because they represented a tragic and inhumane era. But it is a perversion of history to say that all Africans were innocent victims. There have been efforts, since the 1990s to “break the silence surrounding the slave trade,” but you wouldn’t know it if you read the history textbooks used in primary and secondary schools in Ghana. For local consumption, the roles played by Africans are minimised to project Africa as the long-suffering victim of the trade. Is this omission meant to absolve Africans of moral responsibility?
I felt a strange sense of vindication when I came upon the remarkable work of Ella Keren. I have had misgivings in my recollection of the education I received in West African history. In my subsequent research on West African domestic slavery, I was grateful that Keren corroborated what I had experienced. From her analysis of West African textbooks written by Africans (in Ghana, Nigeria, and Benin), Keren concluded that the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is “regarded as quite marginal…If one is to evaluate its importance quantitatively, at a generous estimation, the Atlantic slave trade occupies up to 5 percent of the books, large parts of which deal with European activities and the abolition of the trade.”  According to her analysis, textbooks written for secondary schools tended either to disregard totally the subject or contained little information about the trans-Atlantic slave trade; these textbooks also tended to overlook completely the subject of domestic slavery, which was only presented in books written for mature readers. “It seems that the younger [the] readers, the more they were fed with stories of great and powerful heroes, sparing them from unhappy details which may be associated with their actions.” 
In what amounts to an attempt at correcting this dishonesty in the scholarly memory and the telling of history, the Ministry of Education in Ghana introduced a new syllabus (in 2000) “which marked a significant change. The Atlantic slave trade, which was until then completely neglected, was integrated into the history section of social studies, and made compulsory for all students.” 
From the results of her review, Keren concludes that there is no discussion about the domestic slave trade, while participation in the trans-Atlantic trade is attributed to ‘foreigners’, ‘particular individuals’, or ‘undefined states’. These narratives do not tackle the central questions of cultural acceptance of slavery and the collective memory that represses it. This is the same kind of vagueness we find in the attribution on the plaque at the Cape Coast castle. There are “rather abstract statements about African participation in the slave trade…Africans involved remain the obscure ‘few chiefs’, [and/or] ‘some Africans’.” 
The justification for this omission in history was an ideological one. After independence from the European colonialists, the massive intellectual effort to vindicate Africa and its cultural norms and forms, the so-called ‘African personality’, ‘negritude’ and ‘African identity’ needed to externalise the problem of slavery. The grave and inconvenient truth was that it was indeed that industry and culture of slavery that had devalued Africa to begin with.
This reclaiming effort ignored the very thing that needed to be addressed head-on. There were enough years for this thing of inhumanity – Africans as archetypal slaves – to harden into what has become racial thinking; it was enough time and space for this thing to become part of our social DNA. It took years to calcify into deep contempt and prejudice, race as stereotype. The reaction by African historians, nationalists, and statesmen to the negative colonial representations of Africa was to foster an ideological response that was incomplete.
The prevalent narratives from Europe and elsewhere about Africa required an ideological response from Africans, to reconstruct a denigrated collective identity. This was difficult and remains so. In response to the old belittling critique of the European colonisers, the anti-colonial diatribe from the Africans (Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta et al.) was largely borrowed from the descendants of the enslaved in America and the Caribbean (W.E.B. Dubois, C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Marcus Garvey, Walter Rodney, et al.). The Africans themselves had not developed the depth of insight needed to counter the far-reaching European episteme of superiority in varying forms and frames of racial thinking that the African Americans and the Afro-Caribbeans had been born into and had been fighting since they were old enough to know what racial prejudice and racial discrimination felt like.
Indeed, the difficult and painful work of contestation, redeeming ‘Africanness’ was diligently being undertaken by African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, working within the orbit of Europe and America where the moral decay of slavery was in full display even before Africans on the continent had begun their agitations for freedom from colonisation. By exposing the moral dishonesty of a cultural viewpoint that preached liberty and freedom, but only for some, these writers had embarked on the arduous mission of dismantling the negative images and stereotypes of Africans across the globe, but especially in Europe and America. It is a task that is onerous and continuous.
The anti-colonial counterpoints needed to go back and retrieve from the African past what was salvageable after everything African had been debased by the slave trade. What were those aspects of African culture, of Africa that could be heralded even as we succumbed to the European definitions of what is beautiful, what is good?
Any discussion of the pre-colonial African involvement in the slave trade, and the persistent problem of slavery within African societies were topics incompatible with the pan-African project and the search for a glorious past. This history of slavery was not the history that was expected to be told. African historians were intent on refuting negative European collective thinking about Africans, and countering images and stereotypical depictions of Africa. How do you reconcile that deep involvement in the slave trade, the vile system of slavery, with a redeemable precolonial history that countered the Europeans and their white narrative of Africans?
It is unimaginable to think that the gathering of the Pan African Congress in Manchester in 1945 would have raised the topic or the problem of African involvement in that inhumane trading of slaves, the problem of domestic slavery or that the participants would have even considered discussing the role of African slave traders in the rise of racial slavery. This was a meeting that brought together African American, Afro-Caribbean, and African nationalists, writers, artists, workers and activists to discuss strategies to free themselves from colonialism and domination in the aftermath of the WW2. Questions about the history of domestic slavery as a type of human rights violation were not considered central to the discussions about political freedom and cultural or precolonial history. The enslaved and the victims of slavery were rendered invisible, and the problem posed by the slave trade reflected in this tendency to avoid it. Historians who addressed it usually subordinated the slave trade to the overriding historical interest in the pre-colonial state.
“Ghanaian historians were thus mainly interested in the slave trade’s relevance in explaining the political changes…The slave trade itself was of minor importance, merely a background to African-European and inter-African political struggles.” 
I am offended when I read the following from a tourist guidebook published by the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board: “The Castles and forts of Ghana constitute treasures par excellence, a legacy of the historic past as much to modern Ghana and Africa as to the world at large.”  There is nothing excellent about sites that were holding pens for captured human beings. This statement depicts deep disengagement from the cruelty and brutality of what happened to the people held in the dungeons, in the bowels of these places. Equally offensive is the statement that: “The warehouses (of the castles and forts) teemed with gold and ivory export products as well as African slaves destined for auction in the New World, there to become ancestors to future generations of black populations.”  As if the African slaves chose to become ancestors to future generations of Black people in the New World.
The language of these official publications is contrived and detached: “This chirpy language of the tourist industry tries to take the sting out of history by turning it into heritage…The dispassionate language of economics, which has been adopted with success by many scholars, is inescapable.” 
The most comprehensive reviews of the new syllabus developed by the Ministry of Education in Ghana, and the textbooks that were subsequently written, reveal that there has been no significant change in the treatment of African complicity in the slave trade:
“Europeans are still depicted as the driving force, only aided by Africans. There is no discussion of the widespread internal slave trade. Placing the slave trade in the hands of foreigners, particular individuals or undefined states excludes African traditions and worldviews, which legitimised it from public discourse and from collective memory.” 
The history books describe few instances of African resistance or objections to domestic slavery; but the stories of “cruel treatment, starvation and humiliation (are placed) under European responsibility.” When Africans were harsh, “they acted cruelly under the instructions from their European bosses.”  The Africans were merely “junior partners” in the whole enterprise, ceding the leadership role to Europeans who were “senior partners…in terms of the apparent superiority they had in know-how, possession of material culture, goods and technology.” 
In these West African memories, the Africans had adapted their behaviour to the Europeans. And most discussions of the trans-Atlantic slave trade serve, ironically, to cultivate a memory of exploitation that absolves Africans of blame. Diasporic Africans, African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans who rediscover their layered African identity by visiting West Africa looking for an ideational cultural homestead or rootedness would find an African cultural philosophy that is unapologetic, ambivalent, and sometimes dishonest about slavery of Africans by Africans. The history is discontinuous, uneven, shifting, and contradictory because the West Africans cannot remove themselves from the moral responsibility they shared with the Europeans. (The omissions in the histories of West Africans hide poignant insights about racial animus).
When African scholars have actively entered into the debate, they have done so by casting all Africans as victims, including those Africans who did the selling and the Africans who were sold; the official Teaching Syllabus for secondary schools in Ghana tells that the encounter with the Europeans: “led to the creation of a slave mentality and dependence on European nations which have not yet broken. How to break this dependence and create a nation consisting of people who feel equal…becomes the problem we have to resolve as soon as possible.” 
The distinctions made by the collective memory between the supposed benign and ‘open’ domestic slavery on the one hand, and ‘European’ slavery on the other, are all now completely rejected as specious. It is an argument, a gaze that continues to disrupt spiritually the pursuit of roots in Africa by diasporic Africans.
The reluctance to accept blame and culpability is due to that particular focus on redeeming the national and political history and to provide counter narratives, counter images to the European episteme that, by now, had done a complete job of denigrating the Africans. After independence, the primary goal of the cultural memory was “vindicating the past and liberating African historical consciousness from European stereotypes.” Could this necessary and understandable project of contesting exaggerated, and unfavourable images of Africa have been done while also admitting that the culture was broken? Why was it imperative to omit the problems of the African culture (read indigenous slavery) that allowed the trans-Atlantic trade to thrive? Why was it essential to silence the narratives of African complicity?
The telling of the whole and complete truth about African complicity and African cultural brokenness reduces the estrangement between the collective experience of diasporic Africans and the collective memory of Africans. It is how the pain of the past begins to heal for all of us. It is the right thing to do – for, truth-telling about African slavery, and liberation from European cultural stereotypes should never be, can never be, mutually exclusive.
There is collective cultural shame for slavery and it is the reason why Ghanaians are loathe to engage in deep discussions about it even to this day; it is the reason why government-sanctioned textbooks for elementary and secondary school students do not contain “criticisms of prevailing (cultural) norms and values, which legitimised the institution of slavery.”  The memory of slavery cannot be exorcised and the transmission of the false history of slavery is how the past continues to haunt West African.
- Isaac S. Ephson 1970. Ancient Forts and Castles of the Gold Coast (Ghana). Ilen Publications, Accra, Ghana, page 6.
- Ella Keren 2009 “The Transatlantic Slave Trade in Ghanaian Academic Historiography: History, Memory and Power.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d series, Vol LXVI, No 4, October, page 977.
- Ella Keren 2008, “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Local History textbooks.” In Africa and Trans-Atlantic Memories: Literary and Aesthetic Manifestations of Diaspora and History, edited by Naana Opoku-Agyemang, Paul E. Lovejoy and David V. Trotman. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, page 238.
- Ibid, page 237.
- Ibid, page 242.
- Ibid, page 244.
- Ella Keren 2009 “The Transatlantic Slave Trade in Ghanaian Academic Historiography: History, Memory and Power.” William and Mary Quarterly,3d series, Vol LXVI, No 4, October, page 982.
- Kwesi J. Anquandah 1999. Castles and Forts of Ghana. Ghana Museums and Monuments Board. Belgium: Atalante Press, page 8.
- William St. Clair 2007. The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British Slave Trade.London: Profile Books, page 7.
- Ella Keren 2008, “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Local History textbooks.” In Africa and Trans-Atlantic Memories: Literary and Aesthetic Manifestations of Diaspora and History, edited by Naana Opoku-Agyemang, Paul E. Lovejoy and David V. Trotman. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, page 244.
- Ibid, page 245.
- Kwesi J. Anquandah 1999. Castles and Forts of Ghana. Ghana Museums and Monuments Board. Belgium: Atalante Press, page 104.
- Ella Keren 2008, “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Local History textbooks.” In Africa and Trans-Atlantic Memories: Literary and Aesthetic Manifestations of Diaspora and History, edited by Naana Opoku-Agyemang, Paul E. Lovejoy and David V. Trotman. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, page 246, citing Teaching Syllabus from 2001.
- Ibid, page 238.
- Ibid, page 248.