Jamaica’s demand for reparations from the slave trade should be made to some African nations too.
Here we go Again
With some years of austerity ahead, perhaps it’s time to count one’s blessings. Haven’t seen them on TV for a while but there are still people who think that the government of the UK owe some people a living as their forebears were shipped off into slavery. Had this been the white man’s invention foisted on a vulnerable Africa then there might be a moral case, but the depth, extent and long history of slavery in Africa is staggering. Even today, your bar of expensive chocolate has probably been touched by slavery at some point, but that’s another story. Saudi Arabia only formally abolished slavery in 1965.
In essence, the slave trade only worked with the eager cooperation of (mainly West) Africa. Present day states of Togo, Benin and western Nigeria were previously known respectively, as the The Ivory Coast, Gold Coast and Slave Coast. These coastal kingdoms had land but few people to work it. Labour being in short supply, was therefore a more valuable commodity so slaves were a resource which could be used, traded or basically kept in the bank rather like gold bullion at the Bank of England. There was always a market for slaves, long before the Europeans with their Triangular trade arrived. The latter consisted of manufactures from Europe to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and sugar from Caribbean to Europe.
Strong Competition from Europe
Top of the African slave traders wish list was rifles and the British eventually took about half of this market against stiff competition from the Dutch and French. More rifles enabled you to attack your neighbours and of course, capture more slaves. Whether from the locals being better negotiators, shortage of slave supply or perhaps the rifle manufacturing cost dropping, the value of a slave gradually increased from two rifles in 1682 to over twenty in 1717. Losing African tribes formed alliances to protect themselves from other slave traders – like the Yoruba, for example.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
Doing business overseas means inevitably socialising with the locals and watching local ceremonies which in west Africa occasionally included mass sacrifice. Dahomey was the most enthusiatic here with 4,000 being sacrificed when King Agaja Dosu captured Save and Ouidah in 1777. Arabist Sir Richard Burton witnessed these bloodbaths stating that they were “deporably mistaken but perfectly sincere” as they were considered essential for the wellbeing of the kingdom concerned. Palaces sometimes had human skulls incorporated in the walls while beheadings were done occasionally by the king himself or his male and female executioners. There were front line female troops too who fought naked to the waist, like demons and were the best men in the Dahomeyan Army according to a foreign soldier.
Readers may be wondering where this grisly information comes from and may not be surprised that it is another Foreign Legion book Our Friends beneath the Sands by Martin Windrow which deals with France’s colonial conquests 1870 to 1935. With the holiday season coming up, this might be worth putting on your reading list. The well-researched detail makes the book a demanding but rewarding read, and I am only halfway through. Anyone with an interest in French history should find it worthwhile. The most recognisable name so far is Clemenceau.
The book debunks a few myths pointing out for example, that cafard the Legion name for a special kind of madness in small outposts in the Sahara, had its own British version in India where bored troops got seriously “fed up” and occasionally went beserk – later expressed in a different context by the Salvation Army founder Gen Booth’s famous saying “The devil finds work for idle hands”. In the late nineteenth century, reforms made the Army more professional especially for officers where the Army had sometimes been seen as a rite of passage until an inheritance and marriage came along.
The Seeds of the Vietnam War
Reading the the French conquest of Tonkin (north Vietnam) shows they had a hard time of it especially against some Chinese troops. Tonkin owed loyalty to China but wanted independence too. Eventually a treaty between France and China allowed France to have French Indo-China and respect the Chinese border. There is a strange echo here in the 20th century. The Americans had an embassy in Hanoi with a one-star general posted there. The north Vietnamese asked the Americans for help in getting freedom from the French but the Americans declined as this was shortly after WW2 and the French were allies. The north Vietnamese got their arms elsewhere and their struggle eventually led to the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu where the Foreign Legion was heavily involved. Later of course, it led to the Vietnam war.
Perhaps most of all, the book illustrates the profound difference in the French and British approach to their colonies. Emigrants to British colonies were not hindered like the French who liked to retain control of their colonies. This led to huge emigration to America but much less to (French) Canada. Hardly surprising perhaps that the United States of America became the largest economy in the world as the size of their economy (GDP) passed that of the UK back around 1870. In the nineteenth century, economic growth rates were sometimes around 20 per cent p.a. helped by the new technology from steel, electricity, steam power and the telegraph, not to mention little regulation and low taxes.
China looks set to become the world’s largest economy soon but there the growth rates have been around 9 per cent p.a. and it is easy to forget that away from Europe, there is little talk of recession. Go East young man?
Above blog previously published here May 2010