Fascination with the slave trade as part of my own history, right from elementary school, was as routine as that generation’s immersion in — for example — local mythology. The most notorious part of this human misadventure, unarguably the transatlantic slave trade, was the stuff on which we were weaned quite early, almost uniformly narrated from the point of view of the altruistic efforts to end it. It was, after all, a missionary school.
Well, the years passed, knowledge deepened, and even before my encounter with sobering landmarks such as the slave forts of Elmina Castle, Cape Castle in Ghana, Goree Island in Senegal or the Calabar fort in Nigeria that now serves as a prison, my generation had become acquainted with history-book figures. There was King Jaja of Opobo in Eastern Nigeria, the Mobee family in Badagry, proud preservers of a family slavery museum complete with restraining and punitive equipment for difficult slaves, and, closer to my own home in Abeokuta, legendary characters such as Madame Tinubu, a powerful politician and nationalist of the colonial era after whom is named a now congested square in Nigeria’s Lagos. The Tinubus are a famous Lagosian family whose wealth was made from trade in palm oil, clothing, guns, gunpowder and — slaves. Several works have been written about this remarkable woman, including a Yoruba play by Akin Isola, a well-known dramatist. Madame Tinubu was sufficiently powerful to aspire to be a kingmaker, an unusual role for a woman. From a fascination with narrated history evolved an obsession with phenomenon: human enslavement.
It began to strike me as distinctly odd, somewhat surreal, that the political power wielded by this woman, one that enabled her to confront the colonial administrators, owed its source substantially to the trade in her fellow humans. In addition, it would appear that part of the source of her contentions with the British colonial office was over her resolve to continue with a trade to which the erstwhile British malefactors were now opposed. The same sense of contradiction was provided by some of the northern emirs in outposts of the Islamic caliphate, or indeed the colorful King Jaja of Opobo, who once drove his European rivals off the scene in the battle to exercise a monopoly on trade–palm oil and, of course, slaves.
From a lifetime of immersion in the history of the enslavement of one’s own people, which no one located and educated in situ sanely attempts to deny or revise, with a plethora of scholarly works on the interior life of the slave phenomenon, and its exterior manifestation across the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, across the Sahara and in the Middle East, it has been most bemusing to encounter a related phenomenon: the stubborn resistance, in one of the outposts of the black Diaspora, to aspects of truths that narrate the origins of their dispersal. I find it a strange aberration, a self-imposed ghetto obstinacy of a part that does little to enhance the intellectual repute of the African-American community. That phase, at least in its former crudeness, is at least being repudiated. Nonetheless, it still needs to be remarked that this willed condition — the refus al to confront history in its fullest implications — has led black leaders of the Diaspora in recent past to embrace — at the expense of their kinfolk on the black continent — the heirs and perpetuators of slave-master tradition, the Mobutu Sese Sekos, the Idi Amins, the Macias Nguemas, Sanni Abachas, Omar al-Bashirs and company.
These monstrosities can do no wrong; it is their critics who are brain-washed western lackeys. It is easy enough to dismiss those who persist in believing that the first successful African slave revolt took place in Haiti. Arab historians have themselves established the contrary, and in contemporaneous detail, so that it is near common knowledge that a revolt of epical dimensions took place at least a millennium earlier, in the salt marshes of Iraq. Those who prefer to believe that the annual Feok Festival staged in the northern extremities of Ghana — a festival that celebrates the resistance against, and defeat of, notorious African and Afro/Berber slavers like Samouri Toure and Babatou — is an event of mistaken identity, a cultural hallucination that should truthfully star only non-locals. Blue-eyed and flaxen-haired intruders should now be left severely alone. There are more pressing issues that beset us on African soil.
The holding slave camps and markets of the Bolgatanga region — Pikworo, Paga, Gwolu, Jenini, etc. — deep into the West African interior exist till today as reminders of Africa’s deep, internally inflicted wounds in that era of the slave trade. There are exhumed cairns of bones from slave burial mounds — a work of preservation undertaken by, among others, the Ghanaian historian Akosua Perbi and archaeologist Yaw Bredwan-Mensah. Unfortunately, the slave burial mounds have been interrupted by local sensibilities and politics. Still, for some of us, such sites stand as precursors of the Museums of Horrors preserved in Rwanda, Africa’s rendition of the ”final solution,” reminding one that the wheel of human viciousness continues to roll over the defenseless across the centuries. Rafi Angalu, the River of Vultures — named for the disposal of slaves by their owners — cannot fail to evoke memories of Idi Amin’s penchant for feeding his political enemies to the Nile crocodiles.
No matter the still-fashionable denial by our kinfolk among African-American leadership at that time, some of whom, including stalwarts of America’s own liberation roll of honor, even set up ”embassies” for the recruitment of black migrants to the liberation land of a psychopath. Survivors of Africa’s share in leadership dementia across the world cannot afford the lofty solidarity of race that discriminates against the voiceless.