West African Slave Trade: Buyers And Sellers


Last week I read an article in The Washington Post published on March 28 entitled “Harris Touches on Africa’s Painful Past – and Youthful Future” by Cleve R. Wootson Jr. The article’s subtitle was “The Vice President Visits Cape Coast Castle, Once a Clearinghouse for Enslaved People.”

I found the article overall interesting not so much for what was reported, but for what was not reported.

At the top of the article was an oversized picture of Vice President Kamala Harris standing to the left of her husband Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff understandably wiping a tear from his right eye with his left thumb “during a tour of Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.”

If I were taking a tour of this slave fortress, I also would be shedding a few tears in this sad depressing museum, which is the polar opposite of Ellis Island and Castle Garden (Castle Clinton) in New York Harbor. That is because this slave fortress from 1653 to 1807 was much more similar to the outer ring of the seventh circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno than any immigration port of entry in the United States.

The article mentioned “Ghana’s unique and dark connection to the African diaspora – and to [Harris] herself.” It mentioned how “75 percent” of the transatlantic slave forts were built on land, which would later be located in modern Ghana (map).

As Harris toured the subterranean dungeons and the mournful “door of no return,” she accurately observed that the African slaves “were kidnapped from their homes,” and “transported hundreds of miles from their home [sic]” to face the brutalities of slavery at the coastal slave fortress and eventual enslavement in the Americas.

However, neither the vice president nor The Washington Post reporter explained who exactly did the kidnapping, and hence who was ultimately responsible for this west “African diaspora?”

I suppose such an explanation would be both politically incorrect and detrimental to Ghanaian-American relations. God forbid.

Harris later stated in a speech at the same museum without specifically naming any esteemed politicians that “some Republican governors have argued that lessons on Black history are ideological or “woke,” and should be kept out of public schools.” In my opinion, African-American history needs to be taught accurately in all private and public schools either as a one or two semester elective or integrated within the U.S. history curriculum and not just in February.

That should also include the teaching of native American (e.g. Pequot), feminist, Hispanic and other “spokes” on the wheel of American history, but I digress.

In 2003 I once worked with a high school history teacher originally from Togo (map), which borders Ghana to the east, who was generally appalled at the poor behavior of both many white and black students in Roanoke City Public Schools. Like all immigrants he was in search of the American dream. However, he once told me privately how “there was a deep sense of shame in west Africa how Africans treated their fellow Africans by selling them into slavery.”

According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., the teacher’s words were highly reminiscent of when President Mathieu Kérékou of Benin (map) “made a pilgrimage to the Church of the Great Commission in Baltimore in February 1999 in order to apologize on his knees to African-Americans for the African role in the slave trade.”

My Togolese colleague told me that most European slave buyers timidly stayed on their clipper ships, offshore islands (e.g. Gorée and Bunce Islands) or inside their scores of coastal slave forts (e.g. Elmina Castle) because the multitude of west African “nations” or tribes were sovereign states, and had all forbidden any unauthorized excursions or slave-hunting expeditions inside their territory. To do so would have been regarded as an act of war.

The history teacher also told me that the Europeans had a big “health incentive” not to travel beyond the coastline because they had no natural immunity against such deadly African diseases as malaria and dengue fever similar to how native North Americans had no natural immunity against such fatal European diseases as measles and smallpox.

My west African friend clearly told me that it was Africans, who kidnapped other African men, women and children, and sold them into slavery along with criminals, prisoners of war and debtors. In plain words, the west Africans were the sellers and the Europeans were the buyers.

He called the jungle scene in the 1977 television miniseries “Roots” by Alex Haley when Kinta Kunte frightfully witnessed his fellow Africans being bound and marched single file into bondage guarded by their white captors while he was trying to capture a bird in a rite of manhood as “pure fiction” and a “whitewash.”

He also referred to the slave trade as the “African exchange” similar to the New World’s “Columbian exchange” except that “Africa ultimately came out on the losing end of the stick.” The African exchange basically involved the trading of west African slaves for “metals, cloth, beads, guns, and ammunition” along with many other manufactured goods, rum, tobacco and such foods as corn and cassava.

Regardless of who were the sellers and buyers of slaves in west Africa, in my opinion American slaves and their descendants in both the North and South should have received some form of reparation between 1865 and 1880. The problem in 2023 is that all the slaves from the Reconstruction era are no longer alive to receive any just compensation whether in the form of land, animals, money or a triple combination.

Verifying today which African-Americans are directly descended from antebellum slaves would be extremely difficult since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which has allowed millions of people from both the Caribbean and Africa to emigrate to the U.S., along with much higher rates of racial intermarriage since 1967.

If there are ever going to be any reparations for slavery in the United States, it would first have to start with such west African countries as Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and other modern successor states to such precolonial slave kingdoms as the Dahomey (southern Benin), Ojo, Yoruba (southwestern Nigeria), Asante (southern Ghana), and other kingdoms.

Then since the United States was a British colony from 1607 to 1783, London would be next in line for paying reparations along with other nations such as France or Spain which were responsible for the slaves’ transport to the U.S. via the brutal and tortuous Middle Passage.

And finally, who would decide if a person is sufficiently black or African-American? For example, would a Caucasian, who is either less than 1% or 10% Senegalese, qualify for full or partial reparations? Perhaps this person would qualify for no reparations? Then what happens to a person who cannot trace his DNA to west Africa like Barack Obama, who had a Kenyan father?

These are all questions for another column.