Last week I travelled from Monrovia to Dakar, Senegal and then to Brussels and Lisbon. This unusually indirect itinerary (the product of indecision and obscure ticket conditions) has made me think about something that rarely occupies a white European: slavery.
We spent two months living in the Baptist Compound, Congo Town: named after the ‘Congos’, as the freed slaves who founded Liberia were called. Monrovia was built by them, funded by their guilty ex-masters and grew rich on enslaving the locals in their turn. The Americans who settled in Liberia created plantations whose rubber still contributes half their country’s exports. Only one of Liberia’s presidents was not Liberian-American: Samuel Doe, a semi-illiterate brute whose vindictive rule so incensed the elite that they helped fund his removal. He was succeeded by Charles Taylor, a pale-skinned, white-suited Baptist preacher. Taylor’s concrete palace, freshly painted, is right opposite the Baptist Compound.
I flew to Dakar on Slok Air. Its clapped-out 737 performs the West African stopping service the Royal Mail steamers used to. We stopped at Freetown to take on passengers. Across the river, a peak shone in the late afternoon sun. You could make out scattered houses on it: this is Hill Station, where the ‘Krios’ who founded Sierra Leone built their bungalows well above the malaria-infested ‘native settlement’ down below. The Krios were freed slaves too, but after 50 years of self-government the British decided they were getting ‘uppety’ and took over on the pretext that the Krios were excluding the natives of Sierra Leone from power. You guessed the next bit: a century of resentment and rivalry, boiling over in a bloody civil war . . .
Senegal is a complete contrast. It is the model of a self-confident Africa: it celebrates its French administration and bread as much as its Islamic heritage and vibrant music. A little offshore of booming Dakar, the Ile de Goree welcomes visitors. I went on Sunday, along with thousands of Senegalese, to delight in the colonial architecture. One of the prettiest buildings is called ‘La Maison des Esclaves’. Each room has a label: ‘Hommes’, ‘Femmes’, ‘Jeunes filles’ and so on. An arched door leads straight into the Atlantic ocean. Through this door, it is estimated that some tens of thousands of slaves were packed into waiting ships. There were many such houses on Goree, which was so lucrative that it changed hands repeatedly between 1650 and 1815, captured and recaptured by Dutch, French and British navies. Just like the Portugese, Arabs, Germans and British fought over Zanzibar.
What the guide on Goree didn’t tell us was that Mauritania, 300km to the north, tolerated slavery until 1981. Indeed, while I was in Senegal, the parliament of Mauritania voted to make slave trafficking a crime, so as to be able to prosecute it (see this article in Jeune Afrique, or the BBC for background). Mauritania’s democratically elected president – its first since 1960 – had made the issue a central pillar in his campaign.
I flew to Belgium on SN Brussels, a fading relic of empire whose Airbuses are still the best link to Kinshasa and Kigali. Belgium was the last European country to get into slavery. To make up for lost time, they kept the slaves right in the Congo where they came from. The pompous palaces of Brussels were paid for with Congolese copper and diamonds. In Tervuren, near the airport, King Leopold built the ‘Royal Museum of Central Africa’. It is still open, but when I visited in 2004, the ivory tusks and photos of happy natives dancing were being replaced with maps and mementoes of slaughter: for when Mr Kurtz died, he took an estimated 5 million Congolese with him.
Finally to Lisbon, from where Europeans first set sail for Africa and the Carribbean. Portugal was the first country into Africa and the last out: Angola and Mozambique didn’t attain their independence until 1974. The picture below shows the Cap Sao Vicente, the most south-westerly point in Europe. On the cape is an old fort: a naval college built by Prince Henry the Navigator. Its style reminded me of a fort in Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast some 5,000km away: not surprisingly, since that too was built by the Portugese. When Portugal abandoned East Africa in the 16th century, the Arab traders took it over.
What, if anything, links these four stations?
First, it turns out that the slave trade was the largest mass movement of people in human history. Some 12-15 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic between 1500 and 1900. 5 million went to Brazil and another 5 million to the Carribbean – mostly Cuba and Hispaniola. Less than half a million ended up in the USA. In countries like Jamaica, Haiti or Guyana, Africans essentially replaced the native population. Yet it is estimated that FOUR OUT OF FIVE captured slaves died before they got across the Atlantic – half of them didn’t even make it onto the ship. This puts the total captured at something closer to 25 million. To that add millions sent through Zanzibar to the Arab world or bought and sold in countries like Mauritania. (See here for details on the Atlantic slave trade or here for the Arab - though they were really part of the same phenomenon).
Second, nobody escapes from blame. All maritime powers were involved in the slave trade and many African rulers connived in it. Christian preachers like William Wilberforce and David Livingstone fought against slavery, but the slave traders of Lisbon, La Rochelle and Liverpool were Christian too. The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, writing in the 14th century, described Africans as “the only race who willingly accept slavery, owing to their low human state and closeness to animals”.
Third, slavery doesn’t end with being freed. The sad stories of the three republics founded by freed slaves – Haiti, Sierra Leone and Liberia – should make that clear. Haiti spent 100 years trying to pay ‘damages’ to France and the next 100 years oscillating between dictatorship and chaos. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and Sierra Leone the poorest country in the world. In the early 20th century, Liberia exported slaves to the Spanish colony of Fernando Po (now Equatorial Guinea) to work on the cocoa plantations. The League of Nations censured it for this in 1929 and when President William Barclay came to power in 1931 he largely ended the practice.
Growing up in Central Europe in the 1990s, my history teachers focused on the twin horrors of the 20th century: the Holocaust and the Gulag. The slave trade deserves similar attention: not just in Africa or America, but in Europe and Arabia as well.