By Alan Gibson
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Born in Blackness—Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World by Howard W French review

Howard W French’s new book puts Africa centre-stage in the development of capitalism and the modern world
A map of the transatlantic slave trade to illustrate a review of Born in Blackness

A map of the transatlantic slave trade

There has been much written about Europe’s and North America’s role in the development of the slave trade, and it’s role in the birth of capitalism and the modern world. Yet Africa—a continent plundered for slaves, then left behind to become the “heart of darkness” or the “hopeless continent”—has been all but side-lined in this story.

Howard W French aims to set the record straight in Born in Blackness—Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. The book is a treasure trove of material, woven together to produce an argument that places Africa at the centre of modern history.

French starts with the story of Mansa Musa, ruler of the west African empire of Mali, who arrived in Cairo in July 1324 after a 3,000-mile pilgrimage. He was accompanied by a 60,000-strong entourage dripping with pure gold—reportedly some 18 tonnes of it. Not surprisingly, news of this fantastic event set pulses running in every European palace—and none more so than the Portuguese. 

Over the next decades, they set about sailing further and further down the west coast of Africa, seeking the source of this fabulous wealth.

The Portuguese began what became the large-scale hunting of African people, and their transportation across the Atlantic. They created the first sugar plantation based on the violent domination of black slave labour in Sâo Tomé—a model they later took to their Brazilian colony. Their brutal and bloody plunder set in motion a series of discoveries, such as gold coinage in Europe. 

French highlights Portugal and the Vatican’s relationship with the Kingdom of Kongo. Generations of African royalty were feted by the Catholic church, and encouraged to assist with the wholesale transportation of slaves to Brazil.

Not surprisingly, other Europeans were quickly in on the act—particularly the Dutch and the English. This sparked off a series of conflicts that saw European powers make and break alliances with African rulers, and stoked warfare between those countries that weakened them. 

But it is the importance of slavery that French is, time and again, determined to underline. Some of the facts are well-known, but worth repeating. In the decade before the Haitian Revolution of 1791, French ships had transported around 224,000 African slaves across the Atlantic, most of them bound for Saint Domingue. 

They were forced to labour for up to 16 hours per day to produce sugar, which made up a third of France’s total global trade. It was a trade worth more than the rest of the country’s colonies combined.

The wealth derived from Britain’s slave-based sugar plantations on the Caribbean far outstripped that coming from its North American colonies. And following Trinidadian historian Eric Williams’ arguments in Capitalism and Slavery—ones which French agrees with—it seeded the investments and technological developments that fuelled the Industrial Revolution.

Here, French makes a significant claim. He argues James Drax’s brutal regimentation of slaves on his sugar plantations in Barbados in the 1630s amounted to the first industrial-style division of labour. Drax’s detailed record-keeping was also an example of the development of accounting, finance and insurance, laying the basis of what became the City of London.

Drax and his fellow slavers also set about “legalising” their brutal exploitation, and set in motion racist laws that enabled them to treat Africans “much like a horse or cow”. 

French highlights sugar’s impact on the development of mass consumerism, and how it came to transform eating habits across Europe and North America. And this in turn helped to change trading patterns, labour, worker productivity and health.

But African slaves did not only power Big Sugar. They also powered Big Cotton. French devotes the final section of his book to the US, and particularly the Mississippi Delta. Following the forced expulsion of native Americans and land clearance, large-scale, slave-based cotton production bloomed in the area. 

This fuelled Britain’s rapidly developing textile industry, and created huge wealth for the owners. By 1830, for example, “While a sixth of all Britons were employed in textile production, a million people, or one in thirteen Americans—overwhelmingly slaves—worked in cotton farming”. 

The majority of these slaves would have been “illegally” transported into the Delta from former slave states, such as Virginia. A network of slavers had sprung up following Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

This book teems with stories, events and facts, helping French put Africa centre-stage in the development of the modern world.

  • Born in Blackness—Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Howard W French (Liveright Publishing). £25.00. Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop 

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