With few exceptions, traditional accounts of the development of the modern world put European history at the center of everything, often focusing on the “Age of Discovery” and global expansion, the Enlightenment, and so on. “The history of Africa, by contrast, has long been relegated to the remote outskirts of our global story,” as Howard W. French asserts in his critically acclaimed and game-changing new book. “What if, instead, we put Africa and Africans at the very center of our thinking about the origins of modernity?”
In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc talks with French about his new book, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, and about the forcibly forgotten history of Africa’s central place in the making of the modern world. Howard W. French is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and former New York Times bureau chief in the Caribbean and Central America, West and Central Africa, Tokyo, and Shanghai. He is the author of numerous books, including A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa and China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.
Tune in for new episodes of The Marc Steiner Show every Tuesday and Friday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us.
Today we take another exploration into history, a history that has been lost to us, but one that has a profound effect on today’s world. When it comes to defining civilization, Africa’s centrality to it is often ignored, its importance purposely belittled and diminished. Few realize that central African kingdoms made alliances with European kingdoms, that Europe never ruled Africa until the late 19th century, that the Haitian revolution forced France out of the new world allowing US dominance. And there’s a straight line between these events as there is from African enslavement, to wealth accumulation, to the rise of capitalism.
And unraveling this historical tale is what we’re going to do this hour, in our conversation with Howard W. French. He’s a Professor of Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism, a renowned, award-winning journalist who’s lived and taught West Africa, reported overseas for the Times, was a Bureau Chief in Central America, the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, Japan, the Koreas, China. Twice, he’s won the Overseas Press Club Award, and he’s the author of numerous books. And today we talk about his latest work, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. It’s eye opening, interesting, and he joins us today.
Howard, welcome. It’s good to have you with us. I appreciate you being able to take the time for this conversation.
Howard French: It’s a pleasure to be here, Marc.
Marc Steiner: So, let’s just begin. This is really… What’s fascinating to me when this book first came across [a transom] and I saw what it was about, I really wanted to dive into it for numerous reasons, especially the thesis that started you off, and let’s talk about that. How West African kingdoms and West Africa in general began to define the modern era in ways that we have not allowed to be part of our history. And B, that Portugal, not Spain or anybody else, set this whole engine of modernity, for want of a better term, into motion of history. So, talk about how that… What that thesis is generally and how you came to it.
Howard French: Sure. So, there are a few different things to unpack here and I’ll try to take them in stages.
Marc Steiner: Sure.
Howard French: The first thing is that the conventional history that I think is almost universally taught is that the modernity… That the modern era begins with the Age of Exploration, either in coincidence with what we call the Age of Exploration or because of the Age of Exploration. So for our purposes, it doesn’t matter. One or both of those two things. And we are told that the Age of Exploration was primarily, or essentially even, about finding a maritime route to Asia. And in that context, Asia means or meant in the first instance, India. It turns out that the beginnings of the Age of Exploration are situated in a totally different part of the world, and namely in West Africa. And so, my book begins with that story. And that story’s proper commencement takes place in the 14th century, the century before the Age of Exploration, in which a very large and sophisticated West African kingdom rises to great wealth and power. And that kingdom is called the Mali Empire.
So, Mali is this very extensive, very robust and sophisticated kingdom that rose from the ashes of a predecessor kingdom called the Ghana Kingdom in a region of West Africa called the Sahel. And the Sahel is a semi-arid region above the rainforest of coastal West Africa and to the immediate south of the southern fringes of the Sahara desert. And so in 1324 the king at that time of the Mali Empire, a man named Mansa Musa, sets off on a pilgrimage to Mecca. And along the way to Mecca, he arrives in Cairo with a suite of something like 60,000 people. Nobles, members of the court, and slaves all together, and an unearthly amount of pure gold. Gold was the primary source of wealth of the Mali Empire. And Mansa Musa begins distributing as patronage, this gold, in immense quantities. Hundreds of pounds at a time to different Nobles of different types in different political systems in North Africa and in the region of Mecca. And as I understand it through my research, his purpose is to gain recognition for Mali as a big player in the Islamic world.
So, Mansa Musa achieved some degree of success in that regard, but perhaps not as much success as he had hoped for. And not too long after Mansa Musa’s reign, the Mali Empire was knocked off, meaning defeated, by an invasion from what is today called Morocco, the Marinid Empire in Morocco. And so, that story comes to an end. But, Mansa Musa’s ambitions of recognition, if not altogether, or if not solely in the Islamic world, were fully realized postmortem after his death in the broader world, especially the world of Europe, when in 1375 an extravagantly beautiful map called the Catalan Atlas, which forms the cover of my book, begins… Is drawn by a cartographer in the Spanish island of Majorca and then circulates widely among European Royal courts.
And this fires the imagination of Europeans to the idea that there’s gold in immense qualities in this part of the world, and therefore we must find it. The Portuguese take the lead in this exploration because the Portuguese were hither to a very marginal kingdom. Also a very young kingdom that was beset by antagonism from what I’m going to call Spain. Spain, in fact, back then, this place I’m calling Spain was a kingdom called Castile, and Castile wished to conquer and re-absorb Portugal back into its realm. And Portugal, which had almost nothing of commercial value to export other than salt and dried fish, became obsessed with getting access to this Malian gold.
And the famous Portuguese royal of this era, not a king, but a prince, a prince named Henry the Navigator, begins to fund a series of naval or maritime voyages down the coast of Africa. Where he is very explicit – And this is completely documented – Obsession is finding African gold. Along the way… So this takes decades and the gold is not found in fact until the year… The gold in great quantity is not found until the year that appears in the title of my book, 1471, when the Portuguese ships arrived in the place that is now the contemporary nation of Ghana. And by that time, Henry the Navigator had been dead for some time.
So this gives you a sense not just of the sources of the exploratory obsession, but also of its persistence and the degree of determination that was involved. Not only was this Henry the Navigator’s dream, but Henry the Navigator dies and this pursuit continues until the Portuguese finally ultimately arrive in Elmina. Now I want to – Excuse me if I’m going on here, but I want to add –
Marc Steiner: That’s all right.
Howard French: …And answer the second part of your question, which I think is even more revolutionary in terms of the way we have conventionally understood this history.
We think of the greatest breakthrough of the Age of Exploration perhaps being, and for obvious reasons, perhaps being Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic ocean, in which he “discovers the new world,” right? It’s important to think about Columbus’s work in that bid for discovery against the backdrop of the story I’ve just told. Columbus had been a sort of mercenary. He was from Italy, Genoa to be precise, and he goes from one royal court to another seeking backers for his dream to make ocean discovery and to find a route to Japan and perhaps China. The Spanish had refused him after a persistent effort there. The Portuguese had refused him. Even the English had refused him. He had made, or his brother had made a trip to England to solicit funding for these voyages. All of them had refused to support Columbus until the Portuguese discover the equivalent of one-tenth of the… From Europe’s perspective, one-tenth of the known supply of gold.
And it is when Portugal hits this mother lode that Spain says, holy crap, we too have to fund exploration. We have to get into this business. Before they did that, Spain and Portugal fought a Naval battle off of the West African coast in order to control the supply of the gold that I’ve described. And Portugal, although much smaller and much poorer than Spain, ends up winning that battle. And so this sets Spain off in a totally different direction and they say, let’s fund this guy. We thought he was crazy, Columbus, totally unrealistic, but we’ve got to do something too. And so the spur, the spark, and the fire for all of this stuff begins in West Africa.
Marc Steiner: So, a couple of things that struck me about the beginning of all this, and one was maybe just humorous to me [laughing], and I told my wife and it was humorous to her as well, which was that the… And I was thinking about the cover of your book. And I was thinking here we have… This could be part of a global Black and Jewish conspiracy to take over the planet with the Jewish Cartographers created this map in a Black kingdom that most people don’t even remember anymore, but –
Howard French: Correct.
Marc Steiner: That is… But that was an interesting juncture for me.
Howard French: Correct. And I just, I’m a little a bit leery of… I was talking about Jewish conspiracies because we know what that all produces.
Marc Steiner: [laughs] Right, right.
Howard French: However, I can take that story a little bit further back in time.
Marc Steiner: Okay.
Howard French: Jews had been allowed to live in Muslim… The North African Muslim milieu for centuries already. And there is some suggestion, the evidence is not solid, but there is some suggestion that Jewish traders may have already… Prior to these voyages by the Portuguese, already arrived in the vicinity of the Mali Empire and may have already contributed to this… I wanted to say rumor, but more than a rumor. These accounts of a very substantial kingdom that existed somewhere in the Sahel that begin to filter into Europe.
And so the Jews indeed played a very important role in this story. And the map that’s on the cover of my book, the Catalan Atlas, is just a glorious piece of map making, which shows Mansa Musa, the Malian Empire in the center of the frame, sitting on a golden throne with a golden orb, a big golden, solid golden orb and a golden scepter. And this just completely lights the fire and the imagination of the Europeans. But there were very similar maps, if not quite as fully realized or as beautiful as the Catalan Atlas that circulated in the years before that. And Jewish map makers were important in many of these map-making efforts.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk just for a moment, just about why you think, and why you posit that all this was forgotten. Why everything from Mansa Musa and in… Down to the Kingdom of the Congo and the role of the Portuguese in framing modernity, because of what they began. Why was that all lost? Why was that all superseded by everything else, by Columbus? I remember years back I helped organize a conference at Howard University on the 500th anniversary of Columbus, in 1992, where we tried to poke holes in the myth of what he really was and what that meant. Well, why do you think that took over? Why do you think we lost all of that? And what does that mean for us?
Howard French: Well, let me say a couple of things in regard to your question. One of them is that there’s another extraordinary story that predates Mansa Musa. And that is the story of a leader of Mali, Mansa Musa’s predecessor, a man named Abu Bakr II. And Abu Bakr II, we have strong reason to believe, mounted two attempts to explore the Atlantic himself. This is a century before Columbus. There is a documented account that Mansa… That Abu Bakr II, Mansa Musa’s predecessor, funded the creation of a convoy or fleet. I’m not going to call them ships because they were not masted vessels. But boats, to try to discover a world on the far side of the Atlantic.
And this totally undermines the essence of the European age of… The story of the European age of discovery. We believe that Columbus is this guy who proves a number of things: the existence of the roundness of the earth, and the existence of land on the far side of the continent. Here, a century before Columbus, you had an African ruler who already had this vision. Now he, according to the account that we have, and this is an account that was given by Mansa Musa himself, the successor. When he arrives in Cairo he is in court, the court session with the Governor of Cairo, and the Governor of Cairo asks him about his kingdom. And Mansa Musa tells the story about his predecessor, Abu Bakr II. And this is recorded, and there are written documents attesting to this that were contemporaneous. Abu Bakr II died in the second of these ventures. He said, when the first group of ships didn’t return, or only a few survivors returned, he mounted a second larger voyage and he went on it himself and perished at sea. Okay, so that’s the first piece of the answer.
There’s an even bigger story that we have wiped out. These are… I wish I could claim I had discovered these things. These are things I discovered in accounts that exist in libraries. You have to go to a very good library, and you have to be very persistent to find these things, but these are documented stories that are ironclad. This is not… By the way, I’m not claiming that Africans discovered the Americas. I’m not claiming that Abu Bakr arrived in the Americas. So people who wish to oppose this story with that kind of cynicism, they need to address their complaints somewhere else.
I think the immediate answer to your question of why don’t we have space? Why haven’t we accorded space to this history, has to do with what happened subsequently between Europeans and Africans. In other words, slavery begins… Although gold was the source of enormous wealth for Spain in the era that I’m talking about, in the 15th and 16th century. It allows Portugal to get onto its feet, and to survive as a kingdom that could hold its own against Spain. In this crucial era, it provided the funding that allowed the great Portuguese explorers, who eventually did discover a route to Asia, but only two decades later, to mount those explorations, et cetera.
The reason we don’t accord a place to these African stories I think has to do with the displacement of gold, with trade, and slaves. As important as the trade in gold was for the Portuguese in the early 16th century, the eventual takeoff of the trade and slaves becomes even more economically important. And by the way, I make the case that Portugal was a more important colonizing country in terms of the economic history of the world than Spain was. Because Portugal created what’s known as the Plantation Complex Model. And The Plantation Complex Model goes from a little island off the coast of Central Africa called Sao Tome, where it was invented by the Portuguese in the beginning of the 16th century, to across the Atlantic ocean, to Brazil, which the Portuguese discovered in 1500. And then from Brazil to Barbados, where the English implanted plantations in the 1630s. And upwards to Jamaica and then Haiti, and then finally to the American South, where it’s no longer sugar that is the primary crop, but cotton, which becomes the primary crop. The wealth that is created from this era of sugar followed by an era of cotton is a far more consequential economic story than the story of Spanish gold and silver that was acquired from the Americas.
Why don’t we tell this story? I think we don’t tell this story because of the depth of horror that is associated with slavery. If we place Africa at the center of the story of modern civilization, it forces us to grapple in a frontal way with a thing that is very unpleasant. And the European civilization, I think, has an aversion to recognizing that its wealth and prosperity and emergence, actually the verb that is used or noun that is used in history and political science, is divergence. It’s divergence from the power and wealth centers of Asia, India, and China. This is principally due to the exploitation of Africa. And this is an uncomfortable story for Europeans and for people of European descent. And so therefore, it became expedient to remove Africa from the center of this narrative.
Marc Steiner: So, a couple things… There’s so much that… I really enjoyed this book. I mean, it’s a huge book. It’s not an overnight read. It takes some time to not –
Howard French: For sure.
Marc Steiner: – Not wade through, but think about as you’re reading it, and what it divulges. So it raised a lot of questions for me. And some of those questions have to do with how this redefinition of the beginning of this, the redefinition that it understands the power of the Congo, the kingdom of the Congo, understanding the power of Benin and other African kingdoms. The fact that Europe really didn’t colonize Africa until the 19th century, in a serious way. And the role that Portugal played in actually having relations with those kingdoms. And they played a role in European wars in terms of making alliances. We don’t know any of that. So talk about why… How that should begin to change our perception, that historical understanding, of the rise of the West?
Howard French: Well, the answer to that question actually flows from your previous question, which I think was an excellent question. Why have we failed to ever integrate these stories into our understanding of the present?
Because of the horror of slavery, and any lingering guilt that might attach to the horror of the slave trade. Remember the slave trade involves landing 12.5 million African human beings onto American soil. Meaning North, South America, and the Caribbean. Right. And working them literally to death, almost all of them. Another 20-40% of that number died in Africa in the trade for slaves before they ever got on a boat. And another 10-15% of that number died at sea before they ever reached the Americas. The horror here is on such a scale that I think this induced what I’m going to call for expediency’s sake, westerners, which initially meant Europeans but which has come to mean Americans and Europeans.
Howard French: It induced them to promote or to accept a vision of Africa as a kind of blank slate. That of course bad things happened to Africa, but that’s because Africans didn’t really have any civilization or not much civilization to speak of. And of course, we all know that Africans themselves participated in the slavery, so we don’t need to really hold ourselves to account for that, or feel very bad about it. So much of the energy has been aimed at shielding ourselves as westerners from grappling with this history that we have ended up holding on to very little of it, almost none of it. And so this brings us ultimately to your question, in which you referred to kingdoms that existed in, let’s say Congo, another empire in central Africa, that probably arose around the year 1300.
And by the time the Portuguese arrived around the year of… In the 1490s, it was an immensely sophisticated place. The Congolese had ambassadors in Europe, once relations were established with the Portuguese. The Congolese had bishops appointed by the Pope after they, at a very early stage, accepted Catholicism. The Congolese, as you alluded to, but I’m going to add a level of detail here, not only forged an alliance with the Dutch, to fight against the Portuguese and the Spanis, in a great war in the South Atlantic over slavery and economics and colonization of Brazil, but the Congolese actually proposed the alliance. It was not the Dutch who proposed the Alliance.
The Congolese had a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of European politics because they had diplomats in Europe and an elite that had command of Latin and Portuguese and had facility in writing those languages, that they had a mastery of European politics. And they knew that the Netherlands was beset by an aggressive Spain and said, since Spain and Portugal in this moment in history between 1580 and 1640 had merged their kingdom, if we can help the Dutch fight against the Portuguese, we can get the Portuguese off of our necks.
What do I mean by off of our necks? At that point in time, the Portuguese were, by a larger distance, the biggest slave traders in the transatlantic slave business. And they were sourcing a lot of their slaves in central Africa. And if it is true that the Congolese in the early stages of this were very willing participants, the Congolese had come to understand that the slave trade was becoming so extensive and so menacing that if it were allowed to continue to grow like this, it would destroy their kingdom and sow disorder in the broader region.
And so they forged the Alliance with the Dutch to fight throughout the South Atlantic. Something that I call in the book a little short of a World War in this era. This is something that even in graduate school history classes, even among African Studies people, it’s not very widely known.
Marc Steiner: And I think, also one of these things that your book begins to transform, and I think it’s important to touch on this, is how this defined the emergence of capitalism. Commercial credit, more, but capitalism, let’s just say capitalism for the moment. How it defined the beginnings of that and how this new understanding of the role of the Portuguese and their interaction with West African kingdoms for gold that created the trade in human beings, the enslavement of African people of all kinds, this led to the emergence of capitalism. And this is part of it. And part of the thing you’re putting in here, is a missing brick in this story.
Howard French: Absolutely. When we say the emergence of capitalism, which I completely endorse, it’s important to us to add a few brushstrokes of detail here.
So, where does this begin? I argue that this begins in the world of sugar plantations, especially in the Caribbean. You could say that it begins in Sao Tome of Africa or in Brazil, but I think this really takes off in Barbados where the English copy the Portuguese and begin to produce refined sugar, which was a rare and exorbitant product in Europe prior to this age. And suddenly via mass African slavery, in the blink of an eye historically speaking, it becomes a commodity. And people of all income levels, within a century of the introduction of plantation slavery in the New World people of all income levels in England, and then subsequently throughout Europe, are having their lives transformed by the availability of sugar.
Cheap sugar means cheap calories. Cheap sugar eventually means, as I say in my book, the ability to drink coffee, which is also a slave product. And coffee is, in those early days, almost universally sweetened by sugar. And so instead of drinking ale during the daytime, because water [that] was publicly available, water was mostly unsanitary in England. People start drinking coffee. And coffee shops emerge. And around the hems or margins of coffee shops in Oxford in 1650, and then very quickly afterward in London, and then after that throughout Europe, the newspaper business springs up. And people begin to read newspapers, these captive audiences of people sitting around, instead of being drunk on ale, sitting around caffeinated and drinking coffee and smoking tobacco – Another slave trading product – Begin to engage in a public discourse about the affairs of state, which they begin to take as their birthright.
And this becomes a defining aspect of citizenship, a new notion, and eventually of democracy, et cetera. So I’ve given you the political dimension of this, but back to the capitalist dimension. In Barbados, this race by England, and which subsequently becomes Britain, to catch up with the Portuguese in profiting from the slave trade and from its offspring, the plantation business. The British begin to employ sophisticated accounting methods that did not exist, had never been used on such a scale before. Mind you, the plantations that were built in Barbados in the 17th century and in Jamaica in the 17th century were bigger than almost any kinds of businesses, bigger in terms of the numbers of employees or in terms of the bottom line, than almost any kinds of businesses that existed on European soil.
These were the giant corporations of the era in terms of their scale, and in order to run them as efficiently as possible, and especially to out-compete the Portuguese and any other entrants, which also soon came to include the French. The English begin to employ accounting practices measuring the actual output per worker. Per worker, we mean slave. Creating a division of labor between workers, assigning specific groups of slaves to specific tasks. And having them watched over carefully by an overseer who’s measuring their every movement and accounting for this and creating punishments and sometimes small rewards as inducements to higher productivity. These are all the forerunners of the normal things that we understand as business culture and capitalism. And they began in a slave plantation environment. We don’t have time to go into every manifestation of this, but I would say that there were parallel developments in terms of this emergence of capitalism in the plantation environment involving finance, meaning banks, involving insurance, meaning the insurance of slave shipments, because without slavery, none of this would work. The insurance business took off as a result, in large part, of plantation slavery. And so here you have the fundaments of many of the ingredients of what we think of as capitalism.
The final piece of this… Some people say a sugar plantation was in fact an industrial form of organization. I’m not saying that all together. I’m not saying that we had reached a state of full industrialization in the sugar plantation world. However, I will say that this was an important precursor to industrialization. And I will also say that when the sugar plantation model moves to mainland America, meaning the colonies and subsequently the independent country known as the United States, and cotton takes off, that cotton grown by slaves using all of these modern methods that I’ve described, of accounting, of division of labor, of finance, and of insurance, go into the provision of the essential, the sine qua non ingredient of the industrial age, as we understand it, which is cotton. We call the industrial revolution, the child of the textile industry in the Lancashire region of England. The cotton that the textile looms were weaving into clothing almost all came from the American South using slave labor that employed, or whose management employed, all of the various techniques that I’ve just described
Marc Steiner: To me that there was an important segue, because I think that the importance of this book in so many… So many pieces of this book that were fascinating to me, but the importance of this is to understand much of what we built today and the roots of racism and the roots of capitalism, both, are buried… We should be much more accurate in what our understanding of the history is and how it was created. Is what you’re doing here in many ways. Saying, let’s get rid of the mythology, let’s talk about what really happened at this moment in the 15th century, in the 16th century, and what really took place, as opposed to the mythology we want to build around it. If we are ever to have a grip on our future.
Howard French: I think that’s right. I mean, on one level I’m saying we need to explode the conventional wisdom, because conventional wisdoms are routinely deficient in terms of the way they help us understand things. And there’s such a thing as revisionist history precisely for that reason. That with each new age we profit from going back and reexamining the way we have understood things in the past and thinking more carefully about them and challenging our past understandings of these things.
And I think this particular history, it’s a big slice of history, 600 years, was a big fat, prime, standing target for that. Something that was deeply, powerfully overdue for reexamination, in which we have too long accepted mythologies that essentially comfort our own notions about ourselves as being the inheritors of the fruits of Protestant work ethic, or a Judeo-Christian way of thinking, or the rule of law, or the enlightenment, or the scientific method. All of these things were factors in various ways, in terms of the development of a modern world, but there was something much more primary beneath all of this which enabled those things. And it was called the harnessing of African labor and African resources, in brutal ways, to the economic and political purposes of the West. And that story has hitherto never really been told in a way that gives due justice to the place of Africa in our arrival at the present moment.
Marc Steiner: And you’ve told the story, the book, again, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. We could do this for another hour. There’s so much more to explore. Maybe we’ll do some more in weeks to come, because I think it’s a great deal to parse through here. And I want to thank you for this really [monumental] piece of work and taking the time today.
Howard French: Thank you very much for the conversation Marc. It means a lot to me. I wrote the book because I want people to read it and to wrestle with these ideas. It’s not, certainly not the last word, but as any reader will discover, a serious effort went into this. This isn’t armchair history.
Marc Steiner: It is not, and you’ve given us something to build on. So Howard French, thank you so much for your time and for the book. Really appreciate it.
Howard French: Thank you, Marc. Terrific. Thanks a lot.
Marc Steiner: Thank you.
Thank you all for joining us once again today, it’s a pleasure having you all with us. And a reminder that’s starting next week, the Marc Steiner Show will be coming to you on Mondays and Thursdays. So please tune in and please let me know what you think about what you heard today and what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right back to you. So from Stephen Frank and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner, stay involved, keep listening, and take care.