West Africa: Don't Let History Repeat Itself

By de Figueiredo, Antonio | New African, June 2004 | Go to article overview

West Africa: Don't Let History Repeat Itself


de Figueiredo, Antonio, New African


One in six barrels of oil imported by the US today comes from West Africa, mostly from Nigeria and Angola. Over the next 10 years, according to US estimates, West Africa's share will increase to one out of every four barrels. West Africans must make sure that history does not repeat itself--oil has been a blessing for corruption of both sellers and buyers, just like slavery was in past centuries of collusion.

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This is how, in his famous poem "Pity for the Poor Africans" written in 1788, William Cowper criticised even those seeming liberals who expressed sympathy for the enslaved Africans but always concurred in finding excuses to slow down the movement for abolition:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

  I own I am shock'd at the purchase of slaves,
  And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
  What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans,
  Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.

  I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
  For how could we do without sugar and rum?
  Especially sugar, so needful we see;
  What, give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea!

  Besides if we do, the French, Dutch and Danes
  Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains;
  If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will;
  And tortures and groans will be multiplied still.

Apart from the old terms such as "I own" which means "I admit" or "knaves" (rascals), these verses could still apply to modern excuses concerning the dependence on oil and gas by modern consumers. Curiously enough, Cowper does not mention the Portuguese, either because the name does not fit into the rhymes, or because by then they had been overtaken by the new European imperialists, or by Portuguese-Brazilians who had taken the trade for themselves.

Broadly speaking, however, Cowper's sarcastic verses depict the overall collusion within Western societies concerning slavery. Its economic importance, however, could hardly be assessed at a time, long before the advent of the telegraph, when information was slow and vague. Only over the past 50 years or so, has the study of slavery been advanced to the extent of recognising that it was one of the main starting points in the development of modern "Western imperialist economy".

This is how in his book, Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery (Howard University Press 2004), Arion Davies sums up the conclusions of what slavery scholars have written over the past decades of research:

  "By 1820, at least 10 million Africans slaves had arrived in the New
World, as opposed to a grand total of 2 million Europeans. And for
centuries, these Africans performed the most arduous and exhausting
work, clearing forests, digging the soil, planting and harvesting the
exportable crops that founded economic systems that prospered in ways
that eventually attracted untold millions of free immigrants from
Europe. And if black slaves provided the basic power that drove the
interconnected economies of the New World, some of their sacrifice is
reflected in the fact that by 1840, the original 2 million white
immigrants had engendered a total white New World population of some 12
million, roughly twice as great as the surviving black population."

Given that, following the "independence, or more properly "separation", of the Americas, European imperialism turned to Africa, we can still add colonial exploitation to the "sacrifice" that black people have sustained so that the "West" could attain the living standards and supremacy it came to enjoy in the last two centuries.

West Africa, as it is known, was the main source of slaves to the Americas. They were, before the introduction of steam engines, the main source of labour. Transporting the slaves across the seas alone was a considerable factor in the development of the shipping industry, as bigger and faster ships were required for the further progress of American/Western "civilisation". …

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