Back to Africa Movement Gathers Pace

By Kwaku | New African, January 2019 | Go to article overview

Back to Africa Movement Gathers Pace


Kwaku, New African


Although Ghana officially launched the Return to Africa project last year, the history of Africans in the diaspora returning to the Mother Continent goes back two centuries. Kwaku examines the historical records to chart this movement.

With Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo having personally launched The Year of Return (TYOR) project in Washington DC last autumn, Ghana is poised to be the number one destination for African-Americans and other diaspora Africans in 2019. However, as we shall see, there's a long history of Africans returning to Ghana and other African countries.

TYOR's year-long activities include concerts, a carnival and an investment summit, as well as history, youth, cultural and Pan-Africanism programmes. Although the project aims to attract mainly diaspora Africans, including second-generation Ghanaians, from all parts of the world, the focus is heavily tilted towards African-Americans. The reason being that this year marks the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first recorded arrivals of Africans in what is now the United States.

The status of the 20 trafficked Africans who arrived on a Spanish ship at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 is still debated. As chattel enslavement had not yet officially begun in England's North American colonies, the speculation is that the Africans were either enslaved or indentured workers, or a mixture of both.

But within fifty years, chattel enslavement had become legalised in Virginia and other states, and particularly in the southern states, chattel enslavement was to become the key driver of the plantation economies that flourished well into the late 19th century.

The insatiable need for enslaved Africans meant millions of Africans were trafficked from Africa across the Atlantic to plantations in the Caribbean and Doth North and South America, which resulted in significant African diasporas in the so-called New World. Nominal emancipation of Africans in this region came over a long period.

In 1793, the Africans in Haiti became the first to be emancipated, and on 1 January 1804, they declared Haiti an enslavement-free republic, following the African-led Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. In 1838, the Africans in the British Caribbean were emancipated. The 1833 Slavery Abolition Act only freed Africans aged up to six in 1834 (the servitude of slaves over six being abolished in two stages). The last of the Latin American countries to abolish enslavement were Cuba in 1886 and Brazil in 1888.

Early returnees

Brazil, which today has the largest African population outside of Africa, provided one of the earliest and largest volumes of returnees.

The earliest returnees from Brazil to West Africa include some of those who took part in the January 1835 Male revolt, also known as The Great Revolt. During the 19th century, thousands of free and enslaved Africans emigrated from Brazil to present-day Nigeria, Benin, Ghana and Togo.

These Afro-Brazilians, known as Tabom people, integrated into their West African local societies, swapped Portuguese for the English and French lingua franca, and indigenous languages. Today, it's their surnames, such as de Souza, Peregrino or Plange, that tell of their Brazilian sojourn. My maternal lineage comes from the Ghanaian Tabom people, and at the time of writing, my daughter is back in Brazil researching the Tabom history for a documentary film.

Thanks to Steven Spielberg's 1997-directed film Amistad, many people know the story of the returnees from Cuba. The film tells the historical story of the enslaved Africans who took over the ship La Amistad, which was transporting them from Havana, Cuba to their owners' US plantations in 1839.

The Africans, who were Mende people from Sierra Leone, spared a few of the European ship's crew and ordered them to sail to Africa. To cut a long story short, the remaining crew had no intention of sailing to Africa, and with the 53 Africans not having any nautical experience, the ship zig-zagged across the Atlantic for 63 days until it entered US waters, whereupon the US naval authorities arrested the ship on 26 August 1839. …

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