“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.
24. Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased.
And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus;
why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.”
It’s not unknown for continental Europeans to be visibly browner than Anglos. It’s not unknown that the definition of ‘white’ people has been steadily expanding since its inception.
But is it possible that many 18th century Europeans weren’t ‘white’ even by our definition? That they were too ‘black’ to be allowed into America as anything but an enslaved class? That they couldn’t “pass”?
How did that happen? Were ‘black’ Europeans like the Moors, or their ‘grey’ descendants, still in large enough numbers to keep north America tawny? Or even the very first Europeans to leave Africa 40-50,000 years ago…?
Islam, Colourism and the Myth of Black African Slave Traders
February 10, 2004
Africans in the Diaspora have the challenge of rewriting a history that has been stained by years of distortions, omission and downright lies. One of the biggest challenges of rewriting this history has been the Atlantic Slave Trade, and one of the biggest sore points has been the idea that “Black Africans sold their own into slavery”. A lack of information, a paucity of expansive scholarship and an unwillingness to have a serious discourse on Colourism as it existed in Africa even before European intervention, has contributed to this. Diaspora Africans are often quite naïve and will do anything to hold fast to the illusion that ” we are all Africans” and ignore the racism that has existed among a group that is far from uniform.
In looking at the issue of Colourism I could not help seeing the links between the role of Islam in Africa and the role of Africans in the slave trade. The book, Islam and the Ideology of Slavery by John Ralph Willis is very helpful in looking at the almost imperceptible link between the enslavement of ‘kufir’ non-Muslims or infidels, and the belief that Black Africans were not only heathens but inherently inferior. This is not a new thought and certainly not one that originated with the Muslims coming into Africa. Several Jewish exegetical texts have their own version of the mythical Curse of Ham being blackness. Given the common origins of these two major religions, it is thus not surprising that both Jews and Muslims played some of the most important roles in the enslavement of Black Africans next to the Europeans.
In an article by Oscar L. Beard, Consultant in African Studies called, Did We Sell Each Other Into Slavery? he says “Even the case of Tippu Tip may well fall into a category that we might call the consequences of forced cultural assimilation via White (or Red) Arab Conquest over Africa. Tippu Tip’s father was a White (or Red) Arab slave raider, his mother an unmixed African slave. Tip was born out of violence, the rape of an African woman. It is said that Tip, a “mulatto”, was merciless to Africans.”
The story of Tippu Tip who is one of the most widely known slave traders has always posed a problem for historians, especially Afrocentric historians in the Diaspora trying to find some way to reconcile themselves to the idea of an ‘African slave trader’. The fact that Tippu Tip was not only Muslim, but ‘mulatto’ is vital. The common ideology of Judaism and Islam where Black Africans are concerned is certainly no secret. While in some Islamic writings we see an almost mystical reverence for Africans, especially an over sexualized concept of Ethiopian women who were the preferred concubines of many wealthy Arab traders and Kings, in others there is distinct racism. Add to this the religious fervor of the Muslim invaders, their non-acceptance or regard for traditional African religions, and the obvious economic and political desires for which religion was used as a tool, and we get an excellent but little spoken of picture of Islam in Africa.
Historians did not often record or think of the ethnicity of these ‘Africans’ who sold their brothers and sisters into slavery. As part of our distorted historical legacy, we too in the Diaspora buy the idea that all Africans were uniform and ‘brothers’, but the true picture, especially at this time was not so. Centuries of contact with Europe, Asia, North Africa produced several colour / class gradients in the continent, divisions fostered by the foreigners. This may have been especially prominent in urban and economic centres. When we combine the converting, military force of Islam sweeping across western and eastern Africa placing a virtual economic stranglehold on villages and trading centers that were Kufir, with the intermixing of lighter-skinned Muslim traders from the North and East Africa creating an unprecedented population of mixed, lighter skinned Africans who began to form the elites of the trading classes we can see how a society begins to change.
Some historians have tended to downplay, or completely ignore the potential for change in scenario. It has even been suggested that one cannot transplant a modern day problem outside of its historical context. However, we see this creeping problem of colourism occurring all over the continent. In the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique where European traders and administrators were encouraged to intermarry, the elitist, trader class was largely Mulatto and Catholic. If we look at the situation in Ethiopia with the age-old oppression of the original Ethiopians, the Oromo of indigenous Cushitic stock, by the more Arabized Amhara this too has its roots in colour prejudice. There were hints of this occurring in many other instances at crucial points of contact between indigenous black Africans and lighter-skinned foreigners or mixed Africans and the most significant of these were in the areas of severe Islamic incursion.
Many towns and villages converted to Islam because of the protection that the military banner of Islam could offer them in a changing economic, political and social landscape. But the more damaging result was the many light skinned, converted Africans, children of mixed encounters that now felt a sense of superiority over their dark skinned, black African counterparts. Colourism is indeed of ancient vintage. The truth of the matter is that fair skinned Arabs’ racist attitude towards Blacks existed even before they invaded Africa. The evidence for this can be found in how they dealt with the Black inhabitants of Southern Arabia before they entered Africa as Muslims. Discerning readers and thinkers can look at this and many other accounts of this time and get a clearer picture of the inherent racism of this situation. When we combine this with the desire for African slave labour by Europeans it was no large feat for these often lighter skinned, Islamized Africans to enslave the black kufir, whom they barely endowed with a shred of humanity. And of course jumping on their bandwagon would have been those black Africans with deep inferiority complexes, who would have been only too eager to do the duty of the ‘superior’ Muslims in an effort to advance themselves. These facts are certainly not hidden and the patterns are everywhere, even today but it is we who do not like to see. For centuries we certainly have not been conditioned for Sight.
This leads us to another direct way colourism played itself out in the slave trade and this is in the ‘type’ of Africans who were enslaved. The biggest victims of slavery were undoubtedly the darkest Africans of what was called the “Negroid” type. If you look at old maps and documents by early European explorers you can note that the parts of the continent that they explored was divided by their crude definitions of what they saw as different African ethnicities. The regions of West and Central Africa were seen as the place of the “Negroes” which was distinct from Ethiopian Africans and even more so the lighter, more Arabized North Africans. We cannot say that NO Africans we taken from the north, but by and large most slaves that came to the West Indies, Americas etc were of the type mentioned above.
Beard continues, “In reality, slavery is an human institution. Every ethnic group has sold members of the same ethnic group into slavery. It becomes a kind of racism; that, while all ethnic groups have sold its own ethnic group into slavery, Blacks can’t do it. When Eastern Europeans fight each other it is not called tribalism. Ethnic cleansing is intended to make what is happening to sound more sanitary. What it really is, is White Tribalism pure and simple.” But the thing is that this thing we call ‘slavery’ never was a uniform institution. When people speak of slavery they immediately think of chattel slavery as practiced as a result of the Atlantic Slave Trade and apply this definition to indigenous African servitude systems, which bore little or no resemblance to chattel slavery. It is misleading to say, “Every ethnic group has sold members of the same ethnic group into slavery. It becomes a kind of racism; that, while all ethnic groups have sold its own ethnic group into slavery, Blacks can’t do it” as it denies the complexities of that particular colonial, chattel slavery situation that existed between Africans and Europeans.
Servitude systems that existed in Africa, and in other indigenous communities cannot be compared to racist slave systems in the Western world and to this day we attempt to try to see this slavery in the same context. People bring up accounts of Biblical slavery, of serfdom in Europe and yes, of servitude in Africa and attempt to paint all these systems with the same brush. However NO OTHER SLAVE SYSTEM has created the never-ending damaging cycle as the Atlantic Slave Trade. West Indian poet Derek Walcott has stated his feeling that our penchant for forgetting is a defense mechanism against pain, that if we were to take a good hard look at our history, at centuries of victimization, it would be too much for us to handle and we would explode. Well I say we are exploding anyway and in many cases from bombs that are not even our own. We have begun the long hard road of rewriting our ancient history, of recovering our old and noble legacy. Let us not stop and get cold feet now when the enemy now appears to take on a slightly darker hue. We must look at the slave trade in its OWN context, complete with all the historic and psychological peculiarities that have made it the single most damaging and enduring system of exploitation and hatred ever perpetrated in the recent memory of mankind. Until we do we will not escape its legacy.
I think of myself as a pro-‘black’ man with a strong passion for knowing the histories and co-creating the futures of all ‘black’ people. I also sympathise with pan-Africanism, as I agree that we’re all better off uniting and supporting each other.
However, I’ve always hesitated to join any one particular movement. Why? Because no one has all the answers, and I hate when someone tries to force me to adopt an ideology in its entirety before I understand it to a degree I’m happy with. A few personal gripes I’ve had with formalised pro-‘black’ movements:
Ancestors: it kind of pisses me off when anyone, regardless of ideology, bangs on so much about ancestors. It creates a mindset that everything they did was right and we’re wrong for wanting to move on or do anything new. TBH that’s a remnant of my Muslim upbringing: following tradition for tradition’s sake is jahil (ignorant). I think that’s a very pragmatic approach. Furthermore, ‘ancestors’ refers to members of your family like parents, grandparents, etc. This is meant to foster a sense of pride in oneself due to knowing we have royalty, scholars, die-hard survivors, revolutionaries and other great people in our DNA. Bit of a backfire, though, if our bloodlines also include assholes, traitors, cowards, rapists and the like.
But from going to so my meetings it’s now clear that they’re not talking about all Africans in the past, nor about members of any particular person’s family tree. They mean any Africans & Afro-diasporans whose lives contained examples of constructive positive action. In a sense, we choose our ancestors! That I can relate to.
Afrika: some claim it’s a more accurate spelling of Africa. To me it makes no difference, except that it kind of looks cooler. It’s still a word of west Asian (European) origin, so until we come up with/ discover an indigenous term for the continent the spelling is irrelevant. Since everyone uses the term Africa/ Afrika nowadays, it’s easiest to stick with it for now. Speaking of indigenous names…
Alkebulan: allegedly the original indigenous name for Africa. Being the detail-oriented person I am, I like to know which language that word came from, exactly when and where it was used, etymology, that kind of stuff. To date I’ve not met a single person able to answer any of those questions. Even the Africans I’ve asked have never heard of it. Sounds like a hoax to me.
No gay Africans: this is the position often held nowadays that homosexuality among ‘black’ people never existed until ‘whites’ came along with their TAST shit. All ‘black’ gays are either agents or sexual victims of the ‘white’ supremacy system. Not just homosexuality, but all non-heterosexual relationships didn’t exist before ‘white’ people. So there were no transvestites, transsexuals (including eunuchs), zoophiles, asexuals, bisexuals, etc. Supposedly, even the gender roles have remained exactly the same throughout all of Africa in all time periods. Men were always warriors & providers, women were always nurturing mothers, and couples were always married. So how about:
Baka babies being breastfed by their dads- what?
Woodaabe men wearing make-up – what?
Mino (all-female warriors of Dahomey) – what?
Yoruba women using marriages for personal economic gain – what?
Admittedly I’m not the expert on this topic. But I’ve been reading Eccentric Yoruba’s blog and I find it extremely informative. She’s all about evidence of gender & sexual fluidity in pre-colonial Africa.
Unity: nothing wrong with it. It’s for the good of us all. BUT we cannot and must not be united all the time. Sometimes it’s easy to think we’re supposed to be united in everything, like groupthink. Disagreement is forbidden! However, as humans we should know that everyone is different. Being ‘black’ doesn’t erase other aspects of our identity, like being:
anal about timekeeping
victim of domestic abuse
You get the picture.
To achieve proper unity, our goals must have the common aim of benefitting all ‘black’ people. Except those who demonstrate a desire to maintain racism/ ‘white’ supremacy, of course. For the sake of those goals, differences in identity must be put aside or used as sources of inspiration/ experiences to draw on. Which brings me nicely to my next point…
‘Black’ = African: Not all pro-‘black’ people spout this, but there are some who reckon that being ‘black’ (wholly or partially) makes you African. I wholeheartedly disagree. ‘Blackness’ is a skin colour, a metaphorical one at that, and one that people didn’t usually give a shit about before colonialism. ‘Africanness’ is an identity, one that only came into being by European definition. The IsiZulu, Ndi-Igbo, Somalis, Fulanis, San, Ovuhimba and the rest didn’t consider themselves the same until colonialism. That’s not to say they were mutual enemies, just that they recognised their differences as well as similarities and got on with their own lives.
Also, just by the process of enslavement most of us are what I’d call Afro-diasporans – not Africans! We (‘black’ people who’ve been in the Americas & Caribbean for the past 500+ years) are not African anymore. We were forced to lose our original names, languages, cultures, clothing, inheritance, knowledge of our bloodlines, even basic self-love! Furthermore, we now have the opportunity to become African again by going to vacation/ live/ work there, and most of us don’t want to. We have more opportunity than ever before to learn the greatness of native/ pre-colonial Africa, and thankfully an increasing number of us are curious. BUT there are still many others who aren’t. So how the fuck are we African?
Not to mention ‘black’ people whose geographic link to Africa ended tens of thousands of years before ‘white’ people existed:
All ‘black’, none African.
Then there are the ‘white’ people who’ve lived in Africa, predominantly north, for centuries (I don’t mean albinos), which I won’t go into now.
Mythology:the amount of fantastical shite being spouted by otherwise conscious ‘black’ people is astounding. The most recent one I’ve heard is the Eve gene, a gene that enables women to birth all the different varieties of humans. Only ‘black’ women possess it. This I find no fault with, as it’s been demonstrated throughout all of human history. However, there’s another aspect of it that hasn’t been scientifically demonstrated – it enables women to reproduce asexually (parthenogenesis). To date no-one has shown that humans have this power. Another I’ve heard is that women used to have a gland that produced sperm just like men. Again, women used to be able to self-impregnate. Somehow at some point they lost this gland. Hmmm…
Also, many people are being more vocal about adopting traditional African culture. Not inherently bad, depending on which cultural aspects are being adopted. Is it right to do FGM, forced fattening, scarification, knocking out your lower incisor teeth, stretching out your necks with giant bangles, etc. just because it’s traditional? Again, jahil.
Kemet (ancient Egypt): nothing wrong with it. It’s very useful to know Kemetians were ‘black’, especially since their influence is glorified in western media while their identities are hidden. However, some pro-‘black’ people think Egypt was the origin and pinnacle of African civilisation. Total dogshit! Kemetian royalty at various points in history were a bunch of inbreds, siblings marrying each other & all that. Kemet freely exchanged ideas and cultural traits with neighbouring Nubians. That’s why Sudan has more and older pyramids than Egypt! What we call north they called south and vice versa, because they looked up, ie. south, to their original homeland: Punt (Horn of Africa). This means they recognised the debt of their existence to their ancestors, whom we now know as Somalis/ Ethiopians.
Not to mention the myriad of other African civilisations and creations: Enkis Calendar, Mali Empire, Aksum, great walls of Benin, Dahomey Empire, Songhai Empire, otjize, Nok civilisation, Fulani Empire, Shona metallurgy, adinkra cloth, Meroe, Numidia, Mutapa Empire, Nri Kingdom, Kongo Kingdom, Carthaginian Empire… I could go on all night! But I won’t. For now…
This is a continuation of my post here. As I talked quite heavily about the Moors, this time I shall focus more on other Africans and their influences in European history.
When Christianity was first being spread in Rome, many Christians were martyred (read: massacred), with the first records of such incidents being from 180 CE. In the year 203 CE, we have the story of two African women who were also martyred for their Christianity: Felicity/ Felicitas and Perpetua. Christians may have heard of them through “The Martyrdom of (Saints) Perpetua and Felicity”. Perpetua was a 22yo noblewoman who was nursing her infant and Felicity (who was 8 months pregnant at the time) was her slave, both of whom were killed in Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia) during the reign of Septimius Severus. In that era much of north Africa was under Roman rule – the Roman Province of Africa, and the pair and their companions were killed in an amphitheatre.
Of course there’s disagreement over their appearance,
Ancient Greek myth has its fair share of African personalities, one of the most famous being Memnon, a powerful Ethiopian* warrior-king who brought a massive army to aid the Trojans during the Greek invasion of Troy. He was described by Quintus as “lord over the dark Ethiopians” whom the Trojans were delighted at seeing in their city, and Robert Graves in The Greek Myths Volume 2 called him “black as ebony, and the handsomest man alive”. According to the myth, when he died his mother Eos wept for him, and king of gods Zeus was so moved by her weeping he made Memnon immortal. Interestingly enough, the story also states that Aesop (original spelling was Aisopos) was a close friend of Memnon who got killed in the battle by Antilochos. There is debate over his actual existence, and probably even more about his ethnic origins, but there’s reason to believe Aesop was at least ‘black’ if not African. Yes I’m talking about the Aesop of Aesop’s Fables, and those have unquestionably influenced European culture.
* Bearing in mind that Ethiopia is a Greek name which originally referred to all the parts of Africa south of Egypt, it’s not certain which part of the continent Memnon was from. Assuming he was a real person, since an immortal man is somewhat hard to believe.
There’s also the history of the Colchians, the natives of Colchis/ Kolkhis (now the western part of Georgia, just south of the Caucasus mountains). Though their exact ethnic origins are still up for debate, Herodotus considered them to be Kemetians (ancient Egyptians), specifically descendants of Senusret/ Senwosret I’s army because they looked so similar to them. He described them as black-skinned and woolly-haired, but over and above that he also pointed out that they practised circumcision, something only the Egyptians and Nubians were known to do at the time. Furthermore, the manner they wove their linen was identical to the Egyptians’ way.
Note – Senusret I is also often known by his grecianised name Sesostris I. I don’t know if ‘grecianised’ is a real word, by it I mean that his original name was changed to a more Greek-sounding name because Europeans have had a habit of doing that for centuries.
There are many other examples of African influences in ancient Europe, but I’ll save them for another post.