African Society Is Older Than Slavery

1818 Pinkerton Map

1818 Pinkerton Map

It is has been expressed that Africa, in effect, had “no history” prior to western colonialism. On the contrary, curiosity attracted me to continent, wherein I easily found much.  I read books as a child which described the ‘mythical city’ of Timbuktu; I learned of the vast resources of the Congo, (as Zaire), merely by watching contemporary television coverage. Early on, I was led to a picture book of the Great Zimbabwe society, and fascinated by the stone structures that seemingly stretched across much of the southern third of the continent; as well as the ancient gold mines nearby.

When Oxford University History Professor Trevor Roper to claim in 1964 that “there is only the history of Europeans in Africa,” there could be no statement further from the truth.  With that type of instruction, taught to a nation’s most brightest students, it is no wonder that recent statistics show students to disbelieve in Timbuktu, as pure myth, akin to an African ‘El Dorado’. It is known, though apparently not taught well enough, that the city actually exists, and was THE center of Islamic learning (and by extension, world learning) during from the middle ages until the rise of European powers. Roper would say I’m “seduced…by the changing breath of journalistic fashion,” in hoping that the ‘common knowledge’ become commonly known. Granted, modern technology has put libraries at my fingertips, where I can explore the continent, virtually, at whim. However, this history has always been there to find, and an Oxford Professor of 50 years past, had just as much resource, if not more in terms of primary sources and artifacts.

Africa is a story about the loss of human capital, extracted like a resource from their people of origin. Why is the memory short on Africa? Is it that “Darkness is not a subject for history,” as Oxford University Professor of History, Trevor Roper, expresses? He charges that students should be taught about black African history, that unless it is, history will only be known from the European perspective… and that perspective, much like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America, it “is largely darkness.”

In order to fully grasp the state of current affairs, one should look to the past to see how things were before they became the way they are. It puts into context and grounds one to the material, in that that the learner may realize the changes that have occurred between two times in history. In our schools we are taught about the “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” but what is taught is merely cursory, and oftentimes simplified to less than a page, to where all ‘history’ is merely the modern era, and everything before: ‘ancient’. One can only begin to make sense of the mad reality and come to terms towards a peace and reconciliation by a deeper, more historical understanding of the issue, and moving beyond the Euro-centric conception of the African continent. Well-travelled 14th century explorer Ibn Battuta described the African people he encountered in Mali as “seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people.” He described the peace and security maintained by the people and noted that “neither traveler nor inhabitant has anything to fear.”[1]

This greatly contrasts the European vision presented hundreds of years later, in 1831 by German philosopher George Wilhelm Hegel, who declared the African “completely wild and untamed,” and “unhistorical.” Justifying his lack of wont to guess a timeline for African self-governance, Governor of Kenya Sir Philip E. Mitchell urged that “it is necessary to realize that history began for these African people about 1890.” Which the Governor said in 1947, making one wonder: when is the start year for African history? It’s obvious to many, including L.S.B. Leaky, that Africa, rather than being without history, “was the birthplace of man himself, and that for many hundreds of centuries thereafter, Africa was in the forefront of all world progress.” And that many people “should know better.”[2]

Even still, history occurs in real time, and it is just as much a contemporary study, then as it is now. Did Roper not understand French (or implications) when it was uttered “Ou es Carlucci?” following the Western ‘intervention’ and deposing of Lumumba.  Roper pines: “Undergraduates… demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa,” as if he didn’t want to teach it. Rather than curiosity, he clings to academic self-preservation, but not before using subtle innuendo to describe his vision of African history as “largely darkness” and that “darkness is not a subject for history.” Whether a product of his times, with racism still in the collective ethos, or an intellectual bully with his steadfast, biased vision of history, regardless of the evidence; there is something to explore.

[1] Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1334

[2] The Progress and Evolution of Man in Africa (OUP. 1961:1)

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