Do Black Lives Matter?

By His Excellency Thomas Kwesi Quartey – Deputy Chairman, African Union Commission

This has been a most unusual couple of weeks. Imagine an anxious and uncertain international situation: corona virus, China, President Donald Trump – all of us facing an invisible enemy which is wreaking havoc on the high, the mighty as well as the lowly. The world order as we know it is no more – upended. Total or near total lockdown. Casualties in Italy, casualties in New York, London and Paris, all confronted by an invisible enemy, against whom there are no effective weapons, conventional or nuclear – only hand washing, masks and social distancing.

Then, amidst all these, what do you have? A middle-aged African-American, another black man, coolly and callously murdered by a white policeman, his life slowly squeezed out of him by a knee on his neck, pleading for his life, calling on his dead mama: “I can’t breathe”. Wait a minute. And thanks to technology, a mobile phone captures the scene, captures the moment.

This amateur video suddenly goes viral. A picture is worth a thousand words. What began as a routine all-American affairs in a racist mid-western state goes global. All hell breaks or seems to break loose. Demonstrations break out in London, Sydney, Paris, and Brussels.

In Antwerp, the statue of old King Leopold has been pulled down. In Bristol, Sir Edward Colston, an infamous slave trader and philanthropist (a contradiction in terms?) is pulled down by an angry crowd comprising all ethnic groups, people of all colours, and trundled along the street into the harbor and into the ocean to swim or sink with the fishes.

The statue of Sir Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, faces the risk of a similar fate. Even the statue of the venerable Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, hero of World War II, has not escaped further scrutiny and a dab of paint by the angry mob.

You would be right to ask, what is going on? A tiny spark can start a prairie fire, so stated a famous Chinese politician noted for his penchant for pithy axiomatic truths, such as “a revolution is not a tea party”.

All these appear to have caused not a little discomfort to Priti Patel, quintessential British Home Secretary, sickened to the core of her being, seeking to echo the sentiments of her Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a young Turk, if ever there was one. She only ended up sounding more catholic than the pope.

Vandalism will not be tolerated. Fair enough. This sounds a little like the Law and Order President, Donald J. Trump. Perhaps in periods such as these, we need to go back to known brave and wise statesmen such as the redoubtable Sir Winston Spencer Churchill. He advised students of politics like us to study history. The further back you look, the further forward you are likely to see, he counselled.

Let us then interrogate this matter a little further by looking back into history in a bid to make sense of all this, and perhaps to attempt to glimpse the future. In his classic work of Economic History, Capitalism and Slavery, the former Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago, Dr. Eric Williams, observed in the opening chapter:  “When in 1492, Columbus, representing the Spanish monarchy, discovered the New World, he set in train the long and bitter international rivalry over colonial possessions for which after four and a half centuries no solution has yet been found.”

“Negroes were stolen from Africa to work the lands stolen from the Indians.”

Thus began what has come to be known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Now, according to British Calendar of State Papers (1663), the Negro slaves were “the strength and sinews of this Western world”. Therefore, the preservation and improvement of the trade to Africa, the Slave Trade, was “a matter of very high importance to the kingdom and the plantations thereunto belonging”.

And thus, this matter remained a cardinal objective of British Foreign Policy up to 1873. In accordance with the economic policy of the Stuart monarchy, the Slave Trade was entrusted to the company of Royal Adventurers trading to Africa. This company was incorporated in 1663 to last a period of a thousand years. On 20th September 1672, a new company (note the name) the Royal African Company, was created by Royal Charter.

The Charter was signed by King Charles II. Its stated objective was “for the further encouragement of the undertakers in
discovering the golden mines and settling of the plantations being so laudable an enterprise and conducing to an end as the increase of traffic and merchandise wherein this nation hath been famous.

And further our special grace to hereby grant unto the Society of the Royal African Company of England and their successors and none others, to be prepared and furnished with ordnance, artillery and ammunition … and shall hereafter have, use and enjoy all mines and silver which are or shall be found in South Barbary, Guinea or Angola for the buying and selling and exchanging goods, wares, and merchandise, gold, silver and Negroes… to import redwood, elephants’ teeth (ivory) and Negro Slaves…”.

The Royal Charter continues: “We do hereby, for us, our heirs and our successors give full power and authority under the said Royal Africa Company of England and their successors to enter into any ship, vessel, and attack, arrest, and seize all manner of ships, vessels, Negro slaves etc. provided that we, our heirs and successors shall have and may have, take and receive two-thirds of all gold mines which shall be found, seized, possessed in the parts and places aforesaid…”
The authority was, therefore, direct from the Crown.

Over the years, the British Establishment has not been exactly upfront with this aspect of their history. They would rather nobody talked about it. They have gone to great lengths to obfuscate and obscure this history. But facts are stubborn. Facts have this habit of not going away easily, popping up, like warts or grey hair, where you least want them to appear.

The British Establishment and their Oxford professors have rather sought to obscure this history of their involvement in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. They have tended to emphasize the fact that Britain was the first country to abolish the Slave Trade, referred to euphemistically as this “odious commerce”. It cannot be denied that credit is in order for having abolished an otherwise great source of wealth.

Clearly, the British Parliament, then Prime Minister Charles James Fox, Pitt and Company deserve credit. The truth, however, is that Britain was also at that time the greatest slaving nation and had reaped enormous profit out of African flesh and blood for over 400 or so years.

It has been argued that Britain’s rise to prominence (a point conceded by Tony Blair) was somewhat related to their massive slave trading profits, i.e. primitive accumulation of capital. It was the super profits from the Slave Trade which fueled the Industrial Revolution in England and became the engine of the British Empire, now the Commonwealth.

For our purposes today, it is enough for us to cast our minds on the celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade by the British Parliament and the Statement made by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, MP. The date was 27th November 2006.

The Statement is entitled Britain’s Role In The Slave Trade. I shall limit myself to the first few paragraphs only. “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade stands as one of the most inhuman enterprises in history. At a time when the capitals of Europe and America were championing the enlightenment of man, their merchants were enslaving a continent. Racism, not the rights of man, drove the horrors of the triangular trade.

Some 12 million were transported. Some three million died. “Slavery’s impact on Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe was profound. Thankfully, Britain was the first country to abolish the trade. As we approach the commemoration for the 200th anniversary of that abolition, it is only right that we also recognize the active role Britain played until then in the Slave Trade. “British industry and ports were intimately intertwined in it.

Britain’s rise to global prominence was partially dependent on a system of colonial slave labour, and, as we recall its abolition, we should also recall our place in its practice. “It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time…” Legal? Come to think of it, what made this practice legal? By what law? What legal system? What jurisprudence?

To proceed, let us recall simply that arising from the Royal Authority of His Royal Highness, King Charles II of England, an ASIENTO contract was signed in the year of our Lord 1701 between the Queen of England and the King of Spain. The title of the Agreement speaks to its intention: “CONTRACT FOR BLACKS OR NEGROES MADE BY THE KING OF SPAIN AND AGREED WITH HER MAJESTY OF GREAT BRITAIN FOR HERSELF AND HER SUBJECTS AS SHE SHALL APPOINT TO BE CONTRACTORS.”

“With license from Her Majesty, the Contractor, takes upon them the Asiento or Agreement to import Negro Slaves into the Spanish West Indies, and to establish this necessary trade for them and the reciprocal benefit of their Majesties and subjects of both crowns and the contractors oblige themselves to import in space of ten years forty-eight thousand Negroes of both sexes.”

The agreement then goes on to describe, in considerable detail, the commercial duties to be paid on each African bought and sold. They then set sail, supplied with ordnance, guns, handcuffs, etc. provided by the Royal Family of the United
Kingdom. How was Britain going to fulfil her part of this great legal undertaking, this contract to supply Negroes to the territories of the King of Spain?

Remember the legal term PACTA SUNT SERVANDA, i.e. Agreements ought to be honoured. Did Britain possess a farm in West Africa from where she had cultivated Negroes to reap the harvest thereof and supply the King of Spain? Just picture the violence that was about to be visited on Africans, defenceless Africans who have nothing to do with agreements between European royalty.

Fortunately, unlike the Africans who relied on oral traditions and griots, Europeans kept records meticulously of their international trade statistics. In the abstract of evidence presented before the Select Committee of the House of Commons, it is stated clearly in Chapter II: “… that the trade in slaves in the basin of the River Senegal, the Negroes were procured chiefly by war and also by kidnapping, i.e. lying in wait near a village, and where there was no war, and seizing whom they could”.

Kidnapping was so generally prevalent that self-preservation became the first principle of the natives, and they go armed, while a slave vessel was on the coast, for fear of being taken.

In seeking to fully understand this rather complex history, many historians have sought to interrogate the issues. All the historians agree that the discovery of America was a game-changer. According to Albert Adu-Boahen, one-time Professor of History at the University of Ghana and later politician, the discovery of America was indeed a game-changer in the fortunes of Africa.

He argued that when the Spaniards began to explore North and South America between 1492 and 1504, they started to establish plantations and to work the gold and silver mines. An acute problem was the shortage of labour. The Carib and the local Indians were simply not cut out for the hard labour involved.

Most simply died from the laborious exertions. A Spanish priest recommended the use of Africans, arguably a more hardy race. As more mines were opened up and more plantations were set up, the demand for slaves increased. Between 1530 and 1600, an average of 13,000 slaves a year were being exported to the Americas.

According to Prof. Adu-Boahen, in his Topics for West African History, the number rose to about 27,500 a year in the 17th century, 70,000 in the 18th century, and by the 1830s, it had soared to 135,000 per annum. This phenomenal increase was due to the steady colonization of North and South America and the plantation system in the New World.

Most of these slaves were exported from the region between modern Ghana and the Cameroons. So how were all these Africans enslaved and purchased? According to Prof. Adu-Boahen, African scholars and politicians today must be honest and admit that the enslavement and sale of our African brothers and sisters from the 17th century onwards were done by the African themselves.

This was largely accomplished by the coastal chiefs at the behest of the Europeans who had gotten them indebted by providing them with European goods on credit. They introduced guns, alcohol and worthless trinkets and got them addicted and indebted, and they were obliged to hunt down their people and sell them. Quarrels were fomented among ethnic groups and wars were  fueled for slaves.

It is quite possible that all those tribal wars were instigated and fomented for this purpose. Very few Europeans marched inland to capture slaves. This was done by Africans. According to Prof. Adu-Boahen, Africans became enslaved in four main ways:

1. Criminals sold by chiefs as punishment;
2. Free Africans obtained through raids by African and European gangs; kidnapping; panyaring;
3. Domestic slaves resold,
4. Prisoners of war.

Though punishment of malefactors by selling them as slaves was not new in Africa, with the beginning and progress of the Slave Trade, the practice became grossly abused. Many kings formed the habit of punishing any and every offence by enslaving the accused. Subversive plots against the local authorities became suddenly more common when in the coastal towns slave ships dropped anchor.

Recently there has been some debate on the effect of colonization on Africa. We are aware that colonization arose from the partition of the continent, which itself arose from the Slave Trade. Some European historians and even some politicians have argued that the Slave Trade and Empire were good for Africa.

In 2002, Boris Johnson, now Prime Minister, but then a journalist for The Spectator, wrote, “Africa may be a blot but it is not on our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.”

It was this same Boris Johnson, writing in The Telegraph, who stated, with respect to Her Majesty the Queen, that “the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninies”.

This is the kind of casual racism that has come to characterize some British and American leaders. But it is not new. African slaves were considered less than human. For example, during the debate in the US Congress on the question of Abolition of Slavery, Senator James Henry Hammond expressed himself in this manner: “Although I am perfectly satisfied that no human process can elevate the black man to an equality with the white – admitting that it can be done – are we prepared for the consequence which must follow?

Are the people of the North prepared to place our political power on an equality with their own? Are we prepared to see them mingling in our legislatures? Is any portion of this country prepared to see them enter these halls and take their seats by our sides, in perfect equality with the white representatives of an Anglo-Saxon race, to see them fill that chair – to see them placed at the heads of your departments; or to see, perhaps some Othello, or Toussaint, or Boyer, gifted with genius and inspired by ambition, grasp the presidential wreath, and wield the destiny of this great republic? From such a picture I turn with irrepressible disgust.”

Barack Obama became President. It is this deep-seated racism that ended up in the murder of George Floyd and many more African-Americans. It is this same deep-seated racism that the youth of America, and now the world, is rallying and protesting against under the banner of Black Lives Matter. What can the African Union and, indeed, the African Union Commission, do to help our brothers and sisters? When Africa is integrating and developing, the whole world comes together.

This is our task. We dare not fail our people.