Round Table with Oscar
August 30, 2011
What provision did Emancipation make for Africa?

The question that we ask this week is this: Was Africa a part of the slave trade and plantation slavery and if so, was Africa a part of the Emancipation from slavery?{{more}}

Yes, Africa was indispensably involved in slavery. We agree Bob Marley put lyrics and melody to this poet. His ‘Old Pirates’ who were both black and white, European and African, used to capture (i.e. rob), store and hoard (in the bottomless pits), sell and ship millions of persons from Africa into the slavery industry. So, we ask the next part of the question: What provision did Emancipation make for Africa? Our minds seem to stall here. This is a new question and the answer box remains empty, silent and bemused.

The Africa Angle

The Old Pirates among the British people and parliament, when they organized, proclaimed and presented us with emancipation, taught us that it had nothing to do with Africa, it only had to do with us – the planters and the enslaved people in the British Caribbean. And we have accepted this definition of emancipation. No wonder that Bob Marley rails at us and invokes us to, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can…” It is up to us to redefine re-imagine and re-programme the real emancipation from transatlantic and plantation slavery.

Let us notice that when the British passed a law to end their trade in Africans across the Atlantic, there was no thought about compensation to Africa for its losses. But we know that when they passed the law for emancipation – the release of slaves, there was a £20 million compensation to the planters for the three-quarter million people whom they had enslaved. It makes us want to examine the geography and political economy of slavery – if not its morality – more deeply. In the writings of scholars like Eric Williams, Walter Rodney, Samir Amin and other African political economists, a geographical triangle of development was taking place in the 3 centuries leading up to Emancipation. Western Europe was the centre of gravity. The Caribbean and Americas were the periphery or tail of the system; our plantations were decisive in providing the wealth for the European bourgeoisie, and Africa became the “periphery of the periphery”, the tail of the tail, if you wish, merely supplying slave labour in the plantation colonies.

What is the point here? It is that slavery was a global system created and dominated by Western Europe for its own transformation into a developed central capitalist formation. What then happened to (the Caribbean and) African after Western Europe let go of slave plantations i.e. emancipation? The population of Africa was sliced in half and redistributed to areas of refuge in the mountains of West Africa, slave-based production, e.g. of cocoa, expanded since captives were not in demand overseas. Europe took over in weakened, broken Africa and the processes of African integration, which had begun in the pre-slavery days collapsed. Eighty years after the British emancipation, in 1914, Africa had only 2 independent territories totaling 400,000 square miles, while European countries had colonized the rest of Africa, 12 million square miles. A brutalized colonized Africa, still supplying – not slaves – but agricultural products and raw materials to Europe for Europe’s development.

The period and the processes of transatlantic slavery were a transcendental interruption into Africa, particularly West Africa. At the same time, that period moved Europe into a new orbit during which it invented an ideology of superiority and race. In the Caribbean, the region was recreated, its environment resculptured, its population nearly erased, uprooted and transplanted, its flora supplemented and supplanted, its social structures, such as they were, established by violence. Europe’s emancipation was racist and violent in content, placing the former enslaved, naked-like Adam and Eve but- in a garden where just about everything was owned by the other, and African? Well Africa had no place in that emancipation. No wonder then that Africa is still just a news item for so many of us. We are perfectly comfortable watching the crises in Africa – even in Haiti – without a sense of ownership. We expect the limited nations to own the catastrophe in Somalia, we expect European charities like Oxfam or Christian Aid to speak for the refugees. We are content that CARICOM leaders and even our own governments show no interest in Africa. We buy the message and the concept that Africa is a periphery that belongs to Europe or China or the US.

173/177 years after years after emancipation, we must have a new concept of emancipation, one that includes Africa and Europe. The Triangle of emancipation belongs on our agenda. Maybe that is what the United Nations was hinting at when it launched the Year of African Descendants for 2011.