The History of Slavery Is All of Our HistoryThe grim events that took place at historical sites such as Ghana’s Elmina Castle made all of us.By Howard W. French

One morning this July, I rose early for a several-mile drive along the Ghanaian coast to give a talk at one of the most important historical sites of the modern era: the imposing whitewashed, fortified trading station at Elmina that Ghanaians commonly refer to as a “castle.”

I was honored to have been invited there by the country’s government to give a talk about my new book, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, but I had little idea of what kind of crowd, if any, would turn out to hear me speak about a book that few in the country would have yet read. Would they be Ghanaians interested in the history of slavery, in which this stretch of the West African coast played a hugely important part? Would it be members of the African diaspora, which the Ghanaian government for years has intermittently courted, encouraging them to think of this country as a place of pilgrimage and an adoptive home? Or would it be a grab bag of tourists whose origins would be hard to generalize about?

As it turned out, the audience that gathered in the hot upstairs hall of a structure that was built by Portuguese in the 1480s to trade in gold—and only a century or so later started to become a major site in the trans-Atlantic traffic in Africans that made large-scale plantation agriculture in the so-called New World possible—was dominated by middle-aged African Americans.

I mention my visit to Elmina Castle because of a polemic that has arisen recently about the uses of this site both in popular memory by tourists as well as by historians and journalists who write about the global experience of the Atlantic slave trade and its relevance to those who participated in it (whether as profiteers and victims), as well as to all of human society. The controversy was kicked off by a column written by James Sweet, a University of Wisconsin scholar of Africa and the president of the American Historical Association. The article, published last month in the association’s magazine, was titled, “Is History History?

Sweet, who was also in Ghana this summer and whose visit to Elmina Castle could not have been far separated from mine, seemed peeved by the way his guide gave a “well-rehearsed” tour of the site that Sweet said seemed designed for African Americans, whose influence he said he saw everywhere. “Arguably, Elmina Castle is now as much an African American shrine as a Ghanaian archaeological or historical site,” he wrote. In the next paragraph, he objected to that influence, writing that “as a historian of Africa and the African diaspora, I am troubled by the historical erasures and narrow politics that these narratives convey. Less than one percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America. The vast majority went to Brazil and the Caribbean.”

Sweet went on to complain that the guide had claimed that the ancestors of today’s Ghanaians “unknowingly” sent their “servants” into chattel slavery, making “no reference to warfare or Indigenous slavery.” I share Sweet’s implicit belief that the documentation at Ghana’s slave trafficking sites should be much richer and more thorough, and the training of guides improved, but this was not my experience this summer. The guide I listened to carefully during my tour of the site did mention indigenous slavery but said that it bore little resemblance to the form of slavery practiced on Western plantations. He also said that their greed for European trade goods had caused leaders of rival communities to capture and sell fellow Africans into bondage to whites.

In ways that have surprised me, through his column, Sweet, whose academic writing I know well and respect, has briefly become a front-line figure in what are often called the culture wars. The main point of his essay was to deplore what he saw as the excessive focus of “presentism” in the work of his fellows in the academy—meaning, in his view, that many feel increasingly free to apply the politics of today in judging or assessing the workings of societies and individuals from the distant past.

This prompted an immediate and fierce backlash from fellow scholars, which caused Sweet to apologize somewhat cryptically. A post-publication note appended atop his column now says, in part, “I take full responsibility that it did not convey what I intended and for the harm that it has caused.”

Since then, conservative opinion writers at leading U.S. newspapers have jumped in with relish. This week, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens described Sweet as a victim of “the cancel culture we inhabit,” where apologies are “almost invariably taken as admissions of guilt.” He went on to suggest that the real lesson of this tempest is that “the roles of victim and victimizer seldom fall neatly along a color line.”

But as is often true of polemicists, Stephens was committing the same offense that he was accusing Sweet’s historian critics of: ignoring everything but the fixed rhetorical compass points of his own thought community, or tribe. It is unclear whom he was lecturing when he sermonized about victims and victimizers, but only someone eminently uninformed about the historiography of the centurieslong commerce across the Atlantic in enslaved Africans could have imagined that a picture of the traffic as having solely pitted whites as perpetrators and Blacks as victims prevails among scholars.

The biggest problems with Sweet’s essay are unrelated to such a fantasy, or indeed to his concerns about the alleged creep of presentism into his profession. Sweet thought it was important to highlight the apparent contradiction at play when African Americans throng to a site like Elmina for acts of remembrance and healing, given that few direct ancestors of American Blacks were trafficked at Elmina. In stressing this narrow factual point, though, he misses the big picture of why the numerous slave forts strung along the Ghanaian coast exercise such a pull on Black Americans.

It is not because of their ignorance, although lamentably a lack of deep knowledge about trans-Atlantic slavery is a shared heritage of citizens of all races of countries all around the Atlantic basin that were singularly formed either by plantation slavery or by the enormous wealth that it generated. That is not due to their naivete or gullibility. It is because education in the West has been so poor about both slavery and Africa. Another news item this week coincidentally attests to this fact. Only now, for the first time, has the U.S. educational establishment decided to experiment with the introduction of a pre-collegiate Advanced Placement test focused on African American history.

For African Americans—and indeed all members of the diaspora created by centuries of Western plantation agriculture—the power of Elmina and of nearby Cape Coast Castle lies in the rarity of monumental sites for the commemoration of the experience of enslavement globally. To read him, Sweet sounds like he would prefer African Americans to focus on visiting sites that dominated in the trafficking of their specific ancestors (presumably outside of Ghana), for Black Brazilians to gravitate to the landmarks in the traffic of their ancestors, and for Haitians and Jamaicans to do likewise.

I write this, though, knowing that Sweet knows better. Twelve and a half million Africans landed alive and in chains in the so-called New World, where they were put to work and often worked to death, creating wealth for others. And an untold number of additional Africans (I believe far more than 12.5 million) were displaced and had their lives destroyed or foreshortened in the warfare and chaos unleashed in Africa by this traffic, with what we know to have been lots of local African participation and profiteering. Despite horrendous numbers like these, the physically imposing sites that are well suited for this kind of pilgrim’s meditation on violence, separation, and loss are astonishingly few, and for reasons of historical accident and coincidence they are largely concentrated in Ghana.

A rare high-volume site of visitation outside of Ghana—Gorée Island, just off the Senegalese capital, Dakar—helps illustrate this. Over the years, Gorée has been visited by huge numbers of people, from ordinary tourists to U.S. presidents alike, who line up to peer out of its “door of no return” and think solemn thoughts about human cruelty. But for all its popularity, Gorée was not a particularly large point of embarkation of Africans into bondage across the Atlantic, never mind to country X, Y, or Z.

So, what is the lesson here? Should people only flock to sites of memory that narrowly correspond with their own direct ancestral or national backgrounds? This seems like an unreasonable standard on many levels, not least because one of the foundational organizing principles of the trans-Atlantic slavery business was to prevent the concentration of Africans from any one point of origin in the places they were trafficked to. The reason for this was to minimize the chances of a coordinated uprising, as well as to force them to quickly abandon their original identities, languages, and religions and submit to their subjugation.

No. Priority should be given to restoring and excavating as many genuine historical sites of this world-historical phenomenon as possible. Alongside my visit to Ghana this summer, I also visited historically important but far less well-known and developed sites of the slave trade in nearby Togo and Benin. In the latter, major investments are underway to restore and, in some cases, recreate settings that played a major part in human trafficking across the Atlantic. People ensnared in slavery in Benin by powerful local kingdoms played a major part in the peopling of Saint-Domingue, the formerly French-controlled portion of the island of Hispaniola—reputed to have been the richest colony in history due to the intense exploitation of Africans in the production of sugar, coffee, cacao, and cotton there.

Should only Haitians flock to Benin to bow their heads in commemoration of the suffering inflicted on their forebears there? Of course not. In 1804, the Haitian Revolution, which was the fruit of the only successful large-scale slave revolt in history, culminated in the birth of the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere. But that is not all: By defeating the armies of France’s Napoleon Bonaparte, imperial Spain, Britain, and then France once more, the Africans who thereby became Haitians also helped make the United States the continental power that it is.

That is because to cover the huge financial losses brought on by his defeat, Napoleon sold the enormous territories of the Louisiana Purchase to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson’s government. Not only did this double America’s size overnight, but it also opened up the Mississippi Valley to plantation agriculture on a vast scale and led to a second great migration of descendants of Africans trafficked from that continent’s shores. There, the fruit of their forced labor—cotton—provided the fibers that made the Industrial Revolution possible in Britain and became a central factor in the United States’ rapid economic ascent in the 19th century.

As my book argues, historical sites like Elmina Castle, whether in Ghana, Benin, or Senegal—or others still awaiting long-overdue restoration and documentation in other parts of the continent, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Nigeria—are landmarks for all of humankind. Whether your ancestors participated as organizers of the slave trade or not, or were among the trafficked or not, their history is all of our history. And as the two South Korean men I saw pause solemnly during a moment of silence in the dark and clammy dungeon with a crowd of African and African American visitors at Cape Coast Castle this summer helped demonstrate, places like these are worthy of a bow of the head and effort at comprehension and remembrance of visitors from every quarter. One way or another, the grim history that unfolded in this part of the world made all of us.

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