Howard French’s new book, “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War” (2021), is a panoramic work examining the epochal impact that early European contact with Africans produced from the 13th century onward and provides a deep and unflinching look at how the infernal machinery of slavery spread throughout the Americas, fueling a startlingly rapid industrialization in Europe and North America.
The book’s sweep covers such often-overlooked events as the visit to Cairo by the Mali Empire potentate Mansa Musa in 1324 at the head of a 60,000-delegation full of “pomp and largess” to the first tentative forays of Portuguese explorers in the 15th century.
In a historical moment when, particularly in the United States, a vibrant discussion is taking place about the framing and meaning of history, the book adroitly points out that in these early years, Europe, far from the bastion of enlightened thought and governance that it has often liked to present itself as, had seen at least one third of its population perish through the Black Death and predatory military classes dominate in countries like Portugal.
As much as seminal texts of African history such as Jan Vansina’s “Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo” and Thomas Reefe’s “The Rainbow and the Kings: A History of the Luba Empire to 1891” depict tragedy, French’s book also serves as a kind of elegy for the cataclysmic effect that contact with Europeans had on African societies, many of whose monarchs were enthusiastic participants in the slave trade before the Europeans arrived but with considerable differences to how it later became known. When beseeching Europeans of questionable backgrounds suddenly appeared, the local leaders cagily tried to accommodate them while weighing their (seemingly fantastical) promises of great wealth, protection and salvation through Christianity, but as French writes, “in place after place chaos soon followed.”
When the Europeans crossed the Atlantic with their human cargo (Benguela, a port located in the west of what is today Angola, shipped off 700,000 slaves alone, mostly to Brazil), the results were little different. The Europeans exterminated whole societies through brutal work regimes and disease. Once the pool of native labor was extinguished, they institutionalized a fully racialized slavery, dotting bucolic Barbados with the heads of rebellious slaves rotting on pikes, in service of what French calls the “killer apparatus of modernity,” an image that will be familiar to scholars of this region. As industrial development leapfrogged into modernity in the West, what often went unexamined was the human toll on which that development was based.
The American journalist Howard French was born in Washington, D.C., in 1957 and since 2008 has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 1990 to 2008, he served as the New York Times bureau chief for the Caribbean and Central America, for West and Central Africa, for Japan and the Koreas and for China.
Michael Deibert is a journalist who has focused especially on the Caribbean nation of Haiti and is the author of five books, most recently “When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico” (2019). He sat down to talk with Howard French about some of the larger issues his book raises.
Michael Deibert: When did you first decide that this book, connecting these threads of the history of Africa itself with the history of the African diaspora in the Americas, needed to be written and why?
Howard French: The proximate cause of why it came together in this form at this time was because my last book, which was about East Asia [“Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power,” published in 2017], was my first book of history and not written in a journalist’s voice at all. The effort showed me how much I like to work in this mode and how things that might have seemed in an earlier stage of my life unreasonable or unrealistic, with the right organization, were actually quite accessible to me. I work at a university now, I’m off the road as a reporter, and I have access to almost any book or document I would want to write about. But probably this question about how we arrived at modernity came to a head in that last book, which in East Asia is embedded in a huge array of political conversations, and these things all kind of pointed me down this path.
MD: I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but reading the book, one thing that certainly foregrounded itself in my mind is the particular cultural and political moment we’re living, certainly in the United States and perhaps to a lesser degree in Europe, where there’s a big discourse around Blackness and what it means and what the history of it and the telling of it means. We’re seeing it around this so-called discourse around critical race theory. Myself, I don’t see how saying the United States is based on slavery and genocide is controversial at all. That’s just basic history, it’s not a “theory.” When you rephrased “the scramble for Africa” as “the scramble for Africans,” it seemed like a much-needed corrective to that rosy-hued view of history we sometimes get.
HF: I definitely did not anticipate the present moment with any great degree of precision. I began to undertake the very deliberate, well-defined research into this book well before “1619” had come into the world. I was aware of the term critical race theory, and this was prior to its entry into the terminology of political war in our society. But I think we have a problem in the United States in first understanding and then accepting the reality that Africans and people of African descent for the most part have been very obviously at the center of our prosperity and at the center of our experience of freedom. The amount of energy that has been invested in the denial of these things I have kind of known all along. I have been inundated by readers — I can only assume, because they don’t state their race, that they are written by white men — that try somehow still to contort themselves out of these facts.
MD: I always tell people that in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I lived about 500 feet from where the last of the Susquehannock nation were massacred by a white mob at Christmas in 1763, which pretty much sums up the pre-Civil War history of the United States for me and some of the post-Civil War history as well.
Another aspect of the book I found very interesting, having lived in Brazil and been interested in Lusophone Africa before becoming interested in Portugal itself as a country, is how the impact of Portugal’s early colonial endeavors in West Africa and the Americas is addressed in the book. Would you agree that the impact of Portugal is often overlooked on this side of the Atlantic?
HF: This is one of the main threads of the book. The standard narratives we tell of this phenomenon of the transatlantic slave trade are essentially, mostly wrong. In Britain, it is dominated by a narrative of “Yes, slavery was wrong but we, the British, were the heroes because we were responsible for getting rid of the slave trade.” And that skates over the fact that Britain dominated the slave trade and only relinquished its participation under very particular political and economic circumstances that are not in fact entirely flattering.
In the United States, and I think in Europe, for the most part, the story of the Age of Discovery, which is the story from which the transatlantic slave trade unfolds, is a story dominated by a Spanish narrative that Spain “discovered” the Americas and that modernity begins with Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, with Portugal reduced to a kind of bit player.
I think that is the opposite of the reality. In fact, Spain was driven to do the things that it did largely out of envy of Portugal’s success. Portugal discovered gold in Elmina [on the coast of what is now Ghana] in 1471, and within a decade, gold from Africa constituted half of Portugal’s income. It renders this heretofore fragile and very marginal player in Europe’s political landscape into an important country, and it injects African bullion into the European economy where it begins doing extraordinary things, including reinforcing circuits of trade between northern and southern Europe in powerful ways.
Spain sees all of this happening and decides it can’t let Portugal run away with the game. Seven years later, Spain sends a convoy of 35 ships to try to wrest this away from Portugal, and they have a huge naval battle, which Portugal wins. … And Spain then decides to fund Columbus.
I don’t think there’s any question that Portugal’s creation of the slave agricultural production model, which we now know as a plantation, is the most important discovery/innovation/invention of the age, far more important than Spain’s discovery of gold in places like Potosi. The plantation economy has tentacles that go in every direction in the economy in the North Atlantic that the purely extractive model does not. The influence of Portugal’s breakthrough in Brazil, via this chattel model of plantation slavery, its subsequent adoption first by the English in Barbados and Jamaica, the French adoption of it in Saint-Domingue [later Haiti] and the continental American adoption of it [and the subsequent] migration of slavery from the upper south to the Mississippi River Valley, sees an American economic revolution after the introduction of cotton in quantities that are just breathtaking.
MD: The interaction between the colonies in New England and those in the Caribbean also, in a way, freed the original colonies from depending on the British homeland and indirectly helped fuel a desire for independence for what became the United States.
HF: The original 13 colonies would not have been viable without the slave economies of the Caribbean. They are what made the 13 colonies prosperous. They couldn’t sell finished goods back to England, but they could sell them to the Caribbean. The sugar plantation economies of places like Barbados and Jamaica, the value of what was extracted from the land — that it made no sense to grow anything else — and the American colonial became a kind of service economy to feed, clothe and furnish people of the Caribbean.
MD: You touch on the work of Eric Williams and C.L.R. James in terms of the role Africans played in the creation of wealth in the West throughout the 19th century and industrialization in Europe. But in their time, the conventional wisdom was that Europe was dragging along these places in the Americas.
HF: Eric Williams’ thesis flew in the face of the national myth that the British had worked to establish their own principles and their own selflessness. It was corrosive to the comforting myths that the British have about themselves. But [part of the resistance] was about the temerity of a Black man telling this story. Black people don’t get to tell these stories often in history in very prominent ways. We don’t have a very deep history in the West of listening to versions of history told by Black people themselves. My book enters into a very small bibliography of books written by Black people about world history.
MD: One thing that was striking about the section on Haiti, which is something I’ve thought about a lot, is that the Haitians clearly seemed to take the “Déclaration des droits de l’homme” [Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the 1789 Enlightenment-inspired human rights document of France’s National Constituent Assembly] much more seriously than the French themselves did, which is an aspect that should be wider known among the general public.
HF: They not only took them far more seriously than the French did, but the French under Napoleon tried to reenslave the Haitians, an expedition all across the Atlantic trying to resubject Haitians to slavery. The Haitians were decades ahead of the Founding Fathers in embracing and fighting for and respecting this notion of universal freedom. They took this as self-evident from the very beginning and were willing to sacrifice everything for it.
MD: One could argue that some in the United States still have not accepted this, if one looks at, for example, the measures being enacted that are designed to prevent African Americans from voting today.
HW: I agree. In fact, you have prominent historians like Sean Wilentz expounding on this idea that the U.S. Constitution was an antislavery constitution. There’s this denial taking place at the highest level of intellectual life of this country — not to mention in Trumpland — that the United States has always been about freedom. But we are trying to establish a record based on facts. That’s all.
MD: For me, in some ways, the most perplexing and troubling character in early U.S. history is Thomas Jefferson. Following the uprising in Haiti, he presciently saw that revolts could take place in the United States. There is this incredible intellectual disconnect between these evolved ideas of rights and liberty and humanity while also supporting the removal of Native Americans from their land, sending huge contingents of slaves west and south as if that will somehow solve the slavery problem and who was a slave owner himself. You wonder sometimes how these ideas existed in the same person.
HW: I would say the prosperity, the luxury, the leisure, the education and simply the time that allowed Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and an entire generation of people from Virginia, to think about these noble ideas about freedom that we so celebrate — rightly, but incompletely — were the fruits of slavery. Jefferson would not have been known as a genius without slavery, he would not have had the time to do the things he did. Privilege blinds people, and Jefferson lived a life embedded in privilege, and privilege now and privilege then makes it difficult for people to understand [that] the way the world is isn’t simply the way they see it.