No one should be in any doubt about the existence of racism or the pain that it creates. However, one of the disturbing narratives that is being promoted, which urgently needs to be challenged, is that whether you are a victim or a perpetrator depends on your skin colour.1 It doesn’t. Racism comes from much deeper within and that claim needs to be recognised for what it is – a form of racism.

I do not in any sense question the pain that many black people feel looking at a statue of someone who was involved in the slave trade. But I also have to say that it is profoundly unhelpful to portray even the slave trade simply in terms of white oppression of black people.

When we speak of the slave trade, we rightly focus on the role that British traders played in transporting slaves to the West Indies and the appalling suffering experienced on the voyage and their treatment on the plantations. We also focus to some extent on the role of British ports such as Bristol and Liverpool in the ‘slave trade triangle’. However, a triangle has three points – and the area that today receives very little attention, either in education or politics is what happened at the African end of the triangle.

Somehow, we seem embarrassed to even mention the role of African tribes and Arab slave traders in the slave triangle. It certainly isn’t politically correct, or ‘woke’ or whatever the latest social media generated virtue signalling term is. Yet ignoring this, and focusing instead on historic white guilt for the slave trade, creates a blindness to present-day oppression and suffering in precisely those areas of Africa which were part of the slave triangle.

The white slave traders arriving in West Africa generally operated by buying Africans who had been captured and enslaved by other black African tribes. West Africans were also enslaved by Arab slave traders from the Barbary States (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) who travelled across the Sahara to do so. These Arabs also captured and enslaved a significant number of White Europeans, both through attacking ships from English ports such as Bristol and by engaging in slave raiding expeditions to coastal communities in South West England. For example, in 1625 the mayor of Plymouth reported to the Privy Council that around 200 men, women and children had been captured and enslaved in the nearby area. At Mount’s Bay in Cornwall an eye witness described how sixty men, women and children were dragged from the church and carried back to the slave ships. It is estimated that between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries i.e. during the time when British slave traders were engaged in the Atlantic slave trade, there were one million white European slaves held in North Africa. (For a highly readable and well-researched account see Giles Milton’s book White Gold).2

Although there is a marked reluctance to speak about black African and Arab slave trading, thankfully nineteenth century British governments had no such reticence. After leading the world in abolishing the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833 the British empire spent the next century devoting enormous resources to suppressing the activities of black African and Arab slave traders. This was the main job of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron which at its peak included one in six of its ships, and was made up of both British and locally recruited African crew. It is estimated that the West Africa squadron alone freed 150,000 African slaves, in addition to those freed by RN operations in the Indian ocean.

It is in fact profoundly revealing to examine the dates on which non-Western countries who were not subject to British control actually abolished slavery. Morocco did not do so until 1923, Saudi Arabia not until 1962 and Mauritania only in 1981.

Why this matters is firstly, because the legacy of slavery and slave raiding continues in Africa and secondly, because of the reluctance of Western governments to speak about the slave trade other than in terms of historic Western guilt, makes us reluctant to even acknowledge that some of practices undertaken by African slave traders are still being perpetrated in Africa today. For example, in Mauritania, despite slavery being illegal on paper, it is still tolerated, thousands are enslaved – not ‘modern slavery’ but traditional slavery. Many people there are actually born into slavery.3

Take Nigeria. At the same time that the British Empire abolished the slave trade, a major slave-raiding empire, the Sokoto Caliphate was emerging among the Fulani in what is now Northern Nigeria and surrounding countries.4 This regularly carried out slave-raiding expeditions targeting non-Muslim populations in Nigeria’s middle belt. By the time the area was annexed by the British at the turn of the twentieth century to suppress the trade, there were an estimated one to two and half million slaves. Yet the legacy of slavery remains. In 2018, Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, wrote a deeply sensitive article for the New Yorker and last year another for the Wall Street Journal detailing her emotional struggles with her and other Nigerian families’ pride in great grandparents who owned and traded slaves.56 She also describes how today descendants of slaves, known as ohu are ostracised, how as a child she was not allowed to be friends with one and a relative was prevented from marrying the man she had dated for years because her family discovered he was ohu.

The refusal of the West to give attention to the role of Africans in enslaving other Africans also affects foreign policy. Take Boko Haram, for example. Despite the fact that it was specifically targeting Christians and churches in Northern Nigeria, religiously cleansing the area of its Christian minority, the Obama administration continually claimed that this was simply a ‘socio-economic dispute’ between Christians and Muslims. It was only in November 2013 that the US finally recognised it as a terrorist organisation, months before Boko Haram became, according to the Global Terrorism Index, the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation.7 In 2014, shortly after the abduction of 270 predominantly Christian schoolgirls from Chibok, its leader, Abubakar Shekau announced:

“Allah instructed me to sell them … I will carry out his instructions … slavery is allowed in my religion and I shall capture people and make them slaves.”8

Boko Haram are not the only group following the pattern of the Sokoto Caliphate. Fulani herdsmen have been mounting increasing attacks on non-Muslim villagers in Nigeria’s middle belt and are now killing even more people than Boko Haram, with killings having increased by 261% in the last year.  The victims are overwhelmingly Christian and animist and the Fulani are the following the same raiding pattern that their forebears in the Sokoto Caliphate carried out in this area. However, Western governments and journalists repeatedly describe this as a ‘land dispute’ between settled farmers and nomadic herders.

Yet every month dozens more villagers are slaughtered. Already this year, hundreds of Nigerian Christians have been killed. Last month, at least 23 Christian villagers – men, women and children were killed in three separate attacks by Fulani militants.9

The uncomfortable truth is that our ‘woke’ political correctness and unwillingness to even speak about the historic role of Arabs and African tribes in the slave trade and other atrocities is blinding us to what is happening. The West’s preoccupation with historic white guilt is costing African lives today.

Dr Martin Parsons is a former overseas aid worker currently working as an independent consultant on freedom of religion or belief and the global persecution of Christians.

Picture of parents of Chibok kidnapping victims. Source: Voice of America. Public domain. 

Footnotes

  1. ‘Priti Patel: I will not be silenced over race: Home Secretary defiant after Labour MPs accuse her of exploiting her Asian heritage’ Daily Telegraph 11 June 2020 <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/06/11/labour-mps-accuse-priti-patel-using-race-gaslight-bame-communities/> [accessed 23 June 2020].
  2. Giles Milton, White God: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa’s One Million European Slaves (London:Hodder and Stoughton,2004).
  3. Anti Slavery International ‘Mauritania: Descent-based slavery’ <https://www.antislavery.org/what-we-do/mauritania/> [accessed 23 June 2020].
  4. Global Security ‘Sokoto Caliphate’  <https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/nigeria/sokoto.htm> [accessed 23 June 2020].
  5. Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani ‘My great-grandfather, The Nigeran slave-trade’ New Yorker 15 July 2018 <https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/my-great-grandfather-the-nigerian-slave-trader> [accessed 23 June 2020].
  6. Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani ‘When slave traders were African: Those whose ancestors sold slaves to the Europeans now struggle to come to terms with the painful legacy’ Wall Street Journal 20 September 2019 <> [accessed 23 June 2020].
  7. Institute for Economics and Peace Global Terrorism Index 2015 <http://visionofhumanity.org/app/uploads/2017/04/2015-Global-Terrorism-Index-Report.pdf> [accessed 23 June 2020].
  8. The claim was made in a video released by Boko Haram on 5 May 2014 cf Wahid Bakare ‘Bleak Christmas for Chibok schoolgirls’ in the Lagos based newspaper New Telegraph 27 December 2014 <http://newtelegraphonline.com/bleak-christmas-for-chibok-schoolgirls/> [accessed 7 January 2015].
  9. ‘Nigerian Christians cry: We must return so jihadists will not sing victory over the church’ Open Doors USA 18 May 2020 <https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/nigerian-christians-cry-we-must-return-so-jihadists-will-not-sing-victory-over-the-church/> [accessed 23 June 2020].

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