Islam, Colourism and the Myth of Black African Slave Traders
Africans in the Diaspora have the challenge of rewriting a history that has been stained by years of distortions, omission and downright lies. One of the biggest challenges of rewriting this history has been the Atlantic Slave Trade, and one of the biggest sore points has been the idea that “Black Africans sold their own into slavery”. A lack of information, a paucity of expansive scholarship and an unwillingness to have a serious discourse on Colourism as it existed in Africa even before European intervention, has contributed to this. Diaspora Africans are often quite naïve and will do anything to hold fast to the illusion that ” we are all Africans” and ignore the racism that has existed among a group that is far from uniform.
In looking at the issue of Colourism I could not help seeing the links between the role of Islam in Africa and the role of Africans in the slave trade. The book, Islam and the Ideology of Slavery by John Ralph Willis is very helpful in looking at the almost imperceptible link between the enslavement of ‘kufir’ non-Muslims or infidels, and the belief that Black Africans were not only heathens but inherently inferior. This is not a new thought and certainly not one that originated with the Muslims coming into Africa. Several Jewish exegetical texts have their own version of the mythical Curse of Ham being blackness. Given the common origins of these two major religions, it is thus not surprising that both Jews and Muslims played some of the most important roles in the enslavement of Black Africans next to the Europeans.
In an article by Oscar L. Beard, Consultant in African Studies called, Did We Sell Each Other Into Slavery? he says “Even the case of Tippu Tip may well fall into a category that we might call the consequences of forced cultural assimilation via White (or Red) Arab Conquest over Africa. Tippu Tip’s father was a White (or Red) Arab slave raider, his mother an unmixed African slave. Tip was born out of violence, the rape of an African woman. It is said that Tip, a “mulatto”, was merciless to Africans.”
The story of Tippu Tip who is one of the most widely known slave traders has always posed a problem for historians, especially Afrocentric historians in the Diaspora trying to find some way to reconcile themselves to the idea of an ‘African slave trader’. The fact that Tippu Tip was not only Muslim, but ‘mulatto’ is vital. The common ideology of Judaism and Islam where Black Africans are concerned is certainly no secret. While in some Islamic writings we see an almost mystical reverence for Africans, especially an over sexualized concept of Ethiopian women who were the preferred concubines of many wealthy Arab traders and Kings, in others there is distinct racism. Add to this the religious fervor of the Muslim invaders, their non-acceptance or regard for traditional African religions, and the obvious economic and political desires for which religion was used as a tool, and we get an excellent but little spoken of picture of Islam in Africa.
Historians did not often record or think of the ethnicity of these ‘Africans’ who sold their brothers and sisters into slavery. As part of our distorted historical legacy, we too in the Diaspora buy the idea that all Africans were uniform and ‘brothers’, but the true picture, especially at this time was not so. Centuries of contact with Europe, Asia, North Africa produced several colour / class gradients in the continent, divisions fostered by the foreigners. This may have been especially prominent in urban and economic centres. When we combine the converting, military force of Islam sweeping across western and eastern Africa placing a virtual economic stranglehold on villages and trading centers that were Kufir, with the intermixing of lighter-skinned Muslim traders from the North and East Africa creating an unprecedented population of mixed, lighter skinned Africans who began to form the elites of the trading classes we can see how a society begins to change.
Some historians have tended to downplay, or completely ignore the potential for change in scenario. It has even been suggested that one cannot transplant a modern day problem outside of its historical context. However, we see this creeping problem of colourism occurring all over the continent. In the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique where European traders and administrators were encouraged to intermarry, the elitist, trader class was largely Mulatto and Catholic. If we look at the situation in Ethiopia with the age-old oppression of the original Ethiopians, the Oromo of indigenous Cushitic stock, by the more Arabized Amhara this too has its roots in colour prejudice. There were hints of this occurring in many other instances at crucial points of contact between indigenous black Africans and lighter-skinned foreigners or mixed Africans and the most significant of these were in the areas of severe Islamic incursion.
Many towns and villages converted to Islam because of the protection that the military banner of Islam could offer them in a changing economic, political and social landscape. But the more damaging result was the many light skinned, converted Africans, children of mixed encounters that now felt a sense of superiority over their dark skinned, black African counterparts. Colourism is indeed of ancient vintage. The truth of the matter is that fair skinned Arabs’ racist attitude towards Blacks existed even before they invaded Africa. The evidence for this can be found in how they dealt with the Black inhabitants of Southern Arabia before they entered Africa as Muslims. Discerning readers and thinkers can look at this and many other accounts of this time and get a clearer picture of the inherent racism of this situation. When we combine this with the desire for African slave labour by Europeans it was no large feat for these often lighter skinned, Islamized Africans to enslave the black kufir, whom they barely endowed with a shred of humanity. And of course jumping on their bandwagon would have been those black Africans with deep inferiority complexes, who would have been only too eager to do the duty of the ‘superior’ Muslims in an effort to advance themselves. These facts are certainly not hidden and the patterns are everywhere, even today but it is we who do not like to see. For centuries we certainly have not been conditioned for Sight.
This leads us to another direct way colourism played itself out in the slave trade and this is in the ‘type’ of Africans who were enslaved. The biggest victims of slavery were undoubtedly the darkest Africans of what was called the “Negroid” type. If you look at old maps and documents by early European explorers you can note that the parts of the continent that they explored was divided by their crude definitions of what they saw as different African ethnicities. The regions of West and Central Africa were seen as the place of the “Negroes” which was distinct from Ethiopian Africans and even more so the lighter, more Arabized North Africans. We cannot say that NO Africans we taken from the north, but by and large most slaves that came to the West Indies, Americas etc were of the type mentioned above.
Beard continues, “In reality, slavery is an human institution. Every ethnic group has sold members of the same ethnic group into slavery. It becomes a kind of racism; that, while all ethnic groups have sold its own ethnic group into slavery, Blacks can’t do it. When Eastern Europeans fight each other it is not called tribalism. Ethnic cleansing is intended to make what is happening to sound more sanitary. What it really is, is White Tribalism pure and simple.” But the thing is that this thing we call ‘slavery’ never was a uniform institution. When people speak of slavery they immediately think of chattel slavery as practiced as a result of the Atlantic Slave Trade and apply this definition to indigenous African servitude systems, which bore little or no resemblance to chattel slavery. It is misleading to say, “Every ethnic group has sold members of the same ethnic group into slavery. It becomes a kind of racism; that, while all ethnic groups have sold its own ethnic group into slavery, Blacks can’t do it” as it denies the complexities of that particular colonial, chattel slavery situation that existed between Africans and Europeans.
Servitude systems that existed in Africa, and in other indigenous communities cannot be compared to racist slave systems in the Western world and to this day we attempt to try to see this slavery in the same context. People bring up accounts of Biblical slavery, of serfdom in Europe and yes, of servitude in Africa and attempt to paint all these systems with the same brush. However NO OTHER SLAVE SYSTEM has created the never-ending damaging cycle as the Atlantic Slave Trade. West Indian poet Derek Walcott has stated his feeling that our penchant for forgetting is a defense mechanism against pain, that if we were to take a good hard look at our history, at centuries of victimization, it would be too much for us to handle and we would explode. Well I say we are exploding anyway and in many cases from bombs that are not even our own. We have begun the long hard road of rewriting our ancient history, of recovering our old and noble legacy. Let us not stop and get cold feet now when the enemy now appears to take on a slightly darker hue. We must look at the slave trade in its OWN context, complete with all the historic and psychological peculiarities that have made it the single most damaging and enduring system of exploitation and hatred ever perpetrated in the recent memory of mankind. Until we do we will not escape its legacy.