History shapes our past and the professors who nestle themselves in another age, another world, are slowly repainting Africa’s turbulent past.
This comes from two contemporary trends which have been generated in the stuffy corridors of academia and are slowly percolating into the popular mind; the history of slavery and the history of colonialism.
These events have come to represent the literal looting and crimes perpetrated against Africans by the outside world for centuries. They have always been highly emotive historical events, both for Africans and the children of the perpetrators.
This is precisely why they attract research and the inquisitive minds who have sought to disentangle rhetoric from reality. The results have been dramatic.
The stimulus for this piece was the declaration last Thursday by the Nigerian Civic Rights Congress, who has demanded an apology from traditional leaders for their role in slavery.
They stated, ‘we cannot continue to blame the white men, as Africans particularly the traditional rulers, are not blameless,”
This marks a new trend in slave trade interpretation. It comes two years after Tony Blair finally denounced Britain’s role in the trade saying ‘it is hard to believe what would be a crime against humanity now, was legal’.
He was marking the bi-centenary of the abolition of slavery in the UK.
The role of African leaders was always well known. However the history of slavery within Africa was itself entrenched. The number of slaves in Africa actually increased after the British began boat controls to prevent the trade to the Americas.
The role of Africans was shown in the European conquests in the late 19th century. The colonial forces often made concessions to traditional African leadership to enforce a system of ‘informal control’.
This was particularly pronounced in North Nigeria, the ‘Sokoto Caliphate’.
Interpretations of history are often shaped by the attitudes of the period and by the person’s interests. This has been the case for studies of African reception to the colonialists in the 19th century.
The traditional view was one in which Africans were either seen to collaborate or resist; it was often this interpretation that was espoused by the future African independence leaders, who by definition formed the resistance group whilst any opposition groups, by implication, were the collaborators.
This was particularly the case in Ghana’s independence struggle. Kwame Nkrumah utilised this association to garner support for the CPP and denounce the cooperation of his former party the UGCC with the British. He won an astounding electoral victory.
However, this interpretation of collaboration or resistance is far too simplistic. Historical research has instead woven a patchwork of different relationships in the colonial state.
This includes ‘collaborators’ who used their position of trust to defy and manipulate the colonialists, such as the interpreters and administrators as well as the ‘collaborators’ who made deals with the colonialists and ensured they would not interfere in their regions or way of life.
History has therefore reconsidered previous notions and the result is a far better representation of the reactions of Africa’s forefathers to the colonialists.
Will neo-colonial economics become the new colonialists? Will members of the IMF be the new collaborators? Will the ‘rogue states’ not on Washington’s friends list, the new resistors? Time will tell.
The author lives in the United Kingdom and is a friend of Rwanda