The Notion of Origin in the Historiography Of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Much is at stake in the historiography of slavery; to fashion a certain history of the Transatlantic slave trade is to produce certain tangible consequences. The debate concerning the origin of modern slavery operates within the same epistemological system as the modern, Western discourse about the origin of civilization. An analysis of this origin historiography will explicate the active role of such discourse in establishing and maintaining global hierarchies of power. With this agency, the notion of origin in histories of the transatlantic slave trade participates in preserving the imbalances of power between Africa and the West.

The impulse to identify an origin in history is entwined in the ideas of “modernity” and “civilization,” which derive legitimacy from a crafted narrative of linear progress. Such a historical narrative is only possible with the basis of an origin. This function is fulfilled by a myth of the West’s Greek ancestry. Said Amin explains that the West’s self-formation is rooted in a teleology that begins in ancient Greece, where the seeds of “Western” thought and rationalism were first sowed. “According to this view of history,” Amin writes, “These qualities of Greek thought are taken over by European thought beginning in the Renaissance and come of age in the modern philosophies” (91). This construction of an origin narrative is “entirely mythic,” but the falsities of its claims do not mute its power (92). Rather, by declaring ownership over ancient Greek “civilization” and asserting its inheritance of “universal” ideas and culture, the West imposes its superiority over the rest of the globe.

The West’s alleged origin in ancient Greece bolsters the claim that only Europe possesses the pure and mature form of “civilization.” The concept of civilization encompasses a mass of standards, ideas, and behaviors asserted as the ultimate goal for all of mankind. Importantly, civilization is only an inherent trait of the “West,” another formulated construct that is projected onto the past through dominant modern historiography. As Amin explains,

“This dominant culture invented an ‘eternal West,’ unique since the moment of its origin. This arbitrary and mythic construct had as its counterpart and equally artificial conception of the Other, likewise constructed on mythic foundations” (89).

When history points to the West as the singular inheritor of civilization, the narrative of progress implicitly excludes and diminishes all that is non-Western. In a history dependent upon an origin of civilization, the West is ascribed with the innate capability to develop and progress continually through time. The non-West, in contrast, is painted as static, undeveloped, and incapable of self-improvement. These two binary identities are self- constitutive; one cannot exist without the other.

Hegel’s work The Philosophy of History illustrates the productive agency of insisting upon an origin of civilization. In Hegel’s conception of the world, he judges the success and development of all nations compared to the ideal standards of Europe. He writes that civilization outside of Europe “is but an emanation from Europe” (82). Fastening onto the idea of ancient Greece as Europe’s ancestor, Hegel presents the “fact” that civil progress is native only in the West and must be transported to occur elsewhere. Within this construction of history, the inferior non-West remains primitive and static, dependent upon external intervention to reach civilized society. This is exactly how Hegel describes Africa. He asserts,

“Africa proper, as far as History goes back, has remained—for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World—shut up; it is the Gold-land compressed within itself—the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night” (91).

Hegel goes on to describe the African as “the natural man” who is “completely wild” and “untamed” (93). The teleology of progress in modern historiography is demarcated and exhibited by Africa and Europe at opposite ends. Africa is the child, and Europe is the man. The West is granted a monopoly over the project of internal development. Any sense of civilization in Africa is attributed to an import from the West, as Hegel writes, “Historical movements in [Africa] … belong to the Asiatic or European World” (99). With this analysis, it is clear that Hegel’s history of the origin and development of civilization produces an African identity that is directly opposed and inferior to the West.

The notion of origin operating in Western historiography has been so effective in asserting Western superiority (and therefore maintaining Western dominance) that historians who seek to prove African agency have aimed to reappropriate this concept and claim African ownership over the origin of civilization. Cheikh Anta Diop is one of these historians. As the title of his book, African Origin Of Civilization, demonstrates, Diop works to corroborate the historical claim that “civilized” ideals and behaviors are, in fact, inherent to Africa’s character. In this way, Diop reverses the teleological narrative of Hegel. He writes, “Greece borrowed from Egypt all the elements of her civilization, even the culture of the gods, and [Egypt] was the cradle of civilization” (4). Rather than civilization “emanating” from the superior West to the inferior East as Hegel asserts, Diop seeks to ascribe intrinsic agency, uniqueness, and capability for progress to Africa. Diop’s argument, although, continues to operate within the same epistemological system as Hegel’s. Both authors position a narrative of development from an origin to a civilization, resulting in a hierarchical structure of power across the globe.

In order to successfully advocate for Africa’s agency and historical contribution, a historian must break down the dominant system of knowledge legislating the world’s imbalanced power. Martin Bernal attempts to do just this. Bernal identifies the dangerous effects of an origin history of civilization and instead presents a heterogeneous, non- teleological history of ideas, behaviors, and mixed influences. Recognizing two mainstream understandings, he describes an “Ancient Model” and an “Aryan Model” of Greek history. Bernal writes,

“According to [the Ancient Model], Greek culture had arisen as the result of colonization, around 1500 BC, by Egyptians and Phoenicians who had civilized the native inhabitants. Furthermore, Greeks had continued to borrow heavily from Near Eastern cultures” (1).

In this mode of knowledge, ancient Greek civilization was a result of diverse, external influences and confrontations. On the other hand, the Aryan Model of Greek history, which developed in the nineteenth century with the rise of Western ideas of modernity, denies Egyptian and Phoenician influence. This newer model claims that the original civilization was “the result of the mixture of the Indo-European-speaking Hellenes and their indigenous [Greek] subjects” (2). Clearly, the Aryan model produces the idea of an origin that is internal to Western history, justifying the West’s inherent predisposition for internal development, in contrast to an inferior Other. Instead of this Eurocentric perspective, Bernal proposes a “Revised Ancient Model,” which combines elements of both histories to paint a narrative of continual, heterogeneous influence. Bernal refutes dominant claims that Africa requires external intervention to achieve development not by reversing the argument, but by stepping out of that debate entirely. In Bernal’s construction of history, readers learn that African society produced its own unique set of cultural structures, which continually changed and morphed with migrations, invasions, and influences from diverse groups, including Semites and Phoenicians. The author describes Greece’s “cultural mix” with “fundamental linguistic [and] cultural links between Egypt” and many other groups (15). By tracking the heterogeneous nature of history, Bernal breaks down the notion of a single civilizational origin, ultimately discrediting the hierarchical, binary relationship between the West and the East that modern historiography prescribes and maintains.

In parallel to the history of civilization, the history of slavery is also marked by a fetishization of origin. An analysis of several historical constructions of the transatlantic slave trade will illustrate the same productive agency of the notion of origin in creating a hierarchal relationship between the West and the East. Walter Rodney, in his book West Africa and the Atlantic Slave-Trade, characterizes the transatlantic slave trade as an imported phenomenon with an origin external to Africa. His version of history renders Europe as the unique incubator of certain economic strengths that gave rise to the ideas, systems, and operations of the transatlantic slave trade, which were then forced upon a passive, undeveloped Africa. Rodney narrates,

“In fact, the Atlantic slave-trade should be seen as the first stage of the colonial domination of Africa by Europeans. In that period, the domination was purely economic, based on the difference between Europe’s growing commercial and capitalist economy and the subsistence economy of the Africans. Because of this advantage, Europeans called the tune and made the Africans dance” (21).

Rodney’s claim that only Europe possessed the economic “advantage” strong enough to innovate the project of the transatlantic slave trade echoes notions of European exceptionalism, or “Eurocentrism,” as Samir Amin calls it. Like Hegel, Rodney shows that the economic genius and power of the transatlantic slave trade was “but an emanation from Europe,” an external development imported into static, undeveloped, and childish Africa (82). By locating the origin of the transatlantic slave trade outside of Africa, Rodney participates in the same system of knowledge governing modern Eurocentric historiography, which produces the West’s superiority in contrast to its Other. Rodney portrays Africans as wholly inferior to Europeans, writing,

“Certain goods were made only in Europe. Africans were told that if they wanted those goods they would have to supply human beings. One of the most tragic aspects of the Atlantic slave-trade as far as West Africans were concerned lay in their increasing helplessness in the face of what amounted to economic blackmail… No single African ruler could prevail against the economic power of Europe… In the end they were not so much the partners of the Europeans but rather the servants” (21).

The modern notion that Africa is incapable of internal development lives on in this history. Rodney’s work serves as an exemplar of the tangible productivity in the transatlantic slave trade’s historiography. By employing the origin concept, his construction of history outlines a teleological narrative of Europe’s inevitable superiority and dominance over Africa during the slave trade and beyond. Even while Rodney condemns such domination, his history maintains the ideas present in Hegel’s work that Europe is innately superior and Africa is innately powerless.

With this understanding, it becomes clear that history’s narrative of the transatlantic slave trade must escape the notion of origin. Like Bernal, John Thornton seeks to demolish the oppositional identities of a West that is capable of internal advancement and a helpless Africa that is dependent upon external intervention. Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World restores agency to Africa by describing a heterogeneous mix of influence and power that built and operated the transatlantic slave trade project. To begin, Thornton directly refutes Rodney and his colleagues by asserting the inherent capabilities of Africa’s economy during this period:

“Africans played a more active role in developing the commerce [of the transatlantic slave trade], and they did so on their own initiative. On the one hand, the Atlantic trade was not nearly as critical to the African economy as these scholars believed, and on the other hand, African manufacturing was more than capable of handling competition from preindustrial Europe… Perhaps one of the most interesting facts of the early Atlantic trade was the Europe offered nothing to Africa that Africa did not already produce” (44).

Such arguments dismantle visions like Rodney’s and Hegel’s that portray Europe as the exclusive inheritor of “advanced” economic power. Additionally, Thornton refutes Rodney’s representation of Africans being helplessly blackmailed, asserting that Africans participated in the commerce as a willing and powerful agent and partner. His narrative does not portray the transatlantic slave trade as an externally imported project. Thornton discredits the notion of origin in the transatlantic slave trade’s history by illustrating the heterogeneous combination of influence in its establishment. He explains that Europe’s capitalist understanding of private property merged with Africa’s capable commerce industry (which already recruited and sold slaves) to create a new phenomenon of the transatlantic slave trade. In this way, Thornton’s historiography resembles Bernal’s concept that the process of “cultural mix” innovates new behaviors, ideas, and structures. Similarly, Thornton steers clear of inserting a hierarchical relationship between Africa and the West into his construction of history, because he abandons the notion of origin, the opposition between internal and external forces of progress, and the dichotomy between the powerful West and the powerless East.

In her essay “Discourse and Distortion: Critical Reflections on Studying the Saharan Slave Trade,” E. Ann McDougall demonstrates how the representation of slavery in history, politics, and culture plays an active role in the West’s imperial project, even after the fall of the transatlantic slave trade. She writes that the positioning of “the trans-Saharan trade in the story of the Atlantic slave traffic ”solidified conceptions of Africa’s dependency on the West and therefore “gave re-invigorated legitimacy to nineteenth-century discourses structured in dichotomies of West-East, Christian-Muslim, free-slave and us-‘other’” (210). Illustrating the infiltration of Orientalist discourse into the naming and description of the “Islamic” slave trade, McDougall identifies the power of hierarchical binary relationships produced by historiography. These constituted identities grant inherent superiority to the West over a primitive Africa, creating tangible consequences of imperial expansion and cultural domination.

McDougall’s discussion reveals the high stakes in the world’s contemporary understanding of the historiography of slavery. If the notion of origin continues to characterize narratives of civilization and slavery, the West will maintain its self- identification with an inherent exceptionalism, in opposition to an under-developed and dependent Other. The maintenance of such identities will conserve the lasting power imbalance of Western hegemony over the rest of the world. This exploration into the diverse historiographies reveals that our understanding of history is directly correlated to the world’s material reality. Armed with this realization, we must question and dismantle historical notions of origin that produce the West’s hegemonic dominance over Africa.

Written by Lucille Marshall for Major Debates in the Study of Africa with Professor Mahmood Mamdani at Columbia University.

Works Cited

Amin, Samir. Eurocentrism. New York: Monthly Review, 1989. Print.
Diop, Cheikh Anta, and Cheikh Anta. Diop. The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality.New York: L. Hill, 1974. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Philosophy of History. Trans. John Sibree. New York: Colonial, 1900. Print.

Thornton, John K. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. Print.

Walter Rodney, West Africa and the Atlantic Slave Trade, Historical Association of Tanzania Paper No. 2


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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