Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War

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Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War

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Professor Howard W. Frenchis Professor of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City, global affairs writer, and the author of five books, including three works of non-fiction, and a work of documentary photography. As the author explains, the boom of the cotton, sugar and tobacco industries of the colonial US simply would not have happened without the trade of slaves from Africa. Without this “capitalist jolt” as French puts it, what we know now as the United States of America would have remained relatively obscure. It would not likely have become the superpower state it is today. French also argues against the idea that labor by enslaved people from Africa made only a marginal contribution to the rise of the West. For example, he writes, “The value derived from the trade and ownership of slaves in America alone [was] greater than that of all of the country’s factories, railroads, and canals combined.” And more generally: “Without Africa, and the slave plantation agriculture of the Caribbean that derived from it, there would never have been the kind of explosion of wealth that the West enjoyed … nor such early or rapid industrialization.” These days, the importance of the role of transatlantic slavery is better known and more studied than it was in the past – and rightly so. This book, though, is about much more than that, for French offers a wider view of how and why Africa and its people’s histories have been ignored, showing how the exploitation of the Americas and the Caribbean brought ecological dividends that then reshaped the world.

Born in Blackness by Howard W. French | Waterstones

I believe that the sooner denial about the large and foundational role that slavery played in creating American power and prosperity is put to definitive rest, the better Americans as a people will come to understand both themselves and their country's true place in American history." (394) It’s difficult to grasp today just how large a role sugar—and the slaves who farmed it—played in the Atlantic economy. “By 1660 it is estimated that tiny Barbados’s sugar production alone was worth more than the combined exports of all of Spain’s New World colonies.” This included the prodigious output of silver from Spain’s silver mountain in Potosí, Bolivia, and its mines in northern Mexico. “And this was just for starters. From 1650 to 1800, as major new sugar islands came on line in the Caribbean, sugar consumption in Britain would increase 2500 percent, and over this time, the market value of sugar would consistently exceed the value of all other commodities combined.” A necessary book. A compelling narrative that systematically dismantles one prop after another in the academy’s master narrative of how Europe brought light to ’the Dark Continent’ over the past six centuries. A worthy successor to Du Bois’ The World and Africa.” ―Mahmood Mamdani, author of Neither Settler Nor Native One of the great books that helps you think about the world in an entirely new way (whilst being horrified that you'd never learned these things before).Planters on the island bought slaves in increasing numbers with money “raised from willing creditors in England against future deliveries of sugar.” A Barbadian decree in 1636 laid down that slaves would remain in bondage for life, offering the template for servitude throughout the hemisphere. Barbados, says Mr. French, was not merely “a pioneer in the development of chattel slavery”; it became “an enormously powerful driver of history” through the “prodigious wealth” it would generate. In 1600, Brazil had supplied nearly all of Western Europe’s sugar; by 1700, thanks to disruptions in Brazil caused by Dutch-Portuguese warring, Barbados alone supplied half of Europe’s sugar fix. These experiences, mainly dating to the 1400s, were to prove instrumental not only in the settling of the Americas and the opening up of new trade routes to Europe. As it turned out, the most important consequences were for the people of Africa. The scale of human suffering that followed Columbus’s crossing of the Atlantic is almost impossible to conceive, let alone describe: modern consensus is that around 12 million were put on slave ships in appalling conditions.

A History of Modernity That Puts Africa at Center Stage

French points out that early European exploration and colonization were highly focused on trying to get access to sources of wealth from central Africa, first in the form of gold, which had always been a source for European specie (49-50), and later in the form of enslaved humans. He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions.He writes: “The gigantic boost that [this gold] provided the [Portuguese] crown … made it possible for Lisbon to keep pace with Spain in their headlong course into ocean faring, discovery, conquest, crusading, and intercontinental trade.” Specialists aside,” French writes, “few imagine that islands like Barbados and Jamaica were far more important in their day than were the English colonies that would become the United States.” The two islands produced substantially more wealth for Britain than all 13 colonies taken as whole. The riches that underwrote the expansion of the British Empire flowed not from North America but from the Caribbean—and it was wealth on a scale that few had dreamed possible. The North American colonies played only a peripheral role in this commerce—as merchants. The farmers, fishermen, and tradesmen centered on Boston, Philadelphia, and New York supplied food to the islands and clothed the slaves, themselves growing prosperous in the process. By the late 1600s the sugar trade was a driver of the economy in England (197). Probably more accurate to see the sugar mills, rather than the put-out textile system in England, as the place where farm and factory first met, capitalist forms of corporations and investment by disparate people unknown to one another, and coordination of highly synchronized activities first took place (206). Dogged original research and superb narrative skills come together in this gripping account of pitiless evil.

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