From Abolition to the African Union: Kwame Nkrumah and the Pan-African Roots of Ghana’s Foreign Policy By: KWESI QUARTEY
Introduction I would like to thank the organizers of this centenary celebration for the opportunity to participate in this colloquium. I will briefly explore the attitudes underlying the slave trade, the impact on Kwame Nkrumah of the gruesome history of this trade and the background from which Ghana’s Pan-Africanist foreign policy emerged.
In 1936, or thereabouts, when the young Kwame Nkrumah set out for higher education in the United States, the supposed inferiority of the African and of the black race in general was taken for granted in the Western world. This view had been crystallized in literature. Writing on ‘Slavery of the Negroes’, Montesquieu stated in L’Esprit des lois (1748),
‘(W)ere I to vindicate our right to make slaves of the Negroes, these should be my arguments:
• The Europeans, having extirpated the Americans, were obliged to make slaves of the Africans for clearing such vast tracts of land.
• Sugar would be too dear if the plants which produce it were cultivated by any other than slaves.
• It is hardly to be believed that God who is a wise Being, should place a soul, especially a good soul in such a black ugly body.
• The Negroes prefer a glass necklace to that gold which polite Nations so value. Can there be greater proof of their wanting in common sense?’
Montesquieu’s conclusion… ‘Weak minds exaggerate too much the wrong done to the Africans’.
He was not alone. Edward Long, writing about Africans in 1774, had this piece of matchless profundity. He stated that in general they are void of genius and seem almost incapable of making any progress in equality of science. Indeed, ‘…. I do not think an orang-utang husband would be any dishonor to an Hottentot Female’.
Occasionally, circumstances compelled respect, however grudging. Writing on The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies in 1801, Bryan Edwards made the following observations:
‘The circumstances which distinguish the Kromantse or Gold Coast Negroes from all others are firmness of both body and of mind; a ferociousness of disposition; but withal activity, courage and a stubbornness, or what an ancient Roman would have deemed an elevation of the soul which prompts them to enterprises of difficulty and danger; and enables them to meet death, in its most horrible shape with fortitude and indifference.
The views on the African evolved during slavery and could be said to have been somewhat more than just skin deep. For instance, when the issue of slavery was being debated in the US Congress before Abolition, many views were expressed, of which one of the most remarkable was that of Senator James Henry Hammond:
‘Although I am perfectly satisfied that no human process can elevate the black man to an equality with the white – admitting that it could be done – are we prepared for the consequence which then must follow? Are the people of the North prepared to place their political power on an equality with their own? Are we prepared to see them mingling in our legislatures? Is any portion of this country prepared to see them enter these halls and take their seats by our sides, in perfect equality with the white representatives of an Anglo-Saxon race – to see them fill that chair – to see them placed at the heads of your departments; or to see, perhaps, some Othello, or Toussaint, or Boyer, gifted with genius and inspired by ambition grasp the presidential wreath, and wield the destiny of this great republic? From such a picture I turn with irrepressible disgust.’
Is ironic that today, Barack Obama, an African-American is President of the United States.
Europe’s contact with Africa soon developed into four centuries of tragic barbarity. There was considerable native resistance, which was met with ferocious brutality. How were the slaves acquired on the coast of West Africa?
When the British were about to debate Abolition, they set up a Parliamentary Committee to examine the evidence and make a presentation to Parliament. The abstract of evidence (1790-91) says, inter alia, that the trade in slaves in the River Senegal,
‘was chiefly with Negroes who got them often by war, and seldom by kidnapping; that is lying in wait near a village, where there was a war and seizing them when they could. Those sold to the vessels at Goree were procured either by the grand pillage or by robbery of individuals, or in consequence of crimes. The grand pillage is executed by the Kings, soldiers; from three hundred to three thousand at a time who attack and set fire to a village and seize the inhabitants as they can. The smaller parties finally lie in wait about the villages, and take off with all they can surprise; which is also done by individuals who do not belong to the King, but are private robbers. They sell their prey on the coast, where it is well known no questions as to the means of obtaining them are asked.’
Africans resisted slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in many ways. One letter from the Dutch archives is particularly illuminating. Dated 31 January 1687 at Cape Coast, it reads:
‘From WOOLWERF TO THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS 26th December, the Portugal ship Hambe arrived, which I have dispatched today with 525 pieces of slaves, 380 men and 139 women. As before, there is abundance of slaves here, but there is also great famine, with the result that I have not been able to supply this ship with as much millet as I would have desired.
The Negroes, who, as I have maintained, are here not at all polite, have turn up the noble company’s flag, on the day the ship Kromantyn left. On many occasions, it is the custom and one is even obliged, to have such a flag on the beach for the reputation of the noble company. This event is therefore a serious matter, and the English and the French were quite happy about it, as they concluded, as can be understood that our presence in this country is no longer brooked. I have therefore, at my own cost, prosecuted and eradicated the flag violator on behalf of His Excellency the general and sent him to Elmina per canoe; the general has publicly sentenced him to death and decapitated him, and has sent the severed head on board the company ship “Goude Tyger” as an example (of the punishment) for such wantonness . I have put it on top of a pole here at the lodge.’
Such was the violence and terror involved in coercing an unwilling African population that the legal regime developed the same unremitting ruthlessness. Let us pause to consider some of the laws passed with the blessing of the British Parliament.
Bermuda: February 1764 – An Act for the better Government of Negros, Mullatus and Indians, bond or free and for the more effectual punishing of conspiracies and insurrections of them.
“……….. And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid that if any Negro, Indian, Mullato or Mustee whether bond or free not descended from a white woman shall be convicted by maliciously striking any white person, whatsoever, he, she or they shall either be banished off these islands or have both his, her or their ears cut off in like manner as hereafter in this Act is mentioned.
….. where any such Negro, Mullato, or Indian shall be found upon the proof made….. to have given false testimony or nay trial for a capital crime, every such offender, shall, without further trial be ordered by the said court, or such other court before when it shall at any time be proved, that such testimony was given, to have one ear nailed to a post or tree and ……. to stand for the space of one hour, and given the said ear to be cut off; and thereafter the other ear nailed in the like manner and cut off at the expiration one other half hour.”
What marked Kwame Nkrumah out from the leaders of his day was his appreciation of history and its implications for the future of the continent. He had been largely influenced by the ideas of Marcus Garvey, W.E.B DuBois, as well as C.L.R. James and George Padmore. His active participation in the Fifth Pan-African Congress in 1945 in Manchester reinforced his Pan-African perspective. On Africa Freedom Day on 15 April 1961, he stated that,
’The destiny of Africans everywhere is inseparably linked by our common heritageandage, common ideals and aspiration. It devolves upon all African leaders, and the leaders of people of African descent, to unite in pursuit of our common objective – the total liberation of Africa and the Union of Independent African States’.
Happily for Africa today, most of the disagreements about African Unity have been overcome. What is essential now is to mobilize the resources required for the massive reconstruction of Africa for it to take its rightful place in the globalized world and to obtain acknowledgement from the imperial powers of the harm that was done to Africa.
On 27 November 2006, in an official statement on Britain’s role in the slave trade, then Prime Minister Tony Blair noted that, ‘The trans-Atlantic slave trade stands as one of most inhuman enterprises in history’. At a time when the capitals of Europe championed ‘the Enlightenment’ of humans, their merchants were enslaving a continent. Racism, not human rights, drove the horrors of the triangular trade through which some 12 million Africans were transported and, by some estimates, at least three million died.
Slavery’s impact on Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe was profound. As we approach the commemoration for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, it is only right we recognize the active role Britain played until then in the slave trade. British industry and its ports were intimately intertwined in it. Britain’s rise to global pre-eminence was particularly dependent on the system of colonial slave labour and, as we recall its abolition, we should also our place in its practice.
It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time. Was it legal? According to whose law? In the 18th century, the Foreign Secretary Charles Fox had a somewhat different view. Moving the motion for abolition, he stated that,
‘it is hoped that the time is not far distant when Africa will be relieved from the oppression, degradation, and misery of this impious commerce; when arresting the progress of that system of fraud, treachery and violence, which converts a large part of the habitable globe into a field of warfare and desolation, then this nation shall begin to atone to the negro race for the accumulated wrongs….
The Member of Parliament for Liverpool, General Tarleton disagreed, observing that,
‘As to the situation in Liverpool, I have this to say, it was once a mere fishing hamlet, but it has risen into prosperity in exact population to the extent of the African slave trade…. The abolition of the slave trade will cut up, by the roots, the source of our wealth…..’
In contrast, the Solicitor-General, Sir Samuel Romilly declared that,
‘I, as an individual of this country do feel most seriously the reproachful situation in which we stand at this moment, with respect to the slave trade………. I can well understand that nations as well as individuals, may be guilty of the most unusual act, from their not having the courage to inquire into all their nature and consequences.
Before the year 1789, this country had not the courage to inquire into all the circumstances of this trade. But in that year this House had the courage to appoint a committee to investigate the complaints which were preferred against it. The committee sat, and after a painful and anxious investigation, they reported to this House a great body of evidence, by which it was established beyond the possibility of dispute that the African Slave Trade is carried on by RAPINE, ROBBERY AND MURDER; by false accusations and ineffable crimes……….. such is the accumulation of guilt that hangs on the English nation at this moment’.
How is the accumulation of guilt to be expiated? How is the reconstruction of Africa to be financed? What strategy can the African Union adopt in this historic task? Perhaps it might be useful to ask – How would Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah react today?