For thousands upon thousands of years, with a few exceptions, Europeans stayed in Europe, Africans in Africa, Asians in Asia, etc. The journey of Cristóbal Colón (a.k.a. Christopher Columbus) to the New World changed all that forever.
His voyages set off a complete reshuffling of the human population around the globe, and this movement was dominated by the African slave trade. According to Charles Mann’s epic book 1493, around 11.7 million captive Africans were shipped to the Americas between 1500 and 1840 – the ‘heyday of the slave trade’. In comparison, during the same period, around 3.4 million Europeans emigrated to the New World. That’s about 3 Africans for every 1 European!
I’ll quote Mann at length here because he says it better than I could anyway!
‘The implications of these figures are as staggering as their size. Textbooks commonly present American history in terms of Europeans moving into a lightly settled hemisphere. In fact, the hemisphere was full of Indians – tens of millions of them. And most of the movement into the Americas was by Africans, who soon became the majority population in almost every place that wasn’t controlled by Indians. Demographically speaking … America was an extension of Africa rather than Europe until late in the nineteenth century.’
‘In the three centuries after Colón , migrants from across the Atlantic created new cities and filled them with houses, churches, taverns, warehouses, and stables. They cleared forests, planted fields, laid out roads, and tended horses, cattle and sheep – animals that had not walked the Americas before. They stripped forests to build boats and powered mills with rivers and waged war on other newcomers. Along the way, they collectively reworked and reshaped the American landscape, creating a new world that was an ecological and cultural mix of old and new and something else besides.’
‘This great transformation, a turning point in the story of our species, was wrought largely by African hands. The crowds thronging the streets in the new cities were mainly African crowds. The farmers growing rice and wheat in the new farms were mainly African farmers. The people rowing boats on rivers, then the most important highways, were mainly African people. The men and women on the ships and in the battles and around the mills were mainly African men and women. Slavery was the foundational institution of the modern Americas.’
‘Two migrations from Africa were turning points in the spread of Homo sapiens around the globe. The first was humankind’s original departure, seventy thousand years ago or more, from its homeland in Africa’s eastern plains. The second was the transatlantic slave trade.’
~ Charles C Mann | 1493: How Europe’s Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth | pages 286-287
This completely changes the way I understand the history of colonization in the Americas. Coming from the US, the view we have is of an immigration story dominated by white Europeans, with some Africans and a tiny scattering of Asians, and of course, a few native Americans lurking on the fringes. Now all that seems like a complete misrepresentation of reality. It’s a clear example of how power dynamics drastically change the way history is recorded, taught and interpreted. White people dominated the political and economic sphere, so they were the ones who wrote the American story… a story centred around them; a story in which brown and black people were marginal characters, side-notes in history, the supporting actors in an epic white drama.
But it appears that the story of the centuries following Columbus’s journey to the Americas were much different than I was taught. While the living and working conditions that Africans (as well as Native Americans) suffered under in the Americas were truly horrendous, they made a huge and indelible mark on the New World, despite everything. Many of them went through hell on earth, but the world I come from (speaking as an American) was to a large degree shaped by those African men and women. It is strange to think of the contrast between the way most of us in the US are taught about the history of Africans in America and what the reality of the situation was. We are taught about Africans as a ‘minority’, as an outside group on the edge of mainstream white society, slowly and painstakingly making their way closer to the centre, towards equality. They are a part of the population many white Americans only recognize on certain days of the year or during Black History Month, or only read about in supplementary chapters in school textbooks. We completely overlook the fact that for hundreds of years, they were actually a majority, and while oppressed, managed to shape the New World that white people like me, and people of all races and ethnicities, now live in.
In an upcoming post, I’ll share more I’ve learned from Charles Mann’s 1493, about communities of Africans who fought for and gained freedom from slavery on their own terms – those who resisted and won against the oppression of white slave societies in both North and South America. It’s incredible stuff, a side of American history I’d never learned about until recently, and it’s been a real eye-opening experience.
More coming soon…!