Friday, August 5, 2011
Review: Africa’s Discovery of Europe by David Northrup
I just read a very interesting book on Africa’s discovery of Europe written by a professor of History at Boston College. The book gives an overview of the encounters between Europeans and Africans, from 1450 till 1850. It starts with the first contacts between Portuguese sailors and African coastal states in West-Africa and is as much as possible based on sources from Africans.
The author doesn’t look at Africa as a victim but rather as an active contributor and partner in the African-European relations. He studies how religion and culture interacted, how sexual relationships came to be, what the effects of new products and technologies were, how politics, economics, culture and religion interacted, etc. (I discovered e.g. that cassava and corn are not indigenous to Africa).
The reader discovers how Africans were an integral part of the globalizing of economical and cultural transactions. Through the life stories of black missionaries, kings, princes, emissaries, traders and slaves we get an insight into the life and times of the first encounters between Europe and Africa. A whole chapter tells us about the stories of Africans who lived in Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and how they lived their lives then. I was surprised to discover how racial mixing in the British Isles didn’t raise many eyebrows in those days, even less in Africa.
We discover that the first encounters were encounters of equal parties, each trying to gain as much as possible from the transaction. Racial stereotypes and racial discrimination were only to take their full and aggressive form in Europe and Africa in the second half of the 18th century, most of all due to the influence of the colonists from the Americas and the justification of colonization and slavery.
In the first centuries of the slave trade it was rather a coincidence that most slaves were black as Africa had a culture of slavery which post medieval Europe didn’t have. Europe bought the slaves Africa had to offer, for a major part to be able to colonize America. Still, in the first centuries of the slave trade, blacks could buy themselves free and becoming colonizers and slave traders. During those first centuries European presence in Africa was also focused on trade (among it slave trade of course) not on the colonization of the land and peoples of Africa.
To all who want to deepen their understanding and knowledge of history between Africa and Europe I recommend to read this book. The author bases his research on primary sources written by mostly Africans and refers to most important works on the topic.
Europe’s history with race is very different compared to that of America, although both sides influenced each other deeply and both regions are becoming more and more alike at the beginning of the 21st century. I’d like to end with a citation I found in this book, it is taken from Frederick Douglass correspondence when travelling in Europe in 1845. It illustrates wonderfully the difference in racial relations in those days: “It is quite an advantage to be a 'nigger' here. I am hardly black enough for the British taste, but by keeping my hair as wooly as possible - I make out to pass for at least half a negro at any rate" Frederick Douglass (1845)