An African Muslim from Bornu who would later convert to orthodox Christianity in Czarist Russia, and renamed Nicholas Said, Mohammed Ali ben Said spent much of his captivity in Africa, not the Americas. In a significant proportion of his account, Mohammed focused on the encounters between Islam and indigenous spiritualities in Bornu as well as the wider Sudanic region of Africa. In the selection below, Mohammed provides his own view of the Sudan before Islam and the destruction left in the wake of its encounter with indigenous cultures.
The excerpt below chronicles his observations of the three belief systems that shaped African history, namely indigenous African spiritualities, Islam and Christianity, as they played out on Africa’s Gold Coast
Understanding how complex societies developed in Africa can be as challenging as how to tell the histories of Africa. These interconnected issues are true for scholars who sort through equally complex evidence, but also for teachers and students who rely on scholarly interpretations of the past. In many instances, social and political complexity was achieved with centralized authority and a ruler, but also with collective rule based on pacts between lineages, ritual specialists, and autonomous settlements. Nowhere was the mixture of environment, nature’s resources, and the economies and relationships that flowed from them clearer than in pre-1600 West Africa.
The modern world owes its origin to transatlantic slaving, otherwise known as the transatlantic slave trade. If this seems surprising, it is because the overall significance of transatlantic slaving in the creation of the Americas and the modern world more broadly is not a celebratory history. It is a history of greed, immeasurable misery, and more importantly denial. To say slavery created the modern world is to say the historical obvious. But to accept this statement is to confront its denied cruciality, to bypass the idyllic scenes of picking cotton, and to come to terms with the barbarity and systemic humiliation of millions, the societies ruined, their lost possibilities, and the psychological if not financial debt owed to the collective skilled labor force that produced the opulence “modern” people enjoy or envy.
Though I am aware of Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, released today, what follows is a condensed version of my views, stirred principally by BWM but also by the repurposed essays and anecdotes that form the contents of Eight Years in Power. More importantly, there has been insufficient consideration of what BWM’s argument portends for the fate of “black” people—a race identifier used grudgingly but in no way do I subscribe to it. My concern is the defective premise, a story if you will, anchoring Coates’s argument and its dead-end implication if we were to follow that argument to its logical conclusion. I offer another way to think about the fate of black people in the United States and in white societies more broadly.
The Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is the culmination of decades of archival research and international collaboration among scholars, led by David Eltis and colleagues. Though the data for the book are available online for free (www.slavevoyages.org), the repackaging of that data into 189 visually stunning maps and nine tables, complemented by some forty-two vignettes, has earned the creators of the Atlas a vast amount of praise and numerous awards. Like the human genome project, which focused on DNA sequencing through international collaboration and pooling of data, the Atlas is a testament to the value of collaborative effort, and book reviewers and endorsers have called it “monumental,” “marvelous,” “superb,” “sophisticated,” “erudite,” “groundbreaking,” and of “immeasurable value.” It is possible that the Atlas’s accolades, however, may inspire too much self-congratulation and not enough humility toward the human lives transformed into data sets. Both the genome project and the Atlas are based on decades of research, but both also have limitations. The genome project, for example, has identified most genes, but the sequencing is not fully understood; we know comparatively little about the full functions of their proteins, and the human genome of most individuals remains uniquely unmapped. The Atlas, likewise, has mapped the economic contours of transatlantic slaving using available data, but there is a great deal of missing data; it cannot account adequately for the first century of slaving or for the illicit and contraband commerce in African bodies around the so-called Atlantic world. More important, its arithmetic methodology cannot represent the lost potentials of African lives. The sense of finality suggested by the authors of the Atlas or their public relations team should not, therefore, be accepted unconditionally.