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Africa During the Scramble: Prodigal Sons

By Gary Oswald

Nzinga-a-Nkuwu or João I, King of Kongo at the time of Portuguese first contact, as depicted by Pierre Duflos

Prior to the 19th Century, white people were rare in Africa. Residents in the big slaving ports would be used to white faces, both on the ships coming in to buy human cargo and from the small group of permanent residents in their forts, organising trade and alliances with the African elites. But inland, white people were only talked about rather than seen. All that was known about them was they demanded human bodies in huge numbers to be sent to them in their ships and rumours quickly spread that they ate them, that they fed themselves on the slaves they bought and that was why they ordered new replacements in such huge numbers. After all, who could disprove it, none of the slaves ever came back.

Except a very small amount of them did.

When the Portuguese first arrived in Angola in 1483, they made contact immediately with the subjects of the Kingdom of Kongo. Over the next few years they would convert the King of Kongo to Catholicism and leave Portuguese architects, doctors and priests at his court. They would also take Kongolese nobles to Portugal to be educated and in many cases to become clergy. And, of course, they made an agreement to buy slaves.

Originally the slaves mostly weren’t going to Brazil, some were going to Europe and a lot were staying in Africa where the Portuguese were trying to create plantations and trading routes across the Gulf of Guinea. It was only in the 16th Century that the New World slave system got kick-started and so the numbers of slaves the Portuguese were buying became unusual and dangerous.

In the 1520s King Afonso of Kongo began to panic because suddenly slaves were being taken at a much larger rate and it was destabilising his country. Afonso's letters to the Kings of Portugal display a concern that the slave trade was getting out of his control, that it was not just captives of wars but free born Kongolese also being sold because ultimately the Portuguese goods were so much more valuable that laws were being broken so that they could be obtained. The treaty was that Kongo would sell slaves to Portugal but it was understood that it was slaves that were to be sold not free people as slaves. So Afonso urged the Portuguese kings to reign back their merchants, they didn’t and Afonso couldn’t control his own people either.

But he could buy back free people who had been sold. Throughout the 16th Century, agents of the Kongolese King visited São Tomé and Príncipe, a stop off point between Kongo and Brazil, and found nobles and elites who had been illegally sold and bought them back. In 1604, they went further and travelled to Brazil itself to buy back slaves who had been taken to the plantations, the result was probably the first ever New World slaves to be returned to their homes in Africa.

And in 1623, the Kongolese Ambassador to the Vatican achieved a bigger victory. He secured an agreement with the Pope and King Philip IV of Spain and Portugal that no Kongolese Christians should be enslaved at all, only pagans. Philip even sent a ship load of Christian slaves back to the Kingdom of Kongo as a result. Why did the Spanish agree this? It was mostly a way to try and rebuild bridges with a potential enemy. Earlier that year the Governor of Angola had been defeated in an unsuccessful invasion of the Kongo and the Kongolese had asked Philip and the Pope to denounce the Governor and prove themselves friends, the agreement on slaves was their reply. In 1624, a Dutch fleet arrived in Angola to launch a joint attack on Luanda with the Kongolese. The Kongolese didn’t show up, and the Dutch withdrew. Philip’s gamble had worked to preserve his colony and with that danger passed, no more Catholic slaves were returned.

And the days of the Kingdom of Kongo being treat as a part of Christendom on a comparable level to the European Kings were numbered. This was their high point in terms of influence in Europe, over the next century civil conflict and wars with Portugal reduced their power to a point where the Iberians no longer needed to care about their sensibilities. It is interesting to imagine the effects of the Spanish enforcing that rule on Christian Slaves being sent back to Africa for longer but it's hard to picture them ever doing so.

But, while the Kongo nobility diminished in importance, there was still an African elite who the slave trade was reliant on. And when members of that elite were captured as slaves, there were sometimes efforts taken to return them. In the 18th Century, several traders were captured by the British, sold into slavery and then returned home after their identities were discovered. Somewhat worryingly, in all those cases they went back into slave trading after being released.

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by WIlliam Hoare

One example was Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, from Senegal, who returned to Africa as an agent of the Royal African Company after a year in England and several more as a slave in Maryland. Ayuba and his companion had been ambushed upon returning from selling slaves by a rival band of slave traders and sold into slavery themselves until he could get a letter to London when upon he and his companion were freed and returned to their previous careers as slave traders. He was a more valuable asset to the English in Africa than on the plantations.

The African slave traders had very real power in terms of choosing which Europeans they traded with. When John Corrente of Ghana had his eldest son educated in Paris, the British felt obliged to offer to educate another son in London lest John would favour the French. When that son went missing, assumed dead, John blamed the British and not only began trading exclusively with the French but also began to encourage prostitutes with sexually transmitted diseases to seduce British sailors. It became a British priority to get John back onside. Their key was the missing son, William Ansah Sessarakoo, who they discovered had been secretly been sold into slavery by the Captain supposed to carry him to England. As a result they took one of his companions on a tour of plantations in Barbados until he could be identified, at which point they apologised and had him freed. Like with Ayuba he was taken back to England and hosted as an honoured noble quest and like Ayuba he returned to his job as a slave trader upon arriving back in Africa.

These stories are not common, but they were not unique either. Female Soldiers from Dahomey visited Brazil to bring back one of their Queens according to Beninese oral history and there’s a handful more tales about elites returning to Africa from slavery. This was the supposed story of the Malagasy King, Abraham Samuel, who claimed to have been taken as a slave to Martinique before travelling back to Madagascar as the crew of an American pirate ship. Samuel, however, was almost certainly lying about being born in Madagascar, all the evidence points to him instead being born in Martinique and that he had no connection to the Malagasy before he arrived there and needed to justify his rule.

But he was, undoubtedly, a black man from the slave plantations who arrived in Africa as crew of a Western Ship and in that he wasn’t alone. War Ships, Pirate Ships and Slave Ships all often included non-white crew members, most of which would be slaves, freed slaves or the descendants of slaves.

In the 19th century this trend of return from the New World accelerated, it went from a handful of elites and a few passing sailors to thousands of people crossing the ocean to live in Africa forever. The black poor of London, Jamaica and Nova Scotia went to Sierra Leone, from the USA they went to Liberia and from Brazil they spread all over the West African Coast.

Capoeira or the Dance of War by Johann Moritz Rugendas is a painting of Afro-Brazillians..

Brazil was the largest slave colony to ever exist. It's estimated that around 4 million African slaves were taken there, around 40% of all the New World Slaves and it was one of the last countries to emancipate its slaves, that not happening until 1888. Because of this it had and, indeed continues to have, a large Afro-Brazilian population and during the 19th century in the last days of the Brazilian Slave system around five to eight thousand of them travelled to Africa to start new lives there. Some were the free descendants of slaves who saved up their own money for the passage, some came as assistants to white slave traders and some were the participants of slave revolts, such as the 1835 Malê revolt, who were deported by the Brazilian government.

They settled mostly in modern day Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. Some of them settled in the Dutch and British controlled cities, others in native independent slaver Kingdoms like Dahomey, Ashanti and the Akan states. In Nigeria they would be joined by returning Yoruba speakers from Cuba and Sierra Leone as well, and in all cases the Afro-Brazilians would ask for permission to settle, be given their own land and then start working for the local rulers. There they often formed ghettos of Christian Portuguese speakers among the pagan Akan or Fon majorities with their own culture, sometimes even third and four generation immigrants would consider themselves Brazilians in exile rather than Africans. Many of the Afro-Brazilians worked in the slave trade because that was the heart of the local economies and the job where knowing European languages and culture was most useful, others worked as farmers and others opened shops as masons, tailors and carpenters. In a lot of cases the Afro Brazilians flourished in Africa with their skills in building being particularly noted and sought after. In Accra the Brazilian Quarter had great stone buildings, as opposed to the thatched roofed buildings of the Akan, in Dahomey Afro-Brazilian traders began to dominate the government and in Togo the richest Afro-Brazilians ran a tri continental trade empire that swapped goods from Europe, Africa and Brazil.

From the 1870s onwards, two major changes happened. Firstly, the long declining Atlantic Slave Trade finally began to be seen as uneconomic by some African based traders and the Afro-Brazilians began to move away from selling slaves and increasingly invested instead into what had previously been the side industry of running slave plantations. Secondly, the independent Kingdoms started being conquered. Afro-Brazilians mostly seemed to show little loyalty to the native Kingdoms they had settled in and rarely resisted colonial rule particularly fiercely, which led to accusations in the post-colonial era that they had been collaborators who had been spared the harshness of colonial rule. This is not entirely fair, in German Togo the Afro-Brazillian traders were often signalled out as obstacles to the German economic plan and targeted as such with arbitrary punishments, but they were certainly on average more comfortable working within the colonial system than those without Brazilian heritage. They would routinely be overrepresented in Colonial administrative boards and as the richer members of towns, the colonial powers had more motives to co-opt them then they did the non-elites.

Alternate History often speculates about the returning Afro-Brazilians being a good candidate for anti-colonial actions but in OTL they lacked both numbers and motivations. Essentially you are talking about a few thousand people scattered across hundreds of miles who mostly had very little political aims. They had come to Africa to find somewhere to live and somewhere to work, not really to strengthen the African polities and help them fight off European conquest. As their participation in the Atlantic slave trade demonstrates, these were mostly business men rather than idealists. For genuine idealism you have to look at the Missionaries.

The vast majority of missionaries in Africa were either white westerners or black Africans who had been converted and recruited by them. But there was a minority of protestant missionaries sent to Africa who were instead black descendants of slaves from the USA or the West Indies and from 1790 to 1920 there were around several hundred of these active in total. There was in fact some arguments by the mostly white church leaders that they were better suited to work in Africa, due to their shared colour, their supposed resistance to disease and the fact they were cheaper to outfit. And yet outside the African-American Republic of Liberia they were always in a minority. And as the 19th century drew to a close, black missionaries found their opportunities reduced further within Africa. The reason was because they weren’t trusted.

Most missionaries, black or white, were reasonably supportive of the colonial powers and their supposed civilising missions. Sometimes, however, missionaries formed bonds with the native Kingdoms they were posted to and were morally outraged by the crimes of colonialism. White missionaries did this too, but black missionaries doing it were noted more. In the Congo Free State, African American Missionaries like William Henry Shepherd led the exposure of colonial crimes there. Theophilus Scholes, the Jamaican anti colonial activist, became radicalised against the British Empire by his experience as a missionary in West Africa. And the Colonial Empires took notice and wrote with alarm about the prospect of West Indian agitators stirring up the natives against them in the guise of missionary work.

By the 1920s most European colonies would no longer allow Black American Missionaries to operate in their lands, which shut them out of the Continent entirely. The 1906 Bambatha rebellion of the Zulus was blamed on African-American missionaries and resistance in the Belgian Congo was attributed to the messianic Baptist preacher Simon Kimbangu. The biggest example of the dangers of Christianity however, was John Chilembwe.

The last known photo of John Chilembwe (left) taken in 1914 about a year before his death

Chilembwe was born in modern Malawi, what was then the British colony of Nyasaland, known, like a lot of British colonies, for its white owned plantations and ruinous hut taxes used to force the black residents into providing free labour upon them. Missionaries into Nyasaland tended to be radical, the most prominent, Joseph Booth, was a white man but one who believed fully in African Liberation, and in the era of WWI and African Colonialism millennial strains of Christianity began to take form among the Africans. Chilembwe was identified by Booth as a potential church leader and so was taken to the USA in 1897 where he was trained by an African American church. For all the oppression of Jim Crow America, it was also home of black intellectuals and radicals and Chilembwe was far from the last anti colonial African leader to travel there to learn from African Americans. In 1900, he returned to Nyasaland as a Baptist minister and ran his own church preaching the gospel of Christ and the political philosophies of the African-American intellectuals.

As the years went by, he grew increasingly opposed to British rule and the 1914 conscription of Malawians into the British Army was something he loudly condemned. At the same time he was faced with the increasingly hostility of the AL Bruce plantation managers who routinely burned down new churches that Chilembwe built. As Chilembwe’s sermons grew increasingly radical, the British Authorities moved to deport him from the colony in January 1915. He resisted them and the result was four days of fighting before Chilembwe's supporters were killed or captured. Poor organisation and the failure of the majority of Africans to join the fighting doomed Chilembwe’s cause but the colonial authorities were spooked, well aware that this could have been something more serious, and the fact he was educated in an African-American Church was not forgotten.

So could African-American missionaries have been what the Empires feared they might be? A secret column of anti-colonial agents educating and training an army of John Chilembwes across the continent. Well no, they didn’t have the numbers or frankly the motives. Most of them had more in common culturally with white Europeans than Black Africans and were broadly sympathetic to colonialism in theory. A lot of Africans viewed them as essentially black white men for that matter and hated the black missionaries as part of the oppressive structure of Empire.

And Missionaries weren’t the only way in which black non-Africans served the Colonial Empires. The British sometimes used West Indians as Colonial Officials in Africa and in German Togoland several graduates from the Tuskegee institute of Alabama were advisors to the Colonial officials for the first decade of the 20th century. The Germans wanted to make their colony a major Cotton Exporter, as cotton was their most expensive import and something they were reliant on. The Tuskegee graduates as supposed experts on both cotton and black people, were supposed to lead the way and teach the Ewe peasants how to become cotton farmers.

Map of Togoland in 1885

The Tuskegee graduates came to Africa believing in the ‘Black man’s burden’, they were the sons of slaves and they held that they had been saved from savagery by Christianity, education and civilisation and they were here to pass those gifts on to the Ewe. The Germans cared less about that and more about maximising Cotton production. This was inevitably going to lead to conflict.

At first the main issues with cotton production were infrastructure, climate and the lack of vehicles and beasts of burden but by 1909 those problems were largely overcome and a school to train farmers had been set up. What wasn’t changing was culture, the Togolese economy was not reliant on exports, farmers were more interested in producing their own food, and cotton spinners their own clothes then exporting cotton for Germany and economically they were not so desperate as to need to join the plantations. German policy increasingly cantered on changing that, with new taxes, corvee labour and oppressive laws aimed at forcing the peasants to give up their own food farms and work in the cotton fields instead. It was during this economic push that the Afro-Brazilians, seen as rich enough to allow economic independence for the Ewe, would be targeted. And this push would cause increasing distrust between the Germans and the Afro-Americans. Power in the cotton school was soon taken back by the Germans from the Tuskegee graduates out of fear they would support the Ewe in rebellion.

In 1914 Togoland was conquered by the WWI Entente powers and split into French and British Zones of occupation, modern day Togo and Eastern Ghana respectively. By this time none of the Tuskegee educators were still in the country, they had either died or returned home. But nothing changed economically with the change in rulers, the push for cotton production continued, by 1938 French Togo exported over 4 million kgs of Cotton and in 2003 it was 80 million kgs. Ultimately cash crops were more valuable than family farms, but it never became the dominant use of agriculture, Togo is currently self-sufficient and produces a great deal more food than it does cotton. The Ewe didn’t win entirely but they did preserve something of the pre-colonial mixed economy. Despite the best efforts of three colonial empires, Togo didn’t become another Alabama. But nor did it became the rich trading depot that the Tuskegee graduates dreamed they would make. As a Ewe sailor put it 'they had come to teach us things as if we knew nothing' and the Ewe preferred what they already knew.

The largest number of African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans within a European Empire however were further West in Sierra Leone.

An 1835 illustration of liberated Africans arriving in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone began as a utopian project by a London based charity called the Committee for the Relief of Black Poor, by which it largely meant the few thousand black veterans and ex slaves in London. The Charity originally provided clothes, dwellings, food and Christiane education to the black poor but soon saw this as curing the symptoms rather the cause and sought instead to build a new society for them to live in. They picked modern day Sierra Leone as the destination.

This decision was based largely on the report of the naturalist Henry Smeatham, who had visited the country and claimed it was so fertile the crops practically grew themselves. It was however also next to a major British Slave Trading station, which was how Smeatham had visited there previously, and the poor blacks of London were somewhat worried about turning up there only to be straight away captured and sold as slaves. Some of then in fact had been originally sold from that station and would be reunited with both their families and the African raiders who'd captured them upon their arrival. They, not unreasonably, demanded to be armed and trained if they were to go.

Granville Sharp, one of the white leaders of the Charity, responded to this desire by drawing up an elaborate plan for self-policing based on the Frankpedge of medieval England. He envisioned that the Colony would be entirely democratic and self-governing with each household, including women, voting on policy and each man taking part in shifts as police and guard. With the new crops this democratic society would quickly be able to convince the natives to trade with them rather than the slavers and thus the poor blacks would prosper and the slave depot would not. Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave who was one of the most noted of the British Abolitionists, was to serve as their Commissioner and, while white settlers would accompany them at first, black men would hold all the power.

This was not how it turned out in practice. For a start, Smeatham had stolen funds from the Charity to pay off his debts and other funds also went missing. The British Navy officer delivering the first settlers to the area, banished Equiano for ‘trouble making’ when he’d complained about there not being enough supplies thanks to this corruption and wouldn’t take him along. Once they got there, things got worse, the negotiations with local leaders were done with guns rather than food, because the British Navy had bombed them recently. The white settlers and sailors quickly refused to recognise the authority of the black poor’s elected leaders. And, most seriously, disease and bad weather killed hundreds of the settlers, black and white, and the rest were threatened with starvation.

The main problem was that Smeatham had lied about the size of the task and vastly exaggerated the fertility of the soil. Clearing forest for crops was difficult, growing crops was difficult, protecting those crops from the environment was difficult and the settlers simply lacked the experience to do so easily. Predictably, both black and white settlers started instead working for the only people around who actually had jobs for them. The slave traders.

In 1789, two and half years after it had been started, the colony was evacuated entirely. Only the slavers and those who had jobs with them, remained. Sharp was not willing to give up yet and he sent new ships to restart the colony and return the original settlers, but he had ran out of money and was increasingly reliant on his backers who could enact their own plans. They were happy enough with the idea of exiling the black poor of London but their views of the colony were rather less idealistic, they installed a white Commander and removed the democratic votes. And the free land the black poor had been promised now came with large taxes to pay back the initial investment while white traders held a monopoly on trade.

In 1808, the British Government bought out the charity and took control of Sierra Leone as a crown colony, with a white Governor in charge. They based the West African Squadron there for their Blockade of Africa and released over 50,000 slaves from captured ships there, these being those who had never left Africa but were freed when their ships were captured in African Waters. And inevitably from the Colony of Sierra Leone they projected power into the hinterland, signing treaties and fighting wars with native Kingdoms. In this the new arrivals were reasonably loyal to the British, they tended to be converted to Christianity, some had earned decent money setting up shops in the boom town of Freetown, others joined the militias and they were generally on board with British motives to restrict the slave trade and force the locals to trade with Sierra Leone instead. In fact, many of the prominent Africans with the British Empire in places like Nigeria, Gambia and Ghana were freed slaves educated in Sierra Leone and who had travelled elsewhere as missionaries, businessmen or colonial officials. They formed a new multilingual elite who the British could assume would be more loyal to the country that rescued them from slavery than the ones that had sold them as slaves.

But the African Americans themselves, those who had come back the New World, were less happy with British Rule and their economic domination. The Black loyalists, slaves who had been freed by the British to fight in the American War of Independence, arrived in Sierra Leone in 1792 from Nova Scotia and in 1800 they led an armed rebellion demanding lower taxes and the free land they’d been promised. The Charity put it down with the help of the newly arrived Maroons of Jamaica, captured in their recent war with the British. The Maroons were rewarded for putting down the rebellion with the land from the rebels they’d killed and thus replaced the Black Loyalists as prominent men in the colony. That poor Blacks had died at the hands of the Committee for the Relief of Black Poor doesn't seem to have lead to much reflection.

More African Americans attempted to flee the States to come to Sierra Leone during the 1810s, where they attempted to organise associations of African traders to retake control of trade from the British merchants. But the war of 1812 interrupted this and the British government was hostile to them when they did arrive, forcing them to swear oaths of loyalty to the Crown which they resented. A small African-American colony was settled just outside the British colony but it was ravished by diseases and its survivors either moved to Freetown or headed east into Liberia. They had little or no influence on the Colony as a whole.

Could this have turned out differently so that the Black Settlers got a fairer share and something closer to Sharp’s original plan happened? Honestly it’s unlikely, the plan was created by men in London who knew nothing about Africa. A successful colony would have to have a much more realistic understanding of the area and what was required in terms of land management before settlers could arrive and that requires money and knowledge which Sharp didn’t have. He’d pretty much always have to give way to Navy Officers and traders and they weren’t utopians, they wanted money. And the British Empire wasn’t big on self-government, a white Governor was standard practice everywhere, it’s hard to see this being an exception.

The American Government however had a rather different view of African Colonies. Liberia, unlike Sierra Leone, would remain an independent Republic. In fact it would be the only independent country with a Capital in Africa to remain independent throughout the entire age of Colonialism in Africa. But I use my words carefully when I describe it as a ‘country with a Capital in Africa’ rather than an African country and that question of identity is what the next article is about.



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