The Negro, by W.E.B. Du Bois, , at sacred-texts.com
One of the great cities of the Sudan was Jenne. The chronicle says "that its markets are held every day of the week and its populations are very enormous. Its seven thousand villages are so near to one another that the chief of Jenne has no need of messengers. If he wishes to send a note to Lake Dibo, for instance, it is cried from the gate of the town and repeated from village to village, by which means it reaches its destination almost instantly." 1
From the name of this city we get the modern name Guinea, which is used to-day to designate the country contiguous to the great gulf of that name--a territory often referred to in general as West Africa. Here, reaching from the mouth of the Gambia to the mouth of the Niger, is a coast of six hundred miles, where a marvelous drama of world history has been enacted. The coast and its hinterland comprehends many well-known names. First comes ancient Guinea, then, modern Sierra Leone and Liberia; then follow the various "coasts" of ancient traffic--the grain, ivory, gold, and slave coasts--with the adjoining territories of Ashanti, Dahomey, Lagos, and Benin, and farther back such tribal and territorial names as those of the Mandingoes, Yorubas, the Mossi, Nupe, Borgu, and others.
Recent investigation makes it certain that an ancient civilization existed on this coast which may have gone back as far as three thousand years before Christ. Frobenius, perhaps fancifully, identified this African coast with the Atlantis of the Greeks and as part of that great western movement in human culture, "beyond the pillars of Hercules," which thirteen centuries before Christ strove with Egypt and the East. It is, at any rate, clear that ancient commerce reached down the west coast. The Phœnicians, 600 B.C., and the
[paragraph continues] Carthaginians, a century or more later, record voyages, and these may have been attempted revivals of still more ancient intercourse.
These coasts at some unknown prehistoric period were peopled from the Niger plateau toward the north and west by the black West African type of Negro, while along the west end of the desert these Negroes mingled with the Berbers, forming various Negroid races.
Movement and migration is evident along this coast in ancient and modern times. The Yoruba-Benin-Dahomey peoples were among the earliest arrivals, with their remarkable art and industry, which places them in some lines of technique abreast with the modern world. Behind them came the Mossi from the north, and many other peoples in recent days have filtered through, like the Limba and Temni of Sierra Leone and the Agni-Ashanti, who moved from Borgu some two thousand years ago to the Gold and Ivory coasts.
We have already noted in the main the history of black men along the wonderful Niger and seen bow, pushing up from the Gulf of Guinea, a powerful wedge of ancient culture held back Islam for a thousand years, now victorious, now stubbornly disputing every inch of retreat. The center of this culture lay probably, in oldest times, above the Bight of Benin, along the Slave Coast, and reached east, west, and north. We trace it to-day not only in the remarkable tradition of the natives, but in stone monuments, architecture, industrial and social organization, and works of art in bronze, glass, and terra cotta.
Benin art has been practiced without interruption for centuries, and Von Luschan says that it is "of extraordinary significance that by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a local and monumental art had been learned in Benin which in many respects equaled European art and developed a technique of the very highest accomplishment." 1
Summing up Yoruban civilization, Frobenius concluded that "the technical summit of that civilization was reached in the terra-cotta industry, and that the most important achievements in art were not expressed in stone, but in fine clay baked in the furnace; that hollow casting was thoroughly known, too, and practiced by these people; that iron was mainly used for decoration; that, whatever their purpose, they kept their glass beads in stoneware urns within their own
locality, and that they manufactured both earthen and glass ware; that the art of weaving was highly developed among them; that the stone monuments, it is true, show some dexterity in handling and are so far instructive, but in other respects evidence a cultural condition insufficiently matured to grasp the utility of stone monumental material; and, above all, that the then great and significant idea of the universe as imaged in the Templum was current in those days." 1
Effort has naturally been made to ascribe this civilization to white people. First it was ascribed to Portuguese influence, but much of it is evidently older than the Portuguese discovery, Egypt and India have been evoked and Greece and Carthage. But all these explanations are far-fetched. If ever a people exhibited unanswerable evidence of indigenous civilization, it is the west-coast Africans. Undoubtedly they adapted much that came to them, utilized new ideas, and grew from contact. But their art and culture is Negro through and through.
Yoruba forms one of the three city groups of West Africa; another is around Timbuktu, and a third in the Hausa states. The Timbuktu cities have from five to fifteen hundred towns, while the Yoruba cities have one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants and more. The Hausa cities are many of them important, but few are as large as the Yoruba cities and they lie farther apart. All three centers, however, are connected with the Niger, and the group nearest the coast--that is, the Yoruba cities--has the greatest numbers of towns, the most developed architectural styles, and the oldest institutions.
The Yoruba cities are not only different from the Sudanese in population, but in their social relations. The Sudanese cities were influenced from the desert and the Mediterranean, and form nuclei of larger surrounding monarchial states. The Yoruba cities, on the other hand, remained comparatively autonomous organizations down to modern times, and their relative importance changed from time to time without developing an imperialistic idea or subordinating the group to one overpowering city.
This social and industrial state of the Yorubas formerly spread and wielded great influence. We find Yoruba reaching out and subduing states like Nupe toward the northward. But the industrial democracy and city autonomy of Yoruba lent itself indifferently to conquest, and the state fell eventually a victim to the fanatical
[paragraph continues] Fula Mohammedans and was made a part of the modern sultanate of Gando.
West of Yoruba on the lower courses of the Niger is Benin, an ancient state which in 1897 traced its twenty-three kings back one thousand years; some legends even named a line of sixty kings. It seems probable that Benin developed the imperial idea and once extended its rule into the Congo valley. Later and also to the west of the Yoruba come two states showing a fiercer and ruder culture, Dahomey and Ashanti. The state of Dahomey was founded by Tacondomi early in the seventeenth century, and developed into a fierce and bloody tyranny with wholesale murder. The king had a body of two thousand to five thousand Amazons renowned for their bravery and armed with rifles. The kingdom was overthrown by the French in 1892-93. Under Sai Tutu, Ashanti arose to power in the seventeenth century, A military aristocracy with cruel blood sacrifices was formed. By 1816 the king had at his disposal two hundred thousand soldiers. The Ashanti power was crushed by the English in the war of 1873-74.
In these states and in later years in Benin the whole character of west-coast culture seems to change. In place of the Yoruban culture, with its city democracy, its elevated religious ideas, its finely organized industry, and its noble art, came Ashanti and Dahomey. What was it that changed the character of the west coast from this to the orgies of war and blood sacrifice which we read of later in these lands?
There can be but one answer: the slave trade. Not simply the sale of men, but an organized traffic of such proportions and widely organized ramifications as to turn the attention and energies of men from nearly all other industries, encourage war and all the cruelest passions of way, and concentrate this traffic in precisely that part of Africa farthest from the ancient Mediterranean lines of trade.
We need not assume that the cultural change was sudden or absolute. Ancient Yoruba had the cruelty of a semi-civilized land, but it was not dominant or tyrannical. Modern Benin and Dahomey showed traces of skill, culture, and industry along with inexplicable cruelty and bloodthirstiness. But it was the slave trade that turned the balance and set these lands backward. Dahomey was the last word in a series of human disasters which began with the defeat of the Askias at Tenkadibou. 1
From the middle of the fifteenth to the last half of the nineteenth centuries the American slave trade centered in Guinea and devastated the coast morally, socially, and physically. European rum and fire arms were traded for human beings, and it was not until 1787 that any measures were taken to counteract this terrible scourge. In that year the idea arose of repatriating stolen Negroes on that coast and establishing civilized centers to supplant the slave trade. About four hundred Negroes from England were sent to Sierra Leone, to whom the promoters considerately added sixty white prostitutes as wives. The climate on the low coast, however, was so deadly that new recruits were soon needed. An American Negro, Thomas Peters, who had served as sergeant under Sir Henry Clinton in the British army in America, went to England seeking an allotment of land for his fellows. The Sierra Leone Company welcomed him and offered free passage and land in Sierra Leone to the Negroes of Nova Scotia. As a result fifteen vessels sailed with eleven hundred and ninety Negroes in 1792. Arriving in Africa, they found the chief white man in control there so drunk that he soon died of delirium tremens. John Clarkson, however, brother of Thomas Clarkson, the abolitionist, eventually took the lead, founded Freetown, and the colony began its checkered career. In 1896 the colony was saved from insurrection by the exiled Maroon Negroes from Jamaica. After 1833, when emancipation in English colonies took place, severer measures against the slave trade was possible and the colony began to grow. To-day its imports and exports amount to fifteen million dollars a year.
Liberia was a similar American experiment. In 1816 American philanthropists decided that slavery was bound to die out, but that the problem lay in getting rid of the freed Negroes, of which there were then two hundred thousand in the United States. Accordingly the American Colonization Society was proposed this year and founded January 1, 1817, with Bushrod Washington as President. It was first thought to encourage migration to Sierra Leone, and eighty-eight Negroes were sent, but they were not welcomed. As a result territory was bought in the present confines of Liberia, December 15, 1821, and colonists began to arrive. A little later an African depot for recaptured slaves taken in the contraband slave trade, provided for in the Act of 1819, was established and an agent was sent to Africa to form a settlement. Gradually this settlement was
merged with the settlement of the Colonization Society, and from this union Liberia was finally evolved.
The last white governor of Liberia died in 1841 and was succeeded by the first colored governor, Joseph J. Roberts, a Virginian. The total population in 1843 was about twenty-seven hundred and ninety, and with this as a beginning in 1847 Governor Roberts declared the independence of the state. The recognition of Liberian independence by all countries except the United States followed in 1849. The United States, not wishing to receive a Negro minister, did not recognize Liberia until 1862.
No sooner was the independence of Liberia announced than England and France began a long series of aggressions to limit her territory and sovereignty. Considerable territory was lost by treaty, and in the effort to get capital to develop the rest, Liberia was saddled with a debt of four hundred thousand dollars, of which she received less than one hundred thousand dollars in actual cash. Finally the Liberians turned to the United States for capital and protection. As a result the Liberian customs have been put under international control and Major Charles Young, the ranking Negro officer in the United States army, with several colored assistants, has been put in charge of the making of roads and drilling a constabulary to keep order in the interior.
To-day Liberia has an area of forty thousand square miles, about three hundred and fifty miles of coast line, and an estimated total population of two million of which fifty thousand are civilized. The revenue amounted in 1913 to $531,500. The imports in 1912 were $1,667,857 and the exports $1,199,152. The latter consisted chiefly of rubber, palm oil and kernels, coffee, piassava fiber, ivory, ginger, camwood, and arnotto.
Perhaps Liberia's greatest citizen was the late Edward Wilmot Blyden, who migrated in early life from the Danish West Indies and became a prophet of the renaissance of the Negro race.
Turning now from Guinea we pass down the west coast. In 1482 Diego Cam of Portugal, sailing this coast, set a stone at the mouth of a great river which he called "The Mighty," but which eventually came to be known by the name of the powerful Negro kingdom through which it flowed--the Congo.
We must think of the valley of the Congo with its intricate interlacing of water routes and jungle of forests as a vast caldron shut
away at first from the African world by known and unknown physical hindrances. Then it was penetrated by the tiny red dwarfs and afterward horde after horde of tall black men swirled into the valley like a maelstrom, moving usually from north to east and from south to west.
The Congo valley became, therefore, the center of the making of what we know to-day as the Bantu nations. They are not a unified people, but a congeries of tribes of considerable physical diversity, united by the compelling bond of language and other customs imposed on the conquered by invading conquerors.
The history of these invasions we must to-day largely imagine. Between two and three thousand years ago the wilder tribes of Negroes began to move out of the region south or southeast of Lake Chad. This was always a land of shadows and legends, where fearful cannibals dwelt and where no Egyptian or Ethiopian or Sudanese armies dared to go. It is possible, however, that pressure from civilization in the Nile valley and rising culture around Lake Chad was at this time reënforced by expansion of the Yoruba-Benin culture on the west coast. Perhaps, too, developing culture around the Great Lakes in the east beckoned or the riotous fertility of the Congo valleys became known. At any rate the movement commenced, now by slow stages, now in wild forays. There may have been a preliminary movement from east to west to the Gulf of Guinea. The main movement, however, was eastward, skirting the Congo forests and passing down by the Victoria Nyanza and Lake Tanganyika. Here two paths beckoned: the lakes and the sea to the east, the Congo to the west. A great stream of men swept toward the ocean and, dividing, turned northward and fought its way down the Nile valley and into the Abyssinian highlands; another branch turned south and approached the Zambesi, where we shall meet it again.
Another horde of invaders turned westward and entered the valley of the Congo in three columns. The northern column moved along the Lualaba and Congo rivers to the Cameroons; the second column became the industrial and state-building Luba and Lunda peoples in the southern Congo valley and Angola; while the third column moved into Damaraland and mingled with Bushman and Hottentot.
In the Congo valley the invaders settled in village and plain, absorbed such indigenous inhabitants as they found or drove them deeper into the forest, and immediately began to develop industry
and political organization. They became skilled agriculturists, raising in some localities a profusion of cereals, fruit, and vegetables such as manioc, maize, yams, sweet potatoes, ground nuts, sorghum, gourds, beans, peas, bananas, and plantains. Everywhere they showed skill in mining and the welding of iron, copper, and other metals. They made weapons, wire and ingots, cloth, and pottery, and a widespread system of trade arose. Some tribes extracted rubber from the talamba root; others had remarkable breeds of fowl and cattle, and still others divided their people by crafts into farmers, smiths, boat builders, warriors, cabinet makers, armorers, and speakers. Women here and there took part in public assemblies and were rulers in some cases. Large towns were built, some of which required hours to traverse from end to end.
Many tribes developed intelligence of a high order. Wissmann called the Ba Luba "a nation of thinkers." Bateman found them "thoroughly and unimpeachably honest, brave to foolhardiness, and faithful to each other and to their superiors." One of their kings, Calemba, "a really princely prince," Bateman says would "amongst any people be a remarkable and indeed in many respects a magnificent man." 1
These beginnings of human culture were, however, peculiarly vulnerable to invading hosts of later comers. There were no natural protecting barriers like the narrow Nile valley or the Kong mountains or the forests below Lake Chad. Once the pathways to the valley were open and for hundreds of years the newcomers kept arriving, especially from the welter of tribes south of the Sudan and west of the Nile, which rising culture beyond kept in unrest and turmoil.
Against these intruders there was but one defense, the State. State building was thus forced on the Congo valley. How early it started we cannot say, but when the Portuguese arrived in the fifteenth century, there had existed for centuries a large state among the Ba-Congo, with its capital at the city now known as San Salvador.
The Negro Mfumu, or emperor, was eventually induced to accept Christianity. His sons and many young Negroes of high birth were taken to Portugal to be educated. There several were raised to the Catholic priesthood and one became bishop; others distinguished themselves at the universities. Thus suddenly there arose a Catholic kingdom south of the valley of the Congo, which lasted three centuries,
but was partially overthrown by invading barbarians from the interior in the seventeenth century. A king of Congo still reigns as pensioner of Portugal, and on the coast to-day are the remains of the kingdom in the civilized blacks and mulattoes, who are intelligent traders and boat builders.
Meantime the Luba-Lunda people to the eastward founded Kantanga and other states, and in the sixteenth century the larger and more ambitious realm of the Mwata Yamvo. The last of the fourteen rulers of this line was feudal lord of about three hundred chiefs, who paid him tribute in ivory, skins, corn, cloth, and salt. His territory included about one hundred thousand square miles and two million or more inhabitants. Eventually this state became torn by internal strife and revolt, especially by attacks from the south across the Congo-Zambesi divide.
Farther north, among the Ba-Lolo and the Ba-Songo, the village policy persisted and the cannibals of the northeast pressed down on the more settled tribes. The result was a curious blending of war and industry, artistic tastes and savage customs.
The organized slave trade of the Arabs penetrated the Congo valley in the sixteenth century and soon was aiding all the forces of unrest and turmoil. Industry was deranged and many tribes forced to take refuge in caves and other hiding places.
Here, as on the west coast, disintegration and retrogression followed, for as the American traffic lessened, the Arabian traffic increased. When, therefore, Stanley opened the Congo valley to modern knowledge, Leopold II of Belgium conceived the idea of founding here a free international state which was to bring civilization to the heart of Africa. Consequently there was formed in 1878 an international committee to study the region. Stanley was finally commissioned to inquire as to the best way of introducing European trade and culture. "I am charged," he said, "to open and keep open, if possible, all such districts and countries as I may explore, for the benefit of the commercial world. The mission is supported by a philanthropic society, which numbers nobleminded men of several nations. It is not a religious society, but my instructions are entirely of that spirit. No violence must be used, and wherever rejected, the mission must withdraw to seek another field." 1
The Bula Matadi or Stone Breaker, as the natives called Stanley, threw himself energetically into the work and had by 1881 built a
road past the falls to the plateau, where thousands of miles of river navigation were thus opened. Stations were established, and by 1884 Stanley returned armed with four hundred and fifty "treaties" with the native chiefs, and the new "State" appealed to the world for recognition.
The United States first recognized the "Congo Free State," which was at last made a sovereign power under international guarantees by the Congress of Berlin in the year 1885, and Leopold II was chosen its king. The state had an area of about nine hundred thousand square miles, with a population of about thirty million.
One of the first tasks before the new state was to check the Arab slave traders. The Arabs had hitherto acted as traders and middlemen along the upper Congo, and when the English and Congo state overthrew Mzidi, the reigning king in the Kantanga country, a general revolt of the Arabs and mulattoes took place. For a time, 1892-93, the whites were driven out, but in a year or two the Arabs and their allies were subdued.
Humanity and commerce, however, did not replace the Arab slave traders. Rather European greed and serfdom were substituted. The land was confiscated by the state and farmed out to private Belgian corporations. The wilder cannibal tribes were formed into a militia to prey on the industrious, who were taxed with specific amounts of ivory and rubber, and scourged and mutilated if they failed to pay. Harris declares that King Leopold's regime meant the death of twelve million natives.
"Europe was staggered at the Leopoldian atrocities, and they were terrible indeed; but what we, who were behind the scenes, felt most keenly was the fact that the real catastrophe in the Congo was the desolation and murder in the larger sense. The invasion of family life, the ruthless destruction of every social barrier, the shattering of every tribal law, the introduction of criminal practices which struck the chiefs of the people dumb with horror--in a word, a veritable avalanche of filth and immorality overwhelmed the Congo tribes." 1
So notorious did the exploitation and misrule become that Leopold was forced to take measures toward reform, and finally in 1909 the Free State became a Belgian colony. Some reforms have been inaugurated and others may follow, but the valley of the Congo will long stand as a monument of shame to Christianity and European civilization.
36:1 Quoted in Du Bois: Timbuktu.
37:1 Von Luschan: Verhandlungen der berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, etc., 1898.
38:1 Frobenius: Voice of Africa, Vol. I.
39:1 Cf. p. 58.
43:1 Keane: Africa, II, 117-118.
44:1 The Congo, I, Chap. III.
45:1 Harris: Dawn in Africa.