How Africa made the modern world

On July 18 1324, Mansa Musa, ruler of the west African empire of Mali, arrived on horseback in Cairo, trailing gold mud. For greater than 3,000 miles his huge entourage had trudged throughout the Sahel. The ruler, on pilgrimage in Mecca, had made this essential cease to construct alliances with the area’s ruling Mameluke sultans, the finest to interrupt the chokehold on Malian commerce by the Muslim overlords of the Maghreb.

Musa clearly aimed to impress. He was accompanied by an entourage 60,000-strong. Camels and horses reportedly carried as much as 18 tonnes of pure gold, all of which the benevolent ruler disbursed alongside his path to one and all. One might safely assume the sovereign was not a person accustomed to checking his financial institution balances — some accounts nonetheless mark him as the wealthiest man that ever lived. On account of this singular voyage, the worth of gold reportedly plummeted all through the area by as much as 25 per cent over the following decade.

The aim of Musa’s journey east was principally to safe new diplomatic alliances. He couldn’t have envisioned the ripple impact his unparalleled extravagance would have on the course of human historical past over the subsequent six centuries. As we study early in Howard French’s Born in Blackness — a monumental argument for the centrality of Africa to the emergence of our modern world — this journey throughout the Sahel would assist set in movement a sequence of occasions that finally stitched collectively the total globe.

In the years following Musa’s travels, information of this African ruler of unimaginable wealth reverberated round Europe, finally prompting a number of voyages that led first to commerce, then to slavery, then the scramble for Africans and Africa, and the most extraordinary forcible switch of wealth ever recorded. As French painstakingly and persuasively argues, Musa’s arrival in Cairo, “remembered by virtually no one save the historians of medieval Africa, merits consideration as one of the most important moments in the making of the Atlantic world”.


It is a daring declare — that Africa was in no way peripheral to, however performed a central function in, the emergence of the Age of Discovery, the rise of plantation slavery and the staggering wealth generated from sugar, cotton and different money crops, which fed the Industrial Revolution.

The energy of this e-book, and the near-impossibility of its ambition, rests on a gradual accumulation and connection of information principally recognized however usually intentionally unseen. With it, French, who has written about the African world for many of his life as a journalist and creator, seeks to realize nothing lower than a reversal of “diminishment, trivialisation and erasure” of Africans from historical past.

In doing so, he shifts the focus of the Age of Discovery — the passage to India however particularly the touchdown in the Americas — to Portuguese engagement with west Africa and never the exertions of Spain, as is historically understood. Portugal, he reveals us, started searching for African gold in the century following Musa, and needed to excellent navigational methods that have been later to open the manner for different Europeans.


Portugal modelled plantation farming constructed on African slave labour on the Canary Islands. It pressed into the Gulf of Guinea and constructed buying and selling relationships with native chiefs for the ugly human harvest that was to comply with for hundreds of years, and alter the course of civilisation. All these have been enthusiastically copied, and refined, by the English, the Spanish, the Dutch and, later, the French.

The historical past of the modern world has been overwhelmingly about the ingenuity of white individuals

This e-book is stuffed with numerous eye-openers. I had no concept that Haiti alone generated a lot wealth for France that it accounted for totally one-third of France’s exterior commerce, as a lot commerce as the total US. I additionally didn’t register that Britain’s American colonies, economically talking, have been a backwater, with plantation homeowners in Jamaica, Barbados and Haiti making as a lot as 20 instances the annual incomes of their counterparts to the north.

Nor that Columbus, lengthy earlier than he landed in America, was provisioning the Portuguese fort at Elmina, in present-day Ghana. The gold secured at Elmina funded Vasco da Gama’s passage to India. The Portuguese and others weren’t in any specific hurry to get to Calcutta in any respect, preoccupied as they have been with extracting west African gold and human our bodies. That would take virtually three a long time.


All historical past is, by definition, revisionist. In connecting the varied dots, French is inviting us to rethink what we perceive about how we obtained right here. The historical past of the modern world has been overwhelmingly about the ingenuity of white individuals, the distinctive goodness of “western civilisation” and the intelligent glossing over of the tales of the individuals who paid the highest worth for the pleasantness of their methods, the broadness of their avenues, the magnificence of their cathedrals, the richness of their robes, and the fullness of their granaries.

Everyone knew this. French mentions a quote from the dealer, pamphleteer and spy Daniel Defoe, which nearly sums it up: “No African trade, no Negroes; no Negroes, no sugars, gingers, indicoes etc; no sugars, etc, no islands; no islands, no continent; no continent, no trade.”

It’s inevitable, in studying a e-book resembling this, that one understands it in the context of the instances. It is not any secret that the world is agitated now by a dogged problem to almost all acquired knowledge. The rise of China, the tottering of America, the pervasiveness of communications applied sciences which have worn out the constraining energy of the middlemen — all these have created a beautiful and unsettling cacophony, and nobody will be sure what lies at the different finish.

One suspects that white individuals are not the solely, and even the main, viewers to which this e-book is directed

Into this drops the quietly smouldering voice of French, who spent a decade studying 200 books on his topic, and whose practically 40 years as a author, a lot of it on the African world (his earlier works embrace A Continent for the Taking and China’s Second Continent), are distilled into this one. His repeatedly said goal — repetition is observed all through this e-book, as if French suspects he’s talking to deaf ears — is to finish what he calls the “symphony of erasure” and “the most important site of erasure, by far, has been the minds of people in the rich world”.

While this could rightly be learn as a tilting in opposition to the collected prejudices of many generations raised on “heart of darkness”, “the hopeless continent”, “the white man’s burden” and “from savage to slave”, one suspects that white individuals are not the solely, and even the main, viewers to which this e-book is directed.

By connecting disparate dots, and taking us on a painful and exhilarating journey throughout Africa, on to the slave ships and into South and Central America and the American empire and, lastly, by means of the blues, again in Africa once more, French seems to be reaching for language to bridge the nice rupture — the severance of the African diaspora from its mainland.

The highly effective maintain of first slavery then, extra radically, colonialism, on the creativeness of black individuals is current on either side of the Atlantic. It has perpetuated a distancing that’s now solely being considerably bridged by at the moment’s era. When I used to be a schoolboy in Nineteen Sixties impartial Nigeria, a historical past of slavery was very a lot perfunctory, when taught in any respect. Even the bodily setting bore no critical markers of the nice human extraction that had occurred on this soil. Every every now and then, however hardly ever, one encountered some purported memorialisation of the taking of the slaves, inevitably an afterthought in its shoddy execution. To most black Americans — as I’ve come to grasp in the greater than three a long time after their nation turned my adopted house — Africa is however a fantastical imagining. French, on this effort, is attempting to make complete that which has been sundered by making a generally shared story.

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In studying this e-book, twice, one can sense the pressure that goes into forcing the feelings to face secondary to a piece of immense scholarship. But every now and then ache breaks by means of, as a result of for the French household the historic can also be all too private. His ancestor is the slave girl Priscilla, who was bought in 1812 by James Barbour, who would later function a US senator and John Quincy Adams’ secretary of battle. The French household stays in possession of a replica of the invoice of sale. And the household has held on to a bit of land in Virginia that successors to Priscilla obtained in the temporary interval of freedom following emancipation.

I’m sceptical that “the minds of the people in the rich world” will magically open on studying this e-book. To paraphrase a better-known aphorism, there’s no making a person see the mild when his standing and identification are sure up in his not seeing it.

But I’m extra hopeful of the second goal of rebuilding a standard story of the African world, on either side of the nice ocean, as I learn French’s exploration of the blues in the direction of the finish of this infuriating and vastly enlightening e-book, as what got here out of Africa was made into one thing extra in the Americas — the tracing of the arc from Ali Farka Touré to Blind Lemon Jefferson, from the Niger Delta to the Mississippi Delta. French made no point out of this, however it was Louis Armstrong’s used trumpet, donated by Satchmo himself, that ended up in the palms of the teenage Hugh Masekela in a Johannesburg township in 1956. The circle is, maybe, unbroken in spite of everything.

At the begin of this painful and essential e-book, French quotes from Zora Neale Hurston’s e-book Barracoon: “All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold. The Kings and Captains whose words moved ships. But not one word from the cargo.”

With Born in Blackness, French makes us take heed to these lengthy unheard.

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard French, Liveright $35/£25, 464 pages

Dele Olojede is a founding father of the Africa in the World competition and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize

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