In This Review

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War
Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War
By Howard French
Liveright, 2021, 512 pp

Africa remains poorly understood by the rest of the world and frequently distorted in global conversations, whether in the work of African and Africanist scholars, the reporting of journalists, or the missives of aid workers. They tend to see Africa as exceptional, defined by its difference. An asymmetry shapes the way people—Africans and non-Africans alike—describe the continent. For instance, Belgium (with its perennial tensions between French speakers and Flemish speakers), Canada (home to a sometimes rancorous Québécois separatism), and Russia (where many ethnic minorities are uneasily parceled into republics) are seen as multinational federations, but the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and Nigeria are sites of so-called nation building, where motley tribes need to be forged into nations. What counts as federalism elsewhere becomes tribalism in Africa.

Africa even as a geographic concept remains fraught. The continent is often divided between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, a distinction that traces back to the nineteenth century and is rooted in racist beliefs about the differences between the groups in the predominantly Arab northern areas and those in what was then called “Black Africa.” The German philosopher Georg Hegel, for instance, dubbed the northern part of the continent “European Africa” to yoke the cultural legacy of Egypt to Europe while denying that Africa was ever a part of the movement of history. The continued use of this distinction maintains the unjustified bifurcation of the continent in the global imagination.

Africa also manages to exist outside of time. It is the only continent whose history intellectuals are content to reduce to just three periods: a long precolonial period, a relatively short colonial period, and the ongoing post-colonial period. As a result, the sweep of African history pivots around the late-nineteenth-century European conquest of much of the continent. Compare this understanding of the African past to its European equivalents. Scholars break up European history into a plethora of periods, from classical antiquity to the so-called Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and so on. No one deigns to periodize Europe’s history simply in terms of colonialism. Africa, on the other hand, is the land that time forgot, dragged into the march of history only through its encounter with Europe.

An undeniable consequence of this way of thinking is the near-total erasure of Africa; its social, political, and cultural life; its intellectual contributions; and the biographies of its thinkers from the annals of global history. The challenge of retrieving Africa from this mute presence motivates Born in Blackness, the latest book by the writer and journalist Howard French. He combines the investigative and descriptive tools of a seasoned, much-traveled reporter with the scholarly credentials of an academic working within archives. The book explores the complex relations between Africans and Europeans in the centuries before the imposition of formal colonialism at the end of the nineteenth century, rejecting much of the received wisdom about this period. In so doing, French aims for a bigger target than merely illuminating Africa’s past: he demonstrates in this magisterial synthesis that Africa was never marginal to global events; rather, it is the place where the modern world came into being.

AFRICA AT THE CENTER

Africa plays only a limited role in the conventional story of the creation of the modern world. The need to find alternative trade routes to Asia propelled the European voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century and onward. Europeans found the Americas by accident, and the evolution of the modern age unfolds from there: the genocide of native peoples, the expansion of settler colonization, the development of the transatlantic slave trade, the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution it spawned, and the imperialism that turned Europe into a global economic power. Events in Africa don’t fit into this narrative until the growth of the slave trade, and then the continent appears only silently, as a source for bodies that were put to work for the creation of stupendous wealth.

French seeks to upend this story. Africa was not merely an arena of European domination or a sideshow in the drama of emerging maritime empires and global networks but rather the center of a more complicated story. “The first impetus for the Age of Discovery was not Europe’s yearning for ties with Asia, as so many of us have been taught in grade school,” French writes, “but rather its centuries-old desire to forge trading ties with legendarily rich Black societies hidden away somewhere in the heart of ‘darkest’ West Africa.” Portuguese and Spanish expeditions sailed along the West African coast in the fifteenth century, searching for gold. In so doing, they exploded some of the myths that had discouraged exploration, reaching the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. Both Christopher Columbus and Bartolomeu Dias, to mention just two of Iberia’s most famous sailors, relied on the knowledge and skills accumulated in these voyages to mount their journeys to the Americas.

A cell in Elmina Castle once used to hold enslaved Africans, Ghana, November 2015
A cell in Elmina Castle once used to hold enslaved Africans, Ghana, November 2015
Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor

French reminds readers that Africa was never isolated from the rest of the world, and indeed it appeared vividly in the European imagination as a place of great riches. Its legend was fanned by the extraordinary (and profligate) pilgrimage of Mansa Musa, the Malian king who traveled to Mecca in 1324 in a gold-laden caravan of 60,000 people, dispensing largess at every stop along the way. (He apparently left so much wealth in Cairo that its traders had to contend with the ensuing inflation for over a decade.) The Portuguese struck gold in Elmina, on the southern coast of modern Ghana, in 1471 and within a decade had constructed the fort there that still stands today.

French draws on fascinating material from numerous archives across the globe. For instance, he highlights the extraordinary finding of a catechism published in the Bantu language of Kimbundu in Lima in the seventeenth century, a measure of the active role played by Africans in the conquest and transformation of Latin America and, moreover, a sign of the “creolization”—the mingling of cultures and identities and the creation of new ones—that he takes to be one of the pillars of the modern world. The detail he includes is often revelatory, such as the account of how Portuguese sailors made their way east along the African coast and dealt with complex political formations, such as the kingdoms of Benin and Kongo. French’s careful evocation of such episodes renders all the more glaring their absence from the conventional historical narrative.

The dynamics of these interactions between Africans and their European trading partners reveal many errors in dominant modes of thinking, including the notion that Africans were principally victims in these encounters—a view popularized by proponents of decolonization who imagine that Africa’s relations with Europe were forever enmeshed in subordination. Quite to the contrary, French argues that European visitors to African states, big or small, often engaged with their African hosts as equals and respected their sovereignty, including in the period that gave rise to the transatlantic slave trade. This kind of nuance and historical grain can be hard to see thanks to the stilted conceptions of African history that consign all that happened before the late nineteenth century to a single, undifferentiated period in which nothing of real interest occurred.

FROM SLAVE MARKETS TO CAFÉS

Africa did not just spark Europe’s “Age of Exploration”—a curiously benign term for voyages that led to genocide, conquest, and enslavement. French makes a more ambitious claim still: historians can find in these early European interactions with Africa the foundations of the modern world. Modernity was “born in blackness.” French shows that almost all the institutions and practices emblematic of the modern economy, the sources of the wealth of Europe and North America, and the emergence of original cultural forms so essential to modern life—in areas as diverse as religion, music, philosophy, and food—are all traceable to antecedents in Africa and the early relations between Africans and Europeans.

For example, the Portuguese used the island of São Tomé from around the beginning of the sixteenth century to develop the prototype of the plantation economy that later spread across the Americas. It was an uninhabited island that became a base for slave-raiding expeditions into the interior of West Africa. Portugal then used the island as a dumping ground for convicts and other undesirables, including Jews, who joined African slaves in working on new sugar plantations. São Tomé would subsequently become a slave market that supplied labor to the gold mines of Elmina and, later, to the Americas. The economic model that produced the wealth of the leading countries of the modern age in western Europe and the Americas was built on the extreme exploitation of African labor, first in Africa, after which it “soon spread to the New World, with all of the grotesque inhumanity inherent to it.”

Elsewhere, the exploitation of Black labor enabled the development of cultural forms that remain pervasive and powerful today. Slavery produced not just the material basis of the wealth of the modern age; it also was integral to the production of coffee and sugar. According to French, the first coffee shop in western Europe opened its doors in 1650 in Oxford. “The availability of hot, sweetened, stimulating drinks” attracted people to cafés across Europe and helped build a culture of conversation and debate that would eventually lead to “the modern public sphere.”

Africa plays a limited role in the conventional story of the creation of the modern world.

There is no doubt that this is a game-changing book. But it does make some unfortunate omissions. French’s principal motivation is to restore African agency and the part the continent played to narratives of the origins of modernity. So it is surprising, and even ironic, that he does not draw from the intellectual contributions of African thinkers to the very debate about modernity that he is exploring. Outside of the potentates whom he makes into standard-bearers of African agency, French skips over how African intellectuals responded to European conquest and colonization. The irony is deeper still given the core role of West Africa, including modern Ghana, in producing some of the most important philosophical and political responses to modernity, such as the Constitution of the Fante Confederacy, promulgated in 1871, which ranks as one of the earliest efforts at liberal constitution-making outside Europe and the United States. The Constitution of the Republic of Liberia deserves serious attention, given its almost wholesale adoption of the founding principles of the Constitution of the United States—embraced as an indictment of the original country’s failure to live up to its ideals when it came to its Black citizens.

French could have also explored the nineteenth-century writings of the Sierra Leonean writer James Africanus Beale Horton, the Liberian thinker Edward Wilmot Blyden, and the Black American priest Alexander Crummell, all of whom sought to reform and remodel African societies and indicted European colonialists for their hypocrisy in denying Africans the fundamental tenet of the age: the prerogative of human beings to be the authors of their own lives and not be ruled without consent. Their writings made bold, universal claims and demonstrate how modernity was created not just by Europeans but by Africans, too.

The greatest contribution of French’s book is how it underlines that very point. Some of the modern world’s foundations may lie in the European Renaissance and the Reformation, but that world did not simply emerge out of whole cloth from Europe. For instance, it took the Haitian Revolution, which culminated in the eviction of the French from Haiti in 1804, to make clear that the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity were truly universal ones and not bounded by race. Africans and the African diaspora were not bystanders but essential agents in the making of the modern world.

In recent years, a growing number of politicians and others in Europe and North America (often on the anti-immigrant right) have reprised the old rhetoric of the nineteenth century in praising the supposedly exceptional virtues of “Western civilization” and demeaning the cultures of other places. They see modernity as the rightful preserve of their societies, while casting Africa as traditional or even “backward.” In their own way, antiracist theorists of decolonization also see the world in binary terms: Africans were permanent victims of the rapaciousness of Europeans, and they remain so. French offers a very different view: centuries of interactions between Africans and Europeans have shown that modernity belongs to no particular culture; it is a human inheritance. His book doesn’t so much reframe African history as it seeks to reframe global history and how people imagine their place in the world.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now