Friday, 28 June 2013
There was a time when talking about Pan-Africanism had become so old and retrogressive. This was a time when everybody was becoming Eurocentric; when Afrocentrism was, just as was the case with everything African, shunned upon. Everybody wanted a piece of Europe and to get one, they had to surrender a piece of their Africaness. But the decision by many African leaders at the recent AU 50th anniversary celebration in Addis Ababa appears to be taking the continent back to the four-way crossing for a new beginning. One thing is very certain – it is not going to be easy going for Africa to change direction now, especially after tying herself up into all the trade and debt knots. While almost every sensible leader can now talk with a straight face about the importance of adding value to Africa’s material resources, those who have been dependent on the continent will not take this lightly. The bloodsuckers will do everything to still suck Africa dry. There will be threats of closing down business in Africa; leaders will be called names; every trick in the book will be deployed to derail the progress this turn-about will bring. The call to take back Africa to the Africans goes back to the times of slavery and it embodied not only the independent part of being African but cut across everything about Africa and Africans. This call was even louder in descendants of Africans that were forcibly uprooted from the continent. Others like Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano took to writing about the need for African unity long before the Organisation of the African Unity (the African Union predecessor) was formed. Re-Christened John Stuart, Ottobah Cugoano was a Ghanaian-born man, who was sold into slavery when he was 13 years old. He was initially shipped to Grenada in 1770 and was bought by a British merchant two years later. His new captors took him to England. Once there, Cugoano was lucky that he received his freedom earlier than others in the Americas. Once freed, he found a job and joined a group known as Sons of Africa whose objective was to call for an end to slavery. He wrote “Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species” in 1787, which called for an end to slave trade at a time when the British Royals – King George III did not want the evil trade to end. There he met Equiano, who had also been re-Christened Gustavus Vassa. Equiano was an Igbo born in Nigeria in 1745 and was kidnapped when he was 11 years and sold into slavery. He was initially shipped to Barbados after having been renamed Michael but was later taken to Virginia, which was a British colony then where once again his captors there called him Jacob. His last captor, Michael Pascal ‑ who was a Royal Navy officer ‑ renamed him Gustavus Vassa after the 16th century Swedish King, Gustav I. After buying his freedom, Equiano went to live in Britain in 1792 and became a member of the Sons of Africa. His autobiography, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” talks about his journey as an enslaved African and how cruel European slavers were. It’s believed that the drive for slave abolition picked up speed largely because of the works by Equiano and Cugoano’s narratives, which educated some British families on the exact problems and cruelty of slavery. Cugoano’s involvement in the watershed judgment known as the Somersett’s Case, which led to the abolition of slavery in Britain, also influenced an anti-slavery movement. The case involved an enslaved African known as James Somersett, who was bought from America by a British customs officer called Charles Stewart. In 1769, Stewart took Somerset to England but in 1771, the enslaved man escaped. When he was re-captured, Stewart shipped him off to Jamaica for sale to a plantation owner but this bid was stopped by Christians – Elizabeth Cade, John Marlow and Thomas Walkin ‑ who had baptised Somersett. They applied to the Court of King’s Bench and the ship captain was ordered to release Somersett to the court. The chief justice at the time, Lord Mansfield presided over the case that saw five lawyers representing Somersett. One of the lawyers was Francis Hargrave and Granville Sharp, an abolitionist. The media too, spurred on by Equiano and Cugoano’s writings, followed the case closely while some concerned members of the public donated money. By the end of the hearing, it was established that while colonial laws allowed slavery, English contract law did not allow it. Lord Mansfield ruled in 1771 that no British or Scottish law supported slavery and that no human being must be a slave in England or Scotland. By 1783, calls for an end to slavery reached fever pitch with the formation of a British anti-slavery movement. In 1808, British Parliament enacted the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which tasked the Royal Navy to hunt down slave ships on the coast of West Africa which freed more than 15 000 people from 1 600 ships.