Through an examination of early modern African-European encounters, African Kings and Black Slaves offers a reappraisal of the dominant depiction of these exchanges as simple economic transactions: rather, according to Herman L. Bennett, they involved clashing understandings of diplomacy, sovereignty, and politics.
2018 | 240 pages | Cloth $34.95
American History / African-American Studies/African Studies
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Liberalism
Chapter 2. Mythologies
Chapter 3. Law
Chapter 4. Authority
Chapter 5. Histories
Chapter 6. Trade
Years ago, on entering the Arquivo Nacional do Torre do Tombo, Portugal's national archive, an exhibition on early modern exploration caught my eye. It was 1998, six years after Spain had commemorated the anniversary of Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage. Not wanting to be outdone by Spanish nationalism, the Portuguese staged an equally impressive celebration of Bartolomeu Dias's rounding of Cabo da Boa Esperança (Cape of Good Hope) and Vasco da Gama's actual voyage to India, which were accompanied by a world expo and numerous international cultural festivals acknowledging Portugal's former place in the world. In addition to reprinting many fifteenth- and sixteenth-century chronicles testifying to Portugal's global footprint, the national archive curated various exhibitions to display the cultural patrimony.
Perusing the contents of the exhibition, I could not but notice the scrolls, papyri, and embellished and laminated texts that, alongside the esoteric scripts, announced far more than the Portuguese exploration of North and East Africa, West Central Africa, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. The Portuguese court received the inhabitants of those regions as notables who, on delivering their respective sovereign's correspondence, enjoyed the protected status of emissaries. In this enactment of "renaissance diplomacy," the Portuguese, the emissaries, and the authors of the various texts steeped their rhetorical protocol in ornate forms of address. They stood and spoke as equals, which the lords, emirs, negús, emperors, pashas, manicongos, and princes conveyed through the detailed invocation of their royal titles. Pressed for time, I pushed on and into the archive, but not before taking a long look at the letters crafted in Amharic that Ethiopia's ruler addressed to his Christian brother and peer, the Portuguese sovereign.
Little did I understand then that this correspondence, embellished with royal titles and diplomatic in scope, troubled the conventional representations shared by contemporary Africans and their global descendants regarding the early modern European encounter with the larger world. In the popular narrative defined by conquests, colonial imposition, possession, and dispossession, what role—if any—did royal titles play? If titles did not matter, why were all the parties involved constantly invoking them? In the eyes of the Europeans, what function did they serve? How might these titles reveal something different about a well-known past typified by the easy juxtapositions of conquerors and conquered, winners and victims, colonizers and colonized, masters and slaves? Stated differently, in the contemporary African and its related diasporic imaginary, but also among scholars of colonial slavery, the foundational premise resides in the abject and violated body of the enslaved, the object unmoored and alienated from all preexisting social ties. Dominance resulting in objectification, always already conceived as secular in form, did not engender an inquiry into a previous status. For this reason, the process of enslavement foreclosed an engagement with the past, thus constituting the slave as an epistemic object of the here, now, and future. Simply stated, a master was a master and a slave a slave.
But language matters, and as a historian of Africans, I was keen on knowing if the use of royal terminology in the texts before me was related to a grammar of politics that perhaps informed Europe's encounter with Africa and the subsequent histories that unfolded. The answer to this query resides in what follows. At its core, this book asks what role, if any, did the acknowledged existence of politics in Africa play in shaping early modern European expansion—to which a final related question has been appended: how might this political grammar be illustrative of pasts that have been lost under the subsequent weight of successive colonial impositions and our restricted political imagination?
The terminology used in the letters allowed me to conceive of the pervasiveness with which European chroniclers and travel writers used Iberian royal tropes to describe the earliest encounters with Africans. Royalty saturated the landscape. With this awareness, I re-immersed myself in the familiar travelogues and chronicles describing the European encounter with Africa. It was immediately clear that the terminology formed a corpus, a "register" if you will, questioning the idea of European apotheosis that, in turn, telescoped the emergence and dominance of a slave trade mediated by commodification in which tenuous relations were market driven. In pondering the ubiquitous use of royal terminology, I asked if one could read this phenomenon as an acknowledgment of African sovereignty that was simultaneously constitutive of early modern Iberian imperial statecraft. Incessantly focused on the Europeans' pervasive deployment of royal terminology in reference to African sovereigns, I intentionally relied on the narrative literature, composed of chronicles and travelogues, that has been foundational to framing the earliest encounter between Africans and Europeans. In the extant documents, I glimpsed traces of a past that tacked between African and European history, which begged for a reconsideration of the New World's origin story of blackness, the early modern African diaspora, and Atlantic history.
The interpretive practice of rereading the early modern colonial library for evidence, understandings, and events complicating the inaugural moments of European expansion also offered the possibility to enrich knowledge production as it relates to the formation of the African diaspora. Rereading the familiar engenders an origin story still in need of being conceived that—irrespective of the demands of our postcolonial present—has implications for how the subsequent past unfolds. Obviously, the narrative of slavery and freedom stood on the horizon, but a strategic rereading of the early modern colonial library also questions truths bequeathed to us from a subsequent liberal era that to this day still colonizes our imaginary when it comes to framing the fifteenth-century European encounter with Africa.
Stated less abstractly, the European encounter with Africa is generally not seen as a site of theorization with regard to the political. But the political informs every text of this encounter. At the level of generality, I am interested in rhetoric and performances of lordship alongside the legal regimes, ceremonies, and pomp constitutive of early modern politics both in the form of sovereign power and sovereignty. Scholars of the slave trade usually look at these "anecdotes"—at best curiosities that figure in cultural history—as exceptional instances that are quickly relegated in favor of serial data or abstraction. I am intent on reading the rhetoric, incidents, ceremonies, and rituals embedded in the chronicles and travel accounts as political tropes. These tropes and anecdotes, prominently manifest in the well-used tomes of the colonial library, engender an equally valid reading of the colonial past as it relates to Africa, Africans, and the formation of the African diaspora.
Let us turn from the texts on display in Portugal's national archive to one of the most iconic moments of the European encounter with Africans. In 1441, building on years of previous Portuguese trading, hunting, and fishing expeditions that scoured the Atlantic coastline south of Cape Bajador, a small fleet of caravels anchored at Lagos on the southern Portuguese coast. As the returning crew discharged their cargo in the presence of Infante Dom Henrique, popularly known as Henry the Navigator, the spectacle of the handful of "captives" drew the attention of the royal party. Though few in number, the captives sparked commentary but also expectations. Recalling this event and anticipating the future it foretold, the royal chronicler Gomes de Zurara speculated about royal sentiment. "May we not think thou didst feel joy," Zurara conjectured about the prince's reaction, "not so much for the number of the captives taken, as for the hope thou didst conceive of the others thou couldst take?" In projecting royal will, the chronicler envisioned how the prince's imaginary transformed "captives" into slaves while conjuring a robust slave trade into existence. Zurara was quick to add that the prince was not unduly focused on the wealth accruing from a future trade in slaves. "Thy joy," observed the chronicler, "was solely from that one holy purpose of thine to seek salvation for the lost souls of the heathen." Enslavement afforded the captives salvation and "true freedom." "And yet," wrote the chronicler, "the greater benefit was theirs for though their bodies were now brought into subjection, that was a small matter in comparison of their souls, which would now possess true freedom for evermore."
One can easily dismiss Zurara's musings about the "soul," "salvation," and "true freedom" as ideology at work, which, in fact, it was. But an undue focus on ideology privileges secular skepticism at the expense of faith, reduces Christianity to an instrument of power, and, most germane to the narrative that follows, has caused scholars to lose sight of Catholicism's formidable yet layered political history with Africa and Africans. The scholarship on the Catholic encounter with Africans obviously has transcended the image of a solitary priest baptizing enslaved Africans as their captors compelled them on board. Catholic missions, though sparse, were an established reality in a number of sixteenth-century West and West Central African kingdoms. Catholicism had acquired considerable depth because African converts—notably the elites but also commoners—had transformed it into an indigenous phenomenon. While the earliest missions, especially among the Kongo peoples, have attracted scholarly attention, we still have yet to fully consider Christianity's institutional and intellectual complexity, which sanctioned the presence of the imaginary priest and insinuated Catholicism into Africa. Even if we concede the limited role that the Church's conscience played in this process, one needs also to ponder the efficacy of scripture, theology, papal anuncios, the particulars of Church-state relations, and Christian relations with the extra ecclesiam—the Christian designation for all people who did not accept the Catholic faith. To acknowledge that the priest's gesture was superficial should not foreclose an examination of the institutional mechanisms and intellectual traditions that mediated the Catholic encounter with Africa and Africans. In the eyes of the Church, the priest's presence transcended the issue of a Christian conscience. Church-state relations—but also theology, papal authority, papal bulls, and the evolving Episcopal Church centered on a diocese, Church canons, and canon law—came to the fore when medieval Christians encountered not just infidels but also pagans. Framed differently, in overlooking Catholicism's institutional history and its related intellectual currents, we have lost sight of a tradition of Christian politics that brought into relief the simultaneity of early modern African and European sovereignty, which perhaps explains why the priest stood at the quay.
African Kings and Black Slaves delineates how and under what circumstances Catholic dogma, institutions, and law mattered in the European encounter with Africans. This history magnifies a field of politics engendering early modern sovereignty that culminated in a taxonomy of African difference, which in turn rendered the inhabitants of some polities into slaves. Even before the systemization of the slave trade and slavery—which only two centuries later came to be exclusively linked with people of African descent—we see how Christianity mediated encounters with pagan polities resulting in different outcomes. To say as much calls into question the telos that has long served to absorb the African-European encounter and its immediate history into the story of New World slavery, thereby overlooking the part that Africa and Africans played in the evolution of Iberian sovereignty and imperial expansion before 1492. Though familiar with the Portuguese and Spanish encounters with Africans, scholars rarely reflect on the earliest sequence of events involving Iberians interacting with African polities and how that history might trouble the existing narrative of the West and its emergence. Instead, the emphasis has been on the inauguration of the slave trade and slavery and assigning economic prominence to those institutions in the unfolding histories of the Americas.
As a site of metamorphosis (recall the opening scene of the mariners unloading the captives before the entourage of nobles)—sites where elites, buyers, and owners reduced Africans into slaves—the priest's location symbolically delineated the boundaries between an African polity and the beginnings of Christian jurisdiction. As we shall see, trade signified the existence of sovereign authority—both African and European—which, in turn, highlighted an often overlooked Christian intellectual and institutional legacy. Scholars and popular lore are quick to stress ideological contortions rather than exploring the efficacy of African sovereignty and Christianity's institutional practices in Atlantic Africa. In reducing the earliest encounter with Africa to the slave trade and slavery to a New World commercial phenomenon, we have lost sight of a distinct narrative of power in Africa along with the fact that Africans stood for more than objects acted upon.
Rather than view what follows as an assertion of African agency, I am more interested in the implications that this past might have for narrating the history of Europe. The narrative of power that historians and theorists associate with the West has woefully underexamined and undertheorized the African presence. This presence, I argue, is a site yet to be examined for its role in Western formation—a history in which Africa and Africans figured as objects but occasionally also emerge as historical subjects. Despite the colonial turn in European history, Africa and Africans rarely feature in the earliest narratives of the Portuguese and Spanish past beyond the status of chattel already detached from what in modern terms might be described as the political. Consequently, the objects of the slave trade and slavery enter history—the European past—devoid of those claims, ties, and associations that had positioned them as subjects, clients, and vassals of African lords and elites whose own status fluctuated over time. From this perspective, it is easy to imagine and project natal alienation—social death—as a timeless phenomenon rather than as a dramatic act involving force and violence that sundered roots into rootlessness. What is more, we ascribe a hegemonic singularity to the early European past: Europe in its relationship to Africa is always already a secular and dominant fully forged entity with a singular political rationale. Europe, in this configuration of the past, is already the West rather than an entity or idea that emerges through time and through its encounters with Africa. Through the complexities that framed the encounter with Africa—complexities that were brought to bear in the encounter but also were shaped by the variety of social formations manifest in Africa—Portugal and Spain constituted the early modern European social formation that subsequently shaped the histories of the Americas and Asia. To argue as much positions this study in the realm of both postcolonialism and black studies.
"Black studies," writes the cultural theorist Alexander G. Weheliye, "represents a substantial critique of western modernity," which leads to an insistence that "although much of the critical, poetic, and quantitative work generated under the auspices of black studies has been concerned with the experiences, life worlds, struggles, and cultural productions of black populations around the world, the theoretical and methodological protocols of black studies have always been global in their reach, because they provide detailed explanations of how techniques of domination, dispossession, expropriation, exploitation, and violence are predicated upon the hierarchical ordering of racial, gender, sexual, economic, religious and national differences." Though Weheliye is, of course, correct, this critique need not be interpreted as a disavowal of "western modernity." Instead, it might profitably be seen as an engagement with the very elements that were constitutive of blackness in the first instance—the formative cultural encounters between an emerging Europe with an equally emergent Africa, the slave trade and slavery, colonial trade and dispossession alongside the shifting regimes of differences. Black studies, precisely by attending to the formation of blackness, entails knowing and representing the history of the West, Europe's encounters with Africans, and the evolving narrative of racial becoming. For this reason, understanding the European past creates a condition of possibility for histories of Africans and racial formations. Such a perspective simultaneously underscores the need for a nuanced engagement with the European past and its shifting rationale in order to represent the histories of Africans and its diasporic permutations. The Europe of the Enlightenment cannot stand in for all previous and subsequent incarnations without limiting our understanding of various African pasts.
Through an evocative engagement with the writings of the cultural critic Hortense Spillers and philosopher Sylvia Winter, Weheliye demonstrates an awareness of the interdependence of Europe and the black past by offering a prescient critique of contemporary theorizations of power associated with Giorgio Agamben and Michel Foucault for their woeful neglect of racialized and colonized "assemblages." I understand Weheliye to be offering a more transcendent critique of Western theorists and theorizations of power, which in the instance of Foucault and Agamben invariably have subsumed racial and colonial experiences without engaging their historical specificities, complexities, and defining significance. This is not, however, true for the particularity of European experiences, which, as the foundational locus, always stands in for the timeless universal. Even in the wake of Paul Gilroy's brilliant exegesis, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, in which the cultural critic reminded us that "the history and the legacy of the Enlightenment were worth understanding and arguing about" so as to demonstrate that "the experiences of black people were part of the abstract modernity," most theorists still implicitly question this claim through their very framing of modern history and the narrative of power. African Kings and Black Slaves treads similar theoretical ground as Weheliye and Gilroy but focuses on an earlier, no less important historical moment that a considerable body of scholars and theorists have rendered as a transitional one, thereby overlooking how Catholicism, Africa, and the slave trade were instrumental in the formation of early Western modernity.
In The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, the economic historian David Eltis routes the early modern history of liberty through the ascendant capitalist ethos in Northern Europe. As commercial capitalism gained sway over the landscape, nascent social forms, including liberty and individualism, appeared among the thicket of preexisting social relationships from which they only gradually became disentangled. According to Eltis, both concepts had secured considerable roots among Northern Europeans by the beginning of the eighteenth century, specifically in the Dutch Republic and England, ensuring that cargoes of slaves sold in public squares constituted a disconcerting spectacle. The specter of slavery in the urban metropolis, Amsterdam and London in contrast to Madrid and Lisbon, reified newly cherished notions of liberty and in some instances violated the sensibility of individuals who had only recently forged a tradition of freedom. But then, with ironic cadence, Eltis notes that in the Americas, the Dutch Republic and England were "associated with the harshest and most closed systems of exploiting enslaved non-Europeans." For Eltis, tracking the divergence of European freedom and American slavery represents "the focus" of The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. In doing so, Eltis builds on the venerable intellectual tradition linking slavery to the elemental formation of Western modernity. In addressing the ways that European freedom engendered American slavery, Eltis delineates how both were implicated in the formation of Western modernity. Instead of framing liberty's relationship to bondage as a paradox, Eltis views both social practices as constitutive of the modern. As Eltis sees it, the most advanced European economic sector, Northern Europe, liberated from the absolutism of church and state, displayed a marked propensity for highly regimented slave regimes, which, in turn, accentuated the accumulation of capital that enabled the maturation of existing social forms (liberty and individualism), all the while spawning new ones (popular sovereignty, secularization, and so forth) that collectively defined the modern. In suggesting as much, Eltis locates the origins and formation of modernity among Western Europeans. In the ascendance of the modern, causality, in short, resided with Europeans. As an economic historian, Eltis, of course, is writing against a tradition of thought that has long sought to root the rise of racial slavery in the realm of ideology, whereby slavery rendered as a metaphor and metonym of "white over black" arises from an idealist tradition.
As historians of race and slavery—well before the publication of The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas—ventured into the archives and drilled down into sources, the field-defining, theoretically charged panoramic writings of W. E. B. Dubois, Fernando Ortiz, C. L. R. James, E. Franklin Frazier, Gilberto Freyre, Oliver Cox, Eric Williams, Frank Tannenbaum, Eugene Genovese, and Stanley Elkins occupied the sidelines as casualties of specialization predicated on empirical evidence and specific facts. This was, in one sense, reflective of a larger shift away from systemic approaches, in which race and slavery were situated in writings from the 1930s to the 1960s, that sought to explain the emergence and divergences in the modern world. But on the American scene, the politics of race played a considerable role in both intellectual and scholarly circles. In the second half of the twentieth century, scholarly efforts to decenter race as the explanation for the slave trade and slavery were a significant influence in diminishing the currency of politics, especially configured around the state's role in modern development. "Race relations," argued the historian Eugene Genovese, "did not determine the patterns of slavery in the New World; the patterns of slavery, as conditioned by past and present, history and ecology, and manifested in particular forms of class rule, determined race relations." For Genovese, the slave trade and slavery had economic or, more broadly, a material basis. Such claims, widely debated in the second half of the twentieth century, offered an explanation for how and why Africans were rendered into slaves and sought to shift the focus away from racism or some intrinsic European cultural characteristic. Similarly critical of the idea that slavery originated in ideologically driven motives, the historian Ira Berlin observed that "plantation slavery did not have its origins in a conspiracy to dishonor, shame, brutalize, or otherwise reduce black people's standing on some perverse scale of humanity—although it did all of those at one time or another." Pointing to the institution's rationality, Berlin goes on to say: "Slavery's moral stench cannot mask the design of American captivity: to commandeer the labor of many to make a few rich and powerful. Slavery thus made class as it made race, and in entwining the two processes it mystified both." Genovese's observations anticipated Berlin's, but together they emphasized the centrality of capitalism, class, and labor, which stressed how "objective" material forces prevailed over ideology. Genovese framed the relationship between slavery and colonialism in the following manner: "The general character of modern slaveholding classes arose from two separate sources: from a common origin in the expansion of Europe, which historically meant the expansion of the world market and, accordingly, established a pronounced tendency toward commercial exploitation and profit maximization." This line of reasoning minimized the earliest instantiation of the slave trade and slavery that still witnessed discernible distinctions between colonial and capitalist expansion, especially during the early modern period when the latter was still at a rudimentary stage of development and engaged in a protracted struggle from which it would only subsequently emerge triumphant.
The relegation of race to an ideological formation engendered the subordination of earlier explanations that acknowledged the slave trade's impact on both African and European societies, notably framed around the alleged symbiosis between development and underdevelopment. The ascendant consensus contributed to further rendering of the slave trade and colonial slavery into (liberal) economic phenomena as opposed to relations embedded in the social formation. From this analytical perspective, scholars depicted the slave trade as an economic process (trade, transactions, and commodities)—elements of early modern capitalism from which politics and political traditions had been exorcized. This very modern framing of the economic and, specifically, the early modern slave trade circumvented the lexicon of early modern Christian polities—concept terms such as sovereigns and subjects. In the resulting parlance, slaves and New World slavery acquired a modern (economic) valence long before the ascendancy of numeracy and the realization of distinctive economic and political spheres in which the separation of the political from the economic enabled the market to assume hegemony over social life. In describing the long marginalized Iberian and African pasts, including their respective commerce in slaves, scholars used modern concepts and cultural logics, even though they represented radically distinct histories. To recuperate this relegated past—one of the intents of this book—we need not completely dispense with the logic of capitalism, but rather excavate and historicize earlier forms that prevailed in characterizing the political that for centuries would still govern the early modern order of things. Karl Marx, as I argue, exhibited an awareness of this distinction in delineating primitive capital accumulation, in which the political played a crucial role in the formation of early modern capitalism whereby the market and commodity fetish engendered discipline. Interestingly enough, theorists of the capitalist transitions in Europe steadfastly took up, challenged, and revised the evolutionary paradigms that allegedly explained the makings of the modern world. Feudalism, capitalism, and bourgeois revolutions—but not colonialism and slavery—occupied pride of place. Even as slavery in Greece and Rome commanded attention as political forms delineating mastery, absolutism, and the public and private alongside freedom—especially as they related to the genesis of capitalism—writers conceived the transatlantic slave trade and New World slavery in fundamentally different ways. For theorists of the capitalist transition, enslavement and bonded labor fueled the emergence of capitalism, but the slave trade and colonial slavery were conceived in economic terms. Theorization of the transition not only relegated colonial slavery to the economic domain; it also privileged an implicit secular world in which Christianity was represented in instrumental ways that neglected how the Church for centuries governed existing political traditions, including encounters and the transformations of Africans into slaves. In neglecting this phenomenon, scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have condensed the distinctive early modern era into a uniform modern period, thereby losing sight of how the complexities characterizing the European encounters with Africa relegated a history of politics that played a crucial role in modern Europe's emergence. For scholars of the slave trade and Atlantic slavery, equating "Europe" and "modern" remains a standard practice.
The political scientist and scholar of black studies Cedric Robinson questioned this allegedly "objective" formulation, arguing that "the historical development of world capitalism was influenced in a most fundamental way by the particularistic forces of racism and nationalism. This could only be true if the social, psychological and cultural origins of racism and nationalism both anticipated capitalism in time and formed a piece with those events which contributed directly to its organization of production and exchange." For Robinson, "the particularistic forces of racism and nationalism," which preceded the emergence of capitalism, had engendered a unique social formation—"racial capitalism." In the study that follows and in line with Robinson, colonialism represents more than an economic system or simply a regime of class exploitation. It constitutes an assemblage in which competing domains (political, institutional, and legal traditions) vie for primacy as they compete for economic, social, cultural, and political preeminence. The state is more than the instrument of the ruling class; the objectives of power are never singular, sequential, or contiguous. Yet, at the same time, I depart from Robinson's formulation in that I see institutional and intellectual life as being shaped by far more than "the particularistic forces of racism and nationalism." To begin with, early modern institutions and intellectual legacies had yet to experience thorough secularization, which would allow for the existence of a modern state, capitalism, race, and class. States, in the form of kingdoms, existed, as did markets and private property, but the fifteenth century was not yet the era of secularized entities such as citizens, classes, and laborers. Instead, lords, masters, and sovereigns competed with one another, and with the Church, in defining the experiences of subjects and slaves.
Church-state relations, though rarely attended to in standard histories of black studies, figure prominently in Europe's history with Africa and Africans. At best, theorists, along with imperial historians, point to the state's role in regulating the slave trade through the casa de escravo, asiento, and pieza de india, thereby sustaining absolutism fiscally. Imperial historians noted as much. But in their hands the slave trade and slavery represented a facet of the commercial nexus defining the imperial framework. Here empire was not a constitutive element of absolute sovereignty, nor was slavery foundational to the formation of absolutism. In that respect neither the slave nor slavery configured in the emergence of absolutism or the framing of state sovereignty. The slave trade was not constitutive of European political formation. In turn, there was little recognition of how sovereignty, political traditions, or politics on the African side shaped how Europeans interacted with Africans in order to lubricate the trading mechanism of the slave trade. When the focus turned to wars, diplomacy, or political economy (wealth in people), the scholarly perspective merely rendered them as facets of trade thereby overlooking the existence and importance of African sovereignty. Consequently, trade—the slave trade—appears in our histories as an entity or epiphenomenon divorced from the world of politics.
From these aforementioned observations flows an assertion: until Europe is understood in its historical specificity, its early modern encounter with Africa cannot be fully realized. At its starkest, Europe and its encroachment on Africa unleashed unrelenting violence, highlighting the Janus face at the core of modern life, but this representation also flattens and condenses a complex past that grants Europeans far too much power. For Africa, Africans, and the African diaspora, the stakes are considerable. Concepts like tradition, authenticity, autonomy, cultural memory, agency, and resistance—which always acquired valence through analogy and negation in the wake of encounters—cannot be conceived, in their complexity, until the historical specificity of the European past is clarified. As a postcolonial history but also a history that acknowledges the complex entanglement with Africa and Africans in the making of European social formation, African Kings and Black Slaves gestures toward an earlier European past which constitutes a necessary representation for writing histories of both the early modern and contemporary African diaspora.
Let us employ the purported relationship between the African diaspora, slavery, and the modern to assert that contemporary representations of the Atlantic slave trade and New World slavery privilege a decidedly modern conception of political economy. Through this modern-inflected prism, both slavery and the slave trade appear as phenomena configured in relation to the oikos, economic life, and commodification. In our thinking and writings, the economy and its constitutive elements—property and private life, the market and commodities, trade and trading relations—embody discrete entities that, in turn, define the social logic of the early modern slave trade and slavery. The assumption of an autonomous economic life belies the historical process whereby "the economic" emerged distinct from and eventually triumphed over other realms of social life. In directing attention to this historical process, we discern how newly emergent "economic" practices associated with the early modern European-African encounter inaugurated a transition against the dominant practices of the day. African Kings and Black Slaves delineates the historical process through which economic life assumed sovereignty. Rather than track and trace the emergence of this economic dynamic, the project at hand has a different aim. Composed of six chapters tackling distinctive themes, it routes us through both late medieval and early modern political thought alongside contemporary forms of the political so as to outline a neglected history of the European encounter with Africa. In doing so, African Kings and Black Slaves argues for the primacy of politics—intellectual, juridical, and customary—in mediating the earliest contact between Africans and Europeans. Here then is a story of medieval and early modern power that preceded the ascendance of political economy, one in which laws, political thought, and ceremonial practices configured Africans as subjects, sovereigns, and occasionally even as gods.
Gods, sovereigns, and subjects trouble the narrative of power that presently frames the histories of the slave trade and slavery, the process of enslavement and the Middle Passage, whereby Africans were rendered into chattel slaves. Aside from being prompted by the initial sighting of the correspondence between sovereigns in the Portuguese national archives, African Kings and Black Slaves was also motivated by an alleged encounter with the divine—a constitutive myth in the making of the New World. Decades after it occurred, the surviving but defeated native peoples of Tenochitlán, the Mexica, recalled an encounter in tales about their defeat which they conveyed to Franciscan missionaries. Here myth encountered history. Gods, of course, played a decisive role in orchestrating the drama involving emperors, lords, and fearless warriors. The strangers, when they arrived, were identified as gods, and came in various hues. In the discerning eyes of the Mexica, such distinctions among the coterie of stranger-gods were carefully observed. For in a universe of capricious divines, the lives of mere mortals often rested on their ability to anticipate the will of gods, and attentiveness to their form, tastes, and proclivities, the Mexica believed, could incur a god's favor or at least forestall sudden wrath. Among the pantheon of strangers, some stood out, and the Mexica anointed them as "soiled gods." But for the Spaniards, the Spanish-speaking Africans and blacks that accompanied the entrada (the juridical term the English employed for the Spanish conquest) were simply servants and slaves. Attending to these divergent fictions alongside the letters in the Portuguese archive prompted this inquiry into the genealogy of a transformation—an exploration into how the earliest Africans became slaves. African Kings and Black Slaves offers a glimpse of a lost past—a past buried beneath layers of contemporary historiographical sediment.
By recasting the initial century of African-European interaction—beginning in 1441 and culminating around 1560—the history that follows takes on a myriad of theoretical concerns underscoring the temporality that shapes this historical moment, best described as "after postcoloniality," whose intellectual and political horizon necessitates distinctive representations of the past. What are the implications for such a history of African-European interaction? Previous histories largely focused on the economics of enslavement and slavery that, in turn, served to counter the dynamics of cultural difference in the guise of race, which allegedly shaped how Europeans initially perceived and then interacted with the Africans they encountered. In the long history of the African-European encounter preceding colonial rule in the nineteenth century, the slave trade and New World slavery occupied a dominant role that was exclusively depicted as the instrumental history of racial formation or the story of class differences. By questioning this narrative of difference and capital—again a scrutiny animated by the temporality associated with after postcoloniality—African Kings and Black Slaves delineates new analytics for framing the earliest history of the African-European encounter.
The foundational encounters between Africans and Europeans embodied more than an aberrant yet overlooked moment in the long history of the slave trade and New World slavery. In analyzing the earliest phase of the slave trade, we discern long-standing traditions—specific institutional practices, established customs, and intellectual norms—whose social logic preceded but also survived the immediate African and European encounters. Various reasons explain how successive new social forms supplanted these traditions, eventually even eliminating their traces. In the process of epistemological erasure, pride of place belongs to the triumphal liberal narrative that framed the history of the slave trade and its decline at the hands of an enlightened West in a manner that disavowed the veracity, complexity, and intrinsic value to preceding histories and traditions involving the African-European encounter. It is to this tradition that we now turn before routing the story of the slave trade and slavery through the earliest phase of the early modern period, whose meaning, significance, and form often get suppressed by subsequent eras.