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African Diaspora

African Diaspora

The African diaspora, together with the Jewish diasporathe etymological and epistemological source of the term diaspora enjoys pride of place in the increasingly crowded pantheon of diaspora studies. Studies of African diasporas can be divided into two broad categories. First, there are those that discuss the patterns of dispersal of African peoples around the world and the kinds of diasporic identities these populations developed in their new locations. Distinctions are increasingly drawn between the "historic" and "contemporary" or "new" African diasporas, referring respectively to diasporas formed before and during the twentieth century. Second, some studies are concerned with analyzing the various linkages that the diasporas have maintained with Africa. Here emphasis is on the demographic, cultural, economic, political, ideological, and iconographic flows.

The term African diaspora gained currency from the 1950s and 1960s in the English-speaking world, especially the United States. As pointed out by George Shepperson, none of the major intellectual forerunners of African diaspora studies, from Edward Blyden (18321912), the influential nineteenth-century Caribbean-born Liberian thinker, to W. E. B. Du Bois (18681963), the renowned African-American scholar-activist, used the term African diaspora. The Negritude writers from Francophone Africa and the Caribbean also did not use it. Instead, the term used to define and mobilize African populations globally was Pan-Africanism. One of the challenges in African diaspora studies, then, has been to overcome an American and English language-centered model of identity for African diasporas globally.

Defining Diasporas

There are several conceptual difficulties in defining the African diasporaindeed, in defining the term diaspora. Contemporary theorizations of the term diaspora tend to be preoccupied with problematizing the relationship between diaspora and nation and the dualities or multiplicities of diasporic identity or subjectivity; they are inclined to be condemnatory or celebratory of transnational mobility and hybridity. In many cases, the term diaspora is used in a fuzzy, ahistorical, and uncritical manner in which all manner of movements and migrations between countries and even within countries are included and no adequate attention is paid to the historical conditions and experiences that produce diasporic communities and consciousnesshow dispersed populations become self-conscious diaspora communities.

Various analytical schemas have been suggested for diaspora studies in general and African diaspora studies in particular. Based on what he regards as the nine common features of a diaspora, Robin Cohen distinguishes between the "victim diasporas" (Africans and Armenians), "labor diasporas" (Indians), "imperial diasporas" (British), "trade diasporas" (Chinese and Lebanese), and "cultural diasporas" (the Caribbean). Kim Butler, a historian of the African diaspora in Brazil, suggests another schema for diasporan study divided into five dimensions: first, reasons for and conditions of the dispersal; second, relationship with homeland; third, relationship with host lands; fourth, interrelationships within diasporan groups; and finally, comparative study of different diasporas.

Diaspora refers simultaneously to a process, a condition, a space, and a discourse: the continuous processes by which a diaspora is made, unmade, and remade; the changing conditions in which it lives and expresses itself; the places where it is molded and imagined; and the contentious ways in which it is studied and discussed. In short, diaspora is a state of being and a process of becoming, a condition and consciousness located in the shifting interstices of "here" and "there," a voyage of negotiation between multiple spatial and social identities. Created out of movementdispersal from a homelandthe diaspora is sometimes affirmed through another movementengagement with the homeland. Movement, it could be argued, then, in its literal and metaphorical senses is at the heart the diasporic condition, beginning with the dispersal itself and culminating with reunification. The spaces in between are marked by multiple forms of engagement between the diaspora and the homelandof movement, of travel between a "here" and a "there" both in terms of time and space.

African Dispersals

It is quite common in academic and popular discourses to homogenize and racialize the African diaspora and see it in terms of the Atlantic experience of forced migration and in terms of "black" identity. The first ignores African dispersals and diasporas in Asia and Europe, some of which predated the formation of the Atlantic diasporas and which emerged out of both forced and free migrations. The second is largely a legacy of Eurocentric constructions of the continent whereby sub-Saharan Africa, from which North Africa is excised, is seen as "Africa proper," in the words of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831). Early-twenty-first-century research has tried to go beyond these limitations.

There are numerous dispersals associated with African peoples over time. Colin Palmer has identified at least six: three in prehistoric and ancient times (beginning with the great exodus that began about 100,000 years ago from the continent to other continents) and three in modern times, including those associated with the Indian Ocean trade to Asia, the Atlantic slave trade to the Americas, and the contemporary movement of Africans and peoples of African descent to various parts of the globe. While such a broad historical conception of diaspora might be a useful reminder of common origins and humanity, it stretches the notion of diaspora too far beyond analytical recognition to be terribly useful. So most scholars tend to focus on the "modern" historical streams of the global African diasporas. Studies of African diasporas focus disproportionately on the Atlantic world, but literature is growing on the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean diasporas.

The historic African diasporas can be divided into four categories in terms of their places of dispersal: the intra-Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and Atlantic diasporas. The challenges of studying intra-Africa diasporas meaningfully are quite daunting, given the extraordinary movements of people across the continent over time. Clearly it will not do to see every migration across the continent as a prelude to the formation of some diaspora. More fruitful is to focus on communities that have constituted themselves or are constituted by their host societies as diasporas within historical memory. And here may be distinguished five types based on the primary reason of dispersal: the trading diasporas (the Hausa and Doula in western Africa); the slave diasporas (West Africans in North Africa and East Africans on the Indian Ocean islands); the conquest diasporas (the Nguni in southern Africa); the refugee diasporas (e.g., from the Yoruba wars of the early nineteenth century); and the pastoral diasporas (the Fulani and Somali in the Sahelian zones of western and eastern Africa).

These intra-Africa diasporas have been studied in their own right, often without using the term diaspora except for the trading diasporas and the slave diasporas. But it should not be forgotten that the other diasporas, insofar as they existed, filtered into the historic diasporas or served as historical switching stations for the emergence of the new African diasporas in the twentieth century. At the same time, the formation of colonial borders and new national identities reinforced their diasporic identities and sometimes pushed them into the circuits of international migration.

African Diasporas in Asia and Europe

Recent studies clearly demonstrate that the African diaspora has very old roots in Asia, to which Africans traveled as traders, sailors, soldiers, bureaucrats, clerics, bodyguards, concubines, servants, and slaves. Hence unlike the historic Atlantic diasporas, the Indian Ocean diasporas were composed of both forced and free migrants. In India, for example, according to Richard Pankhurst, there were numerous African diasporan rulers and dynasties established between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries by the Habshi (corruption of Habash, the Arabic name for Abyssinia), Sidi (corruption of the Arabic Saiyid, or "master"), and Kaffir (from the Arabic Kafir, or "unbeliever"), as the Africans were known, throughout India from the north and west (Delhi, Gujarat, the Gulf of Khambhat, Malabar, Alapur, and Jaunpur) to the northeast (Bengal), the south (Deccan), and the west coast. Besides the Indian sub-continent, significant African communities also existed in the Persian Gulf from present-day Iran and Iraq to Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Exploration of the African diasporas in the Mediterranean worlds of western Asia and southern Europe has been fraught with considerable difficulties, not least the fact that until modern times this was the most intensive zone of cultural traffic and communication, in which communities straddled multiple spaces in complex networks of affiliation. The case of the Arabs from the Arabian peninsula, who swept through northern Africa following the rise of Islam in the seventh century, is a case in point. They traversed northern Africa and western Asia, the so-called Middle East, although with the rise of the modern nation-state and national identities, notwithstanding the enduring dreams of the Arab nation, it is possible to talk of, say, the Egyptian diaspora in the Gulf.

Before the Atlantic slave trade, the most significant African presence in southern Europe was the Moors from northwestern Africa, who occupied and ruled much of Spain between the early eighth century and the late fifteenth century. As is well known, the Moors made enormous contributions to Spanish culture and society and to the modernization of Europe more generally during those seven centuries, but they are rarely discussed in diasporic termsas an African diaspora. Discussions of African diasporas in the Mediterranean world, which are still relatively scanty, tend to focus on "blacks," that is, Negroid peoples, in ancient Rome or in the Mediterranean lands of Islam, where African diasporas were absorbed into the host communities thanks to the integrative principles and capacities of Islam.

Beyond the Mediterranean littoral in Europe, there are ancient African communities from Russia to Britain. The origins of the scattered African communities on the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus mountains are in dispute. Some argue that they were brought there between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries as slaves for the Turkish and Abkhazian rulers, while others trace their origins many centuries earlier as remnants of an Egyptian army that invaded the region in antiquity. Allison Blakely believes the two explanations may not necessarily be contradictory, in that there were probably different waves of Africans. Modern Russia did not develop a significant practice of African slavery, but some Africans did come as slaves; others came as servants for the wealthy nobility or as immigrants, usually seamen, including some who came from the Americas. One of these Africans was Abram Hannibal from Ethiopia, who arrived as a boy around 1700 and was raised as a favorite of Peter the Great, became a general and an engineer, and was the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin (17991837), the great Russian poet.

The history of Africans in Britain can be traced back two thousand years, but the African presence became more evident following the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Many of the Africans worked as domestic servants, tradesmen, soldiers, and sailors. A growing stream of Africans coming for educationa tradition that began in the eighteenth century and accelerated in the nineteenth and twentieth centurieslater joined them. In the nineteenth century they included some of West Africa's most illustrious intellectuals and nationalists. Out of these waves emerged a "black" British culture with its own associational life, expressive cultural practices, literature, and political idioms, all forged in the crucible of unrelenting racial violence and oppression.

The Atlantic Diasporas

The Atlantic diasporas are the most recent of the global diasporas and are far better known and researched than the others. The diaspora in the United States often stands at the pedestal, the one against which to judge the identities of the other diasporas. The fact that Brazil has the largest African diaspora in the Americas, indeed in the world, is often forgotten, and so is the fact that in the Caribbean the African diaspora is the majority, rather than a minority population as in the United States. Debates about African diasporan identities have tended to be framed in terms of African cultural retentions or erasure on the one hand and diasporan adaptations and inventions on the other. Paul Gilroy's influential text, The Black Atlantic, is essentially a celebration of the supposedly new and distinctive Anglophone diaspora culture in which Africa is an irrelevant reality.

In effect, the two were not mutually exclusive, insofar as diasporic communities and consciousness were forged out of complex and sometimes contradictory encounters and negotiations between what Sheila Walker, in African Roots/American Cultures (2001), calls the three puzzles and Stuart Hall calls the presences in the Americasthe African, European, and Native American puzzles or presences. It is also important to note that there were continuous movements of people from Africa and the diaspora and back that kept connections alive.

On the whole, studies of African diasporas in the Americas continue to be heavily focused on national histories. In situations where the African puzzle or presence is marginalized, as is often the case in the United States, excavating the dynamic import of the African cultural, religious, artistic, social, economic, and political imprint on mainstream American society has produced some exciting scholarship. In societies that have tried to "whiten" themselves, such as Argentina, the object has been to demonstrate the African demographic presence. Similar attempts have been made to demystify Africa's "absence" in the histories of other countries in America's Southern cone: Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and in the histories of the United States' immediate neighbors, Mexico and Canada, and to chronicle the contributions of African diasporas beyond picturesque folklore.

For Brazil, great store has been placed on explaining the remarkable survival and transformation of the Africans and their cultures as well as exposing the brutal realities behind the mystifications of race mixture and cultural syncretism. With their large African populations, the Caribbean islands reflect Brazil in terms of the evident demographic and cultural visibility of the African presence. Also as in Brazil, this presence, ubiquitous though it may be, has not always been valorizedat least not until the black consciousness movement of the 1970s. Perched in the Atlantic in the middle of the Middle Passage, as it were, the African diaspora in the Caribbean in fact embodies all the complex connections, crisscrossings, and cultural compositions of the African diasporas of the Atlantic. Not surprisingly, Caribbean activists and intellectuals played a crucial role in all the transatlantic Pan-African ideologies and movements, from Garveyism to Negritude to socialism.

The New African Diasporas

In the twentieth century there were several new dispersals from Africa, a continent divided into colonial territories and later into independent nation-states. Unlike their predecessors, whose communities of identity, either as imagined by themselves or as imposed by others, were either ethnic or racial (not to mention sometimes religious), the new African diasporas had to contend with the added imperative of the modern nation-state, which often frames the political and cultural itineraries of their travel and transnational networks. The "new" or "contemporary" African diasporas, as they are sometimes called, can be divided into three main waves: the diasporas of colonization, of decolonization, and of structural adjustment that emerged out of, respectively, the disruptions of colonial conquest, the struggles for independence, and structural adjustment programs imposed on African countries by the international financial institutions from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As with the historic diasporas, the challenge has been to map out the development of these diasporas and their identities and relations with the host societies. Needless to say, and also in common with the historic diasporas, the contemporary diasporas are differentiated and their internal and external relations are mediated by the inscriptions of gender, generation, class, political ideology, and sometimes religion. Where they differ from the historic diaspora, complicating analysis, is that they have to negotiate relations with the historic diasporas themselves and also not just with "Africa" but with their particular countries of origin and the countries of transmigration. The revolution in telecommunications and travel, which has compressed the spatial and temporal distances between home and abroad, offers the contemporary diasporas, unlike the historic diasporas from the earlier dispersals, unprecedented opportunities to be transnational and transcultural, to be people of multiple worlds and focalities. They are able to retain ties to Africa in ways that were not possible for earlier generations of the African diasporas. The diasporas of the late twentieth century were even more globalized than those earlier in the century in terms of the multiplicity of their destinations and networks.

Particularly rapid in the closing decades of the twentieth century was African migration to Europe, which was characterized by increasing diversification in the number of countries both sending and receiving the immigrants. The African diaspora from the continent and the diaspora itself grew in Britain and France, the old colonial superpowers. Quite remarkable was the emergence as immigration countries of southern European countries such as Italy, Portugal, and Spain, which were themselves emigration countries. This development was as much a product of the improving economic fortunes in these countries and their integration into the prosperity and political sphere of western Europe as it was of mounting immigration pressures on their borders to the east and the south. New African immigrant communities also formed in central and eastern Europe, especially following the end of the Cold War.

Equally rapid was the growth of African migration to North America, especially the United States. By 2000 there were 700,000 African-born residents in the United States, up from 363,819 in 1990. This new African diaspora constituted only 2.5 percent of the total U.S. foreign-born population, up from 1.9 percent in 1990. The African migrants in the United States tended to be exceedingly well educated, in fact they enjoyed the highest levels of education of any group in the United States, foreign-born or native-born. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, among the African-born residents aged twenty-five and above, 49.3 percent had a bachelor's degree or more, as compared to 25.6 percent for the native-born population and 25.8 percent for the foreign-born population as a whole (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001).

Diaspora Linkages

The continuous formation of African diasporas through migration is one way in which the diaspora and Africa have maintained linkages. There have also been numerous movements among the diasporas themselves, for example, of Caribbean communities to Central, South, and North America and Europe, so that the entire Atlantic world, including the United States, is constituted by Earl Lewis's "overlapping diasporas."

One critical measure of the diaspora condition as a self-conscious identity lies in remembering, imagining, and engaging the original homeland, whose own identity is in part constituted by and in turn helps constitute the diaspora. This dialectic in the inscriptions and representations of the home-land in the diaspora and of the diaspora in the homeland is the thread that weaves the histories of the diaspora and the homeland together. Two critical questions can be raised. First, how do the different African diasporas remember, imagine, and engage Africa, and which Africain temporal and spatial terms? Second, how does Africa, or rather the different Africasin their temporal and spatial framingsremember, imagine, and engage their diasporas? Given the complex ebbs and flows of history for Africa itself and for the various regional host lands of the African diasporas, it stands to reason that the engagements between Africa and its diasporas have been built with and shaped by continuities, changes, and ruptures.

The fluidity of these engagements is best captured by the notion of flow: that flows of several kinds and levels of intensity characterize the linkages between the homeland and the diaspora. The diaspora-homeland flows are often simultaneously covert and overt, abstract and concrete, symbolic and real, and their effects may be sometimes disjunctive or conjunctive. The diaspora or the homeland can also serve as a signifier for the other, subject to strategic manipulation. The flows include people, cultural practices, productive resources, organizations and movements, ideologies and ideas, and images and representations. In short, six major flows can be isolated: demographic flows, cultural flows, economic flows, political flows, ideological flows, and iconographic flows.

Clearly, engagements between Africa and its diasporas have been produced by many flows that have been carried on by a variety of agents; but not all flows and agents are equal, nor have they been treated equally. Much scholarly attention has gone toward the political and ideological flows across the Atlantic, as manifested, for example, in the role that the transatlantic Pan-Africanist movement played in engendering territorial nationalisms across Africa and how continental nationalism and the civil rights movement in the United States reinforced each other. Only recently has the discussion of cultural flows begun to transcend the question of African cultural retentions and survivals in the Americas to examine not only the traffic of cultural practices from the Atlantic diasporas to various parts of Africa but also the complex patterns and processes of current cultural exchanges through the media of contemporary globalization, from television and cinema to video and the Internet.

The historiography of these other forms of engagement is still relatively underdeveloped. Indeed, as with the history of the dispersals analyzed above, far less is known about the engagements between Africa and its diasporas in Asia and Europe than is the case with the Atlantic diasporas. The challenge in African diaspora studies, then, is twofold: to map out more accurately the dispersals of African peoples globally, and to map out the various engagements between Africa and its diasporas for each of the major world regions.

See also Black Atlantic ; Black Consciousness ; Creolization, Caribbean ; Pan-Africanism ; Religion: African Diaspora ; Slavery .


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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

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African Diaspora

African Diaspora






The African diaspora was the dispersal of African peoples to Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The term is used most commonly for the coerced movement in various slave trades, but the word diaspora has also been used to refer to voluntary migrations from Africa and for population movements within Africa.

In some ways, the most consequential movement of peoples from Africa was the first, when the early stages of human evolution took place in the highlands of East Africa. From there, over the last million and a half years, human beings spread out across Africa, gradually adapting to different environments, and then into Asia, Europe, and eventually the Americas. More recent large-scale movements of peoples have occurred within Africa. For example, over the last 2,500 years, people speaking Bantu languages have spread out from a base in the Nigeria-Cameroon borderlands over most of southern and central Africa, absorbing most preexisting populations.


Almost six thousand years ago, complex civilizations marked by powerful imperial states began emerging in the alluvial valleys of Mesopotamia, then in Egypt and India. These were slave-using societies, though not as dependent on slave labor as some more recent societies. They were also involved in long-distance trade. They tended to obtain their slaves from warfare, from trade with less-developed neighbors, and through debt and social differentiation. Athenian Greece, the first real slave society, acquired slaves from the Balkans, the Black Sea areas, and Asia Minor. There was, however, from an early date some movement of Africans into these worlds both as slaves and free persons. Egyptians were involved in conflict with Nubia and were ruled by dynasties from the south. Nubia, and perhaps the Horn of Africa, were sources of Egyptian slaves, though slaves also came from many other groups. Statuary and paintings from ancient Egypt clearly indicate the presence, sometimes as rulers, of people with African physical features. There were certainly Africans elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. Authors of the Old Testament and from classical antiquity were clearly familiar with Africans. Trade across the Indian Ocean was also taking place at least two thousand years ago, and clearly involved some movement of people, both free and slave.

The emergence of Islam in the seventh century and the subsequent conquest of the Middle East and much of the Mediterranean world expanded the market for slaves. Although Islam forbade the enslavement of fellow Muslims, it also created a demand for slaves, particularly as concubines, servants, and soldiers, but also sometimes as laborers. There was, for example, a major revolt in ninth-century Mesopotamia among the Zanj, East African slaves who were subject to harsh labor draining the swamps of lower Mesopotamia. Exploitation of African slaves seems to have been rare, however. The Muslim empires got most of their slaves from eastern Europe and the Caucasus, as did the Christian cities of southern Europe. For the Muslim Middle East, eastern Europe remained the most important source of slaves into the eighteenth century.

A trade in slaves with Africa, however, remained significant. Christian kingdoms in the middle Nile region paid a tribute to Egypt, which was partly in slaves. Ethiopia seems to have sold slaves to Muslims. The introduction of camels in the first centuries of the Common Era increased trade across the Sahara; trade was further increased when Arab conquerors revitalized the Middle East. The trans-Sahara trade led to the emergence of Muslim states in the savanna belt known as the Sudan, which comes from the Arabic bilad-es-sudan, land of the blacks. For many of these Sudanic states, slaving became a source of labor and services, as well as an export that could be exchanged for Middle Eastern products. For Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, the export of slaves supplemented a trade in gold, but for Kanem and Bornu in the central Sudan, slaves were the major export. Slaves were probably less important to the Swahili cities of the east coast, though they were a constant export.

African slaves from Ethiopia and East Africa served as soldiers and concubines in India. In 1459 there were supposedly eight thousand Africans in Bengals army. A number of African military commanders became rulers of small states, of whom the best known was Malik Ambar (d. 1626), who was noted for his tolerance and his patronage of the arts. Communities of people of African descent known as Habshis or Sidis are still found in India and Pakistan. There were also African merchants and sailors in India.

Africans could also be found, in different roles, in many parts of the Arab world. There were, for example, a succession of poets in pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia known as the black crows. One of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632) was an African, Bilal, who served as the first muezzin for the Muslim community. In the Muslim empires, particularly that of the Ottoman Turks, black eunuchs were common. They played an important role in the Ottoman harem. African slaves were particularly important in Morocco and Tunisia and provided much of the labor in the mines and oases of the Sahara. Some scholars have estimated that African slave exports into the Middle East were as numerous as those across the Atlantic. They did not, however, leave as deep a footprint. Most were women who became concubines. As concubines, they produced few offspring and those offspring were free members of their masters families. Soldiers probably experienced high mortality and thus left behind few identifiable communities. As a result, few self-reproducing African communities developed in the Arab world.


The Portuguese ships that cruised along the African coast were not primarily interested in slaves, but slaves could be procured. The first were taken in raids, but trade soon proved more effective. Slaves could be purchased from many African societies, and the profits from the slave trade helped pay for many early expeditions. Some slaves were exchanged within Africafor example, for gold along the Gold Coastbut most were sold in Portugal or at Mediterranean slave markets where a shortage of slaves developed after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 limited Mediterranean access to eastern European slaves. African slaves became important in Lisbon, southern Portugal, and Mediterranean cities.

A more important market soon developed on the Atlantic islands, which had become underpopulated or depopulated when earlier populations were decimated by slaving and by European diseases, though many islands, like Madeira, had no native population at all. Sugar was the key to their prosperity and to the development of a particularly harsh slave system. Venetian and Genoan planters had begun the exploitation of sugar in the eastern Mediterranean during the Crusades. As improved technology reduced the cost of producing sugar, an expanding European market offered large profits, and the Atlantic islands offered European investors an opportunity to extend sugar cultivation. Madeira was briefly the worlds largest sugar producer, and then São Tomé. On Madeira and in the Canaries, both slave and peasant labor was used, but the equatorial climate of São Tomé made the island unattractive to European peasants, and a plantation system developed there that depended exclusively on slave labor. In the late sixteenth century, this plantation system was extended to Brazil, where once again, the decimation of Indians by European diseases led to the use of African slave labor. The plantation model was extended to the West Indies in the seventeenth century.

The use of slaves was attractive wherever labor was in short supply and new crops offered prospects of profit. Slave labor produced rice in South Carolina and tobacco in Virginia. Slaves were also used to grow indigo, spices, and coffee. Slaves were found everywhere in the Americas and were important even in the Middle Atlantic colonies. The availability of slaves meant that they could be acquired for many purposes. They worked as servants; they worked on the docks; and after the invention of the cotton gin they provided the labor for the extension of cotton over the southeastern United States. Sugar, however, created the biggest market for slaves.

Slave exports grew from about a quarter million in the sixteenth century to over six million in the eighteenth. Only in what became the United States did natural population growth among slaves eventually make the slave trade irrelevant. As native slaves either died out or were absorbed into an African population, slavery came to be seen as the lot of the African. This is probably the first time that enslaveability was defined in terms of race.

To meet the steadily increasing demand, slave traders pushed routes deeper and deeper into the interior of Africa. Prices rose, old states were militarized, and new states appeared that were willing to provide the slaves Europe wanted. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth century saw the emergence of a series of powerful slaving states that responded to rising prices and demand in the West Indies. A smaller slave trade emerged in East Africa after islands in the Indian Ocean were colonized. The conquest of what is now the Ukraine by the Russians closed off the major source of white slaves in the late eighteenth century. Increasingly, during the last years of the international slave trade, the Middle East looked to African sources for their slaves. The East African slave trade was also stimulated by the development of a plantation economy in Zanzibar and on the East African coast, as well as economic growth in the Middle East.


Many of the early sugar planters treated slaves as expendable. Sugar was a particularly brutal crop, and slaves worked long hours under abusive conditions. The mortality rate, particularly for men, who did the most dangerous work in pressing and boiling rooms, was high. For planters, it was often easier to buy a slave than to raise one, and many early planters literally worked slaves to death. With time, however, family life developed because planters found that slaves worked better when allowed to live in family relationships. Though mortality remained high until the end of the slavery era, the ratio of men and women gradually moved toward parity.

Family life and natural reproduction among slaves developed much more quickly elsewhere. In the tobacco areas of Virginia, the slave population had been growing since the 1720s. Slave culture was shaped by the beliefs and culture that slaves brought with them from Africa, by the conditions of slavery, and by the world of their masters. The perpetuation of slave culture was influenced by the identification of slave status with African origins. In the European world, color became an important boundary that persisted even when slaves were freed.

African roots show especially vividly in religions. Throughout the diaspora, we find religious cults of African origin: candomblé in Brazil, shango in Trinidad, Santeria in Cuba, vodou in Haiti, gnawa in Morocco, bori in Tunisia, and zar in Istanbul and southern Iran, all of them involving spirit possession and the use of music. Like the African systems from which they emerged, these cults assimilated elements of dominant religions, but also in many cases influenced those religions. This is most striking in the United States, where the African impact is found less in distinctive cults than in the way Africans shaped the practice of Christianity, particularly among Baptists. African religious practices, like the ring shout, led to a highly emotive and richly musical practice of Christianity among African Americans. Similarly, in Hindu and Muslim parts of the world, Africans were absorbed into the dominant religion but often infused it with an African approach.

African musical traditions are also prevalent throughout the diaspora: the drumming of sides in India, gnawa music in Morocco, Afro-Cuban music, and calypso in Trinidad, as well as gospel, blues, and various kinds of jazz. These different traditions have taken on a life of their own and feature a variety of musical instruments, but all have African roots. So too with language. The grammatical structure of African languages often shaped the development of pidgin languages, and African terms became a source of slang. In Maroon communities, formed by runaway slaves, African political traditions also shaped the states that were created. Some scholars see the African family structure in the kind of extended and often fictive family that evolved in the slave quarters and protected Africans from the insecurity of slavery, where a family member could be sold off at any time. African folklore and African craft skills, such as pottery or raffia work, also remained important in many diaspora communities.


Not all Africans migrated in chains. Many free migrants traveled within and from Africa, including those who went to Morocco, Egypt, or the Arabian Peninsula to study at Islamic institutions. Many medieval African rulers made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and some supported hostels for their subjects who were studying at Muslim schools. Some of these travelers stayed and married. Africans also migrated to Europe. Missionaries brought Africans to Europe to study, some of whom returned to Africa. Others came as ambassadors. Free Africans also worked on oceangoing vessels in both the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. The Kru in Liberia, for example, developed a tradition of working on European vessels. By the eighteenth century, there were small populations of free Africans in many major port cities of Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East. In the nineteenth century, the Soninke of the upper Senegal River area moved from working on riverboats to hiring on to oceangoing vessels. Most went home, but many settled in port cities of Europe.

These migrations increased with the end of slavery, particularly the migration of Africans who traveled to get an education. In the early twentieth century, there were about one hundred South Africans studying in the United States and more in Europe. The establishment of colonial rule also made it easier for Muslim Africans to travel, both for the pilgrimage and to seek an education. During the colonial period, most African migration took place within Africa, but there were also migrations from parts of the diaspora. Jamaicans, for example sought plantation work in Central America and Cuba, and some people from the West Indies immigrated to the United States and England. The number of Africans in North America and Europe increased significantly after World War II (1939-1945); this population was spearheaded by students but also included working-class economic migrants.

There was also a process that Michael Gomez calls reconnection, as some people from the diaspora went back to Africa. Edward Blyden from the Virgin Islands, for example, became an influential intellectual in nineteenth-century Sierra Leone and Liberia. In addition, missionaries from black churches in Europe and the Americas, particularly the African Methodist Episcopal Church, took Christianity to various parts of Africa. A sense of having roots in Africa was more important to diaspora intellectuals than to those who remained in Africa. Five Pan-African congresses were held between 1900 and 1945, only the last of which included major African participation. Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) organized a back to Africa movement, and diaspora intellectuals in France developed the literature of négritude.

Migration increased dramatically after independence came to most of Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. Increasing numbers of African students sought higher education abroad during the postindependence period, and African workers started going to Europe and then to North America. Some fled oppressive political conditions, while others left because their home countries stagnant economies offered them little future. Today, many highly skilled African professors, engineers, and scientists emigrate to better use their skills and achieve a more comfortable life. The Mourides, a Muslim religious fraternity in Senegal, have helped organize the emigration of people who work as street vendors. In the cities of Europe and North America, the different branches of the diaspora are merging, the newest migrants from Africa joining migrants from the West Indies and an indigenous population of African descent. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, these migrations, particularly of unskilled workers, were beginning to meet resistance in Europe.

SEE ALSO African Studies; Anthropology, Linguistic; Anticolonial Movements; Caribbean, The; Colonialism; Diaspora; Ethnology and Folklore; Immigration; Imperialism; Kinship; Migration; Refugees; Slave Trade; Slavery


Alpers, Edward, and Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy, eds. 2004 Sidis and Scholars: Essays on African Indians. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press.

Conniff, Michael L., and Thomas J. Davis. 1994. Africans in the Americas: A History of the Black Diaspora. New York: St. Martins Press.

Gomez, Michael. 2005. Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, Joseph E. 1971. The African Presence in Asia: Consequences of the East African Slave Trade. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Harris, Joseph E., ed. 1993. Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.

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Martin Klein

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