Ethnic Origins

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Ethnic Origins

Africans may have crossed the Atlantic Ocean before the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus (14511506) by way of the Canary current. The current passes the coast of Senegal and proceeds across the ocean to the north coast of South America and the southern Caribbean and could easily carry even small watercraft from West Africa to America. Some scholars have suggested that such voyages, either accidental or intentional, took place in ancient times, though the most solid reference is to a voyage of exploration in the early fourteenth century by Mansu Qu, ruler of Mali. In 1312 Qu's successor, Mansa Musa, told Egyptian authorities that Qu had wished to explore the "Western Ocean" (Atlantic) and had shipped a large expedition to do so. The expedition never returned, however, undoubtedly because the wind and current system of the South Atlantic does not offer a ready means to return to Africa.

It wasn't until the fifteenth century that European navigators began to institute regular navigation between both Europe and Africa and between the Old World continents and the Americas. Portuguese navigators were regular visitors to West Africa by the middle of the fifteenth century, and they were visiting the entire coast by the end of the century.

Although one of their primary motives to sailing to Africa was to locate the sources of the trans-Saharan gold trade, early Portuguese sailors also began raiding the African coast, They captured fishermen and other coastal people, who did not expect seaborne raiders to attack them. However, they soon responded with their own naval craft, and in a series of encounters successfully defeated a number of Portuguese raids. In the aftermath of these early armed conflicts, the Portuguese crown, working through Diogo Gomes, negotiated a series of peace agreements with the rules of the Senegambian coast: the Portuguese would cease raiding in return for peaceful exchange. In the following years, Africans in Senegambia, and elsewhere along the coast where Europeans met other African states, peaceful transactions included the purchase of slaves as well as other goods. During these centuries, the slave trade grew from about 5,000 per year in 1500 to more than 60,000 per year in the late eighteenth century.

Between 1450 and 1850 some twelve to fifteen million Africans were transported across the Atlantic and sold in the New World. Many were captured and enslaved in Africa by African armies fighting either wars between the various African states (about two hundred sovereign polities were involved in the slave trade) or in civil wars within those states. Another substantial group was enslaved illegally in Africa by bandits and other criminal elements and sold illicitly to African and European middlemen for eventual transport. Others were enslaved as the result of judicial actions taken by African authorities as punishment for crimes, both by the enslaved and often by family, friends, and associates of the guilty party. In a few cases, European shippers raided African coastal locations, joined their forces with African armies or bandits, or tricked Africans into boarding their ships to be transported away. In Angola, however, following the founding of the Portuguese colony in 1575, many thousands of Africans were enslaved as a result of the activities of Portuguese-led armies, especially in a series of wars in the seventeenth century, but intermittently in the eighteenth century as well.

Tracing African-American Roots

About half of the slaves purchased or acquired by Europeans in Africa were destined for Brazil, another 40 percent for the Caribbean, and only about 5 percent came to British North America and the United States. Those who were brought to North America had as their ancestral homelands a wide area of western, central, and eastern Africa. They represented numerous cultures and languages, probably as many as fifty.

In recent decades, in part inspired by Alex Haley's Roots (1976), a fictional account of his heritage, and by scholarship on African retentions, there has been renewed interest in tracing the origins of contemporary African Americans to the specific cultures that fed the slave trade. Similar interest in the African heritage is prominent in Brazil, especially in the Brazilian embrace of its African-inspired religious heritage and the writings of the prominent intellectual Gilberto Freyre on African influences in all aspects of Brazilian life. Cuban scholars and intellectuals have shown similar interest, both from the religious and cultural angles. The extent to which groups of African slaves were influenced by their distinctive heritage and how the various cultural legacies of Africa were in time combined and submerged have been a subject of intense debate.

In some ways the apparent cultural and linguistic diversity of African Americans can be misleading, for at any one time, either in Africa or in their destinations in the New World, only a few African cultural groups were dominant among those enslaved. For example, Brazil imported slaves from the Senegambia region in the sixteenth century, but in the early seventeenth century almost the entire African slave trade came from Angola. Portuguese slave ships rarely if ever took slaves from the Bight of Biafra area (though they did from the neighboring Slave Coast region), but English, French, and Dutch took them in large numbers, resulting in a considerable presence of people designated as Ibos (a term for the group of people living in the lower Niger region) in their respective colonies.

In North America, there was substantial regional diversity during its period of greatest imports from 1690 to 1810. Most of the slaves coming to the Chesapeake region arrived between 1680 and 1770, while those imported to South Carolina arrived over a much longer period, from about 1720 to 1810. Louisiana, on the other hand, imported some slaves between 1719 and 1743, and then none until a major burst after 1777 through the early nineteenth century. However, North America was in some measure exceptional, for most slave regimes had such dismal records of reproduction that they continued importing Africans from their earliest founding (or at least their earliest employment of slave labor on a large scale) and the end of the slave trade. Estates founded by Hernán Cortés (14851547) in Mexico, for example, imported new Africans from the early sixteenth century until the nineteenth century. Indeed, North America was the only region to have a self-reproducing and growing population of enslaved people, thus limiting the numbers of imported Africans and allowing a much larger native-born population to shape the resulting cultural mix.

The population of African descent in the Americas derives primarily from several nodes of import. Because North American slave populations were self-reproducing, the major North American slave trade was internal, from older plantation areas to newer ones, typically in the Deep South. These factors explain why the period of importation of Africans was relatively brief and why North America imported only about 5 percent of all slaves exported from Africa.

American importers drew slaves from all parts of west and west central Africa and a few from as far afield as Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa. In many areas of North America, however, slave imports were dominated by a particular African exporting region. This was because the shippers who supplied slaves to American buyers often had customary relations with a limited group of African sellers, and people from those regions tended to predominate.

Frequently within the English trade, North American importers were in competition with importers from the Caribbean, who often favored slaves from particular regions and retained them in the Caribbean. Often this was because there was widespread belief among planters that slaves of particular ethnicities were more suitable for certain types of labor; this placed a premium on them and drove up the price for those who wished to export them from the colony. Thus, for example, Jamaica retained a large number of slaves from the Gold Coast, and North America received relatively few people from this region, even though British shipping had good connections and purchased thousands of slaves on the Gold Coast every year.

Distribution of Africans

The African exporting area was traditionally divided by European shippers into three large regions. The first was Upper Guinea, which corresponded to the coast from Senegal down to roughly Liberia. Next came Lower Guinea, corresponding to the coast from eastern Ivory Coast to eastern Cameroon. The last was Angola, which commenced in modern Gabon and extended down to the central coast of Angola. These three regions were in turn subdivided into coasts. Upper Guinea had two major coasts: Senegambia on the north down to the Gambia River and Sierra Leone from Gambia down to Liberia. Lower Guinea had the Gold Coast from eastern Ivory Coast to the Volta River, the Slave Coast from the Volta to the eastern part of Nigeria, and the Bight of Biafra comprising the complex of rivers and deltas of eastern Nigeria and Cameroon. Terminology variedSierra Leone might be called the Rivers of Guinea by French or Portuguese shippers, for examplebut the general boundaries remained quite stable throughout the long period of the Atlantic trade.

Although these coastal designations were created and maintained by European shippers, they did correspond to African cultural and political realities. Each coast possessed a complex commercial network reaching down to a group of related Atlantic ports, and each network, in turn, was also a zone of frequent communication that included cultural and political interaction. Thus, slave-trading patterns in Africa tended to produce a fairly predictable mixture of people from the hinterland area supplying the coast. By knowing from which coast a shipload of slaves came, both modern historians and eighteenth-century American slave owners could predict within fairly narrow limits from which African cultural groups the people derived.

The distribution of Africans varied in different parts of North America. Angolans and Senegambians predominated in South Carolina and Louisiana. In the Chesapeake area, there were fewer Angolans and Senegambians and more people from the Gold Coast and Bight of Biafra. People from Sierra Leone constituted a significant proportion of arrivals in South Carolina, but they were virtually absent in the Chesapeake area; people from the Slave Coast were important in Louisiana but not in South Carolina or the Chesapeake area. Historians have not yet fully investigated the implications of this regional diversity for the development of African-American culture.

Similarly, the distribution of slaves in the British Caribbean was different from that in North America, with Caribbean plantations receiving considerably more imports from the Gold Coast region and fewer from Senegambia. Brazil, on the other hand, derived the lion's share of its African population from Angola or from the Slave Coast, which Portuguese sources designated as Mina. The French Caribbean tended to have Africans from Central Africa and from the Slave Coast, though their trade in Senegambia was extensive.

Divisions Among African Americans

The people who came to America from each of these coasts were known to American slave owners as being divided into a fairly large number of nations or countries whose membership was determined by cultural criteria such as language or facial and body markings. Comparisons between the detailed surveys of these nations that were conducted by eighteenth-century writers and modern African history researchers reveal that there is a trend to identify an African nation using constructs that were not the same as those used by the Africans themselves. Eighteenth-century Africans organized their lives by village, family, and grouping, or state, but did not recognize linguistic or cultural criteria as a primary element of their identity. A larger frame of reference for Africans was an adherence to either Islam or Christianity. Many Africans from a broad band of West Africa stretching from Senegal down to Sierra Leone and deep into the interior were Muslims, while most central Africans in Kongo and its southern neighbors in the Portuguese colony of Angola were Christians. In both regions, Africans had combined elements of their previous religious traditions with Christianity and Islam, often to the dismay of priests or visitors from more orthodox regions. Because of the regional patterns of enslavement, North America received a large number of slaves who followed either Christianity or Islam, and proportionately lower numbers of people who practiced other traditional African religions than might be found in the Caribbean.

However, there is good reason to believe that Africans in the Americas recognized cultural and linguistic divisions among themselves, and often were less concerned about the political divisions that may have been more prevalent in their homelands. Thus, Akan-speaking people from the Gold Coast region might form close bonds with other Akans, even if they were from different, and perhaps even rival, political groups. In this way, those in Jamaica or Antigua might recognize themselves as members of the Coromantee nation,, a term that was not used in Africa to identify either a language or any other group but was widely used in British America.

Wars, Banditry, and the Enslavement Process

The presence of these various African nations in America was a result of commercial, political, and military events in Africa. Historians have very little information about these processes because so many of the people were enslaved in areas where no contemporary written records were kept. Even where there are African records, such as in some parts of Muslim West Africa and in Kongo, relatively little light is shed on the enslavement process. One of the most important sources of the enslavement process are interviews conducted by interested parties, such as missionaries in the Americas, in which Africans provided some information about their own enslavement. None of these sources, however, provide us with statistical information that allows us to determine for sure which process was most prevalent at what times and places. Some people were enslaved because of poverty, others through judicial processes, but it appears that by far the most important reasons for African enslavement were wars and banditry.

In Senegambia, enslavement in the eighteenth century followed two models. The first of these was wars among the states of the Senegal Valley, particularly a cycle of conflict between Bawol and Kajoor that often involved their allies or neighbors. Further inland, a similar rivalry matched the states of Segu (on the Niger River) and Kaarta, farther north. These states fought each other and also raided far to the north. In addition to these wars, which were among states indigenous to the area, there were raids conducted from the north by the Moors, who were linked to Morocco and had ambitions in the Senegal Valley region.

A second mode of enslavement came from banditry. Senegambian bandits were often off-duty soldiers. The ceddo, royal slaves who governed and staffed the armies of the states, routinely conducted raids on the population of the area. While these raids were illegal, authorities often cooperated with the soldiers in the acquisition and sale of slaves. The sofa, professional soldiers of Segu and Kaarta, engaged in the same pattern of unofficial and illegal enslavement with official collusion. Popular resentment against this activity was strong, and on two occasions, in the 1670s and again in the 1770s, popular movements with Islamic leadership revolted against the leadership, although without long-term success. In the first of these, Nasr al-Din, a religious leader from the nomadic society of the desert advanced religious reform both among his own people and among the common people of the Senegal Valley. The group was strongly opposed to the oppressive wars waged against common people by the political elites, but was overcome by local rulers when Nasr al-Din was killed in battle. In the second movement, Abd al-Kadir led people from the valley of Senegal in a reform movement that sought to eliminate, among other things, the sale of Muslim slaves to Christian buyers, an action that greatly affected the slave trade for a time.

The many Bambara (African people of the upper Niger) slaves who were imported to Louisiana in the early eighteenth century probably were obtained through the wars and raids of the Senegambian region, as were the many Senegambians who appear in the inventories of the last part of the eighteenth century. Because the Bambaras were nearly the totality of the people brought to Louisiana from Africa during the first French period, they played a major role in defining the culture of this region.

In Sierra Leone, small-scale piracy was widespread on the many creeks and rivers of the coast where forests provided hideouts for raiders. This piracy coexisted with petty wars, but the most important source for eighteenth-century enslavement was the holy war (jihad) of the Muslim Fulbe cattle herders of Futa Jallon following 1726. While in its initial stages, the jihad was aimed at redressing grievances of the Fulbe and establishing a reformed Islamic polity; in time it became a source of wars, as the new state in Futa Jallon raided its neighbors and sent the fruits of its efforts overseas on the slave ships. The timing of the arrival of Sierra Leonean slaves in South Carolina suggests that the wars of the jihad period played a major role in the burst of exports from the region.

Before the late seventeenth century, the Gold Coast was divided into dozens of small states. Wars were frequent in the area, often occasioned by commercial disputes and unpaid debts. European trading companies, which came to the coast to buy gold, often became involved in the disputes both in an effort to settle their own commercial affairs and also to act as mercenaries hired by African states. It was only in the late seventeenth century, with the rise of larger imperial states in the interior, that the region became a major supplier of slaves to the Atlantic region. The rise of the states of Denkyira, Asante, and Akwamu in the 1670s and later occasioned wars of expansion by these states, which were able to mobilize large armies, forced the coastal states to operate in conjunction with each other to meet the challenge. Although the petty disputes and wars continued into the eighteenth century, major wars in which tens of thousands of people were captured and exported became more important as the interior kingdoms fought coastal states and each other. By the 1720s Asante had emerged as the most powerful state in the area, but warfare was still common. Many of the areas that Asante had conquered revolted frequently, and Asante itself was beset with civil warsespecially upon the death of a ruler, as occurred in the 1750s.

Slaves from the Gold Coast, who were widely known in English-speaking America as Coromantees (from one of the exporting ports), were particularly valued for their strength and spirit in the West Indies. Their relatively limited numbers in America everywhere outside of the Chesapeake area reflected the greater purchasing power of the West Indian planters. On the other hand, their largely military enslavement made Coromantees capable of rebellion, and indeed, they were behind a large number of plots, conspiracies, and rebellions in both the West Indies and North America (such as the New York Slave Revolt of 1712, the Saint John's revolt of 1733, and Tackey's War in Jamaica in 176065).

The pattern of the Gold Coast was repeated on the nearby Slave Coast. Indeed, mercenaries from the Gold Coast were often involved in the politics of the petty states of the coast in the late seventeenth century. However, the rise of the kingdom of Dahomey in the 1680s increased the frequency of large-scale wars in the area. Almost every year Dahomey launched a campaign toward the coast and against the Mahi and the Nagos, loosely structured confederations of states that lie east and west of Dahomey's core. Slaves were taken from the Mahi and the Nagos if the Dahomean armies were successful, or from Dahomey itself if the campaigns failed, as they frequently did. The Empire of Oyo, lying inland from Dahomey, occasionally intervened in the affairs of its coastal neighbors in an attempt to control Dahomey, its nominal vassal since the 1720s, or to act in conjunction with it. Oyo also conducted its own wars, about which few details are known, and many of the people captured or lost in these campaigns were also exported.

Remarkably, few Slave Coast slaves found their way to North America except for those who arrived through French shipping in Louisiana. British shippers maintained posts on the Slave Coast, and slaves from these posts formed a portion of the population in Jamaica and other West Indian islands. They were not notable, however, in the cargos arriving at any North American port.

Relatively few slaves were taken from the coastal areas of the Bight of Biafra, although piracy along its many rivers and creeks was quite common. Instead, people who were enslaved from the interior were exported from the coastal ports. Many of these interior slaves were designated as Ibos in English-speaking America and often as Calabars in Romance-language-speaking areas. The river network of the region provided cheap and easy transportation, while the population density of the interior regions was probably the greatest of any in Atlantic Africa.

In the early eighteenth century the kingdom of Benin, which dominated the western part of the area, underwent a lengthy civil war between government factions that lasted into the 1730s. Benin exported many of the victims of these wars through its own port of Ughoton, while many others found their way to other ports such as Warri or New Calabar on the main channel of the Niger River. New Calabar, one of the major exporting ports of the area along with its neighbor Bonny, drew most of its slaves from the Igbo areas that lie up the rivers in the interior. The autobiography of Olouadah Equiano, enslaved around 1760, provided a description of the area from which he originated. As he described it, people were enslaved as a result of many inter-town wars or were captured by pirates who operated along the rivers and from bases in the thickly wooden regions. In the Cross River region, which was served by the port of Old Calabar, a religious association called the Arochukwu often contributed to the supply of slaves. (The Arochukwu was an oracle that settled disputes and had branches over a wide network.) In addition to their religious services, for which they often demanded slaves in payment for adjudication, the association operated a more conventional trading network. Sometimes the oracle or its agents were reputed to kidnap people as well as engage in religious and commercial operations.

The central African coast was involved in the Atlantic economy from the late fifteenth century. Initially most slaves originated from the Kingdom of Kongo, acquired by the wars of expansion in that country in the early and middle sixteenth century. Later in the century, the Kingdom of Ndongo joined the trade and attracted enough Portuguese merchants that the Portuguese crown decided to establish a colony at Luanda (with the permission of Kongo) in 1575 to control it. However, in a series of wars between Portugal and Ndongo after 1579, the Portuguese managed to carve out a colony along the Kwanza River that served as their base and colony. When governors of the early seventeenth century made an alliance with the Imbangala, free-booting raiders from south of the Kwanza, they were able to launch a series of devastating attacks on Ndongo. This set off a half century of ferocious fighting that may have resulted in the capture of half a million slaves before the warring was over in the late seventeenth century.

In the eighteenth century, the Angola coast was largely supplied by the civil war in the kingdom of Kongo. Although there was an active slave trade from the ports of Luanda and Benguela, relatively few slaves exported from these ports or from the hinterland they served in the Kimbundu speaking interior found their way to North America. Instead, they were primarily shipped to Brazil; a few were smuggled to Kongo's ports and taken as slaves by French shippers. A few English crafts worked this coast in the late eighteenth century.

Dynastic disputes of the late seventeenth century lay at the root of Kongo's civil war. Although they were never quite resolved by force, some of these disputes were settled by monarchs in 1715, in the 1760s, the mid-1780s, after 1794, and again in 1805. The violent episodes of royal contest were interspersed with periods of smaller-scale violence because authority was not very centralized. Local wars enforcing shaky authority figures were frequent. This civil unrest and subsequent breakdown of authority led to the rise of bandits who either allied themselves with those in power or operated on their own.

Just as Muslim reformers in Senegambia sought to mobilize popular support to oppose the oppression of the military bandits and state officials in their area, so the Christian kingdom of Kongo had its own movement of reform. Led by Beatriz Kimpa Vita, who claimed to be possessed by Saint Anthony, the movement sought an end to the civil wars and the enslavement that resulted; it also sought the restoration of Kongo under a new mystical Christian leadership. Although the movement succeeded in occupying the capital, the leader was soon captured and burned at the stake as a heretic in 1706.

After 1750 captives from the civil war in Kongo were joined by increasing numbers of people enslaved from both the north and the east of the kingdom. The slaves from the north seem to have been captured during the petty wars between commercial states, while the slaves from the east were taken as a result of the emergence and raiding of the Lunda Empire, which extended its authorityor at least its ability to raidas far as the Kwango River by 1760. All of these slaves from Kongo or elsewhere were sold to merchants who served North America and the English, French, and Dutch colonies of the Caribbean largely through ports north of the Zaire River, often under the kingdom of Loango.

Africans from more southerly regions were taken either from the various civil wars or Portuguese military campaigns, which were often quite intense after 1700, in the Central Highlands region of Angola.. The Portuguese relocated their fortress of Caconda from the coast to the highlands and subsequently pursued wars along the eastern and southern edge of the highlands. In addition, several new kingdoms like Viye and Mbailundu emerged in the eighteenth century, creating a cycle of warfare that often spread the slave trade to regions that had not participated in the trade very extensively before. In the later eighteenth century, the Portuguese became involved in their politics, helping to impose rulers on Mbailundu in the lengthy Mbailundu War of the 1770s.

Angolans made up a significant portion of the slaves imported into all American regions, but they were particularly numerous in Louisiana and South Carolina. Because so many had served in wars, they, like the Gold Coast Coromantees, were often implicated in revolts and rebellions in America. Angolans led the Stono Rebellion in 1739, and they also played an important role in other revolts in America such as those in Brazil and Haiti.

African Culture in America

Africans who arrived in America came with specific cultural backgrounds that related to their region of origin in Africa. This was particularly true of their linguistic background, for their ability to communicate with other people was limited at first to those of their own ethnolinguistic group. Unlike African social organization, which tended to be based on kinship and locality or citizenship in a state, the social organization of Africans in America was based on common languages. American nations or countries, as they were called in contemporary records, formed social and mutual self-help groups from among people of their own background to bury their dead or to celebrate occasional holidays. Where marriage registers allow us to follow the role of ethnicity in making marriage choices, it was common for people of the same nation to marry each other. They sometimes formed shadow governments with kings and queens, either independently or, in Spanish and Portuguese America, through membership in lay organizations created by the Catholic Church. In North America, this phenomenon was manifested in royal elections in New York and Negro Election Day in New England. The presence of these ethnic social groups helped to preserve African culture in America. They also provided a cross-estate network, which could allow coordinated action in larger areas and sometimes played an important role in conspiracies and revolts. Thus, ethnic networks were especially prominent in Tackey's War in Jamaica in 176065, which involved virtually only Coromantees, while runaway communities in Brazil often grouped themselves by ethnicity and sometimes either fought with or allied with other groups, as took place in the early eighteenth century in Minas Gerais.

See also African Diaspora; Africanisms; Diasporic Cultures in the Americas; Equiano, Olaudah; Migration; Slavery; Slave Trade


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john thornton (1996)
Updated by author 2005