I spent the eight weeks leading up to Christmas working on a short book on the trans-Atlantic slave trade for high school libraries. Quite frankly, it kicked my butt.
I took the assignment because I wanted something to distract myself with while my agent took my proposal for Women Warriors out on submission.* I knew I would have to write hard and fast because the deadline was short. But I thought it wouldn’t be a problem. I knew this material: Prince Henry the Navigator, the triangle trade, Caribbean sugar colonies, Mexican silver mines, the first slaves to reach North America, the Spanish asiento, William Wilberforce, etc. I’ve written about this stuff before, here on the Margins (just follow the links) and other places. The job would not be not a piece of cake, but it was definitely doable.
It wasn’t until I got to chapter three that reality hit.
Those of you who don’t teach or write history for kids probably aren’t aware of this, but the individual books in a non-fiction series share a standard outline. In this case, the outline forced me to think about the Atlantic slave trade from a different angle.** In addition to the parts of the story I already knew, I had to think about what the slave trade looked like from the African perspective.
I was not totally unfamiliar with the broad outlines of African history, but not familiar enough to simply sit down and write., Confronted with my own ignorance about African history, I began to scramble.***
I came away with the realization that precolonial Africa was a much more complicated place than I had ever known. Certainly more diverse than Europe at the time. Over the course of the Atlantic slave trade, kingdoms and tribes rose and fell, expanded and consolidated. Scholars have identified at least 173 different political groups in West Africa at the time the Portuguese arrived in the 1440s, including 68 organized nations and 45 distinct ethnic groups, each with their own history, government, customs and languages. How do you generalize about that experience in a meaningful way in a few thousand worlds?
I learned enough to write the book, but I ended with more questions than answers. I hope to fill some of the big gaps in the coming year. For instance, I’d like to know more about the three great precolonial empires of West Africa: Mali, Ghana, and Songhai. At a minimum, I’ll learn a bit more as I consider warrior women like the seventeenth century queen Njinga, the fifteenth century Hausa queen Amina, the Dahomey “Amazons”, and Zimbabwe’s “guerrilla girls.” I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, let me share one tidbit about the Atlantic slave trade that left me stunned:
Between 1492 and 1820, eighty percent of the people who embarked for the Americas were African slaves. Most of them were taken to Latin America and the Caribbean.
That pretty much turns every thing I thought I knew about the settlement of the Americas upside down and gives it a good shake.
*Thereby ensuring that the book would sell quickly. The universe has a sense of humor. Not that I’m complaining.
**I don’t know if this was intentional on the part of the people who framed the outline for the series on historical trade routes. If it was, all I can say is “Bravo!”
***The echo of the phrase “Scramble for Africa” was accidental, but I’ve decided to own it.