The author places Africa, Africans at the center of modernity

“Where does the idea that the West was built by Europeans come from? It is an amazing act of distortion or illusion. The labor came, clearly, from the people of Africa.

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Former New York Times foreign correspondent Howard French says Africa and Africans are not getting the credit they deserve for creating the modern world.

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In a two-hour address to the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, French argued that West African gold propelled the search for similar riches by the rulers of Portugal and of Spain, who funded the Age of Discovery.

Moreover, according to French, the African slaves of the New World enriched Europe so much that its development exceeded the rest of the world, where it remained.

The profits from the forced labor of more than 12 million African slaves in the lucrative sugar cane industry were astronomical.

“This is the time when Europe begins to diverge in wealth from other parts of the world, having always followed India and China for a long series of centuries,” French said. “That’s when the West was created.”

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Until 1820, he notes, four out of five people brought across the Atlantic came from Africa.

“Who do you think built the West?” He asked. “Where does the idea that the West was built by Europeans come from? It is an amazing act of distortion or illusion. The labor came, clearly, from the people of Africa.

These slaves, many of whom perished in murderous conditions on the sugar and cotton plantations, made North America economically viable and prosperous, he said.

French’s two-hour speech on Monday night was based on his new book, Born in Blackness, which explores 600 years of history: from 1471 to World War II.

His book places Africa and Africans at the center of this story that begins with gold.

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After the Emperor of Mali, Mansa Mousa, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca with 18 tons of pure gold in 1324, news of these riches spread to a Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator, who departed searching for the source of this gold along the West African coast in the 1430s.

It was this search for trade with Africa, not Asia, that launched the age of exploration, French said.

“If the word Africa appears in these stories, it appears as a geographical obstacle that needs to be overcome,” he said. “The Portuguese obsessions were, in fact, completely linked to the quest for discoveries in Africa.”

In 1471, Portugal established Europe’s first African outpost at Elmina in present-day Ghana to trade gold. In five years, French said, 30% of Portugal’s national income came from this trading partner alone.

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Christopher Columbus traveled the Ghanaian trade route for two decades before venturing into the New World – a trip financed by Spain, French said, with the aim of emulating Portugal’s rich African gold trade.

“It is the origin of how Columbus mastered sea navigation and found support for the great voyages of discovery. All events have their roots in West Africa,” he said.

French also noted that São Tomé, an island off the coast of central Africa, is absent from most history books, even though it was the site of the most important economic innovation “of the history of the modern era before the industrial revolution”.

It was in São Tomé, he says, that the Portuguese discovered the perfect climate for growing sugar cane. Sugar was then a rare and exorbitant luxury product.

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This led, according to French, to the development of the plantation, an economic model that would enslave millions of Africans while fueling European colonialism. French called the plantation system an “industrial prison labor camp” where people were worked to death as part of a business plan. A slave typically lived five to seven years on a sugar cane plantation.

The same monstrous business model would later be exported to the New World, he said, where it dominated wealth creation in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1630, England took control of the island of Barbados, he said, and within two decades its slave plantations generated so much wealth they set the country on the path to become an imperial power. Barbados alone produced more wealth for England than Spain received from plundering the New World of gold, he said.

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“It’s the beginning of the British Empire,” French said.

The French used the same model to mine Guadeloupe, Martinique, and later Santo Domingo in what is now Haiti. It would become the source of a third of all France’s foreign trade revenue, French said.

Adrian Harewood, a journalism professor at Carleton University and an anchor for CBC News Ottawa, moderated the online event, organized to mark the last day of Black History Month. Harewood asked French why Africans had been so diminished by history.

French argued that since societies constructed their own myths and shaped them from stories of courage, bravery and inventiveness, there was no room for slavery.

“It requires erasing because the horror dimension is so big,” French said.

French, 64, the fourth black foreign correspondent in New York Times history, has covered Africa, Central America, the Caribbean, Japan, Korea and China during his decorated journalism career.

Fluent in French, Mandarin, Spanish and Japanese, he has authored five books and is now a professor at Columbia Journalism School in New York.

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