Roots: The Prequel

Penelope Thornton


Roots came out in 1977. The made for TV film told the story of  the now famous African, Kunta Kinte, who was captured and enslaved by White men and brought to America where he lived as a slave. He is captured while out in the forest looking for the proper log with which to make his younger brother a drum. He is free and happy, having just finished his training as a man.  Roots became a classic. It would even be fair to say it defined the understanding of slavery by the American public.

The film does indicate that there were African “traitors” who sold their fellow Africans into slavery, presumably a peculiarly White institution. However, recent scholarship challenges this limited view.

As these scholars see it, slavery was widespread and indigenous in African society, as was, naturally enough, a commerce in slaves. The demographic impact, although important, was local and difficult to disentangle from losses due to internal wars and slave trading on the domestic African market. In any case, the decision makers who allowed the trade to continue, whether merchants or political leaders, did not suffer the larger scale losses and were able to maintain their operations. Consequently, one need not accept that they were forced into participation against their will or made decisions irrationally.

This quote is from the book entitled Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800 by Prof. John Thornton. It was published by Cambridge University Press in 1992.

The book goes on to explain that unlike, the concept of land as wealth in Europe, people were the form of wealth on the African continent.

Slavery was widespread in Atlantic Africa because slaves were the only form of private, revenue-producing property recognized in African law. By contrast, in European legal systems, land was the primary form of revenue-producing property, and slavery was relatively minor. . . .

Thus it was the absence of landed private property – or, to be more precise, it was the corporate ownership of land – that made slavery so pervasive an aspect of African society. …

One common way to reconcile African law and the concept that landed property was a natural and essential part of civilization was to describe African land in Africa as being owned by the king (as a substitute for corporate ownership by the state).

And the use of slaves was not an infrequent or incidental part of African society. This text referring to Kongo indicated that tax was charged by the “head.” And in Benin the entire population was regarded as being “slaves of the king.”

In Africa people, rather than land, were taxed. In one scene of Roots it is made clear that Kunta loves a woman who has been raped on the passage to the colonies. But concubinage or the use of enslaved women for sex did not start in the new land. The film depicts the village life of Africa in an idyllic manner but there were other realities.

And I quote:

Another important institution of dependency was marriage, where wives were generally subordinated to their husbands. Sometimes women might be used on a large scale as a labor force. For example, in Warri, Bonaventura de Firenze noted in 1656 that the ruler had a substantial harem of wives who produced cloth for sale. Similarly the King of Whydah’s wives, reputed to number over a thousand, were employed constantly in making a special cloth that was exported.

There are those who will admit that slavery was practiced in Africa but contend that the slavery of the New World was uniquely and relentlessly brutal and that of Africa almost benign by comparison. 

But again, I quote:

In any case, Valentim Fernandes’s description of slave labor in Senengambia around 1500, one of the few explicit texts on the nature of slave labor, shows that slaves working in agricultural production worked one day a week for their own account and the rest for their master, a regime that was identical for slaves serving in Portuguese sugar mills on the island colony of Sao Tome in the same period.

Kunte Kinte is a Mandingo. The word itself means warrior as well as connoting sexual prowess. The fact that so many warriors were held as slaves in Africa’s inter-tribal wars may have had an indirect influence in the use of Africans in South America as mercenaries later on in history.

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In discussing wars on the African continent at the time, Prof. John Thornton says:

These wars do not appear to have been waged for territorial expansion; although we lack the chronicle sources of the Sudanese region to confirm this, certainly there was no consolidation in Sierra Leon as a result of warfare. But as Velor also testified, slaves were used in the domestic economy to increase the ruler’s personal income, and perhaps this in itself can explain the propensity for wars that did not increase wealth by the annexation of land but by the annexation and transport of people.

And again it must be made clear that slavery in Africa was not merely a response to European demand but existed prior to such a demand and was quite independent of it.

Again, I quote:

Although some of these raids may have also been undertaken to supply European demand; this demand was in addition to the greater demand for slaves to be used domestically as well as for export.

Many Africans retained females from the raids and sold off males, because the Atlantic trade often demanded more males than females. The Bissagos Islanders held many female slaves, and observers believed that virtually all the productive work was done by women.

And once the slaves were brought to the Americas, they changed the landscape of the society. The indentured workers, which, according to some estimates, made up 70 per cent of the Europeans who immigrated to America, were slowly replaced by African slaves.  

In Barbados, for example, once sugar took off as an export crop, it made fortunes for those who invested in it, allowing them to replace their indentured work forces with the more expensive but more satisfactory slaves, and then buy up available land from the remaining free farmers, gradually transforming the demography of the island from one of European settlement to one of African slaves and European owners.

The habit of hiring out slaves trained in the trades at below market rates by the wealthy landowners also cut into the income of the free workers. So, although freedom was certainly preferable to slavery, the practical reality for the indentured servant, once freed, in colonial America was one of hardship, struggle against great odds, and sun-up to sun-down labor, much like that of the African slave.

A Huguenot traveler in Virginia in 1648 noted that on one estate he visited, the master kept large barracks for both his slaves and his indentured workers, presupposing little community life and close discipline for both types of workers.

The book goes on to explain the complexity of life for all types of workers in colonial America, where no one model describes all the realities of the era. Sometimes slave families were split up, but often, due to the influence of Christianity, there was an attempt to create and sustain family life among the slaves. Certain economic enterprises such as mining were dominant by males while others such as farming had workers more evenly distributed between the sexes. But that is pretty much the way it would have been on the non-slave side of the economy as well.

In the opening scenes of the story of Roots, the audience is introduced to Thomas Davies, the captain of the slave ship, the Lord Liganier. His devout Christianity is underscored as is his discomfort with the treatment of slaves aboard the vessel. But what is also made clear is that despite his Christianity he does not stand up for the slaves in any way. Thus the audience is being told that Christians simply ignored the dictates of Christianity in their practice of slavery. It is also implies that that the importation of slaves into colonial America was a White Christian phenomenon.

But that is not, in fact, historically accurate. Slavery has never been exclusively a European institution. The only unique thing about Europeans and slavery is that they were the only group to end it.

Penelope Thornton (email her) is a freelance writer and a serious student of the media and its games.

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