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Roots: The Prequel
September 7, 2010
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
In discussing wars on the African continent at the time, Prof. John Thornton
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
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
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
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
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.