Who Owns History? Essay

In the following essay Ralph Austen considers who “owns” the history of the slave trade. By so doing he wonders who produces and should produce the ideas and narratives which become known as “the history of the slave trade,” and he ponders what different forms those ideas might take. Austen’s essay leads us to ask ourselves how the slave trade ought to be remembered.

Should it, for example, be remembered primarily through studies which concentrate on demography and economics, or ought there to be a greater component of life experiences, such as can be conveyed through film, literature and museum exhibitions of the horrors of enslavement and the middle passage? To what extent should people who are not of African descent participate in (or dominate) the writing and presenting slave trade history? These are all fundamental questions which should be asked by those producing and consuming slave trade histories and museum displays about slavery.

Ralph welcomes your comments about his thoughts; you may contact him by clicking on his name in hypertext, at the top of this page. If you have a thoughtful, well written response to Austen’s essay which you would like to see here in juxtaposition, please contact the curators of the museum by clicking on the mailbox icon at the very bottom of the essay. For a professional academic historian in the 1990’s there are two obvious answers to the question of “who owns history. The most general and instinctive one, is “we do”, if by history you mean the most reliable inquiries into what actually happened in the past.

After all, it is professional historians who are trained both to look at the primary documents upon which historical accounts are built and to analyze such material in the light of all the history which has already been written. The more trendy contemporary response to questions about the ownership of history might be “everyone. The past, in its own terms, is after all only a shapeless array of partially accessible data and any molding of it into a coherent account is ultimately a construct of each author’s subjectivity. The very phrase “what actually happened” evokes Leopold von Ranke and the whole “cult of objectivity” associated with conservative and not very imaginative older generations of scholars (Novick). This position is often defended, with some degree of effectiveness, by arguing that the radical “deconstruction” of all claims to know the past leads to ahistorical nihilism (Himmelfarb).

But in its more reasonable form there is also a positive side to the relativist view insofar as it implies that various communities and individuals who feel strong ties to some past developments have the right to create their own historical narratives or, at the very least, demand that professional historians pay some attention to their “historical” concerns. A third answer, most likely to come from current conservatives, is that history belongs to “the nation” (Schlesinger).

At worst this means that they, like their Rankean predecessors, claim to speak for some established consensus on what American (or other) national identity ought to be. At best they remind us that the terms on which all of us must live together in some kind of maximal moral community (which may not stop at national frontiers) depend in no small part on how we think about the past. Ultimately it is impossible to separate all these claims to the ownership of history. Professional historians may write in part for their own guild, which judges them on technical proficiency and their “contributions to the field. However universities are never fully isolated from the rest of society and it is very easy to see the links between what scholarly research about the past is perceived as significant by scholars and the concerns of the wider public. Likewise academic criteria are inevitably brought into the debates about the plausibility of competing historical narratives advanced by those speaking from more explicitly political positions. The joining of the issue of the slave trade to a discussion of “who owns history” is particularly apt.

Far more than an abstract concept such as “history” the slave trade forces us to think about the problems raised by turning something into an object and then arguing about its ownership. Africans sold into the Atlantic slave trade (or one of the northern and eastern routes leading to the core Islamic world) were human beings turned into chattel, that is subject not only to the ownership of others (this is characteristic of many forms of servitude throughout human experience) but even used as commodities and capital to be exchanged for or invested in the production of non-human goods. Today we can all agree that there is something undamentally unacceptable about such treatment of people. But as historians of whatever category, we have to come to terms with the fact that the economic systems of the past did operate on such a basis. To “own” the history of the slave trade in any sense we must try to understand, without becoming complicit in, a morally repugnant social order. This is more difficult than it seems because, as will be seen, many attempts to write in a convincing manner about the slave trade have been caught up in the kinds of rigorous economic analysis and quantitative calculation which evoke the very inhumanity of the institution itself.

I write about the slave trade mainly from a professional historical perspective since that is my main qualification for entering such a discussion and also the context within which I expect most of my work to be evaluated. Because of my perception of what kind of stake Africans and African-Americans have in this history as well as the moral problems raised by the use of repugnant sources, I will make some comparisons to the historiography of the Nazi Holocaust.

The latter is a subject in which I also have a personal and communal interest as a Jew born in (but evacuated at a very early age from) Hitler’s Germany. I do not want to enter into any extended comparison of the slave trade and the Holocaust as events here but rather to note some of the common issues raised by writing about their history. One of these (which I have personally encountered on a number of occasions), is precisely that of complicity: does one identify with or at least “normalize” the oppressors by incorporating their calculations into one’s own discourse?

The other, to be discussed later in this essay, is that of identity as an historical victim. The slave trade first become a subject of historical construction in the era of abolition, beginning in the late eighteenth century. Most of the writers on this subject were Europeans or Euro-Americans, debating among themselves without much participation or even audience among African peoples. It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that much of the argument could be expressed in the same economic terms as that of the slave trader themselves.

William Clarkson, author of perhaps the first systematic book on this subject, could thus disprove the value of the slave trade to Britain’s naval military preparedness by presenting statistics of mortality among European sailors on slaving vessels. Neither this argument, nor the diagram widely circulated by abolitionists of slave accommodations on a ship , raised any question of complicity at the time. It was clear whose side the abolitionists were on.

Moreover they perceived their use of economic reasoning as consistent with the general project of Enlightenment thought, which was seen as a liberating ideology essentially opposed to such barbaric practices as enslavement. What many Enlightenment thinkers (including Adam Smith) had difficulty in recognizing was that the slave trade they attacked, the one which took African peoples to plantations in the New World, was itself a thoroughly modern institution based on the same economic principles espoused by those who most deplored it.

The ambiguity of such a position is better expressed in the best known African account of the slave trade in this period, the autobiography an enslaved Igbo (Southeastern Nigerian) Olaudah Equiano. Equiano writes very movingly of his anguish at being kidnapped from his family and shipped across the Atlantic but the very achievement of a voice to tell this story is based upon an ability to buy himself out of servitude through conformity to the capitalist values of his enslavers.

Indeed, despite the ultimate involvement of Equiano in the abolitionist movement, he unapologetically informs us of several occasions, both before and after his emancipation, when he himself engaged in slave trading. Equiano’s book (or more often, excerpts from it) is often presented to modern readers as a document through which Africans and African-Americans can take possession of the slave trade.

In an important sense this is true, but the difficulty which Equiano has in defining his own identity apart from the slave trade is indicated by the constant repetition in his life of the original rupture with his home society by a continued series of voyages to places as remote as the North Pole. The Enlightenment thus approached slavery from two competing positions: one defending free trade and property rights, which included the exchange and possession of legally purchased slaves, and the other proclaiming universal rights to individual freedom, which precluded slavery.

In the practical politics of dealing with the slave trade these ambiguities were openly recognized, fought over, and eventually (but by no means easily) resolved so as to exclude human beings from the category of legal property. But for historians who identify in any way with the forces involved in enslavement, the dilemma posed by Equiano’s autobiography is not so easily resolved. The first academic historians of the slave trade attempted to resolve this dilemma by stressing the religious s opposed to the secular enlightenment dimension of the abolitionist approach. They readily recognized that the slave trade was rational and profitable but simply used such an understanding to stress the disinterested virtue of those who abolished it. This historiography turned the story of the slave trade into a kind of imperial morality play, not to be dismissed lightly in its own context of British thought and politics, but profoundly unsatisfactory from most other perspectives.

In the larger world of historical scholarship this late-abolitionist research, while carefully documented, occupies no very prominent place because of its absence of insight into either the economics of the slave trade itself or the ideological/religious forces which opposed it. For Africans and African-Americans it presents serious problems of “ownership. ” While property rights in slaves were roundly denounced by historians like Sir Reginald Coupland, they ascribed to their own culture all the agency for both the sins of the trade and its redemption.

In this story Africans thus become little more than victims, and victims who (in a scenario to be reenacted in many forms from the missionary movement, through colonial tutelage, to postcolonial Food Aid concerts) could only overcome their situation through new, more benign forms of external hegemony. Perhaps the most discussed work in he entire historiography to be considered here is the Trinidadian scholar and political leader, Eric Williams’, Capitalism and Slavery, published precisely to counter the prevailing scholarship which focused on the moral gesture of abolition.

The major arguments which have raged around the “Williams thesis” over the last 50 years (Solow and Engerman) do not center directly around any claims on the history of the slave trade by one community or another. They rather focus upon the question of where the trade and its abolition fit within an impersonal scenario of the development of capitalism. Williams asserted that the slave trade formed an essential element in an early, mercantilist stage of capitalist development and abolition was explained by him as a reflex of the resulting industrialism and its free trade commercial policies.

Williams has been, and perhaps still is, identified with a “Caribbean School” of economics and economic history and it is possible to read his entire argument as an effort at putting his own region, a colonial backwater since the era of abolition, back into the center of British and imperial history. His work is more significant for the present discussion, however, as an example of a much larger argument about the significance of the Third World “periphery”, and particularly its now very marginalized African and African-American sectors, in the master narrative of modernization.

Williams attempted to do this in a very straightforward way through the discussion of capital accumulation, class interests and the industrial revolution. While Williams was by no means an orthodox Marxist, this argument belongs to the broad Marxist economic history tradition which directly challenges the logic of capitalism and can thus speak for its victims rather than falling into complicity with its dominant classes. The appeal of such an approach to history is far from dead and Williams’ argument about the slave trade still has its supporters, particularly among African and Caribbean scholars (Inikori and Engerman).

However the Williams thesis is generally rejected by the mainstream economic historians; what has emerged in its place is a more complex appreciation of those aspects of capitalism not directly connected to industrial production (service sectors, consumption) which are very closely connected to the slave trade in its pre-industrial heyday and to a post-modern, postcolonial world in which the locations of center and periphery and the links between economic power and industry are no longer so evident (Appadurai, Cain and Hopkins, Austen and Smith).

But before discussing how this very current perspective relates to the ownership of slave trade history it is necessary to consider some intervening versions of slave trade history. One form of historiography where slavery and the slave trade did NOT play a great role was the spate of works on continental African history which accompanied the termination of colonial rule in the late 1950’s and ’60’s.

The historical writing of this period (whose authors included many continental African historians) is often referred to by later critics as “Africanist” because it attempted to endow elitist African actors with the kind of agency (often presented in proto-modern or nationalist terms) which had been denied them by colonialist writing (Austen, 1993).

Since the slave trade had been given a very prominent place in colonial historiography as one of the justifications for European intervention against the wickedness of both white and black perpetrators, it is not surprising that it played a lesser role in writings concerned with more positive as well as active presentations of African leaders. One very recent attempt to write an “Africanist’ history of at least the early Atlantic slave trade is John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680.

By far the largest number of slaves to leave Africa via the Atlantic did so after 1680, so Thornton’s study avoids its major impact. Nonetheless, he does make an interesting effort to show how the negotiation of rights over human beings is consistent with African economic and social practices rather than something imposed upon them by Europeans; thus Africans are seen, at least in the initial stages, as maintaining considerable control over the slave trade.

As will be indicated below, his ideas suggest an approach to African economic history which may bear further fruit. However they are not yet linked to any African claim to slave trade historiography since they were published long after the waning of the original Africanist school and in response to other kinds of economic history which need to be considered first. Williams’ critical intervention in the historiography of the slave trade left at least two major legacies.

One, the specific argument about industrial capitalism, involves very strong claims to this history on the part of its victims and their descendants. The other more methodological break with previous abolitionist writings allowed a truly impersonal economic history of the trade to be written, one whichNfairly or notNhas raised questions of complicity. The key figures in this new historiography have tended to be European and European Americans rather than Africans of any kind, with one historian in particular, Philip Curtin playing a remarkably prominent role.

As a result of this new work we now have a much better idea of how the Atlantic sugar plantation system (which accounted for the greatest part of the slave trade) actually functioned. The research into the very abundant records of slave traders and plantation colonies has yielded specific details on such matters as the numbers of Africans actually brought across the Atlantic.

It has also provided a clear understanding of how compatible the slave trade was with the needs of developing European capitalism, not only in the pre-industrial era of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries but also throughout the first stages of abolition in the 1800’s (Eltis). The historiography of the slave trade which flourished from the late 1960’s through the 1980’s thus accepted quite openly the contradictions in capitalist development to which the abolitionist tradition had given little attention.

However, unlike either the abolitionists or Eric Williams, these historians had no conscious political agenda. Curtin would argue, particularly in his major study of Senegambia, that he was recognizing African agency in the Atlantic trade but it was an agency embedded in a more general commitment to the universality of market behavior and thus not identified as either “Africanist” or consistent with the dependency theory then current among Third World thinkers and their most recognizable sympathizers. The Second Half of Austen’s Essay] The most evident stake of the new economic historians in the slave trade was academic, and their primary audience was other scholars working competitively or congenially in the same burgeoning field of research. But the professional rewards and satisfactions which resulted from this scholarship cannot be separated from the intense significance that the slave trade still had for those who felt a more immediate claim to it. Thus disputes inevitably arose, often in very bitter form.

The basis of these arguments was not a defense by African and African-American scholars of the Williams thesis or even of dependency theorists, whose controversial points lay outside the immediate domain of the slave trade itself. Questions arose rather around claims that the historiography somehow reduced the onus of the slave trade either by some of the specific calculations of its scale and economic impact or by its very insertion into a normal discourse of economic rationality. The argument about numbers is easiest to discuss although its intensity must finally be attributed to the larger question of an appropriate discourse.

Curtin is perhaps best know for undertaking the first serious census of the Atlantic trade and his final figures for Africans embarked on slaving vessels, although tentative, were significantly lower than those found in previous standard sources (between 10 and 11 million vs. 15 million and up). A criticism of these figures (with the implication that they resulted from some unspecified bias on Curtin’s part and that a more accurate count would be just over 15 million), by the Nigerian historian Joseph Inikori in the Journal of African History caused Curtin to resign from the board of that publication.

Inikori would also enter arguments with other historians over the demographic impact of the slave trade on Africa although here he would be supported at least in quantitative terms by one of Curtin’s students, Patrick Manning. At a 1978 UNESCO conference on the history of the slave trade both Curtin and Inikori were attacked for producing figures which appeared too low, not on any specific grounds but rather because their very finitude seemed inappropriate to the horrendousness of the phenomenon under discussion.

The numbers debated among economic historians (which clearly do not pretend to account for the many Africans who perished in the process of bringing the eventual cargoes of the slave ships to the coast) can be compared to the figure of 60 million included in the dedication to Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. This is not a sum arrived at through any mathematical calculations but rather derives from a discourse which is deemed more appropriate to comprehending the slave trade: the World War II Jewish Holocaust, with its canonical (if also reasonably well-documented) count of 6 million victims.

Only a few months ago a ten-year undertaking for studying the slave trade was announced by the director of intercultural projects for UNESCO with the claim that ”There has never been a definitive study of this central question in human history” (see attached document). As critics were quick to point out, the slave trade was in fact “one of the most studied subjects in history. ” But clearly for UNESCO, an organization which has functioned as something of a cultural voice for the Third World and Africa in particular, the existing scholarship is unsatisfactory.

One aspect of the UNESCO slave trade project is to be the drawing of parallels with the Holocaust. But before considering the implications of declaring ownership over the slave trade in these terms it is worthwhile to consider briefly some aspects of its history which have not been adequately covered by the economic emphasis of recent scholarship. One of these is obviously the human experience of the notorious Middle Passage. The horrors attendant on this kind of voyage were very much a staple of the earlier abolitionist literature, although most of this was the result of European observations.

It is not easy to obtain documentation from Africans who went through the passage because few of them were ever in a position to record their stories and even when they did, as in the case of Equiano, the narratives had gone through numerous mediations. One Euro-American scholar of the 1960’s, Stanley Elkins, did attempt to define the nature of slavery by drawing an analogy between the Middle Passage and the better recorded experiences of inmates in Nazi concentration camps. But Elkins’ assertion of resulting “Sambo complex” neither appealed (for obvious reasons) to African-Americans nor has it stood up very well to general scholarly criticism. Other researchers, such as the anthropologists Sidney Mintz and Richard Price, have discerned a more positive formation of “shipmate” bonds between Africans who arrive in the New World on the same vessels. But this assertion is based, as Mintz and Price note on “shreds of evidence” and it does not seem to have been taken up (to the best of my limited knowledge) as a major theme by African-Americans writers or scholars (it is briefly alluded to by John Thornton).

Another area of undeveloped research evoked by the UNESCO is “oral history. ” Historians working in both Africa and the New World have not, up to now, found it very easy to uncover accounts of events in the past which are obviously very sensitive and even painful. One form in which the memory of the slave trade has survived in Africa is through empirically implausible accounts of what can generally be described as witchcraft; people turned into zombies, cowry shell money obtained by floating the bodies of dead slaves in the ocean, arriving Europeans identified with dead ancestors. Iroko; Austen, 1993a). These stories, by themselves, tell us little about the events of the slave trade but they do provide very critical insight into how it is “owned” by the communities from whom the slaves were extracted or by whom they were exported. They are also a clue to the kinds of African economic concepts which Thornton has sought to identify. In a few recent cases historians have also been able, with much patience, to record more detailed and believable accounts of how slave trading was carried on and the cultural practices which surrounded it (Baum, Shaw).

I would like to conclude by indulging myself in a somewhat speculative consideration of what kind of claims might be made to the slave trade under the influence of contemporary trends in postmodern/postcolonial scholarship. A key condition of such scholarship is a world in which the master narratives of European modernity are being challenged through the invasion of its physical and cultural space by representatives of the very communities who appear to have been effectively repressed during the last few centuries of history.

Among these Africans and African Americans figure quite prominently and the slave trade is certainly a narrative which they will continue to claim and rewrite. The theories and practices associated with postcolonial/multicultural studies suggest two different opposed (although not necessarily incompatible) directions for the treatment of an issue such as the slave trade: decentering and recentering. Decentering is consistent with the proposition offered in the second paragraph of this essay, that history belongs to “everyone. The local corollary of allowing an infinity of historical narratives is that no one narrative has priority. This view is most frequently disputed by the guardians of established orders who correctly see their own accounts of the past as the most immediate targets of such attacks on “objectivity. ” It also seems apparent that such an outlook gives positive license to alternative accounts representing the perspective of those outside the bounds of prevailing hegemony, including the victims of the slave trade and their descendants.

However the decentered study of a topic like the slave trade may turn outN like much other postmodernist writingNto keep its subject even more firmly in the hands of the dominant academic establishment. For one thing the kind of theoretical apparatus usually associated with such treatments of the Third World is not easily accessible to those remote from leading First World universities . The deployment of such theory may also lead as in the case of South Asian Subaltern studies historiographyN (Prakash) to the conclusion that it is impossible for scholars to do anything but deconstruct colonial discourse.

The possibility for encountering such a problem in studying the slave trade, where the documentation is even more “hegemonic” than in a colonial situation, has already been indicated. Finally for all its attacks on the intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment, the unrelenting criticism of postmodernist thought itself caries on a key element in the Enlightenment tradition. It thus leaves its practitioners (many of whom are not of European origin but all trained in western universities) secure in a certain kind of very classical Western identityN that of the freely thinking rational individual. Others” are then forced to conform to this standard or be even more fully silenced than in a discourse based upon more easily grasped principles such as those of modernity, nationalism, market economics or Marxism.

The claim to ownership of a history like that of the slave trade is, from the perspective of those who make it, a form of recenteringNof constructing a narrative around their own critical experiences and perceptions of them. In a truly decentered, multicultural universe of discourse it would be possible to recognize a degree of rivileged access to one’s own history without excluding others from participating. It is in fact unlikely that any claim on the slave trade could effectively prevent non-Africans from participation, despite all the panic about political correctness among conservative critics of the current academic situation. The real danger of such a historiography comes through identification with victimhood. The avoidance of such an image tended to remove the slave trade from “Africanist” historiography just as in the case of American Jews it repressed serious confrontation with the Holocaust for several decades after World War II.

Obviously such history does have to be dealt with even if it risks the neglect of other critical issues (one of the charges against the current UNESCO slave trade project) and fosters a politics of entitlement to compensation (something which UNESCO insists it will not pursue). In the case of the Holocaust there has have been serious debates within the American Jewish community both about its representation in the nation’s capital by a monument to victimhood and about the political implications of stressing such an identity in the face of conflicts with groups such as Palestinian Arabs.

There is less danger that African or African-Americans will ever make the slave trade a comparable center of their identity because (in contrast to the relative success of the American Jews) it would more obviously underline an existing perception of powerlessness rather than serving any positive goals. But without confronting such a critical element in the past no progress can be made either so there is no easy solution to this dilemma.