LETTER:Justified anger seen in black Briton's play

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The Independent Online
From Mr Howard Temperley

Sir: I see from your columns that in Shango Baku's Zumbi the following claim is made:

Let me make a comparison with the Jews. Six million killed in concentration camps. One hundred and thirty million of my people slaughtered in the slave trade.

This is not the first time that the slave trade (or the Holocaust, for that matter) has been exploited for political purposes. Nevertheless, in such cases historical accuracy is in order. The best authenticated figure we have for Africans transported to the Americas between 1500 and 1870 is around 12 million.

How many died in Africa prior to transportation we do not know. But to blame Europeans for all the wars that occurred in Africa over that period requires some stretching of the imagination. Such evidence as we have suggests that the acquisition of slaves was often the consequence of war, rather than its cause. We also know that, in individual cases, African states used the trade to dispose of troublesome members, much as British subjects were once sent to Botany Bay.

This is in no way excuses Europeans for their part in this cruel traffic or their subsequent treatment of those involved. But Europeans could only buy what Africans were prepared to sell. The Zumbi view of Africans as mere passive victims is not only contrary to all that is known about the active role Africans played in the trade, it is unintentionally disparaging in the picture it gives of the African states of the period.

Yours faithfully,

Howard Temperley

School of English and

American Studies

University of East Anglia


8 July