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Researchers uncover Africans' part in slavery

October 20, 1995
Web posted at: 8:25 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Gary Strieker

CAPE COAST, Ghana (CNN) -- For centuries along the West African coast, millions of Africans were sold into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas.

The middlemen were European slave traders based in forts like Ghana's Cape Coast Castle, now a tourist attraction and a somber reminder of a brutal crime against humanity.

That crime is usually blamed entirely on the European outsiders who inflicted slavery on African victims. But new research by some African scholars supports a different view - - that Africans should share the blame for slavery.

"It was the Africans themselves who were enslaving their fellow Africans, sending them to the coast to be shipped outside," says researcher Akosua Perbi of the University of Ghana. (88K AIFF sound file or 88K WAV sound)

Based on her studies, Perbi says that European slave traders, almost without exception, did not themselves capture slaves. They bought them from other Africans, usually kings or chiefs or wealthy merchants.

The question is, why did Africans sell their own people?

chiefs For a thousand years before Europeans arrived in Africa, slaves were commonly sold and taken by caravans north across the Sahara.

"Slavery did exist in Africa," says Irene Odotei of the University of Ghana.

In many African cultures, slavery was an accepted domestic practice, but it was slavery of a different kind. In Africa, the slave usually had rights, protection under law, and social mobility.

"Many house owners would call their slaves as their daughters or sons," says Perbi. "They became part of the kin or family or lineage of the owners." (100K AIFF sound file or 100K WAV sound)

The Atlantic slave trade grew at a time when many African states were at war with each other, taking prisoners that could easily be sold to traders in exchange for guns.

"It's the gun which was a deciding factor in the slave trade -- introduced by Europe," says Odotei.

But while Africans may have sold their own people into slavery, researchers say the kings and chiefs had no idea of the brutality of slavery on the other side of the ocean. If they had, they say, maybe the slave trade across the Atlantic would never have grown so huge, or lasted for so many years.

Sharing the guilt for slavery may be disturbing and painful for Africans, but researchers say their objective is clear.

"They're trying to uncover the facts so that people will take a lesson from the evil of the past and say 'no more,'" says Kwame Arhin of the Institute of African Affairs.

gun guy And there is one thing they insist they are not doing.

"I'm not trying to shift blame or to make the Europeans feel less guilty," explains Perbi.

For what many believe was the world's greatest crime against humanity, there is more than enough guilt to share.

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