|Elijah McCoy, Inventor of the automatic lubricating system used on trains and cars|
A lecture delivered for the Minority Ethnic Unit of the Greater London Council, London, England, March 6–8, 1986. It was addressed mainly to the African community in London consisting of African people from the Caribbean and African people from Africa.
In this short talk on a subject that has many dimensions, and a long untold history, I am really talking about the impact of African people in the opening-up of the Americas and the Caribbean Islands. The appearance outside of Africa of African people in such large numbers tells us something about the greatest and most tragic forced migration of a people in human history. The exploitation of African people make what is called the New World possible, and the African's contribution to the sciences, invention and technology that made this new world possible, is part of a larger untold story. In the United States alone there is supporting literature and volumes of documents on this subject.
We need to examine the events in Africa and in Europe from 1400 through 1600 A.D. This is a pivotal turning point in world history. This was a period when Europe was awakening from the lethargy of its Middle Ages, learning again the maritime concepts of longitude and latitude and using her new skills in the handling of ships to enslave and colonize most of the world.
Europe recovered at the expense of African people. African people were soon scattered throughout the Caribbean, in several areas of South America and in the United States. A neglected drama in the history of dynamic social change had occurred in the year 711 A.D. when a combination of Africans, Arabs and Berbers conquered Spain and ruled the Iberian Peninsula for nearly eight hundred years. The aftermath of the African-Arab loss of Spain and the Arab's use of European mercenaries and equipment wreaked havoc throughout Africa and broke up the independent nations of inner Western Africa, mainly Songhay. This drama had to play itself out and the power of the Africans and the Arabs had to decline before the larger drama of the slave trade and, subsequently, colonialism could get well under way.
Africa was now suffering a second catastrophe. The first catastrophe was the Arab slave trade, which was totally unexpected, and came over six hundred years before the European slave trade. The second catastrophe was the Christian slave trade which started in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Many Christians could not deal with what African religions were before the advent of Judaism, Christianity and Islam nor could they deal with early Christianity which was a carbon copy of African universal Spirituality. The first thing the Europeans did was to laugh at the African gods. Then they made the Africans laugh at their own gods. Europeans would go on to colonize the world. They not only colonized the world, they would also colonize information about the world, and that information is still colonized. What they would deal with was a carbon copy of Christianity as interpreted by foreigners. This was part of the catastrophe before it could recover its strength.
In the Americas and in the Caribbean Islands we find Bartholomew de las Casas, who came on Christopher Columbus' third voyage and who sanctioned the increase of the slave trade with the pretense that this would save the Indian population. When the Pope sent commissions to inquire into what was happening with the Indians, many of the islands did not have one Indian left, they were all dead. It was at Christopher Columbus' suggestion that the slave trade was increased to include more of the Africans, again, under the pretense of saving the Indians. It was the same Christopher Columbus who says in his diary, "As man and boy I sailed up and down the Guinea coast for twenty three years. …" What was he doing up and down the coast of West Africa for twenty-three years? The assumption is that he was part of the early Portuguese slave trade. Now is he still your hero? When you look at the Western hero and how he became a hero, when you look at all those people they called, "The Great," and find out what they were great for you will then have a new concept of history. There are a number of good books on this subject. Two of the more readable are by Eric Williams, late Prime Minister of Trinidad, formerly teacher of political science at Howard University. They are Capitalism and Slavery, and his last big book, The Caribbean from Columbus to Castro.
The subject of this talk is really "The African Inventor in the New World and His Contribution to Technology, Medicine and Science." While I may be going the long way round, I'll get to the subject. But you will have to know what happened behind the curtain of slavery and the consequences of the Africans' enslavement and to what extent Europe recovered from its lethargy and to what extent Europe exploited people outside of Europe. But the main thing that you have to understand is that the African did not come into slavery culturally empty-handed. In order to stay in luxury, Europe had to have large bodies of people to exploit outside of Europe where they could get land and labor cheap. Where they could get control of other people's resources, cheap or for nothing. This is what apartheid is really all about. It is about Western control of the mineral wealth of the African. Africa is the world's richest continent, full of poor people, people who are poor because someone else is managing their resources. Do you think that if Africans had all the gold and manganese and zinc and bauxite and uranium that comes out of Africa they would be going around begging anybody for anything, drought or no drought? Have you ever sailed down the Congo River and seen all the vast bodies of water flowing into the sea? The Nile River sustained the greatest civilization the world has ever known, and it rarely ever rains in the Nile River. Yet this one river sustained civilizations for thousands of years, because Africans, at that time, knew what to do with water, and how to direct it in the way they needed it.
Still going to my subject, my point is that the African was brought to the Western world and survived through his inventiveness, imagination and his spiritual attitude. Without these he would have not survived. The African was hit harder than the so-called Indian. Where one died the other would survive. It is not that one had spiritual attitude and the other did not, they both had spiritual attitude and they both had culture. But many of the Africans had come out of pluralistic cultures and were more accustomed to the nature of change.
To be continued
By John Henrik Clarke