Anthropologist Tidiane N’Diaye on the Arab-Muslim slave trade, African civilizations, and African development

Anthropologist Tidiane N’Diaye on the Arab-Muslim slave trade, the history of African civilizations, and contemporary African development

This post is the transcript of an interview that appeared originally on Stream Africa in 2014.

Tidiane N’Diaye is a Franco-Senegalese anthropologist, economist and writer. He is the author of a number of publications on the history of Black Africa and the African diaspora. He also authored numerous economic studies at the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques on the French overseas departments (Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique).

N’Diaye’s studies on the Arab slave trade (Le génocide voilé, “The veiled Genocide,” Étude de la traite négrière arabo-musulmane, “Study of the Arab-Muslim Negro Slave Trade”) were nominated for the Prix Renaudot in 2008. These books are all the more important to learn from now that slaves are being sold again in Libya and many "guest workers" from Asian and African nations are being exploited in foreign lands, without the rights that should be accorded to citizens or to immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. 

The following is a transcript of a Stream Africa interview with Prof. N’Diaye, published in 2014. The transcript seemed to be a rough French-to-English translation that needed some editing and further interpretation. It has been edited here to conform with the standard American English used in American publications, with the best effort made to preserve the apparent meaning. See the original here.

Why did you decide to study anthropology?

I am originally a statistical economist by training. I had a career as a research officer at INSEE (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques), with teaching duties in economics. I was the Director of Research in large schools such as Sup de Co [Sup de Co La Rochelle, a business school]. But one day in 1985, a mutual friend, Dr. Khadi M’Baye of the World Health Organization, personally handed to me a book by the Senegalese historian and anthropologist, Cheikh Anta Diop. It was Civilization or Barbarism dedicated to me with great encouragement.

He thought he was addressing a brilliant young economist at the time (in his own words), but without knowing it, he had unwittingly plunged my heart into the study of social science (the science of mankind). After reading this book and all the others of his pioneering anthropological studies of Black African civilizations, I had accidentally developed a passion for the subject. I decided to do a PhD in anthropology on the formation of the Zulu empire in the nineteenth century.

Despite his advanced age, Professor Claude Lévi-Strauss, with affection and honor led me to an original approach to modern anthropology. After the publication of this work by L’Harmattan, under the title The Empire of Shaka Zulu in the “African Studies” collection, I decided to continue.

It is when we live abroad that we are increasingly faced with the ignorance of people about the invaluable contributions of Black African civilizations in universal heritage; and it is in this reality that I draw the main motivation for my work.

From your research and numerous studies, can you give us some important points to remember concerning the Arab-Muslim slave trade?

An important point at the outset: I often use the term of “Arab-Muslim” in my research. This approach doesn’t in any case only represent the Muslim countries as a single entity or a specific homogeneous historical category. It is not an “essentialist” view of history, reducing people to their religion or their culture. The fact is simply that the slavers who were involved in this tragedy were not exclusively Arab. They were also from the Maghreb (North Africa), Turkey (the Ottoman Empire), Iranians (Persians) and even Asians, since the king of Bengal had 8,000 African slaves in the mid-fifteenth century. The only common point between all these slave peoples was the Muslim religion. Even though religion was not the main cause of the slave trade, the commandment to enslave all non-Muslims was never renounced. That being said, as everyone knows, the transatlantic slave trade is well known to us and has been widely discussed for decades. Studies of the subject are legion. But at the same time, many authors—mainly African—want to ignore the other side of the slave trade—the Arab-Muslim trade that lasted more than 13 centuries—by restricting the scope of their research on the misfortunes of the African continent to only the crimes of Western nations. And even today, many laymen believe reflexively that there was only the trans-Atlantic slave trade, organized from Europe and the Americas, which led to the death or deportation of millions of Africans in the New World. Because in the name of a certain religious solidarity (Africa having become a Muslim majority), or ideological view, Africans and Arab-Muslims would like to see their responsibilities forever covered with a veil of forgetfulness.

This virtual pact has been sealed, and it can be put on the back of the West, as a cement to achieve the fusion of Arab and Black African populations, who have long been “victims in solidarity” of Western colonialism. Even when a few researchers dare to tackle the crimes of Arab Muslims, it is to undervalue their importance while “over-sizing” those of the “evil white slavers and colonialists” etc. That is why through Veiled Genocide my task was to lift the veil on this painful chapter in the history of African peoples after the arrival of Arabs. I do this to remind people that misery, poverty, demographic stagnation, and the long delays in the current development of the Black continent are due not to the the Triangular Trade, as many people may believe. It is true that there are no degrees of horror or a monopoly on cruelty. However, it can be argued without risk of error, that the slave trade and warlike expeditions conducted by Arab-Muslims against Black Africa throughout the centuries were far more devastating than the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Islamization of many Black African peoples and all that it has generated, like the jihads, was the source of countless implosions. As history shows, the Arab-Muslims are at the origin of this calamity and have practiced it in full. The trans-Atlantic puncture lasted from 1660 to about 1790, but Arab-Muslims raided black people from the seventh to the twentieth century. From the seventh to the sixteenth century, for nearly a thousand years, they were the only ones to practice this miserable trade, deporting nearly 10 million Africans before the Europeans came on the scene. In this tragedy of Black people, the trans-Atlantic slave trade deported between 9.6 and 11 million Africans, and their 70 million descendants today inhabit the Americas from the USA to Brazil and throughout the islands of the Caribbean. In contrast, in the slavery practiced by the Muslim Arabs, concerning 17 million individuals, hardly any left offspring because of the widespread use of castration to prevent them from leaving descendants. According to the great Arab scholar, Ibn Khaldun, who was listened to and respected: “Blacks belong to the people of a bestial character. They are cannibals and they are closer to being animals. Blacks are the only people suited to slavery due to a lower degree of humanity.” My view of history is therefore to deal with proven facts, without complacency or a militant approach that forces me to conform to a notion of “solidarity” or religious tolerance.

Why has no American publisher yet acquired the translation rights to your book The Veiled Genocide?

Despite the translation of many of my books into several languages, it seems that American publishers have little interest in what happens in the Francophone world. While The Veiled Genocide on the Arab-Muslim slave trade (published by Gallimard, as was most of my works) was widely reviewed by newspapers, magazines and even on American English sites, no publisher from the USA has acquired the rights for its translation and distribution. With the rise of Islamization in the world, many African Americans have been converted, choosing this religion as a refuge. Many believe that the oppressors of Blacks, Christians, have always been white. Not only is this view a false understanding of the history of black people, it also hides the role played by the Muslim Arabs in the martyrdom of Africans during the Islamization of Africa. I sincerely wish that one day, an American publisher, wishing to not oppose or exclude this history, will publish an English translation of Veiled Genocide so that our African American brothers and sisters in the diaspora actually become aware of the reality.

As an anthropologist, what message do you send to all Africans to encourage us to perpetuate our culture?

In my fight for the development of Black African civilizations, I think this paradigm tends to highlight the invaluable contributions of our African Negro cultures to universal heritage, on the basis that the inner nerve of a civilization is the preservation of its cultural heritage in maintaining a number of fundamental features of morals and social organization. But since the end of the Roman Empire, as aptly noted by Paul Valery, civilizations are mortal and those of Africa have not escaped this truth.

For what concerns us Black people, the reality of our present condition often leads us to look for something in the past that can give us encouragement. Accordingly, one can easily understand the approach of our seniors—Ceikh Anta Diop, Theophile Obenga, and others. This is because they lived and worked in an era when our civilizations were besieged and they were virtually excluded from being considered as contributers to progress or the betterment of mankind. With hindsight, we can see that these great pioneers were the equals of their opponents, able to raise the profile of African heritage.

The difference today is that we have the comfort of working in a postcolonial world and we live in economic and cultural interdependence, where the movement of people, ideas, and discoveries in real time prevents falsification of the history of others. Thus, we no longer need to behave as if we are fighting against someone for recognition, or against any oppressors who seek to marginalize Africans. It is nowadays widely accepted that Africa, the cradle of humanity, is a paleontological and anthropological reality. Also in the early millennia of history—especially during the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods—the role played by Africa was first class. Many people of the continent—although they used only ancient oral media—had established political, economic, and culturally elaborate traditions. In Africa prestigious civilizations such as Greater Zimbabwe flourished. It was the second major African civilization after the Egyptians, particularly in terms of architecture. Many European scientists refused to believe that such an advanced civilization could be the work of Black African populations. All the speculation about its origins was eventually be swept away by the first archaeologists who were guided only by a scientific approach. It has been known and recognized by all that this civilization’s Pharaonic buildings were built by an African people. Shona architecture, dating back to 400 BCE, shows clearly that there was, among Black people, the equivalent of astronomers. The buildings have precise astronomical orientation. There were gifted architects, construction engineers and stone civil engineering, mathematicians, builders and planners.

Other wonders are also the civilizations of the 25th dynasty of Egypt, Black pharaohs of Nubia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali. Those of Nok, Ikbo Ukwo, Ife—north of present-day Nigeria—also delivered, for more than a millennium, masterpieces among the most unusual and stunning known to date, furnishing the greatest museums and still sought by the most discerning collectors worldwide. This is an invaluable contribution to Africa’s historic heritage. With this belated recognition, we are now far from the outrageous extravagance of Hegel who wanted the peoples of Black Africa to be spectators attending the march of history. Through my work, the goal is to bring current and future generations of Africa and its diaspora to reclaim their prestigious history in order to better evolve, without any resentment within the human family.

“In the most basic view of economics, survival of a society can be provided by three main sources, namely: industry and agriculture, and commerce to distribute the products of the first two.” With this quote in mind, do you think that Africa is on the path of improvement? How do you think we can improve our society?

Improvement should be based on the a premise that many seem to forget: The abolition of slavery in the Americas and other places was done for economic reasons, not for to moral reasons. In the U.S.,  this still goes unsaid. For the islands of the Caribbean, there were several factors that weakened the plantations: the new spread of the cultivation of the sugar beet in Europe, the shortage of slave labor, and the introduction of competition from Brazil and the Dutch colonies. These ruined the Caribbean economy. This same competition led to the overproduction of sugar with negative effects on the market when prices were beginning a steep decline. The slave system was increasingly inefficient and unproductive, as noted by the economist Adam Smith. France and England had been able to anticipate these changes. In the early nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution took off. This made a new era, with its inefficient means of production, emerge at the expense of agriculture. Europe was increasingly challenged by Russia and the USA. English businessmen had therefore taken the lead by reinvesting a significant portion of the huge profits made off slavery into the financing of  industries, to support the new stage of capitalism.

However, the “new economy” born of the Industrial Revolution, after the abolition of slavery, needed another type of labor—raw materials and markets. All the resources essential to European economies, unfortunately, were still in Africa. Because of the enormous human factor in the undertaking, for this new phase of capitalism, colonial conquest was needed to organize the exploitation of the wealth of the Black continent. Thus, the richness of its soil and subsoil have always been the bane of Africa. It has been a victim of predators of all kinds.

However, if such a reality still exists today (see the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic etc.), some leaders have begun to learn how to manage, especially since the Chinese offensive in the global economic game, placing Africa as the centerpiece because of its raw materials. Since the Chinese came to Africa with their checkbook diplomacy, concrete results have become visible. Across the continent, businessmen and Chinese engineers have rebuilt and refurbished infrastructure long neglected, as they are vital for sustainable economic development. The active presence of the Chinese on the continent has also revived competition and subsequently improved the terms of trade by offering better pay for export products.

Today alongside “traditional” partners such as France, Britain, the United States and Japan, this rivalry has attracted new actors, and they are described as “emerging,” although some have already achieved the conventional growth threshold. India, South Korea, and Brazil are distinguished by the size of their investments on the continent. Turkey is also becoming more prevalent, as well as Iran, Qatar, and Dubai. With the commitment of the Chinese, many African countries have received aid and massive investment. They were granted debt relief or preferential trade tariffs. In places poor in natural resources, such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Ghana, Chinese investments have helped revive some very large deficits and local businesses. Sino-African trade caused a significant boost in the prices of several agricultural products (cotton, cocoa, etc.), which are often the only source of income for local people. The austere IMF admits that the Chinese presence in Africa is beneficial. Not only has China contributed to the growth of national GDP, but its involvement also allowed some states to cope with the last major financial crisis. European partners would benefit too. If the China-Africa cooperation causes economic and commercial growth, it may stabilize African populations. It would stop the downward spiral of migration to Europe in general. However, Europe must consider China as an equal partner. It must harmonize with its various cooperating parties, both with European countries and other emerging countries and the United States, in order to maximize the results of these synergies. This is the only way for economic takeoff. And as you know, the economic takeoff of a country or area leads to improvement in all other sectors—cultural, political, environmental, etc. The time for Africa may have come…


English translation revised by Dennis Riches, June 2018.

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