African Kings, Iberian Traders, and Slavery's True Origins

December 11, 2018

In a new book, Professor Herman Bennett disrupts conventional ideas about the history of slavery.

African-Kings-Bennett book cover

A new book by Graduate Center Professor Herman L. Bennett (History) called African Kings and Black Slaves seeks to disrupt conventional ideas about the history of slavery by focusing on early encounters between Europeans and Africans starting in the 15th century. That era offers a vastly different foundation for understanding the roots of slavery than popular narratives about the 18th and 19th century slave trade and abolitionist movement. “We’re so comfortable in thinking about (slavery) as one phenomenon of 400 years,” Bennett said. “I’m very keen on trying to disrupt that.”
Bennett spoke about the book on November 28 to a standing room-only crowd at The Graduate Center’s Martin E. Segal Theatre Center. He made a point of thanking students in attendance from the GC’s Office of Educational Opportunity and Diversity and Pipeline program whom he’d “taught and had the fortune to work with … It means the world to me that you’re here,” he said.

Bennett said he strove to “move away from the question of race” in his research, focusing instead on African sovereignty as a defining feature of these early encounters. The Spanish and Portuguese used royal titles to address African rulers and engaged in elaborate ceremonies acknowledging their political power. Their relationship was “not simply a story of apotheosis, of the arrival of the white gods,” Bennett said.
Bennett described one instance in which the Portuguese brought their own timber, by ship, rather than cut down a single tree in the local ruler’s dominion. “The story we often tell is that the Portuguese would have just run roughshod on this individual, but there’s an elaborate dance that all sides acknowledge,” he said. “They actually made an effort to bring all their building supplies to build a scaffold, to build a stage, from which they could then perform, themselves, as dignitaries, in relationship to receiving other dignitaries.”
Bennett writes that “the prevailing scholarly perspective configures the slave trade and slavery primarily as an English story,” in which African “despots” fuel “trade in humans.” That in turn provided a later justification for colonialism as “a civilizing project … to curtail the slave trade.” His book offers a far more complex portrait of the roots of slavery, focusing instead on the details of early encounters and the “competing interests among theologians, merchants, and courtiers” who took part in them. “There’s a reason” why this first phase of contact with Africa has been ignored,” he said at the GC, adding: “There’s a politics to history.”

Professor Herman L. Bennett signs copies of his book "African Kings and Black Saves," following a talk at The Graduate Center.