More History I Didn’t Learn in High School

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard W. French

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love revisionist history. As a historian once said (alas I forget who): The facts don’t change but the questions the historians ask do. And so this book opens up many events and shows how Africans are central to a story in which we haven’t heard their parts. It is time to hear them.

It starts with a questioning of the Asian, spice trade goal having inspired the Age of Exploration, a story in which Africa is a blob in the way. Instead it presents empires of Africa, their gold becoming known and prompting exploration of Africa, starting with the west coast and working in and south. Instead of backward savages, Africa is presented as empires with rulers who relate with Europe as equals in treaties to set up trading posts first for gold then later for the slave trade. This portion of the book presents Portugal’s role in the slave trade and exploration, a good addition to the English and Spanish focus of what I had learned before. It covers the slaving business history in the context of European struggles with each other for supremacy. It explores colonies and their products–mostly sugar cane–and how that integrated industry presaged industrialization. There is a section on the effects on Africa of the slave trade, on various colonies in the West Indies, and on the slaves’ importance to US development as well as to Europe’s industrialization. French takes a serious look at myths and dispels many.

Because most of the detail is new, it is slow reading. And in the rare chapters where I already knew something it started out as a relief to be in familiar territory, but soon I was learning new bits as well. My understanding of colonialism and the slave trade is increasing from the British focus I’d started with back in school days. With various books I’ve been reading, first I added Spanish colonies and trade, then French, and now in this book, Portuguese. (French mentions that the first slave in what will become the US is landed in 1585, not 1619, in a Spanish colony, not Virginia, and that was a reminder of the British focus that has predominated.) The expanding history enables a fuller more complex picture.

An important and good read.

View all my reviews



Filed under books

3 responses to “More History I Didn’t Learn in High School

  1. Susan Nixon

    Ah, another mind-expanding book! It sounds like it’s much more interesting than the slant we learned where the world began with the British Empire. =)

  2. An interesting idea that our history has been so much British-focused, which of course it has. Sounds like an interesting book; thanks for the review.

  3. As one of my profs used to say, what you see depends on where you stand. It certainly applies to what we call history.

Conversation is good, so please join in. I'll reply here if it seems relevant to others, by email, or by visiting your blog.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s