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There were Africans in America before the arrival of Columbus

 

I want to thank Dr. Theodore Aranda and Provost Ismael Hoare for inviting me to participate in this important seminar, “African Presence in Pre-Columbian Societies of the Americas.”  When he initially called last semester, I was quite surprised when he mentioned an article I had written nearly 40 years ago.  I wanted to know how he found it.  I was so honored, but knew I could not come to Belize at that time.  We continued to communicate, and the result is that I am here at the University of Belize today.  I am more than pleased to join you in this groundbreaking conversation.

As an undergraduate student at North Carolina Central University in the early 1960s, I took African and Black American history courses with Professor Caulbert A. Jones.  He had been a professor there since the 1930s, and was revered by generations of NCCU students who had studied with him regardless of their majors.  During his African history lectures, Jones raised a number of questions that stimulated my interest.  For instance, when discussing the “scramble for Africa,” he once asked whether the United States was represented at the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, at which various imperialist nations from Western Europe decided which African territories they would appropriate and partition. Western European nations were nearly going to war over what African nations they wanted to control; hence, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck organized the conference to prevent further intra-European conflict.  The result was the indiscriminate division of African nations into numerous European-carved states.  But Professor Jones did not answer his question.  Years later, as a graduate student in African Studies at UCLA, I researched and wrote a paper on the Berlin Conference and, in the process, discovered that the United States was represented at the gathering. Under the banner of Manifest Destiny, the US was itself a major imperialist state, taking possession of Mexican, Caribbean territories, Hawaiian territories.  Professor Jones was the kind of professor who had a lasting effect on his students.

While a graduate student at UCLA in the late-1960s, I also was an intellectual-activist in the movement for Black Power and Black Studies, serving as the president of the Black Student Union from April to November 1968.  One of the organization’s goals was the establishment of Black Studies at the university, which resulted in the formation of the Center for African American Studies at UCLA in 1970.  Black Studies emerged on the US academic scene in order the challenge and go beyond conventional white studies—the dominant, racist educational perspective that largely ignored or distorted the history and lived experiences of people from Africa, African America, and the Caribbean.  (I still remember a white elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, who pointed at me one day in class and said viciously: “You’re a Negro; you have no history.”)  Many students in my generation, who issued the demand for Black Studies in the late-1960s and 1970s, called for a new interpretation of Africa and the African Diaspora.  We demanded the study of Black people anew, beyond the Eurocentric perspective that represented Europeans and their descendants as superior and Africans and the descendants as inferior. We saw this great intellectual challenge as our mission.  We also were students of the revolutionary Caribbean psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who declared in his monumental book, The Wretched of the Earth: “Each generation, out of relative obscurity, must discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” This how a radical Black student movement set in motion the rise of an academic field of study!

Another issue that Professor Jones hinted at was the possibility that Africans had visited the Americas long before Columbus and his crew invaded and conquered parts of the Caribbean in 1492.  During this shocking revelation, Professor Jones mentioned philologist Leo Wiener’s important three-volume study, Africa and the Discovery of America. Here was another question that gnawed at my intellectual consciousness.  In 1970, I began reading Wiener’s study.  Further research resulted in the publication of my first article, “The African Presence in America before Columbus.”

Since the 1970s and publication of my article, the study of the African Diaspora has become a major subject of scholarly interest in the developing field of Africana Studies.  However, in the historical investigation of the Americas, or the Atlantic Diaspora, this area of study generally traces in beginning back to the colonial era, for instance Africans in colonial Mexico.

Contemporary Black scholars have an enormous challenge.  One of their prime tasks needs to be the research, resurrection, and dissemination of information about the long suppressed contributions of African peoples (in Africa and the Diaspora) have made toward the advancement of world civilizations.  It is transparent from extant studies that traditional academic disciplines, mainly the social sciences, have given a distorted representation of the African experience.  Eurocentrism has been so pervasive that social scientists, commenting on the African experience and reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” have until recent times characterized Black people as” half-devil and half-child,” waiting in the darkness of ignorance before the coming of the European to bring the “light” of western civilization and culture. 

Additionally, most western scholars until recently have falsely maintained that Africa made little substantial contribution to the evolution of world civilization.  For instance, modern European scholars praised ancient Greece as the original foundation of world culture, the development of the arts and sciences, ignoring the fact that ancient Greek scholars themselves asserted that the development of Greece was strongly influenced by ancient African culture.  It must not be overlooked that the ancient Greeks did not carry culture and learning to Africa, but located them there. Generally speaking, little of ancient Africa is discussed; significantly, European imperialism, colonialism, and the Atlantic Slave Trade continue to dominate the historical narrative of Africa’s encounter with global societies and cultures. 

More than anything else, the legacies of enslavement and colonialism have been most devastating to African peoples, and the traumatic effects of these inhuman institutions linger on.  Perhaps the most painful legacy of European oppression and exploitation has been the systematic mis-education of Black people in African and the African Diaspora. Both Nigerian political scientist Elechukwu N. Njaka and Black American historian Carter G. Woodson argued that Blacks have been “educated” or indoctrinate away from their true selves by Europeans oppressors and their white American descendants so that Blacks actually do not know who they are.  Their educational experience was self-alienating.  Who are/were they, Njaka asked?  Unfortunately, we do not know, he answered!  He argued that Blacks had undergone a perpendicular education.  Indoctrinated by this educational method, which has prevented Blacks from relating effectively with themselves and others, Njaka argued that Blacks were instead pulled away toward the imitation of whites and their culture, thus killing their humanity. As an African nationalist, Njaka viewed the imposition of this educational pattern as injurious, making Black solidarity difficult to achieve.  On the other hand, he argued that whites provided themselves a horizontal education that has allowed them generally to get along with each other.  Surely, various difficulties of opinion are exhibited by whites, but there is a common framework for their overall solidarity.

Contemporary Black scholars are thus faced with the problems of overcoming a life of mis-education, for these intellectuals need to recognize that they, too, have been indoctrinated.  Black scholars, intellectuals, and educators also have the obligation of teaching students and others to identify and analyze the actions of their oppressors and exploiters with the goal of contributing to the forward movement and liberation of Blacks from the effects of the process of systematic dehumanization.

Realizing that the oppressed cannot fully examine, comprehend, and tackle the problems placed before them by utilizing the conventional academic approaches, theories, analytical frameworks, and disciplines of their oppressors, the oppressed need to design new theoretical approaches and even trans-disciplinary engagements. For, in the words of the late Caribbean intellectual warrior Frantz Fanon: “Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction.  Let us try to create the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing into triumphant birth.”

It is incumbent, then, upon Black scholars, who focus on the global African experience, to develop other means of examining the entire story of African peoples.  Years ago, the Nigerian scholar, Elechukwu Njaka, suggested a concept that allowed for the study of the growth and development of the African world in all its multifaceted dimensions.  Africanism, he argued, incorporates a scientific examination of Africans and their descendants in the African Diaspora in Asia, the Caribbean, the United States of America, Europe, South and Central America.  “Africanism, he wrote, “is both a science and a philosophy aimed at freeing the black man from bondage to a culture and values which have been forced upon him.”

Njaka proposed a methodology and theoretical framework for studying the global African experience that he called Confrontational Systems Analysis, arguing that it allowed for the examination of all the systems brought into play between the oppressor and the oppressed.  “Such a framework affords the opportunity to explore all the facets of the systems involved, the often ignored antithesis, the necessary and unnecessary reactions, the counter elements generated, the systems which persist (while having undergone some change), and the favorable results of such confrontations.”

This critical approach is of considerable importance, for it encourages the consideration and exploration of areas of knowledge that have long been ignored.  It challenges us to ask questions about the politics of historical questioning and to assert alternative interpretations. For example, it is incorrect to claim that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492.  More accurately, he and his European marauders were engaged in the barbaric and violent invasion and conquest of the Caribbean, which resulted in imperialism, colonialism, slavery, rape, and annihilating wars.  By expropriating the resources and wealth of colonies in the Caribbean, Western Europe went on to establish itself as the centre of the modern world.

One area of knowledge that has lacked broad scholarly research and popular awareness is the extent to which African contributed to the growth of pre-Columbian America; those scholars who have courageously engaged this question largely have been quietly ignored. Indeed, there is scarcely any discussion of this part of the African Diaspora in the curricula of most universities in the Americas, Europe, or Africa.  Hence, it is implied that Africans only travelled to Asia, Europe, or the Americas as captured slaves.  Why is it that historians—even those interested in the history of the African Diaspora or of the Americas—generally have been so reluctant to entertain seriously the idea that Africans may have travelled to the Americas and thus interacted with Native Americans long before the invasion and conquest of Christopher Columbus?  The answer, perhaps, has less to do with the plausibility of this question than with the politics of history writing and with the challenges of imagining Africans as active agents and global travellers in the ancient world.  In the face of the long history of silencing the African past, we cannot exclude African actors from participating in the production of history or from any of the sites where that production may take place. While the main focus of this paper is on the African encounter with pre-Columbian American societies, one should be mindful of the early presence throughout the world.

The possibility that Africans could have travelled to the Americans long before Columbus’ voyage should call for no stretch of the imagination, for West Africa is less than 2,000 miles from South America.  In what follows, I shall explore some of the existing scholarship regarding the extent of the pre-Columbian African presence in the Americas.  Hence, I have titled my comments “Africans in Pre-Columbian America: The Politics of Historical Excavation.” As will be apparent, this paper demonstrates some irreverence to received ideas, historical narratives, and alternative sources associated with the study of early American societies.

Theories regarding the pre-Columbian presence of Africans in the Americas are not new.  Rather, writers and scholars in various times have discussed this possibility.  For example, in 1854, at the National Emigration Convention of Colored People, held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a statement was issued to the African inhabitants of the United States of America regarding the necessity for leaving the USA as the only alternative left for them.  Within that statement, which incidentally was signed by Martin R. Delany among others, we find the following observation:

And among the earliest and most numerous class, who found their way to the new world, were those of the African race.  And it has been ascertained to our minds beyond a doubt, that when the continent was discovered, there were found in the West Indies and Central America, tribes of the black race, fine looking people, having the usual characteristics of colour and hair, identifying them as being originally of the African race.

 

From this statement, it is clear that some Black Americans in the mid-nineteenth century knew that Africans were present in the Americas before the coming of Columbus.  Seventeen years later (1871), in a volume, entitled Ancient America, in Notes on American Archaeology, John D. Baldwin stated:  “It is not difficult to believe that communities of Phoenician or Ethiopian race were established all around the Mediterranean, and even beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, in ages quite as old as Egypt or Chaldea, and that they had communication with America before Tyre or Sidon was built.”

By 1900, the notion that Africans had travelled to the Americas had moved beyond the stage of speculation.  It was now definite that Africans had made contact with the Americas.  Peter DeRoo, in his History of America before Columbus, was quite firm in acknowledging the fact that Africans had settled in the western hemisphere and made contact with Native Americans.  He asserted:

Yet a better proof of ancient Negro arrivals is the fact of Negro colonies found by the Spanish and Portuguese discoverers on the eastern coasts of South and Central America.  Mendoza encountered a tribe of Negroes, and Balboa, when on his famous expeditions of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean, met in the old province Quareca, at only two days’ travel from the Gulf of Darien, with a settlement of Negroes….

 

In 1920, Leo Wiener, a Harvard University philologist, produced a pioneering examination of the existence of Africans in the Americas prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus, which appeared as volume one of Africa and the Discovery of America.  He later published volumes two and three in 1922.  While doing an investigation of Native American languages, Wiener learned to his amazement that there was a substantial African influence on these languages.  After further research he was led to conclude that much of the American archaeological work done on both Africans and Native Americans was erroneous.  Commenting on his findings, Wiener stated:

In the first volume, I show that Negroes have had a far greater influence upon American civilization than has heretofore been suspected.  In the second volume I shall chiefly study the African fetishism, which even with the elaborate books on the subject, is woefully misunderstood, and I shall show by documentary evidence to what extraordinary extent the Indian medicine-man owes his evolution to the African medicine-man.

 

His third volume is concerned with an examination of African social and religious influences on pre-Columbian American societies.  Arguing that West Africans made numerous voyages to the Americas before Columbus, Wiener noted that,

The presence of Negroes with their trading masters in America before Columbus is proved by the representation of Negroes in American sculpture and design, by the occurrence of a black nation at Darien early in the XVI century, but more specifically by Columbus’ emphatic reference to Negro traders from Guinea, who trafficked in a gold alloy, guanine, of precisely the same composition and bearing the same name, as frequently referred to by early writers in Africa.

 

As additional proof, Wiener noted the presence of West African words for numerous crops in various Native American languages and suggested that the crops were indigenous to Africa.  Wiener stated:

Indeed, when we turn to the appellations of the sweet potato and yam in America, we find nothing but African forms.  Here as there the two are confounded, and chiefly those names have survived which Dr. Chanca mentioned in 1494.  He called the plant he described, apparently the sweet potato, both nabi and hage.  We see that the first is a phonetic variation of Wolof nyambi, etc., “yam.”…

Wiener indicated that the West African penetration of the Americas was varied.  He stated:

There were several foci from which the Negro traders spread in the two Americas.  The eastern part of South America, where the Caribbean’s are mentioned seems to have been reached by them from the West Indies.  Another stream, possibly from the same focus, radiated to the north along reads marked by the presence of mounds, and reached as far as Canada.  The chief cultural influence was exerted by a Negro colony in Mexico, most likely from Teotihuacan and Tuxtla, who may have been instrumental in establishing the city of Mexico.  From here their influence pervaded the neighbouring tribes and ultimately, directly or indirectly, reached Peru.

Another scholar concerned with pre-Columbian African influences in the Americas strengthened Wiener’s position regarding the African presence in ancient Mexican history.  Joel A. Rogers, the prolific Black writer and student of world civilization, in Africa’s Gift to America, suggested that, “Africa played a role, perhaps the chief role, in the earliest development of America—a period that ante-dates Columbus by many centuries, namely Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations.  About 500 B.C. or earlier, Africans sailed over to America and continued to do so until the time of Columbus. Additionally, Rogers quoted several Mexican authorities on the subject:  C. C. Marquez says, “The Negro type is seen in the most ancient Mexican sculpture….Negroes figure frequently in the most remote traditions.”  Riva-Palacio, Mexican historian, says, “It is indisputable that in very ancient times the Negro race occupied our territory (Mexico).  The Mexicans recall a Negro god, Ixtilton, which means ‘black face.’”

Archaeological expeditions and findings in Mexico provide empirical evidence regarding the position set forth in this essay.  In his authoritative study, The Ancient Sun Kingdoms of the Americas, Victor W. Von Hagen discussed the pre-Aztec civilization known as the Olmecs.  Von Hagen put the existence of the Olmecs between 800 B.C. and 600 A. D., indicating that they were situated in the south of Mexico near Vera Cruz, Tabasco, and La Venta.  Of the Olmecs, Von Hagen wrote in 1957:

In Aztec mythohistory, the Olmecs were known as “the people who lived I the direction of the rising sun,” and a glyph history of them shows that their paradisiacal “wealth” consisted of rubber, pitch, jade, chocolate, and bird feathers.  We do not know what they called themselves.   “Olmec” derives form olli (rubber)….They traded rubber and they presumably made the rubber balls used for the game called tlachtli….For untold centuries burial mounds and pyramids built by them lay covered by the jungle; here archaeologists have found carved jade, sensitively modeled clay figurines “of an unprecedented high artistic quality,” said Miquel Covarrubias….Only in recent times have the great Olmec stone heads been unearthed, by Dr. Matthew Sterling.  At Tres Zapotes he found one colossal heave seven feet high, flat-nosed and sensually thick-lipped.

 

The huge stone heads of Olmec deities, exhibited an unmistakably African physiognomy, as can be seen from photographs and drawings of these massive sculptures in books by several researchers: Africa’s Gift to America by Joel A. Rogers; Mexico: A History in Art by Bradley Smith; and The Ancient Sun Kingdoms of America by Victor Von Hagen. During the last decade of the 19th century, the first of these gigantic heads was found in Vera Cruz by J. M. Melgar, who in 1896 published a monograph on his findings.  He asserted: “This cabeza colossal, as the Mexicans called it, was half buried, but enough of it was visible for an occasional observant traveler to notice its ‘Ethiopian features’ and the presence of a headdress resembling a football helmet.”

Later, in 1902, an Olmec artifact was found near the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico.  The jade figurine contained a date on it corresponding to 98 B. C.  Interested in this finding, Matthew Sterling, an American archaeologist of director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, was to lead nine expeditions into the Mexican Gulf coast commencing in 1938, at which time he found five colossal heads in La Venta in the State of Tabasco, five to nine feet high and weighing as much as 20 to 30 tons each.

In 1946, Sterling carried out another expedition in the San Lorenzo plateau, an area in southeastern Vera Cruz.  Once more the huge stone heads were found, all of which again contained African facial features.

During the spring of 1967, Michael Coe, of Yale University, led an expedition to San Lorenzo in southeast Mexico.  As did Sterling, Coe located numerous Olmec artifacts, which again included a giant stone head, as well as altars and pyramids.  Coe suggested that the Olmecs were the earliest Mayans, and had declined by the rise of the Aztecs.

From the preceding discussion there should be little doubt that Africans arrived in the Americas long before Columbus’ invasion; rather, the evidence indicates that they had an extensive influence on early American cultures: social, religious, and artistic.  In 1970, a masterful study of pre-Columbian art in Latin America revealed that the African presence was profound.  Although acknowledging the presence of Asiatic influences in pre-Columbian art, Alexander von Wuthenau, in The Art of Terracotta Pottery in Pre-Columbian Central and South America, was quite firm about the pervasive African influence.  Describing photographs of ancient Olmec figurines contained in his book, von Wuthenau stated: “The two Negroid heads on page 48 are quite conspicuous.  They prove that this racial type can be found nearly everywhere in ancient America.” Likewise, it should be kept in mind that Africans held positions of considerable importance in ancient American societies.  It would thus be flying in the face of truth to deny the African presence in pre-Columbian America.  Von Wuthenau commented further: “The Negroid element is the exception, but is well proven by the large Olmec stone monuments as well as the terracotta items and therefore cannot be excluded from pre-Columbian history of the Americas.  Furthermore, it is precisely the Negroid representations which often indicate personalities of high position, who can unhesitatingly be compared to the outstanding Negroes who served as models for great works of art in Egypt and in Nigeria.”

It might be asked: if Africans were not present in the Americas before Columbus’s invasion, why the typically African physiognomy on the Olmec monuments and artifacts?  Surely, the concrete evidence should remove all doubt.  Von Wuthenau concluded:

It is a contradiction to the most elementary logic and to all artistic experience that an Indian could depict in a masterful way the head of a Negro without missing a sing racial characteristic, unless he had actually seen such a person.  The types of people depicted must have lived in America…The Negroid element is well proven by the large Olmec stone monuments as well as the terracotta items and therefore cannot be excluded from the pre-Columbian history of the Americas.

In the 1960s, new studies emerged discussing the high level of culture and maritime skill of West Africans, which provided additional credence to the assertions made by Wiener, Rogers, von Wuthenau and others, that Africans braved the roaring waters of the Atlantic Ocean and established relationships with Native Americans more than one thousand years ago.  Harold G. Lawrence, in an article entitled, “African Explorers of the New World,” asserted emphatically, “We can now positively state that the Mandingoes of the Mali and Songhay Empires, and possibly other Africans, crossed the Atlantic to carry on trade with the Western Hemisphere Indians and further succeeded in establishing colonies throughout the Americas.” Due to diplomatic relations with Morocco the Malian emperor Sakura (1285-1300 A.D.), learned of advanced maritime techniques and the spherical character of the earth.  Various Arab (perhaps Arab-Moorish) writers, some of whom were Abdulfeda, Idrisi, Masudi, Abu Zaid, and Istakhri, developed geographies and formulated astronomical theories.

Lawrence indicated that the fourteenth-century Malian King Abubakari II, curious about the Arab theories about the round shape of the earth and voyages around globe, sent a fleet of 400 ships into the Atlantic Ocean, informing the captains not to return until they had found land or run out of supplies.  After a considerable time had passed, one ship returned, its captain telling King Abubakari that they had perished in violent waters.  Abubakari then led a fleet of some 2,000 ships into the Atlantic.  Before departing, the king conferred temporary authority to the hands of his brother, Mansa Musa, certain that he would return.  Unfortunately, Abubakari never did.

In a 1970 article, entitled “Negro Contributors to the Exploration of the Globe,” Ronald W. Davis used Arabic and French sources to corroborate Lawrence’s account of Malian voyages into the Atlantic Ocean in search of land. According to Davis, Mansa Musa, who had by the early 1320s conquered new territories and integrated the older provinces into the Mali Empire, gained lasting international fame primarily because of the lavish hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) he led in 1324.  Arriving in Cairo and receiving considerable attention and recognition, as would be expected, Mansa Musa was asked about his succession to the throne.  He thus told of his predecessor’s speculation about the outer reaches of the Atlantic Ocean and his sending a fleet.  Davis’ account is thus very similar to that of Lawrence.  Commenting on Mansa Musa’s narrative, Davis stated, “It is difficult to accept the proposition that Musa simply invented this story.”

Elsewhere, Davis asserted:

We know that Mali, although essentially an inland empire, did have an outlet to the sea in the Senegambia region during parts of the fourteenth century.  There is no better point of departure for the Americas than this particular portion of the African coast, for here expeditions may take advantage of the Northeast trade winds, which blow steadily and evenly almost year round in a vast arc skirting the northwest coast of Africa and curving toward the great eastern bulge of South America.  Columbus himself, for reason not yet certain, chose to drop from Spain to latitudes comparable to those of Senegambia before starting the ocean crossing.

 

We might be a little more certain about Columbus’ reasons if we consult J. A. Rogers, who wrote: “it is even possible that Columbus had heard of the New World from Africans brought to Spain and Portugal in his time.  Furthermore, Columbus spent some time in West Africa just before he left Spain for America.”

Basil Davidson, the late journalist turned historian of Africa, in The Lost Cities of Africa, supplied further evidence, showing that West African seamen made trans-Atlantic voyages well before and during the reign of Mansa Musa.  He commented:

Omari, in the tenth chapter of his Masalik al-absad, reproduces a story which suggests that Atlantic voyages were made by mariners of West Africa in the times of the Emperor KanKan Musa of Mali; and which roundly states that the predecessors of KanKan Musa embarked on the Atlantic with “two thousand ships” and sailed westward and disappeared…yet Mali had outlets on the Atlantic seaboard, while North African Mariners evidently knew of the Azores several centuries before the voyage of Columbus. 

Probably one of the most engrossing historical examinations of ancient African history and the extent of the pre-Columbian existence of Africans in the Americas was undertaken by John G. Jackson. In his enlightening book, Introduction to African Civilizations, the author spent a chapter discussing African cultural influences in ancient America.  Utilizing a plethora of sources, Jackson traced the African presence in the Americas as far back as three thousand years.  Citing several authorities, Jackson demonstrated that the African influences in ancient American religious systems were profound.  For instance, examining the African religious influence on the Mayans, Jackson quoted the following from ancient American scholar A. Hyatt Verrill:

The great cities of the Mayan Empire were deserted, many were completely lost and hidden in the rank jungle and forest growth of the tropics, and the existing Indians had little more than vague traditions and legends regarding their origin and their past.  Yet they worshipped their old gods, using the ancient temples for their ceremonials where the Chilams or priests performed the rites….Even today, many of the Indians of Central and South America secretly venerate or worship the gods of their forefathers.  The Mayan tribes are no exception, although often the ancient Mayan dieties and rites and the Christian rituals and saints are almost inextricably confused.

In the little church at Esquipultas, Guatemala, is the image of the Black Christ to which thousands of Indians journey annually from all parts of Central America, and even from Mexico and South America.  The spot has become a shrine or Mecca for the Indians, and for hundreds, even thousands of miles, they travel to the obscure Guatemalan village carrying with them all of their possessions in order to have them sanctified at the famous church.  To all outward intents and purposes they are Christians making a pilgrimage to a Christian church in order to worship before a figure of Christ.  No doubt many if not most of them actually are sincere in believing this to be the case.  But, as a matter of fact, the underlying cause, the real urge that leads them to the spot is the ineradicable faith in their ancient gods and religion.  The very fact that the image is black has a symbolic significance which can be traced directly to the ancient religions and mythologies…and, delving deeper into the details of the annual pilgrimage and the shrine, we find evidences of the observance of the Mayan religion numerous.  The Indians who care for the church and the image are of the Mayan priest clan or caste.  Many of the ceremonies, rites and festivals of the pilgrims are obviously of ancient Mayan origin, and the little Santos or images which the devout Indians bring to the church to be sanctified, and which serve as their own household gods, are figures of the ancient Indian deities.  Moreover, among many of the Indians, the black Christ is referred to in private as Ekchuah or as Hunabku (the former, the Mayan god of merchants, husband-men and travelers; the latter, the God-father or supreme deity of the Mayas), often prefixed with the Spanish Cristo (Christ), as Cristo Ekchuah or as Cristo Hunabku. [Old Civilizations of the New World, pp. 143-46, by A. Hyatt Verrill].

Lawrence also corroborated this account when he wrote:

An examination of ancient Indian religions yields additional information of he condition of early Africans in the Americas.  Several Indian nations, such as the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas, worshipped black gods along with their other deities, and the Mayan religion particularly exemplifies the high esteem in which the Negroes were held.  Among the black deities, Quetzalcoatl, the serpent god and Messiah, and Ek-ahua (Ekechuah), the trader-god and war captain, are the most revealing.  Their surviving portraits show them, black and wooly haired, to have been unmistakably Negro.

The above should be no cause for alarm, for, as earlier mentioned, in many ancient societies throughout the world there have been at times representations of black religious symbols—Krishna, the god of ancient India was black.

Finally, in his seminal work, They Came before Columbus, Ivan Van Sertima confirmed the claims by earlier scholars that Africans had traveled to the Americas long before Columbus.  He argued, with substantial concrete evidence, that Nubian-Egyptian travelers visited the Americas, particularly Tres Zapotes, La Venta, and Vera Cruz.  Van Sertima wrote:

This, then, is the case for contact between Egypt and the New World in the 800-700 B. C. period, a period in which the blacks of Nubia had gained ascendancy over the Egyptian empire and appeared according to carbon-14 datings, in the Olmec world of Mexico as monumental figures, venerated and revered.  These are some of the important influences this alien crew of shipwrecks left upon the face of ancient American culture…

All the features of Egyptian culture noted above were duplicated in the Nubian-Egyptian culture complex of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty.  This phenomenon of separate yet parallel identity emerges with a great clarity when the historical and archaeological data of the period are closely examined.  The master-colonial relationship between Egypt and Nubia had ceased.  Nubia became the inheritor and custodian of a culture which took as much from black Africa as black Africa was later to take from it.  Nubia was so much a part of Egypt that, as Professors Steindorff and Steele have pointed out [When Egypt Ruled the East], “it tenaciously held fast to Egyptian culture in later times when Egypt herself succumbed to foreign influences.  When the Greeks came into the valley of the Nile in the seventh century B. C. it was Nubia which was considered the seat of orthodox Egyptian character.”

As did previous scholars, Van Sertima cited credible evidence to establish West African Mandingo voyages to the America circa 1310/1311 A.D.  This included eyewitness reports from nearly a dozen Europeans, even Columbus himself, metallurgical, linguistic, botanical, navigational, oceanographic, skeletal, epigraphic cartographic, oral, documented, iconographic evidence.  Thus he replicated the stories of Mali’s great wealth, power, and geographic expansiveness, as the largest empire in the medieval world.  Van Sertima recounted the story of the trans-Atlantic expedition led by Mali emperor Abubakar II in 1311.

Abubakari the Second never looked back.  He never returned to the court of Niani.  This time he had a special boat built for himself, with a pempi on the poop deck shaded by the bird-emblazoned parasol.  He would commandeer the new expedition himself, keeping in touch with the captains of the fleet by means of the talking drum.  Thus, in 1311 he conferred the power of the regency on his brother Kankan Musa, on the understanding that Kankan was to assume the throne if, after a reasonable lapse of time, the king did not return.  Then one day, dressed in a flowing white robe and a jeweled turban, he took leave of Mali and set out with his fleet down the Senegal, heading west across the Atlantic, never to return.  He took his griot and half his history with him.

Later in his text, Van Sertima maintained that Mandingo merchants from Mali did indeed arrive in medieval Mexico, and they had an impact on local Mexican culture.  As evidence of cultural impact, or confluence of cultures, he discussed similarities between Mandingo and Mexican cultures.  Some of the similarities included languages; religious symbols, rituals of worship, and festivals; coats of arms on shields of warriors; and burial mounds.

Let me summarize by stating that the importance of this paper is its argument for the necessity of exploring a significant theme in the history of Africa and its African Diaspora in the Americas.  Although this surely is not a new theme, it remains one that scarcely is discussed by contemporary scholars who study the Africa and the African Diaspora.  This theme, Africans in pre-Columbian American societies, remains relatively new because the dimension of the African Diaspora presented here generally has not been considered as significant and, consequently, has been excluded or overlooked by historians of Africa and the Americas.  Indeed, scholars who examine the African Diaspora in the Americas generally commence with the 15th-century invasion and conquest of Columbus and/or the later 16th-century trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.  For example, the important recent historical studies of Africans in colonial Mexico still leave silenced the considerable interaction between early Africans and ancient and medieval American societies.  This pattern of scholarship is similar to the historical silencing of the impact of ancient East Africa (Egypt) on ancient Greece.  In each instance, African agency—the active involvement of African people in the formation and development of ancient world civilizations—remains historically silenced and invisible.

Although some research already has been done on the impact of Africa on ancient American societies, it is obvious that more extensive investigations need to be undertaken.  However, if the idea that the Norsemen might have arrived in America can be entertained on the flimsy bases of myth and a few scattered artifacts, then it can be positively concluded, in view of a far more abundant volume of information and evidence, that Africans arrived in the Americas long before Columbus and established relationships with, and had a substantial and profound influence upon, native peoples in the Americas. 

The investigation, resurrection, and dissemination of knowledge about the early voluntary dispersal of Africans throughout the world—that is, the African Diaspora in the ancient and medieval world—should help to destroy the myth Europeans and their white American descendants have constructed and encouraged that world civilizations developed without any substantial or significant African influences.  The examination of the pre-Columbian African presence in early American societies will provide a most important link between, and broaden our understanding of, the African past and the history of the African Diaspora.  It is incumbent upon Africanist scholars to acknowledge that Africa’s initial contact with the Americas was not through the slave trade and enslavement at some arbitrary dates in the 1500s or 1600s A. D.  A more accurate account of Africa’s long and pronounced influence on ancient and medieval American societies and their cultures needs to be projected and articulated.  It is a travesty of scholarship that college and university courses dealing with African and world history continue to ignore the pre-Colombian encounters between Africa and the Americas.  Moreover, it needs to be recognized that the continued instruction to secondary and elementary school children that Columbus “discovered” America serves no enlightened purpose and should be curtailed.  Indeed, a more accurate historical narrative of Columbus’ encounter with the Americas should portray his arrival not as discovery, but as invasion and conquest.  For the coming of Columbus and his marauders, seeking the wealth of the Americas, opened up the Western Hemisphere to imperialism, colonialism, and chattel slavery. 

What is required today more than ever before in Africana Studies is a Scholarship of Indictment. There is a need not only to challenge and correct Eurocentric or racist studies of African and world history, but also to indict the West for its world-historical atrocities.  Rather than bringing civilization to non-western societies and cultures, Western Europe brought violence, greed, death, destruction, rape, and ruin.  Oppression and exploitation have been the markers of Western Europe, as this barbaric civilization stole from more than it contributed to human development in, and the forward movement of, societies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.  Long ago, the US writer Richard Wright set forth an indictment of Europe in his book, entitled White Man, Listen!  Wright screamed:

Buttressed by their belief that their God had entrusted the earth into their keeping, drunk with power and possibility, waxing rich through trade in commodities, human and nonhuman, with awesome naval and merchant marines at their disposal, their countries filled with human debris anxious for any adventures, psychologically armed with new facts, white Western Christian civilization during the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, with a long slow, and bloody explosion, hurled itself upon the sprawling masses of colored humanity in Asia and Africa. 

The study of the early African Diaspora should not only indict the West for its violent encounters with African peoples—invasion, conquest, and enslavement—but should also move the discussion about the global African experience well beyond these traumatic experiences.  This scholarship will give African people and their descendants in the Americas and elsewhere a sense of identity and pride in themselves, their people and their history, which will enable them to deal effectively with the present and envision futures of human possibilities.  Every serious Africanist scholar should constantly seek truth, and this enterprise necessitates several things: the reappraisal and reconstruction of traditional academic approaches to African studies (for example, I have suggested Confrontational Systems Analysis and a Scholarship of Indictment), the implementation of creative means for the attainment of knowledge about the African experience (for example, interdisciplinary research), the vision to excavate that part of the African past that has been silenced, and the confidence to recognize these academic pursuits as necessary and important scholarship.

Floyd W. Hayes, III, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer

Department of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University

 


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