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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/African Canadians/Ames W. St. G. Walker

Just as Canadians of African descent display a remarkable diversity, so does their land of origin. Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, and each of its regions is characterized by particular features of climate and vegetation which have helped shape distinctive civilizations.

Most of the African Canadians whose ancestors arrived in the New World during the era of the slave trade can trace their origin to West Africa, and especially to a broad sweep of territory extending from the Senegal River in the north to Angola in the south and advancing inland for at least 800 kilometres and occasionally much farther. Even this relatively limited area is environmentally diverse, and, in adapting to its physical characteristics, African peoples have produced a variety of cultures and different types of social organization, from small kin-based autonomous communities in the more heavily forested regions to nation-states and vast multi-ethnic empires on the open savannah. Besides the obvious influence of geography, commerce frequently provided a stimulus for the creation of larger states and empires. West Africa was laced with local trading routes over which travelled food and other goods, and these routes were linked to long-distance and even transcontinental trade networks. Most significant was the trans-Sahara caravan trade, which, beginning in the fifth century C.E., brought Mediterranean goods and influences deep into West Africa and provided a market for a variety of African products, including gold, ivory, leather, and other craft works, and exotic finery such as ostrich feathers.

The largest empires arose on the southern fringes of the Sahara trade routes: Ghana (fifth to eleventh century C.E.), Mali (thirteenth to fifteenth century), and Kanem-Bornu (eighth to seventeenth century). Most important during the period of contact with Europe was the Songhai Empire, which at its height in the sixteenth century ruled an ethnically diverse territory larger than all of western Europe. Farther south, where the savannah blended to forest, more compact states emerged that were connected as suppliers to the Saharan trade and that, in the fifteenth century, were well placed to benefit from contacts with Europeans on the Atlantic coast. The Yoruba people had established the state of Oyo before the fifteenth century, and the related state of Benin had expanded to the coast by 1450, before the Europeans’ arrival. Dahomey arose in the late seventeenth century in response to the expansion of Oyo and to the commercial opportunities initiated by Europeans on the coast. At about the same time, the Ashanti people formed a unified state and began expanding towards the Atlantic. South of the Congo River, the coastal states of Kongo and Ndongo existed by the fourteenth century and were later linked by inland trade routes to the southern savannah states of Lunda, Lozi, and Luba. By the time the Europeans became seriously involved in West Africa, therefore, there already existed a series of states and empires engaged in sophisticated commercial networks and, in some instances, in imperial expansion and territorial rivalries. The Europeans would meet a dynamic situation, and the trading opportunities they offered would increase that dynamic substantially.

The foundation of the social and economic systems throughout West Africa was small-scale agriculture, organized in family groups clustered in villages. Families were normally polygynous and were linked with broader kin-groupings and clans. Agricultural and household tasks tended to be gender-specific. In a pattern of shifting cultivation men would clear and prepare the land and women would care for the growing crops. Both would participate, along with children, in planting and harvest. Sometimes certain crops were designated for male or female cultivation, yams for men and cassava for women in some areas, and cattle herding was most often a male responsibility. Household cooking and child care were almost always performed by females, as was local market trading, while craft production, longer-distance trade, hunting, and defence against enemy intrusions fell to men. This division of labour and the fundamental significance of the family and procreation gave African women substantial areas of independent control and an influence upon group affairs.

Even in the intricately structured states and empires, the most important decisions affecting any African’s life were taken locally, by the family, clan, and village elders. In this social environment, kinship and the wellbeing of the family shaped all activities and relationships, land was held communally, and individual identity was acquired and sustained through kin-group membership. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were slaves, who were usually outsiders captured in war and therefore not part of the kinship system. They lacked many participatory rights and could be exchanged and sold along the trade routes, though slave children could be adopted as kin and those born to female slaves and free men would join the clan of their father as full members. Gang slavery occasionally operated in mines and even in plantations established in the interior by Muslims, but most Africans who became enmeshed in the Atlantic slave trade knew only relatively more benign forms of bondage.

When the Portuguese began sailing along the West African coast in the fifteenth century, they were not at all interested in slaves; gold was their primary object, though they soon added other African products to which they were introduced. Portugal and Benin exchanged ambassadors, and a peaceful alliance was struck between the kings of Portugal and Kongo. But the period of mutual respect and cooperation was interrupted by events elsewhere in the world. Until this time, the chief source of European slave labour – used principally in the cultivation of sugar – had been the Slavic peoples of the Black Sea region. In 1453, however, access to the Black Sea was cut off by the Muslim conquest of Constantinople, and western Europeans had to look elsewhere for labourers. Small numbers of African slaves had been present in Europe from ancient times, conveyed across the Sahara or through Egypt, and Africa’s potential as a labour supply was reinforced by Portuguese who were meeting African societies with slaves for sale. By the end of the fifteenth century white Slavic peoples were being replaced by black Africans as slave labourers in the Mediterranean. The shift in colour was entirely coincidental, and slaves remained a subordinate aspect of the Europe-Africa trade until the middle of the seventeenth century.

Meanwhile, Columbus had opened new prospects for European enterprise in the New World, and in 1532 direct slave shipments from Africa were inaugurated to further that cause. Several factors influenced this development. European maritime technology made it possible, and inexpensive, to establish efficient trade networks extending from Europe to Africa to the New World. In the New World itself, the labour supply was in crisis. Native Americans lacked immunity to European diseases and died in horrifying epidemics. European workers, at the same time, were vulnerable to the tropical diseases prevalent in the Caribbean and Brazil. Africans had an advantage over both, having shared diseases with Europe for centuries and having developed resistance to the diseases of the tropics at home. Early experiments with European indentured labourers and peasant cultivators proved far more costly, in money and lives, than the employment of Africans; not only were Africans healthier and more efficient, but as outright slaves they could multiply a purchaser’s investment over a lifetime. In contrast, even if European labourers did not sicken and die, their indenture term would expire and their employer would have to import new labourers.

The transfer of the Mediterranean system of African slave labour to the Americas was therefore effected for practical reasons and had nothing to do, at this initial stage, with any belief in African inferiority. On the contrary, it was the superiority of African labourers in the New World tropics that sealed their fate as slaves. The success of the plantation model in Portuguese Brazil encouraged its spread elsewhere, first to the Dutch West Indies and then to British and French colonies in the same area. By the end of the seventeenth century a “sugar revolution” had occurred, and the sugar plantation staffed by unfree African labour dominated the economy of the greater Caribbean region and was being adapted for tobacco, rice, and cotton production in Britain’s North American colonies. European America gained a stable supply of adult labourers at a fraction of the cost involved in importing or reproducing European workers; Africa gained European manufactured goods at a fraction of what they would have cost to produce in Africa. Both parties saw an advantage in the exchange. But there were some people who would lose profoundly: the slaves themselves and, eventually, their descendants throughout the Americas.

Africans were enslaved in the first instance by other Africans, and those deemed likely to command a good price would be sent to the coast for sale to Europeans. There a second selection took place, according to age, condition, and gender, and the most suitable were shipped to the Americas. Thus began the deadly “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic and, for the survivors, eventual sale in the New World. In the Caribbean, such sales would almost certainly be to plantation owners. These people generally preferred to import cheap adult slaves rather than raise replacements from infancy, and so there was a constant infusion of new Africans into the Caribbean right up to the abolition of the slave trade in the nineteenth century. More than in any other New World region, slaves dominated the West Indian population numerically. Although they came from diverse backgrounds and cultures, plantation life imposed a new order and a common experience; the existence of slaves was exceedingly harsh, characterized by gang labour and constant surveillance. African traditions were not completely lost, but they were modified to suit the new conditions of slavery.

In the North American colonies, on the other hand, the plantation experience was neither so common nor so encompassing, and the temperate climate kept Africans even healthier than they had been at home. One consequence was that slave women reproduced at a significant rate: as early as 1750 only about 10 percent of North American slaves were African imports, the vast majority having been born in America. This meant in turn that North American slaves had less direct experience of African culture than their Caribbean counterparts; it also meant that, since children are born in equal sex ratios, North American slavery avoided the drastic demographic imbalances of the Caribbean and offered much greater opportunity to recreate family and kin relationships. Although the Caribbean received approximately ten times as many African slaves as North America, their descendants today are a mere fraction of the African-American population.

The end of slavery did not immediately bring genuine liberation. In the French colony of Saint Domingue a slave rebellion at the end of the eighteenth century overthrew European control and established the black republic of Haiti, though it remained a pariah state and was denied mutually beneficial intercourse with Europe and America. Elsewhere in the Caribbean the combined forces of European abolitionism and slave resistance succeeded in abolishing slavery, first in Britain’s colonies in 1834 and throughout the region by the 1870s. Many former slaves left their plantations and acquired smallholdings, but these were usually in less fertile areas and so bore the seeds of continued poverty. Furthermore, since the social and economic structures created during slavery were largely retained, blacks continued to suffer restrictions and to be denied equality. Political control was centred in the European imperial capitals and in local white élites, while the offspring of white masters and female slaves occupied an intermediate position with limited privileges. These historical conditions were widespread throughout the Caribbean. All the territories experienced European conquest, the sugar plantation, and the institution of slavery; all were ruled as colonial satellites with structures created for external exploitation. The social order imposed by slavery and colonial rule has tended to persist, along with the legacy of imbalanced economic development.

Among the territories where most African Canadians have their immediate origin, Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago gained independence from Britain in 1962, as did Guyana and Barbados in 1966. As emerging nations, these and other West Indian states have faced a barrage of problems as well as new opportunities. Sugar still dominates as a cash crop, and inflation, unemployment, and population growth are chronic. While class and colour lines are starting to break down under the pressures of political democracy, the liabilities of an externally-oriented economy have not been overcome. Emigration, which has been an established tradition in the Caribbean since the abolition of slavery, has therefore not been staunched by independence. Even West Indians with the highest qualifications continue to seek better economic opportunities abroad.

At the same time, the Caribbean region is immensely diverse in both human and physical terms. It consists of more than forty islands and coastal territories stretching in a 2,400-kilometre arc from the tip of Florida to the Venezuelan coast, with extensions in the Bahama Islands to the north and on the South American mainland. Landscapes vary accordingly, and geographical insularity combined with links to different European capitals has encouraged cultural characteristics unique to each society. Even within one territory there exists a medley of ethnic types and heritages, all reflecting different groups of invaders, slaves, indentured servants, and settlers who have contributed to the population and who often have retained cultural ties to their various homelands. In recent decades, external linkages have declined in importance and internal and inter-territorial relations have been promoted by increasing political autonomy.

Until the 1950s the United States was the immediate origin of most black people in Canada. In the 1960s this changed under the impact of Caribbean migration, initially by British West Indians and later by Haitians. Then in the 1980s, for the first time, Canada began to receive large numbers of immigrants directly from Africa. The Commonwealth West African nations of Ghana and Nigeria, which had been sending students to Canada for several decades and which shared many historic ties with Canada, were among the first to send permanent migrants; subsequently, the largest numbers were from Ethiopia and Somalia and included many refugees driven from their homeland by famine and civil war.