Historical records and evidence shows that Islam and Christianity played an important role in enslaving Africans. The Arab-controlled Trans-Saharan slave trade, which was underpinned by Islam, helped to institutionalize slave trading on the continent.
And during the age of exploration, European Christians who approached the continent via the north witnessed caravans loaded with Africans en-route to the Middle East which lead them to assume that African enslavement was inherent in the continent. As long as the European explorers were concern, the bible was not only regarded as infallible, it was also their primary reference book. The answers to explain differences in ethnicity, culture, and slavery were found in Genesis 9: 24-27, which appeared to suggest that the differences were as a result of sin.
In this passage, Africans were fallaciously said to be the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, who was cursed by his father after looking at his naked form. Moreover, in Genesis 10, the Table of Nations describes the origins of the different races and reveals that one of the descendants of Ham is Cush, and that the Cushites were people associated with the Nile region of North Africa.
In time, the European connection between sin, slavery, skin colour and beliefs would condemn Africans in totality. In the bible, physical or spiritual slavery is often a consequence of sinful actions, while darkness or blackness(skin colour) is associated with evil. Therefore Africans were considered heathens and evils, bereft of Christianity.
Scholars now suggest that Christianity had reached Africa by the early second century AD and that the Christian communities in North Africa were among the earliest in the world.
But Europeans refused to acknowledge African Christianity as genuine, because it appeared irreconcilable with the continent’s cultural context.
The emergence of colonies in the Americas and the need to find labourers saw Europeans turn their attention towards Africa, with some arguing that the Transatlantic Slave Trade would enable Africans, especially the enforced African muslims to come into contact with Christianity and civilisation in the Americas – albeit as slaves.
It was even argued that the favourable trade winds from Africa to the Americas were evidence of a providential design.
Religion was also a driving force for slavery in the Americas. Once enslaved, Africans were taken to their places of labour, where they were subjected to various processes to make them more compliant to slavery. Christianitsation was part of this process.
Ironically, although evangelisation was one of the justifications for enslaving Africans, very little missionary work took place during the early years. Basically, religion was just in the way of a money-making, because it took enslaved Africans away from their home. It also taught them potentially subversive ideas and made it hard to justify their cruel mistreatment by fellow Christians.
Nonetheless, some clergy tried to push the idea that it was possible to be a ‘good slave and Christian’, using St Paul’s ‘Epistles’ as justification, which called for slaves to ‘obey their masters’ and his writings that appeared to suggest it was commendable for enslaved Christians to suffer at the hands of cruel masters (1 Peter 2: 18-25).
Meanwhile all evangelicals were interested in the physical as well as spiritual condition of enslaved Africans rather than the abolition, freedom and repatriation of enslaved Africans back home.
But practical or rather charadious evangelical abolition work began with the Anglican Granville Sharp in the mid 1760s, when he fought for the freedom of a young African, Jonathan Strong. Sharp rose to national prominence during the landmark Somerset Case of 1772, which determined the status of slavery in Britain.
Sharp would later join up with the Quakers to establish the first recognized anti-slavery movement in Britain, in 1787. By this time, other Anglicans such as Thomas Clarkson had entered the fray.
Its laudable to note that there were no single Christian or Muslim saint with regards to slavery. It can be argued that both evil and inhumane characteristics co-existed within both religion, denomination and individuals alike, demonstrating the idiosyncrasies, aims and inconsistencies of the white race.
For instance, the Quakers have been described as the ‘good guys’, yet their links to slavery included the infamous David and Alexander of Barclays Bank fame, Francis Baring of Barings Bank and the Quaker merchant Robert King who was Olaudah Equiano’s last owner. Even at the height of their anti-slavery activity and end of slavery, many Quaker meeting houses refused to accept Africans into their congregations.
This was also the situation with the other denominations.
The Church of England had links to slavery through United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) missionary organizations, which had plantations in Barbados. The bishop of Exeter personally owned slaves.
Anglicans involved in slavery often poured their ill-gotten gains into church coffers. And in cities with strong links to the slave trade, such as Bristol, the church bells were peeled when Wilberforce’s anti-slave trade bills were defeated in parliament.
One of the most common conceptions and facts about Christianity was that it turned Africans into servile slaves. A more accurate reading suggests that Africans were enforced to accept Christianity and incorporate some aspect in keeping with their traditional belief systems.
Other Africans withstood centuries of slavery and missionary influence to practice traditional beliefs that thrived despite attempts by the respective authorities to stamp them out.
Meanwhile adherents of African traditional faced restrictions on their ability to practice their African tradition openly. When Nonconformist missionaries stepped up attempts to evangelize Africans during the late 18th century, it was noted that African traditionalist still held on to their tradition as opposed to Christianity.
The Africans who where enforced to Christianity identified closely with the bible’s fallacious take on freedom, equality and justice, especially in drawing parallels between their own situation and that of the Hebrew people in Exodus. Indeed, such was the potency of this Old Testament story that many clergymen were instructed to avoid it in their bible lessons.
But for Africans it demonstrated that God was on the side of the oppressed and would send a Moses to free them. It was ironic to note that for the religiously enslaved Africans, the two continent of the Americas represented the biblical Egypt or Babylon a place from which to escape, whilst for the persecuted European Christians it was seen as the Promised Land.
Finally the relationship between the Christian Church, Islam and the slave trade reveals both shocking complicity and enlightened Africans. The question now is, how should Africans come to terms with this brutal and inhumane facet of its history?
By Ejike Iloduba.
-Pan African researcher, writer and founder of Pan African Liberation Movement[PALM].