Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister (and, now, for Levelling Up) has come under attack for an off-hand remark she made on colonialism some years ago. In a leaked WhatsApp exchange, according to VICE World News, Badenoch wrote, ‘I don’t care about colonialism because [I] know what we were doing before colonialism got there. They came in and just made a different bunch of winners.’
What did she mean? The reporter from VICE offers an interpretation:, ‘The British Empire and its European counterparts believed in the superiority of white people, and indigenous groups experienced extreme exclusion, displacement and violence in order for the British to take control.’ And the source of the leak, Funmi Adebayo, founding CEO of the Black Monologues, justified sharing the messages by arguing that someone ‘with this level of ignorance, who doesn’t understand the history’ shouldn’t be given responsibility for managing international relations, given Badenoch’s additional Foreign Office portfolio.
In fact, Badenoch – who grew up in Nigeria – has a far better grasp of Africa and its history than her critics. She is clearly referring to the fact that centuries before European colonisers arrived, Africans were enslaving other Africans, mostly by capturing them in wars and raids, and sometimes taking them instead of debt. Often slaves were destined for profitable export, first to Roman markets and then to Arab ones. But they also had their local uses, which included supplying victims for human sacrifices. Such sacrifices served a variety of purposes: sometimes to appease the gods, but more often to supply a deceased master with servants in the afterlife, to make a conspicuous display of extravagant wealth, and to intimidate onlookers. Although wives, favourites, women, and foreigners were liable to serve as victims, slaves were the main source. Commonly, their fate was to be buried alive.
What’s more, while the British did follow Arabs and Africans into the slave trade, they were the first to repent of it — and of the ugly racism behind it.