Slavery: Revisiting divide-and-rule game


River of Dark Dreams 

By Walter Johnson

Published by Centerpride (2000)

ISBN: 9780674975

“WHEN brothers fight to death, a stranger inherits their father’s estate,” writes renowned African author Chinua Achebe.

With this in mind, when whites set foot in Africa to conquer indigenes, they adopted the divide-and-rule strategy.

A united African front posed a threat to their interests.

Sowing seeds of hatred and fuelling rivalry is what the whiteman did.

All this was done to ensure whites could plunder Africa’s resources at will.

Through slavery, the continent was robbed of human and natural resources.

Slavery stripped off generations of families of their dignity and identity.

This week, the book under review is River of Dark Dreams, a biography of an African slave-raider, written by Walter Johnson.

The book is set in Tanganyika (present day Tanzania), tracing the footsteps of Ali Kalikilima of the Wanyenyembe tribe who sourced slaves on behalf of Arabs, Portuguese and Germans.

In the book The Lunatic Express, Charles Miller explains that; “From the earliest times, slaves were one of the many ‘commodities’ exported from Africa to Arabia, Persia, India and beyond. 

In the 18th Century, the demand increased considerably and Arab trading caravans from Zanzibar penetrated mainland Africa in search of suitable slaves. 

In the interior, the Arab traders would often take advantage of local rivalries and encourage powerful African tribes to capture their enemies and sell them into slavery.”

As rightly explained by Miller, Ali’s family and kin were the wealthy tribes that took advantage of weaker tribes, raided them and sold them to whites.

Ali, who grew up in the village of Kazi (present day Tabora), was “…instructed the art of shooting with a muzzle-loader gun at fourteen by his father.”

Ali remembers his young days that made him value the sense of belonging.

Together, as a society, they had worked to build homes.

“The act of building such a house, the labour, staying with friends while building was underway and the excitement of finally moving in, is symbolic of setting down roots,” writes Johnson.

“Permanent roots, unshakable by the advancement of time or the brutality of man — roots to which one will always return.”

However, it was this same sense of belonging Ali and his men denied fellow blacks from enjoying.

This was because the whiteman had got to him. 

“They (slaves captured) were too young to understand what had happened that day – too young to know that they would never grow to experience the freedom and kinship of their village – too young to know that some might be sold at the Dar es Salaam slave market only to be shipped to faraway lands, perhaps never to walk on their native soil again,” writes Johnson.

Ali, as Johnson writes, went out on his first safari at the age of 14.

Ali set out for his first safari with “…twenty guns, eighteen kegs of gunpowder, thirty boxes of percussion caps for the guns, bales of cloth, rolls of wire and boxes of beads, all for the purposes of bartering and buying slaves.”

Johnson writes of how Ali and his men raided villages for its able-bodied members. 

After the raids, only “…a few old men and women, hunched and painfully thin wandered around, seemingly aimlessly, scraping together a meagre existence” remained.

All this was done to weaken the society.

Without its youth, the society was deprived of development.

These (youths) were shipped to other countries where they were forced to work to develop the host societies.

This left Africa disadvantaged. 

“First, the older men were paraded and graded – they would be sold as common labour to work in fields, tend livestock and perform other such menial tasks,” writes Johnson.

“The women were similarly checked whether they’d be suitable as concubines, or whether they were only fit for use as chamber maids to look after the wives of the buyers.

“It was important to note who was related to who, so that slaves would not live together with their relatives.”

Ali recalls how they ill-treated fellow blacks during the raids and on their way back home to slave markets.

Some Africans, as a result of mental colonialisation, do not take pride in identifying with their true African self.

‘Aspire to be white and condemn everything black’ is the doctrine fed to blacks by whites.

Blacks like Ali looked down upon fellow blacks.

All this was done to please the whiteman. 

New slaves would be yoked on fork-shaped sticks to “…prevent any opportunists from trying to run away during the long journey that lay ahead.”

With a deep sense of belonging which comes from knowledge of one’s identity, Africans can defend and work towards development.

However, whites have destroyed that.

Even today, there are blacks like Ali who are being used by whites to further their agenda.


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