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Squaring the Triangle (BBC Radio 4)

Presenter: Henry Bonsu
Producer: Jolyon Jenkins
Date: 19, 26 March 2007
Time: 8.00pm

In this programme journalist Henry Bonsu travels to Ghana to examine the African involvement and resistance in the Atlantic slave trade. Interviewing historians, archaeologists as well as local Ghanaian chiefs and examining the sites of imprisonment and opposition, Bonsu uncovers the hidden history of complicity and rebellion.

Bonsu discusses the painful history of African involvement in the slave trade but locates a far more complex and varied story. Enslavement is shown to be a system which tainted European and African alike. Refusing what is referred to as the 'Roots version' of slavery, of slavery being inflicted upon Africa by white Europeans, the programme confronts some difficult topics. The slavery present in African societies before the Atlantic system is highlighted and conflicting perspectives are explored. The internal Ghanaian Diaspora is considered as the history of kidnapping, wars and raids within the region are presented. This gives an opportunity of personal reflection by Bonsu as he learns that his own tribe, the Ashanti, spearheaded many of the raids to enslave people. These issues are developed further when the extent of the slave markets in Ghana which fed the Atlantic system is made known. Professor David Richardson informs the audience that the process of enslaving 12 million people would have required a mutual acceptance of procedural rules between Europeans and indigenous slave traders. The extent of this collaboration, whilst accepted by Bonsu is disputed by others, though this is downplayed by the programme. Bonsu speaks to a Ghanaian Tribal Chief who views this interpretation of history as further evidence of 'the white man' oppressing the African. Not content to enslave millions the Chief says, 'the white man put the idea in the head that the African sold you.' This is where the programme begins to use terms such as 'race-traitors.' The harshness of this label is mediated somewhat by further perspectives, one commentator notes, 'I blame everybody. It is not a romantic story.' The notion of complicity in slavery is dismissed as unimportant however when the concept of pan-Africanism is raised. Enslavement is seen as the medium through which the notion of an 'African identity' as a means of resistance is generated across the Diaspora.

It is these ideas which direct the programme onto the area of the memory of enslavement, on a global perspective, but also specifically in Britain. As the Abolition Act of 1807 is commemorated, reveals Bonsu, many 'resent the view of Abolition as being the result of the work of white Europeans such as Wilberforce.' This leads the programme into the celebration of resistances and revolts by enslaved men and women. As well as everyday resistances of working slowly and escaping, the slave rebellions on Jamaica and Haiti are discussed. This is presented as an antidote to the apparent bias in the British commemoration, which forgets the strength of men and women who refused enslavement, and instead focuses upon the work carried out in the British parliament. With a sense of indignation the power of enslaved individuals to overcome a brutal system to retain aspects of their own indigenous culture and identity is marvelled at. Aimed at revisionism of the history of the slave trade the programme forces a reconsideration of the enslaved African as a passive victim, rather the notions of resistance and complicity are used to stress the agency of individuals. The notion of identity is overwhelmingly present throughout; how slavery forged identity, how identity can be rediscovered and the complex issues of that identity are brought to the foreground. Those from the African Diaspora are asked to re-examine their notions of enslavement, the so-called Roots version. Those who do not associate themselves with the Diaspora are presented with a complex picture of enslavement beyond that of the 1807 Abolition.

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