‘African Kings’ Book Offers New Way to View Slave Trade’s Roots

Editor’s Note: In honor of Juneteenth, June 19, 2020, SUM is republishing this important story from our archives about Professor Herman Bennett’s book on an overlooked aspect of the history of slavery.


The enslavement of Africans by Europeans unfolded over four centuries. But conventional narratives of slavery often reduce that complicated history to “a singular phenomenon mediated through liberalism’s 19th century prism,” writes Professor Herman L. Bennett (The Graduate Center, CUNY). In his new book, African Kings and Black Slaves: Sovereignty and Dispossession in the Early Modern Atlantic, Bennett seeks to “disrupt” prevailing notions about slavery by focusing on encounters that started in the 15th century.

A defining feature of this early period was how the Spanish and Portuguese showed deference to African rulers. The Iberians used royal titles to address them and engaged in elaborate ceremonies acknowledging their political power. Recounting one well-documented meeting between the Portuguese and a local ruler, Bennett said: “The story we often tell is that the Portuguese would have just run roughshod on this individual, but there’s an elaborate dance that all sides acknowledge.” The relationship, he added, was “not simply a story of apotheosis, of the arrival of the white gods.”

As part of this acknowledgement of power, the Portuguese and others made “radical distinctions between those who are sovereign and those who are sovereignless,” Bennett said. In the eyes of the Iberians, “those who are sovereignless are legitimately enslaved.”

The book also explores the use of Catholic dogma and institutions to justify the early slave trade. Bennett quotes from one 15th century chronicle that describes the “joy” a Portuguese prince felt as he contemplated religious “salvation” for a group of captives: “Though their bodies were now brought into subjection, that was a small matter in comparison of their souls.”

In a recent talk at The Graduate Center, Bennett said “there’s a reason” why this era has been ignored. “There’s a politics to history,” he said. This reconsideration of “the complexities that framed the encounter with Africa” not only reshapes our understanding of slavery, but has “implications” for “narrating the history of Europe.”

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Bonus Content

"African Kings, Iberian Traders, and Slavery's True Origins" (GC News)
"The Best Black History Books of 2018" (African American Intellectual History Society)