Africa's White Slaves, White Refugees,
& Black Colonists:

Five taboo truths  your teachers never mentioned

Hadza, East African hunter gatherers in Tanzania
Brian Lüdtke

Brian Lüdtke

Owner and Founder,

24 May 2019

Africa’s long history, like that of Eurasia, embraces innumerable transformations and vicissitudes with the passing of the epochs.  The simplistic narrative that we learned as children contains some truth but fails to convey the whole story.  Especially with the recent advancements in genetic technology, notably scientists’ ability to recover DNA from ancient bones, and thanks to the brilliance of geniuses in the field of genetics such as Harvard professor David Reich, we now can glimpse more of the complexity of the continent’s past.  Below, the author relates five truths that contravene popular views.

Humans did not evolve in Africa only

As more ancient bones are uncovered in Eurasia and Africa, a fuller picture is emerging of human migrations between the continents.  These landmasses have always been connected at the Sinai, but  they are also very nearly connected at the straights of Bab al-Mandab and of Gibraltar — and this was especially the case when sea levels were lower during ice ages.  Homo erectus is known to have ranged widely across Eurasia.

Homo erectus is known to have ranged widely across both Africa and Eurasia

Surprisingly-scattered ancient bones of Homo sapiens have turned up in many recent discoveries: 300,000-year-old anatomically-modern human bones in Morocco, within sight of Spain; 200,000-year-old human bones in Israel; and 44,000-year-old human bones in Spain.  Importantly, scientists have demonstrated that all non-Africans have some ancestry from Neanderthals, and non-Africans outside of Europe also have genes from another extinct hominoid, dubbed the Denisovan.  (Ethiopians and East Africans do have Neanderthal blood because they have Eurasian ancestry, as described below.)  Neither Neanderthals nor Denisovans existed at all in Africa, although there is evidence in the DNA of West Africans for another archaic human, a shadowy species whose bones have not yet been discovered.  (Given the wet and hot conditions of West Africa, researchers are struggling to find ancient bones there.)

Simplistic racial terms like "White" and "Black" don't reflect the complex reality

While 19th-century concepts such as “white” and “black” are not entirely devoid of truth, they do distort and obscure the full reality. For one thing, modern Europeans are the result of race mixing of antecedent archaic races which no longer exist in “pure” form (each of these races was itself the result of even earlier race mixing; in fact, human history is the story of never-ending race mixing). 10,000 years ago, Europeans all had dark skin and blue eyes. White skin came from the Middle Eastern farmers who arrived about 8,000 years ago. Then blonde hair, a totally new language, and new technologies (the wheel, the cart, and horse domestication) arrived with the Yamnaya people, the founders of Indo-European languages.  

The Yamnaya derived from mixing with the archetypal Caucasians and with hunter gatherers of the ancient north Eurasian steppes, who were themselves related to Native Americans.  (Northern Europeans, because they have more Yamnaya blood, are more closely related to Native Americans than Southern Europeans.)  Before successfully spreading their genes to the four corners, pushing south into India and west into Europe, the Yamnaya were nomadic herders of the steppes around modern-day Ukraine. 

Like Europeans, Africans have an incredibly complex ancestry that clashes with the false simplicity of “white” and “black.” For example, the Khoisan hunter-gatherers split from non-Khoisan humans approximately 100,000 or 150,000 years ago. They are as closely related to the Bantu as they are to Han Chinese; in other words, they are only distantly related to the black population that prevails in much of Central Africa and West Africa.  The Bantu arrived in southern Africa centuries ago, like the Boer, not many millennia ago as one might assume.

Eden & Takoda Lüdtke
Eden & Takoda Lüdtke

As mentioned above, in West Africa people get some of their DNA — about 8% — from an archaic, now-extinct hominid.  In Central Africa, one would need to go back 60,000 to 70,000 years to find a common ancestor between the Pygmies and the Bantu.  Interestingly, although the Pygmy population today is much smaller than that of the Bantu, the pygmies today nevertheless have much more genetic diversity, which indicates that in the past the pygmies were more numerous and widespread than the Bantu

Indigenous East Africans, all hunter-gatherers, had very deep divergences from other groups, such as Nilotic pastoralists and the Bantu. Thus, many present-day Africans had already split off from each other at the time of the hypothesized main “Out of Africa” migration of Homo sapiens into Eurasia, which occurred sometime before 50,000 years ago.

Whites have lived in Africa for many thousands of years

The Ancient Egyptians were closely related to other people in the Middle East with skin of a light color. Only in recent centuries have Egyptians acquired a higher pencentage of sub-Saharan DNA. Ancient Egyptians shared about 10% of their DNA with sub-Saharan Africans, while modern Egyptians share roughly 18% of their DNA with darker-skinned Africans. 

Farmers with white skin from the Middle East massively migrated into the Horn of Africa and East Africa roughly 3,000 years ago.  Although no written documents record why or how they made this trek of Biblical proportions, the genetic impact is clear in ancient bones and also in the DNA of people currently living in those areas.  Ethiopians derive a large percentage of their DNA from these whites , roughly 40% to 50%, while other populations in East Africa have a smaller percentage.  (By contrast, Central Africans and West Africans do not have any detectable trace of Eurasian blood.)    

Interestingly, around 3,000 years ago, much of the ancient world experienced the Late Bronze Age collapse, a Dark Age when civilization in Greece and Egypt fell into chaos and turmoil, marked by the fall of governments and the arrival of mysterious “sea peoples.” Were these Mediterranean sea peoples the same population that eventually moved into East Africa? Or did they attack and dislocate tribes in Egypt or the Levant, sending these other groups into Africa to seek safety? As more ancient bones are discovered and analyzed for their DNA evidence, perhaps in the coming years the picture will become more clear.

An Ethiopian, Amharic-speaking girl
An Ethiopian girl

Some 19th-century colonists landing on Africa's shores were... black?

Liberia, a West African country whose capital is named after a president of the United States, was founded by freed American slaves. Originally envisioned by the American Colonization Society (ACS), a non-profit group of white American philanthropists, the new country was conceived as having a special purpose: it would solve two perceived problems simultaneously. It would “improve” the racial demographics of the United States by sending blacks back to Africa; it would spread Christianity to African heathens. Liberian settlers would live a righteous life as honest farmers and they would serve as missionaries and as models to the tribes along the Grain Coast.

A 19th-century illustration depicting Americo-Liberian settlements on the Grain Coast
A 19th-century illustration depicting Americo-Liberian settlements on the Grain Coast
Arriving in Liberia, things quickly got off track.  The settlers who survived the acclimatization to the country’s malarious rainforest found that trading with the indigenous tribes brought more profit than the North American farming practices they knew.  The settlers imposed a caste system where the local Africans had the lowest status; meanwhile, the Americo-Liberians and Kongos (people from other African regions rescued from slave ships by the British Navy and dropped off in Liberia or Sierra Leone) had guns and thus political power.  However, the Liberian experiment was not exactly a failure: the area went from its ambiguous status as the project of a private organization (the ACS) to enjoying internationally-recognized borders (something modern-day Somaliland and Artsakh have not gained even after thirty years of independence); a semblance of constitutional rule with a claim to being Africa’s first black republic; and eventually, relative prosperity with major foreign investment, especially in rubber plantations and processing.
J.J. Roberts and wife Jane, of Virginia, first president and first lady of Liberia
J.J. Roberts and wife Jane, of Virginia, the first president and the founding first lady of Liberia

Thousands of European refugees fled Europe and sought safety in Tanzania

After Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin made a deal to invade Poland from the east and from the west, dividing it in half, the communist dictator committed his usual crimes against humanity, imposing slave labor and relocation on hundreds of thousands of Poles.  He moved families and communities to Siberia and other regions of the USSR, where they worked as slaves as they slowly starved to death, bringing profit to the regime as they burnt off their pre-existing body fat.

After Hitler broke the deal by invading the USSR itself in June 1941, Stalin made an arrangement with exiled Polish forces, whereby Stalin released some of the women and children if the men would fight Hitler.  (Hundreds of thousands of other Poles were not released; thousands were murdered when they refused Soviet citizenship and permanent relocation within the USSR.) 

After they escaped from the USSR, approximately 12,500 of these Poles were resettled in Africa, with about half relocating to villages in the Tanganyika Territory of British East Africa (modern-day mainland Tanzania).   Unlike British colonists, the Poles lived simply and socialized freely with local tribes.  In the years after the end of WWII, most of the Poles moved again and ended up in North America, Europe, or Australia.  Sadly, Poland would not be free from tyrannical communist dictatorship until 1989.

Thousands of Europeans were kidnapped by African slave ships

In the 17th century, a staggering number of Europeans — at least hundreds of thousands, but probably around 1.3 million — were kidnapped at sea, or even captured in their home towns, and sold into slavery in Africa.  This was akin to a veritable second Viking Age, an era of random terror.  Even looking only at specific nationalities and within a narrow range of years, the quantity of people put into bondage is shocking.  For example, between the years of 1677 and 1680, approximately 9,000 British subjects were taken into slavery by North African pirates, otherwise known as corsairs of the Barbary Coast.

A few of the slaving raids deserve special mention.  In 1627, African pirates raided Iceland and carried away more than 400 men, women, and children.  In subsequent years, a few of these Icelanders managed to escape their bondage and make it home, arriving back in ones and twos.  In 1631, led by an Irish guide, Barbary Coast pirates descended on the protestant Irish village of Baltimore, carrying off virtually the entire community, including 50 children.  Several ships carrying immigrants to the Americas were intercepted by the corsairs; for countless families, the American dream degenerated into a North African hell.  

Of course, the Atlantic slave trade in black Africans, which took place during this same time, constituted an even greater crime against humanity, with something like 12 or 13 million people captured and sold into slavery.

The Slave Market, by Gustave Boulanger, depicting 17th-century slave dealing in Algiers

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