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Myth, not history, from UWI academics

28 March 2008 • 800 words

In our Association’s view, this mythologizing of history to serve ethnic agendas is neither innocuous nor benign. It points to a corrupting of intellectual standards for political ends and, as 20th-century history has well demonstrated, this is a recipe for backwardness and even disaster.

A recent publication, sponsored by the Foreign Affairs Ministry and produced by UWI academics, shows the danger of letting politics taint academia.

Published as an eight-page supplement in the newspaper to mark the “International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade”, the articles by lecturers from UWI’s History Department offer as historical fact arguments which are at best speculative and at worse false.

One article by African History lecturer Fitzroy Baptiste notes, correctly, that there was an Iron Age in Africa in terms of the use of smelted iron. But Baptiste places this development between 8,000 and 1,000 BC, and writes as though this technology was common in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, smelting was 2,000 years in advance of the 19th-century Bessemer furnaces of Europe and America, and was largely confined to Africa’s Sahel zone until the Bantu conquest, as ethnologist Jared Diamond puts it, turned Africa black from 1000 BCE. Most absurdly, Baptiste writes that the “Proto-Mande five thousand years ago knew of the existence of Sirius B.” This is a dwarf star that cannot be seen with the naked eye because of the light cast by its larger companion, Sirius. Yet Baptiste claims that the Proto-Mande knew about this star from “clear-night star-gazing” and shared this attainment with Egypt, Kush and Ethiopia. Yet Sirius B is not recorded on any of the astronomical charts of the ancient Egyptians, and the other two societies left no such records.

Michael Toussaint, a lecturer in African Diaspora History at UWI, puts forward the long-disproved claim by Ivan Van Sertima, outlined in his book They Came before Columbus, that “a significant body of evidence has been unearthed to suggest that native Africans were in our space long before Columbus.” There is, in fact, no such evidence, but Toussaint asserts that van Sertima’s thesis has been rejected “because of two ontological realities: he was black and had challenged the pedagogical status quo”. But, as historians Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Gabriel Haslip-Viera, and Warren Barbour show in their article “They were NOT Here before Columbus” (Ethnohistory, Vol. 44, No. 2. (Spring, 1997), pp. 199-234), the reasons for rejection is simply because the argument has no basis in history, anthropology, linguistics, or archaeology. “The most problematical aspect of Van Sertima's arguments is his total disregard for time and cultural sequences,” write the authors. “For example, Van Sertima proposes the diffusion of cultural traits from the ancient Nile Valley civilizations to Mesoamerica (ca. 1200 or 680 B.C.) and uses as evidence the existence of Mesoamerican traits that are chronologically hundreds if not thousands of years later without demonstrating how these traits were present in Mesoamerica in the intervening time periods.”

As for the giant heads with supposedly Negroid features which are the cornerstone of van Sertima’s thesis, the authors observe that “broad noses, and full or everted lips with "Mongoloid" eyes are quite commonplace among the Burmese, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Malays, Filipinos, Polynesians, and the other populations of eastern Asia and the Pacific region.”

Then Caribbean History lecturer John Campbell describes slavery in Africa as “often benign and voluntary”, a picture which bears little relationship to the frequent pre-European tribal wars in which women were the main booty. While some African societies did have paternalistic systems, Egypt, Sudan and Zanzibar had plantation slaves, and slave mortality rates were very high in Tanganyika and Zaire. Campbell also writes that the “continent of Africa is accepted as the cradle of human civilisation and that all human beings are today recognised as emanating from a common hominid species that also originated from Africa.” The latter is true, the former is not. The earliest civilisations, as defined by large settlements, a hierarchical social order, specialised workers and writing systems, were the Harrapans of the Indus Valley; the Sumerians of present-day Iraq; and the Egyptians in northern Africa. While Mesopotamia has been typically identified as the cradle of civilisation, the 1999 discovery of a 5,500-year-old tablet at Harrapa has persuaded many scholars to move this cradle to the Indus region – because, Toussaint should note, in this case the evidence has been presented.

Lastly, and inevitably, Caribbean History lecturer Heather Cateau re-hashes the thesis of Dr Eric Williams that profits from slavery financed the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Apart from the highly questionable idea that profits alone make for scientific advances, several economic historians have analysed the profits from the Atlantic slave trade and concluded that the trade, per se, could not have financed the various inventions that brought about this crucial advance in human development.

In our Association’s view, this mythologizing of history to serve ethnic agendas is neither innocuous nor benign. It points to a corrupting of intellectual standards for political ends and, as 20th-century history has well demonstrated, this is a recipe for backwardness and even disaster.

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