Since the 15th century when the Europeans established permanent contact with Africa, so much has been written about the various divergent accounts of earliest European contact with different parts of Africa. On the contrary, little has been written and lend credence to concerning how Africans perceived the Europeans on their arrival or first European contact with Africans, African perception of trans-Atlantic slave trade and fate of the captives carted away to plantations in the New World, on European ships via the Atlantic Ocean. Documented records of this period of contact between Europeans and Africans were written by Europeans from their own point of view and most times skewed and biased based on the fact that Europeans cannot wrap their mind around culture so different from theirs. So Europeans put to record some gratuitous things about Africans like referring to Africans as brutes, savages, and cannibals (which Europe later became obsessed with), and sometimes giving weird, funny and imagined description of Africans. Unfortunately these accounts were repeated on prodigious scale in many books around Europe which greatly contributed to how many Europeans perceived Africans to this day.
Here little attempt will be made to show how Africans of Central African region (Congo precisely) perceived the arrival of the Europeans and their impression of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
(The following is excerpt taken from the book entitled: King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild)
Except for Affonso’s letters, the written record of these times still shows them entirely through white men’s eyes. How did the Europeans, beginning with Diogo Cao and his three ships with faded red cross on their sails, appear to the people living at the great river’s mouth? To see with their eyes, we must turn to the myths and legends that have filtered down over the centuries. At first, Africans apparently saw the white sailors not as men but as vumbi – ancestral ghosts –since the Kongo people believed that a person’s skin changed to the color of chalk when he passed into the land of the dead. And it was obvious that this was where these menacing white vumbi had come from, for the people on the shore saw first the tips of an approaching ship’s masts, then its superstructure, then it hull. Clearly the ship had carried its passengers up from their homes beneath the surface of the earth. Here is how the Portuguese arrival was recounted by Mukunzo Kioko, a twentieth –century oral historian of the Pende People:
Our fathers were living comfortably. . . They had cattle and
crops; they had salt marshes and banana trees.
Suddenly they saw a big boat rising out of the great ocean.
This boat had wings all white, sparkling like knives.
White men came out of the water and spoke words which no
Our ancestors took fright; they said that these were vumbi ,
spirits returned from the dead.
They pushed them back into the ocean with volleys of arrows.
But the vumbi spat fire with a noise of thunder. Many men were
Killed. Our ancestors fled.
The chiefs and wise men said that these vumbi were the for-
mer possessors of the land. . .
From that time to our days now, whites vumbi have brought us
nothing but wars and miseries.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade seemed further confirmation that Europeans had come from the land of the dead, for after they took their shiploads of slaves out to sea, the captives never returned. Just as Europeans would be long obsessed with African cannibalism, so Africans imagined Europeans practicing the same thing. The whites were thought to turn their captives’ flesh into salt meat, their brains into cheese, and their blood into the red wine Europeans drank. African bones were burned, and the gray ash became gunpowder. The huge, smoking copper cooking kettles that could be seen on sailing vessels were, it was believed, where all these deadly transformation began. The death tolls on the packed slave ships that sailed west from Congo coast rose higher still when some slaves refused to eat the food they were given, believing that they would be eating those who had ailed before them.
As the years passed, new myths rose to explain the mysterious objects the strangers brought from the land of the dead. A nineteenth-century missionary recorded, for example, an African explanation of what happened when captains descended into the holds of their ships to fetch trading goods like cloth. The Africans believed that these goods came not from the ship itself but from a hole that led into the ocean. Sea sprites weave this cloth in an “oceanic factory, and whenever we need cloth, the captain… goes to this hole rings a bell.” The sea sprites hand him up their cloth, and the captain “then throws in, as payment, a few dead bodies of black people he has bought from those bad native traders who have bewitched their people and sold them to the white men.” The myth was not so far from reality. For what was slavery in the American south, after all, but a system for transforming the labor of black bodies, via cotton plantations, into cloth?