In several posts over the past months, passing reference has been made to the fact that European explorers and conquerors were accompanied in the “New World” by Africans, many of whom were enslaved. Yet in most cases, until recently, people of African heritage were historical footnotes, if mentioned at all. For example, it is not an exaggeration to say that the white American explorers Lewis and Clark and Robert Peary would not have accomplished their missions into the Pacific Northwest and up to the North Pole without the skill and knowledge of York or Matthew Henson. In promoting the expansion and revision of the story, we are increasingly aware of the deliberate omission of the contributions of African people in order to maintain Euro-centric national myths.
European and American whites on these ventures realized what human resources were required. The success of any undertaking in the New World depended upon each person’s skill, knowledge, and talent. The selection of crew and team by most of these men, whether in the name of Spain or England or the United States, was intentional, not random, in the same way that after “discovery” or exploration the selection of African captives to perform the difficult work of development – such as building structures, husbandry, metal working, crop production, and militia – was intentional. Colonists, planters, and national founders were aware of the requirement to progress, and brute labor which historically has characterized the contribution of enslaved Africans was not their only consideration.
Reviewing the intense historical exchange between Africans and Europeans, especially since the Renaissance, one other attribute should be factored into the equation. With removal from a “home” culture, Africans who accompanied these European and American explorers, whether enslaved or not, became accustomed to surviving in bi- or multi-cultural environments. They normally spoke more than one language; they applied, selected, and adapted portions of cultures and belief systems from other groups; and they learned to navigate life more fluidly than the European. The role of facilitator, interpreter, negotiator, and guide was frequently assumed by the accompanying African. Esteban De Dorantes, the Moroccan who explored the southwest, had a reputation for easing entry for the Spanish explorers into Native American enclaves. Edward Curtis, the famous photographer and ethnologist, related that during the late 19th century when visiting a Plains tribe he asked about a group of darker Indian children. He was told that they were the children of York, the explorer who was accompanied by two white men. The entire historical reference was reversed – York was the main character because he had the ability to relate to and integrate himself with the indigenous people, while the white men (Lewis and Clark) were almost incidental, relatively unimportant to the Native Americans.
The social duality of African descended people who live in European dominated cultures was proffered by W. E. B. Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk (1903). Whether in Southeast Asia or the United States, this continued definition of self as “other” has, perhaps, given the Western Hemisphere’s people of color an intrinsic ability to relate to the unfamiliar. It is something that should be explored in a historical context. What also has occurred in many cases is a willingness to not pre-judge differences, to maintain a curiosity about the unfamiliar, and to demonstrate an absence of entitlement or sense of superiority when interacting with strangers. These could be the origins of the development of a global humanity. They certainly were traits that, in the past, were used to the advantage of our standard history books’ acknowledged explorers.
As nations continue to push agendas of limited and self-defined interests, world citizens would be best served to employ the skills of these past facilitators. Where we could differ from them today would be to examine the real purpose and projected possible outcomes of these agendas. Our ancestors worked not on behalf of themselves or the people that were conquered but for a very narrow group of benefactors. In fact, in most cases, after the ventures were completed, not only were they not included in the story, but they were often returned to enslavement. Rather than benefiting personally from their talents and skills, they were once again relegated to an inferior and degrading status. Both York and Esteban are prime examples, and in many ways our war veterans of Vietnam and the Middle East are also experiencing this. Once again, this project asks that the role of Africans and their descendants in history be further examined and shared.