The Middle Passage is well known as a factor in the development of “the New World” in the Western Hemisphere and the spread of European influence as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Lesser known is its part in a wider, complex circuit of commerce stretching eastward into Asia. For the French in particular, it enabled them to further Western Imperialism into but south and eastward into Africa, and Asia and the Orient as well. As we shall see, the era of colonialism set the stage current events in the millennium, and the specter of human bondage and servitude lingers on.
Although it established a beachhead in Canada and the U.S. early on (known as the “First” French Empire from 1804 to 1814), the French colonies really gained momentum in the late 19th Century as the French moved to regroup after their defeat (by Germany) in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Expanding their empire through North Africa with Algeria, then south along the coast through Senegal, and inland to Mali, Niger, and other countries along equatorial Africa.
Eager to replenish their coffers (since the war shifted the European balance of power in favor of Germany), they moved into Southeast Asia. Therein they gained a foothold in Japan and Korea, and established French Indochina to the south, which set up the Vietnam War and a blemish on American prestige in the late 20th century.
The Second World War marked the erosion of these territories as both the Allies and Axis forces appropriated these territories in the process of conducting the war.
Uprisings in Algeria and Vietnam in the 1950s accelerated the collapse of this colonial empire, although the French cunningly maintained other, subtle ties and influence to their former dependents.
Setting the stage
Libya, too, has toiled under the lash of European servitude, albeit not by the French. The Spanish (16th century) held sway until the Ottoman (Turkey) Empire expelled them and established dominion there for centuries. Italy pushed them out after the Italo-Turkish War (1911-12) and formed a colony in what is now known as Libya just before World War I.
The aftermath of World War II saw a mass division of former colonies with the British and their French allies sharing jurisdiction of Libya. The newly formed United Nations granted it independence in 1952, with King Idris, the former Emir (“Lord” or “commander-in-chief”) of Cyrenaica as head of state. His reign saw a shift towards Western influences (aided in no small part by U.S. aid, which was prompted by American designs on the country’s developing oil industry). This reliance on outside authority put Idris at odds with the emerging movement of Arab Nationalist.
During the 1950s, Libya became a leading producer and a major supplier of goods destined Europe as it rebuilt itself from the ashes of the World War. France in particular developed an insatiable thirst for Libyan crude, a dependence which will come into play later. This monetary largess did not filter down to the masses, however, and a major factor of dissent was the wide spread corruption and cronyism. By 1969, the momentum of discord came to a head with a coup d’etat (a governmental overthrow or revolution) by disgruntled members of the Libyan Army. At their helm was a charismatic Colonel who would become the international face of the nation: Muammar Gaddafi.
A polarizing figure even today, Gaddafi incurred the disdain of the outside world (especially the U.S.) through his embrace of Pan Arabism, and patronage of controversial groups including the Black Panther Party, the Irish Republican Army, the Nation of Islam, Nicaraguan Sandinistas, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and his opposition to the state of Israel. For a time, he was even linked to the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago street gang.
Even so, under his watch conditions improved for the Libyans as a whole. The literacy rate skyrocketed, and the standard of living soared. Most tellingly, as reported by Foreign Policy Journal:
“Money from oil proceeds was deposited into every Libyan citizen’s bank account.”
These blessings were over shadowed by constant reports of human rights abuses. Real or not, these accusations prompted NATO, with the consent of are President Barack Obama, and his then Secretary of State and Presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton to mount a military intervention in 2011. Coupled with the civil war conducted by native rebels, including the National Transitional Council (NTC) Gaddafi’s loyalists were and the Colonel was either shot or stabbed.
To recap, the nation Gaddafi inherited as one of the poorest in Africa surged to the one with the highest life expectancy and Gross National Product, and with his death it plummeted to (according to the Canadian non-profit media organization, Global Research) “…a failed state and its economy in shambles.”
Resurrecting a shameful legacy
Recent headlines have documented a resurgence of slavery in North Africa specifically in Libya after the country went into chaos after Gaddafi’s overthrow. At this point in the millennium, economic hardship in vast segments of Europe fostered the need for plentiful, cheap labor, which was the prime motivation behind the launch of the Atlantic slave trade centuries before.
Droves of impoverished expatriates from East and West Africa have flocked north not just in search of gainful employment, but to escape the endless cycle of civil war, ineffective and oppressive governments, and instability that are a staple of much of the continent. Scores of news outlets have streamed videos of Africans being sold at open-air auction blocks, similar to those that existed during the Antebellum South. In some respects, this parallels the problems of illegal immigration that plague the southern borders of the United States today.
This, in turn, has sprouted the usual speculation and accusation about who is responsible of this influx of migrants. Among those implicated are Americans Obama and Clinton (see “Africans are being sold at Libyan slave markets. Thanks Hillary Clinton,” from the Nov. 27, 2017 issue of USA Today).
These conditions were absent under the previous regime. “…whatever faults Gaddafi had, (more) Blacks were treated as equals in Libya than in most Arab countries,” former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings declared in the news organ GhanaWeb.
David Horne, professor of African studies at California State Northridge, suggests France as the primary culprit. Gaddaffi threatened to cut off the country’s oil supply, which prompted French opposition to his regime. Therefore, Secretary of State Clinton convinced Obama to get involved (via NATO intervention) for humanitarian reasons. Following this line of reasoning, Gaddaffi was assassinated by proxy (wherein a person acts on behalf of another), with the killers guided by the French Secret Service.
Horne notes that the French have a history of undermining entities formerly under their colonial rule, notably Guinea (during the era of the Marxist leaning Ahmed Sékou Touré), and scenarios played out in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Niger. This global meddling occurs when these upstarts go against French interests, as with the threat of losing Libyan oil.
Counterpoints to this theory involve one Alexandre Djouhri, a Frenchman arrested this month on allegations that he funneled in excess of $6 million (from the Gaddafi family) to fund the 2007election of ex-French President Nicholas Sarkozy, the allegedly man behind Gaddafi’s murder. Djouhri has been released on bail, to the tune of $ 1.35 million.
Other rumors have the overthrow initiated by plans to establish an alternate, Pan-African currency to compete with the French Franc. This new legal tender would have been backed by the vast Libyan gold reserves, estimated at 140 tons.
Resources, human and others
Echoing the utterances of America’s chief executive about his situation at home, European countries overtly complain about the intrusion of these (potentially) lawless undesirables, claiming with some justification that these refugees might over run and destabilize these host nations. But the realities of financial hardship often corrode the precepts of morality and propriety. Since 2009, a wide swath of the European Union has been mired in debt, compounded over previous decades (along with the after shock of the United States’ own previous monetary crisis). The result is a lack of cash flow, especially in Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.
The influx of cheap labor would be an invaluable access as Europe struggles to rebuild itself. Once again, the fruits of Africa beckons for the global community eager to exploit it’s treasures for their own self interest, regardless of the damage inflicted on the Dark Continent.