In part 1 of this write-up, I strongly discussed the importance of history and why it must be re-introduced into Nigerian schools’ syllabi. It is with great nostalgia I recall our history lectures in most primary and secondary schools.
Can you believe that in the primary school (St. Mary’s Catholic Primary School, now Athekhai Primary School, Iviukwe, my hometown, near Agenebode), we were already taught deep history concerning important world affairs?
In primary school in the rustic village environment of Iviukwe, we were taught by renowned teachers like Dakpokpo, Iboi, Eshiebor, Obagidi, Mayaki Elomhi, Agwanyeokhai, Kadiri, Akpeokhai, Ikhane, Onemhegbai, Aipoh, etc. One teacher usually took all the subjects, ranging from Arithmetic, English, Civic Education, History, Handwriting, to Nature Study. We started with chalk on black slates; graduated to using wooden pen holder and later, in primary six, to fountain pen.
We would fetch firewood for our teachers, carry out work in their farms, went through the caves and hills to fetch stagnant spirogyra-infested water for them, which would then be treated with allum. To be a class monitor was a special honour and privilege. And for at least three of my six years in the primary school, I was one. It was a great honour (to the envy of other pupils), to carry the table, with the class bell on top, from the classroom to the teacher’s house during holidays. What honour was greater than being the class monitor who kept time, rang the bell for morning assembly, closing time, prayer time, and recesses?
In primary school, we acted drama, participated in debates, recited poems, quoted memorised history, etc. Guess what? We acted “The Trials of Brother Jerro” by Wole Soyinka, in my final year (1969) in the primary school!
Some defining historical facts and figures
Can you believe we were taught about the 300-year-old Slave Trade (1856 – 1915), Booker T. Washington, an African-American educator, orator, author and advisor to many Presidents of America. We were taught that Mary Slessor (1848 – 1915) was a Scottish Presbyterian missionary to Nigeria, who arrived Calabar, learnt the Efik language and taught the native people Christianity in their native language. The most famous act Slessor is remembered for is that she stopped the then prevalent practice of infanticide of twins among the Ibibio people. By the time she died in 1915 at a mere 66, she had become famous for Christian missionary work in Africa, women’s rights and rescuing children from infanticide.
Lady Florence Nightingale
Were we not taught about Lady Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910), the English social reformer and founder of modern-day nursing profession? She organised training courses for nurses during the Crimean war, caring for wounded soldiers. One of her most famous quotes that we were taught was that “It may seem a strange principle to enunciate as the very first requirement in a hospital that it should do the sick no harm.”
George Washington Carver
We studied the history of George Washington Carver (1864 – 1943) in primary school. A professor at Tuskegee Institute, USA, the African-American agricultural scientist and inventor actively promoted alternative crops to cotton, and developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated planting of cotton.
You can see from my reminiscences and recollection of history that we learnt about 50 years ago why I was deeply pained about the deletion of history from Nigerian schools syllabi.
The Slave Trade
We were also taught about the Atlantic or Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, which for about 300 years led to enslavement and transportation of Africans from their various settlements to mainly America. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, we witnessed this inhuman, degrading and heinous triangular trade route merchantilism that involved indigenes of mostly of Central and West African countries. Started by the Portuguese in 1526, they completed the first trans-atlantic slave voyage to Brazil, prompting other European countries to follow immediately.
The slaves were regarded by the transporting shipowners as cargo to be sold in America, to work in coffee, tobacco, sugar, cocoa and cotton plantations. They also worked in gold and silver mines, rice fields, construction industry, etc. They hewed timber for the building of ships. They were used as skilled labour and as domestic servants. The evils of slave trade were perpetrated by the British, French, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish empires. Many of these countries established outposts on the African continent where they purchased slaves from local African leaders and merchants.
While awaiting shipment, packed like sardines, slaves were first kept in factories. Over 12 million people were involved in this inhuman exploitation for over 400 years.
We were taken through the trajectory of abolitionists of slave trade. We read about Thomas Clarkson (1760 – 1846), William Cowper (1731 – 1800), Olaudah Equiano (1745 – 1797), Alexander Falconbridge (1792), Elizabeth Heyrick (1769 – 1831), Toussaint Louverture (1743 – 1803), John Newton (1725 – 1807), and Mary Prince.
Serial campaigns, especially by William Wilberforce, led to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Wilberforce died just three days after hearing the good news of the passage of the act through Parliament.
It was Abraham Mauri Lincoln, American President, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 1863. The passage of the 13th Amendment (ratified in December 1865) finally abolished slavery in America, with over 50,000 slave freed in Kentucky and Delaware.
Henry the Navigator
Let us examine in detail the life, times and contributions of Henry the Navigator, another great historical figure we learnt about in the primary school.
Henry the Navigator was born in 1394 in Porto, Portugal
In 1415, Henry, his father and his older brothers led an attack on Ceuta, a town in Morocco, along the Strait of Gibraltar. The attack succeeded, and Ceuta fell under Portuguese control. Henry became fascinated with Africa, a continent about which the Portuguese knew little. He thereafter developed a desire to learn about the Muslims who lived there, primarily in hopes of conquering them and spreading Christianity. And he became aware of Africa’s many resources, which he hoped to exploit for Portugal’s gain.
Under his patronage, Portuguese crews founded the country’s first colonies and visited regions previously unknown to Europeans. Henry is regarded as an originator of the “Age of Discovery” and dubiously, of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Henry the navigator’s significance in history
Henry is often credited with beginning the Age of Discovery, the period during which European nations expanded their reach to Africa, Asia and the Americas. Henry himself was neither a sailor nor a navigator, his name notwithstanding. He did, however, sponsor many exploratory sea voyages, along the West African coast. In 1415, his ships reached the Canary Islands, which had already been claimed by Spain. In 1418, the Portuguese came upon the Madeira Islands and established a colony at Porto Santo.
In addition to sponsoring exploratory voyages, Henry is also credited with furthering knowledge of geography, mapmaking and navigation. He started a school for navigation in Sagres, on the southwestern tip of Portugal, where he employed cartographers, shipbuilders and instrument-makers. It was from Lagos, near Sagres, that many of his sponsored trips began.
Henry has the dubious distinction of being a founder of the Atlantic slave trade. He sponsored Nuno Tristao’s exploration of the African coast, and Antao Goncalves’s hunting expedition there in 1441. The two men captured several Africans and brought them back to Portugal. One of the captured men, a chief, negotiated his own return to Africa, promising in exchange to provide the Portuguese with more Africans. Within a few years, Portugal was deeply involved in the slave trade.
Henry died in 1460 in Sagres, Portugal. By the time of his death, Portuguese explorers and traders had advanced as far as the region of modern-day Sierra Leone. It would be another 28 years before Vasco da Gama, under the Portuguese flag, would sail clear around Africa and complete an expedition to India.
Vasco da Gama (1460/1469 – December 24, 1524)
Vasco da Gama was the third son of Estêvão da Gama, a minor provincial nobleman who was commander of the fortress of Sines on the coast of Alentejo Province in south-western Portugal. Little is known of his early life. In 1492, King John II of Portugal sent him to the port of Setúbal, south of Lisbon, and to the Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost province, to seize French ships in retaliation for French peacetime depredations against Portuguese shipping — a task that da Gama rapidly and effectively performed.
The first voyage
Da Gama sailed from Lisbon on July 8, 1497, with a fleet of four vessels — two medium-sized, three-masted sailing ships, each of about 120 tons, named the “São Gabriel” and the “São Rafael,” a 50-ton caravel, named the “Berrio,” and a 200-ton store ship. With Da Gama’s fleet went three interpreters — two Arabic speakers and one who spoke several Bantu dialects. The fleet also carried padrões (stone pillars) to set up as marks of discovery.
Passing the Canary Islands on July 15, the fleet reached São Tiago (Santiago) in the Cape Verde Islands on the 26th, remaining there until August 3. Then, to avoid the currents of the Gulf of Guinea, Da Gama undertook a long detour through the South Atlantic before attempting to round the Cape of Good Hope. The fleet reached Santa Helena Bay (in modern South Africa) on November 7. Unfavourable winds and the adverse current delayed the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope until November 22. Three days later, Da Gama anchored in Mossel Bay, erected a padrão on an island, and ordered the storeship to be broken up. Sailing again on December 8, the fleet reached the coast of Natal on Christmas Day. On January 11, 1498, it anchored for five days near the mouth of a small river between Natal and Mozambique, which they called the Rio do Cobre (Copper River). On January 25, in what is now Mozambique, they reached the Quelimane River, which they called the Rio dos Bons Sinais (the River of Good Omens), and erected another padrão. By this time, many of the crewmen were sick with scurvy; the expedition rested a month while the ships were repaired.
On March 2, the fleet reached the Island of Mozambique, the inhabitants of which believed the Portuguese to be Muslims like themselves. Da Gama learned that they traded with Arab merchants and that four Arab vessels laden with gold, jewels, silver, and spices were then in port; he was also told that Prester John, the long-sought Christian ruler, lived in the interior but held many coastal cities. The Sultan of Mozambique supplied Da Gama with two pilots, one of whom deserted when he discovered that the Portuguese were Christians.
(To be continued)
Thought for the week
“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods when there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” (Harry S. Truman)