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Africa and Africans

By 1808, the African-born population had become a small minority. Even though 80,000 Africans had been introduced in the previous seven years, and others had been living in the country for years, they represented only a fraction of the 1,377,000 African Americans. It is estimated that less than 15 percent of Northern blacks had come from Africa. Of course, tens of thousands of people born in the United States had parents or grandparents who had been part of the international slave trade; but for others, the African connection was more tenuous, going back to ancestors they had never known.

In this context, the orators' perspectives on Africa and Africans were quite revealing as they considered the place and role of their African past in their American experience. They were proud of being Africans or of African origin. The continent was a blissful, heavenly place of abundance, filled with generous and peaceful people until it was spoiled by slavers. Although highly positive, their perspective was nevertheless Western and paternalistic: Africans were ignorant pagans, innocents living in harmony with nature.

For all its flaws, the speakers' stance was far removed from the white one that saw Africans as bloodthirsty, nonhuman savages who led better lives as slaves than as free people in their homelands. In addition, the orators presented the European and American slavers and slaveholders as vicious brutes, "inhuman wretches," who, "deaf to the cries and shrieks of their agonizing slaves," pillaged and tortured. William Hamilton went as far as comparing whites to the devil:

Some nations have painted their devils in the complexion of a white man. View the history of the slave trade, and then answer the question, could they have made choice of a better likeness to have drawn from? All that slow, sly, artful, wicked, cunning attributed to him, was practised by them. All the insulting scorn, savage cruelty, and tormenting schemes, practised by him, were executed by them.

Although paternalistic towards Africans, the speakers redressed the misconceptions about African history, creating a positive basis upon which to construct a common nationality. They rewrote European and American history as well by exposing its brutality toward Africa and Africans.