By, John J White, III
Originally Published in The Midwestern Epigraphic Society Newsletter Volume 25
Ivan Van Sertima and Barry Fell made major impacts on the ancient history establishment in 1976 when they published their famous books. The MES joined forces with Barry Fell in 1983 and soon acquired the eastern Kentucky Ogham sites as a primary interest. The question of looking into the findings of Ivan Van Sertima, Thor Heyerdahl, George Carter, Clyde Keeler, or many others could not be given a large share of the precious energy available. With the passing of Victor Moseley before the Kentucky work was finished, the MES was responsive only to new opportunities that were easily acquired. These were Joe Mahan (ISAC), Cyclone Covey, Ethel Stewart, Zena Halpern, and Russell Burrows (Burrows Cave) plus some notable locals like Hu McCulloch, Bill Conner, Victor Kachur, and Ken Zimmerman.
Mahan, Covey, and Stewart had interest in Asia (Native American origins) Fell was the expert on Polynesia and North Africa and there was little American interest in sub-Saharan Africa, except for Van Sertima and his impressive underlying Journal of African Civilizations. Fell gave some attention to Van Sertima, but as fortune would have it, there appeared more dividends to be reaped but responding to South African experts, such as Raymond Dart and Credo Mutwa. The reports of African faces on Burrows Cave artifacts (allegedly Carthaginian sailors) was the first MES contribution to African history. The current author has made additional small efforts in recent years.
As a result of the above MES history it was more opportune to recognize Ivan Van Sertima, DFMES with the MES Barry Fell Award (See MEJ 20, 2006) then to print a long string of separate reviews. Our experience with the writing activities for his Barry Fell Award caused Jack Burgess and John White to acknowledge that more information about Ivan Van Sertima and his career should be shared with the MES readership. Burgess gave a thoughtful lecture at the MES Winter 2008 Quarterly Meeting. I have chosen the familiar Columbus Was Last topic, because it is the most obvious topic politically and historically speaking that Americans, in general should learn. Van Sertima is the recognized champion for this cause but even though he has lectured at more than 100 universities, most of his listeners have been African-African youth and educated adults. The Media has advertised some of Van Sertima’s appearances, but they lack the drive to make his thesis an issue of honest history.
When I was a young man there was a prevailing opinion that the Viking exploration of North America was vague and poorly researched for history purposes. There was support for Vikings than Atlantis, but we expected the stories to remain in a legendary status. That is not true today! Similarly, when Columbus, the Spanish, and others arrived in the Caribbean basin prior to 1550 CE, there were many remarks and reports about the presence of black Africans and black Indians throughout the region. Later, after 1600 CE, this occurrence was dismissed as the presence of escaped black slaves from Africa with little discussion of the early episodes.
The general assertion about the presence of Africans in the Caribbean Basin when Columbus and related explorers arrived is that West African traders had been rowing across the Atlantic Ocean in canoes in the late medieval period to trade or sell their goods and to identify opportunities by exploration. The ethnicity and origin of these visitors is not a debatable question. The ocean current they used was excellent for their purpose, and it is the very current used by most of the early European pilots, that is, the famous southern route.
A major source of Van Sertima’s information (p 11) for the presence of black traders in Espanola was JB Thacher. These black men had gold colored spear points called Guanin, and a unique alloy and name from West Africa. On the 3rd voyage, some of Columbus’ men went ashore on the South American coast. They brought have handkerchiefs characteristic of those made in West Africa. Historian Peter Martyr reported that an exploration of Balboa found Negroes (not black but Indians) near Darrien, Panama.
I will let the reader study this amazing evidence rather than repeat much of it. You may make connections with Van Sertima’s research that I cannot. My point is that the American omission of this significant Black history topic leads to the omission of some justifiable self esteem. We honor the Vikings, the Spanish, and the British who were not nice guys! But we leave out the West African traders who were thought to be reasonable visitors to the New World. I implore our readers to study the evidence and report it accurately when the opportunity arises. These black traders first came to America before 1300 CE!
1. Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus, Random House, NY, 1976, 288p. See Chapters 1-4
2. HB Fell, America BC: Ancient Settlers in the New World, Quadrangle/The New York Times, New York, 1976, 312p; revised, 1989, 347p.
3. Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, Indaba, My Children, Grove Press, New York, 1964, 696p.
4. JJ White, MENL 21(2), 2004 and MENL 25(1), 2008.
5. John Boyd Thacker, Christopher Columbus, His Life, His Work, His Remains, GP Putnam’s Sons, NY, 3 Volumes (2114p), 1903.