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Africa - Slavery

Slavery existed in Africa south of the Sahara long before the Europeans and Arabs arrived and that continued for some years after the slave trade was abolished. The actual enslaving was done by Arabs and, more usually, by the Africans themselves - sometimes for money, sometimes to increase their own power, and sometimes for fear that if they didn't subject their neighbors then they themselves might one day be enslaved.

Slavery delivered a "one-two punch" to traditional African kindgoms. First, the growth of the slave trade allowed local chiefs and village headmen to consolidate their authority and to establish their own independent political units. But then the state structure and the influence of these new aristocrats gradually dissolved as the European powers eliminated the slave trade. By the end of the 19th century most of the kingdoms had disintegrated.

The volume of the slave trade in West Africa grew rapidly from its inception around 1500 to its peak in the eighteenth century. After the trade was made illegal in the early nineteenth century, the volume in this area diminished. No reliable estimate is available of those who died while awaiting shipment or were killed in the course of slave trading. Philip Curtin, a leading authority, estimated that roughly 6.3 million slaves were shipped from West African slave ports, more than 4.5 million in the period from 1701 to 1810, that is, about 40,000 each year. Of the total, roughly 500,000 were shipped from the Gold Coast alone.

By another estimate, during the period of the Atlantic trade, about 8 million Africans were sent to the Americas in comparison to the 2 million sent to North Africa and the Middle East. From about 1600 to 1850, some 4.5 million enslaved Africans were taken to Brazil; this is ten times as many as were trafficked to North America and far more than the total number of Africans who were transported to all of the Caribbean and North America combined.

The competition among native states for shares in the proceeds led to ruinous wars, which distracted the people from trade of other kinds and agriculture. The reduction in population was probably substantially greater than the number actually enslaved. Families were uprooted, and entire tribes often relocated in an effort to escape the slaver. Such moves were often to less favored territories of poor soil and other natural handicaps, with resultant disease and famine adding to the already heavy burden.

The slave trade had an impact far beyond the most obvious effect of depopulation. It led, in many areas, to the destruction of villages and fields, to famine and to entire communal migrations; it led to increased internal strife and war, to shifts in political power, to political upheaval and fragmentation; it stimulated inter-tribal suspicions and hostility as well as fear and distrust of foreigners - especially Europeans, Americans and Arabs; it gave birth to an African elite whose wealth and power were built on foreign arms, rum and cheap manufactured goods. New food stuffs were introduced and soon became dietary staples in many regions.

Western medical knowledge was gradually applied to the control and later eradication of numerous diseases that often ravaged the continent. A trade which originally was only incidental to an indigenous institution that served primarily social and political purposes, the slave trade eventually became so complex and widespread that its continuance was by the mid-1800's an economic necessity for many. And it was this change that led directly to the European penetration of the interior of the continent and its subsequent partition.

Historian Walter Rodney argued that by removing the continent's most valuable resource — humans — the slave trade robbed Africa of unknown invention, innovation, and production. Rodney further argued that the slave trade fueled a process of underdevelopment, whereby African societies came to rely on the export of resources crucial to their own economic growth, thereby precluding local development of those resources.

Walter Rodney argued in his ground-breaking text "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa" that capitalism was the main contributor to the stagnation of Africa’s economic development (see Chapter 4 – “Europe and the Roots of Africa’s Underdevelopment – To 1885). "…the peasants and workers of Europe (and eventually the inhabitants of the whole world) paid a huge price so that the capitalists could make their profits from the human labour that always lies behind the machine. That contradicts other facets of development, especially viewed from the standpoint of those who suffered and still suffer to make capitalist achievements possible. This latter group are the majority of [humanity]. To advance, they must overthrow capitalism; and that is why at the moment capitalism stands in the path of further human development. To put it another way, the social (class) relations of capitalism are now outmoded, just as slave and feudal relations became outmoded in their time."

Although some scholars maintain that the subsequent economic history of this region supports Rodney's interpretation, no consensus exists on this point. Indeed, in recent years, some historians not only have rejected Rodney's interpretation but also have advanced the notion that it is the Africans themselves rather than an array of external forces that are to blame for the continent's economic plight.

Rodney's interpretation fails the math test. Roughly 100,000 slaves were shipped from Africa to the America's each year, at a time when Africa's population was probably about 100,000,000. That is, each year, Africa lost one tenth of one percent of its total population.

Africa did not fall to Europe as a result of military defeat. Nor was possession of its land given in return for money. It was, instead, taken in most subtle fashions by scores of European government officials, commercial agents, individual traders, military men and even settlers. In less than one generation, about 30 years, the continent changed from a land of free African states and kingdoms to one of colonies and imperial holdings under the notional control of European powers.

On Dec. 17 2007, the United Nations’ General Assembly passed a resolution that made March 25 the annual commemorative International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The neocolonial states in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are interested in reparations as a way to deal with their balance of payment, budgetary and development challenges as seen in the call for debt cancellation, technology transfer and a formal apology and not statements of regrets in this regional body’s Ten Point Action Plan for Reparatory Justice. CARICOM’s ten-point reparations proposal is implicitly using the societies in the global North as the model of social and economic development.

It has been estimated that Britain’s reparations payment to Africans in the Caribbean could be in the region of £7.5 trillion. The £20 million paid to the enslavers of Africans after the 1838 abolition of slavery in the British Empire would be worth about £200 billion in today’s currency.

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Page last modified: 10-05-2018 15:24:17 ZULU