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is director of Africa Business Information Services
Cinque, the Amistad
Hero, was himself a slave trader, selling his fellow
blacks into this horror after he himself was set
free by a US court
|Why go back
five centuries to start an explanation of Africa's crisis
in the late 1990s? Must every story of Africa's political
and economic under-development begin with the contact
The intention is not to produce another nationalist tract
on how whites, driven by lust for material possession
and armed with firearms, gin and a bag full of tricks,
subjugated innocent Africans who were living blissfully
close to nature.
reason for looking back is that the root of the crisis
facing African societies is their failure to come to terms
with the consequences of that contact.
|Portuguese seamen first landed
in Africa in the fourth decade of the fifteenth century.
From the outset they seized Africans and shipped them
to Europe. In 1441 ten Africans were kidnapped from the
Guinea coast and taken to Portugal as gifts to Prince
Henry the Navigator. In subsequent expeditions to the
West African coast, inhabitants were taken and shipped
to Portugal to be sold as servants and objects of curiosity
to households. In the Portuguese port of Lagos, where
the first African slaves landed in 1442, the old slave
market now serves as an art gallery.
Portuguese adventurers who sailed southeast along the Gulf
of Guinea in 1472 landed on the coast of what became Nigeria.
Others followed. They found people of varying cultures. Some
lived in towns ruled by kings with nobility and courtiers,
very much like the medieval societies they left behind them.
A Dutch visitor to Benin City wrote in around 1600: "As
you enter it, the town appears very great. You go into a great
broad street, not paved, which seems to be seven or eight
times broader than the Warmoes Street in Amsterdam...The houses
in this town stand in good order, one close and even with
the other, as the houses in Holland stand..." More than
a century earlier Benin exchanged ambassadors with Portugal.
But not all African societies were as developed. Some enjoyed
village existence in primeval forests remote from outside
From the outset, relations between Europe and Africa were
economic. Portuguese merchants traded with Africans from trading
posts they set up along the coast. They exchanged items like
brass and copper bracelets for such products as pepper, cloth,
beads and slaves - all part of an existing internal African
trade. Domestic slavery was common in Africa and well before
European slave buyers arrived, there was trading in humans.
Black slaves were captured or bought by Arabs and exported
across the Saharan desert to the Mediterranean and Near East.
In 1492, the Spaniard Christopher Columbus discovered for
Europe a 'New World'. The find proved disastrous not only
for the 'discovered' people but also for Africans. It marked
the beginning of a triangular trade between Africa, Europe
and the New World. European slave ships, mainly British and
French, took people from Africa to the New World. They were
initially taken to the West Indies to supplement local Indians
decimated by the Spanish Conquistadors. The slave trade grew
from a trickle to a flood, particularly from the seventeenth
Portugal's monopoly in the obnoxious trade was broken in
the sixteenth century when England followed by France and
other European nations entered the trade. The English led
in the business of transporting young Africans from their
homeland to work in mines and till lands in the Americas.
Most slaves sold by Africans
The vast majority of slaves taken
out of Africa were sold by African rulers, traders and
a military aristocracy,
all grew wealthy from the business.
Haley - The Roots
The Portuguese Duatre Pacheco Pereire wrote in the early
sixteenth century after a visit to Benin that the kingdom
"is usually at war with its neighbours and takes many
captives, whom we buy at twelve or fifteen brass bracelets
each, or for copper bracelets, which they prize more."
Olaudah Equiano, an ex-slave, described in his memoirs published
in 1789 how African rulers carried out raids to capture slaves.
"When a trader wants slaves, he applies to a chief for
them, and tempts him with his wares. It is not extraordinary,
if on this occasion he yields to the temptation with as little
firmness, and accepts the price of his fellow creature's liberty
with as little reluctance, as the enlightened merchant. Accordingly,
he falls upon his neighbours, and a desperate battle ensues...if
he prevails, and takes prisoners, he gratifies his avarice
by selling them." Equiano was born in 1745 in an area
under the kingdom of Benin. At the age of ten he was kidnapped
by slave hunters who also took his sister. He was more fortunate
than most other slaves. After serving in America, the West
Indies and England he was able to save for and buy his freedom
in 1756 at the age of twenty-one.
Ottobah Cugoano, who was about 13 years old when he was kidnapped
in 1770 in Ajumako in today's Ghana, had no doubt the shared
responsibility of Africans for the horrid business. Referring
to his own capture Cugoano wrote after he regained his freedom
"I must own, to the shame of my own countrymen, that
I was first kidnapped and betrayed by some of my own complexion,
who were the first cause of my exile and slavery." But
he added, "If there were no buyers there would be no
sellers." By the same token, if there were no sellers
there would be no buyers.
European slave buyers made the greater profit from the despicable
trade, but their African partners also prospered. Many grew
strong and fat on profits made from selling their brethren.
Tinubu square, commercial centre of today's Lagos and home
to Nigeria's Central Bank, is named after a major nineteenth
century slave trader. Madam Tinubu was born in Egbaland and
rose from rags to riches by trading in slaves , salt and tobacco
in Badagry. She later became one of Nigeria's pioneering nationalists.
Africa's rulers, traders and military aristocracy protected
their interest in the slave trade. They discouraged Europeans
from leaving the coastal areas to venture into the interior
of the continent. European trading companies realised the
benefit of dealing with African suppliers and not unnecessarily
antagonising them. The companies could not have mustered the
resources it would have taken to directly capture the tens
of millions of people shipped out of Africa. It was far more
sensible and safer to give Africans guns to fight the many
wars that yielded captives for the trade. The slave trading
network stretched deep into the Africa's interior. Slave trading
firms were aware of their dependency on African suppliers.
The Royal African Company, for instance, instructed its agents
on the West coast "if any differences happen, to endeavour
an amicable accommodation rather than use force." They
were "to endeavour to live in all friendship with them"
and "to hold frequent palavers with the Kings and the
Great Men of the Country, and keep up a good correspondent
with them, ingratiating yourself by such prudent methods"
as may be deemed appropriate.
Contact with Europe opened new images of the world for the
African elite and presented them with products of a civilisation
which as the centuries passed became more technologically
differentiated from their own. The slave trade whetted their
appetite for the products of a changing world. Sadly it was
not only tinpot rulers who were mesmerised by the glitters
of western artefacts. An African slave in Cuba in the nineteenth
century recalled how his people were captivated by the bright
colour of European manufacturers. "It was the scarlet
which did for the Africans: both the kings and the rest surrendered
without a struggle. When the kings saw that the whites were
taking out these scarlet handkerchiefs as if they were waving,
they told the blacks, "Go on then, go get a scarlet handkerchief"
and the blacks were so excited by the scarlet they ran down
to the ships, like sheep and there were captured."
European traders saw the advantages of helping African kings
and chiefs realise their desire to acquire western culture,
if not for themselves then for their children. Hugh Crow,
who commanded the last British slave ship to leave a British
port, wrote "It has always been the practice of merchants
and commanders of ships to Africa, to encourage the natives
to send their children to England as it not only conciliates
their friendship, and softens their manner, but adds greatly
to the security of the traders." With their children
in Europe, African chiefs were likely to be more accommodating,
knowing full well their offspring could be held as ransom.
European powers also hoped that by entertaining African princes
in Europe to win the friendship of their fathers. By far the
most important reason why African rulers and traders participated
in the slave trade was their desire for its material rewards
and the power it brought. They were obsessed with the variety
of goods available through the trade. Locally produced equivalents
of some merchandise, like cloth and jewellery, existed but
greater satisfaction and prestige was got from having imported
varieties. The man with a warehouse full with goods from abroad
was a powerful figure in the community, able to buy favours
and influence with his ill-gotten wealth.
African traders resist abolition
of obnoxious trade
When Britain abolished the
slave trade in 1807 it not only had to contend
with opposition from white slavers but also from
African rulers who had become accustomed to wealth
gained from selling slaves or from taxes collected
on slaves passed through their domain.
African slave-trading classes were
greatly distressed by the news that legislators sitting
in parliament in London had decided to end their source
of livelihood. But for as long as there was demand from
the Americas for slaves, the lucrative business continued.
English missionary and abolitionist
Thomas Buxton wrote in 1840 that the best way to suppress
the slave trade was to offer Africa's slaving elites
legitimate business that would give them means to satisfy
their hunger for Western goods. "The African has
acquired a taste for the civilised world. They have
become essential to his. To say that the African, under
present circumstances, shall not deal in man, is to
say he shall long in vain for his accustomed gratification."
This was the crux of the African condition.
The slave trade business continued
in many parts of Africa for many decades after the British
abolished it. For as long as there was demand for slave
labour in the Americas, the supply was available. The
British set up a naval blockade to stop ships carrying
slaves from West Africa, but it was not very effective
in suppressing the trade. Thousands of slave ships were
detained during the decades the blockade was in operation.
One Lieutenant Patrick Forbes, a British naval officer,
estimated in 1849 that during a period of 26 years 103,000
slaves were emancipated by the warships of the naval
blockade while ships carrying 1,795,000 slaves managed
to slip past the blockage and land their cargo in the
British efforts to suppress the trade
made it even more profitable because the price of slaves
rose in the Americas. The numerous wars that plagued
Yorubaland for half a century following the fall of
the Oyo empire was largely driven by demand for slaves.
Reverend Samuel Johnson wrote of the subjugation of
neighbouring Yoruba kingdoms by Ibadan war-chiefs in
the 1850s: "Slave-raiding now became a trade to
many who would get rich speedily." It took the
intervention of British colonialism to impose peace
in Yorubaland in 1893. Slave trading for export ended
in Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa after slavery
ended in the Spanish colonies of Brazil and Cuba in
1880. A consequence of the ending of the slave trade
was the expansion of domestic slavery as African businessmen
replaced trade in human chattel with increased export
of primary commodities. Labour was needed to cultivate
the new source of wealth for the African elites.
Haley - The Roots
What if the West not abolish
Had Europe not decided
to end the slave trade and the New World ceased
demanding chattel labour, the transatlantic trade
might still be rolling today.
ending of the obnoxious business had nothing to do with
events in Africa.
Rulers and traders there would have happily continued
to sell humans for as long as there was demand for them.
One can only imagine how more determinedly African merchants
would have clung on to the business as goods offered
by European buyers became more attractive with changes
in Western technology.
souls would African chiefs have been prepared to trade
for a television or a car?
It is a disturbing thought.
To highlight the role of the African
elites in the slave trade is not to argue the obvious
that they were morally depraved like the Europeans who
bought slaves from them. It is to show that the corrupt
leadership that undermines democracy and economic development
in African countries today has a long history. The selfishness
and disregard for the welfare of fellow humans manifest
in the sacking of national resources by modern African
leaders also motivated the pillaging of the human resources
of the continent in times past.
Haley - The Roots
Some African writers, seeking to maximise the culpability
of Europe in the slave trade, minimise the part played by
African rulers and traders or explain it as the result of
white trickery. Such distortion of history may make the moral
case against European imperialism seem sharper, but it does
nothing to aid the understanding by Africans of a critical
period of their history. African slavers acted out of their
own volition and for their self interest. They took advantage
of the opportunity provided by Europe to consume the products
of its civilisation. The triangular slave trade was a major
part in the early stages of the emergence of the international
market. The role of slave-trading African ruling classes in
this market is not radically different from the position of
the African elite in today's global economy. They both traded
the resources of their people for their own gratification
and prosperity. In the process they helped to weaken their
nations and dim their prospects for economic and social development.
The slave trade had a profound economic, social, cultural
and psychological impact on African societies and peoples.
It did more to undermine African development than the colonialism
that followed it. Through the trade the continent lost a large
proportion of its young and able bodied population. Guyanese
historian Walter Rodney cites in his book 'How Europe Underdeveloped
Africa' one estimate showing that while Europe's population
more than quadruped between 1650 and 1900, Africa's population
rose only by 20 per cent during the same period. The loss
of work-force was not more serious than the damage to the
social and economic fabric of the society and the undermining
of the confidence of Africans in their historical evolution.
The transatlantic slave trade and slavery were major elements
in the emergence of capitalism in the West. As Karl Marx noted,
they were as pivotal to western industrialisation as the new
machinery and financial systems. Slavery gave value to the
colonies in the New World which were crucial in the development
of international trade. Trinidadian historian Eric Williams
showed in his well-researched book Capitalism and Slavery,
that the slave trade and slavery helped to make England the
workshop of the world. Profit from slave-worked colonies and
the slave trade were major sources of capital accumulation
which helped finance the industrial revolution. The transportation
of slave transformed British seaport areas into booming centres.
One Englishman calling himself 'A Genuine "Dicky Sam",
had no doubt about the link between the slave trade and prosperity
of seaport city of Liverpool. "Like the magical wand,
the traffic worked wonders; once poor, now rich; once ignoble,
now great. Churches have been built and grand legacies bequeathed
to all sorts of charities."
While Europe invested profits from the trade in laying the
foundation of a powerful economic empire, African kings and
traders were content with wearing used caps and admiring themselves
in worthless mirrors while swigging adulterated brandy bought
with the freedom of their kinsmen. Virtually all the items
imported during the nefarious business were for consumption
or weapons for waging wars. A slave ship's manifest published
in 1665 listed items carried for sale to Africans as old hats,
caps, salt, swords, knives, axe-heads, hammers, belts, sheepskin
gloves, bracelets, iron jugs and even "cats to catch
their mice." One African trader calling himself Grandy
King George was quite specific in his demand. He wrote to
a slave captain: "send me one lucking-glass, six foot
long by six foot wide." He also asked for an armchair,
a gold mounted cane and a stool." The more common imports
were alcohol, guns and gunpowder , salt and textiles. The
quality of the items shipped to Africa was inferior - the
spirits were adulterated and the guns designed for the African
Africa's contemporary history may have been different had
its rulers and traders demanded capital goods for use in building
the economy rather than trinkets and booze. As it was, the
slave trade arrested economic development in Africa. The loss
in human resources had dire consequences for labour dependent
agricultural economies. Any possibility that the internal
dynamics of African society could have led to the development
of capitalism and industrialisation was blocked by the slave
trade. The few existing manufacturing activities were either
destroyed or denied conditions for growth. Cheap European
textiles, for instance, undermined local cloth production.
Samuel Johnson wrote in the late nineteenth century about
Yorubaland: "Before the period of intercourse with Europeans,
all articles made of iron and steel, from weapons of war to
pins and needles, were of home manufacture; but the cheaper
and more finished articles of European make, especially cutlery,
though less durable are fast displacing home-made wares."
The predominance of the slave trade prevented the emergence
of business classes that could have spearheaded the internal
exploitation of the resources of their societies. The slave
trade drew African societies into the international economy
but as fodder for western economic development.
Africa devastated by
slave trade wars
Inter-communal wars waged to
procure slaves were intensely destructive of human
thousands of people were slaughtered in a single skirmish.
The wars and rampant kidnappings fuelled hostility and
suspicion between communities. Distrust was a basic
requirement for individual and communal survival. The
slave trade arrested and distorted the cultural development
of African societies. It affected the meaning people
gave to the world and their place within it. Increased
uncertainty of life gave added force to superstitious
beliefs and customs. People sought salvation and protection
from the spiritual world. They paid homage to gods to
safeguard themselves and their families from misfortune.
The psychological impact of the dehumanising trade was
crippling. There was constant anxiety caused by perpetual
fear of being captured and herded away like common animals
to a place of no return. Some Africans believed that
whites took slaves to eat them.
Haley - The Roots
It was during the slave trade and slavery that white people
affirmed their superiority over blacks. It is not difficult
to understand why white traders who bought black people for
price of adulterated brandy and packed them onto slave ships
like cattle could consider themselves to be superior. Though
most were illiterate, crude and drunken, white slave traders
were free men herding flocks of human cattle. As the centuries
passed Europeans became more and more scornful of black people.
By the nineteenth century various theories of black inferiority
were developed and used to justify the colonisation of Africa.
During the slave trade Africans came to believe themselves
to be inferior. They lost confidence in themselves, their
culture and their ability to development. The late Afro-American
civil rights leader Martin Luther King's comment that few
people realise the extent that slavery had "scarred the
soul and wounded the spirit of the black man," holds
true not only with respect to the descendants of the Africans
who arrived in the New World but also the descendants of those
left behind. "The backwardness of black Africa,"
said the late Senegalese president Leopold Senghor, "...has
been caused less by colonialism than by the Slave Trade."
Would the history of Africa have been turned out differently
had it's leaders taken the advice of eighteenth century French
thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau. He said: "If I were chief
of one of the African peoples, I declare that I would have
a gallows set up at the frontier, on which I would hang, without
mercy, the first European who dared enter the country, and
the first citizen who tried to leave it." Perhaps if
more African rulers had militarily resisted the design of
the better armed Europeans their peoples might have paid a
bloody price, as did the Indians in the Americas who fought
to keep their lands and expel the white intruders. Before
Columbus arrived in Hispanoila in 1492, the native population
of North America was perhaps 40 million. By 1900, in the U.S.
less than quarter of a million remained, scattered among 1,500
Would Africans have suffered the same genocide had they tried
to end the slave trade? Unlikely. It is doubtful that the
human cost of resistance would have been greater than the
many millions of Africans killed in slave producing wars as
well as those eaten by sharks after being jettisoned during
the Atlantic crossings. We cannot know for certain. It seems
more likely that Europe would have had to look elsewhere for
cheap labour. It was one thing for European nations to use
military might to protect their coastal trading posts and
subdue disgruntled local chiefs, it would have been an entirely
different matter for them to penetrate the interior of the
continent and fight the hundreds of war that fed the slave
The cost of such ventures would have made the price of slaves
unattractive to the plantation owners in the Americas. As
the historian Philip Curtin noted " If the prices of
African-born slaves had not been competitive with those of
labour from other sources - native born or European - the
slave trade could never have come into existence, no matter
what the epidemiological consequences of movement across the
Had cheap Africans not been available to work the land and
mines of the 'New World', white planters and landowners would
have sought other sources of cheap labour. They would have
made more use of the native population and also turned more
to Europe for labour. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
large numbers of poor whites were shipped to the 'New World',
most involuntarily, to work on plantations, mines and as servants.
Some poor whites kidnapped on European streets were sold in
the West Indies much in the same way as Africans were. Indentured
servants, convicts and deportees from Europe were often treated
not much better than black slaves. But as the transatlantic
slave trade boomed, the number of whites in forced labour
decreased. It was because of the relative cheapness of African
slave labour, and therefore the plantation owners' preference
for them, that the trade in white labour ended. This gave
rise to what Afro-American writer William DuBois described
as the replacement of "a caste of condition by a caste
of race." Had the costs of black slaves been much dearer,
Europe might have become a major source of unfree labour.