Chapter Four. Europe and the Roots of African Underdevelopment — to 1885
‘The relation between the degree of destitution of peoples of Africa and the length and nature of the exploitation they had to endure is evident. Africa remains marked by the crimes of the slave-traders: up to now, her potentialities are restricted by under-population.’Ahmed Sekou Toure, Republic of Guinea, 1962
4.1 The European Slave Trade as a Basic Factor in African Underdevelopment
To discuss trade between Africans and Europeans in the four centuries before colonial rule is virtually to discuss slave trade. Strictly speaking, the African only became a slave when he reached a society where he worked as a slave. Before that, he was first a free man and then a captive. Nevertheless, it is acceptable to talk about the trade in slaves to refer to the shipment of captives from Africa to various other parts of the world where they were to live and work as the property of Europeans. The title of this section is deliberately chosen to call attention to the fact that the shipments were all by Europeans to markets controlled by Europeans, and this was in the interest of European capitalism and nothing else. In East Africa and the Sudan, many Africans were taken by Arabs and were sold to Arab buyers. This is known (in European books) as the ‘Arab Slave Trade’. Therefore, let it be clear that when Europeans shipped Africans to European buyers it was the ‘European Slave trade’ from Africa.
Undoubtedly, with few exceptions such as Hawkins, European buyers purchased African captives on the coasts of Africa and the transaction between themselves and Africans was a form of trade. It is also true that very often a captive was sold and resold as he made his way from the interior to the port of embarkation — and that too was form of trade. However, on the whole, the process by which captives were obtained on African soil was not trade at all. It was through warfare, trickery, banditry and kidnapping. When one tries to measure the effect of European slave trading on the African continent, it is very essential to realise that one is measuring the effect of social violence rather than trade in any normal sense of the word.
Many things remain uncertain about the slave trade and its consequences for Africa, but the general picture of destructiveness is clear, and that destructiveness can be shown to be the logical consequence of the manner of recruitment of captives in Africa. One of the uncertainties concerns the basic question of how many Africans were imported. This has long been an object of speculation, with estimates ranging from a few millions to over one hundred million. A recent study has suggested a figure of about ten million Africans landed alive in the Americas, the Atlantic islands and Europe. Because it is a low figure, it is already being used by European scholars who are apologists for the capitalist system and its long record of brutality in Europe and abroad. In order to white-wash the European slave trade, they find it convenient to start by minimising the numbers concerned. The truth is that any figure of Africans imported into the Americas which is narrowly based on the surviving records is bound to be low, because there were so many people at the time who had a vested interest in smuggling slaves (and withholding data). Nevertheless, if the low figure of ten million was accepted as a basis for evaluating the impact of slaving on Africa as a whole, the conclusions that could legitimately be drawn would confound those who attempt to make light of the experience of the rape of Africans from 1445 to 1870.
On any basic figure of Africans landed alive in the Americas, one would have to make several extensions — starting with a calculation to cover mortality in transhipment. The Atlantic crossing or ‘Middle Passage’, as it was called by European slavers, was notorious for the number of deaths incurred, averaging in the vicinity of 15% to 20%. There were also numerous deaths in Africa between time of capture and time of embarkation, especially in cases where captives had to travel hundreds of miles to the coast. Most important of all (given that warfare was the principal means of obtaining captives) it is necessary to make some estimate as to the number of people killed and injured so as to extract the millions who were taken alive and sound. The resultant figure would be many times the millions landed alive outside of Africa, and it is that figure which represents the number of Africans directly removed from the population and labour force of Africa because of the establishment of slave production by Europeans.
The massive loss to the African labour force was made more critical because it was composed of able-bodied young men and young women. Slave buyers preferred their victims between the ages of 15 and 35, and preferably in the early twenties; the sex ratio being about two men to one woman. Europeans often accepted younger African children, but rarely any older person. They shipped the most healthy wherever possible, taking the trouble to get those who had already survived an attack of smallpox, and who were therefore immune from further attacks of that disease, which was then one of the world’s great killer diseases.
Absence of data about the size of Africa’s population in the 15th century makes it difficult to carry out any scientific assessment of the results of the population outflow. But, nothing suggests that there was any increase in the continent’s population over the centuries of slaving, although that was the trend in other parts of the world. Obviously, fewer babies were born than would otherwise have been the case if millions of child-bearing ages were not eliminated. Besides, it is essential to recognise that the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean was not the only connection which Europeans had with slaving in Africa. The slave trade on the Indian Ocean has been called the ‘East African slave trade’ and the ‘Arab slave trade’ for so long that it hides the extent to which it was also a European slave trade. When the slave trade from East Africa was at its height in the 18th century and in the early 19th century, the destination of most captives was the European-owned plantation economies of Mauritius, Réunion and Seychelles-as well as the Americas, via the Jape of Good Hope. Resides, Africans labouring as slaves in certain Arab countries in the 18th and 19th centuries were all ultimately serving the European capitalist system which set up a demand for slave-grown products, such as the cloves grown — Zanzibar under the supervision of Arab masters.
No one has been able to come up with a figure representing total losses to the African population sustained through the extraction of slave labour from all areas to all destinations over the many centuries that slave trade existed. However, on every other continent from the 15th century onwards, the population showed constant and sometimes spectacular natural increase; while it is striking that the same did not apply to Africa. One European scholar gave the following estimates of world population (in millions) according to continents:
1650 1750 1850 1900
Africa 100 100 100 120
Europe 103 144 274 423
Asia 257 437 656 857
None of the above figures are really precise, but they do indicate a consensus among researchers on population that the huge African continent has an abnormal record of stagnation in this respect, and there is no causative factor other than the trade in slaves to which attention can be drawn.
An emphasis on population loss as such is highly relevant to the question of socio-economic development. Population growth played a major role in European development in providing labour, markets, and the pressures which led to further advance. Japanese population growth had similar positive effects; and in other parts of Asia which remained pre-capitalist, the size of the population led to a much more intensive exploitation of the land than has ever been the case in what is still a sparsely-peopled African continent.
So long as the population density was low, then human beings viewed as units of labour were far more important than other factors of production such as land. From one end of the continent to the other, it is easy to find examples that African people were conscious that population was in their circumstances the most important factor of production. Among the Bemba, for instance, numbers of subjects were held to be more important than land. Among the Shambala of Tanzania, the same feeling was expressed in the saying ‘a king is people’. Among the Balanta of Guinea-Bissau, the family’s strength is represented by the number of hands there are to cultivate the land. Certainly, many African rulers acquiesced in the European slave trade for what they considered to be reasons of self-interest, but on no scale of rationality could the outflow of population be measured as being anything but disastrous for African societies.
African economic activity was affected both directly and indirectly by population loss. For instance, when the inhabitants of a given area were reduced below a certain number in an environment where tsetse fly was present, the remaining few had to abandon the area. In effect, enslavement was causing these people to lose their battle to tame and harness nature — a battle which is at the basis of development. Violence also meant insecurity. The opportunity presented by European slave dealers became the major (though not the only) stimulus for a great deal of social violence between different African communities and within any given community. It took the form more of raiding and kidnapping than of regular warfare, and that fact increased the element of fear and uncertainty.
Both openly and by implication, all the European powers n the 19th century indicated their awareness of the fact that the activities connected with producing captives were inconsistent with other economic pursuits. That was the time when Britain in particular wanted Africans to collect palm produce and rubber and to grow agricultural crops for export in place of slaves; and it was clear that slave-raiding was violently conflicting with that objective in Western, Eastern and Central Africa. Long before that date, Europeans accepted that fact when their self-interest was involved. For example, in the 17th century, the Portuguese and Dutch actually discouraged slave trade on the ‘Gold Coast’ for they recognised that it could be incompatible with gold trade. However, by the end of that century, gold had been discovered in Brazil, and the importance of gold supplies from Africa was lessened. Within the total Atlantic pattern, African slaves became more important than gold, and Brazilian gold was offered for African captives at Whydah (Dahomey) and Accra. At that point, slaving began undermining the ‘Gold Coast’ economy and destroying the gold trade. Slave-raiding and kidnapping made it unsafe to mine and to travel with gold; and raiding for captives proved more profitable than gold-mining. One European on the scene noted that ‘as one fortunate marauding makes a native rich in a day, they therefore exert themselves rather in war, robbery and plunder than in their old business of digging and collecting gold’.
The above changeover from gold-mining to slave-raiding took place within a period of a few years between 1700 and 1710, when the ‘Gold Coast’ came to supply about 5,000 to 6,000 captives per year. By the end of the 18th century, a much smaller number of captives were exported from the ‘Go1d Coast’, but the damage had already been done. It is worth noting that Europeans sought out different parts of West and Central Africa at different times to play the role of major suppliers of slaves to the Americas. This meant that virtually every section of the long western coastline between the Senegal and Cunene rivers had at least a few years experience of intensive trade in slaves — with all its consequences. Besides, in the history of Eastern Nigeria, the Congo, Northern Angola and Dahomey, there were periods extending over decades when exports remained at an average of many thousands per year. Most of those areas were also relatively highly developed within the African context. They were lead rig forces inside Africa, whose energies would otherwise have gone towards their own self-improvement and the betterment of the continent as a whole.
The changeover to warlike activities and kidnapping must have affected all branches of economic activity, and agriculture in particular. Occasionally, in certain localities food production was increased to provide supplies for slave ships, but the overall consequence of slaving on agricultural activities in Western, Eastern and Central Africa were negative. Labour was drawn off from agriculture and conditions became unsettled. Dahomey, which in the 16th century was known for exporting food to parts of what is now Togo, was suffering from famines in the 19th century. The present generation of Africans will readily recall that in the colonial period when able-bodied men left their homes as migrant labourers that upset the farming routine in the home districts and often caused famines. Slave trading after all, meant migration of labour in a manner one hundred times more brutal and disruptive.
To achieve economic development, one essential condition is to make the maximum use of the country’s labour and natural resources. Usually, that demands peaceful conditions, but there have been times in history when social groups have grown stronger by raiding their neighbours for women, cattle and goods, because they then used the ‘booty’ from the raids for the benefit of their own community. Slaving in Africa did not even have that redeeming value. Captives were shipped outside instead of being utilised within any given African community for creating wealth from nature. It was only as an accidental by-product that in some areas Africans who recruited captives for Europeans realised that they were better off keeping some captives for themselves. In any case, slaving prevented the remaining population from effectively engaging in agriculture and industry, and it employed professional slave hunters and warriors to destroy rather than build. Mite apart from the moral aspect and the immense suffering that it caused, the European slave trade was economically totally irrational from the viewpoint of African development.
For certain purposes, it is necessary to be more specific and to speak of the trade in slaves not in general continent-wide terms but rather with reference to the varying impact on several regions. The relative intensity of slave-raiding in different areas is fairly well known. Some South African peoples were enslaved by the Boers and some North African Muslims by Christian Europeans, but those were minor episodes. The zones most notorious for human exports were, firstly, West Africa from Senegal to Angola along a belt extending about 200 miles inland and, secondly, that part of East Central Africa which today covers, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, Northern Zambia and Eastern Congo. Furthermore, within each of those broad areas, finer distinctions can be drawn.
It might therefore appear that slave trade did not adversely affect the development of some parts of Africa, simply because exports were non-existent or at a low level. However, the contention that European slave trade was an underdeveloping factor for the continent as a whole must be upheld, because it does not follow that an African district which did not trade with Europe was entirely free from whatever influences were exerted by Europe. European trade goods percolated into the deepest interior, and (more significantly) the orientation of large areas of the continent towards human exports that other positive inter-actions were thereby ruled out.
The above proposition may be more fully grasped by making some comparisons. In any given economy, the various components reflect the well-being of others. Therefore, when there is depression in one sector, that depression invariably transfers itself to others to some extent. Similarly, when there is buoyancy in one sector then others benefit. Turning to biological sciences, it will be found that students of ecology recognise that a single change, such as the disappearance of a small species could trigger off negative or positive reactions in spheres that superficially appear unconnected. Parts of Africa left ‘free’ by export trends in captives must have been affected by the tremendous dislocation — in ways that are not easy to comprehend, because it is so much a question of what might have happened.
Hypothetical questions such as ‘what might have happened if . . . ?’ sometimes lead to absurd speculations. But it is entirely legitimate and very necessary to ask ‘what might have happened in Barotseland (southern Zambia) if there were not generalised slave-trading across the whole belt of central Africa which lay immediately north of Barotseland?’. ‘What would have happened in Buganda if the Katangese were concentrating on selling copper to the Baganda instead of captives to Europeans?’
During the colonial epoch, the British forced Africans to sing
Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves Britons never never never shall be slaves
The British themselves started singing the tune in the early 18th century, at the height of using Africans as slaves. ‘What would have been Britain’s level of development had millions of them been put to work as slaves outside of their homeland over a period of four centuries?’ Furthermore, assuming that those wonderful fellows could never never never have been slaves, one could speculate further on the probable effects on their development had continental Europe been enslaved. Had that been the case, its nearest neighbours would have been removed from the ambit of fruitful trade with Britain. After all, trade between the British Isles and places like the Baltic and the Mediterranean is unanimously considered by scholars to have been the earliest stimulus to the English economy in the late feudal and early capitalist period, even before the era of overseas expansion.
One tactic that is now being employed by certain European (including American) scholars is to say that the European slave trade was undoubtedly a moral evil, but it was economically good for Africa. Here attention will be drawn only very briefly to a few of those arguments to indicate how ridiculous they can be. One that receives much emphasis that African rulers and other persons obtained Europe commodities in exchange for their captives, and this was how Africans gained ‘wealth’. This suggestion fails to take into account the fact that several European imports were competing with and strangling African products; it fails to take into account the fact that none of the long list of European articles were of the type which entered into the productive process, but were rather items to be rapidly consumed or stowed away uselessly; and it incredibly overlooks the fact that the majority of the imports were of the worst quality even as consumer goods — cheap gin, cheap gunpowder, pots and kettles full of holes, beads, and other assorted rubbish.
Following from the above, it is suggested that certain African kingdoms grew strong economically and politically a consequence of the trade with Europeans. The greatest of the West African kingdoms, such as Oyo, Benin, Dahomey and Asante are cited as examples. Oyo and Benin were great, before making contact with Europeans, and while both Dahomey and Asante grew stronger during the period of the European slave trade, the roots of their achievements went back to much earlier years. Furthermore — and this is a major fallacy in the argument of the slave trade apologists — the fact that a given African state grew politically more powerful at the same time as it engaged in selling captives to Europeans is not automatically to be attributed to the credit of the trade in slaves. A cholera epidemic may kill thousands in a country and yet the population increases. The increase obviously came about in spite of and not because of the cholera. This simple logic escapes those who speak about the European slave trade benefitting Africa. The destructive tendency of slave trading can be clearly established; and, wherever a state seemingly progressed in the epoch of slave trading, the conclusion is simply that it did so in spite of the adverse effects of a process that was more damaging than cholera. This is the picture that emerges from a detailed study of Dahomey, for instance, and in the final analysis although Dahomey did its best to expand politically and militarily while still tied to slave trade, that form of economic activity seriously undermined its economic base and left it much worse off.
A few of the arguments about the economic benefits of the European slave trade for Africa amount to nothing more than saying that exporting millions of captives was a way pf avoiding starvation in Africa! To attempt to reply to that would be painful and time-wasting. But, perhaps a slightly more subtle version of the same argument requires a reply: namely, the argument that Africa gained because in the process of slave trading new food crops were acquired from the American continent and these became staples in Africa. The crops in question are maize and cassava, which became staples in Africa late in the 19th century and in the present century. But the spread of food crops is one of the most common phenomena in human history. Most crops originated in only one of the continents, and then social contact caused their transfer to other parts of the world. Trading in slaves has no special bearing on whether crops spread-the simplest forms of trade would have achieved the same result. Today, the Italians have (hard) wheat foods like spaghetti and macaroni as their staple, while most Europeans use the potato. The Italians took the idea of the spaghetti type foods from the Chinese noodle after Marco Polo returned from travels there, while Europe adopted the potato from American Indians. In neither case were Europeans enslaved before they could receive a benefit that was the logical heritage of all mankind, but Africans are to be told that the European slave trade developed us by bringing us maize and cassava.
All of the above points are taken from books and articles published recently, as the fruit of research in major British and American Universities. They are probably not the commonest views even among European bourgeois scholars, but they are representative of a growing trend that seems likely to become the new accepted orthodoxy in metropolitan capitalist countries; and this significantly coincides with Europe’s struggle against the further decolonization of Africa economically and mentally. In one sense, it is preferable to ignore such rubbish and isolate our youth from its insults; but unfortunately one of the aspects of current African underdevelopment is that the capitalist publishers and bourgeois scholars dominate the scene and help mould opinions the world over. It is for that reason that writing of the type which justifies the trade in slaves has to be exposed as racist bourgeois propaganda, having no connection with reality or logic. It is a question not merely of history but of present day liberation struggle in Africa.