The kinds of benefits which Europe derived from its control of world commerce are fairly well known, although it is curious that the recognition of Africa’s major contribution to European development is usually made in works devoted specifically to that subject; while European scholars of Europe often treat the European economy as if it were entirely independent. European economists of the 19th century certainly had no illusions about the inter-connections between their national economies and the world at large. J.S. Mill, as spokesman for British capitalism, said that as .far as England was concerned, ‘the trade of the West Indies is hardly to be considered as external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country.’ By the phrase ‘trade of the West Indies’ Mill meant the commerce between Africa, England and the West Indies, because without African labour the West Indies were valueless. Karl Marx also commented on the way that European capitalists tied Africa, the West Indies and Latin America into the capitalist system; and (being the most bitter critic of capitalism) Marx went on to point out that what was good for Europeans was obtained at the expense of untold suffering by Africans and American Indians. Marx noted that ‘the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the turning of Africa into a commercial warren for the hunting of black skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production’.
Some attempts have been made to try and quantify the :actual monetary profits made by Europeans from engaging rn the slave trade. The actual dimensions are not easy to fix, but the profits were fabulous. John Hawkins made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s, and stole Africans whom he sold to the Spanish in America. On returning to England after the first trip, his profit was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture ; and she provided for that purpose a ship named the Jesus. Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Hawkins chose as his coat of arms the representation of an African in chains.
Of course, there were inevitably voyages that failed, slave ships that were lost at sea, etc. Sometimes trade in Africa did well, while at other times it was the profit in the Americas that was really substantial. When all the ups and downs are ironed out, the level of profit had to be enough to justify continued participation in that particular form of trade for centuries. A few bourgeois scholars have tried to suggest that the trade in slaves did not have worthwhile monetary returns. They would have us believe that the same entrepreneurs whom they praise in other contexts as the heroes of capitalist development were so dumb with regard to slavery and slave trade, that for centuries they absorbed themselves in a non-profit venture! This kind of argument is worth noting more as an example of the distortions of which white bourgeois scholarship is capable than as something requiring serious consideration. Besides, quite apart from capital accumulation, Europe’s trade with Africa gave numerous stimuli to Europe’s growth.
Central and South American gold and silver — mined by Africans — played a crucial role in meeting the need for coin in the expanding capitalist money economy of Western Europe, while African gold was also significant in that respect. African gold helped the Portuguese to finance further navigations around the Cape of Good Hope and into Asia ever since the 15th century. African gold was also the main source for the mintage of Dutch gold coin in the 17th century ; helping Amsterdam to become the financial capital of Europe in that period; and further it was no coincidence that when the English struck a new gold coin in 1663 they called it the ‘guinea’. The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the guinea was ‘a gold coin at one time current in the United Kingdom. It was first coined in 1663, in the reign of Charles II, from gold imported from the Guinea Coast of West Africa by a company of merchants trading under charter from the British crown — hence the name.’
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and for most o the 19th century, the exploitation of Africa and African labour continued to be a source for the accumulation o capital to be re-invested in Western Europe. The African contribution to European capitalist growth extended over such vital sectors as shipping, insurance, the formation companies, capitalist agriculture, technology and the manufacture of machinery. The effects were so wide-ranging that many are seldom brought to the notice of the reading public. For instance, the French St. Malo fishing industry was revived by the opening up of markets in the French slave plantations; while the Portuguese in Europe depended heavily on dyes like indigo, camwood, Brazil wood and cochineal brought from Africa and the Americas. Gum from Africa also played a part in the textile industry, which is acknowledged as having been one of the most powerful engines growth within the European economy. Then there was the export of ivory from Africa, enriching many merchants in London’s Mincing Lane, and providing the raw material for industries in England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and North America — producing items ranging from knife handles piano keys.
Africa’s being drawn into the orbit of Western Europe speed up the latter’s technological development. For example, the evolution of European shipbuilding from the 16th century to the 19th century was a logical consequence of their monopoly of sea commerce in that period. During that time, the North Africans were bottled up in the Mediterranean. and although it was from them that Europeans initially borrowed a great deal of nautical instrumentation, North Africans made no further worthwhile advances. Where the original European advantage was not sufficient to assure supremacy, they deliberately undermined other people’s efforts. The Indian navy, for instance, suffered from the rigid enforcement of the English Navigation Laws. Yet, the expenses involved in building new and better European ships were met from the profits of overseas trade with India, Africa,etc. The Dutch were pioneers in improving upon the which took the Spanish and Portuguese out across the Atlantic, and the succession of Dutch trading companies operating in Asia, Africa and America were the ones responsible for experimentation. By the 18th century, the British were using Dutch know-how as a basis for surpassing the Dutch themselves, and the Atlantic was their laboratory. It used to be said that the slave trade was a training ground for British seamen. It is probably more significant to note that the Atlantic trade was the stimulator of consistent advances in naval technology.
The most spectacular feature in Europe which was connected with African trade was the rise of sea-port towns — - notably Bristol, Liverpool, Nantes, Bordeaux and Seville. Directly or indirectly connected to those ports, there often emerged the manufacturing centres which gave rise to the ‘industrial revolution’. In England, it was the county of Lancashire which was the first centre of the industrial revolution and the economic advance in Lancashire depended first on the growth of the port of Liverpool through slave trading.
The connections between slavery and capitalism in the growth of England is adequately documented by Eric Williams in his well-known book Capitalism and Slavery. Williams gives a clear picture of the numerous benefits which England derived from trading and exploiting slaves, and he identified by name several of the personalities and capitalist firms who were the beneficiaries. Outstanding examples are provided in the persons of David and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays’ Bank. There was a similar progression in the case of Lloyds — from being a small London coffee house to being one of the world’s largest banking and insurance houses, after dipping into profits from slave trade and slavery. Then there was James Watt, expressing eternal gratitude to the West Indian slave owners who directly financed his famous steam engine, and took it from the drawing-board to the factory.
A similar picture would emerge from any detailed study of French capitalism and slavery, given the fact that during the 18th century the West Indies accounted for 20% of France’s external trade-much more than the whole of Africa in the present century. Of course, benefits were not always directly proportionate to the amount of involvement of a given European state in the Atlantic trade. The enormous profits of Portuguese overseas enterprise passed rapidly out of the Portuguese economy into the hands of the more developed Western European capitalist nations who supplied Portugal with capital, ships and trade goods. Germany was included in this category, along with England, Holland and France.
Commerce deriving from Africa helped a great deal to strengthen trans-national links within the Western European economy, bearing in mind that American produce was the consequence of African labour. Brazilian dyewoods, for example, were re-exported from Portugal into the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the Baltic, and passed into the continental cloth industry of the 17th century. Sugar from the Caribbean was re-exported from England and France to other parts of Europe to such an extent that Hamburg in Germany was the biggest sugar-refining centre in Europe in the first half of the 18th century. Germany supplied manufactures to Scandinavia, Holland, England, France and Portugal for resale in Africa. England, France and Holland found it necessary to exchange various classes of goods the better to deal with Africans for gold, slaves and ivory. The financiers and merchants of Genoa were the powers behind the markets of Lisbon and Seville; while Dutch bankers played a similar role with respect to Scandinavia and England.
Western Europe was that part of Europe in which by the 15th century the trend was most visible that feudalism was giving way to capitalism.* [* In Eastern Europe, feudalism was still strong in the 19th century.]The peasants were being driven off the land in England, and agriculture was becoming a capitalist operation. It was also becoming technologically more advanced — producing food and fibres to support a larger population and to provide a more effective basis for the woollen and linen industries in particular. The technological base of industry as well as its social and economic organisation, was being transformed. African trade speeded up several aspects, including the integration of Western Europe, as noted above. That is why the African connection contributed not merely to economic growth (which relates to quantitative dimensions) but also to real development in the sense of increased capacity for further growth and independence.
In speaking of the European slave trade, mention must be made of the U.S.A., not only because its dominant population was European, but also because Europe transferred its capitalist institutions more completely to North America than to any other part of the globe, and established a powerful form of capitalism — after eliminating the indigenous inhabitants and exploiting the labour of millions of Africans: Like other parts of the New World, the American colonies of the British crown were used as means of accumulating primary capital for re-export to Europe. But the Northern colonies also had direct access to benefits from slavery in the American South and in the British and French West Indies. As in Europe, the profits made from slavery and slave trade went firstly to commercial ports and industrial areas, which meant mainly the north-eastern sea-board district known as New England and the state of New York. The Pan-Africanist, W. E. B. Du Bois, in a study of the American slave trade, quoted a report of 1862 as follows:
the number of persons engaged in the slave trade and the amount of capital embarked in it exceed our powers of calculation. The city of New York has been until of late (1862) the principal port of the world for this infamous commerce; although the cities of Portland and Boston me only second to her in that distribution.
American economic development up to mid-19th century rested squarely on foreign commerce, of which slavery was a pivot. In the 1830s, slave-grown cotton accounted for about half the value of all exports from the United States of America. Furthermore, in the case of the American colonies of the 18th century, it can again be observed that Africa contributed in a variety of ways — one thing leading to another. For instance, in New England, trade with Africa, Europe and the West Indies in slaves and slave-grown products supplied cargo for their merchant marine, stimulated the growth of their ship-building industry, built up their towns and their cities, and enabled them to utilise their forests, fisheries and soil more effectively. Finally, it was the carrying trade between the West Indian slave colonies and Europe which lay behind the emancipation of the American colonies from British rule, and it was no accident that the struggle for American independence started in the leading New England town of Boston. In the 19th century, the connection with Africa continued to play an indirect role in American political growth. In the first place, profits from the slave activities went into the coffers of political parties, and even more important the African stimulation and black labour played a vital role in extending European control over the present territory of the U.S.A. — notably in the South, but including also the so-called ‘Wild West’ where black cowboys were active.
Slavery is useful for early accumulation of capital, but it is too rigid for industrial development. Slaves had to be given crude non-breakable tools which held back the capitalist development of agriculture and industry. That explains the fact that the northern portions of the U.S.A. gained far more industrial benefits from slavery than the South which actually had slave institutions on its soil; and ultimately the stage was reached during the American Civil War when the Northern capitalists fought to end slavery within the boundaries of the U.S.A., so that the country as a whole could advance to a higher level of capitalism.
In effect, one can say that within the U.S.A. the slave relations in the South had by the second half of the 19th century come into conflict with the further expansion of the productive base inside the U.S.A. as a whole, and a violent clash ensued before the capitalist relations of legally free labour became generalised. Europe maintained slavery in places that were physically remote from European society; and therefore inside Europe itself, capitalist relations were elaborated without being adversely affected by slavery in the Americas. However, even in Europe there came a moment when the leading capitalist states found that the trade in :slaves and the use of slave labour in the Americas was no longer in the interest of their further development. Britain made this decision early in the 19th century, to be followed later by France.
Since capitalism, like any other mode of production, is a total system which involves an ideological aspect, it is also necessary to focus on the effects of the ties with Africa on the development of ideas within the superstructure of European capitalist society. In that sphere, the most striking feature is undoubtedly the rise of racism as a widespread and deeply rooted element in European thought. The role of slavery in promoting racist prejudice and ideology has been carefully studied in certain situations, especially in the U.S.A. The simple fact is that no people can enslave another for centuries without coming out with a notion of superiority, and when the colour and other physical traits of those peoples were quite different it was inevitable that the prejudice should take a racist form. Within Africa itself, the same can be said for the situation in the Cape Province of South Africa where white men were establishing military and social superiority over non-whites ever since 1650.
It would be much too sweeping a statement to say that all racial and colour prejudice in Europe derived from the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of non-white peoples in the early centuries of international trade. There was also anti-Semitism at an even earlier date inside Europe and there is always an element of suspicion and incomprehension when peoples of different cultures come together. However, it can be affirmed without reservations that the white racism which came to pervade the world was an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. Nor was it merely a question of how the individual white person treated a black person. The racism of Europe was a set of generalisations and assumptions, which had no scientific basis, but were rationalised in every sphere from theology to biology.
Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons. European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labour power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labour. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time. Then, having become utterly dependent on African labour, Europeans at home and abroad found it necessary to rationalise that exploitation in racist terms as well. Oppression follows logically from exploitation, so as to guarantee the latter. Oppression of African people on purely racial grounds accompanied, strengthened and became indistinguishable from oppression for economic reasons.
C. L. R. James, noted Pan-Africanist and Marxist, once remarked that
The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But lo neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than lo make it fundamental.
It can further be argued that by the 19th century white racism had become so institutionalised in the capitalist world (and notably in the U.S.A.) that it sometimes ranked above the maximisation of profit as a motive for oppressing black people.
In the short run, European racism seemed to have done Europeans no harm, and they used those erroneous ideas to justify their further domination of non-European peoples in the colonial epoch. But the international proliferation of bigoted and unscientific racist ideas was bound to have its negative consequences in the long run. When Europeans put millions of their brothers (Jews) into ovens under the Nazis, the chickens were coming home to roost. Such behaviour inside of ‘democratic’ Europe was not as strange as it is sometimes made out to be. There was always a contradiction between the elaboration of democratic ideas inside Europe and the elaboration of authoritarian and thuggish practices by Europeans with respect to Africans. When the French Revolution was made in the name of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’, it did not extend to black Africans who were enslaved by France in the West Indies and the Indian Ocean. Indeed, France fought against the efforts of those people to emancipate themselves, and the leaders of their bourgeois revolution said plainly that they did not make it on behalf of black humanity.
It is not even true to say that capitalism developed democracy at home in Europe and not abroad. At home, it was responsible for a talk or certain rhetoric of freedom but it was never extended from the bourgeoisie to the oppressed workers; and the treatment of Africans must surely have made such hypocrisy a habit of European life, especially within the ruling class. How else can one explain the fact that the Christian church participated fully in the maintenance of slavery and still talked about saving souls! The hypocrisy reached its highest levels inside the U.S.A. The first martyr in the American national war of liberation against the British colonialists in the 18th century was an African descendant, Crispus Attucks; and both slave and free Africans played a key role in Washington’s armies. And yet, the American Constitution with its famous preamble that ‘all men are created equal’ sanctioned the continued enslavement of Africans. In recent times, it has become an object of concern to some liberals that the U.S.A. is capable of war crimes of the order of My Lai in Vietnam. But the fact of the matter is that the My Lais began with the enslavement of Africans and American Indians. Racism, violence and brutalitywere the concomitants of the capitalist system when it extended itself abroad in the early centuries of international trade.
Brief Guide to Reading
The subject of Africa’s contribution to European development reveals several of the factors which limit a writer’s representation of reality. Language and nationality, for instance, are effective barriers to communication. Works in English seldom take account of the effect brought about in France, Holland or Portugal by participation in slaving and other forms of commerce which exploited Africa in the pre-colonial period. The ideological gulf is responsible for the fact that most bourgeois scholars write about phenomena such as the Industrial Revolution in England without once mentioning the European slave trade as a factor in primary accumulation of capital. Marx himself had laid great emphasis on sources of overseas capital accumulation. But Marxists (as prominent as Maurice Dobb and E. J. Hobsbawm) for many years concentrated on examining the evolution of capitalism out of feudalism inside Europe, with only marginal reference to the massive exploitation of Africans, Asians and American Indians.
Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery,
Oliver Cox, Capitalism as a System.
Cox, an African American, makes the basic point that capitalism has from very early times been an international system. Eric Williams, a West Indian, was very precise and very detailed in illustrating the connection between British capitalism and the enslavement of Africans.
W. E. B. du Bois, The Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade lo the U.S.A.
Richard Pares, Yankees and Creoles: the trade between North America.
Both of these provide data on the contribution of African labour to the development of capitalism in the U.S.A. in the epoch of slavery.
Leo Huberman, Man’s Worldly Goods: The Story of the Wealth of Nations.
F. Clairemonte, Economic Liberalism and Underdevelopment.
Huberman’s book is an excellent overall treatment of the development of capitalism out of feudalism in Europe. It includes a section in which the role of slavery is highlighted. Clairemonte’s study accords recognition to the role played by the sub-continent of India in building Europe.
P. Curtin, The Image of Africa.
Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American attitudes towards the Negro.
These two texts are relevant to the question of the rise of white racism, although neither of the two make sufficiently explicit the connection between racism and capitalism
Table of Contents
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Walter Rodney 1973