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Slave Trade as a Root Cause to Africa’s Underdevelopment

Africa’s underdevelopment has been studied and researched constantly, but its root causes are still a matter of debate among critics.  Because it changed Africa so much, slave trade has always pointed out as one important economical factor in either the rise or downfall of Africa. Even though there are researchers who argue that trade s trade and therefore, could not but help the country’s economy, many more see it as a harmful phenomenon. Nathan Nunn (“Historical Legacies” 158) for example, names slave trade and colonialism as two major historical reasons for the poor economic performance of the African countries.  Other researchers are less equivocal and explain it as an interplay “of external and domestic factors including slavery and colonialism, economic mismanagement, ill-conceived structural adjustment policies, inter-state and intra-state conflicts, failed regionalism, unfair trade terms, foreign debt, aid dependence, poor governance, weak states, and institutional decay” (Soko and Lehmann  97). Either way, slave trade remains recognized by most as a very important root cause for Africa’s subsequent underdevelopment, even though the ways in which this historical experience continues to affect the African people today remains open to debate.  The present paper thus argues that, far from aiding the people of Africa, slave trade had an important negative impact of its subsequent development and may explain, to a great extent, the continent’s poor economic performance.

Africa was not always underdeveloped. As the place where the oldest civilizations on Earth appeared, it was a rather economically prosperous part of the world, with rich empires rising and falling, leaving behind clear evidence of their level of civilization and wealth. As Nunn (“Historical Legacies” 169) explains, “one indicator of Africa’s initial prosperity and well being comes from data on urbanization and population density” because “an area’s urban population is a good indicator of its level of economic development”. Thus, as the author further shows, since Africa’s urbanization rates were among the highest in the world, its economic development level was also not lower than that of the rest of the world.  This shows that Africa’s economic underdevelopment is not inherent to this continent, but rather, it was triggered at some point in its existence. The first in its series of traumatic events was the massive extraction of labor force, beginning with the arrival of the Europeans. While slavery was not unknown to this continent, taking place both locally, and externally, being most often practiced by Arab traders, it was once the Europeans arrived that it became an important phenomenon.

Before examining the impact of slave trade on the African continent, it is useful to consider the reason for Africa’s exploitation. According Walter Rodney (277), Africa was the perfect choice for such exploitation because of its economic isolation. Thus, as the author argues, African societies had not become integrated into the world economy and therefore, their exploitation would be unnoticeable for the rest of the world, at least from an economic point of view. Also, the belief of the European was that the Black man was a different and inferior race, closer to apes than to human beings, which gave them the necessary justification to enslave another human being without feeling guilty about it.

Slave trade affected the African continent for a very long period of time, namely from 1400 to 900, when foreign peoples extracted Africans from their lands and used them as labor force in different areas of production and service. According to Nunn (“The Long Lasting Effects” 141), there were four slave trades taking place simultaneously in Africa, namely the trans-Saharan in which slaves were taken across Sahara in Northern Africa, the Red Sea trade, in which transported slaves to the Middle East, the Indian Ocean trade which saw slaves being transported to either the Middle East or to the island plantations in the Indian Ocean and trans-Atlantic slave trade.  The author also explains that, while the other three slave trades were much older, the trans-Atlantic slave trade became the most renowned and best known. Only through this channel, it is estimated that 12 million slaves were taken out from Africa while through the other channels half of this amount were transported (Nunn “Historical Legacies” 169). This resulted in Africa being half the population size that could have been in lack of the slave trade (Nunn “The Long Lasting Effects 141).

Apart from its disastrous proportions, what it was also unique was the way in which the slaves were obtained, namely through villages and states raiding each other, and taking slaves which they sold to the foreigners (Nunn “The Long Lasting Effects 141). According to Nunn, this resulted in a weakening of the ties between villages and communities, which, in turn, “may be an important factor explaining Africa’s high level of fractionalization today” (Nunn “The Long Lasting Effects” 141).   This is the first important clue on the manner in which slave trade affected economic development, because this type of ethnic fractionalization is able to cause the long-time decrease of economic growth.

At local level, the negative economic effect upon the working population was felt immediately, particularly in what food production was concerned, because slave traders were interested in young adults the most, the same individuals who were involved in land cultivation within their own communities. Moreover, as Claude Meillassoux (24) argues, the population dropped because young women were taken slaves. Thus, as he explains, “even those women who had escaped from slavery were not necessarily able to find the means to provide for their children’s survival; the drop in food production due to the loss of adult producers had repercussions on the following generation, which suffered from a proportional shortage of productive laborers” (Meillassoux 24). It is therefore clear that slave trade had an important impact upon production and cause food shortage within the country, since the communities depended on the food they produced for themselves in order to survive. Other critics too noticed the importance of the removal of young people from their communities. Engerman for example notices that the age-sex patterns of slave extraction impacted African marriage and childbirth and labor force patterns. Thus, because more males were taken away than females, field work had to be undertaken by women.

This is particularly important, since, at the beginning of the slave trade, African communities were perfectly capable of providing for themselves, and the import ratio was very low for most of the period in which Africa was involved in the slave trade with the Europeans. However towards the end of the nineteenth century, the demand , and the price for slaves increased, and it is estimated that he import of goods into Africa also became much more important, although as Engerman(153) notices, it is difficult to know who benefited from these goods and where in Africa most products reached. What it is known however is that most of these were consumer goods, such as alcohol, weapons or textiles which represented perhaps the most important imported good during this period. However, these good were useless in sustaining life and reproduction, and therefore, this kind of trade, where one involved party traded luxury goods, whereas the other party traded human beings, was unequal, and even threatened the affected African peoples with extinction (Meillassoux 27).

Apart from imported goods which were useless for survival, the African middle class also became more and more involved in unproductive activities, many of them working with the Europeans in bureaucratic positions, while others, directly involved in raiding and capturing slaves, determined the militarization of the continent. Thus, according to Patrick Manning (cited in Nunn “Historical Legacies” 170), “by the nineteenth century, much of the continent was militarized; great kingdoms and powerful war lords rose and fell, their fate linked to fluctuations in the slave trade” . Moreover, apart for the exploiting class, groups of bandits increased in number and their purpose was that of raiding peasant communities for goods and slaves. Thus, between the militarization of the country, and the increased bureaucratic apparatus, little room was left from other types of production, other than that which involved the slave trade.

However, not all consequences of the slave trade were negative, not in the short term at least. As Meillassoux explains, slavery allowed the exploiting classes to “diversify production and exchange, to participate in international commercial trends, to open up trade roots, and to create markets where not only slaves but a broadening array of commodities were exchanged” (27). Thus, certain parts of Africa, and certain classes, were impacted positively by this commerce and the slave market towns where slaves were traded became very rich, while the traders themselves could enjoy luxury products produced in Europe. However, these were ephemeral benefits, as Meillasoux further shows, were to evaporate once the slaves would become harder to find, and further to raid for. Once this source of profit was exhausted, slave trade became less and less common, disappearing by the end of the nineteenth century, not only due to the exhaustion of labor force, but also due to the changing political and social environment in the European countries.

Despite all evidence in this respect, there are critics who argue in favor of slave trade as beneficial to the economy of the continent. For example, John Fage argues that no proof exists that slavery caused Africa great loss of human life and devastated the continent for centuries to come. Cited by Rodney (578), he claims that, “it is even conceivable that it may have been more profitable for some parts of this area [west of Africa] to have exported the equivalent of its natural growth of population rather than to have kept it at home”. However, Rodney countered this claim, explaining that slave trade destroyed production and made labor force unavailable. Also, by simplifying slave trade and labeling it as merely ‘trade’ one’s attention is distracted from the manner in which the slaves were acquired (ibid.). Finally, while trade usually implies equal advantage for both parties, slave trade was unequal and unfair, because the imported goods which were given in return for the slaves were not as valuable as the healthy and young Africans which were extracted.

Thus, despite these opinions, most scholars agree as to the slave trade’s lack of economic value for Africa. Meilassoux believes that “the slave trade made no contribution to the development of Africa, whether in demographic terms (it radically impoverished the local population), or in economic terms (it enriched a class of self-serving local entrepreneurs)” (28). Also, Nunn states that, “the larger the number of slaves taken during the slave trades, the worse is the country’s subsequent economic performance” (158). These writers and others consider that, even though some categories of the African population did benefit from the slave trade, even these befits were superficial and derisory, and did not reflect the value of their merchandise. This merchandise was composed of human beings, and its value was inestimable, particularly since it cost Africa its future.

Following slavery was colonialism which deepened the wounds caused by the slave trade.  Colonialism only allowed the already established trends of the society to fixed and to further affect Africa’s development. According to Nunn (“ Historical Legacies”  171), during the colonial rule, the militarization of the country, and its unproductive activities continue to be preeminent, and to undermine the countries’ economic development. Among the unproductive activities was the work that many of those who had been involved in the slave trade continue to perform, this time for the colonizers. The author explains that this work was not productive and was only based on the  products taken from peasantry, and of which they had a share.  Also, in their attempt to avoid oppression, some people tried to fight against the colonizers, thus becoming engaged into another type of unproductive activity (ibid). Even though they intended to protect their peoples, the fighters did not produce anything, and survived on what they could take away ether by force or free will, by the same peasants. Also, as Rodney(279) shows, the underdevelopment tendencies resisted, as a result of the fact that most of African production was destined to reach international markets.

However, there are important differences between slavery and colonialism particularly that the latter could introduce, as Rodney argues, the hegemony of capital in the African countries. Thus, as the author explains, “colonialism actively pursued the destruction while counterpoising a new coherence of capitalist structures, in which all social formation and modes were reconstituted  to confirm to capitalist market relations, and ultimately to wage relations” (280).  Therefore, what slave trade has begun, namely an instable and poor development of the economy, was accentuated by colonialism. Together, these two forms of exploitation are able to explain not only the historical underdevelopment of Africa, but the current situation as well.

Africa’s poor economic situation has been documented by many studies. Africa’s economy has been in decline for the past 30 years, Nunn (“Historical Legacies” 172) argues. Moreover, the author shows 40 countries from sub-Saharan Africa are poorer now than they were when they obtained their independence. The instable forms of government, characterized by Marxism, and the militarized rule which constitutes a reminiscence of the days of the slave trade and of colonialism, all contribute to the countries’ instability and lack of economic success. Poverty and lack of opportunities, famine and diseases increase the mortality rates among the natives and further accentuates Africa’s descendent trend.

However, there is hope for the future.  It seems that Africa has found a way to distance itself from its past and this is proved by the fact that the current trend, at least in some parts of Africa, is one of economic growth.  Civil wars ended and most African countries are peaceful and politically stable.  This influenced positively the economy since it encouraged investors to enter the huge African market, particularly since economic reforms have made it easier for them to do business in the area.  In 2008, 28 African countries adopted reforms aimed specifically at favoring foreign investments, while in the recent years, the rapid economic growth of African countries amazed analysis (Soko and Lehman 100). This shows that the past does not necessarily have to represent an obstacle for progress and that, despite unfavorable conditions, human societies have the power to renew themselves and to overcome challenges.

As the present paper showed, the slave trade in Africa was not beneficial for the economy of the continent and the well-being of its people. Even though it seemed that some areas and some categories of the population benefited from the slave trade, in reality, these were merely superficial gains and the overall outcome was in fact disastrous for Africa. Combined with colonialism, the slave trade made it nearly impossible for Africa to record economical growth once it finally acquired its independence. It was only after many years of political and economical struggle that Africa bean to develop again.

Works Cited

Engerman, Stanley. “The Atlantic Economy of the Eighteenth Century: Some Speculations on Economic Development in Britain, America, Africa and Elsewhere”. Economic History. 24.1 (1995):145-175.

Meillassoux, Claude. “ The slave Trade and Development” .Diogenes. 45/3 .179 (1997): 23-29.

Nunn, Nathan. “Historical Legacies: A Model Linking Africa’s Past to its Current Underdevelopment. Journal of Development Economics 83.1. (2007):157-175.

Nunn, Nathan. “The Long-Term Effect of Africa’s Slave Trades”. Quarterly Journal of Economics 123.1 (2008): 139-176.

Rodney, Walter. Slavery and Underdevelopment. Historical Reflections 6.1 (1979): 275-286.

Soko, Mills and Lehamnn, Jean-Pierre. “The State of development in Africa” .Journal of International Relations and Development 14 (2011): 97-108.