The impact of the slave trade on Africa
By ELIKIA M'BOKOLO
Le Monde diplomatique April 1998
On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery by France
THE COURSE OF HUMAN HISTORY is marked by appalling crimes. But even the hardened historian is filled with horror, loathing and indignation on examining the record of African slavery. How was it possible? How could it have gone on for so long, and on such a scale? A tragedy of such dimensions has no parallel in any other part of the world.
The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth). Then more than four centuries (from the end of the fifteenth to the nineteenth) of a regular slave trade to build the Americas and the prosperity of the Christian states of Europe. The figures, even where hotly disputed, make your head spin. Four million slaves exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean (1).
Of all these slave routes, the "slave trade" in its purest form, i.e. the European Atlantic trade, attracts most attention and gives rise to most debate. The Atlantic trade is the least poorly documented to date, but this is not the only reason. More significantly, it was directed at Africans only, whereas the Muslim countries enslaved both Blacks and Whites. And it was the form of slavery that indisputably contributed most to the present situation of Africa. It permanently weakened the continent, led to its colonisation by the Europeans in the nineteenth century, and engendered the racism and contempt from which Africans still suffer.
While specialists squabble about the details, the basic questions raised by the enslavement of the Africans have scarcely varied since the eighteenth century, when the issue first became the subject of public debate as the result of the efforts of abolitionists in the Northern slave states, the demands of black intellectuals, and the unremitting struggle of the slaves themselves. Why the Africans rather than other peoples? Who exactly should be held responsible for the slave trade? The Europeans alone, or the Africans themselves? Did the slave trade do real damage to Africa, or was it a marginal phenomenon affecting only a few coastal societies?
Trade or go under
The enslavement of Africans for production was tried in Iraq but proved a disaster. It provoked widespread revolts, the largest of which lasted from 869 to 883 and put paid to the mass exploitation of black labour in the Arab world (2). Not until the nineteenth century did slavery for production re-emerge in a Muslim country, when black slaves were used on the plantations of Zanzibar to produce goods such as cloves and coconuts that in any case were partly exported to Western markets (3). The two slavery systems nevertheless shared the same justification of the unjustifiable: a more or less explicit racism with a strong religious colouring. In both cases, we find the same fallacious interpretation of Genesis, according to which the Blacks of Africa, as the alleged descendants of Ham, are cursed and condemned to slavery.
The Europeans did not have an easy time establishing the trade in "ebony". At first, they simply raided the coast and carried people off. The powerful images in Alex Haley's Roots (4) are confirmed by the Guinea Chronicle written in the middle of the fifteenth century by a Portuguese, Gomes Eanes de Zurara. But the regular exploitation of mines and plantations required an ever larger work force. A proper system had to be established to ensure a steady supply. In the early sixteenth century the Spaniards began to issue "licences" (from 1513) and asientos or "contracts" (from 1528) under which the state monopoly on the import of Blacks passed into private hands.
The great slaving companies were formed in the second half of the seventeenth century, when the Americas, and other parts of the world which the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and various papal edicts had reserved to the Spaniards and Portuguese, were redistributed among the nations of Europe. The whole of Europe - France, England, Holland, Portugal and Spain, and even Denmark, Sweden and Brandenburg shared in the spoils, establishing a chain of monopoly companies, forts, trading posts and colonies that stretched from Senegal to Mozambique. Only distant Russia and the Balkan countries were missing from the pack - and they received their own small contingents of slaves via the Ottoman Empire.
Comments: This image is a composite of 4 separate maps published in Curtin. The four maps show the numbers of slaves transported from Africa to New World areas over the period 1451-1870; thickness of arrows indicates numbers of enslaved to each major area. Although the numbers in this map would be different in light of more recent statistics, the map still gives a graphic idea of the relative intensity of the Atlantic slave trade to New World areas through time.
In Africa itself, sporadic raids by Europeans soon gave way to regular commerce. African societies were drawn into the slavery system under duress, hoping that, once inside it, they would be able to derive maximum benefit for themselves. Nzinga Mbemba, ruler of the Kongo Kingdom, is a good example. He had converted to Christianity in 1491 and referred to the king of Portugal as his brother. When he came to power in 1506, he protested strongly at the fact that the Portuguese, his brother's subjects, felt entitled to rob his possessions and carry off his people into slavery. It was to no avail. The African monarch gradually allowed himself to be convinced that the slave trade was both useful and necessary. Among the goods offered in exchange for human beings, rifles took pride of place. And only states equipped with rifles, i.e. participating in the slave trade, were able to resist attacks from their neighbours and pursue expansionist policies.
The African states fell into the trap set by the European slavers. Trade or go under. All the states along the coast or close to the slave trading areas were riven by the conflict between national interest, which demands that no resource necessary to security and prosperity be neglected, and the founding charters of kingdoms, which impose on sovereigns the obligation to defend the lives, property and rights of their subjects. The states involved in the slave trade strove to keep it within strict limits. In 1670, when the French requested permission to establish a trading post on his territory, King Tezifon of Allada made the following clear-sighted reply: "You will make a house in which you will put at first two little pieces of cannon, the next year you will mount four, and in a little time your factory will metamorphosed into a fort that will make you master of my dominions and enable you to give laws to me (5)". From Saint-Louis-du-Sénégal to the Congo estuary, the local societies and states mostly succeeded in pursuing an ambiguous policy of collaboration, suspicion and control.
In Angola, Mozambique and certain parts of Guinea, however, Europeans got directly involved in the African warfare and trade networks with the help of local black accomplices or half-castes who were the offspring of white adventurers. These adventurers had a reputation that was unenviable even in an age of extreme cruelty. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Portuguese lançados (those who dared to "take off" into the interior) were described as "the seed of the devil", "the essence of evil", and "murderers, thieves and degenerates". In time, this group of intermediaries grew large enough to constitute, at several points along the coast, the class of "merchant princes" on whom the slave trade came to rest.
How profitable was it? Scrupulous accounts were kept of the slaving ships' outgoing cargo. They give us a very clear picture of what was traded in exchange for millions of African lives. Rifles, gunpowder, brandy, cloth, glassware, and ironmongery. A surprisingly unequal exchange? Perhaps. But the same sort of thing is still going on today. The countries of the North stop at nothing to convince African heads of state to import white elephants in exchange for mediocre personal profit.
Clearly, the ideological weapons used to justify the slave trade reflected neither the reality nor the dynamics of African society. Africans, like all other peoples, had no particular liking for slavery. Slavery was generated and maintained by a specific system. While the revolts of black slaves during the Atlantic crossing and in America are well documented, there is much less awareness of the scale and diversity of resistance to slavery within Africa. Both to the Atlantic slave trade as such and to the slavery in Africa which it induced or aggravated.
[in more than 17% of cases, the damage was due to local rebellion or plundering in Africa. The perpetrators of these revolts were the slaves themselves, assisted by the coastal population]
One long neglected source is Lloyd's List. It throws unexpected light on the rejection of the slave trade in the African coastal societies. It is packed full of details of damage to vessels insured by the famous London company from its foundation in 1689. The figures show that in more than 17% of cases, the damage was due to local rebellion or plundering in Africa. The perpetrators of these revolts were the slaves themselves, assisted by the coastal population. It is as if there were two separate interests at work: the interest of states that had allowed themselves to become incorporated in the slavery system, and the interest of free peoples who were under constant threat of enslavement and were moved to act in solidarity with those already reduced to slavery.
As for slavery within African society itself, everything appears to indicate that it grew in parallel with the Atlantic slave trade and was reinforced by it. It similarly gave rise to many forms of resistance: flight, open rebellion, and recourse to the protection afforded by religion (attested in both Islamic and Christian countries). In the Senegal valley, for example, the attempts by certain monarchs to enslave and sell their own subjects gave rise, at the end of the 17th century, to the Marabout war and the Toubenan movement (from the word tuub, meaning to convert to Islam). Its founder, Nasir al-Din, proclaimed that "God does not permit kings to pillage, kill or enslave their peoples. He appointed them, on the contrary, to preserve their subjects and protect them from their enemies. Peoples were not made for kings, but kings for peoples."
A continent of "savages"
The ideas of abolitionist propaganda, which certain ways of commemorating the abolition of slavery tend to reinforce, should not be accepted uncritically. The desire for freedom, and freedom itself, did not come to the Africans from outside, whether from Enlightenment philosophers, abolitionist agitators or republican humanists. They came from internal developments within the African societies themselves. Moreover, from the end of the 18th century, merchants in countries bordering on the Gulf of Guinea, who had mostly grown rich on the slave trade, began to distance themselves from slavery and send their children to Britain to train in the sciences and other professions useful for the development of commerce. That is why, throughout the 19th century, African societies had no trouble responding positively to the inducements of industrialised Europe, which had converted to "lawful" trade in the produce of the land and was henceforth hostile to the "unlawful" and "shameful" trade in slaves.
Translated by Barry Smerin
*Director of studies, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris
(1) Ralph Austen, African Economic History, James Curey, London, 1987, p. 275; Elikia M'Bokolo, Afrique noire. Histoire et Civilisations, Vol. I, Haiter-Aupelf, Paris, 1995, p. 264; Joseph E. Inikori (ed.) Forced Migration. The impact of the export slave trade on African societies, Hutchinson, London, 1982; P. D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade. A Census, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1969.
(2) Alexandre Popovic, La révolte des esclaves en Iraq au IIIe/IXe siècle, Geuthner, Paris, 1976.
(3) Abdul Sheriff, Slaves, Spices and Ivory. Integration of an African Commercial Empire into the World Economy, James Curry, London, 1988.
(4) Alex Haley, Roots, Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1976.
(5) Akinjogbin, Dahomey and its Neighbours, 1708-1818, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1967, p. 26.
(6) Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Bogle-L'Ouverture, London, 1972.
(7) Claude Meillassoux, L'Esclavage en Afrique précoloniale, Maspero, Paris, 1975.
(8) Letter from the French deputies to the minister for the colonies, 22 February 1946.
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