How the Slave Trade stifled Africa’s economy

Slave tradeIntroduction

It is not possible to recount the history of the African continent without talking about the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and its impact on the continent’s economy.

Indeed, a cursory look at Africa’s current economic situation will reveal traces and imprints of the heinous crime against Africans known as the slave trade.

The slave trade is one of the factors that have contributed to the sorry state of Africa today. It is one of the reasons why Africa is struggling with a heavy debt burden, internal conflicts, abject poverty and the overall despondency one easily encounters on the continent.

The Slave Trade was never in the interest of Africa and her people; it served only the interest of the perpetrators.

There are some though, who might argue that there have been some benefits to Africa from the slave trade because some members of the African elite benefited from the trade. Some of these were directly involved in the trade.

The argument also goes further to suggest that some Africans who survived the inhuman transition to the New World benefited by having access to material wealth and Western education.

Sadly, while the full story of the slave trade may never be known, the reality is that, the slave trade involved plunder, brutality and the gross abuse of the human rights of Africans.

Slaves were kept in dehumanizing conditions

The continent’s human resources were kidnapped, kept in dehumanizing conditions and sold out to eager and willing buyers and were shipped in more dehumanizing and appalling conditions on the slave ships to the New World where most of them died or laboured perpetually to build the New World without due compensation.

Olaudar Equaino, a slave who worked to buy his own freedom captured the horrifying scenes when he was taken on board a slave ship for the first time. “Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country. When I looked round the ship too, and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.”

Like a scourge, the slave trade was visited upon Africa for four centuries before the eventual colonization of the continent by Europeans. The nature and form of the trade was so violent, vicious and inhuman that it could only leave a devastating impact on the continent of Africa. An impact so traumatic that the current conditions – political, religious, economic and social to a large extent, can be attributed to the dehumanizing and unlawful dissipation of the continent’s human and natural resources.

Slavery was no trade

According to Walter Rodney, a respected Pan-Africanist, the slave trade in Africa was no trade at all. He argues that the act was conducted through trickery, warfare, banditry and kidnapping.

According to him, when one tries to measure the effect of European slave trading on the African continent, it is very essential to realize that one is measuring the effect of social violence rather than trade in any normal sense of the word.

The violence that characterized the trade, he believes also meant insecurity. The opportunity presented by European slave dealers became the major, although not the only stimuli 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 regular warfare, and that fact increased the element of fear and uncertainty.

We will never know how many were taken

The exact number of Africans shipped from the continent into slavery has never been known and probably would never be known. No one would ever know how many died or were brutally murdered on the high seas. There are however, various figures documented in some studies.

According to H. Thomas, a Historian, during the period of the slave trade, at least 13 million Africans were illegally transported from the shores of West Africa to the Western Hemisphere. Of those 13 million, approximately 11, 328,000 were delivered to the New World, amounting to the trans-shipment murder of approximately 1, 672, 000 persons, or 13% of the cargo.

What accounted for the sudden flourish of the trade in slaves was the opening of European plantations in the New World during the 1500s. The demand for more laborers to tame the wilderness and plant crops led to the growth in the trade in slaves. Before then, the trade between Europe and Africa was in gold, ivory and palm nuts

Apart from the desire for cheap labuor for the emerging plantations of the New World, there also was the desire for profit. Indeed, the desire for profit, more than anything else attracted adventurers from Europe to Africa. Most of these adventurers pillaged African villages sometimes with the connivance of some Africans to capture, put in chains and sell Africans into slavery.

Of particular interest is the fact that the supply of slaves to the Gold Coast was entirely in African hands. Powerful traditional rulers such as the rulers of Asante, Fante and Ahanta were known to have engaged in the slave trade. Some individual African merchants such as John Kabes, John Konny, Thomas Ewusi and a broker only known as Noi commanded large bands of armed men, many of them slaves, and they engaged in various forms of commercial activities with the Europeans on the coast.

The volume of trade in West Africa grew rapidly from its inception around 1500 to its peak in the 18th Century. According to Philip Cartin, an estimated 6.3 million slaves were shipped from West Africa to North and South America and about 4.5 million of that number was shipped between 1701 and 1810. Perhaps 5000 per year were shipped from the Gold Coast alone. The demographic impact of the slave trade on West Africa was probably substantially greater than the number actually enslaved because a significant number of Africans perished during slave raids or while in captivity awaiting shipment.

The depopulating effects of slavery

Other scholars and historians have pressed the argument that the slave trade indeed depopulated Africa, and that depopulation in itself has had a destabilizing effect on the continent setting back a lot of progress made in most African societies.

T. Leedy, a reparation campaigner reports that the most obvious deleterious effects of the Transatlantic Slave Trade occurred in those areas frequently raided for captives. Many areas became depopulated, often resulting in the resurgence of natural environments previously carefully managed for productive and health reasons.

Other areas on the other hand encountered overpopulation as people sought safety and protection from the trade. This eventually generate substantial, long term environmental effects.

Communities that survived despite continued raiding found themselves facing shortages of agricultural labor and or artisans crucial to local economies.

The depopulation of the continent through slavery destroyed almost every social system that could have engendered the growth of any economy that existed in Africa in those times.

Slavery led to the exploitation of Africa and Africans. Millions of Africans were kidnapped, and African societies were ransacked and entirely new societies were built on the labuor and lives of Africans.

Slavery was carried out for the economic enrichment of Europe and its descendants. It was the exploitation of African labuor that led to the expansion of industry across Great Britain, the United States and other parts of the world.

Indeed, slavery also created the circumstances, which consigned Africans and African nations to some of the worst social and economic conditions experienced by any people in the world today.

As a matter of fact, the argument that population loss is highly relevant to the question of socio-economic development is valid.
Africa’s depopulation, therefore, through slavery can be said to have contributed largely to the economic conditions in the continent today.

Population growth, as Rodney posits, played a major role in European development in providing labuor, markets and the pressures which led to further advance. Japanese population growth had similar positive effects.

The same can be said of China in the 21st Century. It has never been depopulated in the manner that Africa was, and neither has China been colonized. The Chinese do not practice western forms of democracy, which is believed in modern times to be the basis for economic growth. Yet China is today a growing and booming economic power.

Advancing the argument further, Rodney states that 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 tsetsefly 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.

To a large extent the capture and sale of slaves began having severe consequences for the continent’s economy in as far back as the 17th Century.

Rodney reports that the Portuguese and Dutch actually discouraged slave trade in the ‘Gold Coast’ because they recognized that it would be incompatible with the trade in gold.

However, by the end of that Century, gold had been discovered in Brazil, and the importance of gold supplies from Africa lessened. Within the total Atlantic pattern, African slaves became more important than gold, and Brazilian gold was offered for African captives at Dahomey and Accra.

The trading activity involving the exchange of gold for African slaves was in itself dehumanizing. It is a denigration of the African which reduces him or her to a mere object of economic value rather than a human.

Slavery and African self-esteem

The conduct of the slave trade and the fact that the African was effectively turned into a commodity to facilitate the trade, could effectively impact on the self image of the African, leading to the acquisition of low self-esteem in spite of the enormous amount of talent, and natural resources that the continent and its people are endowed with. Most Africans today, see themselves as inferior to Europeans.

Equaino writes, “I have often seen slaves, particularly those who were meager, in different islands, put into scales and weighed, and then sold from three pence to six pence or nine pence a pound. My master, however, whose humanity was shocked at this mode, used to sell such by the lumps. And at or after a sale, it was not uncommon to see Negroes taken from their wives, wives taken from their husbands, and children from their parents, and sent off to other islands, and wherever else their merciless lords choose; and probably never more during life see each other!”

Such was the humiliation of African slaves to the extent that they were reduced to less human status by the treatment the Europeans gave them. These appalled Equaino so much that he says, “Such a tendency has the slave trade to debauch men’s minds, and harden them to every feeling of humanity! For I will not suppose that the dealers in slaves are born worse than other men-No; such is the fatality of this mistaken avarice, that it corrupts the milk of human kindness and turns it into gall.”

He continues, “when you make men slaves, you deprive them of half their virtue, you set them, in your own conduct, an example of fraud, rapine, and cruelty, and compel them to live with you in a state of war; and yet you complain that they are not honest or faithful! You stupefy them with stripes, and think it necessary to keep them in a state of ignorance. And yet you assert that they are incapable of learning; that their minds are such a barren soil or moor, that culture would be lost on them.”

The brutal nature of the slave trade has to a large extent contributed to the racism and contempt from which Africans still suffer.

The use of religion to perpetuate slavery

Some of the attempts used to compel Africans to accept the horrors and brutality of slavery was religion. Africans were made to believe that slavery was the will and plan of God for the continent. Religion was used to make Africans succumb to the evils of slavery.

It is common knowledge that most of the European traders in slaves were religious people and some were even clergymen. The profound irony, however, was that, the Christian enterprise in Africa in the Middle Ages had a close association with the slave trade.

So pervasive was the influence of religion on the slave trade that, a prominent and well educated freed slave, Jacobus Elia Johannes Capitein (1717-1747), who grew up and studied theology in Holland at the University of Leiden wrote and published his doctoral thesis in defense of slavery. He wrote in Latin, and argued that slavery was consistent with Christianity.

The belief among many Africans who had converted to Christianity was that, like the Biblical Joseph, they have been sold into captivity for the appointed time when they would be used by God to redeem the continent from satanic bondage.

Another African from the Gold Coast, known as Thompson, despite his genuine concern for Africa was reported to have defended the slave trade.

There certainly was a basic contradiction between converting Africans to Christianity and purchasing them as slaves.

Colonialism replaced slavery

To some Sociologists and Political Economists including D. Dzorgbo, “Europe viewed the slave trade as an economic rather than an abuse of the continent, therefore, any modification of the system to further the economic interest of Europe would be appropriate.

Therefore, the vestiges of the cruel practice in whatever form, was not going to take off the hands of the slave masters from the continent. It would not be far fetched to postulate that any system that Europe would introduce in Africa, be it political or religious would be to save this single objective – economics.”

Therefore, colonization was introduced. The slave trade was followed by colonization. Dzorgbo argues further that, for the system of colonialism to succeed and achieve the one single economic objective, the African must be classified. The African was therefore classified as a savage who must be civilized.

This led to the introduction of vocabulary that did not only classify the African but also denigrated and reduced the African to an irrational being who needs to be civilized to save him or her from himself or herself.

The African was thus identified as ignorant, barbaric, pagan, heathen and backward. African cultural practices were labeled and banned. The African personality must be erased, the African’s self concept must be wiped and the European personality and concept of self imposed to make the African a better person. Wearing of western clothes and drinking tea was imposed on the African and the African was forced to accept these cultures as symbols of civility. Even African drumming and dancing was denounced as evil and pagan.

The branding of the African way of life as evil did much harm to the psyche of the African and gave the colonialists a stranglehold on the continent.

The imposition of these stereo-types consequently drove the African to despair culminating in a sense of helplessness and hopelessness which can be seen in how much Africans look up to the West who they consider their masters and superiors for assistance, even in the art of governance. That is notwithstanding the fact that Africans have been governing themselves long before Europeans set foot on the continent.

Dzorgbo argues further that, before colonialism, Europeans and African traders regarded each other as self-sufficient. The issue of civilizing the colonized arose when questions were raised about the moral basis of colonialism.

Colonialism was thus conceived as a civilizing mission through which the colonized who had been self-sufficient in their social organization and ruling themselves since time immemorial according to their cultural traditions, were now defined as incapable of governing themselves, and must be “civilized” in the image of Europeans in order to do so.

Historical facts about the abolishing of the slave trade are skewed in favour of Europe. The story is told in such a way as to portray Europe in good light. This also makes Europe Africa’s benefactor and therefore, Africa is expected to show gratitude to Europe. But the reality is otherwise.

While most European historians report that Europeans saw the evil in slave trading and decided to end it, on the other hand the abolition of the slave trade was influenced by economic factors. And indeed, some slaves had to pay with dear life in the struggle to end the trade. They fought for freedom!

In Dzorgbo’s view, increased nationalism, industrial competition, the need for new markets, for raw materials and for opportunities of profitable investment… led many nations of Europe to a new interest in colonial expansion in the last decades of the 19th Century.

And as a result of the industrial revolution, Europe, particularly Great Britain needed a market for the glut of products, and also needed raw materials.

But these needs could not be met in the context of the slave trade that was disrupting societies. Africans, needed to be left in peace on the continent to provide market and supply critical raw materials for European industries.

Even though European powers, particularly the British, attribute abolishing of the slave trade to humanitarian reasons or the changing moral conscience, the main motivational reason was economic.

Colonialism was to continue where the slave trade ended. To further the economic interest of Europe. Therefore, the form of colonialism introduced on the continent was instructive.

According to C. Ake, one of Africa’s foremost Political Scientists, colonialism in Africa was markedly different from the colonial experience of the Americas, Europe and Asia. To begin with, it was unusually statist.

The colonial state redistributed land and determined who should produce what and how. It attended to the supply of labour, sometimes resorting to forced labour; it churned out administrative instruments and legislated taxes to induce the breakup of traditional social relations of production and the atomization of society.

For the colonial order to survive and be able to carry out its functions, it needed to be powerful, in the face of the resentment and hostility of the colonized. And the power of the colonial state was not only absolute, but arbitrary.

For instance, it was the colonial state, the former slave traders who decided which crop should be cultivated. In the case of the Gold Coast, they decided that cocoa should be introduced. They did the same with the introduction of coffee in Eastern Africa. And these crops were specifically to be exported to Europe to feed the growing industry in that part.

The promotion of these crops was done at the expense of food crops that were traditionally cultivated by Africans. As a result, the agriculture of the continent suffered and plummeted.

By and large, the slave trade culminated in colonialism, which eventually fashioned out the way the continent must go.

The World Bank, the IMF and their sister organizations serve the interests of the former slave traders. In consequence therefore, the fate of the continent is in the hands of these Bretton Woods institutions. The continent can develop and grow in as much as these institutions determine.

The policies of almost the whole of Africa are based on the concepts of development that have been designed by these organizations. They have a stranglehold on the continent, because obviously, as a result of the slave trade, the continent has been brought to her knees.

Sadly, many more Africans, even today, believe that they are inferior to Europeans and that they can only develop, if and when the Europeans assist them. Even then, the kind of development Africans pursue is largely based on concepts that Europeans have fashioned out.


It is possible though that one could find some positive impacts of the slave trade on Africa today, but these are negligible, compared to the depth and severity of the negative impacts on the continent. The negative impacts far outweigh any gains that the continent can be said to have made from the cruel and inhuman venture.

More graphically, the impacts can be seen in the deepening poverty, economic stagnation and underdevelopment that the continent is grappling with, in spite of claims by the West that the continent is doing well economically.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

Email: [email protected]

No Comments
  1. Asobo Cynthia says

    Like ur writeup,Keep it up.

  2. Anonymous says

    an excellent contribution to understanding our history

  3. valerie says

    an excellent contribution to the understanding of our economic history

  4. fania says

    how was africa’s economy affected by the slave trade.

  5. Henlon says

    Excellent writing… It really helped me on my research..Thank you

  6. Yvonne chasukwa says

    Well articulated…keep it up! But how was African economy affected?

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