Incorporating African voices is essential to understanding the transatlantic slave trade as a whole.
To fully understand how Africans felt about the slave trade and how the slave trade affected Africa, we will consider three main topics. To begin, we’ll study the economic changes. After that, we’ll talk about the participation of African communities and governments in the slave trade. Then, we’ll move onto the impact of the slave trade on modern day society. Studying the changes in the economy of Africa is important because it shows us how the slave trade affected the growth of society as a whole as well as the life of the average person. Studying African complicity in the slave trade can help us understand both sides of the story, as well as how anyone can be affected by greed. Finally, the effects of the slave trade on society today are immense, and by studying them, we can understand our own society a lot better.
Economic Effects of the Slave Trade in Africa
At the core of any society lies its economy. An economy is defined by Merriam Webster as “the process or system by which goods and services are produced, sold, and bought in a country or region.” In other words, an economy is the flow of natural resources and human productivity within a society. Because everyone needs resources, such as food and water, to survive, everyone within a society is bound to their society’s economy. By studying its economy, we can understand any society on a fundamental level. In this section, we will be analyzing the European impact on African, specifically West African, society through the lens of economy.
To understand the European impacts on African society, we first must understand African society before the Europeans arrived. Before the late 15th century, there were three major West African empires as well as many more smaller kingdoms. The three major empires were the Empire of Ghana, the Empire of Mali, and the Empire of Songhai. These empires each started out as individual cities centered around a river. These cities would control their rivers and tax the trade along these rivers. Using the money earned from taxes, they could amass armies and conquer more and more land. This in turn enabled them to amass a bigger army and the cycle would continue. Eventually, Songhai, the biggest of the three empires, would span from modern-day Senegal to parts of Niger and Nigeria. Here is a map showing the African Empires at their prime.
Life in these empires consisted of lots of trading of various goods. Farmers grew crops such as rice, millet, sorghum, a type of grain similar to rice, bananas, yams, and various spices. To improve crop yield, they had iron tools and sometimes built terraces. Additionally, they harvested rubber from rubber trees and vegetable oil from oil palm trees. Cloth, another tradable commodity, was made out of fig tree bark, raffia palm, sheep and camel wool, and flax. Minerals and metals such as salt, iron, and gold were also traded. Finally, it is true that in precolonial Africa, slaves were traded.
When the Portuguese first travelled to West Africa, they brought many changes to African society. Africa had a new trading partner: Europe. European merchants imported natural resources, such as iron, copper, and cowry shells to Africa, but they also imported manufactured goods, such as jewelry, mechanical toys, cloth, and alcohol. In reality, European goods were over priced luxuries that normal people couldn’t afford, so with the exception of guns, most goods didn’t have a major impact on African society. It should be noted that officially, the church didn’t allow for any weapons to be traded to the Africans, but many merchants ignored this rule, trading guns and swords anyway. In return for the manufactured goods, Europeans would acquire textiles, carvings, spices, ivory, gum, and most importantly, slaves. Depicted below is a map of the intercontinental trade routes of the time.
The transatlantic slave trade was very beneficial to the Europeans. The labor that the slaves provided were used in sustaining the colonies and operating the gold mines. The slave trade was also very beneficial to the African kings. The luxuries of the manufactured goods and alcohol was nice, but the most important item to trade for was the Europeans’ guns. From the African perspectives, guns greatly improved an army’s military strength by allowing enemies to be killed instantaneously from a distance. This allowed for conquest of other African kingdoms as well as the attainment of more slaves which could be traded with the Europeans. From the European perspective, by allowing African governments to fight wars for them, the Europeans could safely acquire vast amounts of slaves to fuel their colonies.
For lower and middle class people, however, the introduction of guns and the transatlantic slave trade had an extremely negative impact impact on their lives. To start with, the wars waged to capture slaves hindered many trading efforts across West Africa. Additionally, the high selling price of slaves and the lack of stable government encouraged bandits to roam and attack trading caravans. This also hindered trade. Finally, because of the enslavement of many farmers and artisans, it was hard to build up the surpluses necessary to spark trade.
In conclusion, the Europeans didn’t directly affect African trade that much. They usually stayed on the shore and had limited contact with villages and towns. However, the wars that they sponsored and instability that they caused diminished African trade to a fraction of what it was. By tracking the economy of West Africa before and after the introduction of a European presence, we have learned about the extent of the impact of Europe on Africa.
Complicity of Africans in the Slave Trade
Now, we will shift our focus from the economy of Africa to African slavery itself. In modern society, a lot of people talk about the slave trade in history classes. There are many histories of slavery, each with their own tale about it all started, the atrocities that were committed against slaves, how slave traders affected African societies, and how it was being resisted by slaves and free people. However, one major part that is commonly ignored is how some Africans helped contribute to the slave trade. Only a few historians have talked about this issue, and it gets almost no attention in schools.
Kidnapping Africans to put them into slavery was extremely widespread in Africa, however, it was not only done by Europeans. Many Africans did it simply because they wanted to make a lot of money. They went so far as to even set up a network to move and sell their victims, showing that this was quite a lucrative business that many people wanted in on. Though slavery had existed much earlier all around the world, there had never been such a large and widespread network of people “acquiring” and selling slaves.
It was not only done on an individual level, but also on a government level. A good example of this was the Bailor-Caulker clan of Sierra Leone. This clan was created by the African princess Seniora Doll, and Thomas Corker, an English agent of the Royal African Company. They married to solidify and increase their profits with international traders. They also hired other clans to capture people to sell. This shows the extremes that people went to to make money off of the slave trade, and shows how profitable it was.
The other main way Africans attained slaves was by capturing them as prisoners of war. Whenever two African countries fought battles, the prisoners would become slaves, either to the winning country, or later, to the European traders. One example is with the Gola and Ibau kingdoms. Warriors of each kingdom got into an argument over who killed a certain animal. This escalated into a fight, which escalated into a war, which the Gola tribe lost. Seven hundred of his warriors were captured, and one hundred were sold into slavery. This shows how the normal disputes African kingdoms countries got into contributed to the slave trade.
Another thing to note is that slavery was common before European traders arrived. Between the years 1076 and- 1600, one-third of the population of Ghana consisted of slaves. Mali also required huge amounts of slaves to support their empire, and slaves were also their number one export. The reason the activity really burgeoned was because Europeans were actively encouraging it and offering rewards. Selling Africans to the Europeans wouldn’t have seemed too unusual for them; it was just another opportunity for them to make more money.
African participation in the slave trade also took a toll on communities. An African named Obi Anthony Modebe related his father’s story of that time, saying “If you happen to capture someone, he becomes your slave. They didn’t really go out marketing for slaves. In those days, you couldn’t walk three or four miles from Illah without fearing for your life, because there would be people lurking in the bushes–guerilla business. You could be in the farm working, and people would pounce on you and carry you away, to their town, and you would automatically become their slave.” This showed how slavery was an ingrained part of the culture of Africa, and how it caused a lot of stress on the African people.
In conclusion, slavery in Africa started well before Europeans came. It was already an ingrained part of society at that time. They also contributed a lot when Europeans came to take slaves.
Legacies of the Slave Trade in the African Diaspora
Before the transatlantic slave trade, kingdoms on the African continent were powerful and technologically advanced. Today, however, much of the African continent greatly lags behind and is mostly in a state of unrest. A very common question is “Why?”, and a common answer is “the transatlantic slave trade”. While this was a big factor, this was not the only reason. This section will be keying in on the effects of the slave trade on African society today.
The importance of studying this cannot be underestimated, as learning about the effects can open our minds up to both the positive and negative effects the transatlantic slave trade has had on African society today. We, as humans, can also learn from our mistakes and find ways to prevent similar outcomes from occurring. Until we fully understand the negative effects of the transatlantic slave trade, we cannot effectively take action to help communities which are still affected to this date. All these reasons culminate in the need to analyze the effects of the slave trade that still persist today.
To start, the slave trade left many legacies on the African continent. An interesting thing to ponder is why many African nations’ economies so greatly lag behind other economies. A possible explanation is that it was an indirect cause of the slave trade. After the slave trade ended, the European countries split the African territories among themselves, controlling everything, including their trade which affected their economy, which is one of the reasons why the African economy so greatly lags behind most other countries in the world today. One metric that shows this is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. The average GDP in African nations per capita was only $1676 in 2010, while the average for the world was about $10000, and for developed economies, about $39000.
The slave trade has also left many legacies on cultures throughout the African diaspora, including African American and Afro-Caribbean cultures. For example, as people had to communicate among the slaves and masters, they had to create simplified languages to communicate efficiently. These “pidgins” were passed on through the generations, with different colonies often having different forms. Another example is today, many African Americans have European names and not traditional African names. This is a direct consequence of the slave trade as upon arrival in the New World, many slaves were not allowed to keep their African names. Instead, a majority of them were forced to change their names to their slave masters’ names.
One of the larger impacts of the slave trade on people of African descent is modern day racism, which still exists today. It took the Civil War to officially end slavery in the United States, and even so after the war, African Americans were still looked down upon, thought of as only worthy of being slaves and not on the same level as whites. The racism African Americans experience today is a lasting legacy of a centuries of whites looking down upon them.
In summary, the transatlantic slave trade had enormous impacts in the short term, and still has lasting, negative, long term effects to this date. These lasting effects, however, are not permanent and humanity can do its part to mitigate and even reverse these effects of the transatlantic slave trade. In addition, learning about the slave trade also helps us get a sense of how to prevent similar atrocities and their after effects from happening again. More specifically, respecting human rights is a step towards accomplishing said goals and preventing similar atrocities from happening again.