African slave trade, a form of European imperialism
Trade has always been a vehicle for economic growth, through it, people have been able to interact, exchange ideas and more importantly to strengthen the economic machine of a nation; because trade implies the transfer of goods, services and ownership from one person to the other, from one place to another. It also requires the producers and the consumers.
Trade is as old as the civilization is, it started existed due to the need of acquiring what a community did not have or could not produce, also due to specialization which brings about division of labor. Precious stone such as bronze, copper, gold; spices and jewelry were the commodities for trade; many trade routes existed named after one or the other of these commodities to show the frequency of the trade of that particular good therefore we have tea route, silk road, old salt route, spice trade, trans-Saharan trade, triangular trade,… all these show that trade has been an important factor for so longtime. Trade existed in two forms: the barter trade which was an exchange of goods or services between people or communities, the second was the currency trade which implies the use of a medium of exchange which was called money; which at the beginning was given an intrinsic value, money existed in the form of goods and this was called commodities money, for example in medieval Iraq, bread was used as money, in Mexico, under Montezuma, cocoa beans was used as money, in the Kongo Kingdom, coquillage zimbu taken from the Atlantic ocean was used as money.
Currency was later introduced as a standardized money to facilitate a larger exchange of goods and services, the first stage of currency was the used of metal money, coins made of precious metal. The currency will underwent through a very long process which will have as the outcomes, the actual currency which we are using. Trade in the ancient world was not only an exchange of goods and services, but also an exchange of human being, called slave. In our discussion, we are going to see how the African slave trade by was a form of European imperialism. These points will be discussed, the triangular slave trade in a general view, the Marxist theory of imperialism and from this theory, and we will analyze and explain how the African slave trade was a form of European imperialism. What is slave trade and how did it start and why are we discussing it looking at the Western powers; let us answer these issues by analyzing the slave trade and more importantly the triangular slave trade.
Slave started with the time human being started establishing permanent settlement, therefore it does not existed among the hunter and gatherer communities; it is a form of trade in which human beings is the major commodities, it was characterized by a non-respect of a human person dignity, slave had fewer or no right; in American colonial societies some states did allowed the slave’s owners to beat, mistreat or even to kill his or her slave without any trial. In most of the ancient empires, a class of slave existed, which was a possession of the owner, most the slaves during this times were war prisoners, indebted who could not pay back, people sailed by their own members of the community because of their misconduct in the community. When a community is under sieged by another, they became subject of the stronger ones. The term slave was used indeed in Europe to mean an unpaid worker, not a prisoner worker at the extend of becoming a goods.
Slave trade existed in Africa as even before the European’s trade, the Israelites were slave in Egypt. People were captured to serve in the transport of goods. Therefore slave trade was the known practice to Africans, and this will played a great role during the Atlantic trade, because communities would just expend what they had been doing.
Africa was a theatre of both the Arab trade in north and West Africa and central; and the European’s trade. For our study we are going to focus of Europeans’ slave trade therefore we are going to talk about the triangular trade.
John Iliffe, in his book: “the history of a continent” states that: “A history of Africa must give a central place to the Atlantic slave trade, both for its moral and emotional significance and for its potential importance in shaping the continent’s development”
The triangular trade is also called the Atlantic slave trade or the Atlantic triangular trade, it operated in three continents: Europe, Africa and America and then Europe and this formed a triangular shape. Ships from Europe could bring goods such as clothes, liquor, guns, bear, and other European commodities to Africa to be exchanged with slaves and then the slaves was shipped to the new world, America. This trade started when a young Portuguese sea-captain, Antam Goncalvez, kidnapped a man and a woman on the western Saharan coast to please his employer, who was Prince Henri, the navigator and this worked in savor of Antam, because he was rewarded and promoted to be a knight. The aim of sailing along the coast of Africa was the search for gold, from the gold-producing region of West Africa. But with the discoveries of the inhabited island, such as Equatorial, Sao Tome, slaves became important for the sugar cane plantation. Slaves were not driven only in Africa, but from other part of the world such as Russia most of them were slavs, from which the word slave originated. However African slaves were proved to be strong and resistant therefore the Portuguese started focusing more on African slaves for the effective exploitation of their plantation.
The discovery of the new land, America will push to Atlantic slave trade to it climax; the Portuguese were the first to start trading human beings as commercial commodity in Africa south the Sahara, later on other Europeans will followed. West Africa was near the America, where cheap labor was needed, why African slaves while they had Indians in America?
The African slave was cheap and easy to get, militarily Africans were weak; they were cultivators, therefore did not require any training to work in the plantations; they look physically strong than Indians or imported Europeans, they were resistant against diseases than Indians who were killed; Africans therefore were better alternative than the Indians weak and not all of them were farmers and the Arabs who were aggressive therefore difficult to be caught as a result they started using them for the transport of slaves from the interior of Africa to the coast.
Some Africans helped in the slave trade, the rulers were involved in the slave trade, they were providing slave in exchange of goods and guns, it became a communal affairs in which some communities were attacking another communities in order to capture the people and sell them as slaves; it was also a personal affairs, which involved kidnaping of people, criminals and those who were heavily indebted were sold as slave.
The abolition of slavery was driven by more global factors, the Americans were gaining independence, which implied that Britain was losing it market and source of raw materials, therefore Africa was their only hope to revive and sustain their industries so the need to protect Africans people of this purpose. Many Europeans participated in the fighting against slavery which led to a successful abolition but what was abolished was the Atlantic trade because in central, south and east Africa the trade continued for many decades. The abolition will have the following results: development of new economic system, legal trade, expansion of slavery in Africa as we said and the development of European imperialism in Africa. We have to acknowledge however that the abolition of slavery was not well welcomed by Europeans as well as Africans, for example Britain had to pay some companies as a compensation to stop slavery, in Africa some rulers were against the abolition of the trade due to the wealth it had created to them and their empire or kingdom for example king such as king Osei Bonsu of the Asante, was frustrated by the loss of what had been for him a lucrative trade; in the book: “ In sources of the African Past: case studies of Five Nineteenth-Century” by David, Smith and Douglas; King Osei is quoted to have said: “The white men… do not understand my country, or they would not say the slave trade was bad. But if they think it bad now, why did they think it bad now, why did they think it before…? If the great King would like to restore this trade, it would be good for the white men and for me too…” In spite the shock of the abolition of slave trade to some communities, others quickly adapted to the new commercial opportunities. The so called legitimate trade was trade of goods which were in high demand in Europe, therefore African was producing more raw materials for European industries and also constituted a market for European goods.
The Atlantic had the following consequences: emergence of entrepreneurship merchant class, or capitalist minded group of people such as chief kitui among the Akamba, Tippu-Tip of Congo among others who at long-run would resist to the abolition of slavery by starting trading toward the East. The emergence of infrastructure, trade route and this were replaced by railways after the partition of Africa for example the Kenya-Ugandan railways and the central railways were constructed on an old slave trade route; emergence of urbanization, trading centers such as Tabora, Ujiji and Kotakota, became important commercial centers; and more importantly the Atlantic slave trade led to the underdevelopment of Africa, destruction and dispersion of communities, the death of the African’s economic system and more importantly the diminution of the African’s population.
After discussing the African slave trade and in more detailed the Atlantic slave trade, let us now analyze it as a form of European imperialism in Africa.
African slave trade, a form of European imperialism
A. G. Hopkins as cited by Dr. Moindi, defined imperialism in the historical context as: “A process of interaction and, ultimately, conflict between the industrialized nations and the underdeveloped world. Dr Moindi in the comparative studies in imperialism and nationalism in Africa and other third world countries, perceived imperialism as a western concept, which describes how Western societies have interacted with other part of the world for several centuries. He stated that: “According to Marxist scholars such as Lenin and Karl Marx, the ultimate aim of western imperialism has been to exploit the resources of less developed societies for the benefit of the more advanced western societies.
It is therefore from the Marxist views of imperialism that we are going to discuss the African slave trade as a form of European imperialism. We have to recognize that the Marxist theory has got some criticism which for sure cannot removed the reliability and the validity of the facts we are going to discuss and which prove that the African slave was a form of European imperialism in Africa.
From this point of view, we can state by saying that: African slave trade was a form of European imperialism because slaves were considered by traders as goods, which were traded for the European own benefit. “Slave trade was considered as a branch of commerce which was contributing to the growth of national prosperity” (S. U. Abramova, Les aspects ideologiques, religieux et politiques du commerce des esclaves noirs, 1979: 26).
Kevin Shillington, in his book: History of Africa, stated that: “Europeans argued that in taking African out of their native continent, they were rescuing them from a primitive and barbaric existence” (Kevin Shillington, history of Africa, 2005: 178), but the fact is that slave trade strengthen the Europeans economy, creating wealth, employment because of raw materials produced they were able to maintain their industries. The slave trade was for the benefit of Europe, as stated by the Marxist, the growth of capitalist was the root of all evil things in the society. Europeans acquired more capital during the industrial revolution, they over exploited their resources and over produced goods until the resources were exhausted and the consumers were not many therefore search for new source of raw materials and market. Due to the of island and later on the new world, labor became more important to sustain the production of raw materials; without them nothing could have been achieved, P. Larroque, in his book: “De l’esclavage chez les nations chretiennes” quoted a sentence from the royal African company which stated: “slaves are sent in all the royal plantations of America…, which could not be useful without them” this just to say the importance which African slaves played in the new world. The interest and the survive of capitalist economy, was strongly linked to the slave trade which played a major role in the development of Europeans ports, industries, manufacturing and created employment. In 1796, in Britain, during a parliamentary session consecrated on the issue of the abolition of slave trade, two members from the representative assembly, Tarleton and Young, who were represented the interest of the ship industries and the slaves’ traders stated that: “the abolition of slave trade will affect badly the ports of London, Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow” (David D. Brion. The problem of slavery in Western culture, 1966: 198).
In France as well, the ship builders of Nantes, declared that: “The slave trade was the base of our navigation industry, it gave us the labors to work on our island plantations; in exchange, the islands gave us sugar, coffee, cotton and indigos which are used in our internal and external commerce” (David D. Brion. The problem of slavery in Western culture, 1966: 204).
From these two examples we see how useful the trade was to Europe, how it created employment to navigators, traders, industrial workers, ship builders, therefore sustained the economy of Europe at the sacrifice of Africa itself. From these two examples we discover also, how conscious the Europeans were about the slave trade, regarding the benefit they were making, it usefulness to their society in protecting their capital.
According to a British historian: “The African slave trade at the beginning of the 18th century, was the core stone, on which laid all the European colonial industries and commerce; it was one of the important factors which created division among Europeans’ countries; it played also an important role in the management of the interior and external affairs of the European continent” (David D. Brion. The problem of slavery in Western culture, 1966: 189-190).
Capitalism grows through interaction with non- capitalist societies, hence that is how it is able to grow by exploiting other non-capitalist societies; this statement from the Marxist theory, is all we need to understand how African slave trade was purely a form of European imperialism in Africa, by looking at his aim as discussed; provide labor to plantations and mining, in order to sustain their industries back home and to safeguard their economy by increasing their capital. This was the guiding line which put fire in Africa in order to provide fresh water to Europe, this just means destruction of the African societies, economy, political system, in order to maintain their system intact at home. African did cultivate what they did not consume and harvest what they could ne benefit because they were free labor, object, means of production for the capitalist; a living tool.
This system has persisted until now, because Africa remains attached to the international market, therefore works and produces to satisfy the international market at the UN in 1974, the late president of Congo ex Zaire said: “They have created multinational companies in order to concentrate the benefit in their countries, raw materials is produced locally, we manufacture goods locally but because of being under the name of a multinational company with what they called license, we have to share the benefit and from which they have even a big share..”
Africa will overcome this situation only if the countries can unite in order to have a strong voice in the international field ant to discuss the problem of Africa as one, the unity is our only solution, which will help us to break from the new form in which, imperialism is clothed himself.
To sum up this essay, on African slave trade as a form of European imperialism, which we started by looking at trade in history, then the triangular trade and lastly the slave trade in the imperialism context; our guiding theory was the Marxist theory of imperialism, which looked at imperialism as the consequence of the growth of capitalist which lead the Europeans to search for new source and market; form this perspective and with examples, will discussed how the slaves were used for the economic interest of Western countries, by giving some concrete arguments about how the plantations in America could have been useless without slaves and therefore the ships industries could also been non usable which could have led to underemployment of Europe and therefore loss of it industries and a decline in the economy. Therefore the African slave trade was a form of European imperialism, as it implied exploitation of a less developed society for the benefit of a developed society.
John Iliffe. (2007). Africans, The History of a Continent (2nd Edition). New York. Cambridge University Press.
Kevin Shillington. (2005). History of Africa ( Revised, 2nd Edition). New York. Palgrave Macmillan.
Matthias A. Ogutu and Simon S. Kenyanchui. (2007). An Introduction to African History (2nd Edition). Nairobi. University of Nairobi Press.
UNESCO. (1979). Histoire Generale de l’Afrique; Etudes et Documents; La Traite Negriere du XV au XIX eme Siecle. Paris. Presse Universitaire de France.