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Connection of Slave Trade and Africa’s Current Underdevelopment: Analytical Essay

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Critically assess the evidence used to argue that the slave trade is responsible for much of Africa’s current underdevelopment. Consider how data and cliometrics have influenced the academic debate on the impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade? Do you think it is a useful intervention? Why or why not?


Over the past sixty years, the historiography of the trans-Atlantic slave trade has displayed exceptional sophistication and growth. Historians have assembled a broad cluster of sources and presented rich and fascinating information on this tragedy in human history. The analysis of this dynamic scholarly convention brings light on significant theoretical and explanatory shifts over time and reveals promising new pathways for future research. This paper will assess how the cliometrics and data approaches to the field, especially via the dialogue between scholars who engage in quantitative research and those who permit social history antecedents that are more telling of lived experiences, has habituated the types of questions and debates about the slave trade and slavery. Finally, this paper will report the significant influence of this intervention in allowing new possibilities to analyze and share data on a global scale and help create a network engagement on the causes, effects and integration of slave structures.

The evidence used to argue that the slave trade is responsible for much of Africa’s current underdevelopment:

Between the 16th and the 19th centuries, millions of African natives were forcibly sold and migrated to the Americas and Europe to become slaves which left the economic, social and political state of Africa devastated. The Atlantics slave trade was part of a worldwide economic operation that existed from 1440s to the 1860s. Though the consequences of the slave trade on the relocated Africans have been partly recorded, those African states that were non-enslaved remain vastly unknown. The operation produced enduring vulnerabilities, financial chaos and political commotion in the African continent. It seized its opportunity for development by exploiting its agricultural, cultural and technological skills for the benefit and progression of the West only. It impeded Africa’s mercantilist economy by stopping its capability to be converted into a capitalist economy. Furthermore, it began the structural and persistent process of financial exploitation and political & social fracture that Europeans later institutionalized via imperialism and neo-colonization. Thornton mentions the huge buying power of West Africans in 1650 when, seeking variety and fancy, 1.5 million Senegambians imported 1,200 tons of iron for 300 000 households; and in 1680, required 300 tons of iron a year just for their households. Yet, within less than one hundred years of commerce with the Western powers, Africa lost both its social peace and economic independence, transforming into a land where domestic states, warlords and chiefs affiliated with voracious European traders to supress the vulnerable population that they captured. Indeed, research analyzed by Nunn indicates that the African countries that experienced the largest number of slaves being extracted (proportional to the population size), suffer the consequences of severe underdevelopment today; which therefore further proves the belief that the slave trade is a great factor in explaining Africa’s underdevelopment.

Consider how data and cliometrics have influenced the academic debate on the impact of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade:

Nonetheless, while some academics in the Americas were prompting the enslaved to the centre of slavery narratives, an isolated bunch of scholars educated in economics started shifting the focus of studies of the slave trade/slavery in a different direction. This new group of scholars recommended to investigate the underlying factors that shaped the slave trade and slavery to better contextualize the individual realities of those who were enslaved. This broader picture path was rooted in the quantification of great amounts of data accessible in archival sources distributed across various areas and ultimately resulted to the establishment of ‘cliometrics’- a radically recent methodology in the field. Philip Curtin’s The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census and Robert Fogel & Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery were particularly important to the development of this approach. Curtin’s piece administered the initial quantitative investigation of the seize, distribution and evolution of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade from its establishment till its conclusion. Past estimates of the size of this slave trade asserted that it involved somewhere between 15 and 20 million enslaved Africans. However, through cautious analysis, Curtin discovered that such estimates were but a broad inertia, since historians were multiply copying the flawed results if inconsistent inaccurate work. He then supplied a new figure based on a close reading of secondary sources that themselves had been conducted on broad archival analysis. Further, he provided a technology that had become accessible to researchers; known as the mainframe computer. He gathered data on the number of slaves that ships pf every country included on the traffic had embarked and disembarked via a time series provided by the computer which organized such information. Curtin’s results challenged many of the basic assumptions on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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Moreover, Philip Curtin’s analysis of the slave trade encouraged academics to move to domestic archives and gather new statistical data to further understand the traffic of the slave trade. Adding on to Curtin’s work, these researchers provided vast studies on the various branches of the slave trade. What was revealed from such work was a peaked accurate representation of the magnitude and system of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade at all levels. African historians soon also jumped on this engagement, presenting experimental evaluations of slave exports from areas along the coast of West Africa. The widening collection of data that such investigation gathered allowed academics to utilize quantitative approaches to consider other aspects of the slave trade. A large sum of various questions arose and academics, for the first time, approached the study of the slave trade as its own individual topic for research – which led to revolutionary results in the long-haul of the field.

Do you think it is a useful intervention? Why or why not?

In various ways, the breach between quantitative and cultural & social approaches to the slave trade that erupted in the 1970s has progressed to divide the field of study. Worried that cliometrics eliminated the dynamism out of perceptions of the slave society and minimised captives to numbers on a spreadsheet, some academics reacted by expanding an array of new tools to reclaim the individuality and humanity of the enslaved pupils. Additionally, provided the distinctive underlying framework that decades of quantitative research on the slave trade had produced, one would be harried to discount completely the cliometrics approach. According to two academics who are quantitatively minded, it is rather difficult to analyse the meaning or representation of personal chronology or concerted accounts, however accurate, without having an understanding of the whole movements of slaves of which these individual’s lives were a part of. Though the attention that is given on what might be characterized as the quantitative bigger picture is not naturally hostile toward cultural & social historians’ interests with the enslaved community’s lived realities, the two proposals offer distinct perceptions of slavery’s history and often appear to be on opposing ends of the examining spectrum.


It can be said that although research on comprehending the long-term effects of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is still in progress, the evidence gathered till now suggests that this historic occurrence played a vital role in the underdevelopment of the continent- not economically but socially and culturally as well. In the end, it not an easy task to incorporate decades of study on the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Even though comparably new against more established spheres of Western history, it has progress swiftly, assembling a meaningful body of literature that embodies some of the most refined methodologies accessible. Researchers have proven so versatile in their methods and advances of sources that it is difficult to demonstrate the direction in which the field is pursuing.

Reference list:

  1. Anstey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1810 (NJ: Humanities Press, 1975).
  2. Bean, Richard. “A Note on the Relative Importance of Slaves and Gold in West African Exports,” Journal of African History 15, no. 3 (1974), 351–356.
  3. Coupland, Reginald. The British Anti-Slavery Movement (London: Cass, 1964).
  4. Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).
  5. Curtin, Philip D. Economic Change in precolonial Africa (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1975).
  6. Elbl, Ivana. “The Volume of the Early Atlantic Slave Trade, 1450–1521,” Journal of African History 38, no. 1 (1997): 31–75.
  7. Eltis, David and Richardson, David. “The ‘Numbers Game’ and Routes to Slavery,” in Routes to Slavery: Direction, Ethnicity, and Mortality in the Atlantic Slave Trade, ed. David Eltis and David Richardson (New York: Routledge, 1997).
  8. Engerman, Stanley L. and Robert W. Fogel, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Norton, 1995).
  9. Inikori, Joseph E. The slave trade and the Atlantic economies, 1451-1870 (Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1979).
  10. Nunn, Nathan. Shackled to the Past: The Causes and Consequences of Africa’s Slave Trade (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).
  11. Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1680 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  12. Van Sertima, Ivan. “Black History: African Civilization is a Shattered Diamond,” USA Today, 23 February 1989, 09A.

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