The Transatlantic Slave trade, occurring between the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, in Africa produced centuries of exploitation of Africa’s human resources and raw materials in exchange for the growth and prosperity of the West. This exploitative trade system established destructive impacts and has radically impaired the potential and ability for Africa to prosper economically and maintain its social and political stability. The interconnectedness between the slave trade and Africa’s current (under)development can be seen in ongoing factors that impact Africa, such as the lack of trust in governance and local institutions, the loss of a stable economy, and the destruction of its culture and heritage. First, by drawing on scholar, Nathan Nunn’s thesis in “Historical Legacies: A Model linking Africa’s past to its current underdevelopment”(2004), it will aim to inform a foundational understanding between Africa’s underdevelopment, the slave trade and its long term effects. This will then lead onto the discussion of the long-term consequences of the slave trade on Africa, with a particular focus on Central Africa as a whole.
Several studies have drawn on the link between Africa’s underdevelopment with its history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. To grasp a better understanding of the long term impacts on Africa that exist today and why this link is of importance, I will address a brief introduction on Nathan Nunn’s (2004) thesis to form the foundation of this paper. Through the use of empirical data and historical literature, Nunn uncovers evidence supporting the idea that the commerce of past slave exports has had an adverse effect on Africa’s current economic development. He focuses on the long term consequences of Africa’s slave trade by observing the performances of various nations in Africa, concluding that the larger number of exports of slaves traded, the “worse is the country’s subsequent economic performance” (Nunn, 2004, pp158). Through uncovering this finding, further statistics and research have been found to support Nunn’s proposition. In particular, Central Africa, now known as consisting of countries such as Angola, the Democratic of Congo and Gabon, have supplied nearly over fifty percent of Africans, reaching over 900,000 in the first century of trading (NPS Ethnography, 2001). Thus, the significant dependence on Central Africa in the productivity of the transatlantic slave trade, has resulted in the region’s limited economic progress and stability. With these conclusions, this paper will further analyse the causal mechanisms and consequences between the slave trade and Central Africa’s current low economic performance.
Central Africa’s underdevelopment, caused by the slave trade, has established an ongoing system of distrust for those in governance and local institutions. Trust becomes integral in shaping a country’s political and economic development. However, through Africa’s long history with the transatlantic slave trade, this trust, central in initiating stability and progress, has become limited. Witnessed, early in the slave trade, the process of attaining slaves was through state organised raids and warfare (Piot, 1997). This later included other methods of enslavement, such as trickery and kidnapping, which involved in some cases, the complicity of relatives and neighbours (Nunn & Wantchekon, 2011). It can be argued that this could have created the deterioration of the legitimacy of local state institutions and its trust placed on it. These effects of the slave trade have caused an environment of insecurity and a culture of mistrust that persists today, which have primarily been maintained by stories of personal betrayal and community breakdown, passed down orally through family histories, and religious and cultural practices (Nunn & Wantchekon, 2011). It is through the transmission of norms of cooperation which strengthens, or in the case of Central Africa, weakens institutional quality and trust, that continues across future generations (Tabellini, 2008).
Nunn (2007) further elaborates on this idea, by arguing violent and destructive actions practiced through raids, warfare, and civil conﬂict during the slave trade, also prevented state and local institutions from providing a cooperative relationship of trust and social cohesion between their position of power and local communities. Consequently, the long established low levels of trust have developed institutions of governance that are typically weaker, which leads to themes of corruptive and violent behaviour and results in even lower levels of trust. This is particularly apparent in Central Africa which have been consumed by violent revolutions and civil wars. More specifically, the ongoing Central African Republic Civil War that began in 2012, demonstrates the failure of State services to provide security and stability and thus erodes trust. The conflict was triggered when a coalition of rebel groups, the Seleka, attacked the government for its failure to abide by peace agreements. The region has suffered decades of violence and instability, along with the severe deterioration of the country’s security infrastructure (Knoope & Buchanan-Clarke, 2014). Although the government maintains some control of its capital, Bangui, most armed groups have boycotted President Touadera’s attempts to calm the region through disarmament. This leaves the government powerless outside the capital, resulting in the widespread of lawlessness and increased violence. Through the government’s incompetence to provide security, armed forces have intensified the situation by targeting civilians. Civilians have been subject to murders and kidnappings, women are targets of rape and sexual assault and many children are recruited and exploited as soldiers. This has left over half a million people from Central Africa displaced and 75 percent of its population in poverty (Global Conflict Tracker, 2019). Conflicts, like these, not only cripples the economy and workforce’s capacity to develop but ‘traps’ these societies within an equilibrium of uncooperative and inadequate institutions to fulfil its responsibilities, which disrupts relationships of trust (Nunn & Wantchekon, 2011). Therefore, as observed above, the slave trade has created a long-term cycle of violence and mistrust.
The slave trade, also produced the erosion of a stable economy in Central Africa, due to its practices of exploitation. Through its valuable raw materials, Africa proved to be once economically self-sufficient through its domination in local commerce of resin, orchil, gold, spices and cattle (M’Baye, 2006). However, within less than a century of commerce and trade with the Western world, Africa became a case of commerce exploitation and thus, lost both its economic autonomy and social peace, along with its inhabitants who became victims of oppression and slave labour (Inikori & Engerman, 1992). This disruption, caused by the slave trade, on Africa’s socio-economic potential involved the prevention of further technological progress in Africa. Historian, Walter Rodney, further argues the slave trade not only brought a loss of industry but “a loss of development opportunity” (Rodney, 1972, pp105). Casualties and the transportation of thousands of workers to work on European land, caused a significant loss of human capital for Africa and a stagnation of a self-sustaining growth that its enslaved working population, particularly, the youth, could have secured and maintained for the future.
Ultimately, the effects of this has placed Central Africa on a disadvantaged playing field and has prevented it from competing at equal economic levels as those with more developed and progressive economies (ie. The West). This idea is reflected in Immanuel Wallerstein’s ‘The World Systems Theory’, 1974. This approach in thinking develops a perspective on how the world economic system is structured to benefit some nations and exploit others. According to the theory, the world is divided and established on a three-level hierarchy, consisting of core, periphery and semi-periphery countries. Core countries are dominant capitalist countries that exploit peripheral countries for cheap labour and raw materials (Martínez-Vela, 2001). On the other end of the scale, periphery nations such as Africa, lack strong central governments and have underdeveloped economies. Its raw materials and labour are exported to the core through unequal trade relations and are significantly dependent on the core who are the source of the periphery’s capital surplus. Through a closer examination of Central Africa’s current economic situation, this theory and the effects of the slave trade on its current economy can be understood. Research and examination of Central Africa’s economic performance have witnessed a slow and minimal growth in the economy, with an estimated average growth of 0.9% in 2017, rising barely 0.1% from 2016 (Central Economic Outlook, 2018). Continuing low commodity prices and security threats, have also affected the potential for this growth to evolve. Moreover, agriculture continues to dominate the nation as its central mode of commerce. On average , agriculture contributed 30% of the economic activity and 60% of the workforce who suffer from poor working conditions. This has resulted in a low GDP and an even higher inflation rate of 10.1% in 2017 (Central Economic Outlook, 2018). Therefore, the impacts of the slave trade have produced a long term effect on the economy to further develop and progress, securely and equally.
Moreover, the slave trade led to the destruction of culture and heritage in Africa. Although, Africa as a whole is inhabited by various ethnic nationalities and cultures, dominant traits in beliefs systems and values are shared. Most importantly, the family unit and kinship ties are central to its cultural values as it acts as a basic group of social organisation and binds a myriad of different African ethnic societies together (Merriam, 1961, pp148). Here, responsibilities are shared and a sense of added security and belonging are established. Another shared cultural practice is oral literature which is encompassed through the essence of music, dance and verbal storytelling and riddles (Merriam, 1961, pp149). This ensures the passage of cultural practices and history are passed down from one generation to another. The ongoing commerce of slave labour and its increasing demand for labour in Central Africa resulted in the forced removal of up to 11 million people (Slave Voyages Databases, 2019) from the population and thus destroyed these cultural practices. The separation of family units and kinship ties not only dismantled the sense of cultural belonging but destroyed the value of trust as seen through the involvement of relatives and neighbours in the process of enslavement, as discussed above. Moreover, the decline or stagnation of the population, caused by the slave trade, affected the potential for Africans, particularly, the younger and stronger who were taken for enslavement, to raise children of their own within their own culture and maintain and practice their cultural traditions in forms of oral literature and rituals of dance and music, for future generations (Whatley & Gillezeau, 2009).
Furthermore, overtime the traditional cultural values and customs in Africa were replaced by elements of the 18th Century European worldview, following pre-European contact in Africa (NPS Ethnography, 2001). Due to the centrality of oral literature in African culture, its history, customs and legacies have no traces or a limited range of written documents or sources. This left discoveries and sources of traditional African culture and systems to be found in European interpretations and accounts. As the productivity of slavery grew, the development of dichotomies surrounding race emerged. In particular, the European race-based worldview extended to include ideas that social classification are informed by differences in human appearance and thus, established discourses of white superiority and black inferiority. This worldview, not only was used as a rationalisation for the enslavement of Africans but disregarded the social history and cultural achievements of Africa (M’Baye, 2006). The reinforcement of ‘white’ supremacy, African inferiority and African enslavement demonstrates the compounding effects this worldview has on culture in Africa. It has ultimately, left a legacy of historical omissions and a suppression and misinterpretation of Africa’s cultural heritage (NPS Ethnography, 2001). Notions of cultural supremacy can also be found within ideas of white supremacy and have contributed to the loss of knowledge and distortion of Africa’s social history and cultural values.
Along with this worldview, notions of ‘backwardness and chaos’ were associated with Africa and thus demonstrates a negligence of Africa’s rich and diverse culture (M’Baye, 2006). Many historians have drawn on Edward Long’s theory that Africa encompassed an environment dominated with wars and tyranny (Olusoga, 2015). This has resulted in historical misconceptions that influence the denigration of Africa, including notions of ‘savages’ and ‘barbaric’ which has led to the assumption of African weakness and inherent inferiority (Curtin, 1975, pp 310). These stereotypes and racially-driven worldviews can be argued to have radically affected the way the rest of the world, particularly, the West, views Africa. Its associations with Africa and its involvement with the slave labour, not only has replaced Africa’s past history and culture with a European worldview but has made it difficult for Africa to establish an equal footing within the trading world, thus affecting its economic development till this day.
Therefore, the transatlantic slave trade has produced long term consequences that have affected Africa’s ability to progress economically as well as maintain a politically and socially stable and harmonious arena. Through a closer analysis on Central Africa, a region disastrously affected by the slave trade, we can observe how it has created a system of mistrust for governance and local institutions, impacted its ability to establish a stable economy and thus trade on equal terms with other nations as well as, has facilitated the destruction and suppression of African culture and heritage. Ultimately, these factors, collectively demonstrates the consequences of the causal mechanisms and interconnection of the transatlantic slave trade and Africa’s underdevelopment
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