African Slave Trade and West African Underdevelopment

This paper looks at whether the Atlantic slave trade contributed to the underdevelopment of West Africa. The paper argues that the issue of African underdevelopment is extremely complex, including many factors, aside from the Atlantic slave trade, that have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the underdevelopment of Africa. The paper begins with a review of the slave trade, in terms of the numbers of people involved in this, and the immediate effects of this trade on local economies. The effects of this trade on importing economies is then reviewed, and it is shown that many importing countries benefited massively from this trade, through increased labour supply and through monetary gains which were then applied to developing industry in the importing countries. The repercussions of this industrial development are then discussed, in terms of its effects on Africa.

The paper then moves on to look at the effect of the slave trade on Africa, in terms of the demographic imbalances this caused, and the effects this had on the development of African countries, in terms of social, political and economic development. The paper then moves on to look at the roles, and effects, of the colonial powers on African countries, in terms of exploitation of Africa’s natural resources and the immediate and long-lasting effects this has had on Africa, and the continuing exploitation of Africa, through development loans, for example, which cripple the economies of many African countries, through the massive interest payments required, which leaves little money for investment to develop local industry, or social projects. The paper thus sees African underdevelopment as a holistic problem, involving far more than the slave trade, and having far-reaching implications for future generations of Africans.

In addition to looking at the effects of the slave trade on African underdevelopment, the term ‘underdevelopment’ will be discussed in an African context. As will be seen, Rodney (1972) argues, in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, that there is no such thing as ‘underdevelopment’, that underdevelopment is not an absence of development, rather that it can only be understood in the context of comparisons, of ‘more developed’ with ‘less developed’ nations, for example, and that it is best understood in the context of exploitation, as, for Rodney, most currently underdeveloped countries are also the countries that are exploited by others, through capitalist, imperialist or colonialist means (Rodney, 1972; p. 110-112). The paper will conclude that capitalist exploitation of Africa began with the slave trade and continues to the present day and is, as we have see, the major factor that was, and continues to be, responsible for the comparative underdevelopment of African nations. As we have argued, the slave trade per se did not contribute to the comparative underdevelopment of Africa, rather a complex mixture of exploitation, lack of opportunity, and capitalist interests contributed to the underdevelopment of Africa.

It is estimated by Curtin (1969) that 9,566,100 slaves were exported from Africa to the Americas and other parts of the Atlantic basin, from it’s beginning in 1451 to when this trade ended in 1870. Many subsequent researchers have, however, provided evidence which shows that this figure is an under-estimation; for example, Stein (1978) has presented a figure some twenty per cent higher than Curtin’s (1969) estimation and Lovejoy (1982) used new calculations, and new shipping data, to put the figure at some 11,698,000. Whatever the exact figure, however, it is clear that demographically, this trade had a massive impact on West Africa, with Thornton (1980) showing that there are marked differences in economic, demographic, political and social development between slave-depleted areas, slave-importing areas and slave-trading areas. The debate that subsequently surrounded Curtin’s estimation of the number of people involved in the Atlantic slave trade has therefore involved much more than a disagreement about numbers: it rests more, now, on whether the slave trade was actually a contributing factor in the current underdevelopment of West Africa. This paper expands the ideas presented by Curtin (1969), and Thornton (1980), looking at the social, economic and political effects of the slave trade on Africa.

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