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Slave Trade Essay

History Notes > Empires and World History (c. 1400-1900) Notes

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'For all its brutality and violence, the West African slave trade of the sixteenth to early nineteenth centuries far less disruptive in its regional economic and political effects than was once assumed.' Discuss. 'The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth... the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery...'
- King Gezo of Dahomey, 1840s Two debates are central to the question of the impact of the Atlantic slave trade in Africa. The first is over the extent to which the commercial relationship between Africa and Europe was dominated by the latter. Walter Rodney projected European economic subjugation of Africa into the era of Atlantic trade, and saw in it the first, decisive step to 'underdevelopment'. More recently, Thornton and others have contested this view and argued for African agency and control in the transaction of commerce - and in the development of the Atlantic slave trade specifically. The trade itself, it has been argued, was an extension of existing forms of economic activity rather than a foreign imposition. While Rodney's thesis allows us to draw a clear causal link between the slave trade and 'disruption', Thornton's makes this less straightforward. The second debate, then, concerns the scale of the disruption - demographic, economic and sociopolitical - that did take place. The apparent demographic and economic stagnation of Africa in this period has again been taken as the root of the continent's 'underdevelopment', and has naturally been blamed on the slave trade. The scale of this disruption is up for debate, and does not necessarily have to be seen as disastrous. It is the political element that is key to this debate, however. Answering the questions of how far and in what way political and social structures changed in response to the pressures of the slave trade - or, more the point, how much they didn't - allows an evaluation of the demographic and economic stagnation. Fage and Eltis have argued that endemic warfare and slave trading may have been more to blame than the Atlantic trade. Aggressive and mercantilist states emerged in the period of slave trading, but this also can be cast in ways other than 'disruptive'. In short, though the export of millions of Africans from their homeland was sure to have had a negative impact, we do not have to accept the worst-case evaluation of its scale; the slave trade was probably not an unmitigated disaster for Africa. More to the point, the Atlantic slave trade was not purely a creation and imposition of opportunistic Europeans, and the very fact that Africans oversaw and participated in the commerce at all levels forces us to think carefully about calling the effects of the trade a 'disruption'. Although in the long-term, it was Europeans and not Africans who enjoyed the aggregate benefits of the slave trade - and in that sense it could be called 'exploitative'
- Rodney's theory that the trade represented the imposition of a 'European capitalist system' upon a society and economy that was fundamentally different is no longer tenable. Rodney's argument was essentially constructed within a Marxist economic tradition, and defined the slave trade as exploitative because Africans were exporting what was essentially a raw commodity with only the potential to be productive - captives - in return for processed manufactured goods from Europe. Rodney added that other forms of economic activity that were prominent parts of the European trade, such as ivory hunting and cutting camwood trees, were purely extractive. This was the

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