The Human Market
The Slave Trade
Neither slavery nor the slave trade came to West Africa with the arrival of the Portuguese in the middle of the fifteenth century. To the contrary, both institutions had a very long history. A two-way slave trade had existed between the West Africans and the Arabs for centuries. In view of the social structure of both societies, sociologists believe that the Arabs could make use of more slaves than could the West Africans. Therefore, West Africa probably exported more slaves than it imported.
Slaves, besides being common laborers, were often men of considerable skill and learning, Slavery was not a badge of human inferiority. Thus, the first slaves procured by the Europeans from Africa were displayed as curiosities and as proof of affluence. While, especially at the beginning, some slaves were taken by force, most of the African slaves acquired by the Europeans were obtained in the course of a peaceful and regular bargaining process.
When the Portuguese arrived in West Africa, they found a thriving economy which had already developed its own bustling trading centers. Before long, a vigorous trade opened up between the Portuguese and the West Africans. Slaves were only one of a great variety of exports, and guns were only one of a large variety of imports. One of the ways in which the slave trade came to cripple the West African economy was that slaves became almost the exclusive African export. The more the Africans sought to fulfill the Europeans' thirst for slaves, the more they needed guns with which to procure slaves, and to protect themselves from being captured and sold into slavery. Therefore, the Euro-African trade, instead of further stimulating the African economy, actually limited production of many items and drained it of much of its most productive manpower.
The rulers, who had voluntarily and unwittingly involved themselves in this gigantic trade, soon found themselves trapped. Those who wanted to eliminate or reduce the trade in slaves and who preferred to develop other aspects of a trading economy, found themselves helpless. A ruler who would not provide the Europeans with the slaves they desired was then bypassed by all the European traders. Besides losing the revenue from this trade, his own military position was weakened. Any ruler who did not trade slaves for guns could not have guns. Without guns, he would have difficulty in protecting himself and his people. Any ruler or people who could not provide adequate self-defense could be captured and sold into slavery. Once begun, the Africans found themselves enmeshed in a vicious system from which there seemed to be no escape. The only possibility for escape would have been the development of some kind of African coalition, but each petty ruler as too concerned with his own power to be able to contemplate federated activity. European greed fed African greed, and vice a versa. Pictures of African Being Captured Here
In the beginning, African slaves were carried back to Portugal and other parts of Europe to be used as exotic domestic servants. In some cases, they were also used as farm laborers. Parts of Portugal were suffering from a distinct shortage of farm laborers, and Africans filled the void. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, in some sections of rural Portugal as much as one third of local population was African in origin.
Even so, European labor needs could not support much of a slave trade for long. The enclosure system was under way, changing farming techniques, and it had created a labor surplus. However, at the same time, emerging capitalism financed explorations in Africa, Asia, and the western hemisphere. African sailors were involved in most of these explorations including Columbus's voyage in 1492. New World gold provided the economic basis for even more rapid European expansion. When the New World came to be viewed by the hungry capitalists as having a potential for agricultural exploitation, New World labor needs expanded astronomically. At first these needs were filled by surplus labor from Europe or by exploiting the local Indian populations. When these labor sources proved to be inadequate, the exploitation of slave labor from Africa was the obvious answer.
While the Portuguese were the first to reach the shores of West Africa and the first to bring African slaves back to Europe, neither they nor the Spaniards ever dominated the slave trade which followed. In 1493, as European exploration of the world moved into high gear, the Pope published a Bull dividing the world yet to be explored into two parts. His intention was to limit competition and conflict between the rulers of Spain and Portugal and to prevent undue hostility between his two main supporters.
However, this left the other European powers, officially, with no room for overseas expansion. While these powers refused to acknowledge the legality of the Bull and soon became involved in exploration and colonization in spite of it, they also tended to become more involved than did Portugal or Spain in some of the by-products of colonization, such as the slave trade. When the Spaniards began to use slaves in their American colonies, the Dutch, French, and British were only too eager to provide the transportation. Before long, they too had colonies and slaves of their own.
The triangular trade between Europe, Africa, and the New World, was one of the most lucrative aspects of the mercantile economy. Mercantilism sought to keep each country economically self-sufficient. Within this framework the role of the colony was to provide the mother country with raw materials which it could not produce for itself and to be a market for the consumption of many of the manufactured goods produced within the mother country. Pictures of African Slave Ships Here
This triangular trade began in Europe with the purchase of guns, gunpowder, cheap cotton, and trinkets of all kinds. These were shipped to the coast of West Africa and unloaded at a trading station. At key points along the coast, the European nations had made treaties with the local rulers allowing them to set up trading stations and slave factories. At this point, the European traders entered into hard bargaining sessions with the representatives of the local ruler in which the manufactured goods from Europe, especially guns, were traded for African slaves. When the deal was completed, the slaves were loaded on the ship, and the captain set sail for the New World.
Upon arrival in the West Indies, another bargaining process was begun. Here the slaves were traded for local agricultural products which were wanted in Europe. Then the ships were loaded with tobacco, sugar, and other West Indian produce and returned to Europe for still another sale and another profit. At every point along the route, large sums of money were made. A profit of at east one hundred percent was expected. Vast wealth was obtained through the slave trade, and this money was reinvested in the developing industrial revolution. Thereby the Africans unwittingly helped to finance the European industrial revolution which widened the technological gap between Africa and Europe.
The African slave was sometimes a criminal, but, more often than not, he was captured in battle. As the slave trade grew and with it the need for more slaves, the number of these battles increased. Clearly, many battles were being fought solely for the purpose of acquiring slaves who could then be sold to the European traders. Sometimes, too, the slave might have been the political enemy of the ruler or of some other powerful person.
The slaves were then marched to trading stations along the coast where a European agent, who resided at the station, inspected them and negotiated their purchase. The inspection was humiliating and degrading procedure. Men, women, and children usually appeared stark naked and underwent the close scrutiny of the agent and sometimes a physician. After the trauma of capture and the shame of inspection, the slaves were regimented into crowded quarters at the trading station or "factory" to wait for the next shipment to leave. They had to be supervised very closely as many tried to escape and others tried to commit suicide.
When a ship was ready to sail, the slaves were chained together and marched down to the shore. There they were bundled into large canoes and were paddled through the crashing breakers to where the slave ship was waiting. Slaves have told how they began the voyage in trepidation, being frightened by the sight of the "white devils" who, they had heard, liked to eat Africans. Then the long voyage commenced. Conditions here were even more crowded than at the "factory." Slaves were generally kept below deck with no sunshine or fresh air. They were crowded so close together that there was never any standing room and often not even sitting room. Again, they had to be supervised closely as many tried to starve themselves to death or to jump overboard. However, the greatest loss of slave property was due to disease, The ship's captain feared that disease would whittle away his profits, and, even more, he worried that it would attack him and his crew. When the passage was completed, and the West Indies had been safely reached, the slave again had to undergo the same kind of degrading inspection and sale which had occurred in Africa, but this time he had to experience the torment in a strange and distant land.
While the economic profits in the slave trade were great, so were the human losses. Statistics concerning the slave trade are often inaccurate or missing. However, it is generally agreed that at least fifteen million Africans, and perhaps many more, became slaves in the New World. About nine hundred thousand were brought in the sixteenth century, three million in the seventeenth century, seven million in the eighteenth century, and another four million in the nineteenth century.
The mortality rate among these new slaves ran very high. It is estimated that some five percent died in Africa on the way to the coast, another thirteen percent in transit to the West Indies, and still another thirty percent during the three-month seasoning period in the West Indies. This meant that about fifty percent of those originally captured in Africa died either in transit or while being prepared for servitude.
Even this statistic, harsh as it is, does not tell the whole story of the human cost involved in the slave trade. Most slaves were captured in the course of warfare, and many more Africans were killed in the course of this combat. The total number of deaths, then, ran much higher than those killed en route. Many Africans became casualty statistics, directly or indirectly, because of the slave trade. Beyond this, there was the untold human sorrow and misery borne by the friends and relatives of those Africans who were torn away from home and loved ones and were never seen again.
Statistics concerning profits in the slave trade are also difficult to obtain. Profits often ran as high as two or three hundred percent, and were an important part of the European economy. These profits provided much of the capital which helped to spur on the industrial revolution. When Queen Elizabeth, in 1562, heard that one of her subjects, John Hawkins, had become involved in the slave trade, she was very critical and commented that he would have to pay a very high price for dealing in human lives. However, when she was confronted with a copy of his profit ledger, her moral indignation softened, and she quickly became one of the members of the corporation. Some merchants were hit hard by the risks accompanying the slave trade and suffered financial disaster. The possible profits were so high, however, that other merchants were always eager to venture into this field and new capital was ever lacking.
The industrial revolution, which was partly financed by the slave trade, eventually abolished the need for slavery. The humanitarian outcry against both the slave trade and slavery which occurred at the end of the eighteenth century and swelled in the early nineteenth century, became a significant force as the need for slave labor diminished. In the beginning, as previously noted, the Europeans were not powerful enough to seize slaves at will or to invade the African kingdoms. But the industrial revolution had immeasurably widened the power gap between Europe and Africa. By the time the slave trade ended, and European adventurers had found new ways to achieve gigantic capital gains, Europe had achieved a power advantage sufficient to invade Africa at will.
As European interests in colonizing Africa increased, the European powers, at the middle of the nineteenth century, were also tearing one another apart in the process of this competitive expansion, In order to avoid further misfortune, the great powers of Europe met at the conference of Berlin in 1885. Without troubling to consult with any Africans, they drew lines on a map of Africa dividing it among themselves. It took only a very few years for a map drawing to become a physical reality. When the Europeans had finished exploiting Africa through the slave trade and had greatly weakened its societies, they invaded Africa in order to exploit its nonhuman material resources.