"The past is what makes the present coherent," said Afro-American writer James Baldwin, and the past "will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly."

Why go back five centuries to start an explanation of Africa's crisis in the late 1990s? Must every story of Africa's political and economic under-development begin with the contact with Europe? The intention is not to produce another nationalist tract on how whites, driven by lust for material possession and armed with firearms, gin and a bag full of tricks, subjugated innocent Africans who were living blissfully close to nature. The reason for looking back is that the root of the crisis facing African societies is their failure to come to terms with the consequences of that contact.

Portuguese seamen first landed in Africa in the fourth decade of the fifteenth century. From the outset they seized Africans and shipped them to Europe. In 1441 ten Africans were kidnapped from the Guinea coast and taken to Portugal as gifts to Prince Henry the Navigator. In subsequent expeditions to the West African coast, inhabitants were taken and shipped to Portugal to be sold as servants and objects of curiosity to households. In the Portuguese port of Lagos, where the first African slaves landed in 1442, the old slave market now serves as an art gallery.

Portuguese adventurers who sailed southeast along the Gulf of Guinea in 1472 landed on the coast of what became Nigeria. Others followed. They found people of varying cultures. Some lived in towns ruled by kings with nobility and courtiers, very much like the medieval societies they left behind them. A Dutch visitor to Benin City wrote in around 1600: "As you enter it, the town appears very great. You go into a great broad street, not paved, which seems to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes Street in Amsterdam...The houses in this town stand in good order, one close and even with the other, as the houses in Holland stand..." More than a century earlier Benin exchanged ambassadors with Portugal. But not all African societies were as developed. Some enjoyed village existence in primeval forests remote from outside influences.

Economics was the driving force

From the outset, relations between Europe and Africa were economic. Portuguese merchants traded with Africans from trading posts they set up along the coast. They exchanged items like brass and copper bracelets for such products as pepper, cloth, beads and slaves - all part of an existing internal African trade. Domestic slavery was common in Africa and well before European slave buyers arrived, there was trading in humans. Black slaves were captured or bought by Arabs and exported across the Saharan desert to the Mediterranean and Near East.

In 1492, the Spaniard Christopher Columbus discovered for Europe a 'New World'. The find proved disastrous not only for the 'discovered' people but also for Africans. It marked the beginning of a triangular trade between Africa, Europe and the New World. European slave ships, mainly British and French, took people from Africa to the New World. They were initially taken to the West Indies to supplement local Indians decimated by the Spanish Conquistadors. The slave trade grew from a trickle to a flood, particularly from the seventeenth century onwards.

Portugal's monopoly in the obnoxious trade was broken in the sixteenth century when England followed by France and other European nations entered the trade. The English led in the business of transporting young Africans from their homeland to work in mines and till lands in the Americas.

Most slaves sold by Africans

Estimates of the total human loss to Africa over the four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade range from 30 million to 200 million. At the initial stage of the trade parties of Europeans captured Africans in raids on communities in the coastal areas. But this soon gave way to buying slaves from African rulers and traders. The vast majority of slaves taken out of Africa were sold by African rulers, traders and a military aristocracy who all grew wealthy from the business. Most slaves were acquired through wars or by kidnapping. The Portuguese Duatre Pacheco Pereire wrote in the early sixteenth century after a visit to Benin that the kingdom "is usually at war with its neighbours and takes many captives, whom we buy at twelve or fifteen brass bracelets each, or for copper bracelets, which they prize more." Olaudah Equiano, an ex-slave, described in his memoirs published in 1789 how African rulers carried out raids to capture slaves. "When a trader wants slaves, he applies to a chief for them, and tempts him with his wares. It is not extraordinary, if on this occasion he yields to the temptation with as little firmness, and accepts the price of his fellow creature's liberty with as little reluctance, as the enlightened merchant. Accordingly, he falls upon his neighbours, and a desperate battle ensues...if he prevails, and takes prisoners, he gratifies his avarice by selling them." Equiano was born in 1745 in an area under the kingdom of Benin. At the age of ten he was kidnapped by slave hunters who also took his sister. He was more fortunate than most other slaves. After serving in America, the West Indies and England he was able to save for and buy his freedom in 1756 at the age of twenty-one.

Ottobah Cugoano, who was about 13 years old when he was kidnapped in 1770 in Ajumako in today's Ghana, had no doubt the shared responsibility of Africans for the horrid business. Referring to his own capture Cugoano wrote after he regained his freedom "I must own, to the shame of my own countrymen, that I was first kidnapped and betrayed by some of my own complexion, who were the first cause of my exile and slavery." But he added, "If there were no buyers there would be no sellers." By the same token, if there were no sellers there would be no buyers.

A profitable trade

European slave buyers made the greater profit from the despicable trade, but their African partners also prospered. Many grew strong and fat on profits made from selling their brethren. Tinubu square, commercial centre of today's Lagos and home to Nigeria's Central Bank, is named after a major nineteenth century slave trader. Madam Tinubu was born in Egbaland and rose from rags to riches by trading in slaves , salt and tobacco in Badagry. She later became one of Nigeria's pioneering nationalists.

Africa's rulers, traders and military aristocracy protected their interest in the slave trade. They discouraged Europeans from leaving the coastal areas to venture into the interior of the continent. European trading companies realised the benefit of dealing with African suppliers and not unnecessarily antagonising them. The companies could not have mustered the resources it would have taken to directly capture the tens of millions of people shipped out of Africa. It was far more sensible and safer to give Africans guns to fight the many wars that yielded captives for the trade. The slave trading network stretched deep into the Africa's interior. Slave trading firms were aware of their dependency on African suppliers. The Royal African Company, for instance, instructed its agents on the West coast "if any differences happen, to endeavour an amicable accommodation rather than use force." They were "to endeavour to live in all friendship with them" and "to hold frequent palavers with the Kings and the Great Men of the Country, and keep up a good correspondent with them, ingratiating yourself by such prudent methods" as may be deemed appropriate.

Africans faced with a new world

Contact with Europe opened new images of the world for the African elite and presented them with products of a civilisation which as the centuries passed became more technologically differentiated from their own. The slave trade whetted their appetite for the products of a changing world. Sadly it was not only tinpot rulers who were mesmerised by the glitters of western artefacts. An African slave in Cuba in the nineteenth century recalled how his people were captivated by the bright colour of European manufacturers. "It was the scarlet which did for the Africans: both the kings and the rest surrendered without a struggle. When the kings saw that the whites were taking out these scarlet handkerchiefs as if they were waving, they told the blacks, "Go on then, go get a scarlet handkerchief" and the blacks were so excited by the scarlet they ran down to the ships, like sheep and there were captured."

European traders saw the advantages of helping African kings and chiefs realise their desire to acquire western culture, if not for themselves then for their children. Hugh Crow, who commanded the last British slave ship to leave a British port, wrote "It has always been the practice of merchants and commanders of ships to Africa, to encourage the natives to send their children to England as it not only conciliates their friendship, and softens their manner, but adds greatly to the security of the traders." With their children in Europe, African chiefs were likely to be more accommodating, knowing full well their offspring could be held as ransom.

European powers also hoped that by entertaining African princes in Europe to win the friendship of their fathers. By far the most important reason why African rulers and traders participated in the slave trade was their desire for its material rewards and the power it brought. They were obsessed with the variety of goods available through the trade. Locally produced equivalents of some merchandise, like cloth and jewellery, existed but greater satisfaction and prestige was got from having imported varieties. The man with a warehouse full with goods from abroad was a powerful figure in the community, able to buy favours and influence with his ill-gotten wealth.

African traders resist abolition of obnoxious trade

When Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 it not only had to contend with opposition from white slavers but also from African rulers who had become accustomed to wealth gained from selling slaves or from taxes collected on slaves passed through their domain. African slave-trading classes were greatly distressed by the news that legislators sitting in parliament in London had decided to end their source of livelihood. But for as long as there was demand from the Americas for slaves, the lucrative business continued.

English missionary and abolitionist Thomas Buxton wrote in 1840 that the best way to suppress the slave trade was to offer Africa's slaving elites legitimate business that would give them means to satisfy their hunger for Western goods. "The African has acquired a taste for the civilised world. They have become essential to his. To say that the African, under present circumstances, shall not deal in man, is to say he shall long in vain for his accustomed gratification." This was the crux of the African condition.

The slave trade business continued in many parts of Africa for many decades after the British abolished it. For as long as there was demand for slave labour in the Americas, the supply was available. The British set up a naval blockade to stop ships carrying slaves from West Africa, but it was not very effective in suppressing the trade. Thousands of slave ships were detained during the decades the blockade was in operation. One Lieutenant Patrick Forbes, a British naval officer, estimated in 1849 that during a period of 26 years 103,000 slaves were emancipated by the warships of the naval blockade while ships carrying 1,795,000 slaves managed to slip past the blockage and land their cargo in the Americas.

British efforts to suppress the trade made it even more profitable because the price of slaves rose in the Americas. The numerous wars that plagued Yorubaland for half a century following the fall of the Oyo empire was largely driven by demand for slaves. Reverend Samuel Johnson wrote of the subjugation of neighbouring Yoruba kingdoms by Ibadan war-chiefs in the 1850s: "Slave-raiding now became a trade to many who would get rich speedily." It took the intervention of British colonialism to impose peace in Yorubaland in 1893. Slave trading for export ended in Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa after slavery ended in the Spanish colonies of Brazil and Cuba in 1880. A consequence of the ending of the slave trade was the expansion of domestic slavery as African businessmen replaced trade in human chattel with increased export of primary commodities. Labour was needed to cultivate the new source of wealth for the African elites.

What if the West not abolish slavery?

Had Europe not decided to end the slave trade and the New World ceased demanding chattel labour, the transatlantic trade might still be rolling today. The ending of the obnoxious business had nothing to do with events in Africa. Rulers and traders there would have happily continued to sell humans for as long as there was demand for them. One can only imagine how more determinedly African merchants would have clung on to the business as goods offered by European buyers became more attractive with changes in Western technology. How many souls would African chiefs have been prepared to trade for a television or a car? It is a disturbing thought.

To highlight the role of the African elites in the slave trade is not to argue the obvious that they were morally depraved like the Europeans who bought slaves from them. It is to show that the corrupt leadership that undermines democracy and economic development in African countries today has a long history. The selfishness and disregard for the welfare of fellow humans manifest in the sacking of national resources by modern African leaders also motivated the pillaging of the human resources of the continent in times past.

A long history of corrupt African rulng classes

Some African writers, seeking to maximise the culpability of Europe in the slave trade, minimise the part played by African rulers and traders or explain it as the result of white trickery. Such distortion of history may make the moral case against European imperialism seem sharper, but it does nothing to aid the understanding by Africans of a critical period of their history. African slavers acted out of their own volition and for their self interest. They took advantage of the opportunity provided by Europe to consume the products of its civilisation. The triangular slave trade was a major part in the early stages of the emergence of the international market. The role of slave-trading African ruling classes in this market is not radically different from the position of the African elite in today's global economy. They both traded the resources of their people for their own gratification and prosperity. In the process they helped to weaken their nations and dim their prospects for economic and social development.

The slave trade had a profound economic, social, cultural and psychological impact on African societies and peoples. It did more to undermine African development than the colonialism that followed it. Through the trade the continent lost a large proportion of its young and able bodied population. Guyanese historian Walter Rodney cites in his book 'How Europe Underdeveloped Africa' one estimate showing that while Europe's population more than quadruped between 1650 and 1900, Africa's population rose only by 20 per cent during the same period. The loss of work-force was not more serious than the damage to the social and economic fabric of the society and the undermining of the confidence of Africans in their historical evolution.

The transatlantic slave trade and slavery were major elements in the emergence of capitalism in the West. As Karl Marx noted, they were as pivotal to western industrialisation as the new machinery and financial systems. Slavery gave value to the colonies in the New World which were crucial in the development of international trade. Trinidadian historian Eric Williams showed in his well-researched book Capitalism and Slavery, that the slave trade and slavery helped to make England the workshop of the world. Profit from slave-worked colonies and the slave trade were major sources of capital accumulation which helped finance the industrial revolution. The transportation of slave transformed British seaport areas into booming centres. One Englishman calling himself 'A Genuine "Dicky Sam", had no doubt about the link between the slave trade and prosperity of seaport city of Liverpool. "Like the magical wand, the traffic worked wonders; once poor, now rich; once ignoble, now great. Churches have been built and grand legacies bequeathed to all sorts of charities."

Europeans built empires, Africans drunk gin

While Europe invested profits from the trade in laying the foundation of a powerful economic empire, African kings and traders were content with wearing used caps and admiring themselves in worthless mirrors while swigging adulterated brandy bought with the freedom of their kinsmen. Virtually all the items imported during the nefarious business were for consumption or weapons for waging wars. A slave ship's manifest published in 1665 listed items carried for sale to Africans as old hats, caps, salt, swords, knives, axe-heads, hammers, belts, sheepskin gloves, bracelets, iron jugs and even "cats to catch their mice." One African trader calling himself Grandy King George was quite specific in his demand. He wrote to a slave captain: "send me one lucking-glass, six foot long by six foot wide." He also asked for an armchair, a gold mounted cane and a stool." The more common imports were alcohol, guns and gunpowder , salt and textiles. The quality of the items shipped to Africa was inferior - the spirits were adulterated and the guns designed for the African market.

Africa's contemporary history may have been different had its rulers and traders demanded capital goods for use in building the economy rather than trinkets and booze. As it was, the slave trade arrested economic development in Africa. The loss in human resources had dire consequences for labour dependent agricultural economies. Any possibility that the internal dynamics of African society could have led to the development of capitalism and industrialisation was blocked by the slave trade. The few existing manufacturing activities were either destroyed or denied conditions for growth. Cheap European textiles, for instance, undermined local cloth production. Samuel Johnson wrote in the late nineteenth century about Yorubaland: "Before the period of intercourse with Europeans, all articles made of iron and steel, from weapons of war to pins and needles, were of home manufacture; but the cheaper and more finished articles of European make, especially cutlery, though less durable are fast displacing home-made wares." The predominance of the slave trade prevented the emergence of business classes that could have spearheaded the internal exploitation of the resources of their societies. The slave trade drew African societies into the international economy but as fodder for western economic development.

Africa devastated by slave trade wars

Inter-communal wars waged to procure slaves were intensely destructive of human lives. Tens of thousands of people were slaughtered in a single skirmish. The wars and rampant kidnappings fuelled hostility and suspicion between communities. Distrust was a basic requirement for individual and communal survival. The slave trade arrested and distorted the cultural development of African societies. It affected the meaning people gave to the world and their place within it. Increased uncertainty of life gave added force to superstitious beliefs and customs. People sought salvation and protection from the spiritual world. They paid homage to gods to safeguard themselves and their families from misfortune. The psychological impact of the dehumanising trade was crippling. There was constant anxiety caused by perpetual fear of being captured and herded away like common animals to a place of no return. Some Africans believed that whites took slaves to eat them.

Whites assert racial superiority

It was during the slave trade and slavery that white people affirmed their superiority over blacks. It is not difficult to understand why white traders who bought black people for price of adulterated brandy and packed them onto slave ships like cattle could consider themselves to be superior. Though most were illiterate, crude and drunken, white slave traders were free men herding flocks of human cattle. As the centuries passed Europeans became more and more scornful of black people. By the nineteenth century various theories of black inferiority were developed and used to justify the colonisation of Africa. During the slave trade Africans came to believe themselves to be inferior. They lost confidence in themselves, their culture and their ability to development. The late Afro-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King's comment that few people realise the extent that slavery had "scarred the soul and wounded the spirit of the black man," holds true not only with respect to the descendants of the Africans who arrived in the New World but also the descendants of those left behind. "The backwardness of black Africa," said the late Senegalese president Leopold Senghor, "...has been caused less by colonialism than by the Slave Trade."

Would the history of Africa have been turned out differently had it's leaders taken the advice of eighteenth century French thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau. He said: "If I were chief of one of the African peoples, I declare that I would have a gallows set up at the frontier, on which I would hang, without mercy, the first European who dared enter the country, and the first citizen who tried to leave it." Perhaps if more African rulers had militarily resisted the design of the better armed Europeans their peoples might have paid a bloody price, as did the Indians in the Americas who fought to keep their lands and expel the white intruders. Before Columbus arrived in Hispanoila in 1492, the native population of North America was perhaps 40 million. By 1900, in the U.S. less than quarter of a million remained, scattered among 1,500 remote reservations.

Africa's underdevelopment was not inevitable

Would Africans have suffered the same genocide had they tried to end the slave trade? Unlikely. It is doubtful that the human cost of resistance would have been greater than the many millions of Africans killed in slave producing wars as well as those eaten by sharks after being jettisoned during the Atlantic crossings. We cannot know for certain. It seems more likely that Europe would have had to look elsewhere for cheap labour. It was one thing for European nations to use military might to protect their coastal trading posts and subdue disgruntled local chiefs, it would have been an entirely different matter for them to penetrate the interior of the continent and fight the hundreds of war that fed the slave trade.

The cost of such ventures would have made the price of slaves unattractive to the plantation owners in the Americas. As the historian Philip Curtin noted " If the prices of African-born slaves had not been competitive with those of labour from other sources - native born or European - the slave trade could never have come into existence, no matter what the epidemiological consequences of movement across the Atlantic."

Had cheap Africans not been available to work the land and mines of the 'New World', white planters and landowners would have sought other sources of cheap labour. They would have made more use of the native population and also turned more to Europe for labour. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries large numbers of poor whites were shipped to the 'New World', most involuntarily, to work on plantations, mines and as servants. Some poor whites kidnapped on European streets were sold in the West Indies much in the same way as Africans were. Indentured servants, convicts and deportees from Europe were often treated not much better than black slaves. But as the transatlantic slave trade boomed, the number of whites in forced labour decreased. It was because of the relative cheapness of African slave labour, and therefore the plantation owners' preference for them, that the trade in white labour ended. This gave rise to what Afro-American writer William DuBois described as the replacement of "a caste of condition by a caste of race." Had the costs of black slaves been much dearer, Europe might have become a major source of unfree labour.


Tunde Obadina is director of Africa Business Information Services