What are the positive effects of the transatlantic slave trade?  

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This is a difficult question. I believe that most people—especially those of African descent—would be hard-pressed to articulate any positive outcomes of the transatlantic slave trade. As early as the 1400s, the Portuguese and Spanish began to kidnap and enslave Africans to work in sugar plantations near Morocco. Slave labor...

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This is a difficult question. I believe that most people—especially those of African descent—would be hard-pressed to articulate any positive outcomes of the transatlantic slave trade. As early as the 1400s, the Portuguese and Spanish began to kidnap and enslave Africans to work in sugar plantations near Morocco. Slave labor was also used to help build and maintain vast tobacco and sugar plantations in Europe. A few hundred years later, the transatlantic slave trade began in earnest. Europeans sailed to Africa to trade goods for slaves. Once the Europeans had secured slaves, the slaves were then transported by ship to America, where they were then sold throughout the country.

One of the main reasons the transatlantic slave trade is different from past enslavements is the sheer scale of it; nearly 17 million Africans were forcibly taken from their homes during the course of the transatlantic trade. Because they were kept in such abysmal conditions, many slaves did not even survive the brutal passage to the new world. It is estimated that at least 7% of all slaves died en route to America.

Many African societies were irrevocably damaged by such huge depletions in population. In fact, some scholars argue that the very reason that some countries in Africa have such high poverty rates today is because their original populations were decimated by slavery.

In the new world, slave labor was essential in helping to build the economy of many states. Many slaves were forced to work on tobacco, cotton and sugar plantations. Slaveholders were reaping incredible profits, which is part of the reason many were reluctant to see slavery end. The negative effects of slavery in the United States continue to this day. Glenn C. Loury of the Brookings Institute claims that the majority of African Americans still face an uphill battle. According to Loury,

for some three centuries now, the communal experience of the slaves and their descendants has been shaped by political, social, and economic institutions that, by any measure, must be seen as oppressive. When we look at “underclass culture” in the American cities of today we are seeing a product of that oppressive history.

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It is difficult to find positive effects in something so brutal and inhumane as the transatlantic slave trade. For sure, there were some positive effects for certain groups for a limited time. For instance, those who were willing to exploit the system of slavery often grew very wealthy. The economies of much of the Americas was, for some time, largely reliant on slave labor. Slave labor meant that cheaper goods were available to consumers. The vast amounts of raw resources grown by slaves, particularly cotton, helped to fuel the early industrial revolution. Certain West African leaders made vast fortunes off of selling their neighbors to European slave merchants. However, it is hard to imagine that the immense amount of misery and suffering that slavery caused made this worthwhile overall.

Culturally, the Americas have benefitted in some ways from the contributions of slaves and their descendants. North American and Latin American music, dance, art, and cuisine owe a lot to the appropriation of West African influences. Furthermore, while they still face significant discrimination, African Americans tend to be wealthier and healthier than Africans overall. However, much of the poverty and lack of stable governments in Africa are the result of European and American meddling and exploitation.

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Phillis Wheatley, an eighteenth-century American poet who was born in Africa and subsequently enslaved, gave one answer to this question when she asserted,

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too.

If you were a Puritan, you would presumably think that anything which happened in your lifetime, however apparently calamitous, could ultimately be positive if it led to your immortal soul being saved.

However, we do not need to accept Wheatley's Christian belief to see a broader argument here. One could make the argument that the majority of African Americans who are descended from slaves are better off, in material and financial terms, and in terms of general quality of life, than the general population in most African countries. They have enjoyed better educational opportunities and made huge contributions to American culture. However, this is a controversial argument, and it does not outweigh the horrific cruelty and inhumanity of slavery.

For very few slaves, like Phillis Wheatley (though her life was still hard and short), coming to America offered special opportunities which they would never have received in Africa. Although this was not true for the vast majority of slaves, it has been the case for increasing numbers of their descendants.

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It is hard to imagine how someone could say that there were any positive effects of the Atlantic slave trade.  This was one of the most evil things that one group of people has ever done to another.  I suppose there are things that came out of it that were not bad, but they could have been accomplished in other ways.  Let us look at two such effects.

One “positive effect” of the Atlantic slave trade might be that people in the Americas became much richer than they might otherwise have been.  It is possible to argue that the United States would not have become the wealthy and powerful country that it is if it had not been built on a foundation of slavery.  You could say that this is good, but you might also note that this is like saying that it is good when someone robs a bank because that person and their family become wealthier.

Another “positive effect” of the slave trade, from a certain perspective, is that the United States ended up with a more diverse society than it otherwise would have had.  African Americans have contributed a great deal to American culture.  For example, black music has influenced American music so much that the two are essentially indistinguishable.  Because of the slave trade, we are able to live in a country that is more racially diverse than it would have been and we get to reap the benefits of that diversity.  However, this same benefit could have been gained from voluntary migration and there was no need to commit a horrific crime against humanity to accomplish it.

In short, I would argue that you have to really stretch the definition of “positive effects” to argue that the Atlantic slave trade had any such effects.  The slave trade is a terrible stain on our history, one which should never have happened.

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