Discussion Topic

The impact of the African slave trade on the economic, social, and political structures of Africa

Summary:

The African slave trade severely disrupted economic, social, and political structures in Africa. Economically, it led to the loss of a significant portion of the workforce, hindering development. Socially, it caused widespread trauma and destabilized communities. Politically, it increased warfare and weakened states, making them vulnerable to European colonization. The long-term effects included economic underdevelopment and social fragmentation.

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How did the African slave trade impact the economic, social, and political structures of Africa?

The slave trade did actually benefit some African people, especially monarchs and traders of West African states who profited from it. But its effects were catastrophic for the vast majority of West African people. European slave traders initially bought African slaves who had been captured in war. This was a longstanding practice, though African slavery, which was not hereditary and usually not permanent, was very different from the slave system that developed in the Atlantic World. Over time, the demand became so overwhelming that it incentivized war--African kingdoms launched slaving raids into the interior, and against their neighbors, that resulted in endemic conflict. This naturally destabilized the region. Over time, as well, the practice of taking young men--highly in demand among slave traders--had a dramatic effect on demographics in the region.

Beyond these effects, the slave trade decimated villages, destroyed families, disrupted the ancestral culture of African societies, and inundated the region with European manufactured goods, which competed with domestic industry (especially textiles). When we add these costs to the unspeakable horror experienced by scores of African people on the Middle Passage and on the plantations of the New World, we can see that the slave trade was truly an absolute catastrophe. Ultimately, the trade ruined many of the monarchs who had actually benefited from it, as European companies constructed large slaving fortresses along the coast to control the trade directly.

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How did the African slave trade impact the economic, social, and political structures of Africa?

The slave trade weakened most states of Africa, though it did help some of them.  Let us see why this is the case.

When Europeans came to Africa to take slaves and bring them to the Americas, they did not simply come ashore and start raiding to capture as many slaves as they could.  This would have been difficult for them to do with the small numbers of Europeans who could come on any given ship.  Instead, the Europeans worked with Africans to get slaves.  The African states on the coasts typically raided inland, took slaves, and sold them to the Europeans.

Of course, this helped the coastal kingdoms.  They became rich from the proceeds of their sales.  However, it was not at all helpful to the inland states.  This is because it depopulated them and, in particular, because it took many of their most important people.   When slavers came raiding, they of course took the people in the prime of life who could fetch the best prices.  This meant that the best workers and warriors were being taken.  This clearly hurt the economies of the inland states.  As huge numbers of people were taken away, the social and political fabric naturally suffered.  It is hard to maintain a society or a political structure when large numbers of people are being forcibly removed from that society and political structure.

Thus, the inland states of Africa were badly harmed because they lost so much of their population, particularly those who were at a stage in life when they were most important to the economy, the society, and the political system.

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How did slavery impact Africa socially, economically, and politically?

Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic Ocean. Socially, this process had a dramatic impact on Africa's population because it removed a huge number of men and women. By 1850, for example, the population of Africa was 25 million people but historians believe that it would have been double this number, had slavery not taken place. 

For those left behind, slavery had important economic consequences too. Because so many able-bodied men and women were transported abroad, Africa did not have enough workers and entrepreneurs to bring about an agrarian revolution and, in the longer-term, to industrialise. A number of Africans turned instead to working in the lucrative slave-trade and this created important political consequences because traders found it harder to enslave people during peace time. Slave traders, therefore, created political rifts and conflicts to ensure a steady supply of prisoners of war who could be sold into slavery. In Ghana, for example, the rise of slavery coincided with the introduction of gunpowder and explosives to the country. 

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How did slavery impact Africa socially, economically, and politically?

The answer to this question covers such a vast expanse of time, territory, and peoples, that in this particular forum I will only be able to give you the broad strokes—however, I will also gladly provide you with some references for further research.

In the first place, the slave trade caused the involuntary export of anywhere from 8 million to 20 million human beings, in a period of time stretching from the 1400s, which were the earliest days of the Atlantic slave trade, all the way up to the mid-nineteenth century—and this range of numbers represents a conservative estimate. To get an idea of the scope of this number of human lives, the population of the United States as a whole at the outset of the American Civil War was in the neighborhood of 31 million people. To say that the removal of tens of millions of men, women, and children would have a deleterious effect upon the social development is a gross understatement. In many sub-Saharan African nations, it is hypothesized that the extraction of such huge numbers of people had such a deleterious effect upon the economy of those nations, that they never recovered from it; it is speculated that because of this, the course of the development of those nations was irrevocably transformed.

Secondly, the social development of African as a continent of nations, the social development within those nations, and the perception of African and persons of African descent, was indelibly changed by the slave trade. The precise effects are a matter of some debate, as are the precise numbers of human beings taken into bondage in Africa. However, Walter Rodney, who was a prominent Guyanese historian and prolific commentator on the effects of the African slave trade, stated that the population of Africa stagnated for centuries following the inception of the slave trade, while the populations of Europe and the Americas continued to increase.

Politically, it has been speculated that the slave trade caused factionalism within ethnic groups and thus irrevocably changed the structure of power in many African nations. Historical consequences of war between factions, such as enslaving one’s enemies, now became profitable as these enemies could then be sold to European slavers. This may have further destabilized the political structure in many areas, because it may have provided an impetus for conflict. Another tragic consequence is the perception of Africa and African peoples by outside nations and peoples. Africa, a continent vast in territory and ancient in history, with rich cultures and civilizations, artistic and technological history, became a source of human slaves who were seen by outsiders and by slave traders and those societies dependent on slave labor, such as the American South, as being not even human. Laws codified this racism: the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 during the United States Constitutional Convention was designed to level the number of representatives, and thus, the amount of influence, that Southern states had. For the purposes of determining numbers of representatives, Southern delegates preferred that their huge numbers of slaves be counted as population, which would have provided the South with more representatives. However, slaves were property and not even thought to be human, and therefore had no voting rights. The compromise was that only three-fifths of the slaves could be counted for population figuring purposes and thus for the distribution of representatives of the Southern states. Events such as this led to a tragic result: once enshrined in law, the fight for equality for black Americans, and the ripple effects of institutionalized racism, with all of its attendant human brutality and misery, is suffered in the United States to this day.

As I said, the question of slavery and its effects is hundreds of years old, and affected millions of people of many very different cultures and nations in the continent of Africa. For more information, I encourage you to look further into the works of Walter Rodney, in particular, his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa; and also into the delightful Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder, among many, many other books.

I also encourage you to explore the resources of the brilliant Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan, which can be found online at thewright.org.

I hope this helps.

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