Economic effects of slavery on Africa


By Eunice Masunungure

SINCE the year 1400, Africa has been the human and material resource centre for the West’s industrial and economic development.

The exploitation of the continent has set back Africa’s economic growth deterring all forms of development.

Nathan Nunn (2007) in The Historical Origins of Africa’s Under-developed argues that slavery played a major role in Africa’s underdevelopment by carrying away the African material riches together with the human resources to enrich the West.

Nunn is not the first one to talk about Africa’s under-development as being caused by the West, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa clearly explains how Africa, if it had been left to develop at its own pace, would have recorded phenomenal growth.

Oliver Ransford’s (1971) The Slave Trade argues that if ever Great Britain brought some material goods to Africa during the ‘slave fetching’ era between 1400 and 1900, it was just to expand market through offloading its cheap products to  countries like Guinea, Sierra Leone, Berlin, Angola, Senegal, to mention a few.

They dumped thousands of muskets, vast quantities of cloth, gunpowder and metals in the territories they collected slaves.

British-made firearms (of very poor quality) and industrial-grade alcohol were also brought but these cannot compare to the later movements of gold and ivory discovered and exploited by the slave movers during slave trade.

In 19th Century Yoruba Land, economic activity was described to be at its lowest as life and property were being taken daily and normal living was in jeopardy because of the fear of being kidnapped. 

Colonialism which is a continuation of Slave Trade saw to it that the colonial masters redistributed land also resorted to forced labour, caused atomisation of society, churned out administrative instruments and legislated taxes, decided who produce what and how, as well as which crop should be cultivated in the African countries to export to the West. 

They introduced coffee and tobacco production in Eastern Africa, for instance, and these crops were specifically to be exported to Europe to feed the growing industry in that part.

The promotion of Western crops disadvantaged the production of food crops that were traditionally cultivated by Africans. 

Crop production on the continent suffered and plummeted, which jeopardised the African economy.

Lovejoy (2012) argues that the slave trade across the Sahara and Red Sea from the Sahara, the Horn of Africa, and East Africa, has been estimated at 6,2 million people between estimated at 6,2 million people between 600 and 1 600.

Although the rate decreased from East Africa in the 1700s, it increased in the 1800s and is estimated at 1.65 million for that century.

Walter Rodney argued that all other areas of the economy were disrupted by the slave trade as the top merchants abandoned traditional industries to pursue slaving and the lower levels of the population were disrupted by the slaving itself.

According to Stephen Smith (2017) in Shackled Legacy, Universities and the Slave Trade, institutions like Harvard, Georgetown and the University of Virginia are evidence of how some Western institutions benefitted from fortunes derived from running slave ships to Africa, cotton milling from South America or human enslavement in general.

Profits from slavery funded most of the prestigious schools in the North-east, including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale.

Georgetown school offered free tuition to its earliest students because they received unpaid labour from Jesuits-owned slaves on plantations in Maryland, argues Jefferson.

Jesuit priests of Maryland founded Georgetown College in 1789 and were among the biggest slave owners in the economy.

Income from slave labour created Georgetown and aided the spread of Catholicism in the US.

These enslaved people would have worked to improve the African states from where they were brutally taken.

Yale University offered scholarships funded by income collected from its slave plantation in Rhode Island.

Enslaved people built college campuses and served faculty and students.

Liverpool was also built from enslavement of Africans.

Although it was done slowly about fifty ships of slaves arrived in the place around 1750s and grew to about 100 ships around 1770, to lay great civic and personal wealth. 

Walter Rodney argues that enslavement of Africans was the backbone of the town’s prosperity. 

Dorothy Kuya also discusses Liverpool’s involvement in the slave trade and argues that the city made money by building and repairing slave ships, slave trading, cotton and sugar production and selling things made by slaves.

According to ABS contributor, (2013), many banks were formed from enslavement of Africans and these include Citizens Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana, and these are guilt of accepting enslaved individuals as collateral on loans and taking ownership of approximately 1 250 of them when the plantation owners defaulted on the loans!

Heywoods Bank, which was formed by Liverpool and eventually became Barclays Bank, is another bank built from slavery.

Another one is the Bank of England, the institution which stabilised the national finances, and enabled the state to wage its major wars of the 18th Century.

Joseph Inikori argues that the African economic model of the period was very different from the European, and could not sustain vast population losses. 

There were wealth monarchs in Mali and their wealth was in minerals and land produce.

Slavery stole all these riches.

Gold, which was the economy base in West Africa, was taken to make European coins. 

In the Trans-Saharan trade African empires as Ghana, Mali, and Songhai lost riches to the European world.

Nunn, Nathan (2008) in “The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades.” Quarterly Journal of Economics argues then that slave trade might have caused the then 72 percent of the average income gap between Africa and the rest of the world.

Without slavery, there would not be such income gap between Africa and the rest of the underdeveloped world and Africa would not look any different from the other developing countries in the world, says Nunn.

According to Robert William and Stanley Engerman (1974) in Time on the Cross, The Economics of American Negro Slavery for the slave owner, the purchase of a slave was generally a highly profitable investment which yielded rates of return that compared favourably with the most outstanding investment opportunities in manufacturing and by 1860 the south attained a level of per capita income which was high by the standards of the time.

Easterly and Levine (1997) and Sachs and Warner (1997) in their articles in “Africa’s Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions,” argue that the forced movement of humans from Africa is the source of Africa’s growth tragedy.  

The above analysis sums up that the forced movement of humans from Africa between 1 400 and 1900 in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in West Africa, West Central Africa, and Eastern Africa to the European colonies and the trans-Saharan, Red Sea and Indian Ocean slave trades, in which slaves were taken from south of the Saharan desert and shipped to Northern America among other things retarded Africa’s economic growth.


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