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The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Economic Consequences in South Africa

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The Atlantic slave trade is a part of history that shames the world. Between the 15th and 18th century, African people were packed below decks on European boats and shipped as cargo across the Atlantic to work as slaves on American plantations. This quickly became an organized and industrialized trade that lasted for more than four centuries reaching its height in the late 18th century. Despite slavery was commonplace and known from ancient and traditional societies, the Atlantic slave trade distinguish from previous slave trades in several ways. First of all, it was the largest long-distance forced movement of people the world has ever seen. The number of slaves transported from Africa had a rapid growth since its beginning, and in total it is estimated that approximately 12 million slaves were exported from the continent[1]. Another thing that distinguish the Atlantic slave trade from other slave trades is that people with same race/ethnicity were enslaved by another one. Moreover, the slaves were treated in the most brutal and inhuman way which caused damage and death of millions.

The Atlantic slave trade linked Europe, America and Africa together in an economic and social interdependent relationship, that exploited the latter. It developed from Europe’s demand for commodities such as sugar, tobacco and coffee. Europeans created plantations in America in order to satisfy the increasing demand. To maximize profit, they went to Africa and bought cheap labor. The slaves were often provided by African traders or middlemen. Traders and middlemen along the coast had commercial links to traders inland. As the demand for slaves increased, a well-established complex trading system developed. The traders were normally paid with goods brought from Europe, such as textiles, liquor, guns and gunpowder.[2]

In the middle of the 1770s the Atlantic slavery started to attract criticism. However, the engine for the abolition movement started for real in Britain in the early 19th century. By that time Britain had become the superior slave traders in the Atlantic. In 1807 the goal was achieved and the slave trade was abolished, both in Britain and America[3]. Though slavery itself continued, it was now no longer attached to oceanic trade of Africans.

The continent’s economic development throughout the 20th century has been poor, and people often talk about Africa as an underdeveloped continent. Paul Baran and Andre Gunder Frank are considered as the founders of underdevelopment and dependency theory[4]. The scholars emphasize the distinction between a society’s potential economic surplus and its actual economic surplus, and the reasons for the gap between those two in order to explain why a country is underdeveloped. In the awake of the abolishing of slave trade in Africa, scholars discuss to what extent this gap is caused by the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism.

What was the consequences?

The excerpt from Walter Rodney’s book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” points at external factors that has affected the economic development of Africa. By using the term “underdeveloped” the scholar emphasizes external factors such as how developed countries have integrated Africa into the Global Political Economy. Rodney argues that the slave trade altered African economies, and that the economic situation in Africa is a result of the European colonialism, imperialism and capitalism and the manner in which they are integrated into the global division of labor[5].

Nathan Nunn is one of few scholars who has empirical evidence that underpins the thesis that slave trade did have long-term effects on the African Economy. In his paper “The Long-term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades” (2007) he finds that there is a robust correlation between the number of slaves exported from each country of Africa during the slave trades and the current economic performance, by comparing the current GDP per capita with the GDB per capita during the centuries of slave trade[6]. Since the slave trade and colonialism, the continent’s GDB has been relying on the export of raw materials such as oil, minerals, cocoa, timber, precious metals and agricultural produce. The continent have basically been producing raw materials for industrialized countries, and therefore been dependent on imported manufactured goods from other countries or continents. These countries have been, and still are, in the position of establishing both price of agricultural produce and set the price of their manufactured goods and freight rates necessary for trade. This has put Africa in a much weaker position than their trading partners, which has made it easy for developed and industrialized countries to take advantage of this unequal exchange ratio[7].



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