million Africans were abducted forcibly from West Africa alone and enslaved (Centre for Black & African Arts & Civilisation, 2002, 1). This paper endeavours to explore the "impact of the slave trade on West Africa." The historical injustices of the slave trade have undeniably affected West Africa detrimentally in the political, economic and social arenas. The gravity of such a negative impact is what leaders of nations historically involved in the slave trade are discussing as they determine what reparations can be made to the victims of this inhumane practice.
Before embarking on the political, economic and social fallout of the slave trade on West Africa, it is important to give a brief description of this blight in history. From the middle of the 15th century, the Portuguese initiated the slave trade. They were followed by the Spaniards, and at a lengthier period (1562) by the British. Then in rapid succession by the Dutch (approximately 1620), the French (approximately 1640), the Swedes, Danes and Prussians, before culminating in its most awful activities in the 18th century (Morel, E.D., 1920, 4). Foreigners conducted wholly unprovoked attacks on African villages and kidnapped the young people who were strong enough to work their sugar and coffee plantations as well as for domestic servitude in their homes. The export of Africans to the New World furnished the workforce for the colonial plantations and mines whose yield (gold, silver and, most importantly, sugar, cocoa, cotton, tobacco and coffee) were the principal components of global commerce (M'Bokolo, E., 1998, 2). The horror of the Africans being torn from their homes and their families is matched only by the horror of the number of Africans who perished in the course of transportation on the slave ships
"…. The slaves could not turn around, were wedged immovably, in fact, and chained to the deck by the neck and legs….not infrequently would go mad before dying of suffocation….in their frenzy some killed others in the hopes of procuring more room to breathe….men strangled those next to them, and women drove nails into each others' brains." (Morel, E.D., 1920, 4)
The foreigners, particularly the Europeans were sensitive to counterattacks by the Africans and would often trade with the leaders of the African villages -- their own people for rifles, gunpowder, brandy, cloth, glassware and ironmongery. African leaders as well as free peoples would trade willingly with the foreigners -- the African states permitted themselves to be consolidated in the slavery system and free people were under the incessant threat of enslavement (Akinjogbin, 1967, 26). This willingness on the part of African leaders and free peoples to cooperate with the foreigners resulted in these African leaders gradually losing their legitimacy as sovereigns. For example, this led to Africa's colonization by the Europeans in the 19th century (M'Bokolo, 1998, 1). A new political instability occurred due to the increasing power and control held by the foreigners. This greatly quickened the dissolution of the kingdoms (Democratic Republic of Congo, 2000, 1). This view was poignantly expressed by King Tezifon of Allada in 1670 when the French asked for his permission to set up a trading post on his turf, "You will make a house in which you will put at first two little pieces of cannon, the next year you will mount four, and in a little time your factory will metamorphosed into a fort that will make you master of my dominions and enable you to give laws to me." (Akinjogbin, 1967, 26).
This weakened political infrastructure did much to enfeeble their economic status. The inequitable trade system, which, by far, favoured the foreigners, coupled with the depletion of African people through slavery meant that the country's economy degenerated. The colonial legacy for many African countries has been that the conventional, balanced self-sufficiency, with well-tried survival mechanisms for difficult times, had been substituted for over-dependence on an individual commodity making them incredibly sensitive to any movements on commodity prices on the international market. In sub-Saharan Africa, commodities constitute 80% of exports. Between 1980 and 1993 prices for non-oil commodities dropped by more than half in relation to prices for manufactured goods. The approximate loss to developing nations over that period was 100 billion U.S. dollars -- more than double the total flow of aid in 1990. Rwanda is an appropriate example. Rwanda is hugely reliant on coffee and the depression in international coffee prices, combined with other elements such as bad weather and economic policies, resulted in a per capita drop in incomes of 40% between 1989 and 1993. That hit the Rwandan peasantry especially hard, heightening social and economic pressure within society (Gifford, 1996, 14).
When Africans found their voice in crying for liberation, the colonial powers divided up the continent between them, taking great care not to remove the slavery structures they had found already established. According to the colonial powers, any modification to their political and economic structures would have to be slow since "native" customs had to be respected. Slavery therefore continued within the colonial system, as can be deduced from the League of Nations surveys conducted between the two world wars (Meillassoux, C., 1975, 24). Also, in order to propel the economic forward, they constructed a new kind of slavery in the form of coerced labour. "Whatever it is called, nothing can disguise the fact that forced labour is de facto and de jure simply the reintroduction and promotion of slavery" (Letter from the French deputies to the minister for the colonies, 1946, 4).
African governments today who have tried to correct the underdevelopment which has been handed down to them from history, have borrowed from Western financial institutions and are now drowning in escalating debt (Gifford, 1996, 2). Various world leaders are now imploring these financial institutions to cancel the overpowering encumbrance of debt, which has handicapped the economies of Africa.
With the political and economic arenas in West Africa experiencing fallout from the slave trade, the repercussions within the social arena are felt just as gravely. Population estimates show that Africa's population stayed stationary at around 100 million between 1650 and 1850 while in the same period the populations of Europe and Asia doubled and trebled respectively. The great kingdoms of Africa such as Mali, Songhai and Ghana deteriorated while the slave-trading nations flourished. Whole cities such as Liverpool and Bristol became rich on the triangular trade of manufactured goods going to Africa, slaves channeling out of Africa to the colonies, and sugar coming back from the colonies to Britain. No computations can gauge the loss suffered by the African continent from that massive depopulation of its young people, for which no reparation was paid (Gifford, 1996, 2).
The slavery experience has endowed a harsh legacy which survives to this day in the form of family breakdown, landlessness, underdevelopment and a unquenchable desire among many to go back to the motherland from which their ancestors were captured (Gifford, 1996, 2). Also, the slave trade has undoubtedly aided in the current situation of marginalization, social exclusion, economic disparities and instability among displaced Africans around the world (Ukabiala, J. 2001, 5). The slave trade had led West Africa down a perilous path and it was now well and truly underdeveloped. The racism firmly established in the slave-trade era burgeoned afresh in this auspicious environment. European dialogue now focused on the 'backwardness' and 'savagery' of Africa. With such value judgements forming the basis of belief, the West was postulated as a model. African insurrections and relapse were ascribed, not to the true historical developments in which Europe had played a role, but to the 'innate nature' of the Africans themselves. Colonialism and imperialism disguised themselves in humanitarian attire and referred to 'racial superiority' and the 'White Man's burden.' (Rodney, W., 1972, 42). The barbaric theory of white superiority and black mediocrity was indoctrinated into European peoples to vindicate themselves on the atrocities they were responsible for, which were being committed, by a Christian people upon fellow human beings. That theory continues to contaminate our society today (Gifford, 1996, 2).
The slave trade resulted in many forms of resistance on the part of the African people. They would resort to flight, open rebellion or turn to the protection afforded by religion. Therefore much of the spread of Islam and Christianity in West Africa was explained. The desire for freedom was borne from within African societies.
But what has been most crippling has been the poverty. There are growing signs that economic pressures and persistent poverty in Africa are leading to a return of the slave trade, using children. Children are being vended in West African countries as both domestic and commercial labour and also for sexual employment. Until recently this trade has only been characteristics of war-ravaged regions such as Angola, Sudan, Somalia or Chad -- where even 10-year-old girls are servants and concubines at rebel military bases. But now, even in peaceful regions the slave trade in little children is growing. Countries in which this practice…