Capitalism and Slavery

Another perspective

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 27

When discussing the transatlantic trade of enslaved human beings, historians tend to describe African involvement in a general sense.

Whether it is that Africans generally condoned the trade or that Africans generally partook in the trade, the eurocentric assessment of the so-called ‘slave trade’ and its subsequent abolition paints Africans as passive responders.

A more comprehensive approach would be to consider the trade from a range of perspectives. This article will assess how some Africans responded and adapted to the slave trade and its eventual abolition.

As alluded to above, African participation in the slave trade had never been general. Some peoples of the hinterland were entirely unaware of the trade. Other coastal societies, fully aware of the trade, destroyed slave ships and held their crews to ransom. Many other peoples despised the trade, given that it had wholly disrupted their political and social structures.

Others still drew strength from the authoritarian nature of the slave-trading system, prioritising income over the suffering of captives. One example is that of the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin), for which the slave trade was one of the mainstays of the ruling house.

Historical sources indeed show that slavery existed in various African societies. People were enslaved for a variety of reasons, including war, debt and famine. However, these African societies were not built around slavery; that is to say, these societies were not dependent on slavery to exist.

It is also important to note that slavery in this sense was markedly different to western, racialised slavery in the 'New World'.

It was not until the latter half of the sixteenth century, when it became necessary to deal in captives when trading with Europeans, that many coastal African peoples adapted their societies around the slave trade - an arrangement that would last over three hundred years.

From an African perspective, this three-century-old relationship was turned on its head with the advent of abolition.

Abolitionists across the western hemisphere had been petitioning for the destruction of the institution of slavery throughout the eighteenth century. However, it was only in the early nineteenth century that these demands were met.

Despite the hagiography that portrays abolition as the works of noble Europeans, evidence suggests that western powers may have had ulterior motives when considering abolition.

The 1944 book ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ by Eric Williams suggests that abolition presented a number of highly profitable economic opportunities to budding industrial nations like Britain.

Among the most influential leaders of the abolitionist movement were bankers, with their active involvement suggesting that the capitalist class had much to gain from having the trade abolished.

Whilst it is well-known that British warships sailed the Atlantic suppressing any slave trading activity following abolition in 1807, the inconsistencies in their actions suggest that this was not their primary objective.

For example, British suppression patrols largely ignored US ships. Despite the United States banning the importation of enslaved peoples in 1807, the practice continued into the mid-nineteenth century, with the last known slave ship reaching Alabama in 1860.

The naval squadrons of the western abolitionist powers, Britain and France in particular, were less concerned with suppression than with protecting the ‘legitimate’ trade of their own nationals.

The industrial revolution had driven the need for raw materials from the African coast, the most important of which was oil used as a lubricant for machinery. The coast had always exported palm oil but in minute quantities. Imports into Britain rose from 982 metric tonnes in 1814 to 21,000 tonnes in 1844, growing to over 40,000 tonnes by 1870.

France imported an average of 8,000 tonnes of groundnut a year from Senegal and the Gambia, plus 25,000 tonnes of ‘tulucoona’ nuts for the manufacture of household soaps; these imports were worth 35 million gold francs in 1870.

From an African perspective, abolition did not disrupt the vitality of the export market on the coast. It just changed the nature of it.

To this end, the transition to 'legitimate' trade, just like the transition to the trade in captives, was a necessary adaptation for many indigenous societies.

In this regard, we look again to Dahomey, traditionally considered to be one of the most persistent slave-raiding and slave-trading states in West Africa.

In the face of waning demand for captives from the mid-nineteenth century, King Gezo intensified the trade in palm oil, first as a supplement to the export of captives and eventually as the dominant factor in the state’s export economy.

Developments in Dahomey mirrored those in other parts of West Africa, such as Yorubaland, where war captives who otherwise would have been sold for export overseas came to be used extensively as labour for raw materials or for transporting trade goods to and from the coast.

It is likely not a coincidence that the main areas of production for export corresponded with the main areas for exporting captives.

One of the essential features of the changeover from human goods to natural resources was that manpower was now mobilised internally.

In less than 100 years, Europeans would commandeer the exploitation of this African manpower and usher in the age of colonialism.