The African Slave Trade Wouldn’t Have Been Possible without African Elites
There is a revival in the study of the transatlantic slave trade. Several studies pinpoint the slave trade as the genesis of defects in African societies. Continuing in the intellectual tradition of Walter Rodney, these later works posit that the transatlantic slave trade underdeveloped Africa. However, there is no verdict on the transatlantic slave trade’s effects because scholars are still divided over its consequences.
But despite their differences, opposing camps in the literature adopt a lopsided stance by fixating on the implications of the slave trade instead of discussing Africans’ agency. Researchers tend to explore how the slave trade altered African societies rather than showing that European traders became embedded in Africa’s complex sociopolitical networks.
Africans were building empires and chiefdoms long before interactions with Europeans, so when Europeans arrived in Africa, they quickly recognized that their fortunes were linked to the benevolence of African elites. Without complying with local regulations, European traders could not engage in business. Frequently, it is taught that Europeans constructed forts in Africa, but it is rarely noted that such forts could not have been built absent the African elites’ permission.
In the Galinhas empire, the Vai adage “Sunda ma gara, ke a sunda-fa,” which means “A stranger has no power but his landlords,” describes foreign traders’ relationships with African rulers. Africans were unwilling to tolerate squatters, so Europeans had to pay for their quarters.
In West Africa, for example, the Akwamu collected rents from European forts and employed a customs officer to oversee trade flow. This excerpt from a report compiled by a Danish official captures the authority of African rulers: “The King of Akwamu charges customs duties here on all goods which pass along the river and to ensure that these are paid, he has employed an official to take care of his interest.”
Not only did Africans extract financial benefits by charging Europeans for building forts on African soil, but they also retained property rights to the land. In some cases, Africans invited Europeans to their trading centers. Renting space to Europeans became so lucrative that on the Gold Coast, African elites permitted one European group per trading town. Further, the intense rivalry between Europeans elevated Africans’ position and allowed them to benefit from lower prices and a wider array of goods.
The transatlantic slave trade was a harrowing event, but it was a business nonetheless and can be analyzed using economic tools. The trade’s victims were disproportionately African, but this should not conceal the fact that for many Africans, the slave trade was a legitimate venture connected to preexisting trading arrangements. In his new book, Slave Traders by Invitation: West Africa’s Slave Coast in the Precolonial Era, Finn Fuglestad avers that the slave trade was sustained by Africans who beckoned Europeans to trade.
Africans even formalized trading relations with Europeans by participating in treaties that governed the purchase of slaves. Moreover, according to the fifteenth-century reports of Portuguese official Diego Gomez, some monarchs were so inclined to their pursue economic interests that they demonstrated an “overwhelming willingness” to offer natives as slaves. Collaborating with Africans was crucial to the success of the slave trade and European trading centers like Liverpool.
According to David Richardson, Africans were instrumental in establishing the networking and institutional arrangements that enabled British slaving to thrive. “Without African agency and support, British slaving could not have reached the scale that it did,” he writes.
Other than downplaying African agency, historians usually argue that the transatlantic trade undermined African economies. But this assumption is a failure to understand economic utility. If imported items satisfied Africans’ demands, then we cannot argue that imports made them worse off.
Africans had the upper hand in trade negotiations and often determined the quality and prices of the products they obtained from Europeans. Before deciding to import copper, for instance, Daniel Cunha explains that Africans would check “the quality of copper by evaluating its material properties of redness, luminosity, and sound, which served to embed it into ritual and mythological systems.”
Due to African traders’ high standards, goods were in fact frequently rejected without even an explanation. Neither is there compelling evidence to indicate that imports impeded local production. Notwithstanding imports, the iron industry flourished in Cameroon and Bassar as late as the nineteenth century. Pieter Emmer in a classic article completely shatters the myth that the transatlantic slave trade had a substantial impact on African economies:
The value of the European imports into West Africa could not have been more than 5 percent of the value of Africa’s internal production and that is assuming that the Africans produced no more than their subsistence…. In sum, there is no evidence to show that between 1500 and 1800 either quantitatively or qualitatively the Atlantic trade in goods could have made much of a difference to the economy of West Africa.
Indeed, the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade evokes feelings of hostility; however, emotionalism should not deter us from studying the topic with an objective eye. For centuries, slavery was considered legitimate commerce; hence, Africans, like their peers, sanctioned it and were willing to participate in the sale of their people to advance economic and political agendas. Whitewashing Africa’s involvement in the transatlantic trade only succeeds in infantilizing black people.