Injustice to man has been happening since the beginning of time, so it’s nothing new. Is this the norm for humankind? I always wonder.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade
The history of the 15th-century transatlantic slave trade has been documented and told thousands of times and many have similar views on the trade itself and how it came to be. But some have divergent views on this uncomfortable topic. With the benefit of hindsight, who should be blamed for the transatlantic slave trade?
What are the effects of human trade and trafficking on each of us and the affected regions? Can it be said to be positive or negative? Have times changed but subtly remain the same? Are the majority of people indifferent? And how did it all begin in the first place?
It didn’t start with the North Americans as many are prone to believe. It all started with the Portuguese who, while exploring the coastal regions of West Africa, began their expansion into newly discovered and untapped lands of the West African jungle. Thus, began the process of exploitation. Other explorers from European nations soon joined in the expedition to these new frontiers and by the 1650s, full-scale trading in slaves began.
How the Transatlantic Slave Trade Began
When the Portuguese first arrived in the coastal areas of West Africa, they didn’t venture too deep into the hinterlands because they were uncertain of the inhabitants who were simply seen as savages (that’s what they tell us). Not only was the vegetation intimidating and buzzing with flying insects whose bites usually turned deadly, but there was also the fear of wild animals and ‘man-eaters’ roaming around by day and night. So, they dared not venture more than a few miles into the deep forests.
When it started, the number of captured natives the Portuguese shipped off their homeland was just a few but as soon as the English, French, and the Dutch joined the trade, hundreds, then thousands, and soon millions of captured West Africans were ‘torn’ from their roots, families, and homelands, and shipped off to work on newly developed plantations in the Caribbean Islands and mainland America.
The booming transatlantic slave trade business soon grew to be known as the Triangular Trade, a name derived from the way the human trade connected the economies of three continents, Africa, Europe, and America. Ships set sail from Western Europe, laden with goods for Africa, goods meant for the kings, elite natives, and traders in exchange for the captured men, women, and children.
By the 1690s, the English were the top shippers of slaves from West Africa and the biggest across the Atlantic, a position they maintained throughout the 1700s.
Who Shall We Blame for the Slave Trade?
This brings us to this question, “How involved were the native West Africans?”
Those who take the brunt of the blame are the American and European slave traders. To some of us, this is like pointing a finger in one direction. In the transatlantic human trade, we must not lose sight of the fact that native Africans in high positions of leadership were complicit in the trading of slaves too.
Looking at it from a different perspective, it is a good thing to know that Africans, many times, aided the trade too. As they captured and sold off natives who were mainly spoils of war, trading in slaves flourished and the more they intensified their efforts in supplying captured and banished natives to the willing buyers, all was good. It was simply a case of demand and supply.
To address the issue of blame, the white slave traders many times got their supplies with ease and without hindrance from some African kings who supplied the slave traders with their native subjects to carry out raiding and capturing expeditions.
- Did the African kings even care that before being shipped out, the captured young men, women, and children were kept in cramped dark dungeons? Probably not.
- Were they aware that the kidnapped/captured were chained for days without food or water? Yes, they were.
- Did they worry about what may befall the slaves in the hands of the white slave traders once they arrived at unknown lands chained together like animals? Many doubt this.
Perhaps millions of native West Africans would not have been given out or sold off as slaves if their village heads and kings weren’t so avaricious and inhumane. To sum this up, what this means is that both parties were culpable in one way or other; the traders and their human resource suppliers.
Could Things Have Turned Out Differently?
Is it possible that things could have turned out differently? Yes and no.
Yes, because if there was a concerted effort among the natives to fight the enemy slave captors any way they could and with everything they had, transatlantic slave trading wouldn’t have been that easy. If indeed the Africans were man-eating savages as claimed by historians, surely, they could have lured the white captors into the deep thick jungle, ambush them, and have some for dinner!
No, because the slave-trading nations had willing collaborators in some kings and local leaders. Slave trading was a very lucrative business in the 18th century and slaves were ordered and supplied in large volumes. Sadly, some were the kith and kin of their wicked captors.
What Were the Short-Term Effects of the Slave Trade?
What were the immediate effects of the massive human trade?
The slave trade involved the kidnapping and stealing of human beings. It involved bribery, corruption, and exercise of brute force, and may actually be a source of pre-colonial origins for modern-day corruption. Its immediate impact must have been devastating. Adolescent boys, nubile girls, young men and women, and babies were the major targets of abductors. The captured must be strong, resilient, and robust; there was no use for the weak, sick, or elderly.
- The slave trade strangulated the continent’s development, most especially West Africa’s. It ruined the larger society and robbed it of its future generation.
- By the mid-1800s, the population was only half of what it would have been had the trades not occurred.
- This irreparable damage to the continent and its people caused social and ethnic division, political instability, economic underdevelopment, and a weakening of states.
- The transatlantic slave trade impacted the young male population because male slaves were the most sought after. About two-thirds of slaves shipped to the New World were young men and teenage boys.
- The region was left with fewer able-bodied men and more women which resulted in one man, many wives, concubines, and a vast number of children per household.
But in America and Europe, it was positive all the way. Economic development; booming trade in commodities, all provided through cheap, nay, free labour that only required a couple of square meals a day and a roof over their poor heads.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of the Transatlantic Trade?
Historians believe that the Atlantic trade seriously retarded Africa's economic development and this is not far from the truth. Particularly between the 16th and 19th centuries, there was economic stagnation in Africa which continued to fall further behind the economic progress of the developed countries. This remains the case 300+ years after.
- New identities – One positive effect that has evolved from those dreadful conditions is the creativity with which the black communities of the Americas developed new identities over the centuries. Though derived from the combination of their African roots and tradition, their encounters with the American and European culture, coupled with their experiences in the New World, has proved to be a great enrichment of cultural life and has contributed immensely to the global culture of modern times.
- Empathy – Understanding the pain, torture, and loss encountered by the first slaves and the subsequent ill-treatment by slave traders and masters those hundreds of years ago has resulted in an awareness of those injustices meted out to the black community. Today, racists are mostly considered as societal nuisances.
- Awareness – This is now a hotly debated topic. People are now, more than ever, aware of the fact that the transatlantic slave trade was a brutally violent act on native West Africans especially. This realisation has created a major focus on the issue with some countries demanding reparations (compensations) for the evil act. Many others feel the pain and injustice of the past are best left buried.
- Fight against racism – There is a new movement and it is all about resisting racism. And whether some people believe this or not, there is a vast difference between racial problems of the 21st century and those of the 18th to 20th centuries. Robert Patterson, a Georgetown associate professor who chairs Georgetown's African American Studies department says students in his “Race and Racism class this past fall are eager to know what they can do to combat racism”. This should keep us hopeful about the next generation.
- Great contributors to society – Although African slaves were snatched from their nations unwillingly, losing everything; their language, heritage, dignity, and culture, they started new lives in a strange land by making the best of what they had. Today, their descendants are much better off lifestyle-wise, economically, and culturally by way of literature, music, and sports. They live better, freer, and healthier lives than their cousins in today’s West Africa.
Are Apologies in Order?
Looking from a different perspective, who should be apologising? Those who started the trade, those who aided it, or those who abetted slavery? Interested parties believe that the effects of that horrible trade in human resources have been damaging to millions of slave descendants even till today. But others beg to differ.
While one school of thought insists that nothing short of unreserved apologies to both Africa and black Americans affected by the slave trade is acceptable, others find no need for apologies since the atrocities were not committed by their own generation. To them, it is all in the past and is best left there. They may not be proud of the acts of their forefathers, but they feel no responsibility for their actions or inactions.
But where should the admission of guilt begin from?
- The Portuguese who captured the first slaves from West Africa in the 1600s?
- The Jews that owned the ships and financed some of the trading operations?
- The European and American businessmen/slave traders who saw slave trading as a booming business?
- Natives who offered their own sons and daughters in exchange for goods like cloth, mirrors, and spirits?
- African kings and local leaders who sent out scouts to hunt for slaves and gather them together for onward sale to the white slave traders?
- The plantation owners who treat slaves like animals forgetting they are human but just a different colour.
Because Africa became the global centre for the slave trade, every nation wanted a piece of the pie, the African natives inclusive. In as much as the West is to blame for the beginnings of the slave trade business in the 15th century, something that subsequently caused a massive human and economic loss for Africa (and gain for the Western World), Africans must bear some of the responsibilities of slave trading as well.
What Lesson Have We Learned?
Today the African continent is still enormously rich in both human and natural resources and still holds the hope of the world but in many of its countries, the powers-that-be are hell-bent on a continuous plundering of their country's riches. This time around, not its people, but its natural resources. It is “raid the ship and sink it”.
Many haven’t learned from their past. Many leaders and citizens are corrupt, greedy, and/or crooked. They are still desirous of the finer things of life and will steal from their nations to get them, just as they did centuries ago.
Is this not a similar mindset to their ancestors? Still looting, 'raping’ and exposing their men, women, and children to trafficking and modern-day slavery?
Though slavery has been abolished since January 1808, injustice to humankind still continues in other forms, some deadlier than slavery itself. Massacres and genocide have become endemic, and so is terrorism and inflaming ethnic cleansing. Some African governments can mow down their own people and go to bed sleeping soundly as if nothing happened.
So, what lessons have been learned about slavery? Not much on the African continent because Africa still doesn’t have much control over its own resources. This is through no sole fault of the West alone because the African leaders and the West connive to ensure things don’t work out the way they should while divisions between and within African countries continue to weaken the continent.
The world needs to learn from its past, but while it may choose to mourn some sad past actions (or inactions), it may be time to let go of the pains and sorrows of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. This is the time to join hands together to move on to the future. If you are thinking of “going back to your roots”, please note that it is no more relevant. This is the 21st century.
Black Americans clamouring to return to their African roots are not only myopic, but they are also stuck in the past. Embarking on such a ‘journey’ only leads to an oppressive environment where some African leaders have no regard for the citizenry and there is no one to tell them off! Native Africans, on the other hand, are yearning for a better, healthier, and more fruitful life. They envy American and European life. The grass they say, “always looks greener on the other side”.
We exist as a consequence of the 15th-century transatlantic slave trade, but despite all the pain and torture endured by our forebearers, today, we remain blessed.
Most of the analysis provided in this article comes from the exhaustive work on the transatlantic slave trade by Hugh Thomas:
- Thomas, Hugh. (1997). The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. Simon & Schuster.
© 2018 artsofthetimes
Bamlak Fentahun on August 11, 2019:
Thanks I Am Get Information
Brad on May 22, 2019:
Several points you make in your articles have been proven to be false, I would suggest you review them:
"Africans also sold off their own natives as slaves" - Africans never sold their own people into slavery. This comes from a false belief that Africa was a monolith, they enslaved ‘other’ people, not their own particular ethnic, or cultural group.
"Did the natives care that before their kinsmen were shipped out, they were kept in dungeons, chained and cramped in dark chambers for days without food or water? Probably not." - Why would they assume that Europeans were practicing chattel slavery (a concept that was foreign to them)? Rather than slavery as it existed in Africa at the time, which was more like indentured servitude.
"Did they care about what may befall them in the hands of the white traders once they arrive in unknown lands chained together like animals? Many of us doubt this." - By the time Africans realized what was going on it was too late because European powers had already sunk their teeth into the continent and were refusing to let go. Africans certainly did not condone chattel slavery and wouldn't have expected it to even be a thing because they did not dehumanize enslaved people.