The African continent is famous for its poverty, but many people don’t know the complete reason why Africa is still so poor. While we all have a vague idea such as corruption, colonisation, or foreign interference, all these reasons ignore WHY any of those things can happen in the first place. This article series seeks to change that, we will look from the point when African countries were rich and powerful, how over the centuries Africa lost its wealth and why Africa hasn’t been able to crawl out of it’s poverty while so many other countries and former colonies have.
Let’s start from the 14th century, when Africa was rich with Eastern Africa connected to the Indian Ocean trade while West Africa was home to the richest person to ever have lived; a man named Manse Musa. While many historians throughout history have concluded that Africa barely has any history aside from mummies and pyramids, it is important to remember that for most of history, much of Africa was as well connected to the rest of the world as Europe or Asia. Africa developed metallurgy that was on par with Europe and Asia, developed complex mathematical theories, and had intricate systems of governments with city states, kingdoms, and empires.
So what changed? Well, in the 14th and 15th century, Africa’s prosperity began to fall behind that of the rest of the world. This was because of two external forces: the Ottoman Empire and the Western European Empires. The Ottomans required slaves, and the way they got slaves was through war; they would go into villages, towns, and cities to capture the men, women, and children to be sold as slaves back home. And the easiest and cheapest place to get new slaves was Eastern Africa. And so slave traders were able to earn a lot of money by buying or capturing East Africans to sell them to the Ottomans. This trade continued all the way into the 19th century. Something similar was happening with Western European Empires. At first European traders came to West Africa to trade salt in exchange for gold and ivory. Later Europeans sailed around Africa to get to Asia. As a result, West Africa became an important location for European traders to stock up on supplies on their way to and from Asia. Soon after, Europeans tried going to East Asia directly by crossing the Atlantic, but instead they stumbled upon the Americas.
In the Americas, the Europeans set up colonies which would have the same system of government as that of Europe; with nobility, barons, clergy, knights, and peasants. But those Europeans had a problem; the Native Americans who were supposed to become the new peasants, were dying from diseases like smallpox, measles, bubonic plague, and many more. And a dead peasant is an unproductive peasant, so where would they find new peasants for American colonies? Well, they found them on the Western Africa slave markets.
At the time, Western Africa had slavery but it wasn’t the type of slavery we often think of. A slave often had similar rights as non-slaves, their children weren’t automatically slaves themselves, and they were often part of the family structure rather than a worker. And so European traders began buying slaves from West Africa.
West Africans were happy to sell Europeans slaves because their own gold mines were drying up in the 15th century and they were looking for a new way to earn money. But how do you get new slaves? Well, you go to war for them. Various African countries went to war with their neighbours, captured their citizens, and then sold those citizens to the Europeans. Prominent slaver countries were the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, the Bono State, and the Songhai Empire. From the perspective of African rulers this seemed like a good deal; they were weakening their rivals while earning lots of money in the process. And so over time slavery changed from a relatively small market where slaves had rights, into a large system of warfare where slaves became property to be sold to the highest bidder. To continue reading, click here.