Why is Africa Still So Poor? - #3

June 1, 2021

How did African slavery grow 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? Well, this was as a result of rising demands for slaves. The African slave trade evolved into a system where traders would go to Africa to buy slaves and put as many as they could fit onto their ships. They would then sail to the Americas where those slaves were sold to work to death in the fields. Those slave traders then bought raw materials those slaves produced such as sugar cane, cotton, or cacao, sailed to Europe, and sold those raw materials for a profit. In Europe, those materials would be turned into manufactured goods like rum, clothing, or weapons. The traders then bought those manufactured goods and sailed back to Africa to sell them and use the profits to buy new slaves.

This was a good deal for everybody except the slaves; the Americans received slaves to use in the plantations, the Europeans received raw materials, and the West Africans received manufactured goods, and the plight of the slaves was not an issue to them. While at times Europeans tried to take slaves by force, this always failed because the African kingdoms were far too strong at the time. And so they maintained friendly relations with whichever country was willing to sell slaves.

Over the centuries, empires collapsed into civil wars and the slave traders were more than willing to buy their former trade partners as slaves to be shipped off to the Americas. And so as empires rose and fell, there were always merchants willing to buy slaves. The Kingdom of Congo for example fell apart into various factions. Each of those factions needed weapons and money to fund their war efforts and so they captured slaves from other parts of the former Kingdom of Congo and sold them to Portuguese traders. And as Europeans founded more and more colonies in the Americas, the more slaves that could be sold, the richer the traders became.

But this trade had a long term effect on the economies of Africa, both in West Africa as well as East Africa with the Ottomans because before industrialization, the economy of a country was determined by the amount of people living in the country. The more people you had, the larger your economy was. And if you had a large economy then you could have a small portion of your population focused on producing things other than food. In Europe, for example, craftspeople produced all sorts of things from alcoholic drinks to chocolate, but it took centuries for these industries to fully mature. In Africa however, these types of industries never matured like they did in the rest of the world because in Africa, craftspeople were enslaved and this had a tremendous impact on the African economy; while European, Asian, and American industries kept growing and improving, Africa’s industries stagnated. Soon Africa could no longer compete with European and Asian imports and the African industries became small and insignificant, because you could buy better and cheaper products from Asian and European markets.

This had 3 significant results for Africa; The first is the increased poverty. European colonizers cared little for the people living in the colony. Africans were driven out of the most fertile regions to make space for European settlers, plantations were built for Africans to work and for Europeans to own, and the taxes Africans paid was rarely spent on improving their lives but instead on continuing their own oppression. The European colonizers were only interested in extracting wealth from their colonies, constructing roads and railroads and ports to transport raw materials to Europe and North America. In essence, whatever wealth Africans had was systematically taken from them and handed over to European settlers. A prominent example is the Congo Free State, where they worked millions of people to their deaths. If you’re curious what the ‘free’ stands for in the Congo Free State, it meant “free of oversight” so the rulers of this colony could exploit the locals without any interference.

The second is the infrastructure, which was designed specifically to transport raw materials to their European overlords. The first president of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio said it quite well “the effects of the policy of the colonial powers has been the economic isolation of peoples who live side by side, in some instances within a few miles of each other, while directing the flow of resources to Metropolitan countries. For example, although I can call Paris from my office telephone here in Lomé, I cannot place a call to Lagos in Nigeria only 250 miles away. Again, while it takes a short time to send an air-mail letter to Paris, it takes several days for the same letter to reach Accra, a mere 132 miles away. Railways rarely connect at international boundaries. Roads have been constructed from the coast inland but very few join economic centres of trade. The productive central regions of Togo, Dahomey [Benin], and Ghana are as remote from each other as if they were on separate continents”.

And the third result was that by replacing all the African leaders with European leaders, Africa was losing vital skills in terms of governing themselves such as business managers, government leaders, or accountants, as well as practical skills such as mechanics, construction workers, or medical professionals. In short, Africans were denied the very skills they needed to run and maintain a country and that was a problem when Africans started demanding their independence after WW2, when protests, riots, and rebellions popped up across the continent until the colonizers realized that a few million Europeans simply couldn’t control over 200 million Africans if those Africans refused to cooperate. And so between 1945 and 1975 almost every African colony became independent. At the time it was thought that if Africans would once again rule Africa that wealth would soon follow, but this didn’t happen. Why was that the case? Read on by clicking here.

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