The transatlantic slave trade was one of the most notorious historical epochs of barbarism, human suffering, and degradation of human dignity that the world has ever known. Even though slavery existed before in other civilizations like among the Greeks and the Romans, the transatlantic slave trade is peculiar with scholars like Thomas Sowell and Robert L. Harris terming it as western hemisphere Chattel slavery.
This is because Africans were sold as movable commodities and stacked in slave ships to be transported to the new world in the western hemisphere where they would work on sugar, cotton, cocoa plantations, and gold, silver mines in very dehumanizing conditions. Patrick Manning estimates that about 12 million slaves entered the Atlantic trade between the 16th and 19th centuries, but about 1.5 million died on board ship.
Before the advent of the transatlantic slave trade, African societies considered themselves as distinct with no African-black identity among the different ethnic groups. They invaded neighbouring enemy groups and took captives for local slave ports. These endemic warfares and hostilities offered fertile ground for slave trade with the European world as the captive slaves were considered “other”, not part of the people of the ethnic group or “tribe”. Therefore, African kings held no loyalty to them. African leaders maintained and controlled the supply of captives to the transatlantic slave trade.
African leaders were influenced by Europeans who offered them the prospect of acquiring guns and annexing neighbouring groups. They also became very wealthy from the trade. Therefore, for most African kingdoms, it was more beneficial to engage in the slave trade than not to. For example, the Kingdom of Dahomey became one of the most prosperous nations: total receipts from slave exports were an estimated £250,000 per year by 1750. However, in the long run, the scale of the Atlantic trade caused instability and collapse in many African states as a result of competition with each other. The transatlantic slave trade offers lessons that can be applied to contemporary Africa.
The need for African unity: While addressing the Organization of the African Unity, Kwame Nkrumah made a clarion call that Africa must unite or perish. The transatlantic slave trade flourished and weakened African states in the long run because African societies viewed themselves as distinct from one another with no common African identity. Africans must, therefore, understand themselves as people and have a consciousness of themselves as black people of African descent regardless of ethnicity, tribe, or kinship ties.
Furthermore, Professor Kanyeihamba, Uganda’s former supreme court justice, asserts that contemporary Africa is divided into sovereign countries with colonial boundaries that were delineated following geographical features rather than tribal and ethnic ties among the people. These superficial boundaries do not serve African unity. The 2018 African Continental Free Trade Area treaty that seeks to allow free movement of Africans and intra-African trade is a great step forward towards African unity.
African leaders must have a vision for Africa for all Africans rather than a few compradors and cronies who serve external imperialist interests. Selfish African leaders had a myopic vision of Africa that only benefited themselves and the ruling class. The post-colonial African state has often been used as a tool for primitive accumulation of capital for private gain by the ruling class, at the expense wider national interests of the African people.
Corruption, patronage, nepotism has characterized contemporary Africa, contributing to high rates of unemployment which have forced African immigrants (economic survivors) to move to Europe and Asia often with attendant risks on ocean seas or human trafficking. This negative aspect of freedom and limited choices draws parallels with the forced migration of Africans during the transatlantic slave trade. To avoid a repeat of such forced migrations, African leaders must focus on absorbing African labour into their emerging economies.
The transatlantic slave trade was an ugly chapter in the history of Africa. The abolition of the trade began in 1807 when England decided that it was illegal to use slave labour and led campaigns to eradicate the practice. However, it should be noted that England had already benefited greatly from this trade and no longer deemed it necessary.
This is owing to the fact that the industrial revolution had already taken hold and slave labour was no longer necessary to produce commodities. This illustrates the realpolitik approach that African countries must always adopt to safeguard their interests rather than rely on the ‘goodwill’ of the external world. Africa must unite in order to play a greater role on the international plane. After all, it was the disjointed nature of African societies that rendered them prone to the slave trade in the first place.