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Slavery in precolonial Africa doesn’t justify Atlantic trade

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Right wingers are desperate to deflect the blame for the slave trade onto anyone but the white ruling class that profited from it. Ken Olende debunks some common myths
Issue 2043

Very few people these days would question the barbarity of the Atlantic slave trade. Nor can anyone easily deny that vast profits were made from slave labour in the plantations.

These facts make right wingers nervous – and consequently they try to muddy the waters by spreading red herring arguments about who was to blame for the Atlantic slave trade.

Many of these myths rely on widespread ignorance of what Africa was like prior to colonialism. Far from being a “dark continent”, Africa before the coming of the Europeans had its own complex history of migrations, wars, trade, religions and culture.

One typical tactic of those who wish to excuse the Atlantic slave trade is to claim that slavery was “normal” in Africa at the time. The effect of these arguments is to shift the blame for the Atlantic slave trade onto Africans.

It is true that slavery has existed in all sorts of societies and in a number of different forms. But the massive scale of the Atlantic slave trade marked it out as thoroughly different from anything that had existed before, in Africa or anywhere else in the world.

The slave trade most often compared to Atlantic slavery was that from across the Sahara to the Arab world. Apologists for imperialism often point out that the Saharan trade built up to a large volume and went on for longer than the Atlantic trade.

Worked to death

Some 3,000 slaves a year were taken to the Middle East at the peak of the trans-Saharan trade. The comparable figure for the Atlantic trade was 80,000 – and those slaves heading for the Caribbean that survived the “middle passage” could expect to be worked to death.

The Saharan trade did not have the catastrophic social consequences of the Atlantic trade. The plantation owners’ insatiable demand for slave labour plunged Africa into a vicious cycle of war and depopulation.

By the mid 19th century more than 20 million Africans had been deported across the Atlantic. Estimates suggest Africa’s population would have been 200 million by then – twice the actual population figure – had it not been for the Atlantic slave trade.

Africa’s various indigenous slavery differed in character as well as scale to the unchecked brutality of the Atlantic system. A typical example is Sudan, where slaves were not transferable from one master to another. They had traditional rights and could themselves own property. Slaves of the ruling class could themsleves own slaves.

The Barbary pirates are another example cited by apologists for the Atlantic slave trade. Based in north Africa they raided the Mediterranean and European coasts between about 1530 and 1780, capturing up to 1.2 million people and selling them into slavery.

But this was a only a tenth of the number of Africans taken during the same period. And these raids had a negligible effect on the raided societies – there were no incursions into the European mainland and trade continued despite pirate raids on the shipping routes.

We do not need to romanticise pre-colonial Africa to see that the Atlantic slave trade was qualitatively different from anything that had gone on before.

The industrial scale savagery of the Atlantic slave trade was not “normal” – and those who claim otherwise are twisting history to suit the interests of today’s elite classes. We should not let them get away with it.

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