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Slave Trade, Slavery, and Reparation

The Triangular Trade, Slavery, and Reparations to Africans and African Descendants ~ Slavery and slave trade have significantly featured in several parts of the world for the major part of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries[1]. Africa provided...Read More

~Posted on Apr 2019


The Triangular Trade, Slavery, and Reparations to...

The Triangular Trade, Slavery, and Reparations to Africans and African Descendants ~

Slavery and slave trade have significantly featured in several parts of the world for the major part of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries[1]. Africa provided a majority of the slaves who were traded within this era, which destabilized her people and impeded her development. Despite providing an important factor of production and supporting the financial development of the countries they were sold to, these slaves subjected to extensive psychological and physical torture. In consonance with Walter Rodney’s argument, Europe’s use of slavery and the triangular trade ought to require former slaveholding countries to pay reparations to Africans and African descended peoples.

Existing in the 18th and 19th centuries, the triangular trade system was carried out by three participants. These included Britain, West Africa, and the West Indies, with Britain as the major player in this trade[2]. The first side of the triangle involved the trade between Britain and West Africa. The British would trade their goods, which included such things as guns, for the slaves in West Africa. They would then transport these slaves to the West Indies where some of the slaves were sold, forming the second side of the triangle[3]. The West Indies was mainly involved in plantation agriculture where slave labor was extensively used to increase production. Caribbean products like sugar and rum were offered to the British in exchange for the slaves[4]. The British then took the products to their country, completing the triangular trade.

The slave trade stimulated several developments in vital sectors of the British economy[5]. The insurance industry was one of the sectors which benefitted largely[6]. The slave traders’ travels involved movement across vast bodies of water. This posed considerable risks, including death and loss of cargo which led to a huge demand for insurance cover. Marine insurance, therefore, experienced major growth within this period. The banking and discount market were also major beneficiaries of this trade[7].  As the demand for slaves grew, the merchants needed greater financial resources to meet this demand. The slave trade, however, needed the merchants to travel over long distances and this meant that their resources would be held up for long periods of time. This hindered their ability to operate effectively, necessitating the use of credit to acquire the slaves. Consequently, several banks whose main activity involved discounting slave bills and providing credit facilities to slave traders sprang up[8]. Additionally, the slave trade led to the advancement in the shipping industry. For instance, the slave vessels often needed repair and costly outfit which led to more investments into the building, outfit, and repair of vessels[9].  In turn, the metal trades, which provided support to the aforementioned activities blossomed[10]. These included the metal ore mining, copper, brass, coal mining, and transportation.

 Other supporting industries also began to develop as a result of the slave trade. For instance, guns were a major trade item as they were often exchanged for slaves[11]. Equally, the cotton textile industry experienced major expansion as cotton exports to West Africa were a key trade item[12].  The West Indies also registered a higher production due to the use of slave labor in their farms. On the other hand, the slave trade denied West Africa the much-needed labor force. It also led to instability due to the oppression and wars stirred by the merchants and leaders participating in the trade[13].

 Rodney calls for the perpetrators’ reparations to the victims.  To justify these calls, he holds that the slave trade within the triangular trade system impacted negatively on the economic development of Africa[14].  First, he argues that the slave trade led to depopulation within Africa. In this line, he views the population as a contributor to technical advancements in the existing African context.  The African community was a primitive agrarian society. As evident in other communities with similar production modes, technological change had a close relationship with population pressure[15]. The researcher also argued that the slave trade rid Africa of potential inventors. Similarly, in an effort to produce slaves for the slave merchants, wars were often stirred. These wars, he holds, impeded technological advancements within the region[16]. Finally, Rodney argued that Africans’ compensation for their kinsmen’s slavery was inadequate. In this line, the researcher argued that the merchants provided the Africans with poor quality products[17]. For instance, they would offer them cheap gin, poor quality beads, and damaged kettles.

 In my opinion, Rodney’s call for reparation is justified.  First, the Africans sold into slavery were captured against their will.  Similarly, they were not compensated for their service in the slave dependent countries despite the benefit they accorded their masters. In most cases, their families were harmed in an effort to capture them and the loss of young people in their prime impacted the economy of the African countries from which they were sourced.

Some challengers of Rodney’s call base their argument on the evidence of sophisticated African traders who would often strike hard bargains and the Marxist perspective under which the term “unequal exchange” is non-existent[18]. However, this ignores the plight of the masses and focuses on few beneficiaries of this trade, such as the African rulers who used this trade to consolidate their power through the acquisition of sophisticated weapons and horses. Another contradictory argument is that the slaves taken from Africa could not have contributed to any substantial technological development due to the limitations put in place by the existing African society[19]. This group views Africa’s economic underdevelopment as a result of the social relations existing in precapitalist Africa.  Considering that the slave traders had embraced capitalism earlier, it can be argued that it gave them an edge over Africa in terms of development. While this argument is largely valid, it also ignores the fact that the restitution is necessary for that which the slaves were not compensated after doing. The technological advancements in the slaveholding countries were largely based on the use of slave labor. Consequently, these advancements may have been impossible to achieve without an adequate pool of slave labor[20]. While it is evident that the slaves were not the sole contributors to these technological advancements and their participation may have been limited to the unskilled and slightly skilled labor offered in various industries, it would be partial to deny the need for reparation for their uncompensated service. The slaves were also denied the opportunities which were granted to the citizens of the slave holding countries. As a result, the African slaves’ descendants continue to register a low quality of life in their current countries.

I would be willing to support a reparation strategy which took into account the effects of the trade on the African countries and the impact of the slavery on the African slaves’ descendants living in the slaveholding countries. With regard to the later, the strategy should weigh the effect of segregation, slavery, and racial violence on their current lives. In most cases, the effects of slavery continue influencing the social, economic, and political standing of these descendants.  For this group of people, it would be necessary for the reparations to involve those actions which would put these descendants on level ground with the rest of the citizens. These may include providing them with equal opportunities and countering existing institutional discrimination. For the countries from which slaves were taken, the strategy should offer them an agreeable compensation through such things as loans and grants or technological assistance. This would compensate for the possibility that the slave trade compromised their technological development.

Evidently, the slave trade was a major economic activity between the 18th and the 20th century. The triangular trade system involving Britain, the West Indies and West Africa was one of the major trade systems which supported the slave trade[21]. Notably, this trade impacted the technological advancement of the diverse players. Considering that its effect on Africa and African descendants was largely negative while its impact on slaveholding countries was positive, it is necessary for the later to pay reparations to Africans and African descended people. Moreover, some traces of the vices which plagued the slaves in those days have not been eradicated in totality leading to things like institutional discrimination.

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