The Slave trade depopulated Africa, aggravated ethnic conflict and sparked retreat to a subsistence economy - but is it the root of all the continent's problems?
"In the 17th century, the population of Black Africa was comparable to that of China," according to the Senegalese historian Mbaye Gueye. " Today, it's half as many. " But the argument about depopulation through slavery persists, even if historians agree on the number of people deported: "between 11 and 15 million in the 18th and 19th centuries, " according to the French historian Jean-Michel Deveau. "Before that, we don't know, but the major industrial part of the slave trade began in the 18th century. "
And for every slave who made it to the New World, several others died on the way. Gueye estimates maybe eight to 10, Deveau between three and five. And yet more slaves died on African soil than at sea. "The death rate on the ships was 15-18%, " says Deveau, "but many were killed during attacks on their villages or while they were being marched to the coast. In some places, women about to be captured, killed their own children."
"Then," says Gueye, "there were the diseases brought by the Europeans, like TB, syphilis and smallpox, and the famines caused by the destruction of crops, as well as alcoholism. " In addition, the slaves taken were the strong of childbearing age.
In the end, whole regions were depopulated, such as the 200 km strip north of the Gulf of Guinea. "But in some depleted areas, people made up for it by a soaring birthrate" says Deveau. "After the slave trade ended, the rate stayed high and even caused overpopulation. More careful studies are needed to work out the true depopulation. But the dispute is a bit pointless. However many slaves there were, it was still horrific. "
Indeed oral tradition recounts what Djibril Tarnsir Niane of Guinea calls the "very poorly documented tragedy" which unfolded in the continent. It depicts a world in the throes of great movement, with "carriers, middlemen and brokers milling about the ports and filling the roads. The stories talk only of war famine and fear. In the Sudan-Sahel region at the end of the 19th century, every village had been laid waste at least two or three times or else moved or surrounded with walls. This fear which is part of African psychology must be understood. People only went around in groups. Fields got smaller with people scared to be too far away and alone. This is the origin of the retreat to a subsistence economy."
For Gueye, "this was when ethnicity, which is still at the root of many wars and conflicts in Africa, took hold. " He thinks that by sowing discord among the kingdoms and local chiefs, either by giving them arms or bribing them, the Europeans ruined the political system that was developing. "Before the Europeans arrived, the Songhai and Monomotapa empires and those in Mali, Oyo, Benin and Congo were political centres developing into viable multi-ethnic states. There was enough land for everyone and the ruler's authority was generally accepted Slavery existed but had the role of integrating delinquents, people withoutfamily and victims of disasters."
Niane adds that "from the 16th century andfor the next 400 years, the kings fought each other, because to get European goods and weapons, you had to supply slaves. A vicious circle developed In West Africa, some groups split into sub-ethnicities, dialects proliferated and the caste system grew stronger A person's only recourse was to take refuge in the family or another such closed group. "
The British historian Robert Law agrees that "in some areas conflicts between
groups began with the slave trade. Even today, people know who the raiders were and who were their victims (see box). But the many ethnic conflicts had nothing to do with the slave trade. The Hausas massacred the Ibos in Nigeria in 1966, but they had not come into contact with each other before the 20th century.
The Portuguese historian Isabel Castro Henriques thinks too that it is "hard to say that the slave trade caused the complete disintegration of Africa's societies and economy, if only because you can't generalize about the continent as a whole. Clearly, the balance of power it-as altered, bringing about the fall of the coastal kingdoms, but powerful new political groups built on the slave trade, rose in their place.
"However, some structures like the Lunda empire, in present-day Angola, survived and until the end of the 19th century, the Portuguese did not dare venture into the interior "
"In some areas," says Law, "the slave trade gave rise to strong states like Dahomey and an unprecedented militarization of society. " All this has left its mark, he says. "But poverty in Africa has much more to do with the collapse of raw material prices than with the slave trade. Unless you admit that the slave trade put Africa in a weak position, forcing them to submit to the colonial system.
"We live with it every day"
"The legacy of slavery is real in every African country where slavery was practised" Historian Akosua Perbi knows what she is talking about. Not only has she written a thesis on indigenous slavery, but she lives in a country where it continues to poison relations. "As long as there is no problem". she says "then we consider ourselves to be 'one people' and the identify of former slaves remains a family secret. But the moment something goes wrong with a land claim for example, you have to show who is realk who. You can read 40 pages into a land claim to suddenly find that the holder's great grandmother was bought and therefore never really owned the land "
Perbi points to her own family experience. "A few years ago, my uncle was asked to be a chief in my hometown in Ashanti country. Each of the four royal houses takes turn to appoint a chief My uncle was selected by our family but the other three protested. For four years, there was no peace. They even set his car on fire. He took his case all the way up to the National House of Chiefs. 'No !, they said. 'Your pedigree is a problem.' In fact, his great great grandmother was bought in a slave market in the 1800s. So my uncle had to step down. We are talking about something that happened almost 200 years ago.'