Saturday, May 25, 2024

What slavery did to Africa

February 3, 2008 by  
Filed under Africa, News, Weekly Columns

( To mark the start of Black History Month, a calculation of what the continent lost…

We know much about 16th century sub-Saharan Africa from surviving remains, archaeological excavations and written sources. There were integrated kingdoms and empires, with substantial cities (60,000 to 140,000 inhabitants) and significant towns (1,000 to 10,000); and less organized territories with large scattered populations. People practised agriculture, stock-rearing, hunting, fishing and crafts (metalworking, textiles, ceramics). They navigated along rivers and across lakes, trading over short and long distances, using their own currencies.

In the 14th century the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta praised the security and justice of the Mali empire. Until the arrival of firearms, the Arab slave trade was insignificant in relation to economic activity and population. At the beginning of the 16th century, Leo Africanus noted in his Description of Africa that the king of Borno conducted only one slaving expedition a year.

Everything changed when the Portuguese reached the area south of the Congo River and conquered Angola. They attacked and destroyed the main ports on the east coast, and overran Mozambique. Firearms enabled the Moroccans to destroy the Songhai empire in just nine years. Thousands were killed, or captured and reduced to slavery. The victors carried off men, animals, goods, precious objects.

Kingdoms and empires fragmented into principalities, which were forced to wage war to capture prisoners who could be traded for the rifles necessary for defence and attack. The resulting population movements provoked further confrontations, with refugee settlements, and the spread of a state of latent war to the heart of the continent. The number of raids increased: The Tunisian writer Muhammad al-Tunsy, who travelled to Darfur and Ouaddai (in modern Chad) at the beginning of the 19th century, reported that in the northeast of the Central African Republic they had reached 80 a year.

The social, economic, political and administrative fabric was damaged, then destroyed. Many people were forced to fend for themselves in defensive positions where food and water were hard to get. Living standards fell. The fate of those taken into slavery worsened. A parasitic social class of collaborators emerged: brokers, warders, caravaneers, interpreters and suppliers of provisions.

At first, rulers gave up only prisoners under sentence of death. But the Portuguese wanted more, and took them by force. Every year from 1575 to 1580, Paulo Dias de Novais, the first captain-governor of Angola, sent off an average of 12,000 captives.

Throughout the 17th and the 18th centuries, most European ship-owners participated in this profitable business. By the second half of the 18th century the numbers involved were enormous; excluding periods when England and France were at war, hundreds of ships transported more than 150,000 every year. The prevalent state of insecurity across much of Africa caused famine and encouraged indigenous and imported diseases, especially smallpox. As these became endemic, epidemics spread.

Africans were killed in raids or during the journey from the interior to the coast. They committed suicide or died resisting embarkation. They died because the disruption of existing political entities provoked further raids and internal wars. They died as populations fled from greedy slavers. They died of disease, and of hunger when their crops and supplies were destroyed. They were also killed by firearms, bad liquor, declining hygiene and the loss of inherited knowledge.

If the number transported is added to all those killed, the demographic deficit exceeds the number of viable births, itself in decline. The fall in population varied between regions. The decline accelerated from the end of the 17th century and by the middle of the 18th century it was widespread and rapid.

How great was the loss? In Africa, as in India, there are no baptismal records from the period, but we know from descriptions by explorers and travellers that in 19th century West Africa the largest towns contained no more than between 30,000 and 40,000 inhabitants. They were about a quarter of the size of the largest cities of the 16th century.

The same sources indicate even greater declines among the rural population and in the number of warriors that individual princes or chiefs could muster. But does this four-to-one ratio hold for all of black Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries? From Cape Palmas, on the modern frontier between the Ivory Coast and Liberia, to southern Angola, the losses were even greater. There were 2,000 dwellings in Gwato, the port of the kingdom of Benin (in modern Nigeria), when the Portuguese came; there were no more than 20 or 30 when 19th century explorers arrived. There was a similar reduction in the population of Angola. Parts of Chad remained quite densely populated until late in the century, with towns of 3,000 recorded in 1878.

In modern Sudan, depopulation began during the 1820s, when Pasha Muhammad Ali of Egypt conquered the country and took slaves. From the beginning of the 19th century, the impact of English settlers in South Africa, coming on top of the Boers, dramatically reduced the indigenous population. It seems reasonable to conclude that the population of black Africa in the 19th century was a third, or even a quarter, of what it had been 300 years before.

But are population estimates for the mid-19th century accurate? Colonial conquest (artillery against rifles), forced labour, the suppression of resistance, food shortages, diseases (indigenous and imported), and the continuing eastern slave trade all contributed to the decline of the population, which remained at about a third of its former level until 1930, when administrative and sanitary reforms began a slow reversal of the demographic trend.

This assessment is possible because the Europeans began to collect statistics. In 1948-49 a general, co-ordinated census was carried out right across sub-Saharan Africa. After adjustments for incomplete declarations, the approximate population was between 140 million and 145 million. Given the increase recorded between 1930 and 1948-49, it is possible to conclude that in 1930 the population was between 130 million and 135 million, two-thirds of the estimated approximate population of 200 million between 1870 and 1890. My research suggests that the population in the 16th century could have been at least 600 million (an average of about 30 people per square kilometre).

Between the mid-16th century and the mid-19th century, the sub-Saharan population fell by some 400 million. It is impossible to calculate what percentage was deported by sea or across the Sahel; numbers were falsified and many slaves were taken illegally, both before and after the trade was abolished. Sources and estimates indicate that official figures for the European trade should be increased by 50 per cent. Estimates for the Arab trade are problematic. But the total figure for the European and Arab trades should probably be between 25 and 40 million. This is highly controversial, but lower estimates fail to take into account the enormous level of falsification.

At least 90 per cent of total losses occurred within Africa as the cumulative, destructive effects, direct and indirect, of the simultaneous and intensifying trades created a permanent state of insecurity across the continent. The colonial conquest and occupation turned sub-Saharan Africa in on itself, culturally and economically, and made general and local reconstruction difficult. The population of black Africa has only returned to 16th century levels in the past decade, but distorted by the massive flow into capital cities.

The consequences of the slave trade have been damaging, and its scale is still underestimated.

Written By Louise Marie Diop-Maes

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