The slavery suffered by the descendants of the people of West Africa was unparallel in history. This period of enslavement was the first time in human history that the beneficiaries and the victims of enslavement were selected based on skin color. The number of people directly affected was such that the Trans-Atlantic Commerce of People as Slaves impacted the whole of humanity. Slavery is at the root of international commerce. In fact, the first transcontinental contract signed between states involved the Netherland East Indies Company, a leading company in the Commerce of People as Slaves.
The repercussion of this commerce is so consequential that it continues to affect our health, level of trust and distrust, social worth, and economic standing. To this day, throughout the Americas, people of dark skin remain disproportionately involved in work requiring hard labor, a direct outcome of the Commerce of People as Slaves. While Africans and their descendants were forced to work for free, the fruits of their labor went to market in Europe. The need to sell these goods encouraged European employers to pay their workers a wage with which to buy those imported products. Prior to that, most European workers toiled for their employers for housing on the land of their various lords. In other words, free labor in the Americas helped to create salaried employment in Europe. Among the 20 million people residing in England at the time, one in 5 directly or indirectly worked in the cotton refining business. As pointed out by Eric Williams in 1944, the colossal wealth made from the Commerce of People as Slaves helped to transform a few medium size European states into global superpowers. This newly acquired wealth provided the investment capital that created the capitalist system. In other words, slavery is the immediate parent of today’s global capitalist system.
The wealth made from slavery permitted numerous European countries to pay the cost of having a standing army and to grow their influence in other domains. Slavery created wealth that financed scientific research. The fruits of much of that research permitted England to launch the Industrial Revolution. For example, James Watt used money made from the Commerce of People as Slaves to finance the research that led him to develop the steam engine, an invention widely credited for starting the Industrial Revolution (Robin Blackburn, 2011). Numerous other aspects of British development were similarly financed. In 1710, Codrington, a Caribbean plantation owner, donated the funds that built Oxford University’s main library which remains in use today.
Likewise, in the US, while cotton was king, wealth made from slavery financed the building of infrastructure and slave labor built the country’s government center in Washington D.C. It also built such universities as Columbia and Georgetown. Southern cotton was refined in New York and then distributed worldwide making New York a world financial center. Up until 1937, cotton was the leading US export (Sven Berckert 2015). Nowadays, on average, a White American has 20 times the wealth of a Black American (William Darity Jr, 2018).
In France, before the Commerce of People as Slaves, Versailles was a country house cottage. Money made from the trade transformed it into a monumental palace and the center of the French government. During the 18th century, revenue from sugar, coffee, and indigo plantations in Haiti (Saint Domingue) accounted for 40% of the overseas revenue to the French treasury (Dibwa- Dubois 2012).
While the Commerce of People as Slaves created wealth that got invested in European development, the commerce devastated Africa. It drained the African West Coast of young people, particularly between the ages of 13 and 45. It deprived the West Coast of the labor and the intellectual contributions of that most active segment of its population, reducing the region to a state of utter poverty. During the approximately 400 years of the Commerce of People as Slaves, sub-Saharan Africa became ever poorer while Europe became ever richer. The trade created a gulf in wealth between these two regions, so large that even 100 years after the end of this trade, Africa is yet to bridge that gap. This miserable situation causes numerous people to mischaracterize the disparity and to not recognize it as an outcome of the Commerce of People as Slaves (Nathan Nunn, 2018).
During the start of the Commerce of People as Slaves, regions like that of the nations of Bambara, Dahomey, Benin and the Kongo were the areas most developed in West Africa. It is in these regions that governments were the most centralized and long-distance commerce the most developed. These same characteristics made these regions the ones with the social structure best suited to engage in long-distance trade with Europe. Regrettably, the damage caused by the Commerce of People as Slaves was so grave that even after the trade stopped, its detrimental effects on our lives persisted. This is so because the commerce destroyed the region’s economy and decimated its social structure.
To have a better understanding of how people fell victim to enslavement, in 1840, Sigismund Koelle interviewed 179 captives onboard ships that the British intercepted and found that 34% were victims of wars, 30% were victims of kidnappings, 11% were people condemned by their justice system, 7% were enslaved for failure to repay their debts, and 9% for myriad of other reasons (Thornton, 1998).
We can hear echoes of the repercussions of the commerce in how we often disrespect one another. The use of the N word is no way of conveying respect for each other. The Haitian expression claiming that ever since we lived in Africa, blacks have been turning on each other, is an expression that exposes how we often hold one another in low esteem. In Haiti, expensive items are commonly referred to as being as expensive as a Negro’s head. This expression speaks of a time when humans were indeed sold. To explain a person’s wealth, we often say whom or what did the person give in exchange. This suggests that wealth is often the result of trading a human for cash. These expressions are testimony that the echoes of the Commerce of People as Slaves have not altogether dissipated (Nathan Nunn, 2018). Often our own government operates in contempt for us. It does not speak our language Creole in its official dealings. It does not honor our customs. In fact, it often organizes Rejection Campaigns where it collaborates with foreign organizations to eliminate our culture and religious traditions.
The situation in Africa is similar. One way that things fell apart in Africa is that under pressure from local rulers, judges punished the most minor offense with the harshest penalty, resulting in the enslavement of alleged criminals to the immediate benefit of the ruling members. These abuses caused numerous people along the West Coast of Africa to distrust the justice system and to hold the state in contempt. A similar scenario developed in Haiti. In the 1980’s, when the government of Haiti was working on the main southern road, people in the region claimed that the tractors were merely digging for hidden treasures left over from the days of slavery.
The commerce destroyed the traditional institutions of the regions that participated the most in the Commerce of People as Slaves. For example, in Dahomey, the King appointed an official, the Yovogan, to overlook the activities of the Europeans. In many cases, oversight gave way to collaboration and together the Yovogans and the Europeans enriched themselves. Often the Yovogans would become so wealthy and influential that they would finance coup d’etats, displacing the traditional legitimate government. One Yovogan called Carter, financed a coup d’etats in the City State of Whydah (Robin Law, 2004). Likewise, in many other locations, various strongmen seized power and a smooth transmission of power became a rarity. Different localities became ruled by various strongmen and the traditional central government became irrelevant or disappeared altogether (Davidson 1980). Such was the fate of the Kingdom of Mali, a state that had the largest university in the world at the time. This kingdom, the home of Timbuktu, got fragmented by various regional leaders. Such fragmentation resulted in a lack of large administrations capable of reaching every citizen to collect taxes necessary for the provision of social services. Meantime, the population learned to distrust government and to view their own government as unjust and wicked.
The impact of slavery on the modern world can be summarized as: the regions of Africa that participated the most in the Commerce of People as Slaves and their descendants in the Americas are today among the poorest people of the world. The regions of Europe that participated the most in the Commerce of People as Slaves and their descendants in the Americas are among the richest people of the world. The injustice caused by slavery has not yet dissipated.