“Dignity is crushed underfoot on the individual level when due regard is not had for values such as freedom, the right to profess one’s religion, physical and mental integrity, the right to life’s necessities and the right to life itself. On social and political level, it is crushed when human beings cannot exercise their right to participate when they are subjected to unjust and illegitimate coercion when they are subjected to physical and mental torture”.
History is characterized as having a past, a present and a future. Therefore, to understand the present and predict the future, one must go back to the past. And since the course of African history is marked by appalling crimes, we can only understand the present condition of the African person and populace, with the past helping to express how it shapes and influence the well-being, the activities and the condition of the contemporary African.
Africa is believed to be the richest of all the continent of the world in terms of mineral and natural resources, yet it is the poorest of them all; it is regarded as the cradle of all humanity, but still the last to become habitable. Amidst these paradoxes and quandaries, many scholars and theorists have pointed to the basic evil of the under-development of the continent.
One of the many evils that handicap the continent is the traumatic experience of the slave trade. The Atlantic slave trade also known as the trans-Atlantic slave trade was the enslavement and transportation primarily of African people, to the colonies of the New World that occurred in and around the Atlantic Ocean. It is unique in the history of humanity because of three basic reasons, the duration (approximately four centuries), those victimized (black Africans) and, finally the intellectual attempts at its legitimization.
It has an intersection of history and geography. Several continents were involved which include: Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and the Indian Ocean. The globalization of this terror (slave trade) started around 16th to 19th century with the transportation of millions of Africans for slave labour in different places in the world. It is estimated that “between 25 to 30 million people, men, women and children, were deported from their homes and sold as slaves in the different slave trading systems.
In the transatlantic slave trade alone the estimate of those captured is believed to be approximately 17 million. ” The main purpose of this deportation and enslavement was to labour on coffee, cocoa, and cotton plantations, in gold and silver mines, in rice fields, in the construction industry, in timber and shipping or in houses to work as servants.
But the greatest danger about this topic is the intellectualization of slave trade by some European and American apologists and the over-exaggeration of the negative impacts of slave trade by some pan-Africanists.
Some Europeans and Americans apologists of slave trade affirmed that slavery had already existed in Africa before the arrival of the carnivals. But the question as to whether the slave trade existed in Africa before the coming of the Europeans remains a debatable issue. Nevertheless, some believe that a slave trade was common in Ghana and Nigeria. It was often neither for life and so brutal.
Slaves had the option of buying their freedom and liberty, and were normally paid enough that they could do so after a certain number of years. Although slavery has long existed in human societies including in Africa, the trans-Atlantic slave trade is unique in terms of the destructive impact it had on the African person and society. It defined and shaped the fortunes of the entire continent.
On the other hand, some African historians have queried the use of the term ‘slave,’ arguing that many of those in Africa designated slaves by Europeans had definite rights, and could sometimes own property or rise to public offices. They maintain that Africa at that time could enslave someone as punishment for a crime, as payment for a family debt or most commonly of all, by being captured as prisoners of war. But with the presence of Europeans and Americans, Africans had an added incentive to kidnap, enslave and capture people for slave trading.
Many things remain uncertain about the Atlantic slave trade and its effects on Africa, but its destructiveness is clear . The question on the impact of the Atlantic slave trade in Africa has been a subject of considerable discussion among historians. Some argue that the Atlantic slave trade was of significant importance to the development of Africa (political, social, economic and cultural).
Whilst others argue that it was catastrophic or devastating and a partial cause of Africa’s current underdevelopment. So the question is: Can we really attribute Africa’s current underdevelopment to the negative impact of the Atlantic slave trade? Therefore, it is of paramount importance to delve into the history of the Atlantic slave trade as well as its impact on Africans.
Research in Africa conducted of recent, has provided a reasonable amount of information on the economies and societies in Africa in the centuries immediately preceding the arrival of slave traders. This information when combined with the later development provides a helpful foundation for examining the impact of the presence of Europeans on the socio-political and economic development of Africa. But, since the negative impacts of slave trade outweigh the positive ones, there is no need for this reflection to examine the sweet-bitter benefits of horrific slave trade on the life of the African person.
To begin with, the slave trade had a negative impact on the demographic and economic development of Africa. The disruption caused by the forced migration of many young men and women from different villages in Africa caused a huge loss of population and work force. It is difficult or even impossible to give an exact number of slaves exported from Africa by Europeans during the Atlantic slave trade.
For this, Lavigerie affirmed in his writings, “the number of these exported victims can be to some extent calculated, but it is impossible to say how many more were killed during the raids or died on the slave routes before they reached the coast.” By mass disruption the slave trade made it harder for Africa to enjoy an agrarian revolution, and, in turn, an industrial revolution. For this, there is no doubt that the loss of population hampered the economic development of Africa.
According to Walter Rodney, “African economic activity was affected both directly or indirectly by population loss. ” The loss of human labour caused little or no attention to be paid to agriculture and small industries. People were discouraged from building and planning or working for maximum production due to lack of facilities and security. Thus, Rodney is of the opinion that, “to achieve economic development, one essential condition is to make the maximum use of the country’s labour and natural resources” much of which Europeans accumulated and took away.
The increased demand for slave labour by Europe was the very cause of war and political struggle among ethnic groups and kingdoms in Africa. For instance, the Oyo Empire became a consolidated imperial power in the interior of the Bight of Benin by defeating the Banba and the Nupe in the north and other Yoruba states to the south.
The Atlantic slave trade also brought “firearms on a large scale into West African coastal and forest states, especially from the mid-seventeenth century.” These firearms were used to incite ethnic fragmentation and conflict. Chiefs now began to feel the need for guns to fight for political expansions and slaves.
By selling guns, Europeans help to spread war among the existing ethnic groups in Africa. These ugly trends are evidenced in the letter of William Bosman in 1700 . Therefore, we can deduce that, Atlantic slave trade discouraged the formation of larger communities and broader ethnic identities in Africa. It is also the cause of ethnic conflict and insecurity in most part of Africa.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade had serious psychological impact on the lives of many Africans. These psychological effects were as a result of the fear of capture and insecurity. Traveling was precarious and people went about their businesses with weapons such as bows, arrows, spears, swords, or firearms in order to defend themselves.
In addition, the horror of the “Middle Passage” cannot be underestimated - the horror of men, women and children tightly packed and chained together, to keep them from rebelling and from suicides by jumping overboard. They were treated like animals and this is affirmed by Rawley, “every man slave was allowed six feet by one foot, four inches, platform space, every woman slave was six by one foot, the Brooks could hold 451 slaves.” In a related development, the female slaves were raped and molested by the European sailors aboard during the middle passage.
We must, therefore, conclude that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was wrong in all dimensions of life. It also caused immense suffering and inflicted unimaginable pain on Africans. In the end, the Atlantic slave trade left both the continent and the African person underdeveloped, disorganized, and vulnerable to the next phase of European hegemony, that is, colonialism.
Finally, the intellectualization or even the legitimation of this evil by some apologists is never a solution. Or the common deductions that the slave trade brought about the development and social interaction among the continents is an insult to the entire black race.
The reality is that the transatlantic slave trade is an evil that no amount of apology, restitution or compensation can cure the wounds of this barbaric act. It remains part and parcel of the African history. This makes Daniel lament: “the Transatlantic Slave Trade is a regrettable part of the history of the world that humanity should forever be ashamed of. It was brutal and dehumanizing.” Despite the pains of this terror, the only thing that can bring sanity is the respect for the human dignity of every person.
And this “involves building a human community where men can live truly human lives, free from discrimination on account of race, religion or nationality, free from servitude to other men or to natural forces which they cannot yet control satisfactorily. It involves building a human community. ”
By Aondoer Cyprian Chia: A seeker of justice, a patriot and citizen of the world and finally, a student in search of God and of world peace.