Numbers transformed into a human context is the skill of the social scientist: the anthropologist, psychologist, sociologist, historian and economist. But from the artisan, we might use a metaphor from weaving in arguing that much of the wealth of the Western Hemisphere and Europe was built on the warp of African slavery. A double entendre if ever there was one; this warp laid the foundation for creating a detailed and complex present-day-world. Current social and economic conditions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, across the African Diaspora, and in the progress of Europe and the Americas can be seen in the fabric of the transatlantic slave trade.
It is estimated that between 1500 and 1900 the population of the African Continent remained stagnant or declined, a major factor resulting in underdevelopment. This trend is particular to Africa – all other regions of the world charted steady population growth.
Adam Smith in his groundbreaking Wealth of Nations determined that slavery was an inefficient source of wealth because it had no built-in incentives. Marx described Africa in relation to the slave trade and colonialism as a “warren for hunting human skins;” and Walter Rodney argued that Africa’s underdevelopment is the direct result of slavery and colonialism. Whenever socio-political conservatives in the United States proclaim they want to “go back to the way things used to be,” many of us skeptically ask, “How far back and to what?” Until the benefactors of the trade were forced to address slavery as morally inhuman they forged on for centuries.
There are prominent historians and scholars who take exception to Rodney’s economic theories related to the effects of slavery and colonialism upon the Continent. Are they reacting to the content of his argument or to his underlying political philosophy? Slavery and colonialism, they counter, were not prime capital factors – famine, corruption, natural disasters and long-standing ineffective feudal governing systems account for a larger portion of the blame. Using a bit of logic, then, if all these factors existed on the other continents, with the exception of the transatlantic slave trade, and they managed to grow and prosper would it not be possible to identify the missing piece? We might reasonably place the ability to progress, or not, squarely on the shoulders of the transatlantic slave trade in reference to Africa.
Using weaving once more as a metaphor, as a work-in-the-making, the warp or starting point is not visible to the untrained or unwilling eye. The weft creates the various designs and permutations that form the predominant visual image. In the process of construction, in economics as in textile art, weavers dazzle with variations of dyes, knotting, textures and so forth, making design itself the focal point of our attention. Weavers over time improvise many designs so that we are distracted repeatedly and absorbed into the “something new” of it. None of this, however, alters the warp and its underlying principles.
So it is with the economics of the transatlantic slave trade. The resulting analyses of much distinguished social science research supports the premise that the economic progress of Europe and America is connected directly to African slavery and specifically the transatlantic trade. A trade predicated upon the largest forced migration in human history. Over the course of more than three hundred and fifty years it removed some of the Continent’s healthiest and best trained people in their prime. Their cultures depended upon them as a source of sustainable development. The transatlantic slave trade decimated agricultural communities throughout Africa, ultimately causing heavy economic loss. These societies suffered the removal of real and potential wealth over those centuries and well beyond. How then can thinking people embrace the argument that this trade had little to no effect “in the long run?”
At this moment, we are viewing and analyzing the weaving, learning to appreciate and analyze its structure, its design. We must take advantage of an unfinished legacy, and insure that it benefits all who played a part in its making. As we do so, we honor those who are part of the warp and weft. Even though slavery was the warp, the descendants of the enslaved worked the weaving shuttle and created some of the design as well. We are right there in the midst of it, acknowledging those dyed black and blue, those who made us.