New African, Oct. 2005
By cancelling Africa’s debts, the G8 countries are supposed to be doing Africa a favour in helping to develop the continent. While this is partly true, the other half of the truth has not been told… and it is that without Africa’s wealth and resources (both human and material), development in Europe and America would not be as we know it today. This month, as Africans in Britain celebrate Black History Month, we take an in-depth look at how Africa developed Europe and the Americas. This report is by Osei Boateng.
You want to cast your eyes back to the end of August 2005. Hurricane Katrina is closing in on the southern states of America – Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Katrina finally passes and leaves utter mayhem in her wake. Since then, everybody’s TV screens have been filled with gripping images of Katrina’s refugees, wading through streets turned into lakes or shouting “we need help” from rooftops of houses almost submerged by the deluge.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, forever being accused by his critics of opportunism, brought some perspective to bear on the whole disaster. “The thirsty, bloody and unsanitary scenes at the New Orleans Convention Centre [where thousands of Katrina’s victims took refuge] resembled a slave ship,” he said. And he was dead on. Watching the refugees, many people could not believe that the images were not coming from Africa. As one CNN news anchor graphically put it: “And they are so black … and so poor.” Howard Dean, who was defeated in last year’s Democratic presidential primaries, added his own bit: “We must come to terms with the ugly truth that skin colour, age and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not.”
Two-thirds of the population of New Orleans is (or is it was?) African-American, and 25% of them lived in poverty. In the worst hit area of the city, the Lower Ninth Ward which was submerged under the floodwaters, more than 98% of the residents were African-American. And how did they end up there in such huge numbers? The answer, as we shall soon see, illustrates graphically the impact Africa has had on the development of Europe and the Americas.
The African people so dominant in America’s southern states did not go there as tourists. Their ancestors were dragged screaming and wailing into the ships that took them there as slaves. They were full-blooded Africans whose sweat, tears and unpaid labour built the wealth of the country and empire we now called the United States of America.
On 15 August this year, British TV’s Channel 4 broadcast a documentary titled The Empire Pays Back. Put together by Robert Beckford, the film estimated Britain’s debt to Africans (both on the continent and in the diaspora) to be in the trillions of pounds. But is it only Britain that owes a debt to Africa and Africans? Every Western European nation (including the USA) which engaged in and benefited from slavery and the subsequent scramble for the territories and resources of Africa, owes the continent and its people zillions of pounds – a debt so huge that it frightens the wits out of even the bravest of Western politicians.
“For without Africa and its Caribbean plantation extensions,” as Prof Richard Drayton, who teaches extra-European history at Cambridge University (UK), wrote in The Guardian following Beckford’s documentary, “the modern world as we know it would not exist”. One crucial fact often overlooked in dire poverty and development debate is that, of all the continents in the world, Europe is the most resourceless. There was some coal, yes; but not much else. Therefore, almost everything that Europe needed (and still needs) to develop and survive, had to (or must) come from abroad. It explains, in a somewhat macabre manner, the brutality of, and genocides committed by, the Europeans who went out into the world to acquire land, resources and wealth which were in turn shipped back to develop Europe, and by extension the USA.
And much of this wealth came from Africa or was created by Africans. As Prof Ali Mazrui once remarked: “The labour of Africa’s sons and daughters was what the West needed for its industrial takeoff. The slave ship helped to export millions of Africans to the Americas to help in the agrarian revolution in the Americas and the industrial revolution in Europe simultaneously.”
Prof Drayton put it even more colourfully in his Guardian article: “Profits from slave trading and from sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco are only a small part of the story. What mattered was how the pull and push from these industries transformed Western Europe’s economies. English banking, insurance, shipbuilding, wool and cotton manufacture, copper and iron smelting, and the cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow multiplied in response to the direct and indirect stimulus of the slave plantations.”
In 1745, Malachy Postlethwayt, the political economist, put it in even more stark terms: “British trade is a magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power on an African foundation. “Ali Mazrui expanded it this way: “After African slaves, Africa’s minerals became the next major contributor not only to Western economies but also to Western technology. Uranium from the Belgian Congo was part of the original Manhattan project which produced the first atomic bombs. Other minerals, like cobalt, became indispensable for jet engines. There were times when Africa had over 90% of the world’s known reserves of cobalt, 80% of the global reserves of chrome, and a hefty share of platinum and industrial diamonds. Africa’s impact on the West’s technological history in this phase was heavily based on Africa’s industrial minerals. The extractive imperative made Africa’s minerals fuel the world economy. Africa’s minerals enriched other economies rather than Africa’s own.”
Dr Walter Rodney, the Guyanese historian, in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, went as far as crediting the birth of the Industrial Revolution to African connections. “The most spectacular feature in Europe which was connected with African trade,” he wrote, “was the rise of seaport towns – notably Bristol, Liverpool [England], Nantes, Bordeaux [France] and Seville [Spain]. Directly or indirectly connected to those ports, there often emerged the manufacturing centres which gave rise to the ‘industrial revolution.”
Rodney continued: “Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and for most of the 19th century, the exploitation of Africa and African labour continued to be a source of the accumulation of capital to be re-invested in Western Europe. The African contribution to European capitalist growth extended over such vital sectors as shipping, insurance, the formation of companies, capitalist agriculture, technology and the manufacture of machinery. The efforts were so wide-ranging that many are seldom brought to the notice of the reading public…
“In England, it was the county of Lancashire which was the first centre of the industrial revolution, and the economic advance in Lancashire depended first of all on the growth of the port of Liverpool through slave trading. Commerce deriving from Africa helped a great deal to strengthen trans-national links within the Western European economy, bearing in mind that American produce was the consequence of African labour. African trade speeded up several aspects of the transformation of Europe, including the integration of Western Europe. That is why the African connection contributed not merely to economic growth (which relates to quantitative dimensions) but also to real development in the sense of increased capacity for further growth and independence.”
In his article for The Guardian, Prof Drayton quoted Kenneth Pomeranz as posing the question, in his book, The Great Divergence, why it was Europe, rather than China, that made the breakthrough first into a modern industrial economy. “To his answers – abundant coal and New World colonies,” Drayton wrote, “he should have added access to West Africa. For the colonial Americas were more Africa’s creation than Europe’s: before 1800, far more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic. New World slaves were vital too, strangely enough, for European trade in the east. For merchants needed precious metals to buy Asian luxuries, returning home with profits in the form of textiles; only through exchanging these clothes in Africa for slaves to be sold in the New World could Europe obtain new gold and silver to keep the system moving. East Indian companies led ultimately to Europe’s domination of Asia and its 19th century humiliation of China.”
Drayton continued: “Africa not only underpinned Europe’s earlier development. Its palm oil, petroleum, copper, chromium, platinum, and in particular gold were and are crucial to the world economy.”
And Africa paid a huge price for this. Studies have shown that at the beginning of the 15th century (which also marked the beginning of transatlantic slavery), the gap between the developed areas of Europe and Africa was not much. Walter Rodney cites the example of the first Europeans to reach West and East Africa by sea, reporting that “in most respects Africa’s development was comparable to that which they knew”. One Dutch visitor to Benin in those days (Benin is now part of modern Nigeria) wrote in his diary:
“The town seems to be very great. When you enter into it, you go into a great broad street, not paved, which seems to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes Street in Amsterdam. . . The king’s palace is a collection of buildings which occupy so much space as the town of Harlem, and which is enclosed with walls. There are numerous apartments for the Prince’s ministers and fine galleries, most of which are as big as those on the Exchange at Amsterdam. They are supported by wooden pillars encased with copper, where their victories are depicted, and which are carefully kept very clean. The town is composed of 30 main streets, very straight and 120 feet wide, apart from an infinity of small intersecting streets. The houses are close to one another, arranged in good order. These people are in no way inferior to the Dutch, as regards cleanliness; they wash and scrub their houses so well that they are polished and shining like a looking glass.”
Based on such European first-hand accounts, Walter Rodney argued that over the 500 years, starting from the 15th century when Africa and Europe were drawn into common relations for the first time, “Africa helped to develop Western Europe in the same proportion as Western Europe helped to under-develop Africa. ” What sucks most, Rodney wrote, is the fact that “so much of Africa’s present wealth goes to non-Africans who reside for the most part outside of the continent”.
Apart from retarding Africa’s development, slavery also ensured not only a climate of insecurity and destabilisation for over 400 years, but also a massive depopulation of the continent. Comparing the population growth in Africa, Europe and Asia between 1650 and 1900, one European scholar has estimated the following trend to have happened (population in millions):
There is unanimity among historians that it was European capitalism that set the Atlantic slave trade in motion, and though some African chiefs and notables took active part in it, the primary responsibility should rest squarely on the shoulders of the Europeans who gave impetus to the so-called trade. Walter Rodney cites the example of John Hawkins who made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s and stole Africans whom he sold to the Spanish in America. “On returning to England after his first trip,” Rodney writes, “his profit was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture; and she provided for that purpose a ship named Jesus. Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Hawkins chose as his coat of arms the representation of an African in chains.”
Rodney continued: “In speaking of the European slave trade, mention must be made of the USA, not only because its dominant population was European, but also because Europe transferred its capitalist institutions more completely to North America than to any other part of the globe, and established a powerful form of capitalism – after eliminating the indigenous inhabitants and exploiting the labour of millions of Africans. Like the other part of the New World, the American colonies of the British crown were used as a means of accumulating primary capital for re-export to Europe. . . American economic development up to the mid-19th century rested squarely on foreign commerce, of which slavery was a pivot. In the 1830s, slave-grown cotton accounted for about half of the value of all exports from the USA.”
Eric Williams confirms this in Capitalism and Slavery, in which he writes: “British manufactures were sold in West Africa in exchange for captured Africans for a profit. Shipped to the West Indies, the African captives were sold to planters for a second set of profits. Enslaved and put to work in the West Indies, the Africans produced a variety of plantation crops – sugar, cotton, indigo, cocoa etc, that were shipped to England and sold in exchange for British manufactures and services yielding a third set of profits. The triangular trade gave a triple stimulus to British industry. . . By 1750, there was hardly a trading or a manufacturing town in England which was not in some way connected with the triangular or direct colonial trade. The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of the accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution.”
C.L.R James gave the debate a pan-European flavour by writing in The Capital from the Slave Track Fertilised Them: “In 1789, the French West Indian colony of San Domingo [Haiti] supplied two-thirds of the overseas trade of France and was the greatest individual market for the European slave trade. It was an integral part of the economic life of the age, the greatest colony of the world, the pride of France, and the envy of even other imperialist nations. The whole structure rested on the labour of half-a-million African slaves. Virtually all the industries that developed in France in the 18^ century originated from the production of manufactures for the slave trade in West Africa or for the export to the French American colonies.”
In fact, one does not have to look far for evidence of how Africa developed Europe. As late as the 1940s, Europe still depended on the colonies for survival. West African exports were crucial for Britain at the time. Records show that in 1947-48, Ghana alone earned $72.1m for Britain from cocoa exports to the USA.
That same year, James Callaghan, an MP who later became British prime minister, visited West Africa and came back to report alarmingly: “The momentous fact is that the African has started to think. ” That was in 1947 – nearly 60 years ago! And Africa is still developing other continents to the detriment of its own progress. It says a lot about the current generation of Africans.
Copyright International Communications Oct 2005
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