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The Slave Trade in Africa Essay

Eric Williams thesis entitled “Capitalism and slavery” is not a study on the nature of the slave trade, but rather a study of the role of slavery in the English economy. In his thesis Williams proposes the idea that capitalism is a result of the Atlantic slave trade. Williams defines capitalism as when someone can use their resources to make a profit without that person actually being present. The Atlantic Slave Trade was then an example of capitalism. English investors gave funds to stock companies, such as the Dutch East Indian Company, who wound use those funds to purchase ships and trading goods. The stock companies would then hire a crew and send the ships to Africa where they would trade their goods for African Slaves. The ships would then transport the slaves to the Americas where they would sell their human cargo and purchase American goods. The ships could then return to England and sell their American goods for capital, then splitting the profit amongst the investors. In his thesis Williams asserts that these stock companies were the first examples of capitalism and that the capitalists systems which are present in the modern world are direct results of the Atlantic Slave Trade. It appears that Williams is correct in his thesis.

While elements of capitalism, such as buying and selling of goods, were present prior to the slave trade, this was the first point in history when private investors combined their capital in the form of a company whose sole purpose was to increase that capital. At no point did the stock companies manufacture any new product instead these companies served only to buy and sell commodities in such a way as to increase the capital of their investors. Ancient Africa was characterized by strong states. Unlike Europe African states were well organized before the birth of Christ. However as European states became stronger African states weakened. These strong ancient African states such as, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kush and Benin, believed that the purpose of the state was to serve the people. This ideology made it possible for African states to become strong because since the state served the people the people were willing to participate in defending the state and submit to taxation in order to provide for the needs of the state which then benefited the individual. However African states began to weaken when the Arab came into Africa.

In a quest to seek the destruction of Christianity in Europe the Arabs tore through the Maghreb (five north African countries). The Arabs not only took over the state, but also the culture, as a new Arab population settled, and pushed the original African population below the Sahara. The Arab presence in Africa soon led to a weakening of the African State. In 1350 the strong African state of Songhai began to have border disputes with the Arab led state Morroco. Songhai stated that the purpose of the African state was to serve the people to which Morroco replied that the purpose of the state was to serve Islam. Since the ruler of Morroco was a descendant of Mohammed that meant that it was Songhai’s responsibility to support the Morrocan state rather than the interests of it’s own people. Songhai was destroyed by Morroco in 1591, and after Songhai’s destruction any new states that emerged in this area put the interests of outsiders above the welfare of their own people.

The area that had once been the strong empire of Songhai became the core of the slave trade in Africa. When Europeans came into Africa to trade they dealt with these weakened African states. They provided the states arms and the states allowed Europeans to enslave their citizens. African states allied with European nations at the expense of their own people; showing that the purpose of the African state had changed from serving its citizens to serving the interests of outsiders because the same sort of brutality used by Morroco in its destruction of Songhai was used by the Europeans in “gunboat diplomacy.” The African state would submit to foreign interests because it was no longer strong enough to fight back.

African states could not compete against European technology so the rulers of these states signed agreements that allowed their people to be captured, enslaved and taken across the Atlantic. The weakening of the African state caused a change in the purpose of the State. The purpose of the state became providing for the needs and wants of foreigners; this is why the slave trade was possible in Africa. Not only did the African states allow its people to be enslaved, but the states participated in the enslavement of its own people in order to receive the benefits of trade with the Europeans.


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