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The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Any African tribe that, on grounds of conscience, did not agree to trade in slaves for guns was immediately vulnerable to enslavement. Inevitably warfare spread throughout the region. The traders themselves knew all about this. The Dutch merchants of the early eighteenth century reported that the Gold Coast (now Ghana) was changing into a slave coast where the natives were no longer searching for gold, but were making war on each other to obtain slaves for the European traders. Later in the same century Bullfinch Lambe, a representative of the Royal Africa Company, stood by and watched an inter-tribal battle at the end of which he observed 8,000 captives being counted among the dead bodies where “if it had rained blood, it could not have lain thicker on the ground.”4 In similar vein, another representative of the RAC, Joseph Pearson commented in 1712 about an anticipated battle in the Cape Coast, “after which ‘tis hoped the trade will flourish.”5 We will never know how many were slaughtered in those wars.

It is sobering to reflect that arms trading in our own time may have had its roots in the slave trade. This comment from a Dutch official writing home in 1700 has a curiously modern ring about it: “Perhaps you will wonder how it happens that the Negroes get supplies of firearms? The reason is simply that we sell them incredible quantities, so handing them a knife with which to cut our throats. But we are forced to do this. For if we Dutch refused to sell guns, then the blacks would still get them from the English or the Danes or the Germans........ Besides, guns and gunpowder are the easiest goods to sell here, and without them we should do a poor trade.”6

One of the effects of the trade was to especially impoverish the West African interior. Prior to the advent of the Transatlantic trade, wealth was more evenly distributed and some kingdoms, such as Mali were on a par with states in Europe. The Transatlantic trade meant that kingdoms like Ashanti and Dahomey, which were closer to the coastal slave forts, became relatively wealthy. Walvin rightly describes the European trading presence as “a corrosive commercial and human virus, spreading its malignancy deep into the interior; it prompted African states and communities to enslave, kidnap or wage war on neighbours and enemies.”7 The legacy of that situation is still with us today. While no West African nation is wealthy, what wealth there is largely close to the coast and inland nations, like Mali and Burkina Faso, are the poorest in the world.

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