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The Transatlantic Slave Trade

In Britain we have been encouraged to take part in the Nazi Holocaust Memorial Day. I do not minimise the awfulness of that, but it is worth remembering that the Jewish population in the UK is much smaller than that of Africans of the Diaspora and the Nazi atrocities lasted a short time compared with the 400 years or so of the Atlantic trade.

The benefits of the Africa trade were well understood at the time that it was in full swing. In 1745, Malachy Postlethwayt, an economist writing in support of the Royal Africa Company, stated that the British Empire was “a magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power, on an African foundation.”10 A contemporary historian, Professor David Dabydeen shows that the unprecedented wealth creation based on the slave trade was “the hinge between medieval Britain and the modern state”11 Another historian Stephen Small states that “it was this [slave] labour that fed financial accumulation, economic expansion and the base for industrial acquisition, that is, the development of capitalism”12  There is no question that Western Europe and North America benefited hugely from the trade and the poverty in West Africa, the Caribbean and US cities is a continuing legacy from it. The wealth of Europe and the Americas was built upon over 300 years of unpaid forced labour. The fact that the population growth of Europe between 1650 and 1850 was 100 million to 274 million and North America grew from 1 million to 26 million, while that of Africa declined in the same period from 100 to 98 million, speaks for itself.

A British official writing in 1853 stated, “It may be safely affirmed that from our first settlement on the coast until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, we did not confer one lasting benefit upon the people”13 In Africa, even today, the legacy of slavery is evident, in that where the great medieval kingdoms of Mali and Songhay existed, in the Sub-Saharan region, there are now the poorest nations on earth. Unjust trade arrangements in our own day perpetuate what slavery and colonial exploitation began in West Africa.


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