Slavery, Colonialism, Neo-Imperialism and their Impact on Africa

A Historical, Literary and Feminist Analysis

Scientific Study 2011 52 Pages

African Studies



Slavery, Colonialism and neo-colonialism have been described as the tripartite crime against Africa. A crime attributable to the Euro-Americans. Two nations laid the foundation of what later became the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. These were Portugal and Spain.The voyage of discovery reached Black Africa in 1445, when Dinis Dias and Lanzarote de Freitas anchored their fleets at the mouth of the Senegal River, and reconnoitered some of the Cape Verde islands. The remaining parts of the Archipelago was discovered jointly by the Venetian Alvise de Cadamosto (1430-1480), Antonio Uso Mare from Genoa. There were no further discoveries until the death of Henry the Navigator in 1460. As at this period the local chiefs were already into the lucrative slave trade. Pedro de Cintas in 1462 discovered the coasts of Guinea, the Bissagos Islands, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Fernando Po and Lopez Gonzalves navigated Fernando Po and Sao Tome Islands.

Vasco Da Gama came on stage between 1460-1524, got through Cape Verde and rounded the Cape of Good Hope (20th march 1499). Thus, the routes to the Indies were opened. Diego Dias took another flank, reaching Madagascar (1500), Ascension Island (1501) and Islands of St. Helena (1502). With these breath-taking voyages of discovery it became possible to cross the Atlantic directly without passing through the harsh West African Coast. The Mediterranean had always been the centre of attraction. It united North Africa and Europe. When it fell into the hands of Islam, Europe, particularly Portugal and Spain sought for alternative routes. Islam could not match the Christian nations in the mastery of the sea in quest of economic prosperity. It therefore took the Portuguese nearly 100 years (1415-1498) to reconnoiter the precise circumference of Africa. In this way trans-Atlantic trade replaced Trans Saharan trade. Reason being that on the other side of the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus had in 1492 set foot on the new world. Lands that prove very suitable for sugar, cotton, tobacco, and indigo plantations.

The Slave Trade.

The Indians had the labor force but they were very fragile. Earlier the Arabs did engage in slave traffic through the desert routes. Ibn Batuta narrated how he crossed the desert followed by a convoy of 600 young black girls captured and destined for the harems of the sultans. The men were placed on forced labor in plantations in Egypt. Morocco, Tunisia, Sicily and Spain.1 Gradually business on copper ornaments, gold, diamond, ivory, silver and spices that had made Portugal to seek alternative route to India began to give way to slave trade. Able bodied men were desperately needed to work the plantations. Much earlier, the Portuguese expeditionists had taken samples of black people home as souvenirs of their voyages. Princes and princesses of courts placed order for such slaves for various purposes ranging from household pets, labor tools, shovels and beasts of burden. In this way the discovery was made that the blacks were more rugged as labor force than the Indians.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave-Trade.

The first sale of slaves took place on Lagos market near Sagres, in 14442. Fifty years later, on the shores of Africa, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Germans, the French and the English bartered their cargoes of iron and copper, arms, cloth, glassware for captives brought from the distant interior lands by procurers who were the traditional rulers of the slaves. Thus began the “triangular trade.” Under atrocious conditions the slaves were packed like sardines in merchant ships with mortality rates measuring up to 17% on the average. The middle passage took about four weeks to reach the reconditioning camps of Pernambuco, Cartagena (New Granada), and the harbors of the Mexican Gulf. After offloading the ships of slave, the slave merchants and sea men, notorious among whom were John Hawkins of Plymouth (1532-1595), and Francis Drake of Taristock (1541-1596) reloaded the ships with rum, red wood, the color of live embers, known as Brazil destined for the dye works, and with molasses which the European refineries would turn into sugar. It is estimated that between 1510 (the first official recruiting order date and the date of anti-slavery campaigns i.e. over four hundred years, a total of eleven million slaves were loaded on board ships, minus those killed in the course of capture, or chained and in shackles awaiting slave merchants. Samuel Ajayi Crowther was one of such slaves who later survived. In his efforts to revisit the trauma, he wrote:

I suppose, sometime about the commencement of the years 1821, I was in my native country, enjoui34ng the comforts of father and mother, and the affectionate love of brother and sister. From this period, I must date unhappy day, but which I am now taught,… I call it unhappy day, because it was the day in which I was violently turned out of my father’s house, and separated from my relations and in which I was made to experience what is to be called slavery3

Briefly put the immediate causes of the trade could be summarized thus:

The opening up of the New World, and the establishment of mines, plantations for the production of cotton, tobacco and sugar meant a search for cheap labor force. The local population provided a cheap labor force but it was not resilient and solid enough. The enslavement of the American Indians brought high mortality and depopulation of the inhabitants. Earlier in 1441, Goncalves had returned to Portugal with souvenirs of ten Africans. The experience garnered in the exploitation of these blacks encouraged the kick -off importation of the initial fifty slaves.

As for the organization of the Trade, one could start with the procurement process. According to Dele Odanye in his book, A Handbook of History Ibadan, 1984:

When the Portuguese merchants arrived on the coast of Nigeria they made contacts with the Oba of Benin, and thereafter built the port at Gwatto. Initially the Portuguese opened registers for merchants wishing to engage in the slave trade. The registration was a sort of licence to supply slaves every year for re-sale, from a given territory operated through companies which received charters or licences from the crown4

Odanye added that the Portuguese later founded a settlement at Sao Tome, and from this point they targeted slave markets at the coasts of West Africa. As the Portuguese went about the nefarious trade, so also did the British t, the Dutch, and the Spanish. Lisbon, the capital of Portugal was the transit point for containers of slaves on their way to European harbors en route the New World. Other middle men who combed the interior in search of slaves when the Coast lands were depleted were the Ijaws, the Urhobos, the Calabar, the Itsekiris and the Ijebus.

Means of exchange were copper bars, cowries’ shells, manilas, and brass pans. As we have earlier noted European goods were also used for bartering the slaves. Initially human commodities were domestic slaves, criminals, prisoners of wars and other undesirable elements in the society. But for an obnoxious business that lasted for over half a century, demand from Europe always over-stretched supply. Hence, to ensure steady supply Europe supplied weapons and incited warfare and mutual hatred among the tribes:

The Germans sent thirteen thousand muskets in one year. The British and Portuguese sent thousands of the old speoy guns from India. The French supplied a single - barrel light weapon. American blasting powder came in ten and twenty-five kegs4 As the human beings were hunted, elephants were also being poached for ivory. Whole farmlands and villages were laid desolate; History had never recorded such a carnage and genocide. Independent European observers recounted the gory experience thus:

What happened during the middle passage is too shocking and indecent to transcribe. Numbers of the slaves had fainted, they were carried on deck, where several of them died…5

- B. Auvergne, E.B

The Negroes were chained to each other hand and foot, and tied so close that they were not allowed above a foot and half from each in breath. Thus crammed together like herrings in a barrel, they contracted putrid and fatal disorders; so that those who came to inspect them in a morning had occasionally to pick dead slaves out of their wretched fellow sufferers to whom they had been fastened6

A Committee of the House of Commons (London)

The above observations notwithstanding, the fact that such atrocities were allowed to go on for almost five hundred years is a serious indictment on the then so-called civilized world. Material gain beclouded the eyes of the Europeans to the extent that the value and sanctity for life and human dignity were totally lost during those fi]ve centuries. For the Euro-Americans therefore everything including human life is market:

“Tout se vend Tout s’achete.”

Every other value, whether human, cultural is secondary.

The abolition of the Trans-atlantic Slave Trade

Initially it was the enslavement of the American Indians, which the Catholic Church fought vehemently to stop:

The initial exploitation of the Indians, nomads by nature, and unused to the heavy work in the fields and the mines, led to manhunts…

The abuse was so shocking that Bartolome de Las Casaz (1474-1566), the former companion of Christopher Columbus, who became a Dominican priest, in defence of the Indians, reproached the behavior of his compatriots publicly. Summoned by Charles the Fifth, Las Casas published his famous treatise, the Brevissima relacion de la Destruction de las Indias. At the same time, Fr Francisco de Vitoria (1483- 1546), a Spanish Dominican, and Professor at the University of Salamanca, defended the Indians by recognizing the right of peoples to retain occupation of ancestral lands, and to choose any form of government which will protect their common good. He was one of the first authors to state specifically that all power emanates from the nation, and it is up to the nation to determine its own political formulae,…”8

One must note that it was after the above vehement attacks by Frs Las Cacas, Francisco de Vitoria and the Portuguese Jesuit Fr Vieria (1608-1697) that King Joao IV of Braganza (1604-1640-1656) was forced to take appropriate measures in favor of the Indians.

We needed to make such a lengthy reference to the slavery of the Indians, which preceded that of the Africans because the abolitionists, mostly the humanitarian groups did equally apply the same argumentation. First the philosophical thought of the 18th century, especially the one championed by Jean Jacques Rousseau which underlined the need for personal freedom and the equality of all men, became the yeast that leavened the flour of peoples’ reasoning. The liberal ideas of the Enlightenment needed to awaken psychological forces that lay beneath rational consciousness. There was need for it to be metamorphosed from a philosophy into a religion, which is to make them articles of faith instead of ordinary ideas. Rousseau quickly did come to the rescue. The new faith became the democratic ideology of the general will and the rights of man. According to Rousseau:

The earlier human was a simple, animal-like creature, wholly wrapped up in the feeling of his own present existence. He was not inherently dangerous to his fellows as Hobbes had it. But neither was he fallen as the biblical tradition teaches…. He possessed a natural feeling of compassion for the suffering of other beings that made him unwilling to harm, unless his own self-preservation was at stake…. “Unlike Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau contended that it was civil society, not nature that gave rise to a state of affairs that was always in danger of degenerating into war. Civil society begat governments and laws, inequality, resentment and other woes. Government and laws bound new letters on the poor and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals subjected mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness

- Mary Ann Glendon

(Rousseau and the Revolt of Reason)

Rousseau (1712-1778) using his famous social contract theory, corrected the inability of his predecessors, Hobbes, Locke to establish a true basis for social life. He introduced the idea of the general will. Nature for him is fundamentally good, and hence human beings possess a natural goodness from the moment of birth. Only the society corrupts man.

L ’ homme est n é libre et partout il est dans les fers. Man is free from birth but is in chains everywhere 9

Following St. Augustine’s psychology, Rousseau teaches that man is endowed with freewill and perfectibility so that if the proper social communities are established, his natural virtue will flower. Departing from classical psychology and pessimistic view of human nature, especially that of Aristotle and Hobbes, Rousseau maintains a positive concept of human nature. Vice and Error are alien to man’s constitution and were introduced into it from outside. With this stress on man’s innate goodness and freewill, Rousseau lays the foundation for the philosophy of self-exploration, and self-determining freedom. But the individual liberty must give room to the general and common interest. So by accepting and acting on the principles which they agree upon, each individual contractor achieves autonomy, for it means: obedience to the law one has made for oneself.

So general will for Jean Jacques Rousseau does not mean suppression of the liberty of the individual. According to Taylor. C. “Virtue is therefore understood as identical with freedom with the following of purposes which are truly mine”10 Ideal society for Rousseau does not require many laws. The individual contractor of course needed the law, the necessity is perceived universally.

He who proposes them only says what all have already felt, and neither faction nor eloquence is required to obtain the passage of a measure which each person has already resolved to adopt as soon as he is sure that others will act with him.

- Rousseau (Du Contrat Social)

Rousseau’s revolution, with regard to human nature, individual autonomy and freewill had great impact on Kant. He puts a question mark on the dominant utilitarian instrumental rationality of his time. He preferred rational agreement among free autonomous subjects based on the justification of their internal voice or conscience, which calls for obedience. His was a rationality of self affirmation or internal harmony among free persons. Unlike in Locke where the individual gives up part of his natural liberty, here he receives in the civil state and in virtue of this civil state, the equivalent of his natural liberty.11

Thus, Halbwachs in his commentary on Rousseau: (Du Contrat Social) notes:

L’état de nature c’est un état qui n’existe plus n’a peut être point existé qui probablement n’existera jamais: C’est I’ homme, abstraction faite de la vie sociale12

The human nature is a state that no longer exists, which perhaps has not existed at all which probably will never exist. It is man, abstraction made from the social life.

The feminist Link.

Simply put Rousseau is against society, all layers of social traditions, religion and culture, which force the individual to be subservient to them. All these ideas support feminist aesthetics and ideals. According to Rousseau all these associations fight against the liberty of the individual, and his ability to self-expression in the absolute political community. Rousseau is totally against the patriarchal family, the church, educational system, the co-operative societies and the monarchical organization. No wonder the French Revolution of 1790 to 1794 whose motto was Liberty, Fraternity and Equality had to copy his ideas in all its facets and ramifications even though Jean Jacques Rousseau died eleven years before the revolution.

We have taken time to study Rousseau because his thoughts were part of the forces behind the French revolution. That revolution was the only revolution that had far reaching consequences and influence all over the globe. Its ideology influenced the movers of the Bolshevik revolution (Russian) 1917. The French revolution claimed about 12 million lives; far more than France lost in the first and perhaps second world wars. Apart from its influence on the Russian revolution, the American revolution (1776-1783) might also have been influenced by it. This revolution has ever stood the test of time as the ancestor of every political event.

Hence the humanitarian groups who fought for the abolition of the slave trade had to invoke the ideas of Rousseau which the French people and those who followed their revolutionary strategies applied in search of their freedom, equality and fraternity. Their argument then against the Euro-Americans was capped in the dictum: what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. The equality of Rousseau and Thomas Paine (Rights of Men) apply not only to the European or the American. It is not discriminatory. Such concepts are there for every human being, man, woman.

Secondly the Quakers both in the Barbados and in England moved resolutions condemning the slave trade, disowning their members who practiced it. They passed Resolutions in 1729 and by 1761 they were already punishing their members who were still in the Slave Trade business.

Thirdly, the Economists thought of other alternative economic theories that could make merchants change their investments. Adam Smith formulated the ‘Laissezfaire’ economic theory. He was supported by Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Paine. This theory extolled the gains of free trade as opposed to forced labor. The industrial revolution meant a change of gear; Africans should better be at home to produce the needed raw materials.

Fourthly, abolitionists like William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton, Granville Sharp, Fowell Buxton, put pressure on the British government and parliament to put an end to slavery. Organizations such as the society for the abolition of slave trade (1787) and the British Anti-slavery society (1823) were formed as pressure groups. There were also economic associations like the African Association, which was formed in Britain in 1788 to explore Africa for economic, scientific, and geographical gains.



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Title: Slavery, Colonialism, Neo-Imperialism and their Impact on Africa