Atlantic World and the African Diaspora

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Editor: Carole Boyce Davies
Date: 2008
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Atlantic World and the African Diaspora

The term “Atlantic world” as a historical concept connotes a process of integration, the evolution of interconnections among the economies and societies in the Atlantic basin (Western Africa, Western Europe, and the pre-Columbus peoples of the Americas). It is this all-encompassing process of interconnectedness that makes the Atlantic world a unit of historical analysis. The common forces that directed the socioeconomic process in the Atlantic basin from the 15th century to the 19th also made the Atlantic world the center of the globalization process during the period. Recent scholarship has examined the formation of composite cultures out of the mixture of cultural elements from the societies in the Atlantic basin (Okpewho, Davies, and Mazrui 1999; Walker 2001). These studies have provoked some lively debates, among which two stand out. One concerns the survival and spread of African cultural elements brought by enslaved Africans in the Americas (Hall 2006). The other, somewhat related debate is the process of creolization (the creation of hybrid cultures, essentially the mixture of African and European cultural elements). The most recent focus of this debate concerns the location of the process, Africa or the Americas (Heywood 2002).

The African Diaspora, as a historical construction, is a unit of Atlantic world history. African Diasporic studies may have expanded to include the migration of African peoples across the globe (Harris 1982; Drake 1987, 1990), but the forced migration of Africans to the Americas was the original focus and remains the main focus. Because of the centrality of Africa and African peoples to the common forces that pulled together the economies and societies in the Atlantic basin, the African Diaspora is also central to the history of the Atlantic world, a fact sometimes expressed dramatically with the use of the term “Black Atlantic” (as in the work of Robert Farris Thompson and Paul Gilroy).

The common forces that shaped the evolution of interconnectedness in the Atlantic basin from the 15th century to the 19th arose from economic processes in the first instance. Market processes involving production, transportation, and sales created opportunities whose exploitation induced migration, forced and free, setting the stage for the interaction of peoples and cultures. The economic processes led ultimately to the creation of an integrated Atlantic economy, which provided the foundation for the development of all other elements that constitute the history of the Atlantic world. This subject essay examines the economics and politics of the evolution of this economic foundation.

The 19th-century Atlantic economy was characterized by two main features, integration and hierarchy. By the late 19th century, the major markets in the Atlantic basin had been integrated to constitute the 19th-century Atlantic economy. Atlantic-wide division of labor influenced the level of production and consumption for masses of producers spread across the Atlantic basin, even in remote regions. But the economies and societies that constituted the Atlantic economy were not equal. In structure, technology, and income, the Atlantic economy was hierarchically arranged, with a few dominant economies at the top and a mass of dominated economies at the bottom. Within the individual economies and societies, economic and political inequality among social groups was also a common feature. Our examination of the evolution of Page 122  |  Top of Articlethe economic foundation of Atlantic world history focuses on the historical processes that produced these defining features. Although economic foundation is the subject of the article, it should be stressed from the onset that the hierarchical structure of the 19th-century Atlantic economy was not the product solely of market forces. Politico-military factors played a major role at every stage of the process. A political economy approach, therefore, informs this analysis to some degree.


In 1440, on the eve of the Portuguese exploration of the Atlantic coast of Africa (Blake 1977), the economies and societies in the three main regions of the Atlantic basin operated in isolation from one another. Only indirect trade relations, through the intermediation of North African and Middle Eastern merchants, existed between Western Europe and Western Africa. The economies in all three regions remained precapitalist and preindustrial. Although the market economy had developed significantly in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, in Western Africa, subsistence production remained extensive and dominant in all three regions, more so in the Americas. The collapse of the Mediterranean-based world trade in the 14th century, following the mid-century epidemic plague and the crisis of feudalism in Western Europe (Abu-Lughod 1989) considerably weakened the forces propelling trade expansion and the geographical spread of the market economy in Western Europe. This, in part, was the push factor in the 15th-century West European expansion overseas.

By 1500, regular seaborne contact between Western Europe, Western Africa, the East Indies, and the Americas had been established; Portugal had been trading with Western Africa for about five decades; and the colonization of the Americas by Western Europe was in progress. By the second quarter of the 16th century, the major centers of civilization in the Americas (the Aztec and Inca empires) had been subjugated by the Spaniards, who began in earnest to exploit the silver mines of the conquered territories. Portuguese colonization of Brazil followed. Subsequently, northwest European powers-England, the Netherlands, and France-established their own American colonies in territories that the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas had assigned to Spain. From the 16th century, seaborne trade in spices and textiles was also established between Europe and the East Indies.

The early Portuguese trade in West African gold, the subsequent expansion of Spanish American silver exports to Europe and Asia, and East Indian seaborne exports of spices and textiles to Europe were the beginning of the shift of the center of gravity in world trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. But the trade in Spanish American silver (though important in the early development of the market economy in Western Europe and Asia) and in East Indian spices and textiles was not large enough to stimulate extensive and sustained development of the division of labor within and between the economies of the Atlantic basin and those of the East Indies, given the high cost of seaborne and inland transportation before the Industrial Revolution. This is indicated by the overall value of Atlantic commerce in the 16th century, which grew from £3.2 million (sterling, annual average) in 1501–1550 to £9.5 million in 1551–1600 (Inikori 2002, 202, Table 4.8). On the other hand, before the Industrial Revolution revolutionized the production of mass consumer manufactures and the transportation of products over long distances, trade with Asia was a one-way traffic supported largely by bullion exports, as Western Europe could not offer products that, in price and quality, appealed to Asian consumers. As late as the 1780s, European exports to India were less than one-third of European imports from India. In 1780–1790, the annual average value of European imports from India was £7,331,569 (sterling), and that of exports Page 123  |  Top of Articlewas only £2,393,610 (Chaundhuri 1983, 817). Before the English East India Company took control of the administration of the province of Bengal in 1765, the company paid for its imports from India largely with bullion exports from England, varying between £700,000 and £1 million annually (Chaundhuri 1983: 814–815). As Chaundhuri (1983: 819) put it, even in the late 18th century, “there was no export market in India for European manufactures and the [English East India] Company was perfectly capable of supplying the entire demand for Indian imports at home [that is, in India].” Thus, the development of an integrated economy embracing extensive regions of the world occurred first in the Atlantic basin following the expansion of Atlantic commerce from the mid-17th to the 19th century. The driving force for that development came largely from the plantation and mining zones of the Americas.

As Adam Smith emphasized, the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. The predominance of subsistence production and self-sufficiency in the economies of the Atlantic basin in the 15th century arose from limited opportunity to trade. The plantation and mining economies of the Americas were the first large-scale specialized producers of commodities in the Atlantic world. At their peak in the 18th and 19th centuries, the plantation complex, especially the sugar economies of Brazil and the Caribbean, which combined agriculture and agro-industry in one operation, employed full-time millions of workers producing goods that must be marketed across the Atlantic. The degree of specialization and the overall scale of production reached their highest level first in the Caribbean in the 18th century and later in the cotton states of the United States in the 19th. Large-scale specialization in commodity production for Atlantic commerce in the New World plantation and mining zones created markets, which stimulated a second round of large-scale specialization in the production of goods and services for Atlantic commerce in other regions across the Atlantic. The third round in the growth of specialization and the geographical spread of the division of labor in the Atlantic world occurred within the domestic economies in the region. Wherever specialization in the production of goods and services for export to Atlantic markets occurred, a domestic market was created for producers within the domestic economy, as long as all of, or the bulk of, the goods needed to satisfy specialized export producers’ needs were not imported from elsewhere. The overall expansion of the process over time can be viewed from the growth of commodity production for Atlantic commerce in the Americas, which increased from approximately 8.0 million pounds (sterling, f.o.b. annual average) in 1651–1670 to 39.1 million pounds in 1781–1800, and £89.2 million pounds in 1848–1850 (Inikori 2002, 202).

In the Americas, regions that were not well suited for plantation agriculture and possessed no silver or gold mines took advantage of the large-scale specialization in the plantation and mining zones to move out of subsistence production by using their endowed resources to fulfill part of their economic needs. It was through this channel that the Middle Atlantic and New England colonies were integrated into the Atlantic economy from the colonial period to the postcolonial period. The middle colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) produced and sold foodstuffs and shipping services to the plantation economies. The New England colonies (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire), which had been dominated by subsistence agriculture because their climates and soil were not suited for plantation agriculture, employed their endowment of deep natural harbors and forest resources to integrate into the Atlantic economy by producing and selling ships, shipping and other commercial services, and fish to the plantation economies in the Caribbean and the South. The expansion of cotton production for export in the U. S. South Page 124  |  Top of Articlefrom 1790 to 1860 raised the integration process to a new level, with the rapid increase in migration and settlement of the Western lands to produce foodstuffs for markets in the South and Northeast provided by the explosive growth of the cotton economy. The tripartite interregional specialization between the South, the Northeast, and the West, and the growing volume of domestic trade to which it gave rise, induced investment in internal transport improvement (turnpike roads, canals, and, ultimately, the railroads), which created an efficient national market effectively linked to the Atlantic world market (North 1961). Similar developments occurred in Brazil and Spanish America, but to a lesser extent (Inikori 2002, 210–214).

In Western Europe, production for export to Atlantic markets had similar effects. In the first instance, West European imperial countries (Spain, Portugal, England, and France) created de facto colonial common markets with their American colonies. But the distribution of the American products in Europe by the imperial powers and their import of manufactures from other European countries for domestic consumption and re-export to their American colonies integrated the colonial common markets into one quasicommon market centered on the Atlantic. Thus, the trade of Spain and Portugal with other European countries depended largely on their American colonies that supplied the bulk of the products they exported in their European trade. The European trade of England and France shared somewhat similar characteristics. After its Atlantic carrying trade was forcefully reduced by England and France from the mid-17th century, the Netherlands moved into the re-export trade of the colonial powers, helping to distribute their colonial re-exports in Europe. The available evidence strongly supports the inference that trade within Western Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries was largely influenced by the multiplier effects of Atlantic commerce (Inikori 2002, 201–210). The level of business over time is indicated by the total annual average value of Atlantic commerce during the period (excluding the multiplier effects in the Americas and in Europe), which expanded from £20.1 million (sterling) in 1651–1670 to £105.5 million in 1781–1800, and £231.0 million in 1848–1850 (Inikori 2002, 202, Table 4.8).

Through a combination of two major factors (its naval power and the unique role of its American colonies in intra-American trade), England's economy was far more involved, absolutely and in relation to its size, in the Atlantic economy than any other economy in the Atlantic basin during the period. Political processes in England from the late Middle Ages to the 17th century, interacting with the country's overseas trade, created socioeconomic and political structures that ensured a single-minded employment of England's naval power to defend the interests of British traders and shippers in the Atlantic basin (Inikori 2002, 36–38). England's military victories in the Anglo-Dutch wars in the 17th century, the Seven Years’ War with France in the 18th century, and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, 1793–1815, were particularly important in this regard. England's naval power was also important in helping to secure economically advantageous treaties with Spain and Portugal, especially the Methuen Treaty of 1702 with Portugal. Among other things, this military advantage allowed England to secure and hold on to the plum territories in the Americas. Hence, the share of British America in the value of commodities produced in the Americas for Atlantic commerce grew from 5.3 percent in 1651–1670 to 50 percent in 1781–1800, and 61.4 percent in 1848–1850 (Inikori 2002, 181, computed from Table 4.4).

Furthermore, through the intra-American trade of British America, Spanish and French American territories were drawn into the British colonial common market. The integration of the Spanish and Portuguese American colonial common markets into that of the Page 125  |  Top of ArticleBritish was completed through England's export and import trade with Spain and Portugal, which, for all practical purposes, was part of Spanish American and Brazilian trade. Thus, the evidence is clear that, from the last quarter of the 18th to the mid-19th century, England completely dominated the Atlantic economy; no other European power came even close.

It has been argued by historian Eric Williams that the intensive involvement of England in the Atlantic economy was a critical factor in the successful completion of England's industrialization process. The evidence is clear that the large and expanding Atlantic markets for England's manufactures were largely responsible for the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution. This is why these technological changes occurred in Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, and the West Midlands (regions that exported most of their output to Atlantic markets during the period) while East Anglia, the West Country, and other southern counties that lost their European markets to local proto-industries under mercantilist policies stagnated. This is a vindication of Adam Smith's vent-for-surplus theory and the more recent, sophisticated version, termed “endogenous growth theory.” Consistent with Smith, endogenous growth theory expresses technological development as a function of market size and rate of expansion (Inikori 2002, 123–155; Grossman and Helpman 1990, 1991; Romer 1994). American economic historians have also shown that technological development in the United States followed England's pattern (regions with access to large and growing markets led in invention and technological innovation) (Engerman and Sokoloff 1997, 284–286).

The Industrial Revolution in England, in turn, became a major factor in the emergence of an integrated Atlantic economy in the 19th century. As W. Arthur Lewis articulated the issues, England's industrialization posed two challenges to the rest of the world: imitate England and industrialize. or take advantage of industrialized England's growing demand for raw materials and foodstuffs and expand production of primary commodities for export (1978). Most Western European countries did the former; the United States did both (North 1965, Chapter 7, 673–705); but Latin America and the Caribbean did the latter, a development due largely to the political power structures inherited from the colonial period, with dominant large landholders and mining magnates, whose interests were tied to the export of primary commodities in exchange for imported cheap manufactures. Thus, the international division of labor between industrial and nonindustrial, politically independent nations first emerged in the Atlantic basin in the 19th century.

Industrialized England made other contributions. As its mechanized factory industry slashed the cost of producing mass consumer manufactures, its capital goods and technology revolutionized the transportation of products over long distances within nations and across the seas. British iron and steel and British capital helped in the construction of modern harbor facilities and railroads that integrated distant regions of the Americas into the Atlantic economy; the steel and steamships brought down freight costs in ocean transportation; and refrigeration technology made it possible to transport perishable foodstuffs over long distances, a development particularly important for Argentine beef trade in the 19th century. All this integrated the economies of the Atlantic ever more tightly.


Now, what was the role of the African Diaspora in the developments so far outlined? Mining and plantation agriculture in the Americas were large-scale enterprises requiring coordinated gang labor. Given the extremely low population densities of the Americas at the time, the abundance of land and the widespread dominance of subsistence production, to Page 126  |  Top of Articlewhich it gave rise, made wage labor unavailable, at least at prices that would make those enterprises economical. Nor did demographic and socioeconomic conditions in Western Europe compel sustained large-scale migration to the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries. The region could send only a few indentured servants induced to migrate by the prospect of securing land and settling down as small-scale, independent cultivators at the expiration of their contracts. Although coerced Native American labor was helpful in Spanish American silver mining, it proved unsuccessful in plantation agriculture and gold mining. Ultimately, it was millions of enslaved Africans and their descendants who provided the gang labor that made possible large-scale commodity production for Atlantic commerce in the Americas. They were the forced, large-scale, specialized producers of commodities for Atlantic commerce for 400 years, particularly during the period 1650–1850. Between 1501 and 1650, the labor of Diasporic Africans and their descendants produced between 54 and 69 percent of the total value (f.o.b.) of commodities produced in the Americas for Atlantic commerce; the proportion rose to 80 percent in the 18th century and was still as high as 69 percent by the mid-19th century (Inikori 2002, 197, Table 4.7).

Given the evidence, we can agree with Adam Smith that “It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased” (cited by Drayton 2002, 100). Because of the importance of African labor in the globalization process in the Atlantic world, much of the cooperation among merchants from all corners of the Atlantic occurred on the African coast. In particular, British traders, when they were not exporting directly to all regions of the Americas, often operated as wholesalers on the African coast, selling full shiploads of African captives to exporters from Europe and the Americas, irrespective of the imperial laws of the European powers against such transactions. The records of the English Royal African Company show numerous such sales to French exporters. Indeed, the African coast was a de facto free-trade area for all traders from Europe and the Americas throughout the period. It is no exaggeration to say, as Drayton recently wrote, that “Africans, as labor, capital, and currency, shaped the terms of integration over four hundred years” (Drayton 2002, 100).


A pertinent question to ask is why demand for slave labor in the Americas focused exclusively on sub-Saharan Africa from the 16th to the 19th century. Why, for instance, was Europe not a source of supply, particularly since Europe had been the main source of supply for the North African and Middle Eastern slave markets for centuries? The explanation rests with a combination of market and political processes. Because individuals do not willingly offer themselves to be sold into chattel slavery, nor do parents knowingly sell their children for enslavement as chattels, slave trading is essentially a trade in stolen “goods,” with considerable disruptive effects on economies and societies. For this reason, rulers with the politico-military capacity to do so go to great lengths to keep capture and enslavement beyond the borders of their state as a matter of political expediency. As has been argued elsewhere, the development of a large-scale trade in captives for sale into chattel slavery depends on two critical conditions: (1) the existence of a market for slaves and a developed transportation system capable of transporting slaves to that market relatively cheaply, and (2) the existence of weakly organized communities whose members can be captured and sold at little cost to the captors. For communities to avoid capture and enslavement, they first must have governments strong enough to prevent internal breakdown of law and order under the pressure of large-scale export demand for captives. Without effective control of overseas exporters and complete elimination of local Page 127  |  Top of Articlekidnapping for export sale, internal person-stealing engenders a cycle of intracommunity social conflict that exposes members to capture and export. Second, they must have governments strong enough to inflict considerable punishment on external aggressors who may be tempted to capture and sell their subjects to profit from the market demand. It cannot be overemphasized that, for as long as there is market demand at relative price levels that justify supply efforts, somebody is going to do what it takes to meet the demand (Inikori 2003, 172).

The existence of a large market for slave labor in the Americas and the development of an efficient transportation system by European traders met the first critical condition. The general prevalence of political fragmentation in the African coastal societies and their hinterlands satisfied the second. When the Portuguese arrived on the African coast in the mid-15th century, the major centralized states in Saharan Africa (Mali, Songhay, Kanem-Borno) were in the interior savanna. What is referred to here as Atlantic Africa (Atlantic coastal societies and their hinterlands) contained a large number of small, kin-based, autonomous political units (Diagne 1992, 23–45; Wondji 1992, 368–398; Izard and Ki-Zerbo 1992, 327–367; Barry 1992, 262–299; Barry 1998). The kingdom of Benin (in southwest Nigeria) and the Kongo kingdom (in West-Central Africa), which were in the process of territorial expansion and the consolidation of centralized political power in the 15th and 16th centuries, were the exception. The Ife kingdom (southwest Nigeria) in the hinterland may also be mentioned. Beyond these, all of Atlantic Africa was characterized by small, kin-based political units during the period of study. For example, a map of the Gold Coast (southern modern Ghana) drawn by the Dutch in 1629 shows 43 independent political units (Daaku 1970, 144–145, 199; Boahen 1992, 422, counts 38). Before the Dahomean conquest in the early 18th century, the small area that constituted the Kingdom of Dahomey (the modern Republic of Benin) had five independent political units: Allada, Whydah, Popo, Jakin, and Dahomey (Akinjogbin 1967, 11). In neighboring Yorubaland, before the rise of Oyo in the 17th century, there were more than a dozen independent political units (Smith 1988).

As long as European trade in Atlantic Africa remained largely in African products, these small political units experienced little conflict and were able to cope. As European demand shifted radically to captives, they could neither effectively prevent the internal breakdown of law and order as rampant kidnapping by bandits escalated nor deal severely with external invaders. Even the Kongo state was not strong enough to deal effectively with the situation (Hilton 1985, 58, 69–70, 178–179; Vansina 1992, 566, 569; Vansina 1989, 1990). The emergence of such relatively strong states as Asante, Dahomey, and Oyo did provide protection for peoples incorporated into those states. But the vast majority of Africans, who lived outside those states, remained exposed to capture and export. With the collapse of the Oyo empire in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the people of Yorubaland in southwest Nigeria became part of the latter group. Africans without strong states to protect them devised several strategies to protect themselves, including movement to hilltops and other natural defensive territories (Diouf 2003, several chapters). But the evidence shows they were effective only in limited cases; hence, people from politically fragmented communities constituted the bulk of the captives exported.

It is important to note that the combination of demand and the prevalence of political fragmentation also led to the export of captives from medieval and early modern Europe to the Middle East and North Africa. There was a great difference, of course, both in scale and in the global impact, owing to the cap italistic character of the markets served by the slave economies of the Americas. Ultimately, the spread of politico-militarily well-matched Page 128  |  Top of Articlestates across Europe (the Norman state in England, the Frankish state and its successors in Western continental Europe, the Ottoman empire in the Balkans and the Middle East, and the Russian empire) ended the trade in European captives, as the rulers of these states realized that it would be politically costly to them at home to export each other's citizens, even war captives (Inikori 2003, 172–176). It was this political self-interest of the rulers in Europe, not the ideological unwillingness of Europeans to enslave other Europeans (Eltis 1993, 2000), that prevented the export of European captives for enslavement in the Americas. Just as the people in Africa at this time did not see themselves as Africans, the people in Europe had no strong pan-European identity to prevent the export of European captives by other Europeans. Thus, with Europe and the Middle East ruled out as shown, and Asia precluded by transportation cost, sub-Saharan Africa alone happened to fall into the combination of factors needed to support large-scale export of captives to the Americas.

This fact leads to a related question: Who controlled the export of captives from Africa to the Americas: rulers and indigenous traders in Africa, or traders from Europe and the Americas? Some have argued that the European traders could not match the military strength of the states in Western Africa during the period; in consequence, European trade on the African coast was controlled by indigenous traders in Africa and their governments (Thornton 1992; Eltis 2000). This claim is difficult to substantiate given the preponderance of evidence to the contrary. First, the evidence is unambiguous that the economies of Western Europe had a clear commercial advantage at the point of seaborne contact in the mid-15th century. For this reason, traders and producers in Atlantic Africa responded to the changing needs of the European economies, which is always the case when economies at radically different levels of commercial development are brought together. This is reflected in the changes over time in what Atlantic Africa produced and sold to the European traders. Initially, European demand was largely for African products (gold, the driving force for Portuguese exploration to Africa), red pepper, hides and skins, ivory, woods. As yet, the economies of Western Europe had little need for enslaved African labor beyond the limited numbers taken to Portugal and Spain and to islands off the African coast. In response to this demand, Atlantic Africa produced and sold these products. When the colonization of the Americas led to a radical shift in European demand to captives by the mid-17th century, that demand interacted with the politico-military conditions earlier shown in this article to sustain the supply of millions of captives for export to the Americas. Then, about 200 years later, the needs of Western European econ omies changed once again, back to African products, the so-called legitimate commerce of the late 19th century. Atlantic Africa responded as previously, and raw cotton, palm produce, cocoa, woods, gold, diamonds, and other products were produced and sold to European traders in rapidly expanding quantities. The pace of growth was such that one writer in the early 20th century thought there was an “economic revolution in British West Africa” (McPhee 1926).

Second, there can be no doubt that the small, kin-based political units in Atlantic Africa possessed no military power that could withstand the firepower of the European traders and the mercantilist governments that stood behind them in their struggle for commercial supremacy in the age of mercantilism, when international trade was treated as a form of war. Competition among the European traders, on the one hand, and among the African trading subregions/wards, on the other, imposed some restraint on actions capable of raising the cost of doing business. But no one with sufficient knowledge of the extensive archival evidence can be deceived by such cooperative gestures necessitated by cost and profit considerations. Page 129  |  Top of ArticleThe European traders frequently agreed among themselves to fix prices. More to the point, whenever they felt the need to let the African rulers and traders know who had commercial and military power, the European traders demonstrated their military superiority mercilessly. This happened frequently on the Gold Coast (modern southern Ghana). The total burning of Cape Coast town in 1803 by British company officials following a trade dispute may be taken to illustrate. The naval officer, Captain W. Brown of HMS Rodney, sent by the British Government to investigate the matter, condemned the action of the British company officers in no uncertain terms, holding them totally responsible for the disruption of peace on the Gold Coast (Inikori 1996, 76–77). Even the one-sided evidence of English traders concerning a series of actions by them in southeastern Nigeria in the 18th century shows that they did not believe that the rulers and traders of the Nigerian port towns had the right or the capacity to dictate the terms of the trade. Among the many atrocities they committed, as documented by a recent researcher (Sparks 2004, 16–19, 25), what is particularly instructive is their ability to force the Nigerian traders to supply captives for export whenever local problems slowed trade: “the English captains tried every means to force them to trade” (p. 18). Sparks continues:

One tactic was called rowing guard. English captains put boats into the river to stop Efik canoes. They captured the traders, and then held them hostage until they agreed to sell slaves at a reasonable price. They could also cut the Efik off from their supply of slaves by barring their passage upriver. (p. 18)

The encounter between the rulers of the Kongo Kingdom in West-Central Africa and the Portuguese traders is even more telling. As long as copper dominated the early trade, Kongo rulers had little problem with the Portuguese traders and priests. But when Portuguese demand shifted to captives, law and order in the kingdom broke down, for the state was unable to prevent rampant kidnapping of people by some individuals within the kingdom. To solve the problem, the Kongo rulers tried to stop the Portuguese from trading in the kingdom and asked the king of Portugal to recall his traders and send only priests and technicians (Hilton 1985, 58). However, the Kongo state was unable to enforce this policy, and the Portuguese traders remained in Kongo and continued to trade in captives. As the sociopolitical crisis engendered by the trade in captives escalated in West-Central Africa and Kongo was invaded by external bandits, the government was unable to expel them and had to seek help from the king of Portugal (Hilton 1985, 69–70). Then came the destabilizing threat from the slave-raiding and slave-trading Portuguese colony of Angola in the 17th century. Frustrated and helpless, the kindom's rulers mobilized all the resources at their disposal to confront the Portuguese on the battlefield in 1665. They suffered a crushing defeat. The king and the entire nobility were killed. With that, centralized authority in Kongo dissolved (Hilton 1985, 148–149, 178–179; Vansina 1992, 566, 569).

Thus, the preponderance of evidence shows beyond reasonable doubt that the changing needs of European economies and European traders controlled Africa's Atlantic commerce during our period. However, to say that the European traders were in control and that African political and economic entrepreneurs responded to the changing needs of West European economies, as the evidence makes clear, does not imply that the individuals and communities that responded were not trying to serve their own self-interests. All it means is that those self-interests could be served in several ways, but the realistic choices that could be made at the time were dictated by the conditions created by changing European demand (a common phenomenon in trade relations between societies at significantly different levels Page 130  |  Top of Articleof politico-military and commercial development, as the British historian K. G. Davies [1974, xi] pointed out several decades ago).


Western Africa's contribution to the formation of the 19th-century Atlantic economy, shown earlier in this article, was made at a considerable cost to the economies and societies in the region. The process of market development and the growth and geographical spread of the market economy in Western Africa had been going on for centuries before the Portuguese established regular seaborne trade between the region and Western Europe in the mid-15th century. That process was centered in the interior savanna of West Africa, the Niger Bend in particular. Atlantic Africa traded gold, kola nuts, and other primary commodities with the more politically and economically developed societies of the interior savanna in exchange for the latter's manufactures and re-exports from the Sahara and the Mediterranean. The early European trade in African products, particularly gold, intensified and extended the commercializing process and the development of the market economy in Western Africa. Although the shipment of captives was involved from the very beginning, from the 1440s to the early 17th century the numbers in most regions were not large enough to seriously disrupt the trade in products (Daaku 1970, 149). In those early decades, the product trade generated the type of effects shown earlier for the Americas and Western Europe. The Gold Coast (modern Ghana) may be taken for illustration. The addition of European gold purchases on the coast to the preexisting exports to the interior savanna increased gold production, and the multiplier effect gave rise to overall population growth and increased urbanization. There is clear evidence that, in the 200 years from the mid-15th to the mid-17th century, many new towns and villages were founded in and around the gold-producing areas. Division of labor between town and country developed as manufacturing concentrated in the towns, giving rise to the growth of trade between town and country (Kea 1982). This stimulated market expansion and the extension of the market economy, offering profitable opportunities for investment in land and agriculture.

These opportunities were exploited by rich merchants who had accumulated huge wealth from the trade in gold and other products. Beginning in the 16th century, these wealthy trading families moved northward to invest their wealth in large-scale forest clearing and the creation of farmlands, developments that stimulated the rise of a land market in modern Ghana (Wilks 1977; Kea 1982, 85–91). It was at this time that the site on which the town of Kumasi was later built was purchased for the gold equivalent of £270 (sterling). For the forest-clearing task, the Asante entrepreneurs purchased labor brought from other African regions by the European traders (Kea 1982, 105–106).

The commercializing economies in West Africa suffered a major setback when the European traders shifted their demand massively from products to captives as large-scale exploitation of the New World resources required slave labor. This development occurred at different times in the African subregions, depending on when they became heavily drawn into the trade in captives. In the area of modern Ghana, it began in the mid-17th century. Dutch officers on the Gold Coast reporting to their employers in the Netherlands were very precise, dating the process to 1658. In about 1730, they noted that “that part of Africa which as of old is known as the ‘Gold Coast’ because of the great quantity of gold which was at one time purchased there by the [Dutch West India] Company as well as by Dutch private ships, has now virtually changed into a pure Slave Coast.” (Inikori 1992, 106–107).

This radical change in the character of Western Africa's seaborne exports produced far-reaching consequences for the position of African economies in the evolving Atlantic Page 131  |  Top of Articleeconomy. As mentioned earlier, West Africa's coastal regions and their hinterlands had exchanged primary products, such as gold and kola nuts, for the manufactures of the savanna economies and some re-exports from North Africa and the Middle East. The growth of the Atlantic slave trade severely weakened this interregional flow of goods. In the first place, the interior economies ceased to be the source of manufactures for the coastal consumers. Instead, the dense interior populations became the source of captives brought to the coast for sale to the Europeans, who supplied in exchange the manufactures needed by the coastal communities and their immediate hinterlands. Whereas the exchange of manufactures and primary products between Atlantic Africa and the interior stimulated further production and trade in both regions, leading to the extension of the division of labor and the market economy, the violent seizure of people, just like the stealing of goods, did not involve any market exchange with victim communities, in the first instance. It therefore did not stimulate further production and trade in the victim regions. As the captive-taking regions sold their captives to middlemen, who took them to the European exporters, some market transaction did grow, but largely in the coastal communities and their immediate hinterlands. Because the exchange of captives for imported goods did not involve directly the production of goods for market exchange, there was a major break in the circuit of production and market exchange. Added to this was the adverse effect of the sociopolitical conflicts engendered by the sale of captives, and the attendant population loss, on the growth of local and interregional specialization and trade. All these conditions favored the growth of enclave economies in the coastal regions.

Again, evidence from the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) indicates the magnitude of the adverse effect. The commercializing process and the growth of the market economy associated with the several centuries of gold production, noted earlier, were all reversed. There was general depopulation and deurbanization; peasant production for market exchange declined; craft production moved from urban centers to the countryside, thus ending the division of labor between town and country, reestablishing the integration of agriculture and manufacturing, and promoting the propagation of subsistence production at the expense of production for market exchange. Archaeological evidence and contemporary written accounts confirm orally transmitted histories, which indicate that certain districts in modern Ghana were more urbanized and populous in the 17th century than they were in the late 18th or early 19th centuries (Kea 1982).

The retardation of market development and the prolonged dominance of subsistence production in Western Africa meant that the economies of the region were not, properly speaking, integrated into the circuit of production for market exchange in the Atlantic world in the mid-19th century, despite the fact that “Africans, as labor, capital, and currency, shaped the terms of integration over four hundred years” (Drayton 2002, 100). After being held back for 200 years, the process of market development in Western Africa resumed again following the ending of the transatlantic slave trade and the growth of trade in products from the middle decades of the 19th century. By this time, the economies of Western Africa that had been ahead of the New World economies in development in the 15th century were now far behind, relegated to the very bottom of the Atlantic economy, where they faced the uphill task of competing in the emerging global economy, a task not helped by the onset of European colonial domination from the second half of the 19th century.

Joseph E. Inikori


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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2444300063