Olivette Otele argues that economic considerations and research about the development of Africa could very well be intellectual wars by proxy over racial superiority and over the question of what Europe could have achieved with or without enslaved Africans as commodities, labour and reproductive tools.

Over the last 80 years or so, the history of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery has been vastly studied. Historians have mainly focused on migration, abolition and, in the last 15 years, on memorialisation. They have tended to make a clear distinction between the history of the slave trade, exchanges, commodities and partnerships on the one hand and life in the Americas, the social and cultural ramifications of the ‘plantocracy’, on the other. They have looked at the plantation as a rigorous hierarchical institution that coerced enslaved Africans into working and living in owners’ lands in order to continue to produce goods destined for European markets. Other studies have looked at the way European taste for ‘exotic goods’ created and transformed social and cultural practices through the establishment of coffee houses and men’s and women’s clubs where these were consumed. Scholars have also looked at the interdependence between consumerism in the 18th and 19th century and the development of a European middle class. What all these studies highlight is the close link between the transatlantic slave trade, slavery and the transformation of European economies, Britain’s among them. My own research looks at both the history and the memory of slavery as well as the links between the colonial past and its legacies in contemporary societies in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and North America.

Economies developed through exploitation

Several historians have argued that Britain’s industrial revolution was, if not initiated, then at least supported by the transatlantic slave trade and slave economy. C.L.R James put forward the idea in The Black Jacobins (1938) that France’s 18th century industrialisation rested upon the shoulders of slave labour and that Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) was the jewel in the crown of the colonial exploitation that made modern France. Six years later, in Britain, another author echoed this view. In 1944’s Capitalism and Slavery Eric Williams contended that through goods produced by slaves such as sugar, tobacco, cotton etc., through shipbuilding, through the banking system and through heavy industry, transatlantic slavery helped finance England’s industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. The abolition of the slave trade, he argued, was not the result of moral, religious and humanitarian considerations, however; investments made in areas other than the slave trade were bringing important dividends that allowed the nation to turn to other industries. In other words, Britain did not need the slave trade any more. Williams’ theory ignited a controversy that is still ongoing.

‘Econocide’ and questions of race

In 1977 Seymour Drescher challenged Williams’ narrative in his Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition. Drescher asserted that moral outrage in Britain led to popular protest and mobilisation against the slave trade. The thriving industry of the slave trade could have continued, he claimed, but Britain decided to stop that trade, leading to London’s ‘econocide’ – an economic self-harming decision. North American and British historians shared similar views until Joseph Inikori’s Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England was published in 2002, in which he examined England’s industrial revolution from 1650 to 1850. He looked at the English economy over a long period of time, analysing the various factors that may have contributed to the first industrial revolution. He then focused on the Atlantic economy (including North America), its growth and links with other sectors before linking those points with the manufacturing sectors in England including in the north of the country, and in particular places that saw the development of the textile industry (cotton). There are two major points to note from these very different studies: First, although an uncomfortable discussion for many people, the question of race, not mentioned in any of them, underpins the debate. C.L.R James and Eric Williams were Trinidadians while Joseph Inikori was born in Nigeria and obtained his PhD at the London School of Economics. These scholars have been accused of having rather warped views of the past on many occasions, through their use of inflated figures (see for example Kenneth Morgan’s criticism of Williams in Slavery, Atlantic Trade and the British Economy: 1660–1800). Second, their studies have put Africans or people of African descent at the centre of European economic development, be they as captives, or free labour during the post-abolition period. This is a crucial point that I will further develop in my presentation. Whilst these debates were happening about the transformative force of the transatlantic slave trade and the impact of slavery on European economic, social and even political scenes, leading to the rise of the French and the British Empires, others were asking aligned questions about the effects of the slave trade on African societies. I will look at how historians have measured that impact, comparing Inikori’s work with subsequent models. From Eltis and Lovejoy’s income per capita to Manning’s loss of workforce theories, there has been a remarkable amount of research linking economic impact to social ramifications such as the development of polygyny in West Africa and the ways in which so-called indigenous slavery in Africa contributed to the underdevelopment of the continent.

Photo credit: International Migration Institute, University of Oxford blog

Intellectual ‘wars by proxy’ over racial superiority?

Studies in this prolific area of research on the impact of the slave trade on African societies continue to remove the question of race from the equation, rarely questioning the very need to speculate solely on what would have happened to economic development in Africa if the transatlantic slave trade had not taken place. I argue that economic considerations and research about the development of Africa could very well be intellectual wars by proxy over racial superiority. It is about what Europe could have achieved with or without enslaved Africans as commodities, labour and reproductive tools. I think it is therefore important to get ‘race’ out of the way in a sense by explaining that as trade grew and as Europe became wealthy, so did theories about hierarchies, Eugenics and the equation between intellectual abilities and the subjugation of Africans. While abolitionist William Wilberforce was explaining how those ‘children of nature’ should be protected, thus utilising the popular notion of the noble savage of the 17th and 18th century, British historian Edward Long, a so-called expert on all things Jamaican, was explaining in the 18th century how he heard of a relationship between an ape and an African woman. The pro-slavery American surgeon Josiah Nott also contended that the farther one travelled north of the equator the fairer the skin got and the higher the level of intelligence developed. These ideas were also supported and developed by French diplomat Arthur de Gobineau in An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–1855). The development of so-called scientific racism, which had started with people such as Dutch physician Petrus Campus in the 1770s, was widely accepted in the 18th and 19th century.

Origins as well as volume of flows help build a picture of impact

In considering the development of Africa it is important to look into figures and in particular migratory flows from the 17th to the 19th centuries, figures that are constantly revised. The Transatlantic Slave Trade database provides us with the most up-to-date figures. These figures tell us that Portugal, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, the US, France, Denmark and the Baltic states transported a total 12,521,337 African captives. Crucially, what this signals is that before the creation of the database, the number of people forcibly transported across the Atlantic was underestimated. The absence of a coordinated bank of data has also given way to speculations. The figures we have nowadays are bound to increase slightly as historians find new sources and ship records. Some data are still missing. Besides that it is also important to understand not just the volume of the flows but where these captives were coming from, in order to understand how the transatlantic slave trade evolved and the impact it might have had on particular regions.

Contemporary questions of migration and the legacies of slavery

In looking at numbers it may be easy to forget that these unnamed groups were people who interacted with slave catchers, merchants on African coasts. I am particularly interested in the type of relationship that grew from those exchanges and will look at two kinds of stories that move us from economic considerations to everyday links and sometimes cohabitations. In my presentation I will take the example of Queen Nzinga of Matamba (present-day Angola) in the 17th century and her collaboration and fight against Portuguese colonisation.1 Sources are scarce and views about her contested but a few studies provide us with a clearer understanding of what happened to her. I take the second example from my own research into the children of African monarchs sent to Europe to study in the 18th century, and what was the role of children born out of unions between Africans and Europeans in the 18th century. I will conclude by exploring the social, economic, monetary and even political links – if not dependency – that are to be linked to contemporary questions of migration and the legacies of slavery in our 21st century societies.


This article was first published on the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford Blog.

Olivette Otele is a Reader in History at Bath Spa University and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She works on European empires, the history of people of African descent, slavery, memory, trauma, migration and identities.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.