The Consequences of Slavery in Africa

Nathan Nunn, an economist at the University of British Columbia, has written an interesting working paper called “The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trade.” His abstract sums it up well:

Can part of Africa’s current underdevelopment be explained by its slave trades? To explore this question, I use data from shipping records and historical documents reporting slave ethnicities to construct estimates of the number of slaves exported from each country during Africa’s slave trades. I find a robust negative relationship between the number of slaves exported from a country and current economic performance. To better understand if the relationship is causal, I examine the historical evidence on selection into the slave trades, and use instrumental variables. Together the evidence suggests that the slave trades have had an adverse effect on economic development.

So Nunn finds that “the African countries that are the poorest today are the ones from which the most slaves were taken.” Does this mean, however, that the extraction of slaves caused those countries to remain poor? Nunn is careful to say that the evidence is not conclusive, since it may be that the African countries that were chaotic and corrupt enough to support the slave trade in the first place may have continued to suffer economically for those same reasons.

Regardless, it is a really interesting paper — and a good preamble, of sorts, to Fogel and Engerman‘s Time on the Cross, which argued that American slavery was less inefficient, and less miserable, than previously thought.

Nunn’s paper is also a good reminder that when many Americans think of Africa, they think of … well, Africa, a continent, as opposed to the many different African nations, each of which has its own set of bounties and problems.

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  1. Stan Preston says:

    Isn’t it just as likely that the areas targeted by European slavers had structural problems (such as lack of political organization, domination by nearby tribes with strong military power) that also impeded their later development?

    And what about Arab slavers, who primarily affected the circum-Sahara and East African coast?

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  2. Stan Preston says:

    Isn’t it just as likely that the areas targeted by European slavers had structural problems (such as lack of political organization, domination by nearby tribes with strong military power) that also impeded their later development?

    And what about Arab slavers, who primarily affected the circum-Sahara and East African coast?

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  3. ZBicyclist says:

    That’s why I read this blog is to find interesting things to read. Thanks!

    I wonder if it’s possible that the results are somewhat similar to losing any export industry. If your economy is dependent on exporting X, and you stop exporting X, economic dislocation results — such as a decline in employment. If, at the same time, you are seeing an increase in employable men (because you are no longer exporting them) this exacerbates the employment problem.

    Gotta be a lot worse once you factor the huge family effects, though.

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  4. ZBicyclist says:

    That’s why I read this blog is to find interesting things to read. Thanks!

    I wonder if it’s possible that the results are somewhat similar to losing any export industry. If your economy is dependent on exporting X, and you stop exporting X, economic dislocation results — such as a decline in employment. If, at the same time, you are seeing an increase in employable men (because you are no longer exporting them) this exacerbates the employment problem.

    Gotta be a lot worse once you factor the huge family effects, though.

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  5. Matt says:

    Do they control for European colonization, and its possible negative and positive effects?

    (Could you even control for such a variable??)

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  6. Matt says:

    Do they control for European colonization, and its possible negative and positive effects?

    (Could you even control for such a variable??)

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  7. Linda Loomis says:

    This is slightly off-topic, but I was very surprised to recently read the following (p. 197) in the 2007 book by Brit Andro Linklater, “The Fabric of America: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country annd Forged Our National Identity”:

    “Their revolt [American settlers in Texas in 1833] against the dictatorial rule of General Antonio de Santa Anna was not just about democracy but about slavery. In 1829, the government of Vicente Guerro had fulfilled the promise made in Mexico’s Declaration of Independence and declared all slaves to be free. Mexico’s loose confederate structure enabled the slave-owning Americans in Texas to ignore the ban at first. Then Santa Anna reformed the constitution so that power was centralized in Mexico City and in 1833 issued a decree banning further immigration of American settlers to Texas, while requiring slaves there to be set free. Thus the siege of the Alamo and Sam Houston’s defeat of Santa Anna in 1836 were triggered by the need to defend not just Texas’ liberty but their property in people.”

    UT Austin history professor H. W. “Bill” Brands does a great job explaining–I subsequently learned–the issue of slavery in Texas during this time period in his 2004 book “Lone Star Nation.” But the point that galls me is: Why was I never taught this information about Mexico’s slave policy during my education in California–elementary school through college?

    And certainly neither actor Billy Bob Thornton nor actor Dennis Quaid leaned over and whispered this Mexico-Texas history to me when I attended the premiere of their movie, “The Alamo” in 2004. Ditto for actor Emilio Echevarria who played Santa Anna.

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  8. Linda Loomis says:

    This is slightly off-topic, but I was very surprised to recently read the following (p. 197) in the 2007 book by Brit Andro Linklater, “The Fabric of America: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country annd Forged Our National Identity”:

    “Their revolt [American settlers in Texas in 1833] against the dictatorial rule of General Antonio de Santa Anna was not just about democracy but about slavery. In 1829, the government of Vicente Guerro had fulfilled the promise made in Mexico’s Declaration of Independence and declared all slaves to be free. Mexico’s loose confederate structure enabled the slave-owning Americans in Texas to ignore the ban at first. Then Santa Anna reformed the constitution so that power was centralized in Mexico City and in 1833 issued a decree banning further immigration of American settlers to Texas, while requiring slaves there to be set free. Thus the siege of the Alamo and Sam Houston’s defeat of Santa Anna in 1836 were triggered by the need to defend not just Texas’ liberty but their property in people.”

    UT Austin history professor H. W. “Bill” Brands does a great job explaining–I subsequently learned–the issue of slavery in Texas during this time period in his 2004 book “Lone Star Nation.” But the point that galls me is: Why was I never taught this information about Mexico’s slave policy during my education in California–elementary school through college?

    And certainly neither actor Billy Bob Thornton nor actor Dennis Quaid leaned over and whispered this Mexico-Texas history to me when I attended the premiere of their movie, “The Alamo” in 2004. Ditto for actor Emilio Echevarria who played Santa Anna.

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