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 To explore this question, I use data from shipping records and historical documents reporting slave ethnicities to construct estimates of the number of slaves exported from each country during Africa’s slave trades.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. jacob says:

    You could compare with central and eastern europe that also had a decent export of people to the mid-east and africa as slaves.

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  2. jacob says:

    You could compare with central and eastern europe that also had a decent export of people to the mid-east and africa as slaves.

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  3. Rita: Lovely Meter Maid says:

    I think it’s a no-brainer that slavery is (and was) horribly bad for people. That’s not to say that papers like Nunn’s aren’t important; they are. And it’s not to say that slavery didn’t have an up-side for someone; most likely it did for the slaveholders. If the slaves, themselves, sometimes found ways to live under that atrocious system in a manner that did not totally destroy them, that’s probably very much because of their own ingenuity and inner strength, and not due to slavery’s more easing properties.

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  4. Rita: Lovely Meter Maid says:

    I think it’s a no-brainer that slavery is (and was) horribly bad for people. That’s not to say that papers like Nunn’s aren’t important; they are. And it’s not to say that slavery didn’t have an up-side for someone; most likely it did for the slaveholders. If the slaves, themselves, sometimes found ways to live under that atrocious system in a manner that did not totally destroy them, that’s probably very much because of their own ingenuity and inner strength, and not due to slavery’s more easing properties.

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  5. George Smith says:

    What about the fact that the social structure of Africa is not accurately representative by looking at the continent as a whole or even the muck up of border creation that was caused by European colonization?

    Africa’s largest problem is the fact that most of the outside world has no real understanding of the continent’s true social make up and history and no real interest in discovering it…..

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  6. George Smith says:

    What about the fact that the social structure of Africa is not accurately representative by looking at the continent as a whole or even the muck up of border creation that was caused by European colonization?

    Africa’s largest problem is the fact that most of the outside world has no real understanding of the continent’s true social make up and history and no real interest in discovering it…..

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  7. ZBicyclist says:

    Loomis (#4) notes:
    “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….. 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?”

    I remember the shock of this when it was covered in a college history class (this would be 1971 or so, in Missouri). But once you think about it, it makes so much sense. A huge amount of the larger political actions in the Americas is connected to slavery in some way (well, maybe not much if you are Canadian).

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  8. ZBicyclist says:

    Loomis (#4) notes:
    “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….. 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?”

    I remember the shock of this when it was covered in a college history class (this would be 1971 or so, in Missouri). But once you think about it, it makes so much sense. A huge amount of the larger political actions in the Americas is connected to slavery in some way (well, maybe not much if you are Canadian).

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0