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 To explore this question, I use data from shipping records and historical documents reporting slave ethnicities to construct estimates of the number of slaves exported from each country during Africa’s slave trades.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

    I’m from Texas. I was taught Texas History several times over, but I was never taught anything about slavery as a motivation to revolt. I suppose I had to take the Advanced Placement version of the class to get that information, because anything less is a cherry-picked, context-clumsy, slightly propagandized version.

    To any parents out there who want their child to develop a thirst for history or at least a means of looking at the world with a bit more levelheadedness, be sure to enroll them in Advanced Placement History, be it European or American. I can imagine even the worst A.P. teacher to be loads better than the teachers and books that teach it at a “non-honors” level.

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  2. Derek G. says:

    I’m from Texas. I was taught Texas History several times over, but I was never taught anything about slavery as a motivation to revolt. I suppose I had to take the Advanced Placement version of the class to get that information, because anything less is a cherry-picked, context-clumsy, slightly propagandized version.

    To any parents out there who want their child to develop a thirst for history or at least a means of looking at the world with a bit more levelheadedness, be sure to enroll them in Advanced Placement History, be it European or American. I can imagine even the worst A.P. teacher to be loads better than the teachers and books that teach it at a “non-honors” level.

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  3. John Mark Rozendaal says:

    In the nineteenth century U.S., slave-holders accused the abolitionists of hypocrisy on the grounds that industrialization abused and exploited laborers, de facto enslaving workers. This argument gains validity as we have seen globalization and the decline of labor unions steadily disenfranchise workers. Soon we must begin to see that injustice in labor relations in capitalist systems has many of the same evil qualities of chattel slavery.
    Does focusing on the injustice and terrible consequences of slavery deflect our attention from other unjust relationships?

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  4. John Mark Rozendaal says:

    In the nineteenth century U.S., slave-holders accused the abolitionists of hypocrisy on the grounds that industrialization abused and exploited laborers, de facto enslaving workers. This argument gains validity as we have seen globalization and the decline of labor unions steadily disenfranchise workers. Soon we must begin to see that injustice in labor relations in capitalist systems has many of the same evil qualities of chattel slavery.
    Does focusing on the injustice and terrible consequences of slavery deflect our attention from other unjust relationships?

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  5. Karl Smith 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?

    They instrument for this. In other words, they look at areas that would have been popular for slave hunters for geographic reasons and see if that is related to poverty, it is.

    Moreover, a review of the data suggests the opposite, that Europeans targeted the most developed and stable areas. Probably because the population density was higher and the infrastructure for extraction was already there.

    All in all its a pretty compelling story and an interesting story about institutions. Why for example Germany climbed back from WWII in a few decades but Africa has not recovered from the slave trade and Russia does not appear to be recovering from communism.

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  6. Karl Smith 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?

    They instrument for this. In other words, they look at areas that would have been popular for slave hunters for geographic reasons and see if that is related to poverty, it is.

    Moreover, a review of the data suggests the opposite, that Europeans targeted the most developed and stable areas. Probably because the population density was higher and the infrastructure for extraction was already there.

    All in all its a pretty compelling story and an interesting story about institutions. Why for example Germany climbed back from WWII in a few decades but Africa has not recovered from the slave trade and Russia does not appear to be recovering from communism.

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  7. EB says:

    “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…..”

    Well said!

    I have to admit to being one of those who really isn’t too terrifically interested in studying African cultures or history to a great degree. I have at least spent the time to become familiar with the history of the major areas of the continent. I also put forth enough effort to have an understanding of the cultures there that extends beyond a PBS miniseries.

    IMO, you hit the nail on the head with your comment. Africa (yes the whole continent) has one massive problem, and that is other nations full of people with no interest whatsoever in respecting the sovereignity of the people and nations who have lived in Africa since before Europe had humanoid life!

    As for the link between African slave trade and African poverty, well, look at the brilliant minds that have ended up in America because they were born from slaves. We have gained so much here in the US from the innovations of African Americans. Had there been no slave trade out of Africa, these engineers, chemists, physicists and so on, would have been in Africa and would have enriched their own land with their research and pioneering spirit.

    That is something I do not see the abstract addressing, either; the tie between slavery and loss of intellectual minds needed for development and advancement in a society.

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  8. EB says:

    “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…..”

    Well said!

    I have to admit to being one of those who really isn’t too terrifically interested in studying African cultures or history to a great degree. I have at least spent the time to become familiar with the history of the major areas of the continent. I also put forth enough effort to have an understanding of the cultures there that extends beyond a PBS miniseries.

    IMO, you hit the nail on the head with your comment. Africa (yes the whole continent) has one massive problem, and that is other nations full of people with no interest whatsoever in respecting the sovereignity of the people and nations who have lived in Africa since before Europe had humanoid life!

    As for the link between African slave trade and African poverty, well, look at the brilliant minds that have ended up in America because they were born from slaves. We have gained so much here in the US from the innovations of African Americans. Had there been no slave trade out of Africa, these engineers, chemists, physicists and so on, would have been in Africa and would have enriched their own land with their research and pioneering spirit.

    That is something I do not see the abstract addressing, either; the tie between slavery and loss of intellectual minds needed for development and advancement in a society.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0