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The West Didn’t Become Rich Because of Slavery But in Spite of It

The blockbuster film The Woman King has resurrected the myth that slavery furnishes wealth. While irate critics argue that the film downplays the fact that the Dahomey Empire derived its wealth from slavery, however, this observation wrongly conflates political success with human flourishing. The state and individual are two distinct entities, and as such the objectives of individuals are often incompatible with those of the state.

In Africa, the slave trade enriched merchants and political elites at the expense of people who were enslaved, nor did ordinary Africans emerge as winners from the transatlantic slave trade. Noting that states like Asante and Dahomey became affluent as a result of the slave trade is really a commentary on the growing reach of African elites rather than an indication of improved living standards for ordinary people.

During the apex of the slave trade, the trade in slaves was monopolized by the Dahomean king. After being procured for trade, slaves were sold at the coast by royal traders. Opportunities released by the slave trade led to the establishment of a thriving merchant class that consisted primarily of people who were connected to the state bureaucracy. Inevitably, the slave trade was another vehicle for elites to accumulate wealth rather than an agent of mass-based flourishing.

Throughout history, many societies have engaged in slavery, yet slavery never led to an economic revolution in any preindustrial society. But, unfortunately, people continue to conflate the enrichment of the national treasury with individual advancement. As a mercantilist tool, slavery boosted the national treasury, though it was unsuccessful at engendering widespread prosperity.

Media rhetoric might promote the narrative that slavery leads to economic prosperity, but this claim is merely folklore and easily disproven by Dahomey’s abysmal economic track record. Today, Dahomey, now called Benin, has a measly per capita income of $1,428, according to the World Bank. Dahomey was one of the most prominent African players in the slave trade, so if the slave trade is a potential route to wealth, why is she so poor today?

Notwithstanding the potency of mainstream rhetoric that slavery is linked to economic prosperity, studies consistently show a negative relationship between slavery and development. Neither should we believe the claptrap that the wealth of Europe was hinged on slavery. European countries were already modernizing before partaking in the slave trade and Atlantic slavery.

Moreover, the success of the Atlantic economy should be attributable to the institutional and human capital advantage of European economies. Europeans built trading companies, insurance facilities, and other innovations to oversee the business of exploitation. Hence people who contend that slavery built Europe are misidentifying the channels that led to growth.

Slavery is a classic example of what economist Douglas North calls a closed social order. Under such systems opportunities are limited and privileges are distributed to a select few. Slave societies naturally disenfranchise slaves and people who are too poor to acquire chattel. Slaves are rarely exposed to education or given the tools to succeed and because most policies favor the slaveholding aristocracy, nonslaveholders are placed at a disadvantage.

Furthermore, slave societies are unlikely to invest in mass literacy, civic institutions, and the industrial sector. Since, economic elites derive most of their wealth from slavery, they are unmotivated to finance innovations in other sectors of the economy and due to their political clout slaveholders can block reforms that deprive them of benefits. The negative link between slavery and social outcomes has been a persistent fact in economic research, contrary to mainstream propaganda.

One study surveying Brazil finds that even thirty years after abolition, municipalities with a history of large-scale slavery still had worse social outcomes, measured by literacy rates, wages, and availability of public resources. Over the long-term research also reveals that in Brazil the intensity of historical slavery predicts higher levels of income and educational equality and worse public institutions. In Columbia, research paints an equally horrendous picture of the effects of slavery. A 2012 study conducted by Daron Acemoglu and coauthors asserts that the “historical presence of slavery is associated with increased poverty and reduced school enrollment, vaccination coverage, and public good provision.”

On the other hand, in nineteenth-century America, the US North was more productive and innovative than the slave-producing South. Yet despite the importance of slavery to the South’s economy, after abolition, the South continued to thrive, thus suggesting that slavery is not a necessary condition for economic progress. Indeed, the claim that slavery ushered in a period of economic dynamism in the West or anywhere else is inaccurate. Furthermore, it must be noted that non-Western economies were more reliant on slavery

The abolition of slavery in places like Ibadan and among the Igbo people severely disrupted society. Unlike Western countries that were involved in slavery, these societies had less scope for economic diversification. Their economies were intimately related to slavery and few industries existed that could replace the institution of slavery. So, although slavery did not make them rich, they obtained a larger share of wealth from the institution than their Western peers.

In the current climate of hysteria, intellectual gatekeepers frequently parrot the claim that slavery is an engine of prosperity, but this notion is unsupported by rigorous empirical tests and repeating it will never make it true.

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