A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why a Few Nations are Rich and Many Poor, by John P. Powelson.

Appendixes for Chapter 8

Appendix 8.1: Precolonial Slavery in Africa

1.     In West Africa of the eighteenth century: "Each household approximated to the optimum size for the conditions in which it operated. A large household could divide itself into several smaller units, though without necessarily breaking up the family too. The household was also capable of expanding. . . . Many of the 'slaves' recorded by foreign visitors may have been . . . loyal, if subordinate, citizens of the state, while others, though formally of slave status, were in practice integrated into the household and were virtually indistinguishable from free men. . . . At the same time . . . some slaves were bought, sold and otherwise used like the chattel slaves of the Americas." [133]

2.     Among the Bobangi in the Upper Zaire, nineteenth century: "A slave called his master 'father,' and whichever of the master's wives had been chosen to take care of him was called 'mother.' Slaves of the same age as well as freeborn children were called 'brother and sister.' " [134]

3.     Chanock criticizes the tendency among Western writers to describe African slavery as benign, which he attributes to our own guilt about American slavery. These apologist authors "generally pointed to the slave as 'part of the family,' living happily and in terms of virtual equality with the rest of society." [135] But the real subordination lay within the family. The father was often deemed to "own" his wife and children as well as the slaves. Marrying a slave rather than a free woman would give him greater control, for a slave wife had lost the home family that might otherwise protect her against her husband's cruelty.

Instead of Africans treating their slaves as members of the family it might be equally accurate to say that they treated members of the family as slaves. As in England before the Industrial Revolution, families were business enterprises in which the distinction between member of the family and employee was often vague. Since families differed in their moral sensibilities, the treatment of a slave/employee ran the gamut from benign to cruel and despotic.

4.     A husband could obtain greater rights over his bride, relatively to her original family, by paying a higher bride-price. If high enough, she was virtually his slave. [136]

5.     "Slaves came into the main markets of the central Sudan [in the seventeenth century] in three principal ways: through raids and kidnaping; as tribute; and in trade." [137] They were also acquired as settlement for debt.

6.     Similarly, in the Upper Zaire basin in the nineteenth century: "[T]he violent separation of a person from his lineage was accomplished in three ways: warfare, raiding, and kidnapping. Slaves were by-products of the small-scale wars that plagued the area." [138]

7.     "The domestic demand for slaves, within the central Sahara and Sudan, may well have been even more of a stimulus to slave raiding than was the trans-Saharan trade [for export to the Americas]. The number of slaves in the central Sahara and Sudan was considerable. In the nineteenth century, when fairly accurate estimates first become available, very wealthy individuals in Bornu might own thousands of slaves, while people of modest means owned two or three." [139]

8.     About the Chewa in Central Malawi, reported by a Chewa author: "[P]owerful lineages took advantage of weaker ones to acquire dependents. In the event of a legal dispute the weaker side would be forced to surrender a child in addition to the normal compensation in goats and hoes." [140]

9.     The Lunda [in Central Africa, seventeenth century] did not lack land; they lacked people. So they raided their neighbors, not for territorial aggrandizement, but to capture slaves. [141]

10.   Harms reports that in the Upper Zaire in the nineteenth century wages were sometimes paid, but only in kind, and usually for young men working for fathers or uncles. [142]

Appendix 8.2: The Transition from Slavery to Cash Labor in Africa

1.     The Bobangi considered that abolition of slavery by the French in the early colonial period was theft of capital. [143]

2.     Hopkins associates the end of slavery in the colonial period with the growth of export markets, such as in groundnuts and cocoa, which required greater mobility of labor. [144] But this explanation is not consistent with the fact that earlier export markets, such as in gold, ivory, cloths, and hides, which also required mobile labor, were conducted with slaves and family members.

3.     Marques records a case in which free labor was converted into virtual slavery. Portuguese plantation owners in the second half of the nineteenth century hired free workers from West African countries and even China to work in São Tomé. Gradually they restricted the rights of these workers. Protests by other European powers led to a halfhearted attempt by Lisbon to correct the practice, but with little power to enforce even that. [145]

4.     "The development of the market [in the twentieth century] was pushing people towards contractual relationships, the struggle for control of things — money, land, crops, cattle — rather than people. Yet there was often insufficient profit to hire labour, and farmers had to squeeze kin labour for market purposes, leading to an emphasis on traditional occupations for one purpose, at precisely the time they were being ignored for other purposes." [146]

Whether activities moved to a market economy would seem to have depended on the relative strengths of two forces: the return earned from the market versus the power of houses to retain their family and slave labor. Growth of the former may have weakened the latter.

5.     Chanock describes the difficulties of shifting from a slave to cash labor system in Central Africa in the immediate pre-colonial period: "The central issue was . . . the use and control of labour in the new venture [cash cropping]. . . . The loss of control over the labour of slaves, the potential competition for male labour of the mining sector, and the gradual replacement of kinship obligations by cash payments, all meant that the mobilisation of labour resources for cash-crop farming was taking place in an unfavourable environment (though of course not all these factors were contemporaneously present in all areas). Family head producers could not respond to the market by intensifying their exploitation of slaves, and it was now harder to manipulate 'traditional' labour obligations to the increased disadvantage of younger men. . . . [Slavery] could not simply be abolished when . . . British colonialism ceased to give legal recognition to slave status. For patterns of residence, and patterns of dependence and control, were slow in changing. And even while they are changing they remain a habitual and meaningful way in which people conceive and conduct relationships." [147]

6.     The supreme chief of the Lozi resisted abolition even into the 1920s, declaring that slaves who wished to remain among the Lozi must keep their status. If they refused, they would be expelled "to places from which they had been carried off as children, and where they were now strangers." [148]

7.     "Forms of servitude and consciousness of servile status continued to exist even if last-resort legal power to enforce them had been taken away. Turner found that slavery had been clung to tenaciously long after its abolition; that in the late 1920s cases in which people were trying to repurchase relatives were still continuing which were kept from the Boma [British district government], that feelings against recalcitrant slaves ran high in the 1920s and 1930s, and that slaves were being compelled to remain in their owners' villages." [149]

8.     As many as 100,000 slaves, probably the world's largest slave population, are laboring in Mauritania [in 1981], according to a report under study by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. [150]


Copyright © 1994 by the University of Michigan. First published in the USA by the University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Published on the World Wide Web by The Quaker Economist with permission from the University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.