Chapter Summary

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter students will be able to:

  • describe the history of the Atlantic slave trade and its impacts on Africa and the slave plantation areas of the Western hemisphere
  • Evaluate arguments about the slave trade’s impacts on LDC development today
  • Define and describe the process of colonization
  • Identify possible impacts of the colonization process on the colonial areas
  • Evaluate arguments about the continuing impact of colonization on the global south’s underdevelopment


Chapter Summary

Nigeria is an African country that was among those most seriously impacted by the slave trade and colonialism. Can these phenomena be the root causes of Nigeria’s (and other LDCs’) underdevelopment today? 

The Atlantic slave trade lasted about 400 years from the 1440s until the early 1800s. The triangular trade involved the sending of shells, textiles and guns from Europe to Africa where they were traded for slaves. Slaves were then shipped in appalling conditions to the Western hemisphere where they were sold to plantation owners. This was known as the Middle Passage. The ship then brought back crops such a sugar, tobacco, and cotton to Europe.

This trade did not invent slavery in Africa: slave trading in Africa pre-dated European contact and had been carried out internally within Africa and in inter-continental trade with the Middle East. Most Africans who were victims of the Atlantic slave trade were sent to the tropical areas of the Western hemisphere, especially Brazil and the Caribbean basin, because these areas were climatologically most able to support plantation economies for which slave labor was utilized. Only about five percent of slaves were sent the United States.

Statistics indicate that African countries that were most impacted by the slave trade tend to have lower GDP per capita today. It is suggested that by slowing African population growth, African societies had such a low population density that it limited their ability to engage in widespread trade, construct cities or engage in other activities that would have promoted economic development. It appears that as many as 24 million young Africans were removed from Africa as a result of the Atlantic trade and possibly another 12 million in the Middle-eastern slave trade. In addition, little of productive value was received by Africa in exchange for the slaves. Another impact was that the trade disrupted African inter-society relations, creating additional conflicts, wars and ethnic tensions.

Slavery may have also contributed to underdevelopment in Caribbean and Latin American LDCs by introducing a pattern of labor that resulted in elites focusing on export crops and resisting the introduction of new technologies that threatened their positions.

Some analysts doubt that the slave trade had a significant impact on underdevelopment today. They contend that the annual numbers of slaves exported was less than one percent of the population, whereas diseases annually killed almost ten times that amount per year.  Western Europe lost a greater share of its population to emigration and it was able to industrialize.

Colonialism is also suggested as a possible cause of underdevelopment. In colonialism, one country (a metropole) takes control of another country (the colony); the colony is not incorporated into the metropole but instead the metropole rules the colony. Not only did the colony lose political power, but the metropole could direct trade and economic development in such a way that it benefited the metropole but not necessarily the colony. For example, the metropole typically limited colonial trade so that all imports and exports were to or from the metropole. Almost all underdeveloped countries today are former colonies.

Western colonialism can be presented as occurring in three phases. The first phase was the Iberian expansion which started in the early 1500s. Spain and Portugal established colonial outposts throughout the world but established significant settler colonies in Latin America. The Spanish penetration of the interior of Latin America was more significant and Spain exercised extensive control over its colonies. Indigenous populations were often decimated both by conflict with the colonial power and by exposure to diseases which indigenous populations had no resistance.

The second phase was the era of chartered trading companies. These companies established by the Dutch and the British, were given governmental charters to trade and establish outposts, which they ruled. This was predominant from the 16660s to the 1770s in parts of Asia and Africa. These companies acted like states in the colonial areas. Eventually they were no longer financially viable and the land they controlled was given over to the metropole.

The third phase is known as the Scramble for Africa. This started in the1880s, highlighted by the notorious Berlin Conference in 1884-85 where European countries, without the consent of Africans, divided Africa into colonial spheres of influence for European countries. Before this time, there had been little European penetration beyond the coasts but as this period wore on, Europeans extracted resources and indigenous labor in increasing quantities.

There were several important exceptions to the pattern above. For example the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire and was only colonized by the West briefly. China was never formally colonized by the West but experiences various interferences with its sovereignty through the presence of Western enclaves on its territory.

Decolonization occurred in two waves: Latin American countries became independent in the early 1800s. Then in the 1950s and 1960s most African and Asian colonies became independent: some through grudging negotiation with the metropole and others through war.

There were several economic impacts of colonialism on the global south. One is the drain of resources and labor that was transferred to the metropole. Because the metropole controlled the conditions of the exchange, colonies did not receive fair compensation for what they exported. Further, colonial governments imposed taxes on indigenous people. These taxes were used to maintain the metropole’s presence in the colony and also sometimes transferred directly into the metropole’s treasury. European settlers were also often given land in the colony.

Marxist theorists like Lenin saw colonial exploitation as a way for the wealthy in the Western capitalist world to increase their profits as opportunities for profit in the metropoles shrank. In addition, because metropole governments or investors decided which industries to develop, there were long term consequences for LDC economies. For example, investment in primary sectors prevented the emergence of manufacturing industries which might have been able to compete with such industries in the metropole; it also prevented the rise of a substantial middle class in the colonial states.

Institutionally, colonialism often resulted in the centralization of power. When colonies became independent they often either had institutions that tended to centralize power bequeathed from colonial rule, or social and economic structures that centralized power in a small elite that tended to resist movement toward democratization.

Culturally, former colonial states had arbitrary borders that made it difficult to create a unified and coherent society. Compounding the ethnic divisions produced by arbitrary borders was the fact that during colonial era, the divide and conquer tactic was often used. This created an aura of distrust between ethnic groups that manifested itself in ethnic conflict in the independent states.

Some analysts disagree that colonialism can be blamed for the global south’s underdevelopment today. Some contend that Africa was underdeveloped before Europeans arrived, so the explanation for today’s underdevelopment must be sought in culture, geography or history that pre-date colonialism. They also note that some countries that were never colonized or only briefly colonized also experience underdevelopment today.

Other critics point out that the actual colonial structure was quite small in most colonies and that such a small cadre of individuals could not have caused the widespread changes that are often attributed to colonial rule.

Additionally, some critics point to the fact that colonialism bettered the people in the colonies in some ways by improving life expectancy, education and health practices. Further, the fact that some former colonies have achieved some considerable economic success also points to the fact that colonialism was not determinative of economic outcomes today.

The chapter closes with a detailed look at Nigeria as an example of the arguments presented in the chapter.