PHILIP D. CURTIN The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969)

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It would be premature to generalize about the impact on the slave trade on African societies over these four centuries, On the other hand, historians have already begun to do so. The range of opinion runs the gamut from the view that the slave trade was responsible for virtually every unfavorable development in Africa over these centuries, to the opposite position that even the slave trade was better than no trade, that it was therefore a positive benefit to the African societies that participated. . . .

As for the migration of food crops, at least two New-World crops were introduced into Africa by the sixteenth century: manioc and maize spread very widely and came to be two of the most important sources of food on that continent. If other factors affecting population size had remained constant, the predictable result would have been population growth wherever these crops replaced less efficient cultigens. Since this process took place over very large areas, it seems possible and even probable that population growth resulting from new food crops exceeded population losses through the slave trade. Whatever population loss may have followed the introduction of new diseases would have been temporary, while more efficient food crops tend to make possible a permanently higher level of population. It is even possible that, for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, the net demographic effect of the three Atlantic migrations was population growth, not decline. Only further research in demographic and epidemiological history can give a firm answer. . . .

One of the key questions to be answered, for example, is the possible role of the slave trade in social and political change. One model frequently found in the historical literature depicts the transformation of a previously peaceful peasant community into a militarized slave-catching society, where slave-raiding becomes an economic activity consciously pursued for the sake of the European imports that could be bought with slaves, and slaves alone. If the European demand for slaves did indeed force this kind of adaptation on African societies, the slave trade can be shown to have had disastrous consequences for the hunters as well as for the hunted. Alongside the destruction and death caused by the raids themselves, human resources and creative effort among the hunters must have been diverted from the pursuit of innovation and progress in other fields.

But another possibility, or model, is conceivable. African societies, like those of other people in other places, settled disputes by military means. Warfare produces prisoners-of-war, who can be killed, enslaved, or exchanged — but they may be a by-product of war, not its original cause. The African adaptation to the demand for slaves might be to change military tactics and strategy to maximize the number of prisoners, without actually increasing the incidence or destructiveness of warfare. In that case, the slave trade might have done little serious damage to the well-being of the African society.

From Philip D. Curtin, THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE: A CENSUS. c 1969 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press).

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Updated:Thursday, April 24, 2003