[OPE-L] The West and Africa's exploitation

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Sun Oct 23 2005 - 15:04:37 EDT

In the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg, though Grossmann's history
of plantation slavery is much richer (I translated some
of that chapter, missing in the English translation, in
my dissertation).

The wealth of the west was built on Africa's exploitation

Britain has never faced up to the dark side of its imperial history

Richard Drayton
Saturday August 20, 2005
The Guardian

Britain was the principal slaving nation of the modern world. In The Empire
Pays Back, a documentary broadcast by Channel 4 on Monday, Robert Beckford
called on the British to take stock of this past. Why, he asked, had Britain
made no apology for African slavery, as it had done for the Irish potato
famine? Why was there no substantial public monument of national contrition
equivalent to Berlin's Holocaust Museum? Why, most crucially, was there no
recognition of how wealth extracted from Africa and Africans made possible
the vigour and prosperity of modern Britain? Was there not a case for
Britain to pay reparations to the descendants of African slaves?

These are timely questions in a summer in which Blair and Bush, their hands
still wet with Iraqi blood, sought to rebrand themselves as the saviours of
Africa. The G8's debt-forgiveness initiative was spun successfully as an act
of western altruism. The generous Massas never bothered to explain that, in
order to benefit, governments must agree to "conditions", which included
allowing profit-making companies to take over public services. This was no
gift; it was what the merchant bankers would call a "debt-for-equity swap",
the equity here being national sovereignty. The sweetest bit of the deal was
that the money owed, already more than repaid in interest, had mostly gone
to buy industrial imports from the west and Japan, and oil from nations who
bank their profits in London and New York. Only in a bookkeeping sense had
it ever left the rich world. No one considered that Africa's debt was
trivial compared to what the west really owes Africa.
Beckford's experts estimated Britain's debt to Africans in the continent and
diaspora to be in the trillions of pounds. While this was a useful
benchmark, its basis was mistaken. Not because it was excessive, but because
the real debt is incalculable. For without Africa and its Caribbean
plantation extensions, the modern world as we know it would not exist.

Profits from slave trading and from sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco are
only a small part of the story. What mattered was how the pull and push from
these industries transformed western Europe's economies. English banking,
insurance, shipbuilding, wool and cotton manufacture, copper and iron
smelting, and the cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, multiplied in
response to the direct and indirect stimulus of the slave plantations.

Joseph Inikori's masterful book, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in
England, shows how African consumers, free and enslaved, nurtured Britain's
infant manufacturing industry. As Malachy Postlethwayt, the political
economist, candidly put it in 1745: "British trade is a magnificent
superstructure of American commerce and naval power on an African

In The Great Divergence, Kenneth Pomeranz asked why Europe, rather than
China, made the breakthrough first into a modern industrial economy. To his
two answers - abundant coal and New World colonies - he should have added
access to west Africa. For the colonial Americas were more Africa's creation
than Europe's: before 1800, far more Africans than Europeans crossed the
Atlantic. New World slaves were vital too, strangely enough, for European
trade in the east. For merchants needed precious metals to buy Asian
luxuries, returning home with profits in the form of textiles; only through
exchanging these cloths in Africa for slaves to be sold in the New World
could Europe obtain new gold and silver to keep the system moving. East
Indian companies led ultimately to Europe's domination of Asia and its
19th-century humiliation of China.

Africa not only underpinned Europe's earlier development. Its palm oil,
petroleum, copper, chromium, platinum and in particular gold were and are
crucial to the later world economy. Only South America, at the zenith of its
silver mines, outranks Africa's contribution to the growth of the global
bullion supply.

The guinea coin paid homage in its name to the west African origins of one
flood of gold. By this standard, the British pound since 1880 should have
been rechristened the rand, for Britain's prosperity and its currency
stability depended on South Africa's mines. I would wager that a large share
of that gold in the IMF's vaults which was supposed to pay for Africa's debt
relief had originally been stolen from that continent.

There are many who like to blame Africa's weak governments and economies,
famines and disease on its post-1960 leadership. But the fragility of
contemporary Africa is a direct consequence of two centuries of slaving,
followed by another of colonial despotism. Nor was "decolonisation" all it
seemed: both Britain and France attempted to corrupt the whole project of
political sovereignty.

It is remarkable that none of those in Britain who talk about African
dictatorship and kleptocracy seem aware that Idi Amin came to power in
Uganda through British covert action, and that Nigeria's generals were
supported and manipulated from 1960 onwards in support of Britain's oil
interests. It is amusing, too, to find the Telegraph and the Daily Mail -
which just a generation ago supported Ian Smith's Rhodesia and South African
apartheid - now so concerned about human rights in Zimbabwe. The tragedy of
Mugabe and others is that they learned too well from the British how to
govern without real popular consent, and how to make the law serve ruthless
private interest. The real appetite of the west for democracy in Africa is
less than it seems. We talk about the Congo tragedy without mentioning that
it was a British statesman, Alec Douglas-Home, who agreed with the US
president in 1960 that Patrice Lumumba, its elected leader, needed to "fall
into a river of crocodiles".

African slavery and colonialism are not ancient or foreign history; the
world they made is around us in Britain. It is not merely in economic terms
that Africa underpins a modern experience of (white) British privilege. Had
Africa's signature not been visible on the body of the Brazilian Jean
Charles de Menezes, would he have been gunned down on a tube at Stockwell?
The slight kink of the hair, his pale beige skin, broadcast something
misread by police as foreign danger. In that sense, his shooting was the
twin of the axe murder of Anthony Walker in Liverpool, and of the more than
100 deaths of black people in mysterious circumstances while in police,
prison or hospital custody since 1969.

This universe of risk, part of the black experience, is the afterlife of
slavery. The reverse of the medal is what WEB DuBois called the "wage of
whiteness", the world of safety, trustworthiness, welcome that those with
pale skins take for granted. The psychology of racism operates even among
those who believe in human equality, shaping unequal outcomes in education,
employment, criminal justice. By its light, such all-white clubs as the G8
continue to meet in comfort.

Early this year, Gordon Brown told journalists in Mozambique that Britain
should stop apologising for colonialism. The truth is, though, that Britain
has never even faced up to the dark side of its imperial history, let alone
begun to apologise.

Dr Richard Drayton is a senior lecturer in imperial and extra-European
history since 1500 at Cambridge University. His book The Caribbean and the
Making of the Modern World will be published in 2006.


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