The Wealth Of
The West Was Built
On Africa's Exploitation
By Richard Drayton
20 August, 2005
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.
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.
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 foundation."
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
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
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".
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.