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A response to Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The Atlantic slave trade & the rise of world capitalism

Published May 13, 2010 9:05 PM

An essay by Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the April 23 New York Times took up the ongoing contentious debate around the demand for reparations for the centuries of unpaid labor extracted from Africans brought to the United States as enslaved workers. Gates claims that the demand for reparations is invalid since there were some Africans who collaborated with European slave traders in dislocating millions of people from the continent between the 16th and 19th centuries.

These are not new arguments in relationship to a broader question: the historical significance of slavery as an economic system in the development of Western Europe, North America, the Caribbean, Central America and South America. The denial and refusal to apportion adequate blame to the wealthy elites of monarchs, merchants, explorers and plantation owners — who not only orchestrated the Atlantic Slave Trade for centuries but benefited immensely from the profits gained as a result of the exploitation of African labor and resources — continues today through academics such as Gates who seek to negate the seriousness of the unresolved national question in the U.S.

A recent debate around the importance of slavery in American history was sparked by Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell’s proclamation declaring April “Confederate Heritage Month.” McDonnell made no mention of slavery and its role in the state in his initial proclamation. The academic and popular history of slavery in the United States had been dominated for decades by white Southerners and those who sympathize with their basic assumptions.

Two major assumptions that guide pro-slavery and Confederate thinking are that slavery was the natural order of relations between Africans and Europeans and that traditional African societies were just as culpable as the traffickers and plantation owners. These assumptions ignore the facts that many African societies fought for centuries against slavery and colonialism, and that European merchants, landowners and later industrial capitalists reaped enormous wealth from imported enslaved African labor and the theft of the continent’s resources.

Africans resisted slavery on the continent. They fought slavery on the ships that transported them to Europe and the Western hemisphere. During the course of slavery on the plantations, small farms, towns and cities, there was flight and rebellion against this form of human bondage. The slave rebellions led by Gabriel, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, John Brown and Osborne Anderson are testament to the self-directed efforts to end this system of human bondage in North America.

Who really benefited from the Atlantic slave trade?

Many historians of the 20th century such as W.E.B. DuBois, Eric Williams, Walter Rodney and Kwame Nkrumah have documented the impact of the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism on the growth of industrial capitalism in Western Europe and North America. Eric Williams in his work “Capitalism and Slavery” wrote: “Many of the 18th century banks established in Liverpool and Manchester, the slaving metropolis and the cotton capital respectively, were directly associated with the triangular trade. Here large sums were needed for the cotton factories and the canals which improved the means of communications between the two towns.” (“Capitalism and Slavery,” p.99, 1943)

Yet when arguments are made that Africans benefited from the continent’s enslavement any objective observer must ask for evidence. One leading Marxist historian on Africa, Walter Rodney, wrote in his book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” that “Undoubtedly, with few exceptions such as Hawkins, European buyers purchased African captives on the coasts of Africa and the transaction between themselves and Africans was a form of trade.” (Rodney, p. 95, 1972)

Rodney continued: “It is also true that very often a captive was sold and resold as he made his way from the interior to the port of embarkation — and that too was a form of trade. However, on the whole, the process by which captives were obtained on African soil was not trade at all. It was through warfare, trickery, banditry, and kidnapping. When one tries to measure the effect of European slave trading on the African continent, it is essential to realize that one is measuring the effect of social violence rather than trade in any normal sense of the word.” (Rodney, p. 95)

Guinean President Ahmed Sekou Toure said in 1962: “The relation between the degree of destitution of peoples of Africa and the length and nature of the exploitation they had to endure is evident. Africa remains marked by the crimes of the slave-traders: up to now, her potentialities are restricted by under-population.” (Rodney, p. 95)

The legacy of enslavement today

Gates’ essay raises several fundamental questions about not only who is to blame for the Atlantic Slave Trade and which national and class interests benefited economically from the system of exploitation but what impact this legacy has had on contemporary U.S. society. The European slave owners and capitalists gained tremendous wealth from the exploitation of African labor. With it the industrial capitalist system was built. In addition, in modern society the legacy of racial dominance and national oppression is very much a cornerstone in the continuation of imperialism.

Even today African Americans still suffer the most severe impact of the U.S. economic crisis with significantly higher rates of unemployment, losses of homes, pensions, health services and a drastic decline in household wealth. In the criminal justice system, African Americans disproportionately constitute the largest percentage of people who are serving prison sentences resulting from social deprivation and the racist character of the legal system.

Racial profiling by law enforcement is a point of induction for African Americans and other people of color into the criminal justice system. African Americans are more likely to be stopped by the police and arrested on spurious charges. Many others are beaten and even killed during routine traffic stops by police and in encounters with law-enforcement agents.

Professor Gates was a victim of such practices himself in 2009 when he was arrested inside his own home in Cambridge, Mass., by local police although he had identified himself as the homeowner and a leading faculty member at prestigious Harvard University. Gates was fortunate in his encounter with Cambridge police. Many African Americans and other people of color in the U.S. are frequently severely beaten, tortured and even killed in similar uninvited interactions with law enforcement.

Reparations, national liberation and socialism

Any honest assessment of the social impact of slavery in the U.S. would have to acknowledge that it was the European-American planters, slave traders and later capitalists who were the exclusive beneficiaries of the trade in human beings from Africa. In the 21st century, it is the African people on the continent and in Western Europe as well as the Americas who are still suffering from national oppression, neo-colonialism and imperialism.

Every effort on the part of any oppressed African nation-state to exert its independence and sovereignty has been challenged by the imperialist countries led principally by the U.S. capitalist class. Consequently, it is necessary to emphasize not only the role of world capitalism as the system that derived its strength and power from the slave trade and colonialism but that it is necessary to replace this system of exploitation with a society where the labor of the workers and farmers are not extracted for profit but for its equal distribution to all.

The demand for reparations places emphasis on how the most profitable banks and corporations gained their wealth through the exploitation of African labor. Institutions such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. Aetna Insurance Company and many other corporations have been forced to admit in recent years their role in the slave system in the United States and internationally.

Yet this admission is inadequate without efforts to correct the historical damage done to the people who have still not reclaimed their rightful place within modern society. Only with the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism and the seizure of the wealth stolen by the capitalists can true reparations be granted to the African people.