Over a period of 342 years, approximately 12.5 million African men, women, and children were taken across the Atlantic and enslaved in the Americas. This forced exodus had tremendous political, social, and economic impacts on western and central Africa, and the effects of abolition in Africa were equally significant.
In 1807, the United States and Great Britain moved to abolish theTrans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Full abolition took 60 years, but as the British were among the key slave traders in the early 1800s, abolition had immediate effects in many areas of West Africa.
Increase in Slaves
The insatiable European demand for slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries had catalyzed the rise of several strong, militaristic, African states, like Dahomey in present-day Benin, whose economies were centered around slave trading. Just because the European demand came to a halt did not mean African slave tradersstopped acquiring slaves. Wars and slave raiding continued to generate large numbers of slaves, and as the Atlantic demand declined, there were more and more slaves in Africa.
Initially, this led to a steep decline in the prices of slaves in West Africa. The price increased again in the mid-1800s, but in the interim more people could acquire slaves or acquire greater numbers of slaves. As the number of slaves increased, their status often declined.
In fact, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade also spurred the demand for slaves in Africa. One of the arguments abolitionists had made for abolishing the slave trade was that there was profit to be made by exporting agricultural goods and other commodities from Africa.
They called this trade in raw materials “legitimate commerce”, because it was seen as an ethical alternative to trading in slaves. But slaves helped grow and harvest the agricultural products, like palm oil, that were in increasing demand. The European desire for “legitimate” goods provided an incentive for expanding agricultural slavery.
The demand for palm oil and palm kernels also offered immense economic opportunities for African producers and traders. Immediately after abolition, the export market in West Africa declined sharply, but the trade in palm oil soon filled the gap and drove the trade to new levels.
Some former slave traders dominated the new trade as well, but there was also a rise of new elites and new centers of economic and political power. This shift combined with the rise of Islam in West Africa in the early 19th century, made this a period of rapid social and political change in West Africa.
Ironically, the abolition movement also contributed to increased racism in Europe. The abolition campaign had been a European movement. It was Europeans talking about Africa, Africans, and the slave trade. This process contributed to the imperialist idea that Europe needed to protect Africa – from itself and from other Europeans. Once the abolition campaign achieved victory over the slave trade, and slowly over slavery itself in the New World, abolitionists turned their attention to Africa, which they increasingly saw as a Dark Continent.
The rise of legitimate commerce and the continued efforts of abolitionists also increased European interest in controlling Africa. In the coming decades, European explorers and missionaries would also take greater interest in Africa. By the end of the century, the Scramble for Africa would begin.