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Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830.

Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830 Joseph Miller says in the preface to the book that his original intention was to write an economic history of Angola. In the end, however, the book expanded to include four broad levels of analysis: 1) various issues relating to the organization of the Angolan slave trade; 2) the role of the slave trade and African slavery in the socio-economic transformation of Brazil; 3) the consequences of the Angolan slave trade and the Brazilian slave economy for Portugal; and 4) the impact of the slave trade on the political economy of western central Africa. The analysis leads to the conclusion that between 1730 and 1830, the forces of transformation associated with the Angolan slave trade and the slave economy of Brazil propelled Brazil, Portugal, and western central Africa "in the same direction" of development, "though unequally" (p. xviii). The book is thus to be located within the rapidly growing literature on the Atlantic slave trade and its ramifications.

The organization of the Angolan slave trade, as analyzed in the book, shows elements that distinguished the Portuguese from the British, French, and Dutch slave trades. Unlike the slave trade of the north Europeans, Portuguese resident in Brazil and in Angola effectively reduced the role of metropolitan Portuguese in shipping and other aspects of the trade, just as they reduced the role of African middlemen. It is interesting to note that, unlike the practice in the north European trade, bills of exchange were drawn on merchant houses in Brazil by the Portuguese traders in Angola. As Miller rightly claims, his discussion of the organization of the slave trade contains elements that will be of interest to business historians.

On the transformation process in Brazil, Miller shows that African slave labor was central to the economics of the major export-producing regions: Minas Gerais, Goias, Pernambuco, Paraiba, Rio Grande de Norte, and Piaui. As he puts it, "more than anywhere else except for the highly specialized sugar colonies of the Caribbean," the growth of output in sugar, gold and diamond, tobacco, cotton, and coffee production "depended on continuous supplies of fresh slave labor from Africa" (p. 449). But in spite of the huge contribution of African slave labor to commodity production in Brazil, the analysis of the regional flow of Brazilian trade shows that little or nothing was given to western central Africa for its regular delivery of this much needed labor: 80 to 90 percent of Brazil's import-export trade represented the flow of goods and services between Brazil and Europe. Miller was thus able to conclude that "the slave trade was an extremely minor appendage, risky and not especially profitable, for merchants with capital and alternatives" (p. 457).

Miller shows correctly how the easy revenues from Brazilian gold and diamonds encouraged the metropolitan ruling classes in Portugal to depend on imported goods and services to the detriment of the national economy. The analysis, which he acknowledges is not sufficiently researched on the Portuguese side, makes one think that Brazil and Portugal were both colonies of Britain, for all practical purposes.

On the African side, the book shows that the captives sold for export were procured from a geographical area in western central Africa that was roughly 2.5 million square kilometers in extent. The overall volume of export from the entire Angolan coastline, from the mouth of river Kunene in the south to Loango in the north, was between 12,000 and 15,000 per annum in the early eighteenth century. This grew over time to a peak of 40,000 annually in the 1780s and 1790s, and declined to between 30,000 and 35,000 per annum in the nineteenth century (pp. 229 and 232). These captives were procured largely through wars that were provoked by the efforts of western central African elites to obtain the means of payment for European and Oriental luxuries introduced by the European traders. Originally these elites had tried to pay for these goods by supplying various African products. But increasingly the European traders demanded captives, as the need for slave labor in Brazil grew. Starting with the series of wars that led to the collapse of the Kongo state system, these slaving wars advanced over time to the very center of the continent. As Miller puts it,

The entire series of local transformations, viewed over the three centuries of the Angolan slave trade, resembled a moving frontier zone of slaving violence. It took shape with the first border raids of the newly centralized Kongo kingdom shortly after 1500 and continued in the shudders that ran through the state in the late sixteenth century. After several distinct eastward advances these wars of slaving finally died down in the very heart of the continent with the advent of colonial rule at the end of the nineteenth century (p. 141).

Miller suggests that overall mortality rates "in raids or wars approached 50 percent among the segment of the population under assault for the short periods of time involved," and that "overall death rates attributable to the processes of enslavement would have been perhaps 30 per 1,000 deaths per year" (pp. 381 and 382). The violence of these slaving wars transformed economies and societies of western central Africa "from a political economy in which kings commanded the respect and occasional material tribute of their subjects to one in which warlords drew strength from imported slave mercenaries and guns and in which indebted patrons, elders and dependent gentry stocked immigrant slaves against future payments on forced loans from powerful merchant princes" (p. 140). The military operations of Portuguese governors in Angola contributed significantly to the ongoing slaving violence.

From this heavily documented account of violence, death, and sociopolitical disruption, a rather unexpected conclusion is reached: that demographically the Atlantic slave trade was a blessing for the people of western central Africa (pp. 168-69), and that it gave rise to "extremely rapid growth and development" in the region during the period studied (p. xxi).

This unexpected conclusion was arrived at through the use of a static demographic model, a misleading geographic determinism, and a substantivist anthropological perspective. The static demographic model is based on the Malthusian population theory, as elaborated by Miller in his article in the Journal of African History (1982). This model is used in conjunction with an extreme geographic determinist view of western central African history in which droughts determined the people's worldview and the course of their history. "It was a geography over which human mortality loomed large by modern standards," Miller writes, "one in which populations might relocate themselves from place to place but not one in which their aggregate numbers could grow very much in the long run" (p. 39). Miller then assumes that because of periodic droughts, the western central African population reached a maximum level between 1200 and 1400 A.D. beyond which it could not grow until the advent of "pax colonial, modern medicine, and famine relief capabilities" (p. 166). Thus "slaving merely removed people who would otherwise have starved" (p. 156).

Because of "the immediacy of death all around them," Miller assumes, the people of western central Africa evolved a political economy in which the accumulation of human beings was an end in itself, rather than a means of attaining the ultimate goal of producing more goods and services for the enjoyment of the dominant classes (pp. 40-46, 70-72). It was "a political economy centered more on people than on products" (p. 72). The rulers were initially lured into the Atlantic slave trade because "they found the Europeans' wares so exceedingly productive of dependents" that they took more of the goods than they could procure African products to pay with (p. 106). Even the African merchants, Miller claims, traded within the ideology of the "African political economy to the extent that they invested most of their commercial profits in living human dependents, slaves, agents, affines, and pawns" (p. 174).

Thus, Miller visualized the people whose history he studied as not forming part of homo economicus. Their societies were not propelled by the "ordinary" material motivations of homo economicus to increase his consumption of goods and services. Economic development in these societies is, therefore, not to be assessed in terms of the "narrow western" notion of enhanced capacity to produce goods and services for market exchange. It has to be measured in terms of the quantity of living human beings accumulated for noneconomic reasons. This is clearly the perspective of substantivist anthropology, which was severely and effectively criticized almost twenty years ago by A. G. Hopkins in his book, An Economic History of West Africa (1973). This substantivist perspective made it impossible for Miller to apply the concept of economic rationality that other scholars have applied in the study of precolonial African economic history.

Miller's interpretation summarized above is in error in several aspects,a few of which may be noted. First, it is wrong to employ a static model in historical analysis. By its very nature, the study of social change over time--that is, history--requires the employment of dynamic models. Second, the interpretation implies a comparative historical analysis. For example, was death more immediate to the people of western central Africa than to those of Western Europe between 1200 and 1500 A.D.? As John Hatcher shows in his book, Plague, Population and the English Economy, 1348-1530 (1977), Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, was visited by plague once every ten years from 1413 to 1507, and there were four nationwide plagues in England between 1413 and 1471 (p. 17). The "Black Death" of 1348-49, which affected the whole of Western Europe, reduced the population of England by between one-third and one-half, according to Hatcher (p. 31). In fact, in an article in the Journal of African History (1981), Jill R. Dias, who shares the views of Miller about Angola, says that "the periodic recurrence of famine and epidemic crises in Angola by the nineteenth century was not more unusual than the regular visitations of epidemic famine which had long afflicted different parts of Europe" (p. 359). The same thing can be said about Asia. So why should this phenomenon common to all pre-industrial societies of the past centuries make the history of western central Africa radically different from those of comparative societies in Europe and Asia? Why should we believe that geographically determined death compelled the people of western central Africa to fold their arms and wait for five hundred years for pax colonial to come from Europe to rescue them, while the people of Europe and Asia were able to rescue themselves? Leaving aside the error in the assumption that the population of western central Africa had reached a maximum level of equilibrium with resources by 1400, one may ask whether the hunting and gathering peoples of the region waited for pax colonial from Europe before they invented agriculture when their population reached the maximum permissible by hunting and gathering many centuries earlier?

What is more important, Miller ignores the historical evidence relating to West African peoples who inhabited geographical environments similar to that of western central Africa. What strikes one in a climatological map of Africa is the similarity between West Africa and western central Africa in terms of the pattern of rainfall distribution. In fact, the sahel region of West Africa is afflicted by droughts more seriously than most parts of western central Africa. Yet scholars have demonstrated persuasively that the most important factor determining population density and economic performance in the region has been sociopolitical organization and not geography. The Kano Close-Settled Zone (a term coined by geographers to describe the extremely large concentration of population in the area) of Nigeria, which lies within the sahel, has been regularly visited by droughts. Yet it developed a strong and stable sociopolitical organization that enabled the region to sustain a large population density that went far back in precolonial Nigerian history.

S. M. Cissoko's study of the Niger Bend from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century (Bulletin de l'Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire, 1968) is even more revealing. Cissoko shows that under the strong and stable sociopolitical organization of the African rulers in this heartland of the sahel, the serious droughts in the area did not produce any famine worth recording in the well-documented Arabic sources up to the late sixteenth century. But once the stable and well-organized sociopolitical system was disrupted by the Moroccan invasion of 1591, subsequent droughts produced serious famines whose devastating effects were elaborately reported by the Tarikhs. Thus, the large population in the area before 1591 was destroyed over time.

A dynamic demographic model, therefore, has to include, among other things, changing sociopolitical organization as a central factor influencing population, economic performance, and general societal well being in agricultural societies. In turn, the quality of socio-economic and political organization in land-surplus agricultural societies is, other things equal, a function of population size and density. The relationship between good government and ecological control was so well understood by traditional African societies that they always held their rulers responsible for all famines and other economic disasters.

The errors of interpretation that I have elaborated notwithstanding, Joseph Miller has written an important book on the slave-based economy of the Atlantic system. The main contribution of the book lies in its emphasis upon death. Death characterized the slave trade and the employment of African slave labor to produce commodities for an evolving capitalist world market. On that subject Miller has produced one of the best books. He has followed the trail of death from the interior of Africa down to the barracoons on the coast, and across the Atlantic to the slave markets, then to the plantation and mines, in Brazil, all with elaborate documentation. Finally, the trail of death is fully captured by a befitting title. For the excellent work on death, and possibly also for the elegant prose, with poetic imagery of literary history that is rare these days, readers may be inclined to grant indulgence to Miller for the errors in his interpretation of the history of western central Africa.

Joseph E. Inikori is a member of the Frederick Douglass Institute and a professor of history at the University of Rochester. He is the author of numerous publications on the Atlantic slave trade and its impact across the Atlantic, including Forced Migration: The Impact of the Export Slave Trade on African Societies (1982) and "Slavery and the Revolution in Cotton Textile Production in England," Social Science History (1988). He is currently working on a book manuscript, "Slavery and the First Industrial Revolution."
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Author:Inikori, Joseph E.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1990
Words:2436
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