How Europe grew rich?

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series How Africa Developed Europe

Economic Development in pan-European countries (UK, Germany, France, Italy, US etc) is built on plunder and stunting of development in third world countries of Asia, Africa, South America. Even today billions of dollars worth wealth is transferred in the form of debt repayment, MNC profits and illicit outflows. Labour of working masses and natural resouces of these countries are plundered using institutions of colonial domination.

The article “How Africa developed Europe” published in Frontline dated March 17, 2017 gives a clear illustration of this process with reference to Africa. The same process in a different form is going on in India also. People of our country and our natural resources are plundered to enrich multinational corporations and imperialist countries.

To liberate our country from the chain of under development and provide real development to a billion Indians belonging to working class, we need to understand, halt and reverse this process.

How Africa developed Europe

Slave Trade

A lithograph published ca. 1880 showing a group of men, women and children being taken to a slave market.

The end of colonialism in Africa only freed the continent politically. The continuation of the exploitative structures whose foundations were laid in the precolonial and colonial phases has meant that African underdevelopment persists to this day.

AFRICA is looked down on as a poor underdeveloped continent, with military dictators or authoritarian rulers, a corrupt political system, poverty, malnutrition, hunger and outmigration. There are political motives behind this image creation, which completely camouflages the structural reasons for these problems. African underdevelopment cannot be comprehended fully without looking at it from a historical materialism perspective: the interaction (or forceful imposition) of capitalism over Africa from the precolonial period to now. As Rodney (1982) emphasised, African underdevelopment went hand in hand with European development. The contemporary image creation has the dual purpose of weakening resistance against the capitalist political economy within Africa and getting legitimacy and support from the imperialist’s own population for any kind of intervention in the name of democracy, human rights, and so on.

Precolonial period

Even though Africa had its own communal mode of production and other kinds of societal apparatus for a long time, the change in the Western political economy from feudalism to capitalism and its consequent material and labour needs brought major changes within the continent. The Atlantic slave trade, from 1519 to 1867, led to the capture and shipping of around 11.8 million (conservative estimate) people, 10 million of whom survived and were sold in the Americas. This trade took away a major chunk of the African labour force of able-bodied young men and women (Wright, 2007; Kachur, 2006).

Table 1 shows the stagnant population growth in Africa, which without enslavement would have grown and contributed positively to African economic development. Thus, the slave trade gave the European capitalist classes a starting push as their private ownership of the means of production along with free slave labour paved the way for capital accumulation. As Karl Marx said in his Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I (1979, page 751): “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momentum of primitive accumulation, the necessary condition for capitalist production.”

Stunting Africa

Without the slave trade, the African population would have grown and contributed positively to the continent’s economic development.

When gold was discovered in Brazil, the supply of gold from Africa, especially Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast), was discouraged to promote the slave trade. Further, the slave trade meant that agricultural activities were deprived of human labour, which resulted in famine and starvation in many places in Africa (Rodney, 1982, page 99). The reinvestment of surplus value (profits) from the slave trade helped in the inventions and innovations that strengthened capitalism.

In Britain, by the 18th century, owing to soil exhaustion, competition from the French West Indies and the disruption of the trade in staples, and the independence of British North American colonies, the slave system was weakened. The British manufacturing sector had grown to an extent where it required more markets and was no longer dependent on the slave system for its capital needs. The British stand against the slave trade was also against trade barriers, which restricted its trade relation with other countries (Eltis, 1987). When the slave trade became incompatible with industrial capitalism, which needs free labour, a direct imperialism was forced on the African continent for further exploitation of its resources.

Part 1 of “How Africa developed Europe” published in Frontline dated March 17, 2017

Part 2 – Colonial Forms of Violence

Part 3 – Post colonial period


S.V. Narayanan did his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He was earlier teaching political science and international relations in Eritrea. At present he teaches political science in Andaman Law College, Port Blair.

The article is a modified version of the paper titled “Capitalism as ‘Profit Chameleon’: The Political Economy of African Outmigration and Refugee Crisis” that the author presented at the International Conference on Eritrean Studies on July 20-22, 2016, in Asmara, Eritrea.

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