How Africa developed the West

Without Africa’s wealth and resources, the West would not have prospered. A conversation on the Western debt to Africa.

Marco Visscher | March 2006 issue

In the late 17th century when Dutch traders returned home from Africa and described their impressions of a region of Africa in what is now Nigeria, people were amazed. What they described was not a “dark” continent populated by uncivilized, chaotic, savage people. Indeed, when Dutch doctor and geographer Olfert Dapper recorded the travellers’ descriptions, he wrote: “The royal palace … which is as big as the city of Haarlem, is surrounded by an amazing wall that encircles the city. It is separated into many beautiful palaces, houses and rooms for the ministers of the prince, and includes beautiful, long square colonnades about as big as the Amsterdam exchange—of varying size, that sit on wooden pillars covered from top to bottom in cast copper, kept meticulously clean.”

In Naukeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaensche Gewesten (“Precise Description of the Africa Region”), Dapper wrote: “The city has 30 very straight and broad streets, each some 120 feet wide, and an endless number of side streets that are also wide—though narrower—leading onto them. … The houses along the streets are neatly clustered together … and are kept washed and scrubbed as smoothly and evenly as any in Holland so that they sparkle like a mirror.”

If those traders returned to Africa 300 years later, they would find it hard to believe that the wealth and splendour of that time had disappeared.

The colonial plunder of Africa is by now a familiar story in our history books. And yet it was not often mentioned when Tony Blair and George W. Bush along with other Western leaders presented themselves as the saviours of Africa last year at the G8 meeting in Scotland. They announced plans to cancel the debts of a number of the poorest African countries. It was a nice gesture although some critics noted it was a handy way to polish up their tarnished image following the occupation of Iraq.

Richard Drayton, senior lecturer in imperial European history at Cambridge University, looked at it another way: “No one considered that Africa’s debt was trivial compared to what the West really owes Africa,” he wrote in The Guardian newspaper (August 20, 2005).

Not only was Africa a large source of Western wealth from the slave trade, sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco, but Drayton says the continent also played a crucial role in establishing global trade networks. “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.”

In a telephone interview from Barbados, where he is working on his book The Caribbean and the Making of the Modern World, Drayton pointed out that Europe is the continent with the least amount of natural resources. This meant it was dependent on Africa and other places to supply these resources. Ode asked him a few questions about Africa’s role in “developing” the West.

What did Africa look like in 1500?
Drayton: “From that period we have several European accounts that show a diverse picture. Not surprisingly, we have descriptions of Africa as it is today: rural and poor. What’s interesting is that we also have accounts showing the richness of Africa. We’re sure parts of Africa had high concentrations of population. We have descriptions of the kingdom of the Kongo, written by the Portuguese in the 15th century, which describe cities that were larger and more complex and sophisticated than any European city at the time. We know from cities with broad streets, well-fed people, active and productive artisans, craftsmen and artists, a complex and vibrant social and cultural ecology. Above all, we know there was a complex trading system which stretched from the Gold Coast across Africa to Egypt, which was an essential reason for the maintenance of relative peace and stability in the upper half of the continent.”

Did this wealth belong only to a small African elite?
“I don’t think so. Bio-anthropologists tend to look at the bone structure of skeletons to gain insight into nutrition, and at the bones of women, which indicate how many children they bore. If we do this for Africans from that period, the impression we get is of societies that were successful at maintaining their population balance. This is an indication of a high level of equality.”

How did the arrival of Europeans change this?
“Europe discovered that natural resources and large populations of labourers were available within short reach. Two critical technological advantages made it possible to secure this European control over trade: shipping and guns..The arrival of the Portuguese, later followed by the Dutch, the English and the French, and the collaboration of the African elite, made for the complete disruption of Africa’s internal trading system in the 16th century. And don’t forget that slavery meant a demographic crisis and, in the end, a shortage of skills, which wasn’t helpful for Africa’s growth.”

How accurately is this treated in Western history books?
“Parts of the parasitic economic success story of the West are increasingly well-known, but there’s an enormous amount of work to be done in terms of bringing the information from the world of scholarly research to the world of the popular imagination. The modern world is not the result of a European miracle; it was a global creation. We need to recapture a sense of the global and multicultural origins of those things that we normally consider to be Western.”

How can we rediscover this common history?
“We can do this through asking new questions. We should have some kind of curiosity about the connections that shaped our world. If you happen to live in a beautiful 17th-century city like Amsterdam or Utrecht, you should wonder how on earth it was possible that the Dutch, who were amongst the poorest people in Europe—struggling with miserable land, living without fuel—got the opportunity to build such rich cities. I think we need to rewrite our history books.”

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How Africa developed the West

Without Africa’s wealth and resources, the West would not have prospered. A conversation on the Western debt to Africa.

Marco Visscher | March 2006 issue

In the late 17th century when Dutch traders returned home from Africa and described their impressions of a region of Africa in what is now Nigeria, people were amazed. What they described was not a “dark” continent populated by uncivilized, chaotic, savage people. Indeed, when Dutch doctor and geographer Olfert Dapper recorded the travellers’ descriptions, he wrote: “The royal palace … which is as big as the city of Haarlem, is surrounded by an amazing wall that encircles the city. It is separated into many beautiful palaces, houses and rooms for the ministers of the prince, and includes beautiful, long square colonnades about as big as the Amsterdam exchange—of varying size, that sit on wooden pillars covered from top to bottom in cast copper, kept meticulously clean.”

In Naukeurige Beschrijvinge der Afrikaensche Gewesten (“Precise Description of the Africa Region”), Dapper wrote: “The city has 30 very straight and broad streets, each some 120 feet wide, and an endless number of side streets that are also wide—though narrower—leading onto them. … The houses along the streets are neatly clustered together … and are kept washed and scrubbed as smoothly and evenly as any in Holland so that they sparkle like a mirror.”

If those traders returned to Africa 300 years later, they would find it hard to believe that the wealth and splendour of that time had disappeared.

The colonial plunder of Africa is by now a familiar story in our history books. And yet it was not often mentioned when Tony Blair and George W. Bush along with other Western leaders presented themselves as the saviours of Africa last year at the G8 meeting in Scotland. They announced plans to cancel the debts of a number of the poorest African countries. It was a nice gesture although some critics noted it was a handy way to polish up their tarnished image following the occupation of Iraq.

Richard Drayton, senior lecturer in imperial European history at Cambridge University, looked at it another way: “No one considered that Africa’s debt was trivial compared to what the West really owes Africa,” he wrote in The Guardian newspaper (August 20, 2005).

Not only was Africa a large source of Western wealth from the slave trade, sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco, but Drayton says the continent also played a crucial role in establishing global trade networks. “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.”

In a telephone interview from Barbados, where he is working on his book The Caribbean and the Making of the Modern World, Drayton pointed out that Europe is the continent with the least amount of natural resources. This meant it was dependent on Africa and other places to supply these resources. Ode asked him a few questions about Africa’s role in “developing” the West.

What did Africa look like in 1500?
Drayton: “From that period we have several European accounts that show a diverse picture. Not surprisingly, we have descriptions of Africa as it is today: rural and poor. What’s interesting is that we also have accounts showing the richness of Africa. We’re sure parts of Africa had high concentrations of population. We have descriptions of the kingdom of the Kongo, written by the Portuguese in the 15th century, which describe cities that were larger and more complex and sophisticated than any European city at the time. We know from cities with broad streets, well-fed people, active and productive artisans, craftsmen and artists, a complex and vibrant social and cultural ecology. Above all, we know there was a complex trading system which stretched from the Gold Coast across Africa to Egypt, which was an essential reason for the maintenance of relative peace and stability in the upper half of the continent.”

Did this wealth belong only to a small African elite?
“I don’t think so. Bio-anthropologists tend to look at the bone structure of skeletons to gain insight into nutrition, and at the bones of women, which indicate how many children they bore. If we do this for Africans from that period, the impression we get is of societies that were successful at maintaining their population balance. This is an indication of a high level of equality.”

How did the arrival of Europeans change this?
“Europe discovered that natural resources and large populations of labourers were available within short reach. Two critical technological advantages made it possible to secure this European control over trade: shipping and guns..The arrival of the Portuguese, later followed by the Dutch, the English and the French, and the collaboration of the African elite, made for the complete disruption of Africa’s internal trading system in the 16th century. And don’t forget that slavery meant a demographic crisis and, in the end, a shortage of skills, which wasn’t helpful for Africa’s growth.”

How accurately is this treated in Western history books?
“Parts of the parasitic economic success story of the West are increasingly well-known, but there’s an enormous amount of work to be done in terms of bringing the information from the world of scholarly research to the world of the popular imagination. The modern world is not the result of a European miracle; it was a global creation. We need to recapture a sense of the global and multicultural origins of those things that we normally consider to be Western.”

How can we rediscover this common history?
“We can do this through asking new questions. We should have some kind of curiosity about the connections that shaped our world. If you happen to live in a beautiful 17th-century city like Amsterdam or Utrecht, you should wonder how on earth it was possible that the Dutch, who were amongst the poorest people in Europe—struggling with miserable land, living without fuel—got the opportunity to build such rich cities. I think we need to rewrite our history books.”

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