There is a revival in the study of the transatlantic slave trade. Several studies pinpoint the slave trade as the genesis of defects in African societies. Continuing in the intellectual tradition of Walter Rodney, these later works posit that the transatlantic slave trade underdeveloped Africa. However, there is no verdict on the transatlantic slave trade’s effects because scholars are still divided over its consequences.
But despite their differences, opposing camps in the literature adopt a lopsided stance by fixating on the implications of the slave trade instead of discussing Africans’ agency. Researchers tend to explore how the slave trade altered African societies rather than showing that European traders became embedded in Africa’s complex sociopolitical networks.
Africans were building empires and chiefdoms long before interactions with Europeans, so when Europeans arrived in Africa, they quickly recognized that their fortunes were linked to the benevolence of African elites. Without complying with local regulations, European traders could not engage in business. Frequently, it is taught that Europeans constructed forts in Africa, but it is rarely noted that such forts could not have been built absent the African elites’ permission.
In the Galinhas empire, the Vai adage “Sunda ma gara, ke a sunda-fa,” which means “A stranger has no power but his landlords,” describes foreign traders’ relationships with African rulers. Africans were unwilling to tolerate squatters, so Europeans had to pay for their quarters.
In West Africa, for example, the Akwamu collected rents from European forts and employed a customs officer to oversee trade flow. This excerpt from a report compiled by a Danish official captures the authority of African rulers: “The King of Akwamu charges customs duties here on all goods which pass along the river and to ensure that these are paid, he has employed an official to take care of his interest.”
Not only did Africans extract financial benefits by charging Europeans for building forts on African soil, but they also retained property rights to the land. In some cases, Africans invited Europeans to their trading centers. Renting space to Europeans became so lucrative that on the Gold Coast, African elites permitted one European group per trading town. Further, the intense rivalry between Europeans elevated Africans’ position and allowed them to benefit from lower prices and a wider array of goods.