Ancestors are not to blame for Africa’s underdevelopment

Female-run SMEs and youth at the heart of AfCFTA
Amos Safo is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.

Several historical accounts have linked Africa’s underdevelopment and loss of self-respect to the inhuman slave trade and colonialisation. These accounts are supported by empirical evidence. For instance, Nathan Nunn – a Frederic E. Abbe Professor of Economics at Harvard University – has demonstrated that slavery fostered ethnic fractionalisation and undermined effective states in Africa.

According to him, by the end of the 19 century, the largest numbers of slaves were taken from areas that were the most underdeveloped economically and politically – and currently are the most ethnically fragmented. Prof. Nathan notes that Africa’s poor economic performance is one of the largest puzzles in growth and development economics. In his recent research, he suggests that without the slave trade 72% of Africa’s income gap with the rest of the world would not exist today.

Other literature has tried to unravel the source of Africa’s development tragedy.  Both Easterly and Levine (1997) and Sachs and Warner (1997) have documented the detrimental effects that the slave trade had on the institutions and structures of African societies. Historical evidence from case studies show how the slave trade caused political instability, weakened states, promoted political and social fragmentation, and resulted in a deterioration of domestic legal institutions.

Records show that between 1400 and 1900, the African continent experienced four simultaneous slave trades. The largest and most well-known was the trans-Atlantic slave trade. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, slaves were shipped from West Africa, West Central Africa and Eastern Africa to European colonies in the so-called New World. The three other slave trades -the trans-Saharan, Red Sea and Indian Ocean slave trades – were much older and predated the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

During the trans-Saharan slave trade, slaves were taken from south of the Saharan desert and shipped to Northern Africa (Nunn 2005). In the Red Sea slave trade, slaves were taken from inland of the Red Sea and shipped to the Middle East and India. In the Indian Ocean slave trade, slaves were taken from Eastern Africa and shipped either to the Middle East, India or to plantation islands in the Indian Ocean (ibid).

In two researches Prof Nunn found that these slave trades were partly responsible for Africa’s current underdevelopment. He concluded that the parts of Africa that are the poorest today are also the areas from which the largest number of slaves were taken in the past.

“The countries from which the most slaves were taken (taking into account differences in country size) are today the poorest in Africa.”  His data suggested that it was the parts of Africa that were initially the most developed, not least developed, that supplied the largest number of slaves. Sadly, today – because these characteristics continue, these parts of Africa continue to be underdeveloped and poor.

Institutional support

Perhaps many Africans are not aware that between the 17th and 19th centuries, many top British politicians, religious men and women and businesspeople founded and built their business empires on the slave trade. A video titled ‘Africa’s Jabgajantis Vines-Historical facts’, currently in circulation, contains a comprehensive and harrowing account of how Africans were stolen from their land and traded for profit.

Interestingly, this video was recorded by a group of British human rights activists seeking justice for Africa. According to the video, at a critical point in the history of humanity, the atrocious and inhuman trade had institutional support. At a point, 15 Lord Mayors of London and other top legislators were shareholders of the Royal African Company (ARC). Between 1660 and 1690 ARC trafficked 1.5 million slaves into Britain and more than double that number to the Caribbean.

John Hawkins was another iconic dealer in the slave trade. According to the video, Hawkins made three slave trips to West Africa and stole Africans – whom he sold to Spaniards for their plantations in the Americas. After returning to England in 1560 with huge profits, Queen Elizabeth I became interested and directly participated in the next trip of Hawkins.

Queen Elisabeth I provided a ship, ironically named ‘Jesus’, for Hawkins’ next trip to West Africa. He returned to England with astronomical profits, for which Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Even the Bank of England was involved in the ignominious trade. Sir Richard Du Cane, who was director of the Bank of England for 48 years, was also chairman of the West Indies Merchants – a group of traders who trafficked and sold African slaves to plantation owners in the New World.

Liverpool slave ships

Liverpool is a city in England that played a strategic role as a transit point for the slave trade. Records indicate that nearly 1.5 million slaves were forcibly transported across the Atlantic with ships built in Liverpool. The ‘Liverpool Merchant’ was the first ship to sail to Barbados in 1699 and 1700 with 220 African slaves on board. In fact, Liverpool city won’t be what it is today but for the use of slave labour and profit accruing from the trade.

Not many Africans know that both Liverpool as a city and Liverpool Football Club were built and founded with the profits from slave trade. Liverpool FC was formed in 1892 by retired slave traders, including Sir Thomas Johnson, who decided to invest their profits into the football club – which currently generates huge profits for descendants of the slave traders. According to the video, the investment in Liverpool was done via a bank called Arthur Howard and Sons Company. The bank was later absorbed by the Bank of Liverpool and later by Barclays Bank.

The video revealed that David and Alexander Barclays, founders of today’s Barclays Bank, were active participants in the kidnapping and trafficking of Africans. Due to the risky nature of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it required banks to provide funding and credit to prospective slave merchants. One bank that provided funding and credit for up three years was Barclays Bank.

It will be recalled that in 2020 Barclays Bank sold its stake in Africa to ABSA Bank – without any form of compensation to the descendants of the slaves whose blood laid the foundation of Barclays Bank. For several years, Barclays Bank has been sponsoring the English Premier league that Africans support so fanatically. When we watch Liverpool, Everton, Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspurs etc. playing, we shout and jump without the slightest insight that the clubs we support were formed and are being supported with the sweat of ancestors.

Natural question

Given the growing evidence of a positive correlation between Africa’s past and its current economic performance, a natural question arises. Why do these events, which ended years ago, continue to define the future of Africa?   Over the centuries and years, Africans have been brainwashed to believe that our underdevelopment is the result of sins our ancestors committed; hence the need to spend the rest of our time reversing the curses of our ancestors.   The African ancestor has been so vilified, not only by Europeans, but the Africans themselves.

The theory is that heaven has cursed our ancestors, who gave us life; and this explains why the African is roaming the globe begging for acceptance and recognition.  Truly, because of our self-denial the African has no backbone, has zero identity and no race respects the African. The African is lynched in Malaysia, incarcerated in Cambodia, shot like a dog in the United States of America and in Europe.

The African cleans the toilets, bathes corpses and sweeps the streets in alien countries. In many western countries, Africans are spat on. And why wouldn’t they spit on us? It is a bitter truth that people who hate themselves and deny their origin do not deserve any respect from another race.

The irony

Ironically, the ancestors of those who stole and trafficked Africans are living in heaven on earth, while the descendants of those who were victims of the slave trade are busily cursing their ancestors and denying themselves.  While they live in stable environments and have overcome most of their problems, Africans continue to be the global face of poverty and underdevelopment. The fact is that if the Europeans who enslaved Africans and committed continental genocide do not demonise their ancestors, why should we Africans demonise our ancestors?

Currently, descendants of those who sanctioned the selling, lynching, rape, torture and shooting of Africans do not bear any responsibility for their ancestors’ sins and do not curse them. Why should descendants of the slave trades’ victims continue to curse and blame their ancestors? There is even a lynching museum in the United States of America to celebrate the inhuman treatment of Africans, yet white Americans apparently do not bear any sin or curse.

Honestly, if ancestral curses exist, who should suffer the curses? Should it be the descendants of those captured, raped and sold, or those whose ancestors were perpetrators? Naturally, descendants of those who threw pregnant women into the sea because they were too weak to make the journey should be the ones suffering from any ancestral curse.

Yet, today, the generations of Hawkins and all those who benefitted from slave trade are alive and living fat on the proceeds of ill-gotten profits their ancestors made from the slave trade. This is partly because generations of Africans have been made to believe that their ancestors bequeathed this slave mentality to their generations.  Our response has been to spend the rest of days in church trying to reverse ancestral curses.

It is time Africans woke up from our slumber and erased the effects from the slave trade and colonialism on our psyche. We need to emancipate ourselves from this mental slavery and pave the way for our children to break the chains of poverty.  If the descendants of those who perpetrated the slave trade bear no sin or curse, equally those whose ancestors were the victims should not continue to hold themselves back.

I am not in any way downplaying the critical role of God and prayer in development, as the Europeans initially used prayer and the word of God as foundations for their countries. My point is that we have had enough of blaming our ancestors for our underdevelopment. We now need to back prayer with action; or else while we are praying the Europeans – and now the Chinese – will continue looting our resources and belittling us to advance themselves.


Sachs, J & Warner, A. 1997.  “Sources of Slow Growth in African Economies,” Journal of African Economies, (6 )335–376.

Easterly, W & Levine, R. 1997.  “Africa’s Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, (112): 1203–1250.

Nunn, N. 2005.  Historical legacies: A model linking Africa’s past to its current underdevelopment. Journal of Development Economics 83 (2007) 157– 175

Nunn, N. 2007. “The Historical Origins of Africa’s Underdevelopment”

(***The writer is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.  All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organization(s). (Email: [email protected]. Mobile: 0202642504/0243327586)


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