Africa Is Central to the Modern World’s Future—and Its Past

No regular reader of my columns at World Politics Review can be surprised by now that I believe the future of Africa is one of the most important as well as one of the most neglected questions facing humankind.

Africa is so routinely marginalized from the concerns of global affairs that even among otherwise well-informed people, most are unaware that it is the continent where almost all the action is taking place in terms of worldwide demographic growth. So it bears repeating here what I have written before: Africa’s population, which at the outset of my own career was about 800 million people and is currently estimated at 1.2 billion, is projected to rise to 2 billion people by the middle of this century. Naturally, the further into the future one projects, the more uncertain such things become, but by this century’s end, Africa could potentially have as many as 4.5 billion people, according to the United Nations, making it more populous than two Chinas and an India combined.

More imminent changes in global demographics are in some ways even more impressive. Pause to consider that by 2030, Africa is projected to be home to 60 percent of the world’s working-age population. This should concern everyone, even those who usually never give a thought to Africa, and it confronts governments worldwide as well as global bodies—like the U.N. and World Bank, for example—with challenges whose urgency is totally out of proportion to the energy being devoted to Africa as a topic.

At present, the politics of many rich countries are driven by the obsessive but largely unrealistic idea of sustaining their privilege in a kind of blessed isolation, meaning by keeping immigration to a minimum. But their own demographic fundamentals—driven by rapid aging, population stagnation and, in some cases, outright decline—combined with Africa’s present path will soon render this posture baldly untenable. The very future of work is bound up in the future of Africa, as is the future of economic demand, climate change, conflict, global health and much more.

The nature of the challenge ahead is to work together to find ways to integrate African countries far more deeply into the global economy, helping to improve the continent’s institutions—especially in education—in order to share opportunities in manufacturing and higher-end services. The alternative is for the world’s wealthy countries to sit on their hands and wait until the current relative trickle of emigration from the continent becomes a floodtide.

To understand something so antithetical to conventional wisdom as the idea that Africa is the key to our global future, it is helpful to understand something equally remote from standard Western narratives about the world: how extraordinarily central Africa was to the very creation of our familiar world. This, indeed, was one of my main purposes in writing my new book, “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.” 

The arc of this largely unknown story begins in the late 14th century, when lavishly illustrated maps began circulating in Europe depicting an unimaginably rich African sovereign—Mansa Musa, ruler of the Mali Empire—sitting on a golden throne in the center of West Africa. These maps emerged in response to reports that by then had reached Europe of Musa’s 3,500-mile pilgrimage in 1324 to Mecca, a voyage he undertook at the head  of a party of 60,000 people, carrying 18 tons of gold for distribution as patronage here and there along the way.

The West’s reliance on African labor has been minimized or indeed sometimes written out of this history altogether.

Musa’s lavish generosity depressed gold prices for a decade or more in the Levant and Europe, becoming, as one writer called it, the event of the century. This drove a determination in Europe to discover the source of African gold, which is what impelled Portugal’s famous maritime voyages of discovery during that period. After an abundant source of gold was eventually discovered in what is now Ghana, the Portuguese built a fortified trading center there, which was serviced by a host of navigators who would later become famous for other exploits. These included Afonso de Albuquerque, Bartolomeu Dias and even Christopher Columbus, nearly two decades before he would sail to the Americas on behalf of Spain. 

Portugal’s sudden windfall in gold it then acquired by trade helped put this small and hitherto poor country in a position to resist conquest by Spain and continue seeking wealth through exploration elsewhere in the world. In the meantime, though, it spurred other developments that were vital to the unfolding of European history itself. Because Lisbon lacked the kinds of trade goods that Africans, with their own relatively well-developed material culture desired, the Portuguese used their newly acquired gold to buy goods in northern Europe for trade with Africans, helping build out important new circuits of intra-European trade and infusing that continent’s economy with badly needed specie.

Only gradually did Europe’s economic interest in Africa begin to shift fatefully from gold to slaves, a story told in depth in my book but that is too complex to fully render in a column like this. A key moment came, though, with Portugal’s settlement of the previously uninhabited equatorial island of Sao Tome. There, the Portuguese began growing sugar, using slaves bought—yes, bought—from nearby Africa. In the 16th century, when refined sugar was still an expensive rarity in Europe, the Portuguese perfected a model of production for it that would change history like nothing else in the early modern age, putting the West on a path that created its great prosperity. That model was called chattel slavery: the reduction of other human beings to the equivalent of beasts of burden. 

With the institution of chattel slavery on Sao Tome, another closely related institution was implemented: the slave society, where a national or, in this case, racial minority rules over a vast working force and is almost totally dependent on the enslaved for labor. Societies like these are exceedingly rare in history. Some historians have numbered them as few as five, all the product of Europeans: Ancient Greece and Rome, colonial-era Brazil and the Caribbean, and the colonial and post-independence American South. This model quickly migrated from colonial Sao Tome to the so-called New World, where the racially defined enslaved workforce often constituted three-quarters or more of the population, and where whites reigned over Blacks to generate untold new levels of wealth and privilege, while the latter suffered a brutal regime built on the idea of exploitation unto death.

Western societies have demonstrated longstanding reluctance to acknowledge the importance of slavery to the West’s success, which in some ways seems unsurprising. Everyone would prefer positive explanations for one’s own achievements, while minimizing anything that detracts from that. And because, as the famous adage has it, victors write what become the standard histories, the West’s reliance on African labor has been minimized or indeed sometimes written out of the history altogether.

Nonetheless, there are many ways of substantiating the vital contributions of Africa and Africans to global prosperity during the slave age. Some estimate that people taken from Africa performed 2.5 billion hours of labor under the lash. On the plantations of the New World, this produced far more wealth for Europeans than the gold and silver they took from the Americas. Poor by comparison, Britain’s North American colonies became overwhelmingly dependent on trade with the slave islands of the Caribbean for their livelihood. In the 18th century, slave production, mostly concentrated in the colony that became Haiti, amounted to one-third of France’s external trade and a major driver of its growth. 

People of European descent are broadly unfamiliar with this history, which is as much their history as it is the history of Africans and people who descend from that continent.

Don’t take my word for these things, though. It suffices to listen to many major European thinkers of this era, before the enslavement of Africans became widely recognized as morally odious. A prominent Englishman of the time, Malachy Postlethwayt, wrote for example that slave labor constituted “the fundamental prop and support” of his country’s prosperity.

I’ve been deeply gratified by the many open-minded and thoughtful responses I have received so far in reaction to my book. But there has also been another kind of reader—persistent in their skepticism, which has been characterized by common threads—and to whom I would like to offer some responses. 

Some insistently ask questions about why Africans sold slaves to Europeans, and why I didn’t focus on that. I did. Some say that this fact set Africans apart from Europeans, who they assert never sold other Europeans among themselves as slaves. They did, and for many centuries. Consider the word Slavic, which derives from this very fact. I recommend the work of the British historian Peter Frankopan and his book, “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World,” for those who would like to know more about the centuries-long intra-European trade in slaves.

Still others ask, Why the focus on white slave traders and not on the Blacks. And why tell this story now? Is it to merely sell books or to foment racial disunity? In the book, I explain that Africans living in Africa had no unitary racial identity. In a world where everyone is black, blackness itself is unremarkable. Moreover, Africans who sold slaves had no notion of what was taking place in the New World, and because most African societies practiced distinct forms of slavery of their own—as have human societies everywhere—they had no concept of the European system of chattel slavery. In most African societies, slaves were gradually absorbed into the owner’s family, with any taint attaching to their ancestry quickly disappearing. It was not uncommon for the descendants of slaves to become chiefs and kings.

The question about why I wrote about this now is answered in part at the top of this column, but there is an important further reason. People of European descent are broadly unfamiliar with this history, which is as much their history as it is the history of Africans and people who descend from that continent. Few know, for example, that until 1820, four times as many enslaved Africans were shipped against their will across the Atlantic than the number of Europeans who usually made that journey voluntarily, and the ratio of African versus European women was far higher still. Meanwhile, both education and popular entertainment have long reinforced notions of the pioneering spirit, courage and sometime brilliance of the European settlers, but we learn little about anyone else. 

This leads to the insinuation by people like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson that America was “built” by white people. If one considers the West to be a condominium between Western Europe and anglophone North America, it was to the contrary these millions of unheralded Africans who made the Americas profitable for European settlement. They produced an inordinate share of the New World’s wealth. Their labors helped create the freedom from menial work that allowed European culture to flower. Indeed, it was their sacrifice that created the West.

As big as these claims are, the Africans who were brought to the New World did more than just this. The slave trade and the plantation sector that produced sugar and cotton in astonishing quantities helped not only to pave the way for industrialization, but also to spur a boom in modern banking, insurance and accounting-based management. Through the mass production of sugar, coffee, tobacco and cotton, in ways that are documented closely in my book, they also utterly transformed European culture, helping make democracy possible in the 17th century with the birth of the coffee shop and the invention of the newspaper, an innovation created to cater to coffee-drinkers. Like no Europeans had ever done before, meanwhile, Haitians fought and died for the idea of universal freedom in their war for independence from France. And the offspring of Africans subsequently carried this battle to American soil, where they fought for freedom in the American Revolution and played a decisive role in winning the Civil War.

Africa and Africans have always been right at the heart of the action in our shared history of modernity, but because of the wish to emphasize one’s own virtues, while downplaying the horrors of the past, history’s seeming winners have been reluctant to embrace the facts. Africa will be just as important to the global future, too, and if we don’t overcome our customary denial and indifference toward that continent, the same mistakes will be made all over again.

Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, and the author of five books, including the recently published, “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World.” You can follow him on Twitter at @hofrenchHis weekly WPR column appears every Wednesday.

Africa Is Central to the Modern World’s Future—and Its Past (

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