President Trump’s comments disparaging immigrants from Haiti and the African continent have stunned many in the United States and other parts of the world. I see this as an opportunity to challenge the American public to confront this reality: More than any other factor, it is the wealth derived from Africa, especially the labor of people taken in chains from that continent, that accounts for the rise of the West and its centuries of predominance in world affairs.
The facts of this history hide in plain sight, and yet Americans and others in the West have averted their eyes for 500 years. The West’s ascension over other parts of the world has been attributed, instead, to innate Western qualities, including rationality and a talent for invention and innovation, or Western institutions. It is this distortion of reality — a delusion, really — that fuels attitudes of white superiority, whether subtle and pervasive, or as crude as those exhibited by someone like Trump.
In reality, the West’s takeoff, beginning at the end of the 15th century, was founded on its proximity both to Africa and to what we now call the Caribbean and Latin America — the very regions that Trump has slandered. In time, the West would display a ruthless will to plunder these regions, robbing them of their human and natural resources.
In the late 1400s, soon after the Portuguese began establishing contact with societies along the West African coast, they began trading for gold with the coastal Akan peoples of present-day Ghana. The Portuguese traded with the Akan at the time only because they were not positioned to take the gold by force. According to historian John Thornton, Africans and Europeans, along with peoples in many other parts of the world, existed in a rough technological parity at that time. Even average life spans were comparable. Although the devastation of Native Americans would soon commence, European colonization of Africa would not come until much later.
Between 1480 and 1500, the profits from this commerce amounted to nearly double the entire revenue of the Portuguese monarchy. The windfall from Akan gold allowed tiny and hitherto poor Portugal to build and outfit more and bigger ships, and the rest is, as they say, history. The Portuguese “discovered” India and eventually a route to the Far East and its coveted wealth, prompting matching ambitions among the Spanish to keep up in a race of maritime exploration and conquest. As we all learned, Christopher Columbus thereafter “discovered” America, quickly followed by England’s John Cabot. To this, Francis I of France famously proclaimed: “The sun shines for us as for others. I should very much like to see the clause in Adam’s will that excludes me from a share of the world.”
African slavery became the indispensable killer app used by the Europeans to claim their “shares of the world.” The first rocket fuel of Western ascendancy was the silver mines of Peru, worked by slaves. A single mountain there produced 60 percent of the world’s supply of that metal in the second half of the 16th century, monetizing Europe and swelling its bourgeoisie, financing a trade in luxury goods from Asia and funding militarization.
The next phase would be built from sugar, grown on plantations by slaves in Brazil, and especially the Caribbean, during a long and lucrative 18th-century boom. Because of its slave-grown sugar, tiny Guadeloupe was so valuable that France swapped Canada, which Voltaire derided as “a few acres of snow,” for the island in an exchange with Britain. The early prosperity of New England was largely based on its role as provisioner for black slave plantation islands such as Jamaica and Barbados.
In his book, “Capitalism and Slavery,” Eric Williams, the historian and late Trinidad and Tobago prime minister, quoted Malachy Postlethwayt, a leading 18th-century British expert on trade, who called African labor “the fundamental prop and support” of imperial British prosperity. The slavery-sugar nexus indeed built the British shipping, banking and insurance industries of that era, and its huge surpluses would soon underpin Britain’s industrialization.
The 18th century also saw the rise of Saint-Domingue, now known as Hispaniola, which houses both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Two hundred years ago, slave labor turned that French-controlled island into what many consider to have been the most profitable colony in history. At its height, France imported 40,000 West African slaves a year to Hispaniola, literally working them to death to produce sugar so cheaply that it put other lucrative British islands out of the sugar business. The French Enlightenment thinker Guillaume Thomas François Raynal declared that the labor of slaves was “the principal cause of the rapid motion which now agitates the universe.”
Haitians have affected American history in profound ways numerous times. In 1791, they launched what would become history’s only successful large-scale slave revolution, and it threw Europe into an economic panic. Industrialization had just begun in Britain, and the United States had just won its independence. British and American business interests responded by throwing their investments into this dawning era’s key commodity: cotton. Almost half of the slaves imported to the Americas from Africa arrived after 1780, most for the purpose of growing and harvesting cotton. In 1796, cotton accounted for only 2.2 percent of American exports; between 1815 and the outbreak of the Civil War, cotton production would rise to generate fully half of American exports, propelling textile-driven industrialization in both Europe and America.
Historian Sven Beckert observed that the Mississippi Delta, with its slave-generated cotton output, became a kind of early 19th-century equivalent of Saudi Arabia, pumping out the commodity around which the world turned. “Europeans invented the world anew by embarking upon plantation agriculture on a massive scale,” Beckert writes in his “Empire of Cotton: A Global History.” “Once Europeans became involved in production, they fastened their economic fortunes to slavery. These three moves — imperial expansion, expropriation, and slavery — became central to the forging of a new global economic order and eventually the emergence of capitalism.”
In the decades after the U.S. Civil War, Western nations would go on colonize nearly the entire globe, exploiting workers, often through forced labor, to extract the metals used to build bridges and skyscrapers and the uranium to fuel our atomic weapons. By pressing its advantages, the West not only secured its
own affluence, but it also set up much of the world for persistent dysfunction and economic underdevelopment.
This is the world order that has richly benefited the United States, and which this country has presided over in large part since the middle of the last century, the life span of Trump.
The purpose here is not a moral indictment of Europe or of people of European descent. The past cannot be undone. Rather, in light of the president’s words, it is a call for recognition that the prosperity that some take as their natural condition and birthright derives to a great and largely unacknowledged extent from the blood and sweat of others. Or, as W.E.B. du Bois wrote nearly a century ago, “modern commerce and industry was founded” on the labor of people who came from what some nowadays blithely refer to as trash countries.
Howard W. French is a former longtime foreign correspondent for the New York Times and the author of several books, most recently “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.”