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The African Slave Supply Response

Author(s): E. Phillip LeVeen

Source: African Studies Review, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Apr., 1975), pp. 9-28
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/523706
Accessed: 23-02-2017 12:51 UTC

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African Studies Review

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by E. Phillip LeVeen, University of California, Berkeley


In this paper a simple model is proposed by which the relationship b

prices in Africa and the number of slaves exported in the eighteenth an
century Atlantic slave trade is investigated. Statistical evidence indicating
correlation between fluctuations in prices and in slave exports shall be
in conjunction with a priori theoretical expectations as well as collateral historical
evidence, supports the hypothesis that economic motives were one of the major deter-
minants of the African slave supply process.
The statistical analysis also permits an estimation of the "elasticity" of the African
slave traders' response to changes in coastal slave prices; such an estimate answers the
question, "How much must the economic incentives (in terms of price changes) be
increased to bring about a given increase in the numbers of slaves brought to the coast for
exports?"l Since the price responsiveness of African traders was itself influenced by the
conditions they faced in the enslavement, transportation, bulking, and other components
of the African supply process, the elasticity analysis permits an investigation into more
than the simple issue of whether or not African traders were profit motivated. The
analysis provides an indirect view of a wide variety of phenomena occurring withinAfrican
societies. Some of the possible uses to which the elasticity estimate may be put are
examined in the final section of the paper.
The use of a simple model and the related statistical analysis represents a departure
from previous more descriptive treatments of the slave supply process. The model helps
to structure the debate and focus the diverse evidence on a few central issues. The
statistical test of the model increases the historian's ability to evaluate critical relation-
ships in comparison with traditional descriptive methodological approaches. It should be
stressed, however, that one intent of this paper is to demonstrate that the methods of
"new economic history" are complementary to other approaches. That is, the use of
models and statistical tests of hypotheses can add new insights only when used in
conjunction with traditional historical scholarship, without which the models are sterile
and the statistical analyses simply cannot be conducted.


Monocausal interpretations of historical phenomena are seldom

explanation of the motivations underlying the African supply response
this. No serious contemporary historian of the slave trade would cont
factors were of no consequence; conversely, few would rule out the im
economic influences. There are different points of view, however, whic
according to the role accorded to the different factors influencin

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different views are incorporated into the

developed in the following section. The reader
trade are somewhat overdrawn to highlight t
implications for the statistical test that will b


The first model, which stresses non-economic aspects of the slave supply process,
called the "political warfare" model. While there are several variations of this model, th
all share the view that African participation in the slave trade was not stimulated by th
desire to be integrated into the world economic order or to import European-ma
consumer items. Rather, slave supplies were a result of internal political events unrelat
to the economic influences of profits and prices. For example, an African group migh
sell slaves to obtain the guns and gunpowder important to its political survival. Unde
such circumstances, slave exports would be determined by warfare requirements and no
by slave prices.
Another variation of this model, suggested by Curtin (1971) (see, also, Engerman's
"Comments" in Engerman and Genovese, 1974) points out that large numbers of capti
were always being acquired as a result of politically motivated warfare. Such captives
were a "joint" product of war in much the same way that cowhides are a joint product
beef production; one occurs with the other whether desired or not. Because of t
endemic nature of warfare, a large reserve of captives, of little value to their captor
except as slave exports, existed to provide a ready supply of slaves to the coast at
times. Economic incentives played a comparatively small role, since any positive price
would be sufficient to induce Africans to supply these slaves who otherwise had very
little value.

In order to derive hypotheses concerning the slave supply response from the politica
warfare model which differ from those derived from the economic model, two sets of
conditions must be met. First, there must be a clear differentiation between political and
economic causes for war and little relationship between the two types of causes.
Proponents of the political warfare model define economic wars as those waged for the
explicit purpose of acquiring slaves for profit. However, it is possible that economic
factors indirectly influenced political decisions to make war for a variety of reasons. For
example, changing economic conditions associated, at least partially, with fluctuations in
the coastal slave trade may have changed the potential economic rewards from controlling
trade routes which could have affected the willingness of different groups to attempt to
defend or extend their spheres of influence. Likewise, higher (or lower) slave prices,
which made the implements of warfare more (or less) accessible, had a direct impact on
the costs of warfare, which may have altered incentives to wage war at different times.
Changing slave prices could also have influenced the manner in which wars were waged.
The decision to take war captives, as compared with other methods of controlling a
defeated enemy, may well have involved greater costs and risks which would not have
been incurred if the profits from selling war captives were low. From all these considera-
tions, it is clear that separating political from economic explanations is difficult. Wars
fought for political reasons not explicitly related to the economic conditions of the slave
trade may have been indirectly related to the economic conditions of the slave trade.
Those who argue that the enslavement of Africans was not significantly affected by slave
trade profits must be willing to make the additional argument that the above types of

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indirect relationships were of minor importance.

The second set of conditions necessary to the political
components of the slave supply process which became im
ment occurred, namely, the components related to the
distribution, and bulking of slaves before they were
factors involved significant costs, then no matter wha
ment, economic considerations would be expected to inf
coast. Proponents of the political warfare model must b
be moved to the coast for little cost and that slaves had
they were exported for the Atlantic trade. In economic
implies that the slaves and resources used in the trade
tunity cost"; and African traders had no option but tha
Once a slave was captured, he would of necessity be
regardless of the prices prevailing at the time. Only un
slave price offered by the Europeans have had little imp
the coast.

The implications of this model for the relationship between coastal prices and
exports of slaves can be specified as follows: since the price paid on the coast had n
impact on slave exports, its sole function was to ration the existing supply brought to th
coast between competing slave buyers. If conditions affecting the European demand for
slaves did not change over time, a negative relationship between prices and exports would
be expected, with low prices occurring during periods of large supply and vice versa. In
Figure 1 this situation is demonstrated along demand curve D1 where the fluctuating
slave supplies, represented by Q1, Q2, and Q3, are rationed by prices P1, P2, and P3
However, if demand conditions shifted, causing an increase, a decrease or uncertai
fluctuations in the demand for slaves, then, at any given point in time, the price-quantity
observation would be contained in space ABCD. In short, assuming random fluctuations
in supply with respect to prices, no systematic relationship can be expected betwee
prices and exports when a regression line is fitted to time series data; that is, an a priori
hypothesis about the sign of the price coefficient cannot be made, and a small an
insignificant R2 is expected. These assertions are only true for the extreme case in which
none of the slave trade activity in Africa was economically motivated. Later in the
analysis some of the possible statistical implications of a political warfare model
modified to include some economic behavior, will be shown.

Excess Supply Model

The other model of the slave supply process is premised on the neo-classical
economic assumptions of "rational" behavior, for which there is ample supporting
evidence, even in the case of traditional societies (Behrman, 1968; Hill, 1970; Green and
Hymer, 1966; Tax, 1963), and utilizes an international trade "excess supply" model.2
This model permits the consideration of the economic costs of the production, transpor-
tation, and distribution of slaves in the Atlantic trade, and it recognizes that the coasta
trade was only one of at least three outlets for slaves. Slaves could also be supplied to the
domestic African market and to the trans-Saharan market. This model, therefore, allows
for a wide range of options for African slave traders. If they participated in the trade,
they could supply several markets, depending on the profitability of each market; and if
profits in these markets fell below a certain point, the traders might use their slaves t

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produce other exportable commodities or they migh

Figure 2 illustrates this model. SS represents a hy
slaves for all markets. The determinants of the shap
such factors as the degree and ease of slave raiding
the population density, the relative degree of polit
different groups inhabiting neighboring regions,
raiding), the costs of transportation of slaves within
for their eventual distribution to the slave markets.
distinct sections to indicate the probability that, ow
of supply might decrease as the level of slave export
The ScDc curve is both a supply and a demand
slaves, both in the internal domestic market and in
prices, competing users attempt to buy a large por
rise, the share of the non-Atlantic slave trade d
possible that some domestic slave buyers actually b
profitable to sell slaves from their own stocks. Th
for export to the trans-Atlantic trade would be the
taken by other markets plus the possible supplies o
This is an excess supply curve and is depicted by cur
The supply data used in the statistical test ref
systematic data for SS or for ScDc, although some p
is presented below. Knowing the elasticity of SBC is
to be examined, though ideally one would also like
well. There is a mathematical relationship among t
the share of the trade moving into each outlet.3 Sin
tion about only one does not permit a definite state
one general implication of these considerations is t
optional slave outlets to play off against the Atlanti
changes offered by European traders was greater th
no alternative employment possibilities for their sla
supply of slaves to all markets (SS curve) was in
non-economic factors; but, as a result of this ex
response along the coast (SBC curve) was sensitive to
The differentiation between the excess supply cu
curve, SS, thus indicates the theoretical possibility t
result of non-economic forces and then distributed
processes outlined by the excess supply model. Prop
warfare model could point out that since the statist
and exports refers to curve SBC, it does not refute
of slaves to prices was insensitive to prices (i.e., the
line and its position determined by the level of warf
test cannot be used to support the contention that
profit. Aside from the fact that the elasticity of S
reasons (to be discussed in the final section), th
criticism of the statistical analysis.
The first response is an appeal to logic. If
calculus influenced part of the slave supply pr
have failed to operate in the procurement of

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shown shortly, there is evidence to support the co

slave raiding did occur and was an important method of enslavement.
The second response to those who might question the usefulness of the statistical
test is to point out that, while a systematic relationship between prices and exports might
be expected under the assumptions of both the excess supply model and the modified
political warfare model, if the latter model were more accurate one would expect large
and irregular fluctuations in the coastal slave supplies coinciding with the periods of war
and peace. If these fluctuations were random with respect to slave prices, a relatively
small portion of the variation in exports of slaves would be explained by prices, and the
remainder would be the consequence of political warfare. Even if African slave traders
attempted to reduce the impact of such fluctuations by building up inventories during
periods of abundant cheap slaves and by reducing these stocks when slaves became
expensive and scarce, it is unlikely that wartime stocks would not have been reflected in
the export data. Inventories implied the costs of slave, maintenance and the risks of death
and escape. Manipulating these inventories would have required expectations about
future supplies of slaves so that middlemen could have known when to incur such
inventory costs and when to reduce them. Warfare was sporadic, making the formation of
expectations about the future difficult. Consequently, conditions of enslavement
certainly were reflected in the numbers of slaves exported.
If the excess supply model better depicts the slave supply process, such random
fluctuations in exports should be less important than under the assumptions of the other
model. As slave prices on the coast rose and fell, the numbers of slaves procured likewise
changed. One would not expect instantaneous adjustments in procurement to price
changes, but in the long run the systematic relationship should predominate over random
influences. Therefore, under the assumptions of the excess supply model, prices would be
expected to explain a major portion of the long-term export fluctuations. Thus, the
statistical test for the relationship between prices and exports, at least conceptually, can
differentiate between the two models of the supply process.


The choice of models need not be based solely on a statistical test, for the
deal of historical evidence on the conduct of the slave trade which has direc
several of the issues discussed in the previous section. The following section
attempt to survey all this literature (Curtin, 1971 and 1972; Bean, 1971; LeV
Gemery and Hogendorn, 1973; Sundstrom, 1965; Bean and Thomas, 19
1970); rather, it attempts to illustrate, through the use of a few examples, ho
data can be structured and analyzed to clarify the issues raised by this debate

Slave Procurement

The majority of slaves exported appear to have been war captives.4 Whether these
wars were fought in order to obtain slaves for export and hence were motivated by
economic interests, or whether they were fought over domestic political matters, cannot
be determined without more detailed investigation of each major war. This research has
not yet been conducted. For example, the Yoruba wars of the early nineteenth century,
which created many slaves for the Atlantic market, were partially stimulated by competi-
tion for control of trade routes to the coast and partially by internal political events
(Ajayi and Smith, 1964). It is improbable that the particular price of slaves at Lagos
directly caused these conflicts.

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Deliberate slave raiding occurred as well, and such act

changes in the trade along the coast (Polanyi, 1966:
proportion of slaves for export which resulted from suc
well as from non-economic activities is unknown and a m
further research, this matter cannot be definitively resolv
There were other less important methods which pro
were enslaved for certain crimes in various regions of W
is possible that these individuals would have been ex
exacted as political tribute by more powerful states; w
tribute might well have taken other forms. Finally, in
devices were developed to supply the coastal slave dema
the Aro Chuku, a political-religious institution designe
diverse groups in the Niger Delta and, at the same time,
peaceful provision of slaves to the trade (Dike, 1956
institution was not without cost, and it is unlikely that
the economic benefits of supplying slaves to the coast b
Thus, there is historical evidence to support the c
concerning this procurement of slaves. In the case of t
some basis for questioning the short-term responsivenes
to changes in prices since, in several of the enslavemen
probable economic relationship between the slave su
changed only in response to major and long-term price
other hand, if slave raiding was important, one would e
to changing prices.

Other Trade Costs

There is some evidence that the initial procurement costs were a small part of t
total supply costs;5 and the resource costs associated with the transportation, feedi
and the holding of slaves, constituted a large fraction of the final sale price of slaves a
coast. Slaves were often captured far from the coast and had to be marched-in som
cases 1,000 miles-to their port of export (Vansina, 1962; Fisher and Fisher, 1971
77-82). An elaborate system of middlemen operations grew up around the impo
slave routes to facilitate the trade. Tolls were imposed on traders as they passed thro
different political territories (Sundstrom, 1965: chapters 1 and 2). These tolls may h
been considerable in areas where politicalpower was consolidated.6 Slaves had to be f
and guarded, which required additional resources; and, while they might be forced
carry commodities to the coast to partially offset their maintenance costs, traders
faced the very real possibility of additional loss from slave mortality en route.7 Finall
the coast, slaves were held in some form of storage facility while sufficiently
numbers were assembled to make up a cargo and while awaiting the arrival of a ship
which added further costs for food and guard labor as well as the risk of mortality.
of these coastal functions might be shared with European traders who established f
along the coast (Rottenberg, 1967).
This description of internal trade in Africa has two implications for our theore
models. First, even if slaves did not cost their captors anything initially, they would
be supplied to the Atlantic trade unless the other costs were covered by the price rec
at the coast; there was a minimum price below which slave supplies would fall to ze
Second, it is probable that supply costs increased with the level of exports. This res

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because it appears that increased demand for slaves tend

intensive enslavement of people near the ports of export b
trade into new areas further inland, thereby increasing the
were required to march to the coastal factories (Bean and T
trade costs discussed above were sensitive to the distance tr
slave mortality at the coast was affected by the physical co
was influenced by the duration of the march.

The Shape of the African Slave Supply Curve

It is now possible to construct an SS curve (Figure 2) whic

both models as follows: the first part of the curve is almost
probability that there were always some war captives availa
traders. As the supply of these slaves became insufficie
supplemental slave raiding occurred in response to rising p
situation is represented by the more steeply sloped segmen
continued to expand, the slave-raiding activities became mu
trade routes and markets were developed at high cost, givi
sloped segment of SS where a large increase in price would
additional slave supplies.
As long as the demand for slaves exceeded the number c
supplemental slave-raiding activity necessary, economic crite
and position of SS not only through the transportation and
tions but also through the decisions of groups to procure ad
is valid even if the number of slaves procured by economic
to the number acquired by politically motivated warfare, f
marginal (not the typical) producer and consumer that deter
in any market. So, as long as the marginal producers were
stimulae, their actions would be the primary determinants
response, particularly for that portion of the supply on whic

The Elasticity of the Excess Supply Curve

Let us turn to a consideration of two other factors whic

responsiveness of the Atlantic export supply: namely, the sh
going to other slave markets, and the elasticity of the dem
markets (see note 5).
The two competing markets for slaves were the domesti
Muslim trans-Saharan market. While both markets were exte
tion between markets is not known. The trans-Saharan
important during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, r
of perhaps 10,000 slaves per year (Mauny, 1961: 379). The sl
to be drawn from the fringes of the regions which supplie
some overlap in supply area. Because of the importance of m
trade, very little competition was necessary for one marke
other. Lower prices in the Atlantic market would have stimu
regions to ship their slaves to Muslim markets, and vice vers
The domestic slave market pervaded West Africa (Curtin
Fisher and Fisher, 1971: 71-76; Klien, 1969), and the domest

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been a significant competitor with other slave mark

quantitative estimates are available as to the number
market which might have been available to the Atlan
data it can be concluded that the elasticity of the e
trade (SBC in Figure 2) was probably greater than
existence of these alternative outlets for slaves (see n
The elasticity of these competing demands is
Because of the size of the domestic slave stock, i
quickly absorb large additional numbers of slave
during the nineteenth century when palm oil became
be employed in its production.9 There is consider
where Africans withheld slaves from the market wh
in other economic activities (Rodney, 1966; Rottenb
ease of escape in Africa, domestic slaves had value o
This would tend to decrease the absorptive capacity
anthropologists who have studied the diverse form
concluded that, in general, that institution bore lit
American counterparts. Slaves had rights and could
once accepted into domestic service (Rodney, 196
Thus, while the institution of domestic slavery may
captives, it was not a ready source of additional siave
prices and scarcity.
The elasticity of the Muslim demand for slave
because the major component of slave costs in t
trans-Saharan crossing, it is unlikely that changes
interior would have had much impact on the fin
inelastic Muslim demand is to be expected. Therefor
demand of the competing markets, their influence on



In measuring the supply elasticity, a very simple model is employed, bas

following assumptions. First, because the data are limited almost solely to slav
quantities, it is necessary to make assumptions about the relative stability of
and-demand relationships during the periods of analysis. On the demand side,
that the eighteenth century was a period of rapid expansion of the sugar in
Brazil and the Caribbean and, therefore, that except during periods of war,
for slaves was increasing (the demand curve was shifting away from the or
the nineteenth century, because of the activity of the British Navy as well as
tion of the slave trade in the British and French colonies, the demand for sla

On the supply side, the direction and magnitude of supply curve shifts are far less
certain. It is possible that trading costs fell during the eighteenth century because of such
factors as improvement in the techniques of trading, better market information, or more
stable political and institutional factors affecting the trade, which caused the supply curve
to shift down and to the right. On the other hand, supply costs to the Atlantic market

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may have risen because of the possible increase in the value o

would increase the demand by non-Atlantic users, and becaus
slaving activity, which decreased population density and thereby
It is assumed in this paper that the eighteenth century supply rel
stable and that the contradictory shifts listed above, if they ex
each other out. This is a reasonable assumption in view of the fa
century price and quantity data are aggregated for all of Africa
Such aggregation tends to minimize the effects of all but the m
supply and demand. At least one slave trade historian believes th
ments in market organization occurred before the beginning of
which would rule out major impact on supply conditions by tech
(assumptions about nineteenth century supply shifts are to be dis
The importance of these assumptions concerning the shifts o
can be seen by referring to Figure 3. In Figure 3a, a scatter o
representing one price and quantity observation. The problem is
supply relationship from these points? A regression can be run to
of price on quantity, but how does one know he has estimated a
not a demand relationship? The answer is that, without the abov
can be inferred from the initial scatter of points. Figure 3b
stability of the supply curve and the shifting of the demand D
points which, in fact, trace the actual supply response (the poin
circled to show how the scatter in Figure 3a might have bee
describes a situation in which both supply and demand curves are
shifting more than supply. The desired estimate of the "true" s
sented by any of the solid "S" curves (each for a specific moment
that the estimated supply curve (broken line AC) will be flatter th
(that is, the elasticity will be overstated) if the supply curve consi
The estimated elasticity will be less than the true elasticity if t
upward (compare AD with AB).11 If the supply curve shift is kn
bias can be eliminated; but, unfortunately, this information is no

The Data

In the past five years, several important contributions have been made to the s
of prices and slave export volumes. Table 1 contains the data used in this paper
volume data reflect slave exports to the Atlantic trade from the entire African co
including West, Central, and Southeast Africa (column 1). The primary implication o
aggregation is that one is estimating a supply response elasticity of the entire marke
opposed to that of a particular market.
Price data is similarly aggregated into decade intervals in an attempt to o
reasonable estimates of the prevailing price along the entire coast for each of the pe
for which we have export data (column 2). As in the case of the quantity data, ther
considerable variation in prices between exporting regions, although prices at diffe
markets tended to move together. These price differentials ere caused by such factor
the availability of services at the exporting port, the cost of sea travel for more d
ports, and the general preferences of West Indian and Brazilian growers for slaves
different regions. Columns 3 and 4 list prices at two specific markets along the W
African coast; these can be compared with the aggregate price series (column 2) wh

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composed of many more observations. Rea

surrounding the determination of prices are r
The slave prices given in column 5 refer to
same direction as the African prices during th
when they move in the opposite direction ow
Since our data on these prices is somewhat mo
on the validity of the African price series.

The Results--Eighteenth Century

Using the price and quantity data, two re

eighteenth century observations using the foll

Q = a + bP
Ln Q = a + b Ln P

where Q equals average annual exports for ten-year intervals and P equals average annual
prices for ten-year intervals. The form of the first equation implies a simple linear
relationship between prices and exports and that of the second equation implies a non-
linear, constant elasticity form of the relationship. The results of fitting these regressions
are as follows:

(1) Q= 11,048 + 3,234P R2 =.99

(2) Ln Q = 6,730 + .81 Ln P R2 = .95

Given the nature of the data and the limited number of observations, these results are
extremely good not only because of the high R2 but also because all of the coefficients
(including the R2) are significant at the 99 percent confidence level. The figures in
parentheses are standard error estimates of the "b" coefficients.
The interpretation of equation (1), which has the better "fit" of the two,is that a ?1
increase in slave prices in Africa caused an increase in slave exports of 3,234 per year.
This translates into a supply elasticity of .81 (using mean price and export values), which
means that a 10 percent increase in prices increased exports by about 8.1 percent.
The R2 of .99 means that roughly 99 percent of the variation in exports is accounted for
by variations in prices. The second equation does not fit the data as well according to the
lower R2. It indicates an export supply elasticity of .8 1, the same as the other equation.
The "a" coefficients also have interesting implications for the models being tested.
For the first equation, the "a" value of 11,048 implies that if prices were to fall to zero,
the annual export of slaves during the eighteenth century would have fallen to about
11,000 per year. The second equation implies that 6,700 would have been exported
under the same assumption. These results contradict the expectation of a zero export for
very low prices. The validity of extrapolating the regression equation to extreme values,
such as a zero price, is highly questionable, especially in view of the lack of observations
in the low range of prices and exports. However, while these estimates may well
overstate the number of slaves which might be exported at low prices, they do suggest the

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existence of a sizeable pool of slaves available for export at

therefore, these results may be taken as indirect evidence in
warfare model.
The almost unbelievable R2 value of .99 deserves comment. Certainly, if dis-
aggregated data by export region had been used (or annual data if it had been available)
there is no doubt that much lower R2 values would have been found. In taking ten-year
average values, much of the random short-term fluctuation in the market has already been
eliminated. Therefore, these estimates ought to be interpreted as long-run elasticities; as
such, they represent an upper bound to the possible values of the short-term supply

Regarding the short-term supply elasticities, there were two major periods of war
during the eighteenth century which had a major impact on European slave demand. The
first took place between 1756 and 1763; the second between 1777 and 1783. The periods
following these wars were also unusual, since there was a sudden release of stored-up
demand. It is to be expected that, owing to the sudden and temporary nature of these
impacts, elasticity estimates for these years might be significantly lower than those o
more stable periods. But in examining the data it was found that the responsiveness of
suppliers during these war periods and their aftermaths was identical to that of the rest o
the period. Evidently, African suppliers were able to adjust their market expectations
quickly and act accordingly.

Results--Nineteenth Century
The last test compares late eighteenth century prices and quantities with those of th
1840s, the last decade of major African exports to the Atlantic trade. Before proceedin
to the elasticity calculation, however, some consideration of the possible changing supply
cost conditions which may have prevailed during the nineteenth century and the impac
of these on the estimate must be given. There are a variety of reasons for believing that
the African supply costs rose during the nineteenth century; therefore, by the simple
statistical procedure, the elasticity measure will be below the true elasticity. Perhaps the
most important factor affecting costs was the British Navy, which attempted to suppres
the trade and became increasingly effective in doing so during the first half of th
century. One consequence of this activity was the increase in the importance of th
institution of factoring. Because of the necessity of adopting various methods to avoid
detection and prosecution, slave factors began to assume duties unknown in the
eighteenth century. For example, it became important to have a full cargo of slaves on
hand and ready for immediate delivery in order to minimize the time spent near the coast
with slaves on board. In the past, ships could cruise from port to port looking for a carg
at a good price. Factors also provided skilled carpenters and other artisans who could
quickly provide the articles associated with the slave trade and which would be grounds
for condemnation if they were discovered on board. Finally, the factor provided help i
obtaining illegal registration papers and served as a storehouse of legal barter goods (slave
ships usually paid in gold rather than spend the time needed to unload goods). Because of
these new duties, the factor's share of the price of a slave increased during the nineteenth
century;12 therefore, one would expect that fewer slaves would have been supplied for
the same price in the nineteenth century than in the eighteenth. An attempt has been
made to eliminate this by subtracting the factoring costs from the total price for both
periods, on the assumption that other supply costs remained the same.
It is unlikely, however, that non-factor-related supply costs did stay the same during

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the nineteenth century. The Navy's activity force

and brought about the development of new mark
shift may have implied market development cos
Moreover, competition from other slave-using act
during this period, most notably because of the d
suggests that fewer slaves were brought to the ex
during the eighteenth century. There is no way
estimate; the conclusion is that the elasticity est
true elasticity.
Difficulties are again encountered in determin
There are numerous price references for the 184
hearings on the effectiveness of the British anti-s
1850), though the bias of some witnesses may hav
prices in order to exaggerate the profitability o
observations is, therefore, extreme; a few witnes
others cite prices as high as ?20. Along the West
most frequently given prices ranged between ?5
The mean value of ?8 is chosen as the unit for c
the factor's share is then subtracted from both
factor's share was about 25 percent of the to
century. There is some evidence that during the
much as 50 percent of the total price.13 Figured
share of the total slave price would have been
periods. It would appear, therefore, that slave pr
fell by only 43 percent, which implies an elasticit
However, there is one other consideration whic
estimate of the elasticity-the changing value of
Without going into detail, it should be stated th
developments in Europe caused a dramatic decline
African trade. A survey of a few major items co
indicates that the real value of a pound doubled
means that ?4 bought as much in the 1840s as ?8
The supply response would be made on the basis
Africans and not on the changing nominal value o
the actual goods offered for a slave declined by o
elasticity of about .9, a value similar to that of all
From the preceding elasticity estimates, the f
drawn. First, the remarkably consistent finding
somewhat less than 1.0 during the 150 years cover
relationship existed between slave prices and exp
suppliers were very flexible in their response to
flexibility could only have existed if some slaves
because of their economic value and if there had
slaves during periods when the profitability of t
possibility that elements of both of the two mo
shown above, there is some indication of a fairly
available at very low prices; perhaps as much a
export volume falls into this category, as predicte

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other hand, the strong temporal relationship between prices and export
plained without reference to an economic model of supply such as the on

Limitations of the Analysis

Before examining further implications of the analysis, it must be und

data have limited the general usefulness of these estimates. The elasticity
to the aggregate market supply response for all of Africa. Since there
relationship between the aggregate response and that of a single region,
about the performance of any individual market. However, because ther
rough data concerning the performances of various eighteenth century
Africa, it is possible to be more definitive about the overall relationship
response and that of specific markets.
There are two extreme possibilities which define the range of relati
could have existed between the general market response estimated and t
individual markets. First, it is possible that the increase in exports obse
consequence of each region proportionately increasing its own exports. In
would be an equivalence between the estimates of the supply elasticity a
elasticity of each particular market. At the other extreme, it is pos
development of increased exports, derived entirely from the introductio
cost markets, became increasingly profitable as the prices increased alon
this case the old markets might not increase their supply proportionate
increase their supply at all, might decrease their supply, or might incr
more than proportionately. That is to say, the response of these markets
a negative elasticity to an elasticity greater than that found in the overall
Data on the regional market exports are available; and although t
reliable as the overall export data, some trends in market share are eviden
this discussion. For instance, during the eighteenth century, the relative s
African markets declined from about 73 percent of the total trade to less
(Curtin, 1969: 211; Anstey, 1974), with the Central and Southeastern ma
correspondingly. During the nineteenth century, this shift was further
although the data are too imprecise to permit an accurate comparison wit
century. Moreover, within the general West African market during the eigh
not all regional markets behaved in the same way. Although all market ex
more than the total export supply, general trends are evident. Some ma
declined in terms of their relative share of the trade but also in terms
number of slaves they supplied. For example, the Senegambia, Wind
Bight of Benin markets' combined exports were about 14,000 slaves ann
period 1711-1720; this figure fell to about 3,700 exports per year
1791-1800.15 Other markets had a declining relative share of the total bu
exports somewhat during the eighteenth century-Gold Coast and Sierra
cases-while the Bight of Biafra market not only increased its absol
increased its share of the total trade. Some markets seem to have lost thei
the passage of time, perhaps for economic reasons-including the possibilit
lation was making slaving more costly. Other markets appear to hav
flexible during the period, perhaps because of improved market opportu
development of new institutions which facilitated trade.

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It is likely, therefore, that several contradictory h

slaves could be true for the analysis of individual ma
evident from the aggregate supply response analysis
require more detailed research on individual markets
and price data required than are presently available,
ments which might have affected the supply process
new trade institutions, changing political conditio
should be available; such information would help to di
movements along the supply curve stimulated by chan


Perhaps the most controversial issue-one which has intrigued slave trade histo
concerns the distribution of the trade's profits. Until recently, many historians ac
the notion that the trade's profits were extensive and even sufficient to fuel Bri
industrial revolution (Williams, 1944). Profits were supposed to have accrued larg
British financiers who invested either in the trade itself or in sugar. While severa
studies have shown that the profits of the sugar system and the trade were not ex
(Engerman, 1972; Thomas, 1968), the question of the ultimate distribution o
income of the trade has not been answered. It has been pointed out elsewhere tha
resolution of this issue requires a better understanding of the relative flexibility of
the subsectors of the total slave supply (Engerman, 1974; Bean and Thomas, 1
overall African slave supplies were inelastic, then those fortunate African groups
abundant local slave sources would extract "Ricardian rents" from the trade
increasing demand for slaves forced slave prices higher. These African suppliers wi
access to slaves resembled Ricardo's owner of the fertile land whose profits incre
new demand pushed the margin of cultivation to less fertile regions, thereby drivi
land values. The finding of a somewhat inelastic supply response for Africa, ther
indicates the possibility that more of the profits created by the slave-sugar system
captured by fortunate African suppliers at the expense of European traders, West I
landowners, and British sugar consumers than would have been the case had the s
response been elastic. However, a complete analysis of these gains requires f
consideration of the elasticity of alternative labor supplies available to the Caribb
(Curtin, 1968) and an examination of the alternative non-Caribbean/Brazilian sour
sugar available to Europe. If, for example, there were alternative and cheap labor
tutes or if there were alternative competitive sources of sugar, then African supplier
not have exercised much monopoly power without reducing the number of
exported and, hence, their income. The more inelastic the European demand for s
the greater the chance for Africa to capture monopoly rents from the trade.16
A second aspect of the distribution question is the unevenness of the profits wi
Africa. As discussed above, there is evidence of differing supply responses for the
slave markets along the African Coast. It is unlikely that these response variation
stimulated by different slave prices, since European competition tended to eliminat
fluctuating major discrepancies. It is likely that these response variations were the
of changing "production" conditions within each market, brought about by such
as the availability of slave sources and changing political institutions affecting all a
of the slave supply process. Low-cost regions thus could have extracted fairly large p
from the trade, while other regions might have had little economic benefit. In this
the slave trade probably helped to foster differences in economic and political po

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Africa. This hypothesis must be investigated in much more de

In another application the supply elasticity has been use
impact of the suppression policies pursued by the British Nav
century on the volume of the illegal slave trade (LeVeen, 197
primarily directed at reducing the demand for slaves by sugar
Anti-slave trade patrols along the coast made the continuatio
expensive for European traders, which forced a rise in slave
Brazil. Higher slave prices reduced the demand for newly im
growers, and the lower demand for slaves on the African coast
prices received by African suppliers. If African supply respo
Africans would have continued to attempt to supply large nu
would have forced drastic reductions in slave prices on the co
the impact of the Navy would have been felt primarily by A
experiencing large income reductions; there would have been
impact on the volume of the trade, since sugar growers woul
pay a large percentage of the additional trading costs caused
Navy. If the supply response had been very elastic, then even
slave price on the coast would have reduced slave supplies subst
additional trade costs due to the operations of the Navy would
sugar grower, causing him to cut back his use of slaves or ca
pay much more for sugar, which would have created a much gr
of the trade.

This analysis indicates that the elasticity was neither very inelastic nor very elastic; it
follows that the Naval suppression policies did reduce the volume of the trade substan-
tially and did cause African slave suppliers economic loss, and probably introduced a new
source of political instability as those groups dependent on the trade gradually lost some
of the advantages they had enjoyed over other non-slave-trade participating groups.
Finally, the elasticity measure may be used as an indicator of productive conditions
within Africa. For example, if an inelastic response is found, it can be inferred that some
element of the supply process was raising the cost of increasing the output of slaves. High
costs could result from a variety of factors, including the necessity of searching further
inland for additional slaves, or the possibility that the resources used in the various
subsectors of the trade were relatively scarce and/or difficult to attract into this activity.
If one could examine the changes in the elasticity over time, then indirect evidence might
be found of the changing conditions which affected costs. For example, if the slave trade
had depopulated large regions of Africa, it is likely that supply costs would have begun to
rise as the search for new slaves became more and more difficult. This would have been
reflected in greater inelasticity of the supply response.18 Alternatively, political
developments which increased the stability of trade routes might have reduced the cost
of finding additional slaves and thereby have increased the elasticity of supply. In short,
given the problems of inadequate direct historical data, which plague the study of African
history, the supply elasticity measure can serve as a useful tool (assuming the price and
quantity data are available in the first place!) in providing indirect evidence for the
analysis of a variety of problems.
Unfortunately, the data used in this study are not very useful for such purposes,
because they relate to the entire coast of Africa and have been estimated for the entire
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ideally, one should have annual data for individual
markets in order to have sufficient observations to make statistically valid estimates of
the appropriate elasticities and possible changes in elasticity. These data may exist for

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some markets in sufficient detail to permit the use

not yet been assembled.
There are undoubtedly other implications of
discussion is not intended to be exhaustive. It is to b
will indicate the possibility and the value of extendi
that historians working with other types of data ca
to help them untangle some of the difficult problem


1. For readers unfamiliar with the concept of an elasticity: the "supply price elastic
defined as the ratio of the percentage change in volume of slaves supplied to the percentage c
the slave price. A supply response is "inelastic" if the percent change in price implies a smaller
change in volume; a response characterized by no change in supply when the price changes i
"perfectly inelastic," and the value of the ratio is zero. A supply response is "elastic" wh
percentage change in volume exceeds the percent change in price; a response which floods the
for a small price increase is called "perfectly elastic," and the value of the ratio approaches infini
2. For an alternative economic model of the trade, see Gemery and Hogendorn (1973). Ge
and Hogendorn use a traditional "vent for surplus" trade model which is frequently app
underdevelopment contexts. The excess supply model gives the same general results
conceptually more complete and permits a more detailed examination of the possible force
affected the export of slaves.
3. The following algebraic relationship indicates the relationship among the four var
involved in Figure 1:
EA 1 ET( 1-Q) ES

ES = elasticity of supply for the Atlantic trade (SBC)

E = elasticity of the production supply curve (SS)

and ES = elasticity of demand of competing users (ScDc)

Q = proportion of supply going with the Atlantic trade.

From this, the following generalizations can be made: the elasticity of the excess supply curve SBC
varied directly with the elasticity of the slave production curve SS and directly with the elasticity of
the demand of competing users (ES is negative). It varies inversely with the proportion of the trade
going into the Atlantic trade so that, in the limit, if Q equals 1 (all of the slaves go to the Atlantic
trade), then the elasticity of SS and SBC is the same.
4. Fage estimates that 75 percent of the slaves were obtained in wars and raids; see Fage (1969:
94); see also Gemery and Hogendorn (1973: 11).
5. There are a variety of citations giving slave prices in the interior. For example, see Fisher and
Fisher (1971: 61-62, 77) which indicates that the transportation from the interior to the export point
may have increased the slave price by 500 percent. Slaves might be bought for as little as a few old
buttons in some areas. One observer noted that slaves were initially selling for the cost of an old
musket; another states that, when the coastal price of a slave was ?8, the interior price was ?1.5; see
Great Britain (1852-53: 37).
6. On the economic rationale for tolls, see Great Britain (1852-53: 51) and Bean and Thomas
(1973: 18). Sundstrom notes that the number of middlemen monopolies tended to be inversely
related to the size of the political unit-the weaker the state, the greater the number of middlemen
who would attempt to extract some of the profits of the trade. Both Bean and Thomas and Sundstrom
suggest that the consolidation of political power eliminated many of these operations and thereby

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reduced the costs of the trade. Larger units, which reduced the n
could extract greater tolls than small units.
7. There is no direct evidence on the number of slave who mig
For the Saharan crossing, which was obviously much more difficu
forty percent died en route; see Fage (1969a: 81).
8. Curtin provides evidence that among the slaves captured by
century and restored at Sierra Leone, there were several individu
supplied the Saharan trade; see Curtin (1969: 253-54) and David
9. Karasch (1967: 53) describes an instance of the utilization of
trade as porters of more valuable commodities. Only the weak
retained for the transportation of ivory to the Angolan markets,
more income.
10. The major market development costs had been undertaken long before the beginning of the
eighteenth century along the West African coast-which had seen extensive slaving for the previous
two centuries. Bean suggests that cost reductions due to market development, ceased after 1700; see
Bean (1971: 69).
11. It should be emphasized that this discussion of shifting supply relationships concerns shifts
which occur because of fundamental changes in the costs of production. There are also supply-curv
shifts which become visible as the period of analysis moves from short- to long-term. In the short-term
almost no adjustment is expected in the quantity supplied in response to a change in price; in th
long-term, as the price change becomes better than had been expected, production conditions can b
adjusted so that supplies will be affected-that is, the supply response to a specific change in th
demand condition becomes more pronounced with the passage of time. This effect is eliminated from
our analysis by the use of ten-year intervals in aggregating price and quantity data.
12. Because the nineteenth century trade was illegal, a certain amount of monopoly power also
undoubtedly developed in factoring. For a more detailed look at factoring, see Turnbull (1840:
403-6): his description is based upon captured slaver papers. Also see Karasch (1967: 38 ff.) for
another view of the complexity surrounding the illegal trade in the nineteenth century.
13. Data on factoring in the nineteenth century are difficult to find. High profits were estimated
for one factor: see Ross (1965: 85-86). Martinez had an annual gross business of $200,000, on which
he cleared $80,000 in one year. Another piece of evidence is suggested by some of the slave pric
references. One observer quoted slave prices of between ?3 and ?15 "depending upon the facility they
have for getting slaves away." Another indicated that, upon destruction of the slave baracoons a
Callinas in the 1840s, the price of a slave dropped from ?6 to ?2; see Great Britain (1850: 147).
14. An example of the increase in the purchasing power of the pound is that in 1848 a pound
purchased about five times as much cotton cloth and about twice as much iron and sugar: see LeVee
(1971: 151-53).
15. These export data refer to the English and French trades. There is no comparable breakdown
for the Portuguese trade, though it is unlikely that its distribution changed sufficiently during the
eighteenth century to upset our conclusions.
16. There has been one attempt made to estimate the elasticity of the demand for slaves on the
part of producers in the Caribbean and Brazil during the nineteenth century. The demand was found
relatively elastic-values in the range of -1.5 to -2.0-which suggests that higher slave prices would hav
driven up the price of sugar and would therefore have shifted the demand for Caribbean and Brazilia
sugar to other producers in the non-slave-using parts of the world. This implies that British consumers
could effectively keep sugar prices low no matter what the slave price was in Africa. Whether thes
conditions were true for the eighteenth century is debatable: see LeVeen (1971: 44-61).
17. We can distinguish two causes for the uneven distribution of profits within Africa. The firs
is given in the text: some groups had lower trade costs, and they were, therefore, beneficiaries in much
the same way as the very efficient firm too small significantly to affect the total market can earn high
profits even in a competitive industry. The second source of differentiation derives from the
functional relationships in the trade. In general, we expect that those parts of the trade which were
competitive earned lower profits than those which had monopolistic power. It might be hypothesize
that the component of the slave trade most likely to have monopolistic power was the initial enslave
ment activity. If supplies of slaves were scarce, then those who owned them earned rents in the sam
way that landowners receive the benefit of owning a fixed asset in great demand. If high profits di
accrue to Africans, they were most likely captured by those who conducted the slave-raiding opera
tions. For an interesting argument as to why these excess profits may never have been realized by slave
raiders, see Bean and Thomas (1973).

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18. Bean (1971: 73) states:

It seems clear that the long-run coefficient of supply elastici
was at least as great as the coefficient of supply elasticity in t
is calculated at .75 and.83 for two different periods]. This st
the population of the western coast of Africa was not fallin
slave trade, and in fact, may well have been increasing. If th
to the acquiring and exporting of slaves had been greater tha
increase, the population would have fallen and rapidly risin
have been coupled with static or falling slave exports.
See also Fage (1969b).


Ajayi, J.F.A. and R. Smith. (1964) Yoruba Warfare in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge:
University Press.
Anstey, R. (1974) "The volume and profitability of the slave trade," pp. 3-31 in S. Engerm
Genovese (eds.) Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitive Studies. P
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and R.P. Thomas. (1973) "The fishers of men-the profits of the slave trade." Seatt
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. (1972) "The Atlantic slave trade, 1600-1800," pp. 240-68 in J.F.A. Ajayi and M
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TABLE 1: Slave Exports and Prices

Export volume; Price for export region*

Year annual average West Africa Gold Coast Senegambia West Indies
1 2 3 4 5
? sterling

1690-1700 24,000 5.0 ? 5.4 24.2

1701-1710 38,000 8.8 7.5 24.8
1711-1720 40,500 10.4 10.5 11.4 24.6
1721-1730 45,000 11.3 12.4 9.8 24.3
1731-1740 57,500 12.5 14.0 11.1 24.5
1741-1750 62,500 13.8 15.3 28.2
1751-1760 58,500 12.5 12.9 16.2 32.8
1761-1770 70,000 15.5 36.8
1771-1776 74,000 19.0 19.4 40.7
1777-1782 35,000 8.0 40.0
1783-1790 92,500 27.0 45.0
1791-1807 76,000 23.5 53.0

1841-1850 45,000 8.0 80.0

* Prime male slave

? Blanks indicate no data available.
Sources: Col. 1-Based on Curtin's (1969:216) export data for the Portuguese, British, and Fre
trades. These figures have been adjusted for the Danish, Dutch, and American trades us
Anstey's data for the years 1761-1807, and by using the assumption that the Danish
Dutch trades had similar proportions of the trade in the preceding decades as in the 1761
period (Anstey, 1974).
Col. 2-For 1690-1776, based upon the observations collected by Bean (1971). For oth
years, see LeVeen (1971), and Johnson (1966: 212, 213).
Cols. 3-4-Bean (1971).
Col. 5-Bean (.1971); see also Anstey (1974), and LeVeen (1971).

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QI Q2 Q3




x X













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