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How Slavery And Colonialism Have Shaped Modern Societies


Slavery is a system involving the treatment of people as commodities or property, traded often for the purpose of forced labour. This practice precedes written record having existed in numerous cultures. Most notable in its scale was the slave trade in the pre-industrial societies with the most significant being the trans-Atlantic slave trade (Eltis and Engerman, 2000).

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Slaves mainly from the western and central Africa were sold by African slave merchants and tribal elders to European slave traders to be exploited in an inexpensive labour force. They were then transported to colonies in North and South America and forced to work on plantations of coffee, tobacco, cocoa, cotton and sugar; in the rice fields; in the construction industry; in silver and gold mines; and/or served in houses working as servants (Eltis and Engerman, 2000).

Colonialism refers to the establishment, acquisition, maintenance, expansion, and exploitation of a territory by people of other territories or their agents. A colony refers to the territory controlled by another state or its agents. Colonialism describes a set of unequal relationships between colonial power and the colonists on one hand, bearing upon the colony and indigenous population on the other. The period from the 14th to the 19th centuries was an era characterized by European colonialism in which several European powers particularly Portugal, Spain, France, Britain, and the Netherlands established colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas (Cooper, 2005).

Both of these pursuits were designed to strengthen the home country through agriculture and economic exploits through the participation in international trade and exploitation of new lands, among other resources for capital profit in competition with rivals primarily under inter-capitalist rivalry for capital accumulation. They were particularly important in the economic development of capitalism (Ferguson, 2003; Getz and Heather, 2010). This paper seeks to establish if slavery and/or colonialism shaped modern societies and if so, in what ways.

In consideration of the contribution and influences of slavery and colonialism in shaping modern societies, industrial capitalism, which consequently undid the dependence on slave trade, the gradual economic change, and the cumulative effect of consequent economic and political developments have significantly shaped modern societies in the global arena (Getz and Heather, 2010). It obtains therefore that in the long term slave trade and colonialism contributed to the development of capitalism which has resulted in the continued dominance of international trade and politics, given their strong economies and political maturity.

Consequent impacts of slavery and colonialism ventures on modern societies include: unequal social relations and racial inferiority; neo-colonial dependency; distorted economies as well as massive poverty, particularly of the colonies, especially in Africa. In positive light, the pursuits of slavery and colonialism created effective conduits for commerce both at sea and on land with improved infrastructure and technological progress, as well as in the spread of languages, literature and cultures which has contributed to modern day globalization (Henry and Sangeeta, 2004; Ferguson, 2003).

The modern capitalist economic system

Capitalism is basically an economic system in which investment of capital (or money) is used to produce profits. Factors of production such as land, communications, factories and transport systems are privately owned by either individuals or corporations trading in a ‘free market’ whose main feature is competition (Hobsbawm, 1999). Historians debate the contribution of slave trade and colonialism to modern economic development with some having the view that the capital required came from within through industrial development. However, others argue that these predominantly commercial pursuits, driven by rivalry in the quest for capital accumulation and imperialism (international dominance), were the essential components in the development of the globally dominant capitalist economy (Cooper, 2005; Henry and Sangeeta, 2004).

The industrial revolution and economic growth

The processing of raw materials and profits from plantations sourced from colonial territories and produced predominantly through slave labour gave rise to industrial development and the creation of employment, increasing general prosperity and significantly enhancing the economies of the Western nations (Eltis and Engerman, 2000; Ferguson, 2003). The industrial revolution was backed significantly by the easing of credit facilities of new industrialists suffering from the lengthy turnover time with credit offerings which are a vital factor. This was enabled by offerings from the success and profits from ventures and principally, financial bills backed by plantation products like sugar and tobacco which became a form of money and went into circulation, filling the absence of sufficient credit and lending institutions required for industrial development (Eltis and Engerman, 2000). Through this set of events, it is clear that slavery and colonialism led to the development of the modern capitalist economy.

The industrial revolution and profits obtaining from the exploits of this era were substantial with the recipients becoming very rich and gaining power in the political and social spheres, thereby challenging the dominance of monarchies at the time (Rud?e, 1972). Growth in capitalism led to the emergence of economic institutions which provided security to property rights and to the broader society enhancing investments. These institutions were also the result of the development of political institutions which served to constrain the power of the monarchies and allied groups (Rogowski, 1989; Hobsbawm, 1999). Through this, Britain and France, which were farther ahead in economic development ushered in industrial development and parliamentary democracy with attendant liberties, structures and processes which exist and serve the modern society globally to this day (Ferguson, 2003).

Globalization and migrations

Other benefits and significant impacts that this trade and commerce has had on societies today include improved infrastructure, technological progress, and the opening up of territories around the globe which have been fostered by capitalist democracies; as well as the spread of languages, literation and culture internationally (Hobsbawm, 1999). These have been significant in fostering globalization. Most manufacturing towns and cities, trade routes and sea ports that were developed during this era are still in service in international trade. Also noteworthy is the fact that travel and migrations have resulted in changes in ethnic compositions of countries, particularly those of colonisers and colonies such as the Americas (Getz and Heather, 2010).

Racial inferiority, dependency and distorted economies

There are however significant negative impacts that these developments have had which are evident in modern societies including unequal social relations which result in racial inferiority; neo-colonial dependency; massive poverty; and distorted economies among others (Getz and Heather, 2010; Henry and Sangeeta, 2004). The dominance of Western nations in the global economy as established through these exploits and organized under capitalism has resulted in inequalities among nations and peoples across the globe. This is enhanced by imperialistic tendencies and neo-colonial dependency characteristic in the relationships of colony states with their colonizers, as well as neo-colonialism (Gallaher et al, 2008). This has resulted in unequal social relations globally and racial inferiority, which in part are consequences of massive poverty and distorted economies in most former colonies.

This is illustrated in the neo-colonial dependency of colony states to former colonizers which still exists in modern societies and the distorted economies. When one society finds itself forced to relinquish power to another society, it finds itself in a form of underdevelopment, a subordination that continues to be felt in modern societies (Gallaher et al, 2008). This can in part explain the fate of African and Caribbean states which are characterised by massive poverty and socio-psychological disorientation. Underdevelopment has led to social stratification and geographic disparities due to the belief and perceptions of peoples, such as those of the developing world as being racially inferior to the better-endowed peoples of the Western world. Generations of descendants from slavery continue to be affected by prejudice and bigotry and limited opportunities (Getz and Heather, 2010).


The view that slavery and colonialism has shaped modern societies has been elucidated and the ways in which this influence has occurred has been discussed. It is considered that the capitalist economic system of the modern world arose from exploits associated or resulting from slave trade and colonialism which has led to the economic divide between the Western world states with those of the colonised, especially the African states. This has led to neo-colonial dependency, social stratification and geographic disparities which have resulted in perceptions of racial inferiority characterized by prejudice, bigotry and limited opportunities.

Cooper, F., 2005. Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History.
Eltis, D., and S., Engerman, 2000. “The Importance of Slavery and the Slave Trade to Industrializing Britain.” In: Journal of Economic History, 60, 123-144.
Ferguson, N., 2003. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Allen Lane.
Gallaher, C. et al., 2008. Imperialism/Colonialism: Key Concepts in Political Geography, Sage Publications Ltd. p. 5 (GIC).
Getz, R., and Heather S., (eds.), 2010. Modern Imperialism and Colonialism: A Global Perspective.
Henry S., and R., Sangeeta, 2004. A Companion to Postcolonial Studies. John Wiley & Sons. p. 271.
Hobsbawm, E., 1999. Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day, New York: The New Press.
Rogowski, R., 1989. Commerce and Coalitions: How Trade affects Domestic Political Alignments, Princeton; Princeton University Press.
Rud?e, G., 1972. Europe in the Eighteenth Century: Aristocracy and the Bourgeois Challenge, Cambridge MA; Harvard University

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How Slavery And Colonialism Have Shaped Modern Societies. (2019, Feb 12). Retrieved February 17, 2019, from https://phdessay.com/how-slavery-and-colonialism-have-shaped-modern-societies/