The history of capitalism and the history of slavery are often intertwined. Slavery has existed as an institution since the emergence of agriculture and has taken many different roles in civilizations throughout the world. Capitalism is a much newer arrival to human history, but the emergence of global trade has forever changed the relationship between people and goods, and slavery has functioned and even thrived as a result. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the conditions of slave labor in Africa have been shaped by the global trade of Africa’s resources.

A comparison of the production of palm oil in West Africa and the extraction of rubber in the Congo Free State presents two different shifts in Africa’s institution of slavery as the result of the trade of market-based commodities. In West Africa, the palm oil industry resulted in the departure of traditional African economic ideology, as well as the erosion of slave owning elites. In the case the Congo Free State, the global rubber trade resulted in a regime of terror, violence, and exploitation as the region was privately owned by Leopold II following the Berlin Conference and the Scramble for Africa.

Palm oil and rubber are similar in that both were harvested and produced to meet an increased demand of global markets. Palm oil was valued because rising industrialization and urbanization in Europe created a market for vegetable oils. Palm oil could be used as a machine lubricant, fuel for lanterns, made into candles, or processed further to produce glycerin, which was used extensively in medicines.[1] The value of rubber increased in the 1890s when industrial societies began producing inflatable tires for cars and bicycles, as well as machine components such as hoses, tubing, and gaskets, and rubber was used for insulation in electrical wiring for telegraphs and telephones.

Palm oil and rubber both required extensive labor to gather and produce. The former required men to climb trees up to sixty feet tall to gather clusters of palm fruit. Women and girls fermented the raw fruit for days and then boiled it in large batches. Then, the boiled fruit was pounded into a pulp by foot to separate the fiber from the oil and boiled again to refine the oil. While the process differed between regions, the result required large amounts of raw materials to yield an appropriate amount of palm oil for market. Mann says, “By the 1890s, between 105,000 and 150,000 tons of fruit, harvested from as many as fifteen million trees, were required to manufacture the approximately 10,000 tons of palm oil exported annually from Lagos.”[2]

Rubber came from coagulated sap from a long spongy vine about a foot thick at the base, ascending around and up trees a hundred feet above the ground, and branching apart and spanning hundreds of feet across tree limbs in the canopy of the Congo rainforest. Incisions made into the vine above a bucket collected the slow dripping sap. After the sap was collected the gatherer, lacking sophisticated equipment, had to spread the raw rubber across their body only to painfully remove the dried rubber later.

As vines were drained dry, men would have to travel up into the trees or journey for days into the forest to find fresh vines. Tropical rainfall made the process more strenuous, turning the rainforest into a swampland. Environmental hazards were the stuff of nightmares, as Hochschild notes that, “to fill their quota, rubber gatherers had to spend twenty-four days a month in the forest, where they built crude cages to sleep in for protection — not always successful — against leopards.”[3]

Both rubber extraction and palm oil production used slave labor to meet market demands, however, these were different variations of slavery and the differences are worth contrasting. Palm oil production still relied on the more traditional African slave labor that existed prior to the introduction of market capitalist practices. Slavery is often defined by its relation to trade and the political hierarchies of the societies in which slavery exists. Prior the colonial era of African history, Africans held a different ideology about the relationship between goods and people.

A slave was a dependent upon an existing power structure and was not defined by race, but rather, by debt owed to powerful elites. Elites viewed the number of dependents they controlled as wealth; they did not measure wealth in the amount of material goods they possessed. These social relationships of dependence and debt went along with generational transfers of power, as Miller says, “wealth was people and that its sources resided in the propagation of descendants owing proper respect to their elders.”[4]

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When global demand for African resources brought western capitalist ideology to West Africa, the nature of slavery as an institution began to change as wealth began to be measured by commodities such as palm oil. In the colonization of the Americas, Africans sold and transported across the Atlantic were treated as movable pieces of property, known as chattel slavery, with the purpose of extracting raw materials such as silver, gold, sugar, tobacco, and coffee on plantations.

Slavery changed because the relationship between people and goods changed. Prior to commercial capitalism, in Africa goods were not generally viewed as made for exchange, rather “The purpose of production was for use within a community, with the ordinary distribution of products handled under the rubrics of inheritance, redistribution, or sharing.” Western capitalism valued mass production of goods, and the power structures of European and colonial societies relied on wealth gained through trade of commodities.

The palm oil industry in West Africa at the latter half of the nineteenth century disrupted social norms, and the shift to market capitalism eroded the power of African slave traders. Prior to global trade, palm oil production was restricted to women, but as demand increased, so did opportunities. The manufacture of palm oil increased from small to large-scale operations from the 1840s to the 1860s. What was the work of a children, wives, and maybe a few slaves grew into a large number of workers, “perhaps fifty persons or more.”[5]

Slaves were increasingly used in producing palm oil as more slaves became available as a result of warfare and regional insecurity. The abolition of the Atlantic slave trade further increased the number available for local acquisition. Mann notes that, “A number of Lagos’s big slave traders easily made the transition to exporting palm produce, cotton, ivory, and other “legitimate” commodities.”[6]

However, free trade would unravel the power structures of Africa’s slave owning elite as they could not monopolize export trade in commodities as they had with slaves. Competition in palm oil trade made possible for many new men, and some women, to achieve economic success and while former slave traders were able make the shift to palm produce trading, their economic prominence was not transferred to the next generation. The old ruling oligarchy that formerly controlled the export of slaves lost its political power with the decline of their economic hegemony.

Slave labor in the Congo Free State was not similar to conventional African slavery commonplace in previous centuries, or to the chattel slavery present in the Americas. It was a regime of terror motivated by the global demand for rubber and the greed of a monarch. The Congo Free State, 1885 to 1908, was privately owned by King Leopold II of Belgium after his rights to the territory were recognized at the Berlin Conference in 1884. The Scramble for Africa produced colonies that became specialized producers for the world market acquiring an economic structure that often survived into the twentieth century.[7]

Illithe notes that, “Between 1890 and 1910, the world price of rubber more than trebled and tropical Africans in the thousands scoured forests for wild sources.”[8] Like the slave labor used in palm oil production, or on American plantations, the end goal was profiting from the export of a commodity, but the political structure that emerged from was distinctly different. In the case of palm oil production in West Africa, power was distributed amongst slave owning elites domestically, and these elites competed with one another and other individuals who had risen to economic prominence in the palm oil trade.

In the case of the Congo Free State, one individual held a monopoly of the entire industry because he believed the land, the people, and the natural resources belonged to him. The worldview of an individual becomes more consequential when that person holds power over an entire region of people and resources, as King Leopold II once remarked to Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, “There is really nothing left for us kings except money!”[9]

The logistics of rubber extraction exclude more conventional practices of slave labor defined by permanent supervision and restriction of space, and so Belgium soldiers used terror to motivate the exportation of rubber and to ensure their control over the region. Soldiers would enter villages taking the wives and daughters of men hostage, only releasing them when a certain amount of rubber was acquired. Instruction manuals issued to Belgium soldiers gave clear instructions on how to take hostages, “In Africa taking prisoners is … an easy thing to do, for if the natives hide, they will not go far from their village and must come to look for food in the gardens which surround it.”[10]

Cutting off hands or other body parts was a common tactic used to encourage collection of rubber or used as punishment for any resistance to the colonial regime. As one high ranking official later admitted, “To gather rubber in the district . . . one must cut off hands, noses and ears.'”[11] Photos taken by missionaries document the victims of body mutilation, one photo showing a young man and child with severed limbs, permanently disabled for life.[12] Another photo shows a man, Nsala of Wala, staring mournfully at the severed hand and foot of his five year old daughter.[13]

The atrocious reality of the rubber industry in the Congo Free State was not the reality of King Leopold II. He imagined his African territory as an exotic place where natives were grateful for his wise rule, where he could hold a vast empire that rivaled Great Britain or France. Leopold never did visit the Congo which could only have strengthened his fantasy of empire.

The machinations of a monarch a continent away, the demand for rubber as a natural resource, and the technological advances that made domination of another continent possible, were all external forces that operantly altered history within the Congo. Slavery has always been an economic institution and it is altered by the relationship between people and goods. All forms of slavery are morally indefensible, but all forms of slavery have different effects on economics, politics, and the people who are forced into slavery.  

Sources Cited

  • [1] Kristin Mann, Slavery and the birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900 (Indiana University Press, 2007), 118.
  • [2] Mann, Slavery and the birth of an African City, 131.
  • [3] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 163.
  • [4] Joseph Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830 (Calder University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 44.
  • [5] Mann, Slavery and the birth of an African City, 134.
  • [6] Ibid, 140.
  • [7] John Iliffe, Africans: The History of a Continent (Cambridge University Press. 1995), 193.
  • [8] Ibid, 210.
  • [9] Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, 167.
  • [10] Manuel du Voyageur et du Résident au Congo, from Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, 162.
  • [11] Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, 165.
  • [12] Alice Seeley Harris, A Young Man and Child with Severed Limbs, 1903.
  • [13] Alice Seeley Harris, Nsala of Wala (2), 1904.


Harris, Alice Seeley. A Young Man and Child with Severed Limbs. 1903. Photograph. Antislavery International. Accessed on 10/11/2020.

Harris, Alice Seeley. Nsala of Wala (2). 1904. Photograph. Antislavery International. Accessed on 10/11/2020.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Iliffe, John. Africans: The History of a Continent. Cambridge University Press. 1995. 

Mann, Kristin, Slavery and the birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900. Indiana University Press, 2007.

Miller, Joseph Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830. Calder University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.