Droughts, Conflict, and the African Slave Trade

63 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2016 Last revised: 2 Jun 2020

Date Written: February 4, 2018


Historians have frequently suggested that droughts helped facilitate the African slave trade. By introducing a previously unused dataset on 19th century rainfall levels in Africa, I provide the first empirical examination of this hypothesis. I show that negative rainfall shocks and long-run shifts in the mean level of rainfall increased the number of slaves exported from a given region. To explain this negative relationship, I use geocoded data on 19th century African conflicts to show that negative rainfall shocks also increased the likelihood of conflict—a primary mechanism through which slaves were acquired. I also explore three alternative mechanisms: the role of household-level responses, the internal African slave market, and disease outbreaks. I find that household-level responses have the most empirical support of these alternative mechanisms. These results contribute to our understanding of the supply-side determinants of the African slave trade.

Keywords: slave trade, conflict, climate, droughts

JEL Classification: N37, N57, O15, Q54

Suggested Citation

Boxell, Levi, Droughts, Conflict, and the African Slave Trade (February 4, 2018). Journal of Comparative Economics, Vol. 47, No. 4, 2019, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2742316 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2742316

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