“What the Book of Negroes teaches me about spam”

Hello Everyone,
This post is courtesy of Dr. Marina Adshade, Assistant Professor of Economics at Dalhousie University.  Dr. Adshade will be leading one of the September 9 discussion sessions.

Comments and Questions are encouraged!

- Melanie

“What the Book of Negroes teaches me about spam”

Guest Blogger: Dr. Marina Adshade, Assistant Professor of Economics
Creative Commons Attribution)I have had an extremely lucrative year. Just yesterday I learned that I will be receiving my share of a 1.25 billion dollar payout as soon as I send the bank my name, address and bank account information. Good news on the home front too. A super-model from the UK is coming to MY CITY for six months and is going to rent a room in my house. The only condition he has set for paying the $2 million dollars a month rent that I have asked of him is that it needs to be deposited, lump-sum, into my bank account before he arrives. Wow. Honestly, the only way things could get better is if that Nigeria widow, now dying of cancer, gives me millions to build orphanages in MY COUNTRY.

Now certainly not all of these emails I get (several per day, which, by the way, is the price you pay for trying to be cheeky) originate in Africa. But, by and large, they seem to stem from that part of the world. If you think that you have suffered from the annoyance of these repeated attempts to defraud you of your hard earned cash, think of the price being paid by the citizens in countries like Nigeria for the lack of trust, and trustworthiness, in their own countries. Economists have known for a long time that trust plays an important role in the functioning of any society. John Stuart Mill spoke of this when he wrote in 1848 that “The advantage to mankind of being able to trust one another, penetrates into every crevice and cranny of human life: the economical is perhaps the smallest part of it, yet this is incalculable.” But while trust is an important element of any society, the level of trust varies from nation to nation. For example, in a poll that asks Canadians “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people”, 53% of respondents report that they feel most people can be trusted. When a similar question is asked of Nigerians, however, a remarkable 87% respond that most people cannot be trusted.

The level of trust stems of from a variety of factors, not the least of which is the level of trustworthiness of those around you. So what causes some people to behave in an untrustworthy fashion? Well an economist would argue that people will behave in a trustworthy fashion when the returns to doing so outweigh the costs. If you are living in a community (think pre-colonial Africa or rural Canada) that relies heavily on everyone behaving cooperatively, then there is a large benefit to being trusted (and trusting). When the incentives to behaving that way change though, people make different choices.

So what does this have to do with the Book of Negroes and the spam that lands in my email account every day? In the book we find that Aminata Diallo is abducted and sold not by white foreigners but by fellow Africans. In fact, she does not meet a single European until, after a three month walk from her home village, she has reached the Atlantic coast. Her abduction is made possible by individuals who were prepared to behave in a way that, to most of us, seems incomprehensible. The book leaves no doubt that Aminata feels the betrayal of her fellow Africans intensely and those who witnessed it along her route must have been left wondering who to trust. The arrival of the slave trade into Africa changed individual’s incentives to behave in a trustworthy manner and, as a result, the ability of individuals to trust each other. The choice to betray was not in every case founded in greed. Some, like Aminata’s future husband Chekura, chose betrayal in order to protect themselves. Others betrayed their neighbours in order to get weapons so that they could protect their own children. Many others, however, participated in order to achieve wealth and power beyond what they could have achieved by remaining within their own communities, those founded on trust. So the long slave trade in Africa, spanning centuries, shifted societies away from those which were trusting to those that were fearful of betrayal.

You may be sceptical that this effect has persisted until today but data bears out this relationship. New research by Nathan Nunn (Harvard University) suggests that those countries with the lowest trust levels in 2005 (measured using surveys like those mentioned above) are the same countries from which slaves were most intensely taken during the transatlantic slave trade (from 1450 to 1866). The link between slow modern growth rates (in terms of standards of living) and the intensity of slave trading is also not difficult to make. This evidence suggests communities that were most affected by slave trading transitioned to a lower productivity and lower trust equilibrium than those that were less affected.

So next time you find yourself asking, while reading an obviously fraudulent email, how people can stoop so low, try to consider the historic context of the societies that spawned these individuals and how they might have evolved over the centuries of the slave trade. How might Aminata’s community have changed as they fought to hold themselves together and to maintain their way of life. And more importantly, within the context of this discussion, ask yourself what happened to the descendents of the bandits who participated in the slave trade after the traders left the continent. Perhaps now they are roaming the internet cafes of Abuja still seeking wealth and power.