Fact Check: Did Adam Smith, The Prophet And Father Of Capitalism, Call Africans Naked Savages?

Fact Check: Did Adam Smith, The Prophet And Father Of Capitalism, Call Africans Naked Savages?

capitalism racist
Fact Check: Did The Prophet And Father Of Capitalism Call Africans Naked Savages? Image: Adam Smith, author of “Wealth Of Nations” (1776) / Wikipedia

Adam Smith, the prophet and father of capitalism, is known as a pioneering advocate for the modern-day “free market” but little is known about the deep racist reference in his work to Africans and other races in the global south as “naked savages”.

 In his book, “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) — considered the bible of modern capitalism — Smith contrasts what he describes as “savage” and “civilized” nations right from the opening sentences.

“This book went viral in his day, shaping the foundations of our capitalist society. How do I look past this man referring to Africans as naked savages?” wrote Kwame Som Pimpong, co-founder of CultureBanx and Afara Global, in a Feb. 5 tweet.

Here’s what Smith wrote to try and justify why he thought “civilized nations” had achieved wealth, while the “savage nations” had not: “… the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.”

Smith characterized almost the entire world, apart from Europe, as “savage” and “barbaric”.

While his writing relied on travelers’ tales, whose descriptions of the world outside Europe were always riddled with lurid and exaggerated creations, he sometimes made racist assertions on his own accord by using the words “I believe”.

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According to Smith, Africans were just too barbaric and savage to have yet realized their own true nature as economic beings. Simply put, they were not human enough to pursue commerce for their own economic interests.

Smith was known to be anti-slavery for purely its moral and economic reasons, according to a tweet by Adam Smith Works, a project of Liberty Fund with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Even so, the brilliance of his thought and ideology displayed in the “Wealth of Nations” ended up suffering from the structural racism of his time.

In Smith’s view, “savage” societies are poor and miserable, and hence cannot be “flourishing and happy”.

Born in Scotland, Smith entered the University of Glasgow when he was 14 and studied at Oxford starting in 1740. At the time, economics was dominated by the idea that a country’s wealth was best measured by its store of gold and silver, according to Biography.com. Instead, Smith proposed that a nation’s wealth should be judged by its total production and commerce, known today as gross domestic product (GDP). He also explored theories of the division of labor, an idea dating back to Plato, in which specialization would lead to a qualitative increase in productivity.

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