So I am sure you have heard at some point that blacks sold each other into slavery whilst still in Africa. Is that an undeniable truth or a western myth used to justify their inhumane actions? Or perhaps a combination platter of both? Let’s discuss the history of slavery a bit here….more to come later.
In Africa, as in many places around the world, early slavery likely resulted from warring groups taking captives. Such captives were of little use, and often some bother, when kept close to their homes because of the ease of escape. Therefore, they were often sold and transported to more distant places. Warfare was not the only reason for the practice of slavery in Africa, however. In many African societies, slavery represented one of the few methods of producing wealth available to common people. Throughout the African continent there was little recognition of rights to private landholding until colonial officials began imposing European law in the 19th century. Land was typically held communally by villages or large clans and was allotted to families according to their need. The amount of land a family needed was determined by the number of laborers that family could marshal to work the land. To increase production, a family had to invest in more laborers and thus increase their share of land. The simplest and quickest way to do this was to invest in slaves. To help service this demand, many early African societies conducted slave raids on distant villages.
Women constituted the majority of early African slaves. In addition to agricultural work, female slaves carried out other economic functions, such as trading and cotton spinning and dyeing. They also performed domestic chores, such as preparing food, washing clothes, and cleaning. Powerful African men kept female slaves as wives or concubines, and in many societies these women stood as symbols of male wealth. Male slaves typically farmed and herded animals. Those who belonged to wealthy families and especially of ruling lineages of states also worked as porters and rowers, and learned crafts such as weaving, construction, and metalwork. New slaves were sometimes given menial tasks while experienced slaves did the more difficult and dangerous work, such as mining and quarrying.
Some male, and fewer female, slaves held positions of high status and trust within their societies. In precolonial states in the interior of West and Central Africa, slaves often served as soldiers and confidants of high officials. With their necessarily limited ambitions and dependence on their masters, slaves were considered the ideal persons to be close to men in power. In a few cases, female slaves assumed power and influence as well.
Slavery and Kinship
Traditionally, those without kin were essentially lost–not considered real persons by society. Slaves, taken in battle or in slave raids, were cut off from their kin. In some societies, however, slaves were viewed as dependents, and could, over time, become identified as members of their owners’ extended families. Many African societies decreed that children of slave owners by their slaves could not be sold or killed. Also, after three or four generations, descendants of slaves could often shed their slave status. Thus slavery, on one hand, cut people off from their kin but, on the other hand, provided them with the possibility of becoming attached to other families and, after several generations, reintegrated into the web of kinship.
None of the above possibilities should suggest that enslaved Africans liked what was happening to them, accepted slavery willingly, or normally rose quickly in status. However, early African traditions of slavery appear more benign when compared to the institutionalized systems of slave trading that would develop later.
Effects of Slave Trades on Africa
Africa’s role in the history of transcontinental slave trading has generally been as a provider or exporter of slaves for use outside of Africa. The practice of using Africa as a source of slaves would be adopted and expanded first by Arab Muslims and later by Europeans.
The Trans-Saharan and East African Slave Trades
The spread of Islam from Arabia into Africa after the religion’s founding in the 7th century AD affected the practice of slavery and slave trading in West, Central, and East Africa. Arabs had practiced slave raiding and trading in Arabia for centuries prior to the founding of Islam, and slavery became a component of Islamic traditions. Both the and Islamic religious law served to codify and justify the existence of slavery. As Muslim Arabs conquered their way westward across North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries, their victorious leaders rewarded themselves with Berber captives, most of whom were eventually enrolled in Muslim armies. Over time, large segments of North Africa’s Berber population converted to Islam. The religion spread to the camel herders of the Sahara Desert, who were in contact with black Africans south of the Sahara and who traded small numbers of black slaves. Muslim Arabs expanded this trans-Saharan slave trade, buying or seizing increasing numbers of black Africans in West Africa, leading them across the Sahara, and selling them in North Africa. From there, most of these slaves were exported to far-off Asian destinations such as present-day Turkey, present-day Iran, and India.
By the 9th century, seafaring Muslims from Arabia and Persia had made their way down the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa, obtaining African slaves in ports from Mogadishu (in present-day Somalia) to present-day Mozambique. The culture of the East African coastal regions was strongly influenced by Arab and Persian traders, many of whom intermarried with Africans, thus producing the Swahili people and culture. Between the 9th and the 13th centuries, this Arab-Persian-Swahili population established cities and city-states along the East African coast. These cities and states captured or purchased slaves from the East African interior for domestic and agricultural tasks. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as plantation agriculture developed in the region, the East African slave trade increased dramatically.
Scholars’ opinions differ on the issue of the long-term effects of Islam on African slavery. Some believe that Islamic law helped regulate slavery, thus limiting its abuses; these scholars often argue that because Islam encouraged the freeing of slaves upon their master’s death, it increased instances of emancipation. Other scholars believe that Islam led to the expansion of slavery, arguing that at the time that slavery was growing in the parts of Africa coming under Islamic influence, slavery was declining in most of medieval Europe.
The Atlantic Slave Trade
The Atlantic slave trade developed after Europeans began exploring and establishing trading posts on the Atlantic (west) coast of Africa in the mid-15th century. The first major group of European traders in West Africa was the Portuguese, followed by the British and the French. In the 16th and 17th centuries, these European colonial powers began to pursue plantation agriculture in their expanding possessions in the New World.
West and west central African states, already involved in slave trading, supplied the Europeans with African slaves for export across the Atlantic. Africans tended to live longer on the tropical plantations of the New World than did European laborers (who were susceptible to tropical diseases) and Native Americans (who were extremely susceptible to “Old World” diseases brought by the Europeans from Europe, Asia, and Africa). Also, enslaved men and women from Africa were inexpensive by European standards. Therefore, Africans became the major source, and eventually the only source, of New World plantation labor.
The Africans who facilitated and benefited from the Atlantic slave trade were political or commercial elites–generally members of the ruling apparatus of African states or members of large trading families or institutions. African sellers captured slaves and brought them to markets on the coast. At these markets European and American buyers paid for the slaves with commodities–including cloth, iron, firearms, liquor, and decorative items–that were useful to the sellers. Slave sellers were mostly male, and they used their increased wealth to enhance their prestige and connect themselves, through marriage, to other wealthy families in their realms.
From the mid-15th to the late-19th century, European and American slave traders purchased approximately 12 million slaves from West and west central Africa. Historians estimate that between 1.5 and 2 million slaves died during the journey to the New World.
The Atlantic slave trade differed from previous practices of slavery and slave trading in Africa in its huge scope and its importance to the economies of world powers. While traditional African slavery was practiced largely to help African communities produce food and goods or for prestige, slave labor on European plantations in the New World was crucial to the economies of the colonies and therefore to the economies of the colonial powers.
As humanitarian sentiments grew in Western Europe with the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment and as European economic interests shifted slowly from agriculture to industry, a movement to abolish the slave trade and the practice of slavery came into being in the Western world. The Atlantic slave trade continued, however, until 1888, when Brazil abolished slavery (the last New World country to do so).
While the Atlantic slave trade was dying down around 1850, the trans-Saharan and East African slave trades were at their peaks. In the 1850s the Ottoman Empire nominally outlawed slavery in much of the Islamic world, but this had only a minor effect on the slave trade. One of the main justifications European powers gave for colonizing nearly the entire African continent during the 1880s and 1890s was the desire to end slave trading and slavery in Africa. By the dawn of the 20th century, European forces had defeated most African slave trading states, and the trans-Saharan and East African slave trades came to an end.