post Slavery within Africa

April 29th, 2009

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 10:02

In most African societies, there was very little difference between the free peasants and the feudal vassal peasants. Vassals of the Songhay Muslim Empire were used primarily in agriculture; they paid tribute to their masters in crop and service but they were slightly restricted in custom and convenience. These non-free people were more an occupational caste, as their bondage was relative.

13th century Africa - simplified map of the main states, kingdoms and empires

There is adequate evidence citing case after case of African control of segments of the trade. Several African nations such as the Ashanti of Ghana and the Yoruba of Nigeria had economies largely depending on the trade. African peoples such as the Imbangala of Angola and the Nyamwezi of Tanzania would serve as intermediaries or roving bands warring with other African nations to capture Africans for Europeans. Extenuating circumstances demanding exploration are the tremendous efforts European officials in Africa used to install rulers agreeable to their interests. They would actively favor one African group against another to deliberately ignite chaos and continue their slaving activities.

Slavery in the rigid form which existed in Europe and throughout the New World was not practiced in Africa nor in the Islamic Orient. “Slavery”, as it is often referred to, in African cultures was generally more like indentured servitude: “slaves” were not made to be chattel of other men, nor enslaved for life. African “slaves” were paid wages and were able to accumulate property. They often bought their own freedom and could then achieve social promotion -just as freedman in ancient Rome- some even rose to the status of kings (e.g. Jaja of Opobo and Sunni Ali Ber). Similar arguments were used by western slave owners during the time of abolition, for example by John Wedderburn in Wedderburn v. Knight, the case that ended legal recognition of slavery in Scotland in 1776. Regardless of the legal options open to slave owners, rational cost-earning calculation and/or voluntary adoption of moral restraints often tended to mitigate (except with traders, who preferred to weed out the worthless weak individuals) the actual fate of slaves throughout history.

Slavery in Songhai
In most African societies, there was very little difference between the free peasants and the feudal vassal peasants. Vassals of the Songhay Muslim Empire were used primarily in agriculture; they paid tribute to their masters in crop and service but they were slightly restricted in custom and convenience. These people were more an occupational caste, as their bondage was relative. In the Kanem Bornu Empire, vassals were three classes beneath the nobles. Marriage between captor and captive was far from rare, blurring the anticipated roles.

Slavery in Ethiopia
Ethiopian slavery was essentially domestic. Slaves thus served in the houses of their masters or mistresses, and were not employed to any significant extent for productive purposes, Slaves were thus regarded as members of their owners’ family, and were fed, clothed and protected. They generally roamed around freely and conducted business as free people. They had complete freedom of religion and culture. It had been banished by its Emperors numerous times starting with Emperor Tewodros II (r. 1855-1868), although not eradicated completely until 1923 with Ethiopia’s ascension to the League of Nations.

Slaves taken from Africa

Trans Saharan trade
The very earliest external slave trade was the trans-Saharan slave trade. Although there had long been some trading up the Nile River and very limited trading across the western desert, the transportation of large numbers of slaves did not become viable until camels were introduced from Arabia in the 10th century. By this point, a trans-Saharan trading network came into being to transport slaves north. It has been estimated that from the 10th to the 19th century some 6,000 to 7,000 slaves were transported north each year.[5] Over time this added up to several million people moving north. Frequent intermarriages meant that the slaves were assimilated in North Africa. Unlike in the Americas, slaves in North Africa were mainly servants rather than labourers, and a greater number of females than males were taken, who were often employed as women of harems. It was also not uncommon to turn male slaves into eunuchs to serve as guardians to the harems.

Indian Ocean trade
The trade in slaves across the Indian Ocean also has a long history beginning with the control of sea routes by Arab traders in the ninth century. It is estimated that only a few thousand slaves were taken each year from the Red Sea and Indian Ocean coast. They were sold throughout the Middle East and India. This trade accelerated as superior ships led to more trade and greater demand for labour on plantations in the region. Eventually, tens of thousands per year were being taken.

Atlantic Ocean trade
The Atlantic slave trade developed much later, but it would eventually be by far the largest and have the greatest impact. The first Europeans to arrive on the coast of Guinea were the Portuguese; the first European to actually buy slaves in the region was Anto Gonalves, a Portuguese explorer. Originally interested in trading mainly for gold and spices, they set up colonies on the uninhabited islands of Sao Tome. In the 16th century the Portuguese settlers found that these volcanic islands were ideal for growing sugar. Sugar growing is a labour-intensive undertaking and Portuguese settlers were difficult to attract due to the heat, lack of infrastructure, and hard life. To cultivate the sugar the Portuguese turned to large numbers of African slaves. Elmina Castle on the Gold Coast, originally built by African labor for the Portuguese in 1482 to control the gold trade, became an important depot for slaves that were to be transported to the New World.

Increasing penetration into the Americas by the Portuguese created more demand for labour in Brazil–primarily for farming and mining. To meet this demand, a trans-Atlantic slave trade soon developed. Slave-based economies quickly spread to the Caribbean and the southern portion of what is today the United States. These areas all developed an insatiable demand for slaves.

As European nations grew more powerful, especially Portugal, Spain, France and England, they began vying for control of the African slave trade, with little effect on the local African and Arab trading. Great Britain’s existing colonies in the Lesser Antilles and their effective naval control of the Mid Atlantic forced other countries to abandon their enterprises due to inefficiency in cost. The English crown provided a charter giving the Royal African Company monopoly over the African slave routes until 1712.

Why African Slaves?
In the late 15th century, Europeans (Spanish and Portuguese first) began to explore, colonize and conquer the territory in the Americas. The European colonists attempted to enslave some of the Native Americans to perform hard physical labor, but found them unaccustomed to hard agrarian labor and so familiar with the local environment that it was difficult to prevent their escape. Their lack of resistance to common European diseases was another factor against their suitability for slavery. The Europeans had also noted the West African practice of enslaving prisoners of war (a common phenomenon among many peoples on all of the continents). European colonial powers traded guns, brandy and other goods for these slaves, but this had little effect on the Arabian and African trade. The African slaves proved more resistant to European diseases than indigenous Americans, familiar with a tropical climate and accustomed to agricultural work. As a result, regular trade was soon established.

Source of slaves
All three slave-trading routes tapped into local trading patterns. Europeans or Arabs in Africa very rarely mounted expeditions to capture slaves. Lack of people and the prevalence of disease prevented any widespread gathering of slaves by Europeans and other non-Africans. Local rulers were very rarely open to allowing groups of armed foreigners to enter their lands. It was far easier and more common to make use of existing African middlemen and slave traders. Slavery has been present in Africa for millennia, and still is today even with children, though some historians prefer to describe African slavery as feudalism, arguing it was more like the system that controlled the peasantry of Western Europe during the Middle Ages or Russia into the 19th century than slavery as it was practiced in the Americas.

The slaves came from many different sources. About half came from the societies that sold them. These might be criminals, heretics, the mentally ill, the indebted and any others that had fallen out of favor with the rulers. Little is known about the details of theses practices before the arrival of Europeans, and so it is difficult to tell if the number of people considered as undesirables was artificially increased to provide more slaves for export. It is believed that capital punishment in the region nearly disappeared since prisoners became far too valuable to dispose of in such a way.

Another source of slaves, comprising about half the total, came from military conquests of other states or tribes. It has long been contended that the slave trade greatly increased violence and warfare in the region due to the pursuit of slaves, but it is hard to provide evidence to prove this; warfare was certainly common even before slave hunting had added such an extra inducement.

For the Atlantic slave trade, captives were purchased from slave dealers in West African regions known as the Slave Coast, Gold Coast, and Cote d’Ivoire were sold into slavery as a result of a defeat in warfare. In the Bight of Biafra near modern-day Senegal and Benin, some African kings sold their captives locally and later to European slave traders for goods such as metal cookware, rum, livestock, and seed grain. Previous to the voyage, the victims were held in “slave castles” and deep pits where many died from multiple illnesses and malnutrition. Conditions were even worse in the Middle Passage across the Atlantic where up to a third of the slaves died en route.

source: courtesy of


  1. […] In regards to Freedom123’s post #694: Those are pretty good solutions but according to this link it seems that there have been some problems with Black net worth & White net worth. I’m still connecting the dots on this (I’ve read the hypothetical causes in the linked article). So, knowing the above and how that article talks about this "oppositional culture" (I’m a little skeptical on this)…I disagree with you on not informing low performing school children that this system is against you. Opening them up to the reality of things is much better than doing nothing at all, they wouldn’t be a threat to this country anyway. Good point on more of the male "role model" types educating male students. I do agree that the war on drugs needs to be done away with. The US needs to be like Europe (Portugal in particular) and actually legalize marijuana and other stuff. I thought that the prostitution point was pretty good. Of course, I don’t use drugs or visit hoes because I’m better than that but for those who have their vices…whatever. You made a comment about how you don’t believe that there isn’t any effort holding Blacks down, well, I feel that things are more covert. You already know about some things (I’ve already voiced them in my earlier posts). I still have to look into the claims but Wise mentioned that a White family with and income of like 25 or 30K have about the same net worth as a Black family making about 60K…I’m still checking but that’s crazy (I’ve already seen the net worth charts/graphs). This is for Standupandbecounted: Slavery Within Africa. […]

    Pingback by Reparations for past atrocities - Great Debates - Page 72 - City-Data Forum — 27. April 2011 @ 22:52

  2. […] that early African slavery was identical to early European/New World type slavery. That’s false: Slavery Within Africa & Prince Abdul Rahman: African Prince, American Slave (use that one too to counter the claim […]

    Pingback by Conscience Historical Neglect: What Are the Reasons? - Great Debates - City-Data Forum — 1. May 2011 @ 21:41

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