Slavery in Africa


Slavery in Africa has not only existed on the continent for many centuries, but still continues today in some countries, and systems of servitude and slavery were common in some parts of the continent, as they were in much of the ancient world. Systems of servitude and slavery were common in some parts of the continent, as they were in much of the ancient world. In most African societies where slavery was prevalent, enslaved people were treated as property and not given certain rights in a system similar to that of servitude in other parts of the world. When the trans-Saharan slave trade, the Arab slave trade and the Atlantic slave trade (which began in the 16th century) began, many of the pre-existing local slave systems changed and the supply of captives to slave markets outside of Africa began, and today, slavery in contemporary Africa is still practiced despite being illegal.

In the relevant scholarly literature, African slavery is categorized into indigenous slavery and export slavery, depending on whether or not the slaves were traded outside the continent.Slavery in historical Africa was practiced in many different forms: Debt slavery, prisoner-of-war slavery, military slavery, slavery for prostitution, and criminal slavery were practiced in various parts of Africa.Slavery for domestic and judicial purposes was widespread throughout Africa.Plantation slavery also existed, mainly on the east coast of Africa and in parts of West Africa. The importance of domestic plantation slavery increased during the 19th century, due to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.Many African states that depended on the international slave trade reoriented their economies towards legitimate trade worked by slave labor.

Multiple forms of slavery and servitude have existed throughout Africa throughout history, and is shaped by indigenous practices of slavery, as well as the Roman institution of slavery and later slavery in Christianity, slavery in Islam and finally, the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery existed in parts of Africa – as it did in the rest of the world – and was a part of the economic structure of some societies for many centuries, although the extent varied.

Ibn Battuta, who visited the ancient kingdom of Mali in the mid-14th century, relates that the local inhabitants competed with each other in the number of slaves and servants they had, and gave him himself a slave boy as a “gift of hospitality.” In sub-Saharan Africa, slave relationships were often complex, with rights and freedoms given to enslaved people and restrictions on sale and trade by their owners. In sub-Saharan Africa slave relations were often complex, with rights and freedoms given to enslaved people and restrictions on sale and trade by their owners. Many communities had hierarchies between different types of slaves: for example, differentiating between those born into slavery and those captured in war.

Slavery in African cultures was generally more like labor servitude, although in certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa, slaves were used for human sacrifice in annual rituals, such as the rituals practiced by the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Often slaves were not the personal property of other men, nor were they slaves for life.

The forms of slavery in Africa were closely related to kinship structures. In many African communities, where land ownership was not possible, human enslavement was used as a means of increasing a person”s influence and expanding his or her connections. This made slaves a permanent part of the owner”s family name, and the children of slaves could become closely related to larger family ties. Children of slaves born into families could be integrated into the master”s kinship group and attain prominent positions within society, even up to the level of the master in some cases. However, stigma often remained and there could be strict separations between enslaved members of a kinship group and those related to the owner.

Slavery in property

Ownership slavery is a specific servitude relationship where the slave is treated as the property of the owner. As such, the owner is free to sell, trade, or treat the slave as he would other property, and the children of slaves are often held as property of the owner. As such, the owner is free to sell, trade, or treat the slave as he would other property, and the children of slaves often remain the property of the owner. There is evidence of a long history of slavery in the Nile River Valley and North Africa, but evidence is incomplete on the extent and practices of slavery in much of the rest of the continent prior to documents written by Arab or European traders.

Domestic service

Many slave relationships in Africa revolved around domestic slavery, where slaves worked primarily in the master”s household, but retained some freedoms. Domestic slaves could be considered part of the master”s household; they could not be sold to others without extreme cause. Slaves could own the benefits of their labor-either in land or produce-and could marry and pass the land to their children in many cases.


Pledge or debt slavery involved the use of people as collateral to secure payment of the debt. The slave labor was performed by the debtor or a relative of the debtor – usually a child. Pledge was a common form of collateral in West Africa. It involved the assignment of a person, or a member of that person”s family, to service another person to provide credit. The pledge is related, albeit differently, to slavery in most conceptualisms, so that the agreement could include limitations, specific terms of the service to be rendered and that kinship ties would protect the person from being sold into slavery. The pledge was a common practice throughout West Africa prior to European contact, including among the Akan, Ewe, Gamei, Yoruba and Edo – in modified forms, it also existed among the Efika, Igbo, Ijaw and Fon.

Military slavery

Military slavery consisted of the acquisition and formation of conscripted military units that would retain the identity of the slave soldiers, even after their service. The groups of slave soldiers would be administered by a patron, who could be the head of a government or an independent warlord, and who would send his troops in search of money and his own political interests.

This was most significant in the Nile Valley – mainly in Sudan and Uganda – with slave military units organized by various Islamic authorities, with West African military leaders. Military units in Sudan were formed in the 1800s through large-scale military raids in the area that is currently the countries of Sudan and South Sudan.

Slaves to sacrifice

Although archaeological evidence is not clear on the subject before European contact, in societies that practiced human sacrifice, the victims were usually slaves.

Like most other regions of the world, slavery and forced labor have existed in many African kingdoms and societies for thousands of years. No concrete evidence of slavery or the politics and economic institutions of slavery prior to contact with the Arab or Atlantic slave trade is available. Early European reports of slavery throughout Africa in the 1600s are unreliable because they often conflate various forms of servitude with slavery.

Complex relationships and oral history evidence often incorrectly describe many forms of servitude or social status as slavery, even when practices do not follow conceptualizations of slavery in other regions of the world.

The best evidence of slavery practices in Africa comes from the major kingdoms, particularly along the coast, and there is little evidence of widespread slavery practices in stateless societies.

The slave trade was more secondary than other trade relationships; however there is evidence of a slave trade route through the Roman-era Sahara that persisted in the area after the fall of the Roman empire. However, kinship structures and the rights provided for slaves-except those captured in war-appear to have limited the extent of the slave trade prior to the onset of the Arab slave trade and the Atlantic slave trade.

North Africa

Slave ownership had been legal and widespread throughout North Africa when the region was controlled by the Roman Empire (47 BC – 500 AD). The Sahel region south of the Sahara provided many of the African slaves sold in North Africa during this period and had a functioning slave trade across the Sahara. Slave ownership persisted after the fall of the Roman Empire in most Christian communities in the region. After Islamic expansion into most of the region, the practices continued and eventually, slave ownership spread to the more important societies at the southern end of the Sahara, such as Mali, Songhai, and Ghana.

The medieval slave trade in Europe was mainly from the East and South: the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world were the destinations, Central Europe and Eastern Europe were important sources of slaves. Slavery in medieval Europe was so extensive that the Catholic Church repeatedly prohibited it, or at least banned the export of Christian slaves in non-Christian lands, e.g., at the Council of Koblenz in 922, the Council of London (1102), and the Council of Armagh in 1171. Because of religious restrictions, the slave trade was carried on in some parts of Europe by peninsular Jews-known as Radhanites-who were able to transfer pagan slaves from central Europe through Christian Western Europe to the Muslim countries of al-Andalus and Africa. Many Slavs were enslaved over so many centuries that the word became synonymous with slavery. The derivation of the word slave encapsulates one of the history of Europe and explains why the two words – slave and Slav – are so similar; that they are, in fact, historically identical.

The Mamluks were Slavic soldiers who converted to Islam and served the Muslim caliphs and sultans of the Ayyubid Dynasty during the Middle Ages. The first Mamluks served the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad during the 9th century. In time, they became a powerful military caste and on more than one occasion took power for themselves, for example, the power of Egypt from 1250 to 1517. Since 1250 Egypt had been ruled by the Buryid Dynasty of origin of the Turkic Kipchak people. enslaved whites from the Caucasus served in the army and formed an elite corps of troops that eventually revolted in Egypt and formed the Buryid Dynasty.

According to Robert Davis about one million Europeans were captured by Barbary piracy and sold into slavery in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries. The coastal towns and cities of Italy, Portugal, Spain and the Mediterranean islands were frequently attacked by pirates and long stretches of the coasts of Italy and Spain were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants; after 1600, Barbary pirates often entered the Atlantic and attacked as far north as Iceland. The most famous privateers were, among others, the Ottomans Jeireddin Barbarossa and his older brother Baba Aruj along with Turgut Reis (known as Dragut in the West), Murat Reis and Kemal Reis.

In 1544, Jeireddin Barbarossa captured Ischia, taking 4,000 prisoners and deporting into slavery some 9,000 inhabitants of Lipari, almost the entire population. In 1551 Dragut enslaved the entire population of the Maltese island of Gozo, between 5,000 and 6,000, sending them to Libya. When pirates sacked Vieste in southern Italy in 1554 they took an estimated 7,000 slaves. In 1555, Turgut Reis sailed to Corsica and sacked Bastia, taking 6,000 prisoners. In 1558 Barbary corsairs captured Ciudadela de Menorca, destroyed it, massacred the inhabitants and took 3,000 survivors to Istanbul as slaves. In 1563 Turgut Reis landed on the coast of the province of Granada and captured coastal settlements in the area, such as Almuñécar, along with 4,000 prisoners. Barbary pirates frequently attacked the Balearic Islands, resulting in many coastal watchtowers and fortified churches. The threat was so serious that Formentera was left uninhabited. Still in 1798, the nearby islet of Sardinia was attacked by Tunisians who took more than 900 inhabitants as slaves.

Early modern sources are full of descriptions of the sufferings of Christian slaves in the galleys of Barbary corsairs:

Those who have not seen a galley at sea, especially in pursuit or being pursued, cannot thus conceive the shock that this spectacle gives to a heart capable of the least tinge of commiseration. To contemplate rows and columns of half-naked, half-starved people, chained to a table, from which they do not move for months together-usually half a year-pushed, even beyond human strength, with cruel and repeated blows – on their naked skin … .

Saharawi-Moorish society in northwest Africa was traditionally – and still is, to some extent – stratified into various tribal castes, with the warrior Hasan tribes ruling and collecting tribute from the Berber Sanhadja tribes. Below them were subservient groups known as haratin, a black population.

Horn of Africa

In the Horn of Africa, the Christian kings of the Ethiopian Empire often exported pagan Nilotic slaves from their western borders, or from recently conquered or reconquered lowland territories. The Somali Muslim sultanates and the Afar People or as the Sultanate of Adel, also traded through their ports Zanj (Bantu) slaves they had captured from their rear.

Slavery as practiced in Ethiopia was essentially domestic. Therefore, slaves served in the households of their owners and were not employed in any meaningful way in their productive capacity. They were considered second-class members of their owners” families. The first attempt to abolish slavery in Ethiopia was made by Emperor Theodore II (reigned 1855-1868), although the slave trade was not legally abolished until 1923 with Ethiopia”s accession to the League of Nations. The Anti-Slavery Society estimated that there were 2 million slaves, in the early 1930s, out of an estimated population of between 8 to 16 million. Slavery continued in Ethiopia until the Italian invasion of October 1935, when the institution was abolished by order of the Italian occupation forces. In response to pressure from the World War II Allies, Ethiopia officially abolished slavery and involuntary servitude after regaining its independence in 1942. On August 26, 1942, Haile Selassie issued a proclamation banning slavery.

In the Somali territories, slaves were bought on the slave market exclusively to work on plantations. They worked under the control of and separately from their Somali owners. In terms of legal considerations, Bantu slaves were devalued. In addition, Somali social customs censored, discouraged and despised any kind of sexual contact with Bantu slaves. The freedom of these slaves from the plantations was also obtained in many cases through escape.

Central Africa

Oral tradition relates the slavery existing in the Congo kingdom at the time of its constitution with Luken lua Nimi enslaving Mwene Kabunga, which they had conquered to establish the kingdom. Early Portuguese writings show that the kingdom had slavery before contact, but that they were war captives, mainly from the kingdom of Ndongo.

West Africa

Slavery was practiced in various ways to different West African communities before the European trade. With the development of the trans-Saharan slave trade and the gold economies in the western Sahel, a number of states such as the Ghanaian Empire, the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire were organized around the slave trade. However, other West African communities largely resisted the slave trade. The Mossi kingdoms tried to take over key posts in the trade across the Sahara and, when these efforts failed, the Mossi became defenders against slave attacks by the powerful states of the western Sahel. The Mossi eventually entered the slave trade in the 1800s with the Atlantic slave trade as a major market. Similarly, Walter Rodney did not identify any significant slavery or domestic servitude in early European documents in the Upper Guinea region, and IA Akinjogbin argues that European records reveal that the slave trade was not a major activity along the Yoruba and Ajas-controlled coast of European arrival. In a paper read at the Ethnological Society of London in 1866, the viceroy of Lokoja, T. Valentine Robins, who accompanied the Niger River expedition aboard the HMS Investigator in 1864 described slavery in the region:

On slavery Robins commented that it was not what people in England thought it was. It means, as is continually found in this part of Africa, that it belongs to a family group – there is no compulsory labor, master and slave work together, eat the same food, wear the same clothes and sleep in the same huts. Some slaves have more wives than their owners. Slaves are given protection and everything necessary for their food and clothing. A free man is worse than a slave; he cannot claim his food from anyone.

With the onset of the Atlantic slave trade, the demand for slaves in West Africa increased and a number of states focused on the slave trade and domestic slavery increased dramatically.

In Senegambia between 1300 and 1900 about one third of the population was enslaved. In the early Islamic states of western Sudan, including Ghana (750-1076), Mali (1235-1645), Segou (1712-1861), and Songhai (1275-1591), about one-third of the population were slaves. In Sierra Leone in the 19th century about half of the population consisted of slaves. In the 19th century, at least half of the population was enslaved among the Duala people of Cameroon and other peoples of the lower Niger, the Congo kingdom, and the Kasanje kingdom and the Chokwes of Angola.

When British rule was first imposed on the Sokoto Caliphate and surrounding areas of northern Nigeria at the turn of the 20th century, approximately 2 million to 2.5 million people were enslaved. Slavery in northern Nigeria was finally banned in 1936.

Great Lakes of Africa

With the maritime trade from the eastern Great Lakes region of Africa, into Persia, China and India during the 1st millennium, slaves are mentioned as a commodity of secondary importance under gold and ivory. Where mentioned, the slave trade appears to have been small-scale and mostly involved raids to capture women and children slaves along the islands of Kilwa Kisiwani, Madagascar and Pemba. Historians Campbell and Alpers argue that there were a number of different categories of labor in East Africa, and that the distinction between enslaved and free individuals was not particularly relevant in most societies. However with the rise of international trade in the 18th and 19th century Southeast Africa began to participate significantly in the Atlantic slave trade; for example, with the signing by the King of Kilwa Island of a treaty with a French trader in 1776 for the delivery of 1,000 slaves per year.

At about the same time, traders from Oman, India, and Southeast Africa began establishing plantations along the coasts and on islands. Providing laborers on these plantations, capturing slaves, and holding slaves made the region increasingly important and the region”s slave traders (most notably Tippu Tip) became important in the political environment. The Southeast African trade reached its peak in the early decades of the 1800s with as many as 30,000 slaves sold per year. However slavery never became a major part of the national economies, except in the sultanate of Zanzibar, where plantations and agricultural slavery were maintained. Author and historian Timothy Insoll wrote: “Figures record the export of 718,000 slaves from the Swahili coast during the 19th century, and the retention of 769,000 on the coast.”

In the Great Lakes Region of Africa (around present-day Uganda), linguistic evidence shows the existence of slavery through war capture, trade and pledge for hundreds of years; however, these forms, particularly pledge, appear to have increased significantly in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Slave relations in Africa have been transformed through three large-scale processes: the Arab slave trade, the Atlantic slave trade, and slave emancipation policies and movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each of these processes has significantly altered the forms, level, and economics of slavery in Africa.

Slavery practices in Africa were used during different periods to justify certain forms of European engagement with the peoples of Africa. Eighteenth-century European writers claimed that slavery in Africa was brutal enough to justify the Atlantic slave trade. Later writers used similar arguments to justify intervention and eventual colonization by European powers to end slavery in Africa.

Africans knew the harsh slavery that awaited slaves in the New World. Many African elites visited Europe on slave ships following the prevailing winds through the New World. An example of this occurred when Manuel Antonio, Congo”s ambassador to the Holy See, went to Europe in 1604, stopping first in Bahia, Brazil, where he managed to free a fellow countryman who had been unjustly enslaved. African monarchs also sent their children along these same slave routes to be educated in Europe, and thousands of former slaves eventually returned to settle in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean trade

The Arab slave trade was established in the eighth and ninth centuries and involved a small-scale movement of population throughout much of the eastern Great Lakes and Sahel region. Islamic law permitted slavery, but prohibited slavery involving other Muslims; as a result, the primary target of slavery was the inhabitants of the Islamic frontier areas of Africa. The slave trade across the Sahara and throughout the Indian Ocean also has a long history beginning with the control of sea routes by 9th century Afro-Arab traders. It is estimated that a few thousand slaves were taken each year from the Red Sea coast and the Indian Ocean. They were sold throughout the Middle East. This trade accelerated with larger ships due to an increased demand for labor on plantations in the region. Over time, tens of thousands were enslaved each year. At Zanguebar (Swahili Coast), Afro-Arab slavers captured Bantus from the interior and sold them on the coast. There, the slaves were gradually assimilated in rural areas, particularly on the islands of Unguja and Pemba.

This changed the slave relationship by creating new forms of employment for slaves – such as eunuchs to protect harems and military units – and by creating conditions for freedom, i.e. conversion, although it would only free the children of a slave. Although the level of the trade remained small, the total number of slaves traded grew by a large number over the several centuries of its existence. Because of its small and gradual nature, the impact on slavery practices in communities that did not convert to Islam was relatively small. However, in the 1800s the slave trade from Africa to Islamic countries increased significantly. When the European slave trade ended around the 1850s, the eastward slave trade grew significantly until European colonization of Africa ended around 1900.

In 1814 the Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt wrote of his travels in Egypt and Nubia, where he saw the practice of the slave trade: “I frequently witnessed scenes of the most shameless indecency, in which the traders, who are the principal actors, spent their time laughing. He might venture to affirm, that very few slave women who have passed their tenth year, arrive in Egypt or Arabia in a state of virginity.”

David Livingstone wrote of the slave trade: “To turn their evils is a simple impossibility…. We saw a female slave shot or stabbed all over her body and stretched out on the road they said it had been done by an Arab who had passed by early in the morning because of anger at having lost the price he had given for her, because she was unable to walk any more. We passed a woman tied by the neck to a tree and dead … . We came upon a man starving to death … the rarest disease I have seen in this country seems really to be insensibility, and it attacks free men who have been captured and made slaves.” Livingstone estimated that 80,000 Africans died each year before reaching the Zanzibar slave market. Zanzibar had been East Africa”s main slave trading port, and under the Arabs of Oman in the 19th century some 50,000 slaves passed through the city each year.

Atlantic slave trade

The Atlantic or transatlantic slave trade was conducted across the Atlantic Ocean from the 15th century through the 19th century. The Atlantic slave trade was significant in transforming Africans from a small percentage of the overall slave population in 1600 to the overwhelming majority by 1800. The slave trade went from being a marginal aspect of economies to the most important sector in a relatively short period of time, and agricultural plantations increased significantly and became a key aspect of many societies. In addition, agricultural plantations increased significantly and became a key aspect of many societies. Finally, it transformed the traditional distribution of slave practices.

The first Europeans to arrive on the Guinean coast were the Portuguese; the first European to actually buy African slaves in the Guinean region was Antão Gonçalves, a Portuguese explorer in 1441. Originally interested in trading mainly in gold and spices, they established colonies on the uninhabited islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. In the 16th century the Portuguese found that these volcanic islands were ideal for sugar cultivation. Sugar cultivation is a labor-intensive enterprise and the Portuguese were difficult to attract because of the heat, lack of infrastructure, and harsh living conditions. To grow sugar the Portuguese brought a large number of African slaves. The castle of San Jorge de la Mina in the town of Elmina on the Gold Coast was originally built by African labor for the Portuguese in 1482 to control the gold trade, and became a major depot for slaves that were to be transported to the New World.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to use African slaves in the New World on the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola, where the alarming mortality rate in the native population had stimulated the first royal laws to protect the native population (laws of Burgos, 1512-1513). The first African slaves arrived in Hispaniola in 1501 shortly after the Minor Bull Inter caetera of 1493 of Pope Alexander VI that gave almost all the territory of the New World its belonging to the kings of Castile and Aragon.

The Atlantic slave trade reached its peak at the end of the 18th century, when the largest number of slaves were captured in expeditions to the interior of West Africa. The increased demand for slaves due to the expansion of European colonial powers in the New World made the slave trade much more lucrative for the West African powers, leading to the creation of a number of African empires that thrived on the slave trade. These were the Oyo (Yoruba) Empire, the Kingdom of Kong, the Imamate of Fouta Djallon, the Imamate of Futa Toro, the Kingdom of Khasso, the Kingdom of Gabu, the Fante Confederacy, the Asante Empire and the Kingdom of Dahomey. These kingdoms relied on a militaristic culture of constant warfare to generate large numbers of human captives needed for trade with Europeans.

A scathing reminder of this execrable practice is documented in the Slave Trade Debates of England in the early 19th century: “All the old writers … agree in stating not only that wars are contracted for the sole purpose of making slaves, but that they are encouraged by Europeans, with a view to this object”. agree in stating not only that wars are contracted for the sole purpose of making slaves, but that they are encouraged by Europeans, with a view to this object.” The gradual suppression of slavery in the European colonial empires during the 19th century led to the collapse and decline of these African empires. When the European powers began to stop the Atlantic slave trade, it brought about a new shift in which the great slaveholders in Africa began to exploit slaves in plantations and other agricultural products.


The great definitive transformation of slave relations came with the inconsistent emancipation efforts beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. As European authorities began to control large parts of inland Africa from the 1870s onward, colonial policies were often confused on the issue. For example, even when slavery was considered illegal, colonial authorities returned escaped slaves to their owners. Slavery persisted in some countries under colonial rule and in some cases it was not until independence that slavery-like practices were significantly transformed. Anti-colonial struggles in Africa often brought slaves and former slaves together with owners and former owners to fight for independence; however, this cooperation was short-lived and independence political parties were formed on the basis of slave and master stratifications. In some parts of Africa, slavery and slavery-like practices continue to this day and their elimination has proven to be a difficult problem for governments and civil society.

Efforts by Europeans against slavery and the slave trade began in the late 18th century and had a major impact on slavery in Africa. Portugal was the first country on the continent to abolish slavery in metropolitan Portugal and Portuguese India, with a bill issued on February 12, 1761, but this did not affect its colonies in Brazil and Africa. France abolished slavery in 1794. However, slavery was reestablished by Napoleon I in 1802 and was not definitively abolished until 1848. Denmark-Norway in 1803, became the first country in Europe to implement a ban on the slave trade. Slavery itself was not banned until 1848, followed by Great Britain in 1807 with the passing of the Slave Trade Act by Parliament. This act imposed fines, which increased with the number of slaves transported, on the captains of slave ships. Britain followed this with the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833, which freed all slaves in the British Empire. British pressure on other countries resulted in an agreement to end the slave trade from Africa. For example, the United States Slave Trade Act of 1820 considered the slave trade as piracy, which was punishable by death. In addition, the Ottoman Empire abolished the slave trade from Africa in 1847 under British pressure.

By 1850, when the last major participant in the Atlantic slave trade, Brazil, passed the Eusébio de Queirós Law, prohibiting the slave trade, the slave trade had declined significantly and, in general, only the illegal trade remained. Brazil continued the practice of slavery and was the largest source of illegal trade until about 1870, and the abolition of slavery became permanent in 1888 when Princess Isabel of Brazil, and Minister Rodrigo Silva banned the practice. The British took an active approach to stopping the illegal slave trade in the Atlantic during this period. The West Africa Squadron is credited with the capture of 1,600 slave ships between 1808 and 1860, and the freeing of 150,000 Africans aboard these ships. Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to accept British treaties to ban the trade, for example, against the usurpation of the king of Lagos, deposed in 1851. Anti-slavery treaties were signed by more than 50 African rulers.

Although slavery within Africa had been of a limited character, even during the height of the Arab and Atlantic slave trade, this changed in the latter half of the 19th century. Patrick Manning explains that “if there is ever a time when we can speak of African societies organized around slave production, then we can speak of African societies organized around slave production,” he says.

The continuing anti-slavery movement in Europe became an excuse and a casus belli for European conquest and colonization of much of the African continent. It was the central theme of the Brussels anti-slavery conference of 1889-1890. At the end of the 19th century, the partition of Africa quickly ended with the continent divided among the European imperialist powers, and a first but secondary focus of any colonial regime was the suppression of slavery and the slave trade. In response to this pressure, Ethiopia officially abolished slavery in 1932, the Sultanate of Sokoto abolished slavery in 1900, and the rest of the Sahel region in 1911. By the end of the colonial era, a majority success had been achieved in this goal, although slavery was still very active in Africa because it has gradually moved to a remunerative economy. Independent nations attempting to Westernize or impress Europe have sometimes cultivated an image of suppressing slavery, although, in the case of Egypt, they hired European soldiers for Samuel White Baker”s Nile expedition. Slavery has not been eradicated in Africa, and commonly appears in African states, such as Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger and Sudan, in places where law and order has collapsed.


Slavery and the slave trade had a significant impact on population size and gender distribution in much of Africa. The exact impact of these demographic changes has been a subject of significant debate. The Atlantic slave trade took 70,000 people per year, mainly from the west coast of Africa, at its peak in the mid-1700s. The Arab slave trade involved the capture of peoples from the interior of the continent, who were then shipped abroad through ports on the Red Sea and elsewhere. It peaked at 10,000 people moved per year by 1600. According to Patrick Manning, the bulk of the population declined in much of sub-Saharan Africa as a result of this slave trade. This population decline throughout West Africa between 1650 and 1850 was exacerbated by traders” preference for male slaves. In East Africa, the slave trade was multi-directional and changed over time. To meet the demand for menial labor, Zanj slaves captured in the southern interior were sold through ports on the north coast, in large cumulative numbers over the centuries, to customers in the Nile Valley, Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf, Far East and Indian Ocean islands.

Extension of slavery

The extent of slavery in Africa and the slave trade in other regions is not precisely known. Although the Atlantic slave trade has been better studied, estimates range from 8 million people to 20 million. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database estimates that the Atlantic slave trade captured about 12.8 million people between 1450 and 1900. The slave trade across the Sahara and Red Sea from the Sahara, the Horn of Africa and East Africa has been estimated at 6.2 million people between 600 and 1600. Although the rate declined in East Africa by 1700, it increased from 1800 and is estimated at 1.65 million this century.

Discussion on the demographic effect

The demographic effects of the slave trade are some of the most controversial and debated issues. Walter Rodney argued that the export of so many people had been a demographic disaster and had left Africa at a permanent disadvantage compared to other parts of the world, and that this largely explains the continent”s continued poverty. He has presented numbers showing that Africa”s population stagnated during this period, while that of Europe and Asia grew dramatically. According to Rodney all other areas of the economy were affected by the slave trade as the better traders abandoned traditional industries to become slave traders and the lower levels of the population were affected by slavery itself.

Others have challenged this view. JD Fage compared the numerical effect on the continent as a whole. David Eltis has compared the numbers to the rate of emigration from Europe during this period. In the 19th century alone over 50 million people left Europe for the Americas, a much higher rate than those taken from Africa.

Others, in turn, changed this view. Joseph E. Inikori argues that the history of the region shows that the effects were still quite damaging. He argues that Africa”s economic model of the period was very different from that of Europe, and could not sustain these population losses. Population reductions in certain areas also led to widespread problems. Inikori also points out that almost immediately after the suppression of the slave trade Africa”s population began to increase rapidly, even before the introduction of modern medicines.

Impact on Africa”s economy

There is a long debate among analysts and scholars about the destructive effects of the slave trade. It is often claimed that the slave trade undermined local economies and political stability so that the vital labor force of peoples were sent abroad and that slave raids and civil wars became commonplace. With the emergence of a large slave trade, driven by European needs, enslaving your enemy became less a consequence of war and increasingly a reason to go to war. It is claimed that the slave trade prevented the formation of larger ethnic groups, causing ethnic factionalism and the weakening of the formation of stable political structures in many places. It is also claimed to have reduced the mental health and social development of Africans.

In contrast to these arguments, JD Fage argues that slavery did not have a totally disastrous effect on African societies. Slaves were an expensive commodity, and traders received a large amount in return for each person enslaved. At the height of the trade hundreds of thousands of guns, large quantities of cloth, gunpowder and metals were shipped to Guinea. Most of this money was spent on British-made firearms, of very poor quality, and industrial strength alcohol. Trade with Europe at the height of the slave trade also included significant exports of gold and ivory, which was about £3.5 million per year. By contrast, the trade of the United Kingdom, the economic superpower of the time, was around £14 million per year during this same late 18th century period. As Patrick Manning has pointed out, the vast majority of items traded for slaves were luxury goods. Textiles, iron ore, coins and salt were some of the most important products imported as a result of the slave trade, and these goods spread throughout society raising the general standard of living.

Impact on Europe”s economy

Karl Marx in his economic history of capitalism, Das Kapital, stated that “… the conversion of Africa into a den for the commercial hunting of black skins, marks the dawn of the era of capitalist production”. He argued that the slave trade was part of what he called the “primitive accumulation” of European capital, the “non-capitalist” accumulation of wealth that preceded and created the financial conditions for Britain”s industrialization.

Seymour Drescher and Robert Anstey argue that the slave trade remained profitable to the end, due to innovations in agriculture, and that moral reform, not economic incentive, was primarily responsible for abolition.

A similar debate has taken place in the other European nations. The French slave trade, it is argued, was more profitable than alternative national investments, and probably encouraged capital accumulation before the industrial revolution and the Napoleonic wars.

Legacy of racism

Maulana Karenga states that the effects of the Atlantic slave trade on African captives was: “the morally monstrous destruction of human possibility that involved the redefinition of African humanity in the world, poisoning the past, present and future relationships with others that we only know ourselves through this stereotype and therefore damaging truly human relationships between people today. He cites that it constituted the destruction of culture, language, religion and human possibility.


  1. Esclavitud en África
  2. Slavery in Africa