Africa In The Age Of The Slave Trade

Africa And The Africans In The Age Of The Atlantic Slave Trade

Various Authors

Edited By: R. A. Guisepi

African Societies, Slavery, And The Slave Trade

Europeans in the age of the slave trade sometimes justified enslavement
of Africans by pointing out that slavery already existed on that continent.
However, while forms of bondage were ancient in Africa, and the Muslim
trans-Saharan and Red Sea trades were long-standing, the Atlantic trade
interacted with and transformed these earlier aspects of slavery.

African societies had developed many forms of bondage and servitude that
varied from a kind of peasant status to something much more like chattel
slavery in which people are considered things - "property with a soul," as
Aristotle put it. African states were usually nonegalitarian and since in many
African societies all land was owned by the state or the "ruler," the control
of slaves was one of the few, if not the only way, in which individuals or
lineages could increase their wealth and status. Slaves were employed in many
ways as servants, concubines, soldiers, administrators, and field workers. In
some cases, as in the ancient empire of Ghana and in Kongo, there were whole
villages of enslaved dependents who were required to pay tribute to the ruler.
The Muslim traders of West Africa who linked the forest region to the savanna
had slave porters as well as villages of slaves to supply their caravans. In a
number of situations, these forms of servitude were relatively benign and were
an extension of lineage and kinship systems. In others, however, they were
exploitative economic and social relations that reinforced the hierarchies of
various African societies and allowed the nobles, senior lineages, and rulers
to exercise their power. Among the forest states of West Africa, such as
Benin, and in the Kongo kingdom in central Africa slavery was already an
important institution prior to the European arrival, but the Atlantic trade
opened up new opportunities for expansion and intensification of slavery in
those societies.

Despite considerable variation in African societies and the fact that
slaves sometimes attained positions of command and trust, in most cases slaves
were denied choice about their lives and actions. They were placed in
dependent or inferior positions, and they were often considered aliens. It is
important to remember that the enslavement of women was a central feature of
African slavery. Although slaves were used in many ways in African societies,
domestic slavery and extension of lineages through the addition of female
members remained a central feature in many places. Some historians believe
that the excess of women led to polygyny and the creation of large harems by
rulers and merchants, whose power was increased by this process while the
position of women was lowered in some societies.

In the Sudanic states of the savanna, Islamic concepts of slavery had
been introduced. Slavery was viewed as a legitimate fate for nonbelievers but
an illegal treatment for Muslims. Despite the complaints of legal scholars
like the Ahmad Baba of Timbuktu (1556-1627) against the enslavement of
Muslims, many of the Sudanic states enslaved their captives both pagan and
Muslim. In the Niger Valley many slave communities produced agricultural
surpluses for the rulers and nobles of Songhay, Gao, and other states. Slaves
were used for gold mining and salt production, and as caravan workers in the
Sahara. Slavery was a widely diffused form of labor control and wealth in

The existence of slavery in Africa and the preexisting trade in people
allowed Europeans to mobilize the commerce in slaves relatively quickly by
tapping existing routes and supplies. In this venture they were aided by the
rulers of certain African states who were anxious to acquire more slaves for
themselves and to supply slaves to the Europeans in exchange for aid and
commodities. In the 16th century Kongo kingdom, the ruler had an army of
20,000 slaves as part of his household, and this gave him greater power than
any Kongo ruler had ever held. In general, African rulers did not enslave
their own people, except for crimes or in other unusual circumstances, but
rather sought to enslave their neighbors. Thus, expanding, centralizing states
were often the major suppliers of slaves to the Europeans as well as to
societies in which slavery was an important institution.

Slaving And African Politics

As one French agent put it, "the trade in slaves is the business of
kings, rich men, and prime merchants." European merchants and royal officials
were able to tap existing routes, markets, and institutions, but the new and
constant demand also intensified enslavement in Africa and perhaps changed the
nature of slavery itself in some African societies.

In the period between 1500 and 1750 as the gunpowder empires and
expanding international commerce of Europe penetrated sub-Saharan Africa,
existing states and societies were often transformed. Although, as we saw in
Chapter 14, the empire of Songhay controlled a vast region of the western
savanna until its defeat by a Moroccan invasion in 1591, for the most part the
many states of central and western Africa were relatively small and
fragmented. This led to a situation of instability caused by competition and
warfare as states sought to expand at the expense of their neighbors or to
consolidate power by incorporating subject provinces. The warrior or soldier
emerged in this situation as an important social type in states such as the
Kongo kingdom and Dahomey, as well as along the Zambezi River. The incessant
wars promoted the importance of the military and made the sale of captives
into the slave trade an extension of the politics of regions of Africa.
Sometimes, as among the Muslim states of the savanna or the Lake Chad region,
wars took on a religious overtone of believers against nonbelievers, but in
much of West and central Africa that was not the case. Some authors see this
situation as an endemic aspect of African politics; others feel it is the
result of European demand for new slaves. In either case, the result was the
capture and sale of millions of human beings. While increasing centralization
and hierarchy could be seen in the enslaving African societies, a contrary
trend of self-sufficiency and antiauthoritarian ideas developed among those
peoples who bore the brunt of the slaving attacks.

One result of the presence of Europeans on the coast was a shift in the
locus of power within Africa. Whereas states like Ghana and Songhay in the
savanna had taken advantage of their position as intermediaries between the
gold of the West African forests and the trans-Saharan trade routes, now those
states closer to the coast or in contact with the Europeans could play a
similar role. Those right on the coast tried to monopolize the trade with
Europeans, but European meddling in their internal affairs and European fears
of any coastal power that became too strong blocked the creation of
centralized states under the shadow of European forts. Just beyond the coast
it was different. With access to European goods, especially firearms, iron,
horses, cloth, tobacco, and other goods, West and central African kingdoms
began to redirect trade toward the coast and to expand their influence. Some
historians have written of a gun and slave cycle in which increased firepower
allowed these states to expand over their neighbors, producing more slaves
that then could be exchanged for more guns. The result was unending warfare
and the disruption of societies as the search for slaves pushed ever farther
into the interior.

Asante And Dahomey

Perhaps the effects of the slave trade on African societies are best seen
in some specific cases. A number of large states developed in West Africa
during the slave trade era. Each, in its own way, represented a response to
the realities of the European presence and to the process of state formation
long under way in Africa. Rulers in these states grew in power and often
surrounded themselves with ritual authority and a luxurious court life as a
way of reinforcing the position that their armies had won.

In the area called the Gold Coast by the Europeans, the empire of Asante
(Ashanti) rose to prominence in the period of the slave trade. The Asante were
members of the Akan people (the major group of modern Ghana) who had settled
in and around Kumasi, a region of gold and kola nut production that lay
between the coast and the Hausa and Mande trading centers to the north. There
were at least 20 small states based on the matrilineal clans that were common
to all the Akan peoples, but those of the Oyoko clan predominated. Their
cooperation and their access to firearms after 1650 initiated a period of
centralization and expansion. Under the vigorous Osei Tutu (d. 1717) the title
of asantehene was created as supreme civil and religious leader. His golden
stool became the symbol of an Asante union that was created by linking the
many Akan clans under the authority of the asantehene but rec- ognizing the
autonomy of subordinate areas. An all-Asante council advised the ruler, and an
ideology of unity was was used to overcome the traditional clan divisions.
With this new structure and a series of military reforms, conquest of the area
began. By 1700 the Dutch on the coast realized that a new power had emerged,
and they began to deal directly with it.

With control of the gold-producing zones and a constant supply of
prisoners to be sold as slaves for more firearms, Asante maintained its power
until the 1820s as the dominant state of the Gold Coast. Although gold
hontinued to be a major item of export, by the end of the 17th century the
value of slaves made up almost two-thirds of Asante's trade.

Farther to the east in the area of the Bight of Benin (between the Volta
and Benin rivers on what the Europeans called the Slave Coast), a number of
large states developed in the slave trade era. The kingdom of Benin was at the
height of its power when the Europeans arrived. It traced its origins to the
city of Ife and to the Yoruba peoples that were its neighbors, but it had
become a separate and independent kingdom with its own well-developed
political and artistic traditions, especially in the casting of bronze. As
early as 1516 the ruler, or oba, limited the slave trade from Benin, and for a
long time most of the trade with Europeans was controlled directly by the king
and was in pepper, textiles, and ivory rather than slaves. Eventually European
pressure and the goals of the Benin nobility combined to generate a
significant slave trade in the 18th century, but Benin never made the slave
trade its primary source of revenue or state policy.

The kingdom of Dahomey, which developed among the Fon (or Aja) peoples,
used a different strategy of response to the European presence. It began to
emerge as a power in the 17th century from its center at Abomey about 70 miles
from the coast. Its kings ruled with the advice of councils that had
considerable power, but by the 1720s access to firearms allowed the rulers to
create an autocratic and sometimes brutal political regime based on the slave
trade. In the 1720s, under king Agaja (1708-1740), the kingdom of Dahomey
moved toward the coast, seizing in 1727 the port town of Whydah, which had
attracted a large number of European traders. Although Dahomey became to some
extent a subject of the powerful neighboring Yoruba state of Oyo, whose
cavalry and archers made it strong, Dahomey maintained its autonomy and turned
increasingly to the cycle of firearms and slaves. The trade was controlled by
the royal court, whose armies (including a regiment of women) were used to
raid for more captives. As Dahomey expanded it eliminated the royal families
and customs of the areas it conquered and imposed its own traditions. This
resulted in the formation of a unified state that proved more lasting than
some of its neighbors.

Well into the 19th century, Dahomey was a slaving state. Dependence on
the trade in human beings had negative effects on the society as a whole. The
large-scale sacrifice of human victims in the annual renewal festival, or
Customs, at the royal court was one example of the cheapening of life that the
trade produced. Historians argue about whether the expansion of Dahomey was
driven by the desire for more slaves or by an attempt to unify all the Aja
peoples, but in any case, slavery played a central role in the history of the
area. Over 1.8 million slaves were exported from the Bight of Benin between
1640 and 1890.

Emphasis on the slave trade should not obscure the creative process
within many of the African states. The growing devine authority of the rulers
paralleled in some ways the rise of absolutism in Europe. It led to the
development of new political forms, some of which had the power to limit the
role of the king. In the Yoruba state of Oyo, for example, a governing council
shared power with the ruler. In some states, a balance of offices kept central
power in check. In Asante the traditional village chiefs and officials whose
authority was based on their lineage were increasingly challenged by new
officials appointed by the asantehene, as a state bureaucracy began to form.

The creativity of these societies was also seen in traditional arts. In
many places, crafts such as bronze casting, woodcarving, and weaving
flourished. Guilds of artisans developed in a number of societies and their
specialization produced crafts executed with great skill. In Benin and the
Yoruba states, for example, remarkable and lifelike sculptures in wood and
ivory continued to be produced. Often, however, the best artisans labored for
the royal court, producing objects designed to honor the ruling family and
reinforce the civil and religious authority of the king. This was true in
architecture, weaving, and the decorative arts as well. Much of this artistic
production also had a religious function or contained religious symbolism as
African artists made the spiritual world visually apparent.

East Africa And The Sudan

West Africa was obviously the region most directly influenced by the
trans-Atlantic slave trade, but there and elsewhere in Africa, long-term
patterns of society and economy continued and intersected with the new
external influences.

On the East Coast of Africa, the Swahili trading cities continued their
commerce in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, accommodating to the
military presence of the Portuguese and the Ottoman Turks. Trade to the
interior continued to bring ivory, gold, and a steady supply of slaves. Many
of these slaves were destined for the harems and households of Arabia and the
Middle East, but also a small percent were carried away by the Europeans for
their plantation colonies. The Portuguese and Indo-Portuguese settlers along
the Zambezi River in Mozambique made use of slave soldiers to increase their
territories, and certain groups in interior East Africa specialized in
supplying ivory and slaves to the East African coast. Europeans did establish
some plantation-style colonies on islands like Mauritius in the Indian Ocean,
and these depended on the East African slave trade.

On Zanzibar and other offshore islands, and later on the coast itself,
Swahili, Indian, and Arabian merchants actually followed the European model
and set up plantations producing cloves, using African slave laborers. Some of
the plantations were large, and by the 1860s Zanzibar had a slave population
of around 100,000. The sultan of Zanzibar alone owned over 4000 slaves in
1870. Slavery became an extensive feature of the East African coast, and the
slave trade from the interior to these plantations and to the traditional
slave markets of the Red Sea continued until the end of the 19th century.

Much less is known about the interior of eastern Africa. The well-watered
and heavily populated region of the great lakes of the interior supported
large and small kingdoms. Bantu-speakers predominated but a number of peoples
inhabited the region. Linguistic and archeological evidence suggests that
pastoralist Nilotic peoples from the Upper Nile Valley with a distinctive late
iron age technology had moved southward into what is today western Kenya and
Uganda where they came into contact with Bantu-speakers and with the farmers
and herdsmen who were speakers of another group of languages called Cushitic.
The Bantu states absorbed the immigrants, even when at times the newcomers
established ruling dynasties. Later Nilotic migrations, especially of the Luo
peoples, resulted in the construction of a number of related dynasties among
the states in the area of the large lakes of east-central Africa. At Bunyoro,
the Luo eventually established a ruling dynasty among the existing Bantu
population. This composite kingdom exercised considerable power in the 16th
and 17th centuries. Other related and similar states formed in the region. In
Buganda, near Lake Victoria, a strong monarchy ruled a heterogeneous
population and dominated the region in the 18th century. These developments in
the interior, as important as they were for the history of the region, were
less influenced by the growing contact with the outside world than were other
regions of Africa.

Across the continent in the northern savanna at the end of the 18th
century, the process of Islamization, which had been important in the days of
the empires of Mali and Songhay, entered a new and violent stage that not only
linked Islamization to both the external slave trades and the growth of
slavery in Africa, but also produced other long-term effects in the region.
After the break up of Songhay in the 16th century, a number of successor
states had developed. Some, such as the Bambara kingdom of Segu, were pagan.
Others, such as the Hausa kingdoms in Northern Nigeria, were ruled by Muslim
royal families and urban aristocracies but continued to contain large numbers
of animist subjects, most of whom were rural peasants. In these states the
degree of Islamization was slight, and an accommodation between Muslims and
animists was achieved. Beginning in the 1770s Muslim reform movements began to
sweep the western Sudan. Religious brotherhoods advocating a purifying Sufi
variant of Islam extended their influence throughout the Muslim trade networks
in the Senegambia region and the western Sudan. This movement had an intense
impact on the Fulani (Fulbe), a pastoral people who were spread across a broad
area of the western Sudan.

In 1804 Usuman Dan Fodio, a studious and charismatic Muslim Fulani
scholar, began to preach the reformist ideology in the Hausa kingdoms. His
movement became a revolution when in 1804, seeing himself as God's instrument,
he preached a jihad against the Hausa kings whom he felt were not following
the teachings of the Prophet. A great upheaval followed in which the Fulani
took control of most of the Hausa states of northern Nigeria in the western
Sudan. A new kingdom, based on the city of Sokoto, developed under Dan Fodio's
son and brother. The Fulani expansion was driven not only by religious zeal
but by political ambitions, as the attack on the well-established Muslim
kingdom of Bornu demonstrated. The result of this upheaval was the creation of
a powerful Sokoto state under a caliph, whose authority was established over
cities such as Kano and Zaria and whose rulers became emirs of provinces
within the Sokoto caliphate.

By the 1840s the effects of Islamization and the Fulani expansion were
felt across much of the interior of West Africa. New political units were
created, a reformist Islam that sought to eliminate pagan practices was
spread, and social and cultural changes took place in the wake of these
changes. Literacy, for example, became more widely dispersed and new centers
of trade, such as Kano, emerged in this period. Later jihads established other
new states along similar lines. All of these changes had long-term effects on
the region of the western Sudan.

These upheavals - moved by religious, political, and economic motives -
were not unaffected by the external pressures on Africa. They fed into the
ongoing processes of the external slave trades and the development of slavery
within African societies. Large numbers of captives resulting from the wars
were exported down to the coast for sale to the Europeans, while another
stream of slaves crossed the Sahara to North Africa. In the western and
central Sudan the level of slave labor rose, especially in the larger towns
and along the trade routes. Slave villages, supplying royal courts and
merchant activities as well as a sort of plantation system, developed to
produce peanuts and other crops. Slave women spun cotton and wove cloth for
sale, slave artisans worked in the towns, and slaves served the caravan
traders, but most slaves did agricultural labor. By the late 19th century
regions of the savanna contained large slave populations - in some places as
much as 30 to 50 percent of the whole population. From the Senegambia region
of Futa Jallon, across the Niger and Senegal basins, and to the east of Lake
Chad, slavery became a central feature of the Sudanic states and remained so
through the 19th century.

White Settlers And Africans In Southern Africa

One area of Africa little affected by the slave trade in the early modern
period was the southern end of the continent. This region was still occupied
by non-Bantu hunting peoples, the San (Bushmen), and by the Khoikhoi
(Hottentots) who lived by hunting and sheep herding, and, after contact with
the Bantu, cattle-herding peoples as well. Peoples practicing farming and
using iron tools were living south of the Limpopo River by the 3d century a.d.
Probably Bantu-speakers, they spread southward and established their villages
and cattle herds in the fertile lands along the eastern coast, where rainfall
was favorable to their agricultural and pastoral way of life. The drier
western regions toward the Kalahari Desert were left to the Khoikhoi and San.
Mixed farming and pastoralism spread throughout the region in a complex
process that involved migration, peaceful contacts, and warfare.

By the 16th century, Bantu-speaking peoples occupied much of the eastern
regions of southern Africa. They practiced agriculture and herding; worked
iron and copper into tools, weapons, and adornments; and traded with their
neighbors. They spoke related languages such as Tswana, Sotho, as well as the
Nguni languages such as Zulu and Xhosa. Among the Sotho, villages might have
contained as many as 200 people, but the Nguni lived in hamlets made up of a
few extended families. Men served as artisans and herdsmen; women did the
farming and housework, and sometimes organized their labor communally.
Politically, chiefdoms of various sizes - many small, but a few with as many
as 50,000 inhabitants - characterized the southern Bantu peoples. Chiefs held
power with the support of relatives and with the acceptance of the people, but
there was considerable variation in chiefly authority. The Bantu-speaking
peoples' pattern of political organization and the splitting off of junior
lineages to form new villages created a process of expansion that led to
competition for land and absorption of newly conquered groups. This situation
became intense at the end of the 18th century, either because of the pressures
and competition for foreign trade through the Portuguese outposts on the East
African coast or because of the growth of population among the southern Bantu.
In any case, the result was farther expansion southward into the path of
another people who had arrived in southern Africa.

In 1652 the Dutch East India Company established a colony at the Cape of
Good Hope to serve as a provisioning ground for ships sailing to Asia. On the
fertile lands around this colony relatively large farms developed. The Cape
colony depended on slave labor brought from Indonesia and Asia for a while,
but it soon enslaved local Africans as well. The expanding colony and its
labor needs led to a series of wars with the San and Hottentot populations,
who were pushed farther to the north and west. By the 1760s the Dutch, or
Boer, farmers had crossed the Orange River in search of new lands. They viewed
the fertile plains and hills as theirs, and they saw the Africans only as
intruders and as a possible source of labor. Competition and warfare resulted.
Around 1800 the Cape colony had about 17,000 settlers (or Afrikaners as they
came to be called), 26,000 slaves, and 14,000 Khoikhoi.

At the same time that the Boers were pushing northward, the southern
Bantu were extending their movement to the south. Matters were also
complicated by European events when Great Britain seized the Cape colony in
1795 and then took it under formal British control in 1815. While the British
government helped the settlers to clear out Africans from potential farming
lands, government attempts to limit the Boer settlements and their use of
African labor were unsuccessful. Meanwhile competition for farming and grazing
land led to a series of wars between the settlers and the Bantu during the
early 19th century.

Various government measures, the increasing arrival of English-speaking
immigrants, and the lure of better lands caused groups of Boers to move to the
north. These "voortrekkers" moved into lands occupied by the southern Nguni,
eventually creating a number of autonomous Boer states. After 1834, when
Britain abolished slavery and imposed restrictions on landholding, groups of
Boers staged a "great trek" far to the north to be free of government
interference. This movement eventually brought them across the Orange River
and into Natal on the more fertile east coast, which the Boers believed to be
only sparsely inhabited by Africans. They did not realize at the time that the
lack of population was due to a great military upheaval taking place among the
Bantu peoples of the region.

The "Mfecane" And The Zulu Rise To Power

Among the Nguni peoples, major changes had taken place. A process of
unification had begun among some of the northern chiefdoms, and a new military
organization had emerged. In 1818 leadership fell to Shaka, a brilliant
military tactician who reformed the loose forces into regiments organized by
lineage and age. Iron discipline and new tactics were introduced, including
the use of a short stabbing-spear to be used at close range. The army was made
a permanent institution, and the regiments were housed together in separate
villages. The fighting men were only allowed to marry after their service had
been completed. Shaka's own Zulu chiefdom became the center of this new
military and political organization that began to absorb or destroy its
neighbors. Shaka demonstrated considerable talents as a politician, destroying
the ruling families of those groups he incorporated into the growing Zulu
state. He ruled with an iron hand, destroying his enemies, acquiring their
cattle, and crushing any opposition. His policies brought power to the Zulu,
but his erratic and cruel behavior also earned him enemies among his own
people. Though he was assassinated in 1828, Shaka's reforms remained in place
and his successors built on the structure he had created. Zulu power was still
growing in the 1840s, and the Zulu remained the most impressive military force
in black Africa until the end of the century.

The rise of the Zulu and other Nguni chiefdoms was the beginning of the
mfecane, or wars of crushing and wandering. As Zulu control expanded, a series
of campaigns and forced migrations led to incessant fighting, as other peoples
sought to survive by fleeing, emulating, or joining the Zulu. Groups spun off
to the north and south, raiding the Portuguese on the coast, clashing with the
Europeans to the south, and fighting with neighboring chiefdoms. New African
states, such as the Swazi, that adapted aspects of the Zulu model emerged
among the survivors. One state, Lesotho, successfully resisted the Zulu
example. It combined Sotho and Nguni speakers and defended itself against
Nguni armies. It eventually developed as a kingdom far less committed to
military organization and one in which the people exercised considerable
influence on their leaders.

The whole of the southern continent, from the Cape colony to Lake Malawi,
had been thrown into turmoil by raiding parties, remnants, and refugees.
Superior firepower allowed the Boers to continue to hold their lands, but it
was not until the Zulu Wars of the 1870s that Zulu power was crushed by Great
Britain - and even then only at great cost. During the process, the basic
patterns of conflict between Africans and Europeans in the largest settler
colony on the continent were created. These patterns included a competition
between settlers and Africans for land, the expanding influence of European
governmental control, and the desire of Europeans to make use of Africans as

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