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Slavery in Africa Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 29th, 2019


Like in other continents, slavery forms a major component of the African history. Encompassed with a myriad of intertwined factors, slavery in Africa was viewed from different perspectives. With several decades having passed since the abolition of slavery in most parts of the world, historians carry the historic memories of slavery in Africa.

Ranging from slave trade to child slavery, Africa witnessed countless atrocities, which were mainly perpetuated by powerful countries from Europe and among African communities. In understanding slavery in Africa, it is important to consider its origin and its greatest impact on the continent. This research paper analyses slavery in Africa, detailing its causes, dimensions and abolition among other major aspects of the slavery.


Europe started exploring ways of establishing relationships with Africa through trade between 800 and 1500 AD. It was during this time that Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and English traders sailed to access many countries in Africa to find market for their products which they bought from Europe and Asia.

In their initial efforts, Europeans were interested in the trading of gold, ivory tusks, feathers and other metals that were considered valuable (Claude 23). During this commercial interaction, many European countries discovered that African leaders were willing to exchange some of their people as slaves for other supplies.

Several trade routes were also established by colonies in the Atlantic to facilitate trade between several points. According to historic revelation, 1535 AD was the year when the first group of people left Africa for Americas in exchange for several business commodities (Manzo 394).

In exchange for slaves, European countries supplied ammunition, riffles and other goods to African kings. After an agreement was reached between Europeans and African leaders, slaves were packed in huge sailing boats and taken to different American colonies and to the Caribbean Island. While in these Islands, the slaves were traded for molasses, tobacco, sugar and cotton before they exchanged what they received back for guns from Europe (Claude 21).

This was the origin of what was later to be known as the Triangle Trade Route which contributed to the sale of at least ten million people from Africa. This practice continued and spread around Africa and other parts of the world before several countries joined efforts in illegalizing slave trade.

For the case of the United States, the country had to engage in the famous Cold War until 1865 AD when the trade was officially illegalized. It is for this reason that there are men and women in South and North America of African descent (Miers and Kopytoff 11).

Although there has been no consensus on the actual factors that led to the rise of slavery in Africa, many scholars concur that the need for agricultural labor was a major reason that contributed to the rise and escalation of slave trade in Africa. As it shall be noted later, other people have postulated the role of commerce and politics as key players in African slavery.

To the contrary, some anthropologists have argued that there were no sufficient reasons to support African slavery, having in mind that most people depended on gathering and hunting as a major source of food. From all directions, Africa as a continent was connected with slavery to the rest of the world as they were key players in the civilization process (Manzo 398).

In the northern part of Africa, slavery was mainly practiced in Sahara desert and in those lands which bordered it to the south together with the current Western Sahara, Algeria and Morocco. In addition, Tuaregs practiced slavery in the Central Sahara. The institution of slavery was also common among the Ethiopians, Sudanese, Egyptians and among the Somalis. Slavery was also known in several states from West Africa.

Dimensions of Slavery

There were two main dimensions that were directly linked to slavery and slave trade in Africa. These were external and internal dimensions. In general, the external dimension involved the trading of slaves across the Sahara, Red Sea, Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean worlds (Marcus 66). Although this trade commenced in ancient times, history reveals that it continued after colonial periods.

During early years, African slaves were found working in Greece, Rome, Europe and in the Islamic world among other places. The capture of Constantinople by Ottoman in 1453 led to a stop of the movement of slaves from the Balkans and the Black Sea region. This resulted into disconnection of the Mediterranean from its principal source of slaves, leaving the region with no other option but Africa, which became its new source of slaves (Marcus 66).

The last period of the external slave trade took place between the 15th to the 19th centuries, involving Atlantic, Oriental and the Islamic worlds. Notably, the Islamic world was sophisticated and selective as slavery served both economic and social functions. Due to this complexity of the market, African slaves were not as valuable as those from Georgia and Circassia.

Although these girls were on high demand in most parts of the world including Morocco, they were scarce and expensive (Marcus 67).Arabs valued Ethiopian slaves more than any other man because they were believed to be refined and intelligent and therefore they were not suited for heavy duties.

On the other hand, external slave trade was mainly conducted within the African continent. The trade was divided into sections; North Africa traded with West Africa while the Southern part of Africa traded mostly with Central and Eastern regions.

Ghana was a key player during this period and was highly valued because of its richness in gold that was found in Offin and Pra rivers, which had a high concentration of this valuable mineral. A part from gold, Ghana was also a source of ivory and kola nuts. The Savanna region was a major source of millet, ostrich feathers, sorghum, ivory, wheat, slaves, livestock, cloth and gum (Marcus 68).

Acquisition of Slaves

Slaves in Africa were basically acquired through fives ways which were: warfare, raiding and kidnapping, pawning, market supply and tribute paying. The main slavery output emanated from prisoners of war (Marcus 68).Warfare was quite common among the forest and Savanna states of East, West, South and Central Africa. Jihads were also influential as they enslaved people ranging from the Red Sea in the east to the Senegambia in the West.

On the other hand, slave markets were established depending of the sizes of the regions and members of royalties as they were allowed to move freely to any part of the markets and purchase slaves. Caravan routes offered the best sites for the establishment of these markets, while West and North Africa considered Trans-Saharan routes to be imperative during slave trade (Marcus 70).

Similarly, raiding and kidnapping were common practices used to acquire slaves from a particular region. It is believed that these practices were well institutionalized in the Bambara Society while the Berbers and Tuaregs were well known for raiding their neighbors who were found to the south.

This method of slave procurement was also utilized by the Damagaram, inhabitants of Northern Nigeria. However, in other regions like Sokoto Caliphate and Nilotic Sudan, the exercise was considered to be a state affair (Miers and Kopytoff 12).

Many other slaves were obtained through paying of tribute (Miers and Kopytoff 171). Yoruba of Nigeria are extensively known for having employed this method. Additionally, the Sokoto Caliphate always ordered tribute from subjects and this was only honored using slaves as the key commodity recognized by leaders and empires.

The last method applied in slave acquisition was pawning. This referred to cases where a slave was given out to serve as security for borrowed money. The pawn therefore served as a commitment to settle the debt and was expected to work for the creditor and be taken care of by the host until the debt was cleared. Although pawning was not a direct form of slavery, non-redeemed pawns ended up serving as slaves for the rest of their lives and were common in Ghana, Nigeria among the Igbo and in Mozambique among the Sena (Marcus 67).

Roles of slaves

Slaves were mainly needed as a major source of labor in agriculture, industry and trade. However a few slaves were employed in administration of the state, empires and kingdoms. Other slaves were used to perform domestic duties, in the military and for personal satisfaction.

Agriculture, Trade and Industry

Slave labor was necessary for several economic activities among African communities. These activities included hunting, fishing, farming and animal rearing among others. Slaves were also played a major role in collection of food plants like coconuts, shea butter, oil palm and kola nuts (Marcus 70).

With regard to trade, slaves mainly served as trading agents, merchants or porter, working for the state and also for individuals. In some cases, slaves took charge of trade roots and were expected to collect taxes as directed by the authority. In addition, slaves worked in several industries including gold mining, cloth weaving, iron working, art and craft industries and salt making.

Administration and Military

Slaves were highly needed to provide security to kingdoms and empires as well as to serve during warfare. Others served as bodyguards to chiefs and kings whereas a few trusted slaves were entrusted with command responsibilities during battles. During entertainment, slaves were horn blowers and drummers and served as caretakers of the Royal Mausoleum. They also engaged in other departments like finance and kitchen among others (Marcus 71).

Domestic chores

Both male and female slaves performed domestic roles in shrines, palaces and individual households, engaging in washing, cooking, cleaning, sweeping and fetching of water and firewood. Other slaves were sacrificed mainly during major functions and ceremonies in accordance with traditional beliefs and practices. This was also common as occasioned by death of prominent personalities (Marcus 67).

Effects of Slavery in Africa

Slavery in Africa had numerous effects ranging from positive to negative, with the latter dominating. The first effect of slavery revolves around the manner in which most slaves were procured by communities and empires. As a key method of acquiring slaves, raiding propagated hostility among villages and other attacking groups (Nunn 139).

As a result of this animosity, involved parties had to break alliances, agreements, trading relations among other forms of association. Consequently, conflicts between communities were common as each fought towards protecting their own interests.

As mentioned before, slavery in Africa presented itself in two dimensions, involving slavery activities within and outside the continent. The trans-Atlantic trade which has deeper roots in African Slavery led to the exportation of at least ten million people from Africa to Europe and other continents.

Notably, this number does not account for countless slaves who died during raids or during long journeys to the coast before they were shipped and ferried to various European destinations (Nunn 139 It therefore suffices to mention that these practices turned against different communities as they became impediments towards economic development and social strengthening.

Ethnic Fractionalization

Raiding and kidnappings, which were core methods of capturing slaves, had detrimental impact on most African societies. Since the attacks happened among African communities, the continent felt the entire impact of slavery (Nunn 141).

Accordingly, hostility rose as every community wanted to domineer and protect its people against unauthorized slavery. Several contacts that had promoted peace between communities got broken by insecurity, banditry, and massive suspicion whose main origin was slavery that had escalated to every part of the continent during the 19th century.

This discouraged the formation of larger communities and identities and explains why Africa as a continent is fragmented into countless ethnic groups, some of which do not have broader identities. Viewed from a development point of view, ethnic fragmentation significantly hampered development in most African ethnic communities that was contributed by raids and insecurity (Nunn 141).

Weakening of states

High level of insecurity among communities resulted into high demand for weaponry like knives, firearms and swords for the defense of communities. These items were only found in Europe, forcing African kings to export slaves in exchange of these devices that were considered to be very important. The “gun slave cycle” continued as acquisition of firearms increased both insecurity and the need for high-level security protection (Nunn 142).

There was heightened animosity among states as Europeans benefitted from the supply of slaves to meet their needs, causing political instability of not only ethnic groups but also the entire state. In extreme cases of political instability and increased cases of insecurity, governments disintegrated and got replaced by weak and smaller kingdoms.

There is documented evidence about the existence of well established political structures, which stagnated and collapsed at the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century. In addition, this fragmentation further determined ethnic and language homogeneity among African communities (Nunn 142).

Besides these factors, deterioration of legal institutions as people adopted enslavement to be the main method of enforcing the law. Traditional methods like punishment, exiles and compensation were substituted with slavery through paying of tributes (Miers and Kopytoff 171).

With slavery having dominated Africa for years, the nurtured society led to a prevalent predatory behavior among most communities that was accompanied with low production. People believed in raiding and forceful acquisition of wealth, which can be linked to continued war in some parts of the continent. On the other hand, some historians argue that slavery led to the introduction of better breeds of animals and crop varieties that promoted high food production (Nunn 143).


With reference to the above analysis of slavery in Africa, it is clear that these practices had significant impact on the entire African society with some of the effects being felt today. From disintegrated governments to collapsed judicial system, Africa suffered severely in the hands of slavery which was promoted by both external and internal factors. With most societies having been left under insecure governments and unstable social structure, Europe highly benefited from the slavery as it dominated the trans-Atlantic Trade.

Works Cited

Claude, Melliassoux. “The slave trade and development.” Diogenes 45.3 (1997): 23-30.

Manzo, Kate. “Exploiting West Africa’s children: trafficking, slavery and uneven development.” Area 37.4 (2005): 393-401. Print.

Marcus, Colchester. “Slave and enclave.” Ecologist 23.5 (1993): 66-74.

Miers, Suzanne, and Kopytoff Igor. Slavery in Africa: historical and anthropological perspectives. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979. Print.

Nunn, Nathan. “The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 1.1 (2008): 139-176.

Townsend, Cummins. “Keeping score: Winners and losers in the transatlantic slave trade.” Reviews in American History 21.3 (1993): 379-405.

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