African Enslavement, Precolonial

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African Enslavement, Precolonial







Between the 1440s and the 1860s, European traders and colonists shipped millions of people from sub-Saharan Africa to the Americas. The total number of Africans sent across the Atlantic is variously estimated to be no less than 12 million and no more than 20 million, making it by far the greatest forced migration of people the world has ever seen. Indeed, the long-term global impact of this massive transfer of people against their will is just beginning to be fully understood.

The role of diasporic Africans in the socioeconomic history of the Atlantic world has become recognized as a central issue in global history. As researchers have documented the violent process of procuring millions of people for export overseas, it has become clear that the impact of the long-term socioeconomic damage to Africa was immense, no matter what figures scholars prefer to accept. The debate has therefore shifted to the counter-factual question of whether inadequate agricultural resources and the disease environment in Africa would not have produced a similar outcome in the absence of transatlantic slaving. This and related issues continue to be examined by scholars. This entry focuses on the factors that facilitated the supply of the massive numbers of captives for export to the Americas.

Modern historians have struggled with this puzzle for several decades. Some have argued that widespread slavery in Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century was the main factor. This argument was first made by the European slave traders in response to the onslaught mounted against their business by the abolitionist movement in the late eighteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, the alleged widespread existence of slavery in Africa also became a popular theme for the agents of European colonialism, who tried to mobilize popular support in Europe behind the imperial enterprise, which was presented as a “civilizing mission in a dark continent.” Thus, they argued that the abolition of slavery and its evils in Africa would be one of the benefits of European colonial rule.

In the hands of modern historians, the argument has undergone much refinement. Social anthropology has provided a conceptual framework that perceives precolonial African societies as operating a uniquely African economic system, in which land laws precluded the development of private ownership of land; consequently, wealth accumulation took the form of the enlargement of the number of dependents (people with limit rights who depend on others) instead of the accumulation of land and capital that is said to characterize the history of Europe. Proponents of this view proceed to argue that the Atlantic slave trade grew out of this indigenous process of accumulating dependents as wealth and that the expanded supply of captives for export was sustained by the same process for the entire duration of the trade. As several of them claim, the Atlantic slave trade presented opportunities for African political and economic entrepreneurs to accumulate dependents. In contrast to European capitalists, who reinvested their profits in order to accumulate more capital, the argument goes, African political and economic entrepreneurs employed the surplus imported goods they received (in exchange for the captives they supplied) to accumulate more dependents.

Is this explanation consistent with what is known now of precolonial Africa? Or are there other factors that better explain what happened? Given prevailing conditions, precolonial societies in Africa responded to market opportunities much like their precapitalist counterparts in the rest of the world. The limited development of market economies in nineteenth-century sub-Saharan Africa, relative to the economies of other major regions at the time, was in fact the long-term effect of the transatlantic slave trade, and not the cause of it. This view is consistent with the historical reality, embedded in the intersection of the political and economic processes. The economic process involved the actions of individuals and groups of individuals responding to market opportunities as they struggled to meet the material needs of life. The political process, entailed the collective efforts of organized societies to resolve conflicts arising from the actions of individuals and groups of individuals, and to protect the lives and property of members. Conceptually, different market opportunities pose different problems, and societies at different levels of politico-military development possess differing capabilities in dealing with crises. It is therefore important to examine the structure of socioeconomic and political organization in sub-Saharan African societies on the eve of their contact with the Europeans, and to follow the historical process as it unfolded for the next four hundred years. This historical process can be organized into four broad periods: (1) the pre-European contact period; (2) the first two hundred years or so of the European coastal presence (c. 1441–1650), during which trade in African products generally dominated commercial intercourse between Europeans and Africans; (3) the main period of the transatlantic slave trade (c. 1650–1850); and (4) the last decades of the nineteenth century, after the effective abolition of the trade in captives across the Atlantic to the Americas.

It is also pertinent to examine briefly the export trade in European captives to the Middle East, which preceded the trade in African captives. A discussion of the factors that promoted and ended that trade can shed light on the main factors in the African case. This discussion also offers the opportunity to examine a related issue: Why the demand for slave labor in the Americas was focused exclusively on sub-Saharan Africa. Why were captives from Europe not exported to meet the demand? Was widespread anti-African racism in fifteenth-century Europe the explanation or, again, was it a result of the intersection of political and economic processes in Europe and Africa?


One of the most elaborate slave systems in Europe developed in the Roman Empire (44 BCE–476 CE). The wars that established the empire generated captives from the conquered territories in Europe and the Mediterranean region resulting in the establishment of a large slave system. However, once incorporated into the empire, the general populations in the conquered territories became Roman citizens and were protected by the imperial government against

capture and enslavement. Thereafter, the Roman slave system was sustained by imports from territories outside the borders of the empire. While the imperial government in Rome remained strong and the provinces were effectively administered, pax romana (Roman peace) ensured that people in all parts of the empire—from the British Isles to the Balkans and beyond—were protected against capture and enslavement.

But with the collapse of the empire and the disappearance of its strong centralized state, the provinces descended into political fragmentation. Effective imperial protection in Britain ended with the withdrawal of the Roman legions in 407 CE; Roman authority in the Balkans collapsed in the late sixth century; and from the fifth to the eighth century, German political entrepreneurs broke up western Europe into several small Germanic kingdoms. This proliferation of small political units presented a fertile ground for sociopolitical conflict that would expose many people to capture and slavery.

Nevertheless, political fragmentation by itself did not immediately lead to capture and enslavement. For one thing, many of the large urban centers in the Roman Empire, which provided markets for the products of slave labor and made investment in slaves profitable, disappeared after its collapse. Under these conditions, the high cost of slave labor supervision made holding slaves economically unprofitable. Hence, large slaveholders began to look for ways to exploit the labor of their slaves without the high cost of supervision. This was found in serfdom, which gave former slaves more rights and freedom in exchange for labor (on the manors of their former owners) and other dues. Thus, in the decades following the collapse of the empire, there was a general conversion of slaves into serfs, who settled in lands they cultivated for themselves, paying labor and other dues to the former slaveholders. Amid the general insecurity that followed the collapse, even many of the previously free peasants were reduced to serfs.

While serfdom was emerging in parts of western Europe, a large slave market was developing in the Middle East, following the establishment of the Islamic empire in the seventh century. This market encouraged many individuals in the Balkans and other former provinces of the empire in western Europe (including the British Isles) to raid politically fragmented regions for captives in order to satisfy the growing demand from the Middle East. Without relatively strong centralized states to prevent internal breakdown of law and order and hold external raiders in check, internal man-hunting generated internal sociopolitical conflict, and raiding across political boundaries provoked wars among neighbors, both of which produced captives sold for export and for local use.

The cycle of conflict, wars, and enslavement induced by export demand for captives continued in the former Roman provinces for centuries until the general emergence of relatively strong centralized states—first, the Frankish kingdom (786–814) and its successor states in continental Europe; then, the Norman state in Britain after 1066. These states were more or less politico-militarily equally matched. They were strong enough to stop destabilizing internal man-hunt by their own people and maintain law and order internally, while general politico-military parity among them restrained them from exporting each other’s subjects, even in wartimes. For the rest of the Middle Ages and early modern times, trade in European captives became limited to the Balkans and the Black Sea region, where political fragmentation lasted much longer. But with the Ottoman conquest and incorporation of the small autonomous political units in the Balkans into the Ottoman empire in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and a similar incorporation of the small political units in the Black Sea region into the expanding Russian empire in the fifteenth century, the export of white captives from both regions also came to an end.

About the same time that political developments in Europe were ending the export of European slaves to the Middle East, western European explorers and traders were establishing seaborne contacts with the coastal societies of Atlantic Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The drying up of supply from Europe had long been shifting Middle East demand for captives to sub-Saharan Africa, leading to the growth of the trans-Saharan slave trade.


The massive export of people from Africa to the Americas occurred largely in western Africa—that part of sub-Saharan Africa bordering on the Atlantic, together with the immediate and distant hinterland. In order to correctly identify the main factors at play, two broad regions in western Africa must be distinguished—Atlantic Africa (the societies of the Atlantic coast and their immediate hinterlands, which were directly affected by the European presence) and the Savanna territories in the interior that had been the center of major precolonial socioeconomic and political developments before the establishment of regular seaborne contact with the Europeans.

From the ninth to the third millennium BCE, when climatic and ecological conditions were conducive to extensive human settlement in the Sahara region, African societies—from the Sahara to the Nile valley, and from Ethiopia to Egypt—were major players in the political and economic processes of the Afro-Asian world. However, long-term climatic changes turned the Sahara into a desert and severely limited interactions between western Africa and the Mediterranean and Afro-Asian regions. The use of the camel reestablished regular commercial and other links between western Africa and the evolving commercial centers in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. But the huge Sahara desert, with its unforgiving climate and terrain, dispersed populations southward and limited trans-Saharan trade to goods with high value-to-weight ratio, such as gold. Historians have yet to study in detail the impact of these developments on socioeconomic and political processes in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in a comparative global context.

From the latter half of the first millennium CE to the middle of the second, the first large state systems in western Africa—Ancient Ghana, Mali, Songhay, and KanemBorno—were established. From the mid-thirteenth century to 1591, a large part of western Africa’s total population was located in the territories that formed the Mali and Songhay empires. In the Songhay Empire, the three Niger-bend towns of Jenne, Timbuktu, and Gao had total populations of 30,000–40,000, 80,000, and 100,000, respectively, during the late sixteenth century.

The combination of population concentration, the openness of the savanna, the ease of river transportation over long stretches of the Niger, and the security provided by the governments of Ancient Ghana, Mali, and Songhay made the interior savanna the center of manufacturing and trade in West Africa (western Africa from Mauritania to southeastern Nigeria) before seaborne contact with the Europeans in the fifteenth century. Differing population densities and natural resource endowment encouraged the growth and development of interregional trade between the interior savanna and Atlantic Africa. Gold and kola nuts, the main products of Atlantic Africa, were exchanged for the manufactures of the interior savanna, mostly cotton textiles and leather goods. Internal factors making for the growth of interregional trade in West Africa were reinforced by trade with the southern Sahara, North Africa, and the Middle East, particularly the trade in West African gold to meet growing European demand intermediated by Mediterranean merchants, who shipped the gold out of West Africa.

All of West Africa, from Mauritania to southeastern Nigeria, was involved in the precontact interregional longdistance trade between the interior savanna and Atlantic Africa that was centered in the Niger bend. But because of its extensive involvement in the production of the two main products in the trade, gold and kola nuts, the Gold Coast (southern modern Ghana) occupied a special place in the trade. The trade in kola nuts grew in volume as Islam spread in the savanna states (kola nuts being the only stimulant Muslims are allowed to consume). At the same time, the demand for gold in the trans-Saharan trade expanded with growing demand from Europe.

These developments created trade networks and a commercial culture that would facilitate the establishment of trade relations with the Europeans from the fifteenth century onward. But the sociopolitical organization of the societies in western Africa in the mid-fifteenth century would play a role in the procurement of the massive supply of captives for export to the Americas. In contrast to the relatively large centralized states in the interior savanna, in what geographers call the West African Middle Belt, there were a large number of small, kin-based autonomous political units. Further south, all along the Atlantic coast from Senegambia (modern-day Senegal and Gambia) to modern Namibia, political fragmentation was also the norm in the mid-fifteenth century. This was evident as late as the seventeenth century, for a Dutch map drawn in 1629 shows thirty-eight autonomous political units in the area of modern southern Ghana. In the sixteenth century, there were five independent political units in the small area of modern Republic of Benin; in modern Yorubaland, in southwest Nigeria, there were more than a dozen autonomous political units, even though the Yoruba kingdom of Ife was a relatively complex state system at the time. East of Yorubaland the political scene was much the same, apart from the kingdoms of Benin (in mid-western Nigeria) and Kongo (in West-Central Africa), which were already undergoing a process of expansion and the consolidation of state authority in the fifteenth century.

In terms of social structure, there was very little social stratification and class differentiation in the small kin-based societies of Atlantic Africa. Unlike the areas of the interior, there were no accumulated dependents (whether serfs or slaves). In West-Central Africa, where the Portuguese started exporting captives early in the sixteenth century, even the king of Kongo had no accumulated dependents for sale. The political economy of the kingdom was based on redistribution by the king: The provincial governors sent the staple products of their provinces to the king, and the king redistributed these products to the governors according to what each province lacked. This system made the accumulation of slaves or serfs by state elites unnecessary, given the relatively low level of commercial development.

The main authorities on the history of precontact West-Central Africa (Jan Vansina, Anne Hilton, Robert Harms) confirm that there were no slaves, and no slave trade, in the region when the Portuguese arrived in the late fifteenth century. Nor were there words for slaves or purchased people. When, in the early sixteenth century, the king of Portugal sent a trade mission to negotiate with the king of Kongo a switch from copper to captive export, the Kongo king had no slaves to give in return for the gifts sent by the Portuguese king. Instead, he had to raid weakly organized neighboring communities for the needed captives. Subsequently, following the growth of transatlantic slaving in the region, “loanwords” were applied to describe the new social phenomena that developed along the slave trade routes, spreading from the Atlantic coast to the interior.

In West Africa, evidence shows that in the interior savanna, where class differentiation developed, state rulers, Muslim clerics, and merchants used dependent cultivators (approximating serfs rather than slaves), in basically the same way that their counterparts in medieval Europe did. They were settled in villages, where they produced for themselves and paid dues in kind to their lords, who were generally resident in the cities. Large numbers of such villages existed in Mali, Songhay, Kanem-Borno, and the small city-states of the savanna from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. Some writers loosely apply the terms slave and slavery to describe these populations. Consistent with the scientific precision in the use of terms that characterizes the writing of medieval European history, there can be no doubt that the more appropriate terms to apply are serfs and serfdom. The populations were built up over time by conquest, with captives that had been taken from the fragmented societies of the West African Middle Belt mentioned earlier. Some of these societies fed the trans-Saharan trade, which took a few thousand captives per year from the fragmented communities in the interior savanna. When historians make the point that African societies were involved in selling and buying people before the arrival of the Europeans in the fifteenth century, the point is valid largely for the interior savanna. But for most of Atlantic Africa that came into direct contact with Europeans in the fifteenth century, this was not the case.

It is particularly important to note that the elites in socially stratified societies in fifteenth-century western Africa were not involved in the accumulation of dependents as an end in itself. Contrary to the belief of some social anthropologists, economic rationality was involved. The growth of elaborate state systems—with a large number of specialized state functionaries (administrators and military men), religious leaders, scholars, and merchants— occurred at a time when the geographical spread of the market economy was limited, land was abundant and accessible to all cultivators, and, therefore, free wage labor was unavailable. Hence, the provisioning of the specialized elites on a regular basis required dependent producers whose labor could be exploited under conditions that did not involve high supervision costs.


In the first two hundred years of European trade in western Africa, products from Africa’s natural endowment overwhelmingly dominated the trade. The flamboyant display of West Africa’s gold wealth by Mali’s Mansa Musa, during his pilgrimage to Mecca in the 1320s, inspired the Portuguese to search for a direct seaborne route to the source of the precious metal in West Africa. Thus, trade in West African gold was the main concern of the Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. That trade centered on the Gold Coast, so called because of the large amount of gold sold in the region. Another important product for the Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was red pepper from the Benin trading area of southwest Nigeria, which also supplied them with cotton cloth. In West-Central Africa, copper was the main product for several decades. All across western Africa, other products, such as ivory, supplemented the trade in gold, pepper, and copper.

Right from the beginning, a few captives were also shipped by the Portuguese. These were initially the victims of direct raids by the Portuguese on the small coastal communities. But in the first two hundred years of European trade in western Africa, the trade in captives paled in comparison with the trade in gold and other African products. Like the preexisting trans-Saharan trade in captives, the numbers involved were small and, with some exceptions (including the Kongo-Angola area of West-Central Africa), the socioeconomic and political disruption caused was limited.

As long as European trade concentrated on African products, political fragmentation posed no serious problem to the societies in Atlantic Africa. These societies responded positively to the market opportunities, as all societies across the globe have done. The case of the Gold Coast, where the early product trade was particularly large, may be taken to illustrate.

The European demand for gold considerably expanded the market for the Akan gold producers and traders. This stimulated the growth of specialization in gold production and trade, which created a domestic market for other producers in agriculture and manufacturing. The opportunities for productive investment in agriculture were seized by people who had accumulated wealth from the gold trade.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, these wealthy merchants invested their profits from commerce in clearing forests to develop farmlands. Given the early stages of development of the market economy in the region—and hence the nonexistence of a virile market for free wage labor—the Akan agricultural entrepreneurs had to rely on purchased imported labor. Some of these laborers were supplied from the north by the gold and kola nuts traders operating along the Jenne-Begho trade route, while others were brought by the Portuguese from other parts of western Africa (including the Benin and Kongo kingdoms). Again, economic rationality underpinned the investment decisions of the Akan merchants who invested their profits from trade in agriculture. They were not

motivated by the desire to accumulate dependents as a form of wealth. On the contrary, they took care to avoid the creation of a slave class. What is more, no Akan land laws hindered the investment of profits from commerce in agriculture by wealthy traders when the market conditions were conducive for the investment. Indeed, in response to the general developments of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a land market had begun to evolve in the region. The site on which Kumasi was later built was purchased at this time for the equivalent of £270 (sterling) in gold. Similar developments were more or less associated with the early product trade in the other regions of western Africa.


Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, the growth in demand for slave labor in the Americas, associated with the rapid expansion of large-scale mining and plantation agriculture (at a time when the pre-Columbian indigenous population of the Americas had been largely destroyed), shifted European traders’ demand decisively from African products to African captives. Whereas the demand for products created conditions that favored individuals with the talent and aptitude to organize the production and distribution of goods and services, the demand for captives favored individuals with violent dispositions. As these individuals engaged in rampant kidnapping within their own communities and organized raids across political boundaries to obtain captives, the politically fragmented societies were unable to prevent an internal breakdown of law and order and keep external raiders at bay. Thus, indiscriminate kidnapping created prolonged internal social conflicts, while raids across political borders provoked political conflicts between neighbors, which led to protracted wars. All of this made captives available for sale to the European exporters.

Some people in the fragmented societies adopted various defensive measures, the most successful of which was migration to sites with natural defenses (hilltops in particular). But their success was limited, and the bulk of the captives exported ultimately came from politically fragmented societies. Only when political and economic entrepreneurs succeeded in establishing relatively strong centralized states and incorporated the weakly organized societies were the people adequately protected against capture and sale for export. When this occurred, the frontier of capture and sale was pushed outward to other weakly organized societies. Yet while the newly constituted and relatively strong centralized states protected their citizens from capture and export, they continued to export captives from outside their political boundaries as a way of securing the resources needed to maintain stability at home and protect their territorial integrity.

It is clear from the evidence that political fragmentation in Atlantic Africa was the permissive factor that allowed a sustained response to the growing demand for slave labor in the Americas. What western Africa shared with the European societies that supplied captives exported to the Middle East was not some peculiar economy in which dependents were accumulated as a form of wealth. Nor was it some special cultural element that permitted the massive export of people. Instead, the common condition was political fragmentation. Both in Europe and in western Africa, the eventual incorporation of fragmented societies into relatively strong centralized states protected the citizens against capture and sale. The main difference, however, was the much greater magnitude of the transatlantic demand, which fed a slave system aimed at the production of commodities for an evolving capitalist world market. The magnitude of the demand created conditions that slowed the generalized development of strong states in all of sub-Saharan Africa, which would likely have ended the trade as it did in Europe.

A comparative discussion of the rise and demise of captive export from Europe and the rise of transatlantic slaving from western Africa also helps to explain why the demand for slave labor in the Americas focused on western Africa instead of Europe. Some historians have offered an ideological explanation for this. By the sixteenth century, they say, Europeans in Europe and the Americas were unwilling to enslave other Europeans, but they had no racial constraint enslaving Africans (Eltis 2000). This explanation is unsatisfactory, however. There was no pan-European identity in the sixteenth century that could ideologically prevent the enslavement of Europeans by other Europeans, just as there was no pan-African identity to ideologically prevent rulers in Africa from exporting people outside their polities. These identities were nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments. As has been seen, it was not the collective action of Europeans that ended the export of captives from Europe. Individual states in Europe ended the export of their citizens for domestic political reasons, the same way that individual states in western Africa ended the export of their citizens. Anti-African European racism grew out of the racialization of slavery in the Americas; it was not the cause of the transatlantic slave trade.


A major long-term consequence of the transatlantic slave trade—arising from its adverse impact on population growth, its disruption of the development of export trade in products, and the widespread conflict and insecurity associated with the violent procurement of millions of people for export—was a retardation of market development and the spread of the market economy in western Africa between 1650 and 1850. Given this condition, merchants, rulers and their officials, religious leaders, and warlords had to rely on dependent populations to produce their subsistence—what has been called “subsistence servitude.” The fact that few of the dependent populations were employed by their lords in large-scale production of commodities for the market at the time was due to the limited market for the products of bonded labor, not because of laws that discouraged investment in large-scale commercial agriculture. As the case of sixteenth-century Ghana discussed earlier shows, there were no such legal barriers. Developments following abolition make this point even clearer.

A number of developments preceding and following the abolition of the slave trade led to a rapid growth of servile populations in western Africa. The conditions for sociopolitical conflicts created by the export demand for captives continued to generate conflicts after abolition. But without the export market in the Americas to absorb the captives produced by the conflicts, prices tumbled. At the same time, European demand for African products (vegetable oil and woods in particular) began to grow once again, stimulating the growth of the “legitimate commerce” of the nineteenth century. The domestic market for foodstuffs also began to develop, stimulated by the expansion of commodity production for export and population growth. African entrepreneurs responded to these market opportunities against the backdrop of falling captive prices and the nonexistence of wage labor. It was under these conditions that the population of servile producers grew rapidly in western Africa in the nineteenth century. There was economic rationality for the growth, and dependents were not just accumulated as a form of wealth.

SEE ALSO African Diaspora; Racial Slave Labor in the Americas; Slave Trade Ideology; Slavery and Race.


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Joseph E. Inikori

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African Enslavement, Precolonial

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