Slavery in Ancient Africa


Slavery in Africa, the institution of slavery as it existed in Africa, and the effects of world slave-trade systems on African people and societies. As in most of the world, slavery, or involuntary human servitude, was practiced across Africa from prehistoric times to the modern era. When people today think of slavery, many envision the form in which it existed in the United States before the American Civil War (1861-1865): one racially identifiable group owning and exploiting another. However, in other parts of the world, slavery has taken many different forms. In Africa, many societies recognized slaves merely as property, but others saw them as dependents who eventually might be integrated into the families of slave owners. Still other societies allowed slaves to attain positions of military or administrative power. Most often, both slave owners and slaves were black Africans, although they were frequently of different ethnic groups. Traditionally, African slaves were bought to perform menial or domestic labor, to serve as wives or concubines, or to enhance the status of the slave owner.

Traditional African practices of slavery were altered to some extent beginning in the 7th century by two non-African groups of slave traders: Arab Muslims and Europeans. From the 7th to the 20th century, Arab Muslims raided and traded for black African slaves in West, Central, and East Africa, sending thousands of slaves each year to North Africa and parts of Asia. From the 15th to the 19th century, Europeans bought millions of slaves in West, Central, and East Africa and sent them to Europe; the Caribbean; and North, Central, and South America. These two overlapping waves of transcontinental slave trading made the slave trade central to the economies of many African states and threatened many more Africans with enslavement.

Traditions of Slavery Within Africa

Slavery existed in some of Africa’s earliest organized societies. More than 3,500 years ago, ancient Egyptians raided neighboring societies for slaves, and the buying and selling of slaves were regular activities in cities along the Nile River. However, whereas the Egyptians left behind written records of their activities, most other early African states and societies did not. Therefore, our understanding of most early African practices of slavery is based on much more recent observations of African traditions regarding slavery and kinship and on oral histories.


In Africa, as in many places around the world, early slavery likely resulted from warring groups taking captives. Such captives were of little use, and often some bother, when kept close to their homes because of the ease of escape. Therefore, they were often sold and transported to more distant places.

Warfare was not the only reason for the practice of slavery in Africa, however. In many African societies, slavery represented one of the few methods of producing wealth available to common people. Throughout the African continent there was little recognition of rights to private landholding until colonial officials began imposing European law in the 19th century. Land was typically held communally by villages or large clans and was allotted to families according to their need. The amount of land a family needed was determined by the number of laborers that family could marshal to work the land. To increase production, a family had to invest in more laborers and thus increase their share of land. The simplest and quickest way to do this was to invest in slaves. To help service this demand, many early African societies conducted slave raids on distant villages.

Slaves’ Roles

Women constituted the majority of early African slaves. In addition to agricultural work, female slaves carried out other economic functions, such as trading and cotton spinning and dyeing. They also performed domestic chores, such as preparing food, washing clothes, and cleaning. Powerful African men kept female slaves as wives or concubines, and in many societies these women stood as symbols of male wealth. Male slaves typically farmed and herded animals. Those who belonged to wealthy families and especially of ruling lineages of states also worked as porters and rowers, and learned crafts such as weaving, construction, and metalwork. New slaves were sometimes given menial tasks while experienced slaves did the more difficult and dangerous work, such as mining and quarrying.

Some male, and fewer female, slaves held positions of high status and trust within their societies. In precolonial states in the interior of West and Central Africa, slaves often served as soldiers and confidants of high officials. With their necessarily limited ambitions and dependence on their masters, slaves were considered the ideal persons to be close to men in power. In a few cases, female slaves assumed power and influence as well. For example, in the 19th century in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey (now southern Benin), women served in the royal palace and formed the kingdom’s soldier elite.

Slavery and Kinship

Kinship (connection to a family by blood or marriage) has always been extremely important in Africa as an essential component of a person’s identity and ability to survive in society. Traditionally, those without kin were essentially lost–not considered real persons by society. Slaves, taken in battle or in slave raids, were cut off from their kin. In some societies, however, slaves were viewed as dependents, and could, over time, become identified as members of their owners’ extended families. Many African societies decreed that children of slave owners by their slaves could not be sold or killed. Also, after three or four generations, descendants of slaves could often shed their slave status. Thus slavery, on one hand, cut people off from their kin but, on the other hand, provided them with the possibility of becoming attached to other families and, after several generations, reintegrated into the web of kinship.

None of the above possibilities should suggest that enslaved Africans liked what was happening to them, accepted slavery willingly, or normally rose quickly in status. However, early African traditions of slavery appear more benign when compared to the institutionalized systems of slave trading that would develop later. As African states began providing slaves for export by Arabs or Europeans, slavery became much more central to the economies and politics of those states and more of a threat to Africans in general.

Effects of Slave Trades on Africa

Around the 15th century BC, Egypt’s New Kingdom enslaved non-Africans, such as Jews from Palestine, through warfare and imported them to the Nile Valley. As an African importer of non-African slaves, however, ancient Egypt is a notable exception to the rule. Africa’s role in the history of transcontinental slave trading has generally been as a provider or exporter of slaves for use outside of Africa.

After the 5th century BC, Greeks and, later, Romans came to dominate the Mediterranean Sea. Both of these slave-owning powers raided North Africa extensively for slaves. This practice of using Africa as a source of slaves would be adopted and expanded first by Arab Muslims and later by Europeans.

The Trans-Saharan and East African Slave Trades

The spread of Islam from Arabia into Africa after the religion’s founding in the 7th century AD affected the practice of slavery and slave trading in West, Central, and East Africa. Arabs had practiced slave raiding and trading in Arabia for centuries prior to the founding of Islam, and slavery became a component of Islamic traditions. Both the Qur’an (Koran) (the sacred scripture of Islam) and Islamic religious law served to codify and justify the existence of slavery. As Muslim Arabs conquered their way westward across North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries, their victorious leaders rewarded themselves with Berber captives, most of whom were eventually enrolled in Muslim armies. Over time, large segments of North Africa’s Berber population converted to Islam. The religion spread to the camel herders of the Sahara Desert, who were in contact with black Africans south of the Sahara and who traded small numbers of black slaves. Muslim Arabs expanded this trans-Saharan slave trade, buying or seizing increasing numbers of black Africans in West Africa, leading them across the Sahara, and selling them in North Africa. From there, most of these slaves were exported to far-off Asian destinations such as the eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia (in present-day Turkey), Arabia, Persia (present-day Iran), and India.

The trans-Saharan slave trade grew significantly from the 10th to the 15th century, as vast African empires such as Ghana, Mali, Songhai, and Kanem-Bornu developed south of the Sahara and marshaled the trade. Arab slave raiders also penetrated south, up the Nile River to present-day Ethiopia, capturing thousands of slaves and sending them down the Nile to Egypt. Over the course of more than a thousand years, the trans-Saharan slave trade saw the movement of at least 10 million enslaved men, women, and children from West and East Africa to North Africa, the Middle East, and India. The slaves and their descendants contributed to the harems, royal households, and armies of the Arab, Turkish, and Persian rulers in those regions.

Also, by the 9th century, seafaring Muslims from Arabia and Persia had made their way down the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa, obtaining African slaves in ports from Mogadishu (in present-day Somalia) to Sofala (in present-day Mozambique) and conveying them to western Asian cities to work. The culture of the East African coastal regions was strongly influenced by Arab and Persian traders, many of whom intermarried with Africans, thus producing the Swahili people and culture. Between the 9th and the 13th centuries, this Arab-Persian-Swahili population established cities and city-states along the East African coast. These cities and states captured or purchased slaves from the East African interior for domestic and agricultural tasks. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as plantation agriculture developed in the region, the East African slave trade increased dramatically.

Scholars’ opinions differ on the issue of the long-term effects of Islam on African slavery. Some believe that Islamic law helped regulate slavery, thus limiting its abuses; these scholars often argue that because Islam encouraged the freeing of slaves upon their master’s death, it increased instances of emancipation. Other scholars believe that Islam led to the expansion of slavery, arguing that at the time that slavery was growing in the parts of Africa coming under Islamic influence, slavery was declining in most of medieval Europe.

Between the 7th and the 15th century, the trans-Saharan and East African slave trades spurred the gradual expansion of slavery within Africa. The slave trades contributed to the development of powerful African states on the southern fringes of the Sahara and in the East African interior. The economies of these states were dependent on slave trading. Neighboring states competed with one another for trade, leading to wars, which in turn led to the capture of more slaves. Slave raiding in West, East, and Central Africa became more common and wide-ranging. When European explorers and traders arrived in West Africa beginning in the 15th century, they found and began using well-established slave-trade networks. While the trans-Saharan and East African slave trades continued until the early 20th century, they were overshadowed by the Atlantic slave trade after the 15th century. The Atlantic slave trade dwarfed the trans-Saharan and East African trades in terms of volume of export, impact on African practices of slavery, and lasting effect on Africa in general.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade developed after Europeans began exploring and establishing trading posts on the Atlantic (west) coast of Africa in the mid-15th century. The first major group of European traders in West Africa was the Portuguese, followed by the British and the French. In the 16th and 17th centuries, these European colonial powers began to pursue plantation agriculture in their expanding possessions in the New World (North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean islands), across the Atlantic Ocean. As European demand grew for products such as sugar, tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton, and as more New World lands became available for European use, the need for plantation labor increased.

West and west central African states, already involved in slave trading, supplied the Europeans with African slaves for export across the Atlantic. Africans tended to live longer on the tropical plantations of the New World than did European laborers (who were susceptible to tropical diseases) and Native Americans (who were extremely susceptible to “Old World” diseases brought by the Europeans from Europe, Asia, and Africa). Also, enslaved men and women from Africa were inexpensive by European standards. Therefore, Africans became the major source, and eventually the only source, of New World plantation labor.

The Africans who facilitated and benefited from the Atlantic slave trade were political or commercial elites–generally members of the ruling apparatus of African states or members of large trading families or institutions. African sellers captured slaves and brought them to markets on the coast. At these markets European and American buyers paid for the slaves with commodities–including cloth, iron, firearms, liquor, and decorative items–that were useful to the sellers. Slave sellers were mostly male, and they used their increased wealth to enhance their prestige and connect themselves, through marriage, to other wealthy families in their realms.

The Africans who were enslaved were mostly prisoners of war or captives resulting from slave raids. As the demand for slaves grew, so did the practice of systematic slave raiding, which increased in scope and efficiency with the introduction of firearms to Africa in the 17th century. By the 18th century, most African slaves were acquired through slave raids, which penetrated farther and farther inland. Africans captured in raids were marched down well-worn paths, sometimes for several hundred miles, to markets on the coast.

From the mid-15th to the late-19th century, European and American slave traders purchased approximately 12 million slaves from West and west central Africa. A small percentage of these slaves, particularly in the early years of the trade, were sent to Europe, especially to Spain and Portugal. Most, however, were shipped across the Atlantic for sale in Portuguese-administered Brazil; the British, French, Dutch, and Danish islands of the Caribbean; Spanish-controlled South and Central America; and the British North American mainland (later the United States and Canada). The Atlantic crossing, known as the Middle Passage, was nightmarish for slaves, who were poorly fed, subject to abuses at the hands of the crew, and confined to cramped storage holds in which diseases spread easily. Historians estimate that between 1.5 and 2 million slaves died during the journey to the New World.

The Atlantic slave trade differed from previous practices of slavery and slave trading in Africa in its huge scope and its importance to the economies of world powers. While traditional African slavery was practiced largely to help African communities produce food and goods or for prestige, slave labor on European plantations in the New World was crucial to the economies of the colonies and therefore to the economies of the colonial powers. This global economic demand for African slaves altered African practices of slavery. In much of Africa, slavery became a more central, structural element of African life, as rulers and wealthy elites sought to accumulate more and more slaves, for sale as well as for their own use. In addition to the systematic and institutional practice of slave raiding, other practices were introduced in African states to bring in even more slaves, including enslavement as punishment for crimes and religious wrongdoing. As a result, by the 19th century vast numbers of black Africans in West and Central Africa faced the threat of being enslaved.

The End of Slavery in Africa

As humanitarian sentiments grew in Western Europe with the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment and as European economic interests shifted slowly from agriculture to industry, a movement to abolish the slave trade and the practice of slavery came into being in the Western world. In 1807 the slave trade was outlawed in Britain and the United States. Britain outlawed the practice of slavery in all British territory in 1833; France did the same in its colonies in 1848. In 1865, following the American Civil War, the U.S. government adopted the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery in the United States. The Atlantic slave trade continued, however, until 1888, when Brazil abolished slavery (the last New World country to do so).

While the Atlantic slave trade was dying down around 1850, the trans-Saharan and East African slave trades were at their peaks. In the 1850s the Ottoman Empire nominally outlawed slavery in much of the Islamic world, but this had only a minor effect on the slave trade. One of the main justifications European powers gave for colonizing nearly the entire African continent during the 1880s and 1890s was the desire to end slave trading and slavery in Africa. By the dawn of the 20th century, European forces had defeated most African slave trading states, and the trans-Saharan and East African slave trades came to an end.

Although colonial authorities began outlawing slavery in some African territories as early as the 1830s, the complete legal abolition of slavery in Africa did not take place until the first quarter of the 20th century. By that time, however, slavery was deeply ingrained in most African societies, and thus the practice continued illegally. Slaves who became liberated often did so by escaping and going to the colonial authorities or by simply leaving the areas in which they had been held to take up residence elsewhere. In some places, enslaved persons held that status throughout their lives, despite the legal prohibition. It was not until the 1930s that slavery in Africa was almost totally eliminated.

The ending of the slave trade and slavery in Africa had wide-ranging effects on the African continent. Many societies that for centuries had participated in an economy based on slave labor and the trading of slaves had difficulty finding new ways to organize labor and gain wealth. Meanwhile, colonial governments in Africa that outwardly disapproved of slavery still needed inexpensive laborers for agriculture, industry, and other work projects. As a result, African leaders and former slave owners, as well as colonial officials, often developed methods of coercing Africans to work without pay or for minimal compensation. Moreover, the outlawing of slavery did not erase the pain and stigma of having been a slave. Many descendants of slaves were affected by this stigma for generations after slavery was abolished.

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