World History 2 45 - 3.4.3 The Later Trans-Saharan Slave Trade

Africa was transformed during the eighteenth century. This period witnessed the emergence of expansionist new states in West Africa, such as Dahomey and Segou, whose wars of conquest generated captives for European slavers. It also saw a sharp rise in conflict between African states and related growth in the trade in enslaved captives. Such growth came at the expense of the historical trans-Saharan trade network, which was disrupted and reoriented to prioritize the traffic in captive human cargo destined for coastal slave markets. While the overall numbers varied by location, the general trend was an increase in the number of captives being moved along the trans-Saharan corridors during the eighteenth century. This trade did more than benefit merchants; in many instances, it provided a boon to businesses and firms related to the slave trade that were located at trans-Saharan trading centers. The societies as a whole did not benefit, however, nor did the people who were enslaved. As a result of this altered state of affairs, the scope of the trans-Saharan trade in enslaved people doubled between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to an estimated 900,000 enslaved people.

The development of the trading state of Whydah provides a unique window into these dynamics. Situated in the Bight of Benin on the Gulf of Guinea, along what came to be called the Slave Coast, Whydah was transformed with the arrival of the Europeans in West Africa in the fifteenth century (Figure 3.23). By the seventeenth century, the French West India Company had moved its main trading site to Whydah, making it one of the region’s most important slave ports, second only to Luanda in Angola. By the end of the century, the Dutch West India Company, the English Royal African Company, and the Portuguese all had moved their slave markets to Whydah. Several of these European powers went on to establish coastal trading forts there. Between 1650 and 1690, the number of captives brought to Whydah in caravans increased dramatically, from about one thousand people per year to about ten thousand. It is estimated that in the quarter-century between 1700 and 1725, fully a third of all captives coming from Africa—approximately 378,000 of them—were taken out of Whydah.

This image shows several groups of people surrounded by a fence. In the back center, there is a large covered platform. A man sits in front of it. Another man stands on his right and holds a parasol over him. A group of people sit on the ground on his left and gaze up at him. In the far right corner, a group of people sit on the ground and hold spears. In the bottom right corner, there is another group of people. Some of them lie prostrate. Others play instruments and drums. Beside them through an opening in the fence, people march in carrying rifles. In the bottom left corner, a group of people sit on the ground and face the man sitting on a chair in the background. Along the left side of the fence, many people dressed in European clothes sit in chairs. Others stand and hold flags. In the center of the fenced area is a snake, two children on their knees, and a man kneeling, holding a piece of paper. Outside the fence are several trees and houses. Some people sit on chairs and others are on the ground. Several people stand near cannons and carry weapons.
Figure 3.23 The kings of Whydah had a very close relationship with the European slavers who established trading centers along the Gulf of Guinea. In this French etching from about 1725, a new king is crowned before an audience that includes Europeans. (credit: “Coronation ceremony for the King of Whydah” by Gallica/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Whydah’s flourishing trade in enslaved people did not result from wars waged by its own rulers, but from its location at the end point of trade routes between battling factions. One route originated from the former Mali Empire. Some captives from there wore Muslim clothing and had been in transit for three months before arriving in Whydah. Another route originated in the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, which was engaged in a series of wars against the neighboring kingdoms of Nupe and Borgu. The value of enslaved captives passing through Whydah was enormous, and the slave trade benefited both the African slave merchants and the state, which was entitled to customs duties and taxes. From providing porterage services to supplying food and other necessities that made the trade possible, local businesses also profited from the sale of enslaved people. As elsewhere, the transport and sale of captives into slavery produced a profitable economy for virtually everyone involved, except for the enslaved people.

In 1727, King Agaja of Dahomey conquered the kingdom of Whydah and incorporated it into his own (Figure 3.24). The fall of Whydah was part of a larger campaign by Agaja to restore traditional social and political controls over the region, which was then home to several smaller Aja kingdoms including Dahomey. By 1737, Agaja had conquered the entire Slave Coast and brought it under Dahomey’s control. However, initially Dahomey was reluctant to continue the practice of selling Africans to Europeans. This was not to the liking of the kingdom of Oyo, whose foreign trade depended on it. By the middle of the century, near-constant warfare against Oyo, which disrupted interior trade routes and hurt both kingdoms economically, convinced the rulers of Dahomey to abandon their reluctance. They opted instead to exercise strict royal control over the Slave Coast trade. Dahomey went on to become one of the major exporters of enslaved captives, which the state traded in exchange for firearms. By the end of the century, Dahomey had become one of the most heavily armed and militarized states in West Africa.

There are two maps. The map on the right shows Asia, Europe, and Africa. A small portion of the west coast of Africa is highlighted. The map on the left shows the highlighted area of the first map in greater detail. The map on the left shows the location of Cote D’ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, and Nigeria. Part of southern Benin is labeled the Kingdom of Dahomey and includes the city Whydah.
Figure 3.24 New states like Whydah and Dahomey emerged along the Gulf of Guinea coast in the eighteenth century. These states were formed primarily as a result of the European slave trade, which is why this coastal region was known as the Slave Coast. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

As Agaja and his successors extended their control over the Gulf of Guinea, the frontier of the slave trade on the West African coast was pushed deeper into the African interior, beyond the kingdoms that ranged along the Senegambia. It is estimated that well over half the captives taken and sold during the eighteenth century came from the far interior, many from the Kingdom of Segou, located southwest of Djenné on the Middle Niger in Mali.

In Their Own Words

Olaudah Equiano Describes the Slave Trade

Olaudah Equiano was born in the eighteenth century in what is now Nigeria. When he was a child, he and his sister were kidnapped and sold to European slave traders. After many years of enslavement in the Caribbean and the southern British mainland colonies, he obtained his freedom, settled in London where he advocated for abolition, and wrote an account of his life. In the excerpts that follow, he describes what he knew of slavery as a child in Africa. As you read, note how people came to be enslaved and the place of enslaved people in Equiano’s society.

[The markets] are sometimes visited by stout, mahogany-colored men from the southwest of us; we call them Oye-Eboe, which term signifies red men living at a distance. They generally bring us fire-arms, gunpowder, hats, beads, and dried fish . . . . These articles they barter with us for odoriferous woods and earth, and our salt of wood-ashes. They always carry slaves through our land but the strictest account is exacted of their manner of procuring them before they are suffered to pass. Sometimes indeed we sold slaves to them but they were only prisoners of war, or such among us as had been convicted of kidnapping, or adultery, and some other crimes which we esteemed heinous . . . .

When our people go out to till their land they not only go in a body but generally take their arms with them for fear of a surprise, and when they apprehend an invasion they guard the avenues to their dwellings by driving sticks into the ground which are so sharp at one end as to pierce the foot and are generally [dipped] in poison. From what I can recollect of these battles, they appear to have been irruptions of one little state or district on the other, to obtain prisoners or booty. Perhaps they were incited to this by those traders who brought the European goods I mentioned among us . . . . Those prisoners which were not sold or redeemed we kept as slaves but how different was their condition from that of the slaves in the West Indies! With us they do no more work than other members of the community, even their master. Their food, clothing, and lodging were nearly the same as theirs, except that they were not permitted to eat with those who were free born, . . . Some of these slaves have even slaves under them as their own property and for their own use . . . .

Generally, when the grown people in the neighborhood were gone far in the fields to labor, the children assembled together in some of the neighbors' premises to play, and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant or kidnapper that might come upon us, for they sometimes took these opportunities of our parents' absence to attack and carry off as many as they could seize . . . .

—Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African: Written by Himself

  • According to Equiano, how did Africans come to be enslaved?
  • How common was it for Africans to enslave other Africans? How did Africans treat the people they enslaved?
  • What role did Europeans play in the trade?

Founded by Mamari Kulubali in 1712, Segou made warfare a way of life. The Segou kingdom’s economy was trade based, and its essential trade good was enslaved people the state acquired through raiding and warfare waged against its neighbors. These incursions reached as far as north as the Niger Bend and Timbuktu, which the Segou briefly occupied. Once captured, those seized by the Segou military faced two possible fates: they could be sold to desert nomads as part of the trans-Saharan slave trade, or they could be sold to caravan merchants who dealt with European slave traders on the Slave Coast.

Although perhaps most pronounced in West Africa, the altered dynamics of trans-Saharan trade in enslaved people in the eighteenth century were also apparent in North Africa. Scholars have estimated that the Maghreb, encompassing Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, received an average of six thousand enslaved Africans every year between 1700 and 1799. About fourteen hundred enslaved people a year passed through Ghadames and the oases center of the Fezzan in Libya, both historically vital to the trans-Saharan trade between Central Sudan and Tripoli. But by midcentury, these centers—also the destination points for some caravans from West African trade centers such as Timbuktu—were sending larger caravans of captives to the markets at Tripoli. By the end of the eighteenth century, the numbers of the enslaved bound for market along the Mediterranean coast had increased by as much as a quarter, making the trade in enslaved Africans through Tripoli a key component of the region’s economy.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax