World History 2 75 - 5.4.2 African and North American Slavery

The captives purchased by European ship captains were sold by other Africans. Europeans did not introduce slavery to Africa; it had existed there for centuries before the triangular trade began. It was different in important ways, however, from the slavery that awaited Africans on the other side of the Atlantic.

Slavery existed in numerous African societies, and there were many ways in which a person could become enslaved. In some societies, slavery served as punishment for a crime. In others, people could be enslaved or sell their children into slavery to pay a debt. In times of hardship like famine, parents might sell children to more prosperous people to earn money to support themselves and ensure their children would be fed. In many societies, enslaved people were taken as prisoners of war.

Africans enslaved people primarily to enlarge their households, the basic economic units of society. Families suffered if they did not have enough able-bodied people to work in the fields or tend to herds, and slavery provided a solution. Some enslaved Africans remained with the slaveholder their entire lives, but others expected to regain their freedom. Those enslaved to pay a debt, for example, gained their freedom once the debt had been settled. Even people enslaved for life could participate fully in the life of the household or community. They could marry; their spouse might be free, and their children would be. They might own property, including enslaved people of their own. They were often well respected in the community, especially if they possessed important knowledge or skills. Africans regarded slavery as an unfortunate fate that might befall anyone; being enslaved did not imply an inherent difference or inferiority. The life of an enslaved person was not comfortable or easy, but it was not often what we think of when we consider Atlantic plantation slavery.

Slavery in the Americas was different. It was chattel slavery, in which one person is owned by another as a piece of property like an inanimate object. The enslaved had no status or legal rights as persons. They could be bought, sold, inherited, or given to another. They had no right to control their own bodies or their own labor, and they could be compelled to do whatever the slaveholder wished. Their status could be passed on to their children; in all the European colonies in the Americas, the child of an enslaved woman was born enslaved. Although chattel slavery also existed in Africa, this was the only form of slavery that existed in the Americas.

For centuries, Africans had participated in the trans-Saharan slave trade, selling prisoners in North Africa and on the Swahili Coast to be transported to destinations in the Mediterranean or the Middle East. The arrival of Europeans willing to pay large sums changed the focus of the African slave trade, however. Africans now captured and enslaved large numbers of other Africans with the intent of selling them to Europeans for transportation across the Atlantic. Wars were launched against rival peoples solely for the purpose of taking captives, and slave traders led expeditions into the interior of the continent to kidnap people who lived far away. Africans were not safe in their own homes. In the eighteenth century, slave traders kidnapped young Olaudah Equiano (later an abolitionist) and his sister as they played at home; while their parents were gone, strangers climbed over a wall into the courtyard of their house and carried the children away. Some people were tricked and sold to European slave traders by their own relatives.

Once captured, people were marched for days to one of the places on the coast where Europeans exchanged goods for human beings. Many died on the way. Slave traders commonly chained their captives together on the journey, and devices were sometimes fixed to captives’ necks so that if they managed to escape, they would die of thirst because they could not lower their heads into streams to drink. Once they reached the coast, the traders stripped them naked and shaved their heads to keep them free of lice. The traders then greased their bodies with palm oil to make them look fit and healthy when buyers came.

A number of slave trading ports flourished on the western coast of Africa from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Among them were Ouidah (Whydah), Grand-Popo, Jaquim, and Porto-Novo in modern Benin; Badagry in Nigeria; and Little Popo in Togo. In these ports, English, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, and Swedish traders and sea captains bargained with African slave traders for their captives. Some African city-states and kingdoms became wealthy from the slave trade, and their rulers protested only if their own people were taken. King Afonso of Kongo told the king of Portugal that, out of a desire for European goods, the people of his own kingdom were capturing their fellow Kongolese and selling them to Portuguese traders. He did not denounce the slave trade but asked only that the Portuguese bring their captives to officials of Kongo to be sure they were not free Kongolese wrongfully seized. According to King Gezo of Benin, “The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth . . . the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery.”

The transatlantic slave trade harmed those who remained in Africa as well as those who were taken. Families endured the emotional trauma of losing loved ones. Fear of falling prey to slave traders pervaded villages throughout West and Central Africa. Olaudah Equiano recalled that when adults in his village left for the fields, children stationed someone in a tree to keep watch for kidnappers while the others played.

The African economy suffered as well. Those most likely to be captured, men and women in the prime of life, had been contributing the greatest share of labor to their communities. When slave traders captured young adults, no one remained to care for children and the elderly, and fewer people were left to reproduce. According to one model, between 1750 and 1850 no population growth occurred south of the Sahara Desert and north of the Limpopo River as a result of the loss of people to the slave trade. To compensate for the disappearance of so many young men, who were the laborers most preferred by plantation owners, many African ethnic groups adopted polygyny, allowing men to take multiple wives. The loss of men also necessitated that women adopt traditionally male economic roles.

Desire for the goods Europeans traded for enslaved people also had devastating consequences for Africa. The importation of European textiles, according to some historians, spurred the industrialization of the European textile industry while harming African cloth producers, who could not compete on quantity or price. Weavers continued to produce goods for local markets, but no continent-wide market for African textiles ever had an opportunity to develop because Europeans already dominated the field. There were similar consequences for the African metal industry.

These effects have been long-lasting. One scholar has demonstrated that the areas from which the most enslaved people were taken are today the poorest in Africa, though at the time of the slave trade they were among the most developed. They are also more prone to civil conflict today than other areas of the continent. Other studies have shown that people from ethnic groups most likely to have been subject to the slave trade are less likely to trust others than are people from less affected groups. This may be due at least in part to the slave trade’s breaking down of the social and political structures intended to protect people.

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