Africa: the transatlantic slave trade

Slavery was virtually a universal institution in countries around the world for thousands of years

A view of the interior of an old slave trader’s mansion on Gorée island, Senegal. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

It is safe to say that in the popular imagination slavery is seen as an evil, racist system that was imposed on Africans by Europeans. Images of a ravaged African hinterland and uprooted communities are readily lined up to conjure a picture of a passive, peaceful people dragged off screaming into a nightmare not of their making. In all probability such imagery is due to an understanding of slavery that limits itself only to the forcible sale of Africans to Europeans between the 16th and 19th century, known as the transatlantic slave trade, in which it is estimated about 12 million Africans were forcibly removed from the continent to work as slaves in the plantations of the Americas; and this is not counting those who did not make it to these distant destinations.

Yet, taking a broader view of slavery, it is an established fact that slavery existed among Africans even before the transatlantic slave trade. Joseph Inikori, in his book The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies and Peoples in Africa, the Americas and Europe (1992), notes that though global in nature, “there was considerable intra-continental slave trade in which eight million people were enslaved within the African continent”. This last fact alone leads to the perplexing and challenging assertion that Africans themselves were involved in the slave trade. After all, if Africans themselves were not involved, how could such a large number of people have been moved unwillingly? “The slave trade could not have succeeded without [the] collaboration of locals,” writes Finn Fuglestad in Slave Traders by Invitation: West Africa’s Slave Coast in the Pre-Colonial Era (2018), while an article on SA History Online states: “Perhaps because slavery and slave trading had existed in much of Africa (though perhaps in forms less brutal than the slavery practised in the Americas) Africans were untroubled by selling slaves to Europeans.”

Forms of slavery did indeed exist in pre-colonial Africa. Might Africans not themselves also have carried within them the seeds for the gross indifference to human suffering that the slave trade with Europe came to symbolise? Scholars provide various explanations for why Africans were willing to supply enslaved Africans to Europeans. First among them is the idea that before their encounter with Europeans Africans had no consciousness of being one people. Consequently, the solidarity that comes from feelings of oneness was not there to bind them together. In the face of unified European demand for cheap labour, Africans operated as fragmented and largely isolated communities that were often not even aware of one another’s existence. In other words, areas within which people would share some essential cultural elements and recognise each other as similar were relatively small in Africa, writes Luis Angeles, a senior lecturer in economics at Adam Smith Business School at the University of Glasgow in his paper “On the Causes of the African Slave Trade” (2013).

Anne C Bailey, in African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame (2005) agrees: “There is the assumption that during the era of the slave trade Africans conceived of themselves as one people and one continent as opposed to numerous communities, large and small… Diversity was, as it still is today, great, [and] notions of community often did not extend beyond a group of villages or towns in a particular area.” But that being the case, what then was the extent of this African involvement in the transatlantic slave trade? Firstly, it is clear that the intra-continental trade in slaves did not match the scope of the transatlantic trade either in numbers or in the distances covered in transporting the slaves. African slaves were not for sale outside the continent. It was profitable enough for Africans to engage in the trade when European demand brought Europeans to the continent to buy slaves. “The fact of the dual involvement of Europeans and Africans in the slave trade did not imply equal partnership,” writes Bailey, to which Herbert J Foster, in his Partners or Captives in Commerce: The Role of Africans in the Slave Trade (1976), adds, “[African slavers] may indeed have had little say in the matter.”

That Africans adapted to the new European demand for slaves seems beyond doubt, as a book by Randy J Spark, Where the Negroes are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade (2014) sets out to show. The book paints a picture of Annamaboe, an 18th century slave trading port on the Gold Coast where Africans were not “mere pawns in the hands of colonial powers” but “wily merchants” who were themselves “major players” in the slave trade. But, it must be added to this, that not all African societies were willing participants; other societies, such as Benin in southern Nigeria, refused to sell slaves. From the European perspective, there was a unified and compelling demand for cheap labour. Moreover, there were significant profits to be made from slave raids, while manufactured European goods were in demand in Africa. Perhaps most importantly, European weaponry might have left certain Africans with little room for independent action. Europeans might also have stoked local rivalries to stimulate inter-ethnic warfare, which often resulted in the capture of prisoners of war who could be sold into slavery.

“Trading companies were frequently engaged in skirmishes and local struggles …” writes Asa Briggs in The Age of Improvement 1783-1867 (1959, 2nd ed. 2014). Historian Basil Davidson in Africa in History (1991) regards the transatlantic slave trade as “an early type of colonial economy” that “by providing Africa with cheap substitutes’, and undermining “the local production of cotton goods and metal ware’’ had dire economic consequences and far greater political consequences for the continent. With European demand far exceeding the numbers of people “who actually lived under servile conditions”, certain African societies that could muster the military means would embark on slave raiding expeditions into the hinterland with the intention of securing and consolidating trade relations with Europeans. As John Newton, a former slaver and composer of the song “Amazing Grace” (1779), wrote: “I verily believe that the far greater part of wars in Africa would cease if the Europeans would cease to tempt them by offering goods for slaves.”

It has also often been asserted that European racism played a role in the slave trade, but according to Thomas Sowell this is a fallacy, as he argues in Economic Facts and Fallacies (2008). Instead, he points out, “slavery was a virtually universal institution in countries around the world for thousands of years of recorded history.” This included Africa, as we have noted already. The “fallacy” that slavery was motivated by racism, he continues, is supported only by “focusing exclusively on the enslavement of Africans by Europeans”. He quotes distinguished historian Daniel J Boorstin, who, he says, “.. said something that was well known to many scholars, but utterly unknown to many among the general public: that the mass transportation of Africans in bondage to the western hemisphere brought the status of slave to coincide with a difference of race for the first time in western history. It was this racism that was codified by Enlightenment intellectuals, he adds. Yes, the Enlightenment did produce a racial ideology that made it possible to justify the enslavement of Africans on the grounds that they were supposedly inferior to Europeans.

But it was not itself the cause of slavery. As Luis Angeles writes: “During the Middle Ages the image of African kingdoms was one of unlimited wealth, as befits the land where so much gold originated, not one of uncivilised savages… Europeans developed a sense of superiority towards Africans and the rest of the world as their global influence increased… and it is probable that racism reinforced their willingness to engage in slave trading.” One might well ask if this reading of the history of slavery that emphasises African agency, or involvement (willing or not), is not what Tavengwa Gwekwerere means when he writes in an article published in the Journal of Black Studies (2009), “From Nat Turner to Molefi Kete Asante: Reading the European Intellectual Indictment of the Afrocentric Conception of Reality”, that this emphasis is just a “desperate Eurocentric intellectual undertaking to undermine the Afrocentric conception of reality” and ameliorate “the unpardonable colonisation, exploitation and dehumanisation of African people”.

Though Gwekwerere is not asking the question in direct relation to the topic of slavery covered in this article, it may be a question that might well arise in the mind of the average African reader with regard to slavery as well. To that one can only reply that, well, both Sowell and Bailey are black. So, can this attitude be written down to a Euro-reaction to an unsavoury past? Or is it a question that Africans need to confront in order to, as Anne C Bailey says in her book, to reach some kind of understanding of the past and maybe start rebuilding bridges that were destroyed long ago? Perhaps even the long-stalled dream of African solidarity or pan-Africanism could benefit from such as exercise, painful as it may be.

has been a freelance journalist and sub-editor since the early 80s. He began his career working as a film and theatre columnist with The Sowetan and City Press until around 1997 before embarking on a freelance career during which he has worked at The Sunday Independent, Business Report, business Day and other publications.