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Essays On Slavery In Africa

From the seventeenth century on, slaves became the focus of trade between Europe and Africa. Europe’s conquest and colonization of North and South America and the Caribbean islands from the fifteenth century onward created an insatiable demand for African laborers, who were deemed more fit to work in the tropical conditions of the New World. The numbers of slaves imported across the Atlantic Ocean steadily increased, from approximately 5,000 slaves a year in the sixteenth century to over 100,000 slaves a year by the end of the eighteenth century.

Evolving political circumstances and trade alliances in Africa led to shifts in the geographic origins of slaves throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Slaves were generally the unfortunate victims of territorial expansion by imperialist African states or of raids led by predatory local strongmen, and various populations found themselves captured and sold as different regional powers came to prominence. Firearms, which were often exchanged for slaves, generally increased the level of fighting by lending military strength to previously marginal polities. A nineteenth-century tobacco pipe (1977.462.1) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Angola demonstrates the degree to which warfare, the slave trade, and elite arts were intertwined at this time. The pipe itself was the prerogative of wealthy and powerful individuals who could afford expensive imported tobacco, generally by trading slaves, while the rifle form makes clear how such slaves were acquired in the first place. Because of its deadly power, the rifle was added to the repertory of motifs drawn upon in many regional depictions of rulers and culture heroes as emblematic of power along with the leopard, elephant, and python.

The institution of slavery existed in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans and was widespread at the period of economic contact. Private land ownership was largely absent from precolonial African societies, and slaves were one of the few forms of wealth-producing property an individual could possess. Additionally, rulers often maintained corps of loyal, foreign-born slaves to guarantee their political security, and would encourage political centralization by appointing slaves from the imperial hinterlands to positions within the royal capital. Slaves were also exported across the desert to North Africa and to western Asia, Arabia, and India.

It would be impossible to argue, however, that transatlantic trade did not have a major effect upon the development and scale of slavery in Africa. As the demand for slaves increased with European colonial expansion in the New World, rising prices made the slave trade increasingly lucrative. African states eager to augment their treasuries in some instances even preyed upon their own peoples by manipulating their judicial systems, condemning individuals and their families to slavery in order to reap the rewards of their sale to European traders. Slave exports were responsible for the emergence of a number of large and powerful kingdoms that relied on a militaristic culture of constant warfare to generate the great numbers of human captives required for trade with the Europeans. The Yoruba kingdom of Oyo on the Guinea coast, founded sometime before 1500, expanded rapidly in the eighteenth century as a result of this commerce. Its formidable army, aided by advanced iron technology, captured immense numbers of slaves that were profitably sold to traders. In the nineteenth century, the aggressive pursuit of slaves through warfare and raiding led to the ascent of the kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now the Republic of Benin, and prompted the emergence of the Chokwe chiefdoms from under the shadow of their Lunda overlords in present-day Angola and Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Asante kingdom on the Gold Coast of West Africa also became a major slave exporter in the eighteenth century.

Ultimately, the international slave trade had lasting effects upon the African cultural landscape. Areas that were hit hardest by endemic warfare and slave raids suffered from general population decline, and it is believed that the shortage of men in particular may have changed the structure of many societies by thrusting women into roles previously occupied by their husbands and brothers. Additionally, some scholars have argued that images stemming from this era of constant violence and banditry have survived to the present day in the form of metaphysical fears and beliefs concerning witchcraft. In many cultures of West and Central Africa, witches are thought to kidnap solitary individuals to enslave or consume them. Finally, the increased exchange with Europeans and the fabulous wealth it brought enabled many states to cultivate sophisticated artistic traditions employing expensive and luxurious materials. From the fine silver- and goldwork of Dahomey and the Asante court to the virtuoso wood carving of the Chokwe chiefdoms, these treasures are a vivid testimony of this turbulent period in African history.

Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

October 2003

The best starting point for the study of slavery in Africa involves Stilwell 2014, a broad treatment of the subject. This builds upon the debate that occurred between Walter Rodney and J. D. Fage concerning the origins of slavery in Africa. While Rodney 1966 argues that slavery did not appear until Africa’s sustained contact and interaction with Europeans within the context of the transatlantic slave trade, Fage 1969 argues that slavery existed before this in Africa; Fage 1969 is the accepted interpretation. One point that most studies make clear is that slavery in Africa differed greatly from slavery in the Americas and because of this it is hard to create a general definition of African slavery. An attempt to do so is seen within Miers and Kopytoff 1977, in Watson 1980, and in Meillassoux 1991, which challenges the accepted interpretation of Miers and Kopytoff. One common trend involves exploring the relationship between slavery in Africa and African slavery in the Americas. Scholars are especially interested in understanding the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade upon Africa, and one area of inquiry involves how external slavery affected internal slavery. Beyond this has been the attempt to understand the negative (see Manning 1990), and other consequences (see Lovejoy 2000), of the external slave trade on Africa. Quirk and Vigneswaran 2013 focuses upon modern forms of slavery within Africa while making connections to earlier forms of slavery. The collection of essays in Rossi 2009 explores the legacy of slavery and the slave trade within West Africa while those in Lane and MacDonald 2011 provide insight into the archaeology and remembrance of indigenous slavery.

  • Fage, J. D. “Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Context of West African History.” Journal of African History 10.3 (1969): 393–404.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700036343E-mail Citation »

    A response to Rodney 1966 that argued that slavery was not introduced by Europeans to Africa—rather it already existed. States that the Atlantic slave trade provided those who controlled slaves with a new option while expanding an already existing system.

  • Lane, Paul, and Kevin C. MacDonald. Slavery in Africa: Archaeology and Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197264782.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A collection of essays that explore the latest archaeological investigations into slavery within a broad framework of African history and relates these sites to the public remembrance of slavery in Africa. Has a focus upon the Sudan, West Africa during the period of Atlantic slavery, and East Africa.

  • Lovejoy, Paul. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    A quantitatively revised edition of an important work that argues that the transatlantic slave trade transformed West Africa by reinforcing and expanding hierarchies while increasing militarism. Argues that while differences existed between African slavery and Atlantic slavery, the rise of the transatlantic slave trade increased slavery within Africa.

  • Manning, Patrick. Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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    An examination of the negative consequences of the slave trade upon West African societies. Some sections are broad while others utilize models to measure issues such as the trade’s impact on Africa and the relationship between price and supply. Explores African slavery and how the external trade affected internal slavery.

  • Meillassoux, Claude. The Anthropology of Slavery: The Womb of Iron and Gold. Translated by Alide Dasnois. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues against Miers and Kopytoff’s interpretation of slavery in Africa (Miers and Kopytoff 1977). Develops an interpretation of the evolution of slavery in Africa that stresses violence and argues that slavery developed in a similar manner throughout much of Africa.

  • Miers, Suzanne, and Igor Kopytoff. Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.

    E-mail Citation »

    An edited collection that broadly explores the topic while stressing the difference between American and African slavery. Includes a long, and influential, introduction by the editors that argues that African slavery was a complex continuum in which slaves served a variety of roles and that slavery incorporated outsiders into a society.

  • Quirk, Joel, and Darshan Vigneswaran, eds. Slavery, Migration, and Contemporary Bondage in Africa. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2013.

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    These essays focus upon the slavery that exists in Africa after the ending of Atlantic slavery. It not only provides insight into the long-term existence of slavery within Africa but also pays particular attention to more modern forms of slavery that the collection argues exist because of poverty and migration.

  • Rodney, Walter. “African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave-Trade.” Journal of African History 7.3 (1966): 431–443.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700006514E-mail Citation »

    Argues against the idea that slavery was an ancient institution in Africa and instead contends that slavery in Africa was a result of the Atlantic slave trade and European involvement along the West African coastline.

  • Rossi, Benedetta. Reconfiguring Slavery: West African Trajectories. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846315640E-mail Citation »

    By stressing that slavery in West Africa has not been abolished, this collection of essays seeks to provide a new understanding of the institution. Many deal with slavery, along with its legacy and status, in a contemporary context.

  • Stilwell, Sean. Slavery and Slaving in African History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

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    A broad survey of slavery and slaving in Africa’s broad history. Connects these institutions to their internal and external causes along with a review of the major debates.

  • Watson, James L., ed. Asian and African Systems of Slavery. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of eleven essays that comparatively examine the diversities of slavery in two regions. The editor’s introduction endeavors to create a definition of slavery that works across boundaries.