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  Slavery in Sub-Saharan Africa

Slave marketSlaves in pre-colonial Africa enjoyed certain rights and privileges. They had the right to be fed, clothed, housed and granted the privileges of children while staying with their owners. They had the right to marry. They could marry among themselves or marry free people. Customary rites were performed to give such marriages legal backing. Among the Sena of Mozambique when a female slave married into another lineage, the Patron received the bride wealth. Among the Wolof and the Serer of Senegambia, the head of the lineage was obliged not only to feed and clothe his slaves but also to find spouses for his slaves. Intermarriage affected the status of Tuareg slaves. The offspring of a marriage between a free man and a slave woman inherited the status of his/her mother, but in practice children of free men and slave women were free.

Slaves enjoyed the privilege of an independent income. The Akan of Ghana say "Akoa nim som a, ofa ne ti ade di" (a loyal and faithful slave or servant has debts tohis/her owner remitted). Slaves who farmed for the their owners were also given plots of land on which to farm and enjoy its proceeds. Slaves could inherit property as well as hold property of their own. The Akan say Akoa a onim som di ne wura ade ( slaveor servant who knows how to serve succeeds to his/her owner's property). Slave owners did not have absolute power over their slaves, only the king or chief had power of life and death over the slave. Indeed the king or chief had power over every citizen of the state, including the slave owners. Hence the Akan saying Ohene nkoa na owo sikan ( It isonly the king/chief who wields the knife/sword). In Ghana for example anyone who maltreated the slave to the point of death had to face the full rigors of the law. In Akyemand Asante for example, such people were asked to pay heavy fines. The Damagaram ofNiger and Nigeria state that the slave owner had absolute rights over his/her slaves and yet the Sultan was the only one who could authorize the infliction of death.

The slave was entitled to legal protection. There were also avenues for social, political and economic mobility. Many African societies asserted that slavery was for life and yet they granted slaves the privilege of manumission or redemption. The Sena of Mozambique, the Kerebe of Tanzania, the Mende of Sierra Leone and the Kongo of central Africa for example made provision for the manumission or redemption of slaves (Miers & Kopytoff, Slavery, p. 111, 129, 271, 424-425; Derrick, Africa, p. 95). All theethnic groups in Ghana made provision for the manumission of slaves. The slave in Ghana gained freedom through formal and informal means. The informal means was over a period of time. It was buttressed by the famous saying attributed to Asantehene Osei Tutu Obi nkyere obi ase (No one should disclose the origins of another person). The formal means was through monetary payment.

The treatment of slaves in pre-colonial African society depended on the owner, the family and the household in which the slave resided. On the whole oral and written records portray a picture of humane treatment.

Observers from outside Africa expressed surprise at the humane treatment of slaves. Freeman, Klose, Dr. Madden, Beecham, Crowther and some British Commissioners were a few of such observers. Freeman remarked that slavery in Africa was very different from that of Europe, North America and the West Indies. Klose stated that the slave in Africa was much better off than his/her counterpart in Europe or America. In the 1840's, Dr. Madden described the treatment of slaves as mild. District Commissioner Crowther who worked in Ghana at the turn of the 20th century in his evidence before the Committee of West African Lands in London on 7th February, 1913, described slaves in Ghana as more like adopted children.

The treatment of slaves in Ghana was regulated by customary rules and norms. In the event of his/her being cruelly treated by his/her owner, a slave in Ghana could have recourse to the following remedies. First, he/she could wait for an opportune time to runaway. Second, he/she could seek protection by throwing himself/herself on the mercy of a god at the traditional grove or on an ancestral spirit in the Royal Mausoleum. Third, he/she could swear an oath on another person to adopt him/her, in which case that person paid compensation to the owner.

Source: Dr. Akosua Perbi - Manchester College - USA [full pdf]
(Slightly modified)

Slavery in Sub-Saharan Africa

East Africa & The Sahara

How Were Slaves Acquired?

Why Were Slaves Needed?

Pre-Colonial Structure

Rights & Treatment

Disabled Slaves

Traditional Political Setting


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