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Slavery in Sub-Saharan Africa

Slave marketFrom North to South, and from East to West, the African continent became intimately connected with black slavery both as one of the principal areas in the world where slavery was common, & also as a major source of slaves for ancient civilization, the medieval world & all the continents of the modern period.

In West Africa slaveryChild captives was known among many of the states and societies. For example the Mende and Temne of Sierra Leone, the Vai of Liberia and Sierra Leone, and virtually all the states and societies in Guinea, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Mali, Nigeria etc. In Central Africa slavery was practiced in much of Bantu Africa for example among the Duala of Cameroon; the Bakongo, Bapende Lubaand Lunda of Zaire ( now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Congo and part of Angola, and the Lozi of Zambia. In East Africa the Buganda state, the Nyamwezi and the Chagga peoples practiced slavery. Along the coast, the Mrima Arabs, Omani Arabs and the Swahilis practiced slavery. In Southern Africa the Cokwe of Angola, the Sena of Mozambique and the Ngoni people scattered across East, Central and Southern Africa were all familiar with the institution of slavery.

Dimensions of the Slave Trade:
There were two dimensions to slavery and the slave trade in pre-colonial Africa, an external and internal dimension. The external dimension involved trade across the Sahara, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Arabic and Indian ocean worlds. This trade began in ancient times and continued into the modern period. Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome used African slaves. Medieval Europe and the Arabic and Islamic world, and the continent of Asia made use of African slaves. On the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean African slaves could be found working with slaves from Asia Minor, Greece, the Balkans, Eastern and Northern Europe.

In the early modern period the picture was very much the same. What is interesting in the ancient, medieval and early modern period is the existence of not only black and white slaves working together but also the prevalence of three main forms of labour not limited to colour, i.e. slave labour, indentured labour and serfdom.

In 1453 the Ottoman capture of Constantinople halted the flow of white slaves from the Black Sea region and the Balkans. Mediterranean Europe was thus cut off from one of its traditional source of slaves. Mediterranean Europe turned completely to Africa for slave labour ( A History of World Societies, 3rd Ed., Mckay, Hill & Bucklar, U.S.A. 1992, p.596).

The last phase of the external trade was that which involved the Oriental, Islamic and Atlantic worlds during the 15th to the 19th centuries. Suzanne Miers relates that the function of slavery in the Islamic world was both social and economic, and that the market was selective and sophisticated. The most highly prized were not Africans but the white slaves usually Circassian or Georgian girls. They were wanted as concubines in Harems as far apart as Zanzibar and Morocco in Africa, but they were expensive and the numbers small. In Arabia, Ethiopian men cost more than the black men of Africa because they were considered more 'refined' and 'intelligent' and less suited to heavy work. The desert nomads and the employers of heavy labour, however, wanted hardy blacks. There was a market in Arabia for black slaves from as far afield as modern Malawi in Africa ( Britain and the Ending of the Slave trade, S. Miers, London 1975, p. 56-58).

The internal trade was conducted within the African continent itself. It involved trade between North Africa and West Africa on the one hand and East, Central and Southern Africa on the other hand. My country Ghana, formerly called the Gold Coast became important in the trade with other West African states and with North Africa because of its richness in gold. Daaku relates that the Akan of Ghana were drawn into the main stream of developments in the trade across the Sahara to North Africa because the Offin and the Pra river basins where they were concentrated in large numbers were rich in gold (Trade and Politics on the Gold Coast 1600-1720, K.Y. Daaku, Great Britain 1970, p. 3). Archaeological evidence indicates that the ancient gold mining areas in Ghana were at Jinjini and Chemraso in modern Dormaa Ahenkro; Nsuhunu, Banda Nkwanta, Jenikrom, Awusu and Atuna in the modern Takyiman area and a number of Adanse villages and towns such as Kenyasi, Jameskrom and Jeda (Rediscovering Ghana's Past, J. Anquandah, Great Britain, 1982, p.41).

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Bono Manso and Begho in modern Brong Ahafo region became important centres for this trade from 1000 to 1750 A.D. The Mande Dyula were the professional merchants in this trade. The West African forest region supplied gold, kola nuts, ivory and slaves in this trade. Ghana though in the forest region was known to have supplied gold, kola nuts and ivory. The West African savanna region provided millet, sorghum, wheat, live stock, gum, shea butter, ivory, ostrich feathers, cloth, gold and slaves. The Sahara contributed salt, copper, tobacco and dates. From Europe and the Muslim world came textiles and garments made from wool, silk, brocade, velvet or satin; calicoes, metals such as brass, copper, silver, tin and lead. Other goods from the Mediterranean world were books, writing paper, cowries, tea, coffee, sugar, spices, jewellery, perfumes, bracelets, mirrors, carpets, beads etc. Ghana obtained slaves through this trade from the 1st to the 16th centuries A.D.

All the West African states along the Atlantic coast were linked by a southern trade route covering modern Senegal to modern Nigeria. Ghana, again because of its wealth in gold, exchanged gold for slaves, beads, cotton, cloth and palm oil from the Benin state in modern Nigeria. From Dahomey and Ivory Coast, Ghana exchanged gold for the famous quaqua cloth. Shama on the Ghana coast was the entrepot of the trade.

When the first Europeans i.e. the Portuguese set foot on the shores of Ghana in 1471, they found in existence a brisk trade in slaves and other goods between Ghana and its coastal neighbours, it took part in the trade and for 100 years was the only European country trading directly with Ghana and its coastal neighbours. In 1479 Eustache de la Fosse stated that he bought slaves from the Grain Coast for sale at Shama. Pacheco Pereira reported that because the kingdom of Benin in modern Nigeria was usually at war with its neighbours it possessed many captives. The slaves were brought to Ghana and exchanged for gold ( Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, D. Pacheco Pereira, translated and edited by G.H.T. Kimble, London 1937, p. 126). In addition to slaves the Portuguese brought cotton cloths, panther skins, palm oil and some blue shells with red stripes called coris from Benin to exchange for gold.

Post Abolition:
While we can talk of the year 1807 as the year Britain passed a law abolishing the Atlantic slave trade in Britain and all its colonial possessions and therefore most of Africa was affected, we cannot say the same with respect to the Internal/ Indigenous system of slavery. Every country had a different date passed by its colonial master. In Ghana for example Internal slavery and slave trading was abolished in 1874 by the British Colonial Government in the Gold Coast Colony. This was the southernmost part of Ghana marked by the Pra river. In Asante and the Northern Territories it was not until 1908.

There were immediate and long term effects of abolition in Ghana. The immediate effects were that first, freed slaves who could readily trace their relatives and families which could trace their enslaved relatives appealed to the British District Commissioners' Courts for redemption of their relatives after payment of a fee. Second, some freed slaves settled on Christian Mission Stations, especially the Basel Mission Stations at Agogo and Kumasi. Third, other slaves left their former owners to begin lives on their own. Fourth, the majority of freed slaves remained in the households of their former owners under new terms and conditions. In the long term, freed slaves and their descendants were assimilated into the families to which they were already associated.

All the index sections above are from
Dr. Akosua Perbi - Manchester College, USA
with minor changes.
The original can be found in the full pdf.



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