Slaves were needed in pre-colonial Africa to provide labour in
agriculture, trade and industry. Some slaves were employed in the
administrative sectors of the state, kingdom or empire. Other slaves
served in the military; some performed domestic chores, a few others
were sacrificed and some satisfied the personal needs of individuals.
Agriculture, Trade and Industry
Farming, animal rearing, hunting, and fishing were the basic economic
activities in pre-colonial Africa and slave labour was used. Slaves
helped to grow foodstuffs in the forest and the savanna regions of
Africa as well as along the coast and the desert fringes. They were
also used in collecting food plants like shea butter, kola nuts, oil
palm and coconuts.
Slaves were employed in trade as porters, merchants or trading agents.
Trusted slaves conducted trade on behalf of their owners. They traded
for individuals as well as for the state. Some slaves were put in
charge of the trade routes and asked to collect tolls.
The main industries in pre-colonial Africa were gold mining, iron
working, salt making, cloth weaving and other art and craft industries.
The Akan people of Ghana for example employed hundreds of slaves in the
gold mining industry. The Etsi and the Borbor Fanteof Ghana used
slaves in the salt making industry.
Administration and Military
Slaves were recruited into the military divisions of traditional
pre-colonial political society. Some served as soldiers for warfare;
others performed menial jobs on the battlefield; some were personal
bodyguards of kings and chiefs; trusted slaves held command positions
In the Household division of the Palaces slaves served in the Music
Department as drummers, horn blowers etc. In the Religious Department
they were the caretakers of the Royal Mausoleum, the soul washers,
the elephant tail switchers etc. In the Diplomatic Corps they were
the sword bearers, heralds, assistant linguists; they served in the Finance department, the Kitchen Department and several other
Male and female slaves provided domestic chores in the palaces,
shrines and individual households in the form of cooking, washing,
fetching water and firewood, sweeping, cleaning etc.
Some slaves were sacrificed in accordance with traditional beliefs and
practices during festivals, ceremonial occasions, religious observances
and the death of important personalities.
Some people acquired slaves for personal reasons. These included
prestige, power and procreation. The more slaves one had reflected
one's prestige, power and status in African society. A man whose wife
was barren would go to the slave market and purchase a female slave to
marry and bear him children. The children became part of his family,
lineage and clan. A woman without children of her own could also go to
any of the slave markets to purchase a slave, preferably a female to
One striking difference in the use of male and female slaves was in
the area of procreation. Procreation did not only fulfil the needs of
individuals but whole states. After war, disease or famine had
decimated the population, the state would send officials to the slave
markets to purchase female slaves to procreate and make up the
dwindled population. Throughout the period of the slave trade, female
slaves fetched higher prices than male slaves. Female slaves became the
wives and concubines of individuals, chiefs and kings.
Dr. Akosua Perbi - Manchester College - USA [full