It is difficult to generalize West Africa, which was linked to the rise and diffusion of Islam. This geographical unit, central to the rise of the Atlantic World, stretches from modern-day Mauritania to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It encompasses lush rainforests along the equator, savannas on either side of the forest, and much drier land to the north. Until about 600 CE, most Africans were hunter-gatherers. Where water was too scarce for farming, herders maintained sheep, goats, cattle, or camels. In the more heavily wooded area near the equator, farmers raised yams, palm products, or plantains. The savanna areas yielded rice, millet, and sorghum. Sub-Saharan Africans had little experience in maritime matters. Most of the population lived away from the coast, which is connected to the interior by five main rivers — the Senegal, Gambia, Niger, Volta, and Congo.
Although there were large trading centers along these rivers, most West Africans lived in small villages, and identified with their extended family or their clan. Wives, children, and dependents (including slaves) were a sign of wealth among men, and polygyny — the practice of having more than one wife at a time — was widespread. In time of need, relatives, however far away, were counted upon to assist in supplying food or security. Because of the clannish nature of African society, “we” was associated with the village and family members, while “they” included everyone else. Hundreds of separate dialects emerged; in modern Nigeria, nearly 500 dialects are still spoken.
Following the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, Islam continued to spread quickly across North Africa, bringing not only a unifying faith but a political and legal structure as well. As lands fell under the control of Muslim armies, they instituted Islamic rule and legal structures as local chieftains converted, usually under penalty of death. Only those who had converted to Islam could rule or be engaged in trade.
The first major empire to emerge in West Africa was the Ghana Empire. By 750 CE, the Soninke farmers of the sub-Sahara had become wealthy by taxing the trade that passed through their area. For instance, the Niger River basin supplied gold to the Berber and Arab traders from west of the Nile Valley, and the traders brought cloth, weapons, and manufactured goods into the interior. Huge Saharan salt mines supplied the life-sustaining mineral to the Mediterranean coast of Africa and inland areas. By 900, the monotheistic Muslims controlled most of this trade, and they had converted many of the African ruling elite. The majority of the population, however, maintained their tribal animistic practices, which gave living attributes to non-living objects, such as mountains, rivers, and wind. Because Ghana’s king controlled the gold supply, he was able to maintain price controls, and afford a strong military.
By 1200 CE, under the leadership of Sundiata Keita, Mali had replaced Ghana as the leading state in West Africa. After Sundiata’s rule, the court converted to Islam, and Muslim scribes played a large part in administration and government. Miners then discovered huge new deposits of gold east of the Niger River. By the 14th century, the empire was so wealthy that while on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, called a hajj, Mali’s ruler Mansu Musa gave away enough gold to create serious price inflation in the cities along his route. Timbuktu, the capital city, became a leading Islamic center for education, commerce, and the slave trade.
Thus, by the time Europeans first reached the coast of West Africa, large trading empires had been in existence for centuries, complete with urban settlement, advanced architecture, elaborate art, and complex political organizations. Africans were already involved in extensive trade networks throughout the continent. As far as the Africans were concerned, increased trade with Europeans simply expanded networks that were already in place, including those that pertained to slavery.
The institution of slavery is not a recent phenomenon. Most civilizations have practiced some form of human bondage and servitude, and African empires were no different. Famine or fear of stronger enemies might force one tribe to ask another for help and give themselves in a type of bondage in exchange. Similar to the European serf system, those seeking protection or relief from starvation would become the servants of those who provided relief. Debt might also be worked off through a form of servitude. Often slavery was a temporary condition.
Typically, these servants became a part of the extended tribal family. There is some evidence in the Nile Valley of chattel slavery, in which people are treated as personal property to be bought and sold. It appears there was a slave-trade route through the Sahara that brought sub-Saharan Africans to Rome, which had slaves from all over the world. During the Middle Ages, traders from the interior of Africa brought slaves on well-established routes to sell them along the Mediterranean coast.
As Islam spread across North and West Africa, Muslims utilized these trade networks, and enslaved not only Africans but also Europeans, especially from Spain, Sicily, and Italy. Generally, religion was a defining feature of the Muslim slave trade, as Islam did not permit enslaving other Muslims. Male captives were forced to build coastal fortifications and serve as galley slaves. Women were added to the harem.
The travels of Portuguese traders to western Africa during the 1400s introduced them to the African slave trade, which was already brisk among African societies. Seeing the value of this source of labor in order to grow the profitable crop of sugar on their Atlantic islands, the Portuguese soon began exporting African slaves along with African ivory and gold. By 1444, the Portuguese brought slaves from Africa to work on the sugar plantations of the Madeira Islands, off the coast of modern Morocco. The Portuguese also traded these slaves, introducing much-needed human capital to other European nations. Historians believe that by the year 1500, ten percent of the population of Lisbon and Seville consisted of black slaves. Because of the influence of the Catholic Church, which frowned on the enslavement of Christians, European slave traders expanded their reach down the coast of Africa.
In 1482, Portuguese traders built Elmina Castle (also called São Jorge da Mina, or Saint George’s of the Mine) in present-day Ghana, on the west coast of Africa. A fortified trading post, Elmina Castle had mounted cannons facing out to sea, not inland toward continental Africa, which showed that the Portuguese had greater fear of a naval attack from other Europeans than of a land attack from Africans. Portuguese traders soon began to settle around the fort and established the town of Elmina.
The Portuguese originally used the fort for trading gold, but by the early 1500s they shifted their focus. The fort’s dungeon became a holding pen for African slaves from the interior of the continent, while Portuguese traders ate, slept, and prayed in a chapel on the fort’s upper floors. Slaves lived in the dungeon for weeks or months until ships arrived to transport them to Europe or the Americas.
The Atlantic slave trade expanded greatly as European colonies in the Americas demanded an ever-increasing number of workers for their extensive plantations, which were growing commodities such as tobacco and sugar. Most Spanish and Portuguese settlers in the New World were gentlemen who did not perform physical labor. They came to “serve God, but also to get rich,” as noted by Bernal Díaz del Castillo. However, enslaved natives tended to sicken and die from disease or from the overwork and cruel treatment they experienced on plantations, so the indigenous peoples proved not to be a dependable source of labor. In response, slave traders initially brought European slaves to the Americas. Many of these were orphaned or homeless children captured in the cities of Ireland. Bartolomé de Las Casas, the great defender of the Indians, also suggested that the Spanish send black (and white) laborers to the New World for fear that native populations would go extinct from excessive work in plantations or mines.
Thus, the question becomes: when did slavery become defined by race? Racial slavery appears to have developed in the New World, with the introduction of gruelingly labor-intensive crops, such as sugar.
Here, the need for a massive labor force was greater than in western Europe. The land was ripe for growing sugar, tobacco, and other commodities. European monarchs distributed enormous land grants to entice settlement in the Americas, and European settlers and merchants established large plantations to fulfill ever-growing demands for New World commodities. The success of these plantations depended upon the availability of a permanent, plentiful, identifiable, and skilled labor supply. As Africans were already familiar with animal husbandry as well as farming, had an identifying skin color, and could be readily supplied by the existing African slave trade, they proved the answer to this need.
After colonizing Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America, Europeans ultimately established a system of racial slavery. In these places, slavery assumed new aspects. African slaves were both easily identified by Europeans (by their skin color) and considered plentiful because of the thriving slave trade. The widespread death of indigenous laborers and the profitability of the African slave trade, coupled with the seemingly limitless number of potential African slaves and the Catholic Church’s denunciation of the enslavement of Christians, led race to become a dominant factor in the institution of slavery. All of these factors contributed to the creation of a race-based slavery system in the Americas unlike any form of human bondage that had come before.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D