Slavery did not start in Africa, it was practiced in civilisations from Ancient Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire and later across Europe including Nordic countries. Many, including Aristotle, believed that some were slaves by nature and they were often pillars of such cultures adding to their wealth through their unpaid labours. Even many Britons were turned into slaves after the Norman conquest with much of the existing English gentry being deported to Spain and Welsh slaves being traded in London and today human trafficking (modern day slavery) is still widespread and in some countries such as Niger, the practice, although illegal there since 2003 is still widespread. It is against this background that African slavery should be considered.
Slavery was already widespread in many parts of Africa, such as Egypt, Sudan, Zanzibar, Ghana and Mali amongst others, long before the Portuguese arrived in 1471 and establishing trading posts in north-east Africa as part of their developing trade routes to the far east. Just as with other cultures and civilisations before them, the slave trade developed due to a need for a strong, free workforce. Having stated that, the scale of African slavery was unprecedented with an estimated 12-15,000,000 Africans taken into slavery ready to transported mainly to America but also to North Africa and the Middle east although historians calculate that around a half of this number may actually have died before they even reached the coast of Africa in readiness to sail. The impact on the remaining population was severe and it is now estimated that the population of Africa in 1850 of 25,000,000 would actually have been twice that number had the captured slaves had not been taken and had procreated as per the societal norm.
Men became slaves for reasons varying from punishment for crimes, debt, as prisoners from local tribal wars and a demonstration of power of local warlords. As the trade developed slaves weren't just taken as a result of war but an actual reason for going to war in the first place. Few Europeans were actually involved in the kidnaps themselves for that would irate local balances of power, but rather they acted as recipients of slaves once delivered. Although 1510CE saw the first African slaves shipped to South America via Spain, it was 1518CE that the direct transportation of slaves to America itself started in earnest peaking in the 1790s. After the American Revolution 1775-1783, the northern states abolished slavery however it continued to flourish in the southern states. By 1861 those southern states, determined to protect slavery, broke away to form the Confederate States of America and started a civil war with the north who, the following year, adopted the abolition of slavery as a war aim. When the war ended slavery was abolished with all slaves set free without compensation to their 'owners'.
However the question was then exactly what did freedom mean? Certainly white slave owners acknowledged that formal slavery was over for good, but the emancipated slaves were poor, landless and in need of work. And their former masters were the only ones who could provide that work. As the American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist W E B Du Bois commented "The slave went free stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery." However attitudes had changed as it was the former slaves determination to achieve a life without all the indignities of slavery that laid the foundations of racial relationships that permeate through to the present day particularly in the southern states of the USA. The short video documentary (below) explores the development of black African slavery and how until 1640 the Portuguese had a near monopoly of the African slave trade. Until the abolition of the practice, it is estimated that Portugal was responsible for the transportation of 4.5 million slaves, approximately 40% of the total.
Whilst Britain is acknowledged for its role in bringing a cessation to the slave trade, it should be remembered that Britain was one of the worst offenders in the 18th century, dealing with some two and a half million slaves out a total of six million in one century alone. And it should also not be forgotten that this trade was given the full co-operation of African kings and merchants. The image above shows the extent of African slavery in the USA during the slave trade period.
African Slavery: Colonialism in Africa
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