African Slave Traders: A History

African slave traders transport shackled captives in a dugout canoe to sell them downriver as slaves, Congo Free State, 1890. The original illustration was made by E.W. Kemble for an article called 'The Slave-Trade in the Congo Basin' and appeared on page 833 in the April 1890 Century Magazine #39 and was captioned 'A Slaver's Canoe.' (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

During the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Europeans did not have the power to invade African states or kidnap African slaves at will. For the most part, the 12.5 million slaves transported across the Atlantic Ocean were purchased from African slave traders. It is a piece of the triangle trade about which there are still many critical misperceptions.

Motivations for Slavery

One question that many Westerners have about African slavers, is why were they willing to sell 'their own people'?

Why would they sell Africans to Europeans? The simple answer to this question is that they did not see slaves as 'their own people.' Blackness (as an identity or marker of difference) was a preoccupation of Europeans, not Africans. There was also in this era no sense of being 'African'. (Indeed, to this day, individuals are more likely to identify as being African rather than, say, Kenyan only after leaving Africa.)

Some slaves were prisoners of war, and many of these may have been seen as enemies or rivals to those who sold them. Others were people who had fallen into debt. They were different by virtue of their status (what we might think of today as their class). Slavers also kidnapped people, but again, there was no reason they would inherently see slaves as 'their own'.

Slavery as a Part of Life

It might be tempting to think that African slave traders did not know how bad European plantation slavery was, but there was a lot of movement across the Atlantic.

Not all traders would have known about the horrors of the Middle Passage or what life awaited slaves, but others at least had an idea.

There are always people willing to ruthlessly exploit others in the quest for money and power, but the story of the African slave trade goes much further than a few bad people.

Slavery and the sale of slaves, though, were parts of life. The concept of not selling slaves to willing buyers would have seemed strange to many people up until the 1800s. The goal was not to protect slaves, but to ensure that oneself and one's kin were not reduced to slaves.

A Self-Replicating Cycle

As the slave trade intensified in the 16 and 1700s, it also became harder not to participate in the trade in some regions of West Africa. The enormous demand for African slaves led to the formation of a few states whose economy and politics were centered around slave raiding and trading. States and political factions that participated in the trade gained access to firearms and luxury goods, which could be used to secure political support. States and communities who were not actively participating in the slave trade were increasingly at a disadvantage. The Mossi Kingdom is an example of a state that resisted the slave trade until the 1800s, when it began trading in slaves as well.

Opposition to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

The Mossi Kingdom was not the only African state or community to resist selling slaves to Europeans. For instance, the king of the Kongo, Afonso I, who had converted to Catholicism, tried to stop the slave of slaves to Portuguese traders.

He lacked the power, however, to police the whole of his territory, and traders as well as nobles engaged in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade to gain wealth and power. Alfonso tried writing to the Portuguese king and asking him to stop Portuguese traders from engaging in the slave trade, but his plea was ignored.

The Benin Empire offers a very different example. Benin sold slaves to Europeans when it was expanding and fighting many wars - which produced prisoners of war. Once the state stabilized, it stopped trading slaves, until it started to decline in the 1700s. During this period of increasing instability, the state resumed participation in the slave trade.