A Short History of the African Slave Trade

Slavery of Africans and Slavery in Africa

Slave Trade
Illustration depicting slave traffic on the coast of Africa, showing slave traders relaxing in the foreground while in the background, men are loaded into ships for the slave trade, 1853. Created by C.E. Wagstaff, after a painting, in London, UK. Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

Although slavery has been practiced for almost the whole of recorded history, the vast numbers involved in the African slave trade has left a legacy which can not be ignored.

Slavery in Africa

Whether slavery existed within sub-Saharan African societies before the arrival of Europeans is hotly contested among African studies scholars. What is certain is that Africans were subjected to several forms of slavery over the centuries, including chattel slavery under both the Muslims with the trans-Saharan slave trade, and Europeans through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Even after the abolition of the slave trade in Africa, Colonial powers used forced labor – such as in King Leopold's Congo Free State (which was operated as a massive labor camp) or as libertos on the Portuguese plantations of Cape Verde or São Tomé.

Read more about slavery in Africa.

Islam and African Slavery

The Qur'an prescribes the following approach to slavery: free men could not be enslaved, and those faithful to foreign religions could live as protected persons. However, the spread of the Islamic Empire through Africa resulted in a much harsher interpretation of the law, and people from outside the borders of the Islamic Empire were considered an acceptable source of slaves.

Read more about the role of Islam in African Slavery.

The Start of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

When the Portuguese first sailed down the Atlantic African coast in the 1430s, they were interested in one thing: gold.

However, by 1500 they had traded already 81,000 Africans to Europe, nearby Atlantic islands, and to Muslim merchants in Africa.

São Tomé is considered to be a principal port in the export of slaves across the Atlantic, this is, however, only part of the story.

Read more about the origins of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

 

The 'Triangular Trade' in Slaves

For two hundred years, 1440-1640, Portugal had a monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa. It is notable that they were also the last European country to abolish the institution - although, like France, it still continued to work former slaves as contract laborers, which they called libertos or engagés à temps. It is estimated that during the 4 1/2 centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Portugal was responsible for transporting over 4.5 million Africans (roughly 40% of the total). During the eighteenth century, however, when the slave trade accounted for the transport of a staggering 6 million Africans, Britain was the worst transgressor - responsible for almost 2.5 million. (A fact often forgotten by those who regularly cite Britain's prime role in the abolition of the slave trade.)

Information on how many slaves were shipped from Africa across the Atlantic to the Americas during the sixteenth century can only be estimated as very few records exist for this period. But from the seventeenth century onwards, increasingly accurate records, such as ship manifests, are available.

Slaves for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade were initially sourced in Senegambia and the Windward Coast.

Around 1650 the trade moved to west-central Africa (the Kingdom of the Kongo and neighboring Angola).

Read more about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Slavery in South Africa

It is a popular misconception that slavery in South Africa was mild compared to America and the European colonies in the Far East. This is not so, and punishments meted out could be very harsh. From 1680 to 1795 an average of one slave was executed in Cape Town each month and the decaying corpses would be re-hung around town to act as a deterrent to other slaves. 

Read more about slave Laws in South Africa