The slave trade across the continents

To justify a trade which started to cause embarrassment to the conscience of Europe, and which American authorities termed as a ‘peculiar institution’, religion was used…

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

The history of slavery from the African continent to the Caribbean islands, America, and to the Indian Ocean islands is fairly well known and widely commented, and much emphasis is laid on the needs of a burgeoning capitalist system in Europe and America, which required extensive labour in agriculture.

More than a decade ago, a group of African historians compiled research works to give an African perspective of the slave trade which was followed by colonization, leaving deep scars on the African psyche and widespread damages on its existing economic structures.

More recently, there is an insistent will to tell the whole truth about slavery, the depletion of population in various African regions, the economic prosperity of beneficiaries not only across the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean but also in the Middle-East and North Africa. Tidiane N’Diaye, Senegalese author is one such historian who insists that it is time for the historical implications of the issue to be discussed openly without complacency.

European slave trade

What has been widely documented are the triangular trade between Africa, European ports and American colonies under British rule. It was a lucrative business which benefited the ports of Nantes and Plymouth, the cotton and tobacco plantations in southern American states of Louisiana, Virginia, Florida, Mississipi, etc., sugar estate owners in French and British Caribbean island colonies, and enabled plantation owners to build huge white mansions with Roman-style columns for free. Thus was laid the basis of the economic prosperity of white settlers.

To justify a trade which started to cause embarrassment to the conscience of Europe, and which American authorities termed as a ‘peculiar institution’, religion was used to disguise the economic enterprise and missionary zeal emphasized to save the soul of Africans if they had any, propped up by an intellectual construct peddled by European scholars on the racial inferiority of Africans.

The exploration of Africa by Europeans started in the 14th century, and shipments of slaves off African coasts to the colonies took off in the 17th century. Slaves were captured and traded off mostly by Africans and Arab merchants.

All historians do not agree on the number of slaves shipped off from African coasts. There is more consensus on the effects of slavery not being as severe as the economic consequences of western colonization of Africa, in British, French, Portuguese and German colonies, the disruption of traditional economic structures, the grab and control of natural resources, not to mention the genocide which took place in Belgian Congo and Namibia under German control.

The crumbling monument of slavery is Cape Coast Castle, one of the 40 forts in Ghana where slaves from Burkina Faso and Niger were imprisoned and loaded onto ships and sold into slavery in the New World and the Caribbean. Gorée island, off the coast of Senegal, is another outpost of slave trade, now a world heritage monument, a memorial site which has become a key tourist attraction.

African internal slave market

It is also widely acknowledged that African chieftains traded prisoners to Arab merchants and later, to European trade companies. Emeritus Professor of Swahili and African Linguistics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, Abdulazzizi Lodhi argues that slavery is part of different African cultures. The reason was that there were no prisons, so people who were captured during inter-tribal or inter-ethnic fights were sold to other regions.

Moroccan historian Ibn Battuta visited the African kingdom of Mali in the 14th century and related how local inhabitants vied with each other in the number of slaves and servants that were kept in their household. They were not only Africans but also Arab men and women sold as slaves to West African rulers. Ibn Battuta met with Arab slave girls in Mali who spoke fluent Arabic. Male Arab slaves were castrated before sale, later religious legal views forbade the enslavement and castration of Muslim men. According to historian Almaqrizi, during Hajj celebration Arab girls with lighter skin were sold to West African regions. It is not specified which religions they belonged to, among Christians and other religions.

Arab slave trade

There is also consensus among African authors on the relative significance of the practice of slavery in African countries, which is nothing compared to the massive trade conducted by merchants for the benefit of the Arab peninsula and later, to meet the demand of European trade companies.

Author N’Diaye states that Arab slave trade is the longest in the history of slavery. While European slave trade started in the 17th century and ended in mid-19th century, lasting about 230 years, Arab slave trade spanned a period of 1000 years.

Initially, as from the 7th century Arabs settled in Eastern and Central Europe took white slaves to sell to the Arabian Peninsula. White women were particularly prized. Men from the coast of England and Europe were captured and enslaved in countries like Morocco to serve in the early Arab settlements. Raids were conducted in Poland, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries with the participation of Italian, French and German mercenaries, and captives were taken to Arabian Peninsula. A shortage of slaves prompted the Arabs to turn to Africa where they encountered existing structures which facilitated the purchase of slaves.

Arab chieftains in North and East Africa sold captured Africans to the Middle-East where they were used in fields as manual work considered demeaning in thriving economies already boosted by European slaves. Castration of males prevented the growth of African population in Arabia where they served as harem guides and teachers. Millions of males were reported to have been castrated.

Regions in central Africa, along west and north coasts or south, along Ubanqui and Congo rivers, were raided, and the captured slaves marched along the trans-Sahara route to North Africa, Egypt and Arabia where they were employed as servants, in agriculture , as water carriers, herdsmen, seamen, porters, camel drivers, masons, cooks, etc. During the strenuous journeys three out of four captives perished. The development of European colonies created greater demand for slavery.

Along East African coast, Tanzania and Mozambique and Malawi where Yao and Makua tribes fought regularly, captives were shipped off to Zanzibar sultanate and sold on the slave markets to Indian Ocean islands.

Author N’Diaye gives full details of African slavery which, in reality, had been a vast enterprise, and of which only a partial history is often repeated in books across the world.


* Published in print edition on 31 January 2020

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