African Slave Trade

slave coffle
Figure 1.--Here we see a depiction of an Arab slave coffle. Arabs played a key role in the slave trade. Slaves from the interior were driven to the coasts where they were traded to Arab and Europeans. We have no information as to who drew this or when. Thus we do not know if it is based on actual observation.

The African slave trade is generlly viewed as a European undertaking. In fact both African chiefs and Arabs played major roles. The Arabs were the first to enter the African slave trade. Arabs after their emergence grom the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century not only moved into Mesopotamia and North Africa, but also dominated the eastern Indin Ocean, Arabs traders gradually established trading posts along the African Indian Ocean ports. Slaves could be sold to the Arab traders operating from Indian Ocean ports. As the powers of the Arabs increased they began raids on villages to seizes blacks that could be sold in Middle Eastern slave markets. A new outlet appeared in the 15th century. Portuguese explorers began voyages south along the Atlantic coast of Africa. The Portuguese were looking for a route to Asia, but as they moved south they began setting up trading posts. First the Portuguese established trading posts along the coast of West Africa, but gradually moved further south along the coast. Other European maritime powers followed suit. This was the beginning of the African slave trade. The Europeans differed from the Arabs in that they did not normally conduct raids themselves, but usually bougth slaves from Arab slave brokers and African chiefs. As the demand for slaves expanded, whole areas of Africa were depopulated.

Complex History

The African slave trade is generlly viewed as a European undertaking. In fact both African chiefs and Arabs also played major roles. Africans appeared as slaves in the ancient world. I belive this was primarily in Egypt because of the estanlished trading routes. This is complicated, however, because some pharoes appear to have African features. (This was a fact ignored when Egyptology became a subject of great interest in the 19th centutry.) There were also African slaves in Rome, but as far as I can tell, the number was relatively very limited. The modern history of African slavery began with the Arabs who began to establish teading posts along the Indian Ocean of Africa (8th century?). Then with the Europe voyages of discovery a second outlet for African slaves was opened.

Ancient World

In our modern world there are few human practices that inspire such profound outrage as the practice of one human being enslaving another. This is, however, a very modern sentiment. The institution of slavery probably predates civilization itself. Slavery was an accepted institution and central to the economies of most major world civilization. Slaves were were often war captives, both captured warriors and the women and children of conquered populations. The offspring of these enslaved people provided a vast slave work force. The victors in battle might enslave the losers rather than kill them. Slavery in many early civilizations is poorly understood. Slavery in ancient Egypt is a poorly understood topic. We have done some work on Egyptian social classes, but destinguishing slaves from other groups with limited freedom is a challenging task that scholars have found very difficult. The same is true for the many civilizations of Mesopotamia. Slavery in both Greece and Rome are much better understood and were major components of the work force. Slaves in Greece and Rome were drawn from widly differing peoples and there was no association with race. Slaves might be blond, blue eyed Anglo-Saxons from Britania or blacks from Sahara as well as evry other racial type. Slavery in Rome had no racial basis. This appears to have been the general pattern in the ancient world. Even those of Italian stock were enslaved. It was thus impossible to tell from one's features if they were a slave. This complicated control. The Senate debated establishing a destinctive dress for slaves. In the end, the Senate decided against a slave attire, partly because they decided it was dangerous because it would show the slaves just how numerous they were. As in the Americn South, slavery was justified on the basis of the natural inferiority of certain individuals.

African Political Structure

The African political structure is difficukt to describe over the very long period in which the Arab slave trade in Africa took place. The rrade was conducted over 12 centuries, roughly from 650-1900. It is important, however, to roughly sketch the political structure to understand the ebvironment in which both Europeans and Arabs conducted the slave trade. The Arabs conquered North Africa from a very early stage of the Islamic expansion. Arab traders penetrated into sub-Saharan Africa through desert caravans, the Nilr River, and by estanlish trading postas along the Indian coast of the continent. The black African kingdoms they encountered as they moved into the interior varied over time. Europeans had little access to Africa, blocked for centuries by Arab control of North Africa. This only began to change in the 15th cenntury with the European voyages of discovery with the Portuguese edgeing their way down the African coast. Like the Arabs along the Indian Ocean coast, European influence along the Atlantic coast was first limited to coastal regions.

The Arabs (8th-21st centuries)

The Arabs (8th-21st centuries)

The Arabs were the first to enter the African slave trade. Arabs after their emergence from the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century not only moved into Mesopotamia and North Africa, but also dominated the eastern Indin Ocean, Arabs traders gradually established trading posts along the African Indian Ocean ports. Slaves could be sold to the Arab traders operating from Indian Ocean ports. As the powers of the Arabs increased they began raids on villages to seizes blacks that could be sold in Middle Eastern slave markets. Much more is known about the European segment of the African slave trade, in part because records are much more readily available. And there is much more human evidence of the Atlantic slave trade--namely the large Afro-American populations in Brazil, the United States, and other Western Hemisphere countries. Much less is known about the Arab segment of the African slave trade. There were three major routes: across the Sahara, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. There are several important questions that need to be persued here, especially the dimensions of the Arab slave trade and how it compared to the European slave trade. While the European Atlantic slave trade was conducted over four centuries, the Arab African slave trade was conducted over 14 centuries, and has not finally ended even in the 21st century. A factor here is that slavery is scationed in the Koran and many Arabs and othet Muslims believe that the Koran is the literal word of God which can not be questioned by our more enlightened modern attitudes on social values and human rights.

The Europeans (16th-19th centuries)

A new outlet appeared in the 15th century. Portuguese explorers began voyages south along the Atlantic coast of Africa. The Portuguese were looking for a route to Asia, but as they moved south they began setting up trading posts. First the Portuguese established trading posts along the coast of West Africa, but gradually moved further south along the coast. Other European maritime powers followed suit. This was the beginning of the African slave trade. The Europeans differed from the Arabs in that they did not normally conduct raids themselves, but usually bougth slaves from Arab slave brokers and African chiefs. Europeans built trading post and forts all along the coast of West Africa. From Senegal south to Cameroons there were about 60 forts that served as trading posts for the slave trade. The Europeans exchanged rum, cloth, guns, and other trade goods for their human cargo. The slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean primarilt to Brazil, the West Indies and the English colonies in North America. Imense fortues were made in the trade. As the demand for slaves expanded, whole areas of Africa were depopulated. The European African slave trade began during the mercantalist era. It continued well into the industrial era. In fact because African slaves played a major role in the industrial revolution in Europe. The ememse profits from West Indian sugar islands helped to finance the industrial revolution. And the raw material for the first real modern industry, cotton textiles, was produced by slaves. The slave trade was finally ended by the Royl Navy in the mid-19th century.

Abolitionist Movements

A key role in ending the African slave trade was the development of an abolition movement in Britain. Here Christians played a cerntral role. The movement might be dated from the publication of John Wesley's Thought upon Slavery (1774). Wilberforce and Clarkson were two other key figures. The movement founded the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787). Debates in Parliament commenced shortly afterwards (1789). The abolitionists managed to get a bill committing Britain to ending the slave trade (1792). The insertion of the world "gradual" and the lack of a time table meant that little was done. Opponents claimed thst it would put Britain at a disadvantage to other countries. Another bill failed narowly (1796) and Britain's attention turned increasingly to Revolutionary France. Several parlimentarians played an important role. The Whig Party played an important role. Several parlimentarians played important roles. One was Henry Peter Brougham. The abolitionists after several years of work suceeding in passing a bill in ablolishing the slave trade in conquered territories (1805). This was finally followed with the passage of the bill outlawing the slave trade in the British Empire (1807). [Pollock] This was a major step because Britain with its powerful Royal Navy after Trafalgur (1805) dominated the world's oceans. Britain was the only country with the capability of ending the slave trade. The abolitionist movement in America was much weaker than in Britain. And as it developed it was highly sectional. The Abolitionist movement in America was built around Protestant churches in the northern states. At first Quakers were the most prominent voice, but other religious groups in the North also began to question slavery. Southern churches, however, saw no religious problem with slavery. Southern slaves, however, saw considerable paralells with the bondage of the people of Israel in Egypt and their plight. Some authors insist that political and ecomomic factors are nore important than moral issues. Thesecare factors which should not be ignored, but it is interesting to note that many countries did not have abolitionist movements of importance and there was not abolitionist move at all in the Muslim world.

Ending the Slave Trade

Ending the slave trade was a complicated length process which involved many countries and a groiwing abolitionist movement based on Christianity. William Wilberforce was a primary figure in the abolitionist movement which obtained British commitment to ending the slave trade (1807). An abolitionist movement never developed in the Islamic world, primarily because of Koranic recognition od slavery. Ending the slave trade, however, involved much more than religion and morality. A complex web of economics, international affairs, diplmomacy and European colonialism were involved in ending the slave trade which was conducted by both Europeans and Arabs. The British diplomastic effort was complicated by suspicions concerning Brititish motives. The primary agent for ending the slave trade was the British Royal Navy which mounted naval patrols in both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Only the Arab trans-Saharan slave trade was imune from Royal Navy interdiction. The effort began during the Napoleonic Wars and was not finally ended until the Ruropean colonization of sub-Saharan Africa in the late-19th centuty.






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Created: 5:05 AM 4/29/2006
Last updated: 2:40 AM 4/12/2010