Slavery In Africa Before The 1500s A.D


Slavery was not unique in African societies. Various forms of human bondage existed from early times. Sumerians in Mesopotamia relied on slave labour before 3000 B.C, as did the ancient Egyptians. China had slavery during Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), and the societies of classical Greece and Rome made heavy use of slave labour from the 6th century BC through the 5th century AD.

Most societies in Sub-Saharan Africa also used captives and dependents for labour. African slaves typically differed from others, however. Land in Africa tended to be plentiful, owned communually, and parceled out to families according to their needs based on the number of labourers they could marshal. To increase production, families had to invest in more workers. The quickest way was to buy slaves. Usually, second or third generation slave became regonized members of the household, no longer liable for sale. Slaves of royal families could even serve in office of State. But noatter how integrated their situation or important their role, in the kinship based societies of Sub-Saharan Africa, slaves remained outsiders, or at least other than full fledged kin.

As in most places where slavery existed, Africans obtained slaves by more or less violent means. Warfare was the most common method. Even in wars not fought to gain slaves. Prisoners were usually enslaved and sold or put to work. People were also enslaved as punishment for crimes or religious offenses. As the slave trade grew, slavery probably became a more common punishment. And finally,  a few became  slaves voluntarily because they could not feed or care for themselves or their families.

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African societies that practiced slavery usually traded slaves. Exports of slaves from black Africa had roots that preceded the Atlantic slave trade. People in western Africa had been selling slaves across the Sahara to North Africa Before 700 AD, a traded that continued to the beginning of 20th century. Between 8 and 10 million slaves crossed the dessert in this Trans-Saharan trade. Central Africans sold slaves eastward to the Indian Ocean for the same length of time.

When the Atlantic slave trade began, institutions were already in place to provide slaves in exchange for commodities. Only the European shippers and the American destination were different in  the beginning. What proved novel about about the Atlantic slave trade was it’s scale. No other exporting of slaves matched the massive, involuntary movement of people out of western and west central Africa between 1440 and 1880.  Although the Trans-saharan trade transported nearly as many slaves, the Atlantic slave trade took place over a much shorter period and on average much larger numbers of slaves per year.

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