Many Americans mistakenly believe that most slaves were captured by Europeans who landed on the African coast and captured or ambushed people. It is important to understand that Europeans were incapable, on their own, of kidnapping 20 million Africans.
Most slaves sold to Europeans had not been slaves in Africa. They were free people who were captured in war or were victims of banditry or were enslaved as punishment for certain crimes or as repayment for a debt. In most cases, rulers or merchants were not selling their own subjects, but people they regarded as alien.
Apologists for the African slave trade long argued that European traders purchased Africans who had already been enslaved and who otherwise would have been put to death. Thus, apologists claimed, the slave trade actually saved lives. This is a serious distortion of the facts. Some independent slave merchants did stage raids on unprotected African villages and kidnapped enslaved Africans. Professional slave traders, however, set up bases along the west African coast where they purchased slaves from Africans in exchange for firearms and other goods. Before the end of the 17th century, England, France, Denmark, Holland, and Portugal had all established slave trading posts on the west African coast.
The massive European demand for slaves and the introduction of firearms radically transformed west African society. A growing number of Africans were enslaved for petty debts or minor criminal or religious offenses or following unprovoked raids on unprotected villages. An increasing number of religious wars broke out with the goal of capturing slaves. European weapons made it easier to capture slaves.
Some African societies like Benin in southern Nigeria refused to sell slaves. Others, like Dahomey, appear to have specialized in enslavement. Drought, famine, or periods of violent conflict might lead a ruler or a merchant to sell slaves. In addition, many rulers sold slaves in order to acquire the trade goods--textiles, alcohol, and other rare imports--that were necessary to secure the loyalty of their subjects.
After capture, the captives were bound together at the neck and marched barefoot hundreds of miles to the Atlantic coast. African captives typically suffered death rates of 20 percent or more while being marched overland. Observers reported seeing hundreds of skeletons along the slave caravan routes. At the coast, the captives were held in pens (known as barracoons) guarded by dogs. Our best guess is that another 15 to 30 percent of Africans died during capture, the march from the interior, or the wait for slave ships along the coast.
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