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Slavery in Africa Previous Next
Digital History ID 443


Slavery existed in Africa before the arrival of Europeans -- as did a slave trade that exported a small number of sub-Saharan Africans to North Africa, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf. It would be a grave mistake, however, to assume that the kinds of slavery found in Africa were identical to the system of plantation slavery that developed in the New World.

For one thing, hereditary slavery, extending over several generations, was rare. Many African slaves were eventually freed and absorbed into their owner's kin group. Another difference was that in African societies most slaves were female. Women were preferred because they bore children and performed most field labor. They were not only responsible for agricultural production, but for spinning and weaving and other productive tasks.

Slavery in early sub-Saharan Africa took a variety of forms. Before the fifteenth century, there was some chattel slavery in sub-Saharan Africa, under which slaves could be bought and sold like livestock.

But most slavery in Africa differed profoundly from the kind of plantation labor that developed in the New World. The gap in status between masters and slaves was not as wide as it would be in the New World. While most slaves were field workers, some served in royal courts, where they served as officials, soldiers, servants, and artisans. Under a system known as "pawnship," youths (usually girls) served as collateral for their family's debts. If their parents or kin defaulted on these debts, then these young girls were forced to labor to repay these debts. In many instances, these young women eventually married into their owner's lineage, and their family's debt was cancelled.

Under a system known as "clientage," slaves owed a share of their crop or their labor to an owner or a lineage. Yet these slave "clients" owned the bulk of their crop and were even allowed to participate in the society's political activities. These slaves were often treated no differently than other peasant or tenant farmers.

The trans-Atlantic trade profoundly changed the nature and scale of slavery in Africa itself -- and imposed a heavy economic, political, and psychological cost on the continent. The development of the Atlantic slave trade led to the enslavement of far greater numbers of Africans and to more intense exploitation of slave labor within Africa. Over time, the Atlantic trade encouraged traders to seek slaves deeper into the interior.

The slave trade had an enormous impact on African society. One of its most profound consequences was demographic. While the trade probably did not reduce the overall population, it did produce a radically skewed sex ratio. During the slave trade era, in most parts of West and Central Africa there were only 80 men in the age bracket 15-60 for every 100 women. In Angola, there were just 40 to 50 men per 100 women. As a result of the slave trade, there were fewer adult men to hunt, fish, rear livestock, and clear fields.

The slave trade had momentous social consequences. It generated violence, spread disease, and resulted in massive imports of European goods, undermining local industries. It also slowed population growth. According to one estimate, in the absence of the slave trade, there would have been 100 million Africans in 1850 instead of 50 million.

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