Digital History

Introduction by Steven Mintz

Enslavement Previous Next
Digital History ID 445



Many Americans, influenced by images in the television mini-series "Roots," mistakenly believe that most slaves were captured by Europeans who landed on the African coast and captured or ambushed people. While Europeans did engage in some slave raiding, the majority of people who were transported to the Americas were enslaved by other Africans. It is important to understand that Europeans were incapable, on their own, of kidnapping 20 million Africans. Indeed, the system became so institutionalized that Europeans had little contact with the actual process of enslavement.

How were people actually enslaved? Most slaves in Africa were captured in wars or in surprise raids on villages. Adults were bound and gagged and infants were sometimes thrown into sacks. One of the earliest first-hand accounts of the African slave trade comes from a seamen named Gomes Eannes de Azurara, who witnessed a Portuguese raid on an African village. He said that some captives "drowned themselves in the water; others thought to escape by hiding under their huts; others shoved their children among the seaweed."

The overwhelming majority of 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. In Senegambia, the Guinea Coast, and the Slave Coasts of West Africa, war was the most important source of slaves. In Angola, kidnapping and condemnation for debt were very important. In most cases, rulers or merchants were not selling their own subjects, but people they regarded as alien. We must remember that Africans did not think of themselves as Africans, but as members of separate nations.

Apologists for the African slave trade long argued that European traders did not enslave anyone: they simply 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. Such claims represent a gross distortion of the facts. Some independent slave merchants did in fact stage raids on unprotected African villages and kidnap and enslave Africans. Most 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 seventeenth century, England, France, Denmark, Holland, and Portugal had all established slave trading posts on the west African coast.

Yet to simply say that Europeans purchased people who had already been enslaved seriously distorts historical reality. While there had been a slave trade within Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans, the massive European demand for slaves and the introduction of firearms radically transformed West and Central 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. Still other societies, like Asante, in present-day Ghana, and the Yoruba in western Nigeria, engaged in wars that produced as many as half of all eighteenth and early nineteenth century slaves.

In western and central Africa, many new commercial states, merchants, and traders, chronically short of capital, thrived by enslaving some people and selling others abroad. Birth rates often exceeded agriculture's capacity to feed the population. 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.

In the earliest years, slaves tended to come from coastal areas. Over time, the source moved further into the African interior. Many Africans retained females and sold off males. About two-thirds of the slaves sent to the New World were male.

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.

The captives who survived the forced march to the sea were then examined by European slave traders: "The Countenance and Stature, a good Set of Teeth, Pliancy in the Limbs and Joints, and being free of Venereal Taint, are the things inspected and governs our choice in buying," wrote one slave trader. Those who were bought were branded with hot irons, assigned numbers, and forced aboard ships; the others were simply abandoned. (Representatives of the Church sometimes branded enslaved Africans with the cross as a sign that they had been baptized).

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