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Studies of slavery in Africa during the period of the Atlantic slave trade have largely ignored questions of how political processes affected enslavement during the period and also the extent to which notions of who could be enslaved were modified. Documentation for the kingdom of Kongo during the 1500s to 1800 allows us to explore how the trade was sustained and the social and political dynamics behind it. In a state that consistently exported large numbers of slaves throughout the period of the trade, kings of Kongo at first observed quite a pronounced distinction between foreign-born captives subject to enslavement and sale in the Atlantic trade and freeborn Kongos who were largely proctected from enslavement and sale overseas. In time, however, the distinctions that separated foreign-born and Kongos fell apart as later political authorities and others disregarded such distinctions and all Kongos became subject to enslavement and sale overseas. This was a product of internal Kongo conflicts, which witnessed the collapse of institutions and the redefinition of polity, what it meant to be a citizen or freeborn, and who could be enslaved.

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Walter Rodney , ‘African slavery and other forms of social oppression on the upper Guinea coast in the context of the Atlantic slave trade’, Journal of African History, 7 (1966), 431–43

John Thornton , ‘Early Kongo--Portuguese relations, 1483–1575: a new interpretation’, History in Africa, 8 (1981), 183204.

John Thornton , ‘The kingdom of Kongo, ca. 1390–1678: the development of an African social formation’, Cahiers d'Études Africaines, 22 (1982), 325–42

John K. Thornton , ‘Elite women in the kingdom of Kongo: historical perspectives on women's political power’, Journal of African History, 47 (2006), 437–60

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The Journal of African History
  • ISSN: 0021-8537
  • EISSN: 1469-5138
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-african-history
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