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Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Context of West African History

  • J. D. Fage

This paper examines three views which have been widely held about slavery and the slave trade in West Africa, and which have tended to mould interpretations of its history, especially for the period from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. These are:

(1) That the institution of slavery was endemic in, and a natural feature of, indigenous West African society, so that when foreigners arrived in West Africa with a demand for slaves, West Africans were able immediately to organize an export trade in slaves on an ever-increasing scale.

(2) A contrary view, that it was the external demands for labour which led to a great growth of the institution of slavery in West Africa, and so corrupted its indigenous society.

(3) A view which may or may not be combined with (2), namely that the external demand for slaves became so considerable that there was a disastrous effect on its population.

Relevant evidence is touched upon from about the eleventh century onwards, and a fourth interpretation is developed which seems better to fit the economic and social realities which can be ascertained.

In essence this is that economic and commercial slavery and slave-trading were not natural features of West African society, but that they developed, along with the growth of states, as a form of labour mobilization to meet the needs of a growing system of foreign trade in which, initially, the demand for slaves as trade goods was relatively insignificant. What might be termed a ‘slave economy’ was generally established in the Western and Central Sudan by about the fourteenth century at least, and had certainly spread to the coasts around the Senegal and in Lower Guinea by the fifteenth century.

The European demand for slaves for the Americas, which reached its peak from about 1650 to about 1850, accentuated and expanded the internal growth of both slavery and the slave trade. But this was essentially only one aspect of a very wide process of economic and political development and social change, in West Africa. The data recently assembled and analysed by Curtin for the volume and distribution of the export slave trade do not suggest that the loss of population and other effects of the export of labour to the Americas need have had universally damaging effects on the development of West Africa. Rather, it is suggested, West African rulers and merchants reacted to the demand with economic reasoning, and used it to strengthen streams of economic and political development that were already current before the Atlantic slave trade began.

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1 Norris, Robert, Memoirs of the Reign of Bossa Ahadee, King of Dahomy (1789), and Dalzel, Archibald, A History of Dahomy(1793).

2 Rattray, R. S., Ashanti Law and Constitution (1929), ch. 5.

3 Dalzel, History of Dahomy, 124.

4 Mauny, Raymond, Tableau géographique de l'ouest africain (1961), 336–43, 377–9, 422–4.

5 Law, R. C. C., ‘The Garamantes and trans-Saharan enterprise in classical times’, J. Afr. Hist, viii, no. 2 (1967), 196.

6 Rodney, Walter, ‘African slavery and other forms of social oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the context of the Atlantic slave-trade’, J. Afr. Hist, vii, no. 3 (1966), 431–43.

7 Barbot in 1682 also reported that the Dutch sometimes sold slaves on the Gaboon (Churchill's Voyages, v, 390).

8 Pereira, D. Pacheco, Esmeraldo de Situ Orbit, ed. Raymond Mauny (1956), 134.

9 Ryder, A. F. C., ‘The Benin missions’, J. Hist. Soc. Nigeria, ii, no. 2 (1961), 237, and ‘Dutch trade on the Nigerian coast during the seventeenth century’, J.H.S.N. iii, no. 2 (1965), 203. To Professor Ryder, the Benin refusal to supply male slaves to the Portuguese seems to be associated with the Portuguese refusal to sell firearms to the pagan Benin kingdom. But this does not seem to invalidate the argument about the economic, and therefore (in a state-directed economy) the political, appreciation of the0 value of slaves. By the later seventeenth century, with the growing and competitive European arms trade, Benin's rulers must have concluded that the acquisition of firearms was more vital to the strength and wealth of the kingdom than the conservation of its manpower.

10 The Dimensions of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Madison, Wisconsin, 1969).

11 Mauny, Tableau géographique, 379. A. Adu Boahen estimates the volume for the first half of the nineteenth century at about 10,000 slaves a year: Britain, the Sahara, and the Western Sudan, 1788–1861 (1964), 127.

12 In which I have been guided by the experience and calculations of my colleague Dr P. K. Mitchell.

13 As was pointed out to me by my colleagues Mr D. Rimmer and Dr A. G. Hopkins.

14 Monteil, Charles, ‘Les empires du Mali’, Bull. Com. et Sc. de l'A.O.F. xii (1929), 312 (p. 22 in the separate (1968) reprint).

15 Akinjogbin, I. A., Dahomey and its Neighbours, 17081818 (1967), 73–80, 90–5.

16 Flint, John E., Sir George Goldie and the Making of Nigeria (1960), 246.

17 Dalzel, , History of Dahomy, 217–21;Dupuis, Joseph, Journal of a Residence in Ashantee (1824), 163–4.

18 Ross, D. A., “The autonomous kingdom of Dahomey, 1818-94’ (unpublished London Ph.D. thesis, 1967), chapter 2.

19 The only place in which this argument seems to have been developed is, with reference to Yorubaland, in an article by Hopkins, A. G., ‘Economic imperialism in West Africa: Lagos, 1880-92’, Econ. Hist. Rev. xxi, no. 3 (1968), 587–92.

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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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