The Origins of Internal Slavery in Africa

Last Updated on January 29, 2022 by Shaun Snapp

 Executive Summary

  • It is often presented that slavery was brought to Africa by Europeans.
  • This article covers the reality of slavery in Africa.

Introduction

Slavery has a lengthy history in Africa as it has in virtually all regions of the world. There is a common misunderstanding that slavery was “brought” to Africa from the outside, false. We cover the origins of slavery in Africa.

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The Origins of Slavery in Africa

Slavery had been in place in Africa, both internally (that is, African countries had slavery within their own confines) and externally (Arab slavers had been taking enslaved Africans to different locations outside of Africa as early as 652 AD, with the first slaves used as a form of tribute to pay the invading Arabs). Slavery in Africa goes back as long as there are records.

The first enslaved people brought back to Europe were in 1444. However, the first enslaved people were not taken to the New World until 1525 and did not become a regular affair until 1560. This is roughly 870 years after Arabs began capturing and trading enslaved Africans.

While internal slavery existed in Africa, some of this slavery could be considered similar to what is known as European serfdom or feudalism. This is explained in the following quotation.

It was, for example, not uncommon for slaves to marry, farm their own plots of land, earn money and even maintain a limited freedom of action and movement. In parts of Africa, slavery bore strong similarities to the institution of serfdom that was widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages. – Slavery in the Arab World

Africans that were brought to these slave ports were brought there by other Africans. The European slave traders did not have to go any further into Africa than the dock to get as many enslaved people as they desired.

This is explained in the following quotation.

The Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria has written to tribal chiefs saying: “We cannot continue to blame the white men, as Africans, particularly the traditional rulers, are not blameless.”

The congress argued that the ancestors of the chiefs had helped to raid and kidnap defenceless communities and traded them to Europeans. They should now apologize to “put a final seal to the history of slave trade”, it said.

“In view of the fact that the Americans and Europe have accepted the cruelty of their roles and have forcefully apologised, it would be logical, reasonable and humbling if African traditional rulers … [can] accept blame and formally apologise to the descendants of the victims of their collaborative and exploitative slave trade.”

“I interviewed a chief who acknowledged there was collaboration and that without that involvement we wouldn’t have seen human trafficking on an industrial scale,” said Bonsu, the co-founder of digital station Colourful Radio.

“An apology in Nigeria might be helpful because the chiefs did some terrible things and abetted a major crime.”” – The Guardian

Specialized Slave Raiding Tribes In Africa

It is uncomfortable that some African tribes specialized in capturing Africans for slavery or that entire sets of laws were set up in African countries where the punishment for various offenses was slavery. But looking at slavery objectively means dispensing with the highly simplified modern presentation of slavery into exploring actually what happened and why.

Africans are still trading enslaved people, and they don’t seem likely to stop anytime soon. Both in countries like Mauritania and Libya, where after the US and Europe’s toppling of the Muammar Gaddafi regime, Libya has become a failed state.

Africa Countries Pushing Back on Stopping Slavery?

The European-based aid agencies have put effort into reducing slavery, but the problem is that there is no agreement in Africa that slavery necessarily needs to be abolished. The Middle East is also not in accord with ending slavery, as they employ large numbers of imported enslaved people in everything from domestic help to construction projects.

This is explained in the following quotation.

“Slavery and slave raiding, which never fully died out in the Sudan, have reappeared on a large scale in the disaffected southern region of the country which has been fighting off and on for autonomy against the Muslim dominated North.” – Slavery in the Arab World

This video argues that Mauritania is the last place where slavery is now not sanctioned. However, slavery is still alive and well in not only Mauritania but in many places in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Conclusion

The current explanation of slavery leaves out that after European powers abolished slavery, countries like Mauritania resisted attempts by European powers like the French to abolish slavery in Mauritania. It also leaves out the relationship between slavery and the degree of influence by Europe, as we cover in the article Why Do the Most Europe Influenced African Countries Have the Least Slavery?