History of International Relations Textbook


The Slave trade

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Slavery is indigenous to African societies and not something the Europeans brought to Africa. On the contrary, it is because there was slavery in Africa that it was easy for the Europeans to get slaves. The Europeans simply tapped into a trade in slaves, with slave markets, which already had existed for a long time. The Europeans became the best customers for the goods the Africans were selling.

As we have seen, both Benin and the Asante Confederacy owned and traded in slaves. Indeed slaves, together with gold, were the main sources of wealth for both empires. Land, by contrast, was not considered as a form of private property. Land had no value since there quite simply was far too much of it. Instead it was what the land produced, and those who could be forced to work on it, which were considered as property. Thus a man would count his wealth in the number of slaves he owned, and throughout West Africa taxes were levied on slaves and paid in terms of slaves. In addition, enslavement was a punishment which could be meted out against those who violated the law or were unable to settle their debts. Slaves were also given as tributary gifts by a subordinate state or by a neighboring state which sought to avoid occupation. In general there was a strong connection between warfare and slavery, and prisoners of war were usually enslaved. In a sense, slavery was a continuation of war by other means. By enslaving the people who had been defeated, their inferiority and humiliation were made manifest to all. But slaves were of course a commodity too, and it was as a commodity that they were traded across West Africa and along the caravan routes crossing the Sahara. The revenue derived from the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean, which began in the sixteenth-century, was more than anything what helped make both Benin and the Asante into powerful empires. They did not suffer from the slave trade, that is, but on the contrary they benefited greatly from it.

How some 12 million people were traded.

Triangular trade.

Indeed, it was even possible to offer oneself as a slave, seeking the protection that a master could provide.

Interresting how it necessarily will mean something different in a society where no one works for a wage.

It all came to an end in 1807 when the slave trade was abolished within the British empire. The Asante state loses tax revenue and power. Traders along the coast start to engage with the British. The British Gold Coast is created and then the entire Astante kingdom is taken over.

The very meaning of “slave” in the African context is markedly different from popular conceptions, and to grasp the nature of slavery, you must erase images of shackles and disregard the notion of slave as a commodity lacking status. In this vein some Africanists have gone as far as to employ phrases such as “adopted dependent”, “captive”, or “surf” to distinguish African slavery from other types. Enslavement here was typically not perpetual, as the enslaved could often be ransomed back to their kin through a slave merchant, and the status of slave was not passed down from generation to generation. Customs also prohibited separating families of slaves, and it was not uncommon for subsequent generations of slaves to become free members of the kinship group they once served. Slaves enjoyed ownership of some of the crops they produced. In West Africa more broadly, records indicate that slaves worked in a variety of areas, mostly alongside their owners as administrators, soldiers, royal advisors, farmers, household guards, and trade assistants. Beyond this, slaves enjoyed free movement and were permitted to cultivate any open land. By and large slaves held a distinct social status within society – a class of loyal, dependent assistants.