A few episodes ago we talked about all of these massive powerful trading kingdoms that were thriving in Africa. Many near the Sahara and along the east coast converted to Islam and became major players in Afro-Eurasian trade. They continued to be a major component of new trade routes in the Early Modern Era, but in a way they weren’t expecting and that spelled disaster for the African continent. Let’s talk about the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Why did Africa become the major source of slaves? It’s a question that no one ever really asks. We just learn that slaves came from Africa. Isn’t that problematic that no one ever questions this? Slaves could have come from Europe, or the Middle East, or Asia. And they did – in much smaller numbers.
But after the discovery of the New World, Africa becomes the major supplier of slaves, especially in the new trans-Atlantic trade system, mostly because slavery was already relatively common in Africa before Europeans arrived. There was a thriving trans-Saharan slave trade from the 10th to the 15th century – during the kingdom of Mali, for example. And slaves from eastern and southern Africa were traded across the Indian Ocean out of the Swahili city states. So why Africa?
This is a murky question with an even murkier answer, but there are a few components that play into it. For one, the concept of private property was virtually nonexistent in Africa. Without the ability to distinguish your place in society based on the amount of land you own, you would do it by owning other things – like people who served you. And a lot of times, the amount of land you were given to work and provide for your family was based on the amount of labor you could gather – so an easy way to rise in prominence and get more for your kinship group was to gather free labor.
Also, a lot of Africa’s wealth lies in natural resources that are difficult to obtain – think gold, salt, and other minerals. They require an enormous amount of cheap manual labor so kingdoms would use conquered people or prisoners to work in the mines. So the African economy was already built around slavery when Europeans arrived. And one of the ways that these African trading kingdom tried to adapt to the rise of the west is by supplying them with slaves, the way they had to Muslims and other Asian civilizations. The only thing that had changed – which they didn’t realize at first – was the scope.
Earlier slavery vs. atlantic slavery
Up until this point, slavery was common but most slaves worked on small farms or in the household. And I’m not discounting that slavery is always bad, but often earlier slaves were treated like part of the family. Roman slaves were buried with the family they served, for example. And this idea of hereditary slavery was pretty rare. Meaning, you might be a slave, but that didn’t condemn all of your offspring to slavery for eternity. And even though a lot of slaves came from Africa, the institution of slavery was not racialized like it became in the Americas. For example, Europeans had enslaved each other at times before 1492.
But when the Europeans arrived, some African kingdoms especially along the west coast took advantage by trading in various natural resources, like they had for centuries. When the Europeans expressed an interest in slaves, they sold people like they had always done. But Europeans needed so many more slaves than any other civilization in world history. And they did not honor many of the trade agreements that had already been negotiated, eventually seeing all Africans as fair game. They were able to assert this dominance thanks to superior weapons, especially guns.
Soon, the Middle Passage – or route that took enslaved Africans to the Americas – was well established and its estimated that over the course of the slave trade, 11 million Africans were taken to the New World. Almost 2 million died on the journey – packed into the hulls of the ships, without fresh air or sanitary living conditions. Almost half of the enslaved Africans brought to the New World went to Brazil to work on the sugar plantations.
Remember how the Chinese figured out how to package tea using paper so that it lasted longer? The Europeans got hooked on the stuff. Sugar had been known to the Old World, but it was incredibly rare and expensive. But the American environment – especially the Caribbean – was ideal for sugarcane production, which could be also converted into molasses and rum.
Sugar was important as a luxury good to trade and prove your wealth but also as a commodity that Europeans wanted to improve the taste of their tea and food. It’s that simple. Over years, I’ve looked for a more satisfying answer to the question of why people were willing to conquer, subjugate, and enslave entire continents for things like sugar and tobacco and I’ve never found an answer that makes me understand it. Turns out status and privilege are the only motivation most people need.
All along the way, Africans resisted enslavement. On the ships, there are many accounts of attempted mutinies. The most famous example is the Amistad. On a journey from Cuba to Brazil 53 spaces successfully rebelled, killed the slave traders and took control of the ship. They were intercepted by an American ship and put on trial – former president John Quincy Adams defended them. They were found not guilty and set free.
Sadly this outcome was rare and many Africans found that the most effective form of resistance was simply taking away the Europeans wealth – meaning themselves. It has been said that sharks started following the slave ships in anticipation of the dead bodies that would be thrown, or jump overboard. So many people jumped off the ships that they started putting netting all the way around to catch people.
In many of the African religions, the afterlife was your homeland – so when you died you returned to Africa (think about that scene in Black Panther where he is buried and visits his ancestors). So to many enslaved Africans, death was a far greater alternative. But your body had to be whole to be able to travel to the afterlife, so when anyone on the ship died, either by suicide or by other causes, the slave traders would cut up their body and scatter them in the ocean, trying to eliminate suicide as an enticing alternative by taking away their spirit’s ability to travel home. This fact is especially horrifying – African people were enslaved even in death.
Today we associate slavery with black people. And in the not so distant past, racists have justified the subjugation of Black people by arguing that they were less civilized or somehow more suited to manual labor. Hopefully you’ve seen at this point that this is just not historically accurate.
African civilization was thriving before the slave trade and the only reason why most manual work around the world was being done by people of color was because the Europeans made it that way. This is why it’s important that we constantly ask Why? when we learn history. Don’t ever assume that the way the world is now is the way it’s always been. And it’s definitely not the way it has to be.