History of Slavery & Ancient Africa




History of Slavery & Ancient Africa


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History of Slavery & Ancient Africa

History of Slavery & Ancient Africa:

Slavery was neither a new term nor a new action when Europeans began to enslave West Africans. Slavery had been a part of civilization for centuries. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and even West Africans themselves engaged in slavery and slave trading.

Prior to the beginning of the European slave trade, a person might become a slave because the person was a: prisoner of war, criminal, or debtor. In addition, slaves in ancient history were protected by laws and customs. Many were allowed to: earn money, own land, intermarry with their captors, develop skills, and gain freedom after many years of faithful service.

Unlike the system of slavery practiced in the New World, ancient forms of slavery did not deny the humanity of the slaves nor did it rank them inferior because of color, for slaves in ancient times came in all colors, races, and creeds.

European Slavery:

The period of Europeans enslaving Africans actually began in 1442 when a Portuguese sailor named Pedro Gonzalez brought ten Africans to Prince Henry of Portugal. Portugal and other Europeans powers were looks for a shorter route to India and the Far East, hoping to bypass the Italian city-states and Muslim dominated trade routes by sailing along the coast of Africa. It was at this time that Portugal established trade with the west coast of Africa, marking the beginning of the slave trade. After Vasco da Gamma rounded the Cape of Good Hope to India, the Portuguese eventually gained a monopoly of the coastal trade of both Eastern and Western Africa.

African slaves in Portugal were granted the same rights as those of white bondspersons in Europe. Slavery under early Europeans was mild. So even during this time when Europeans began import African slaves, slaves were still granted some rights. At its height, early Portuguese slavery required no more than about 1,000 importations per year. Slavery did not yet involve feelings of racism or racial superiority because the Europeans were importing so few slaves.

Portugal held the monopoly on slave trade only for a short period. Other nations ultimately vied for control. Spain, the Netherlands, and eventually England took control of the slave trade.

New World Slavery & Voyages:

The discovery and conquest of the New World started the modern version of slavery. Many Native Americans were enslaved and worked to death. African slaves were then imported. Slavery was then transformed from a minor element in African-European commerce to the basis of its very existence.

The European slave trade in the New World allowed slave traders to make fortunes in the trade of human flesh. European profits from the trade were enormous. The profit on a round trip voyage ranged anywhere from 50 to 100 percent. The slavery business was so profitable that by the 1780s merchants that also included Americans were transporting approximately 150,000 Africans a year to the New World.

The triangular trade is another term for slave trade. Rum from the West Indies was sent to New England and Europe. In exchange, Europeans sent manufactured goods, weapons, and luxury items to Africa and bartered for slaves. The last part of the trade (slaves to the West Indies) was known as the Middle Passage.

Africans themselves took part in the slave trade in order to obtain firearms and European goods. Even those African rulers who did not agree or want to support slave trade were forced to participate in order to remain on the throne and keep their subjects from becoming captives. Slave raids were carried on by various communities as far as 300 miles inland. Before slaves were brought to the New World via the Middle Passage, slave raiders would attack villages or simply steal unsuspecting Africans who could bring a good price. All of the captives were marched to the slave markets on the west coast of Africa. Here they were sold to agents who in turn sold them to captains of slave ships. The Africans were held in fortresses until the captains were able to secure a shipload. Two such fortresses were Goree Island (on the coast of Senegal) and Elmina Castle (on the coast of Ghana). Both structures are still standing today. Thus, the Africans were manipulated by the Europeans to engage in the selling of their countrymen in order to save themselves from a similar fate.

There were two schools of thought on the slavery vessels’ Middle Passage. The tight packers crammed in slaves in the hope of getting as many to the New World alive as possible. The loose packers put their faith in the fact that the fewer slaves one carried, the better conditions, and therefore one could expect to get a greater number to the New World alive. However, many captains thought that the conditions of slaves crossing the Atlantic on any ship, whether loosely or tightly packed were deplorable and in humane.

Slaves were bunched together in the hull of the ship in spaces that were large enough only to allow them to lie prone. They were forced to wear chains and stay below deck the majority of the trip which took between 40 and 60 days to complete. Schools of sharks followed the ships waiting for dead slaves to be thrown overboard or for some slaves to simply end the misery by jumping off the ship. It is estimated that 50 million Africans were victims of the slave trade but that only 15 million actually reached the New World. The others failed to survive the slave raids and Middle Passage. For those that survived transport, the suffering had just begun.

Impacts of Slavery:

The impact is incalculable. The slave trade: disrupted the political and economic systems of Africa, fostered warfare among African tribes, disrupted African social patterns, separated families, destroyed cultural traditions, was brutal and inhumane, and stripped Africans of individual worth and dignity.


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