As I have been researching the history of West Africa, I have noticed that there have been a LOT of wars, skirmishes, raids, conflicts. Empires were built, others collapsed. There was also a lot of animosity between different groups of people. And I began to connect the dots to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and I didn’t like the conclusions I was drawing. But it is a nasty fact that between 1630 and 1900, 10-20 million people were sold to Europeans. Those kinds of numbers imply a complicity with the arrangement that spanned over most of West Africa.
In Ghana, politician and educator Samuel Sulemana Fuseini has acknowledged that his Asante ancestors accumulated their great wealth by abducting, capturing, and kidnapping Africans and selling them as slaves. Likewise, Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Awoonor has written: “I believe there is a great psychic shadow over Africa, and it has much to do with our guilt and denial of our role in the slave trade. We too are blameworthy in what was essentially one of the most heinous crimes in human history.”
OK, so let’s look at it honestly.
Slavery has existed in Africa since the time of the Egyptians, (remember Moses?) and well before. And slavery was a part of the economic structure of some societies for many centuries. In early Islamic states of the western Sudan, including Ghana (750–1076), Mali (1235–1645), Segou (1712–1861), and Songhai (1275–1591), about a third of the population were enslaved. Now, slavery in historical Africa was practiced in many different forms and some of these do not clearly fit the definitions of slavery elsewhere in the world. Debt slavery, enslavement of war captives, military slavery, and criminal slavery were all practiced in various parts of Africa. Pawnship or debt bondage slavery, involves the use of people as collateral to secure the repayment of debt. Slave labor is performed by the debtor or relative of the debtor (usually a child). Pawnship was a common form of collateral in West Africa. It involved the pledge of a person, or a member of that person’s family, to service another person providing credit. Pawnship was related to, yet distinct from, slavery in most conceptualizations because the arrangement could include limited, specific terms of services to be provided and because kinship ties would protect the person from being sold into slavery. Pawnship was a common practice throughout West Africa prior to European contact, including amongst the Akan people (Ghana, Ivory Coast) the Ewe people (Togo, Ghana, Benin) the Ga people (Togo, Ghana) the Yoruba people (Nigeria) and the Edo people (Nigeria) In modified forms, it also existed amongst the Efik people (Nigeria) the Igbo people, (Nigeria) the Ijaw people (Nigeria) and the Fon people (Benin). Enslaved people of the Songhai Empire were used primarily in agriculture; they paid tribute to their masters in crop and service but they were slightly restricted in custom and convenience. Among the Ashanti and Yoruba, a third of the population consisted of enslaved people.
The increase of demand for slaves due to the expansion of European colonial powers to the Americas made the slave trade much more lucrative to the West African powers, leading to the establishment of a number of actual West African Empires on slave trade. There were over 173 city-states and kingdoms in the African regions affected by the slave trade between 1502 and 1853, when Brazil became the last Atlantic import nation to outlaw the slave trade. Of those 173, no fewer than 68 could be deemed nation states with political and military infrastructures that enabled them to dominate their neighbours. These included the Oyo Empire of the Yoruba people (Nigeria) the Kong Empire of the Dyula people (Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso), the Kingdom of Benin of the Edo people (Nigeria) the Imamate of Futa Jallon of the Fulani people (Guinea), the Imamate of Futa Toro of the Fulani people (Senegal) the Kingdom of Koya of the Temne people (Sierra Leone), the Kingdom of Khasso of the Fulani people (Senegal, Mali) the Kingdom of Kaabu of the Mandinke people (Senegal, Guinea-Bissau) the Fante Confederacy (Ghana) the Ashanti Confederacy of the Akan people (Ghana, Ivory Coast) and the kingdom of Dahomey (Benin).
With the rise of a large commercial slave trade, driven by European needs, enslaving your enemy became less a consequence of war, and more and more a reason to go to war.
According to John K. Thornton, Europeans usually bought enslaved people who were captured in endemic warfare between African states. There were also Africans who had made a business out of capturing Africans from neighboring ethnic groups or war captives and selling them.
Historians estimate that ten million of these abducted Africans “never even made it to the slave ships. Most died on the march to the sea”—still chained, yoked, and shackled by their African captors—before they ever laid eyes on a white slave trader.
Senegal’s president Abdoulaye Wade, “himself the descendant of generations of slave-owning [and slave-trading] African kings,” urged Europeans, Americans, and Africans to acknowledge publicly and teach openly about their shared responsibility for the Atlantic slave trade. Wade’s remarks came months after the release of Adanggaman, by Ivory Coast director Roger Gnoan M’bala, “the first African film to look at African involvement in the slave trade with the West.” “It’s up to us,” M’Bala insisted, “to talk about slavery, open the wounds of what we’ve always hidden and stop being puerile when we put responsibility on others . . . . In our own oral tradition, slavery is left out purposefully because Africans are ashamed when we confront slavery. Let’s wake up and look at ourselves through our own image.”