The significance of the slave trade for African history has been a subject of debate among historians. The European slave trade in west and central Africa marked a radical break in the history of Africa because it influenced transforming African societies. Slavery in Africa existed in many forms: debt slavery, military slavery, prostitution slavery, enslavement for war captives, and plantation slavery and other forms of slavery. Nwokeji (2010) asserted that the slave trade was important in transforming Africans from a small population of slaves in 1600 into a majority by 1800 and 1850; hence the number of slaves in Africa surpassed those in the Americas.
The history of slavery involved the interaction between the slave trade, enslavement, and the domestic use of slaves in Africa. This interaction led to the emergence of a sophisticated system of slavery that was surrounded by the political economy of several regions of Africa. The system was in constant expansion until the last part of the 19th century. As the process of enslavement increased, the slave trade also grew because of new and larger markets, and the use of African slaves became common. Because slavery in Africa had links to the outside world, the African political structures that were based on slavery became stronger.
As early as the fifteenth century, when slavery in Africa begun, Africa entered into a new relationship with the outside world, especially Europe, and this led to depopulation in Africa. Because African slaves were transported through the Trans-Atlantic to Europe, Europe became wealthy; hence the Europeans established trade for African captives. The total number of Africans who were forcibly transported across the Atlantic is not precise, but it is estimated to be twenty-five million people. Many of the slaves and the communities that slaves were obtained from resisted because they were acquired by violent means and transported in inhuman conditions. Many people died on their journey to the foreign land.
About twenty-five million Africans transported to Europe because of slavery meant that it hurt the growth of the population in Africa. Estimations have it that in the period between 1500 and1900, the population of Africa was either decreasing or stagnant, but it never grew (Green, 2011). This implies that Africa is the only continent in which its population never expanded, and this was the leading factor in economic underdevelopment. Also important to note is that the slave trade, mainly transatlantic slave trade created a ground for African colonialism since European powers started showing interest in Africa. It is because of slavery that today there is an unequal relationship between Africa and the European powers and other world's big powers.
Slave trade also has a lot in African history since, with its immediate effect of colonialism, humans and other precious resources were taken from Africa. This contributed to capitalist development, and European nations benefited a lot as they became wealthy. Additionally, the unequal relationship that was slowly created as a result of the slave trade was justified by the ideology of racism. The notion was that Africans were inferior, and Europeans were superior. This ideology of European supremacy over Africans was perpetuated by colonialism.
Afrocentric scholars have argued that the economy of Africa before the fifteenth century could have been ahead of Europe. Africa had many minerals such as gold mines in great empires of West Africa, Mali, Ghana, and Songhay. Europeans acquired these rich sites and making an economic take-off in the 13th and 14th centuries (Pearson, 2003). Historians have affirmed that in the 14th century, the West African empire of Mali was large compared to Western Europe, and it was one of the wealthiest and most powerful states in the world.
On the side of Africans, the slave trade was mainly business for the wealthy or the rulers and powerful merchants who cared for their self-interests rather than those of other Africans. During that time, there did not exist the concept of being an Africa, but it was business, as usual, that is, slavery for personal gains. Loyalty and identity were based on kinship and membership to a particular society or kingdom. Wealthy merchants from Africa were able to demand several consumer articles in exchange for slaves and gold. As slaves were taken and as they became an essential commodity in trade, African societies were disrupted because some slaves were acquired through warfare. Some Africans preyed other African communities so that they can get firearms from Europeans in exchange.
Problems of Enslavement
The history of slavery is not sweet for Africans due to harsh mistreatments and subjection to forced labor in European and American plantations. Right from the time of capture to shipment, Africans were mistreated, and some decided to resist. During shipment, several Africans lost their lives since others chose to commit suicide by jumping into the Atlantic to evade harsh mistreatments in the foreign land. Two of the individuals who were affected by slavery are Queen Njinga and Rhoda Phillips. King Njinga was in control of the kingdom of Ndongo in present-day Angola after the death of his brother in 1624. Because the Portuguese tried to colonize Angola and do slave trade, she fled in the face of a Portuguese attack. Still, eventually, she was conquered in a nearby kingdom of Matamba. Rhoda was sold when she was one year old, and her enslaver was Thomas Gleaves.
As they narrate, slaves had different ways of coping with the problems of enslavement. One of the ways was constant resistance to harsh treatment. Africans resisted every day. Daylife resistance in the workplace was seen. Even though their freedoms were denied, African slaves used a variety of strategies to contest the authority of their masters and assert their right to have control over their lives. African slaves knew that they were essential commodities to their slaveholders; hence they tried to resist. On the other hand, slaveholders largely depended on slave labor to keep their businesses running; thus, slaves at some point used slowdowns and absenteeism to negotiate the terms of their labor.
In some cases, many slaves defied the system of slavery by attempting to escape even though escape was dangerous and uncertain. As Rhodes reported, in almost every year, thousands of slaves fled to the free states and other territories. On their way, they got help from slaves on nearby plantations and farms. Slaveholders were at the risk of a possible large-scale rebellion. Africans knew that through constant resistance, slaveholders could be persuaded to alter some of the harsh conditions that they subjected Africans.
African slaves working in plantations also encouraged each other, and they motivated each other to work. They also composed songs in their native languages in which they passed a message for everyone concerning the next move to liberate themselves. Some of the songs motivated them to work hard and impress their masters so that they cannot continue mishandling them. However, this was short-lived since slaveholders continued to suppress them. Songs played a significant role in that they brought the slaves together and made them to momentarily forget their stress and have a peace of mind amidst harsh treatment. Through songs, they created a strong bond and increased their urge to rebel. Songs encouraged them not to fearing death and waking up to fight for their rights.
Also, as Queen Njinga demonstrated, some African slaves decided to cooperate with their slaveholders more, especially women who could not withstand the harsh treatments. Women chose to work as maids and other home duties to please their masters. However, they too were mistreated because some of them were raped, abused, or subjected to laborers' work that demanded too much of their energy and time. Some slaves who worked in plantations also cooperated to reduce the wrath of their slaveholders.
Additionally, in some cases, slaves had to negotiate with their masters on important matters. They had to negotiate for their rights and freedom, such as a right to marriage, the right to better working conditions, among other rights and freedoms, which were essential. In places where rebellions failed, negotiations could work for them. As Queen and Rhodes affirmed, African slaves did everything possible in the foreign land to cope with the problems of enslavement (Pearson, 2003). They left nothing at the chance and through their constant efforts they managed to air their views and several waves of movements were witnessed were human rights activists came into their aid. Perhaps if they could not use various means to air their concerns, it could have taken long for them to get out of captivity.
Pearson, M. N. (2003). The Indian Ocean. Routledge. http://www.kingauthor.co/books/Michael%20Pearson/The%20Indian%20Ocean/The%20Indian%20Ocean%20-%20Michael%20Pearson.pdf
Green, T. (2011). The rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589 (Vol. 118). Cambridge University Press. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=wRM2aO9xey0C&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=Green,+T.+(2011).+The+rise+of+the+trans-Atlantic+slave+trade+in+Western+Africa,+1300%E2%80%931589+(Vol.+118).+Cambridge+University+Press.&ots=Bx8fVR277O&sig=EiS2lawite-1nXj7GSxzNZ_HdDU
Nwokeji, G. U. (2010). The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra: An African Society in the Atlantic World. Cambridge University Press. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/bd64/4a4464f4c3dd7d9b3d067caf879052c2c5fa.pdf
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