Development of Slavery in Africa

Learning Objective: To identify the major factors in the evolution of slavery in Africa

  • Slavery – Definition and Characteristics


  • Slavery embodies a servile relationship, and a status of dependency. It involves some major features such as


  • property component + chattel with a soul
  • alien identity
  • involuntary condition
  • Loss of control over productive capacities.


  • In essence, a slave lives and works and dresses and behaves at the owner’s command.



  • Evolution of Slavery in Africa


  • Pre-1500


  • Prior to 1500 in many parts of Africa, slavery was marginal to society.


  • It took the form of kinship slavery, whereby slaves were acquired to expand families.


  • As such, slaves were absorbed into families, and they performed the same functions as other family members.


  • Such slavery existed together with other forms of dependency like pawnship, clientage, and serfdom.


  • Between 700 and 1500


  • Islam spread into some parts of Africa, including the Western and Central Sudan, the Red Sea Coast, and East African seaboard.


  • The Muslim influence would impact kinship slavery.


  • Essentially, slavery became a means of converting non-Muslims.


  • Slaves performed new tasks in Muslim Africa, similar to their duties prevailing in the Muslim world outside Africa.


  • Slaves were used in government;
  • the military
  • Domestic service as eunuchs and concubines.


  • Those features would distinguish slaves from freepersons in Muslim Africa, and mark an intermediate stage in development of slavery from a social feature to an economic institution.


  • The Muslim features were bound to affect slavery in non-Muslim Africa, even if marginally, as trade was a widespread economic activity in Africa.





  • Between 1500 and 1800 many parts of Africa, especially western Africa came into contact with Europeans, and this contact would affect slavery in the region.


  • The European contact with Africa was associated with demand and supply of slaves for use in agricultural plantations and mining ventures in the Caribbean, and the Americas.


  • This enterprise increased the number of slaves in Africa, and clearly transformed slavery from a social feature to an economic institution.


  • Thus productive slavery was established in Africa.


  • With abolition of the slave trade and development of legitimate commerce in Africa during the 19th century, productive slavery rather developed, as slave owners exploited slaves for production of export goods such as cotton, coffee, peanuts, oil palm, rubber, and cotton.


  • In many parts of Africa slavery began as a social phenomenon, whereby outsiders were acquired to build up families.


  • This feature would evolve into economic institution on African contact with the outside world and demand for African labour in major systems of production.



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