Often when we think of African slavery, we think of the African slaves in the United States in the 1800s. However, slavery was common throughout much of the world for most of human history. This was also true of Ancient Africa where slavery existed in most of the ancient empires and civilizations on the continent.
Slavery played an important role in the history of Ancient Africa. As many as one third of the people living in many African societies were slaves. Slaves were considered the lowest caste of society, but their rights and roles varied depending on the society where they lived.
A slave market in North Africa by David Roberts
There were a number of different ways that a person could become a slave in Ancient Africa. Many slaves were captives of war. These slaves were often sold to faraway lands in order to keep them from escaping back home. Sometimes people became slaves for a period of time in order to pay off debts or they were forced into slavery for committing a crime. Children born to slaves also became slaves.
What jobs did slaves have?
Slaves worked a variety of jobs including farm labor, household servants, and carrying goods. Some slaves worked under harsh conditions in the salt mines of North Africa. These slaves had short life expectancies. Getting sent to the salt mine to work was like getting a death sentence.
How were slaves treated?
Slaves were treated differently depending on the society and region where they were enslaved. In some societies, slaves were treated well. They had rights and were often treated like members of the family. In other societies, slaves were used like property and were beaten when they didn't work hard enough.
The Slave Trade
Beginning around 700 CE, the slave trade became an important part of the African economy. There were two major events in the history of the African slave trade.
- Arab Slave Trade - The Arab Slave trade began in the 700s CE after Islam had taken over much of north Africa. Slaves were captured in central Africa and then transported across the Sahara to be sold at slave markets along the Mediterranean. They were then transported to the Middle East and Asia. The Arab slave trade became a major part of the African economy for hundreds of years.
- European Slave Trade - When Europeans arrived in Africa in the 1500s, they found an established slave trade. A new market of slaves opened up to supply slaves to work in the Americas. Trade markets opened up along the west coast of Africa to serve this market. The demand for slaves was high. Slave merchants began to raid far inland to capture slaves to be sold to Europeans. Historians believe that around 12 million slaves were sold to European and American slave traders between 1500 and the late 1800s.
The slave trade began to slow down in the mid-1800s. However, slavery and the slave trade had been a part of African society and the economy for over 1000 years. This made it difficult to bring to an end. Slavery continued in some form well into the 1930s when it was finally abolished throughout most of Africa.
Interesting Facts about Slavery in Ancient Africa
- Slaves were transported to America in horrible conditions packed together on slave ships. Around 10% of the slaves died on their way to America.
- Getting captured and becoming a slave was a real fear for many Africans living in West Africa during the early 1800s.
- Slaves were a major source of wealth for many African merchants, leaders, and warlords.
- A former slave, Mansa Sakura, became Emperor of the Mali Empire in the 1200s.
- In some African societies, slaves could own property, including their own slaves.
- As the slave trade grew, some wars began with the main purpose being to capture slaves to sell.
To learn more about Ancient Africa:
History >> Ancient Africa