Slave Trade

Throughout history SLAVERY has been a feature of many societies in all parts of the world, including Africa. Some Africans were enslaved within their own homelands. Far more, however, were carried off as slaves to other parts of Africa or around the world through the slave trade. The slave trade was a type of commerce in which enslaved humans were bought, sold, or traded as goods or property.

It is impossible to know for certain how many millions of Africans suffered the brutality and cruelty of the slave trade before it came to an end in the 1800s. In terms of forcible relocation, the greatest number of people were taken from western and central Africa and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to European colonies in the Americas. However, slave traders had carried off people from other parts of Africa for centuries before the transatlantic slave trade began.

To those enslaved, the slave trade brought profound suffering. To some of the slave trade operators, it brought great wealth. The slave trade also had various long-term effects, including the establishment of African populations on other continents, the weakening of African societies that were robbed of many productive young people, and warfare among African states, some of which supplied captives to foreign slave traders.


Slave trading occurred in most parts of Africa. However, distinctive forms of the trade developed in the northern, western, central, and eastern parts of the continent. Each of these regions was also the source of slaves for specific foreign markets.

Slave Trade

Northern Africa

The northern branch of the African slave trade arose after Arabs invaded and conquered North Africa in the A.D. 600s. Slavery became a feature of the Islamic civilization established by the Arabs along Africa’s Mediterranean coast and in the Near East. At first, most of the enslaved people brought to Islamic areas came from central and eastern Europe. They were supplied by Italian agents, who undertook the trade despite the Catholic church’s ban on the selling of Christian slaves to Muslims.

After about the year 1000, the states of Europe became stronger and better able to protect their citizens from slavery. As a result the supply of European slaves to Muslim traders dwindled. To replace these slaves, North African merchants, who were already engaged in commerce across the SAHARA DESERT with western Africa, began acquiring more and more black captives from that region, along with such goods as gold, ostrich feathers, and ivory.

The largest part of the northern African slave trade involved camel caravans organized by the BERBER and Arabic-speaking peoples of North Africa and the Sahara region. Some of these caravans crossed the western Sahara, carrying enslaved black Africans from what is now MALI, NIGER, NIGERIA, GHANA, and other parts of western Africa to settlements in Arab North Africa.

Other caravans began farther east in Darfur in what is now SUDAN. They carried captives from the southern NILE RIVER valley, ETHIOPIA, and southern Sudan north to EGYPT along a route called the Forty Day Road. Most of the slaves who traveled these desert routes had to walk, and many died along the way. Another branch of the northern African slave trade took captives on foot eastward through Ethiopia to ports on the Red Sea. From there they were shipped to the Arabian peninsula and places farther east.

Historians estimate that 3.5 to 4 million captives crossed the Sahara and another 2 million crossed the Red Sea between the 700s and the 1900s. Most of these victims of the Saharan and Red Sea slave trades were settled in North Africa, Arabia, the lands around the Persian Gulf, or southern Asia. Others, however, remained within the Sahara region, northern Sudan, or Ethiopia. Among the slaves were many women, destined to become domestic laborers or concubines. Enslaved men were acquired to work in agriculture, mining, shipping, fishing, and for other manual labor. In addition, some rulers in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa used black male slaves as soldiers.

Western Africa

Beginning in the 1400s European powers established colonies in a number of areas, first on islands in the Atlantic Ocean, later in the Americas, and finally in Africa. In order to exploit the vast resources of these new colonies, especially those in the Americas, Europeans needed many workers. They turned to slave labor to meet this need.

Colonizers in the Americas first tried to enslave the native peoples, but their attempts ended in failure. Overworked and infected with European diseases, the Native Americans were nearly wiped out in many places. As a result, the colonizers had to bring in labor from other regions. European traders were already familiar with western Africa as a source of goods such as gold, pepper, and copper and had even acquired some black slaves there. With the colonization of the Americas, the trickle of black slaves grew into a flood, and a slave trade developed that involved both Africans and Europeans.

Europeans rarely ventured inland on slave raids, leaving that part of the business to Africans based on the coast of western Africa. Many of the captives came from interior regions, and nearly all were acquired by violence—through war, raids by organized groups of slave-takers, and kidnappings by individuals or small groups. Those taken were marched to the coast and held in captivity until a European slave ship arrived.

African slaves became part of a highly profitable commercial network that is often called the triangle trade. On the first leg of the triangle, ships carried European manufactured goods such as cloth and cheap guns to Africa to be exchanged for slaves. The second leg of the triangle, known as the Middle Passage, took the enslaved Africans to the Americas. The majority of them ended up on sugar plantations on the island colonies of the Caribbean. Others went to sugar and coffee plantations in Brazil and to tobacco and cotton plantations in Britain’s southern American colonies. The third leg of the trade carried sugar, rum, tobacco, and other plantation crops to Europe.

The Middle Passage was a fearful ordeal for captive Africans. Chained slaves were jammed into crowded, poorly ventilated cargo holds for the voyage, which lasted from three to six weeks. On average, 15 to 30 percent of the human cargo died of disease, abuse, or exhaustion during the trip. Of the enslaved people who survived the journey, many died of overwork or malnutrition within a few years of their arrival in the Americas.

The transatlantic slave trade lasted from the 1440s to the 1860s and was at its peak from 1700 to 1850. Historians estimate that at least 13 million people were shipped from Africa to the Americas as slaves. Most of them were between 15 and 30 years old. About two thirds of the captives were male—slaveholders in the Americas preferred men for field labor.

Of the 13 million Africans forced to make the overseas journey to the Americas, the great majority came from the coastal region of western Africa, between SENEGAL and CAMEROON. So many captives were taken from the lands between the Volta River in Ghana and the NIGER RIVER in Nigeria that Europeans called that region the Slave Coast.

Central Africa

Central Africa also contributed a steadily increasing share of the captives sent to European colonies in the Americas. In the 1500s about one out of five slaves in the transatlantic trade came from the west-central African coast between CONGO and ANGOLA. After 1800 nearly half of the slaves shipped from Africa originated in that region.

The Portuguese began exporting slaves from central Africa in the 1500s, when they established sugar plantations on the island of SÃO TOMÉ off the western coast of Africa. By the 1560s the Portuguese had brought 30,000 slaves to the island, mostly from Angola. In the century that followed, they developed a large-scale slave trade south of the CONGO RIVER, aided by bands of young African warriors who conducted raids to gather slaves.

By the 1600s Brazil had replaced São Tomé as the principal market for Portuguese slave traders. The vast sugar plantations of Brazil required ever larger numbers of African slaves, and the discovery of gold and diamonds in Brazil in the 1700s increased the demand for labor even more. In the late 1600s English, French, and Dutch slavers also began operating along the Atlantic coast of central Africa, shipping enslaved people primarily to sugar plantations in the West Indies.

As the demand for slaves grew, some groups of central Africans became more deeply involved in the trade, opening new territories in the interior as sources of slaves. Warlords led raids into the population centers of these territories and sent caravans of captives back to the coast. The slave trade eventually included enslaved Africans from regions as distant as the center of the continent, 900 miles from the coast.

By the 1700s nearly all societies in central Africa owed their power either to their control of slaving routes or to the defensive strengths they had developed to protect themselves from slave raids. African kingdoms near the coast gave up raiding and became go-betweens, buying slaves from the zones of violence in the interior and selling them to buyers on the coast. To profit from the commerce in slaves, some local rulers in central Africa forced their subjects into debt and then condemned them to slavery when they could not repay what they owed.

Eastern Africa

Enslaved people from eastern Africa were shipped out of ports on the Indian Ocean coast for centuries. The first evidence of a significant slave trade in the region dates from after the rise of Islam in the A.D. 600s. The Abbasid Caliphate that formed in what is now Iraq and Iran imported African slaves for use as soldiers, farm laborers, and domestic workers. Muslim traders also sent Africans farther east, to Indonesia and China.

In the centuries that followed, slaves may have been exported from eastern Africa, but the Arabs who established trading communities along the coast were mainly interested in gold and ivory. After the Portuguese arrived in the area and gained control of the coast in the 1500s, they carried some enslaved Africans to Portuguese colonies in Asia. However, slave raiding and slave trading did not become major economic activities in eastern Africa until the mid-1700s, when new demands for labor appeared.

Beginning in the late 1600s, the state of Oman on the Arabian coast expanded its cultivation of date palms and also started plantations along the coast of KENYA. In the early 1700s the French established Caribbeanstyle sugar plantations on the Indian Ocean islands of MAURITIUS and RÉUNION. These developments created a growing demand for slave labor. To meet the demand, new slave markets arose in eastern Africa. The largest were in the southern part of the coast, but by the 1800s virtually every port on the eastern coast was involved in the slave trade to some degree. From these bases, Arab, SWAHILI, and African slave traders conducted raids and buying expeditions into the interior.

Most victims of the eastern African slave trade came from MOZAMBIQUE, TANZANIA, the region around Lake Malawi, eastern Congo, and MADAGASCAR. Some of those who passed through the coastal slave markets were sent overseas or to the offshore islands; others went to Arab-operated plantations in ZANZIBAR, Kenya, and southern SOMALIA. During the first half of the 1800s, slave traders from Brazil also appeared in the slave markets of eastern Africa, seeking labor for Brazil’s booming plantation economy. The African rulers of Madagascar and Dutch settlers in SOUTH AFRICA also imported slaves from eastern Africa. This slave trade in this region reached its height between 1770 and 1870, with exports perhaps reaching 30,000 people a year.


Although every age had some compassionate or just-minded individuals who opposed the traffic in human beings, putting an end to this ancient and widespread evil required broad public support. Abolition— the movement to end slavery—began to attract support among Europeans in the late 1700s, largely because of moral outrage against slavery. In the late 1800s the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Islamic North Africa and the Near East, also moved toward abolishing the slave trade as a result of internal reform movements and pressure from European powers. In the end the slave trade was eventually stamped out partly for religious or moral reasons and partly for economic ones. Four hundred years of violent slave trading, however, had left deep marks on the African population.


The late 1700s saw the growth of European political philosophies that stressed the rights of all people to freedom and equality. At the same time Africans themselves fought against slavery and the slave trade, both through resistance in Africa and efforts to sway public opinion in Europe. Africans such as Olaudah EQUIANO and Ottobah Cugoano, former slaves from western Africa who lived in England, spoke and wrote about the cruelties of the slave trade and urged that it be outlawed. Other Africans performed the same role in France and the Americas. The personal stories of such individuals, told with eloquence and conviction, helped swell the ranks of the growing abolition movement.

While the abolition movement was gaining strength, far-reaching changes in industry and trade were reducing the economic rewards of slavery. The prices of raw materials such as sugar began to fall on world markets, but African traders and rulers were raising the price of slaves. These factors meant that slaveholders had to pay more for slaves whose output in labor was worth less in the marketplace. At the same time the rise of the Industrial Revolution encouraged bankers and other investors to put their money into factories, not plantations. British and European business leaders began to believe that the economic value of Africa in the future would be as a source of raw material for industry and a market for mass-produced factory goods rather than as a source of labor. From an economic point of view, abolition involved transforming Africans from slaves into customers for European goods.

In 1805 Denmark became the first country to make it illegal for its citizens to participate in the slave trade. Great Britain did the same two years later. The United States banned the slave trade in 1808, followed by the Netherlands in 1814 and France in 1817. In addition to abolishing the slave trade, Britain took on a policing role, sending naval vessels to the Atlantic coast of western Africa to seize slave ships. Britain did not succeed in stopping the trade immediately—in fact, the number of slaves shipped from western Africa rose during the 1820s and 1830s. In time, however, the combination of enforcement and reduced demand caused the slave trade to decrease significantly.

Outlawing the slave trade was only the first step in ending slavery. Great Britain abolished the institution of slavery and freed all slaves in 1834. By the time Brazil ended slavery in 1888, the institution had been outlawed throughout the Western world. Meanwhile, within the Ottoman Empire the period from the 1830s to the 1880s was a time of reform when upper-class, educated people began questioning slavery on moral grounds. During that time Ottoman rulers also came under increasing pressure from Great Britain and other European nations to abolish slavery. Britain took steps to choke off the trade routes that supplied the Ottoman empire with slaves. As a result, the Ottomans passed a series of laws between 1847 and 1908 ending the trade in both African and white slaves and officially abolishing slavery.

Even after the slave trade was outlawed, the traffic in slaves continued in some places, though on a greatly reduced scale. In addition, people remained in various forms of bondage in Africa and elsewhere. Such practices, however, had not only become illegal—they were internationally recognized as profoundly wrong and violations of HUMAN RIGHTS.

Long-Term Effects

The trade in African slaves brought about the largest forced movement of people in history. It established the basis for black populations in the Caribbean and in North and South America. At the same time, it disrupted social and political life in Africa and opened the door for European colonization of the continent.

The effects of the slave trade are well illustrated in western Africa, the source of most enslaved people in the transatlantic trade. When Europeans first began exchanging goods for gold, pepper, and other items along the western African coast, such commerce encouraged peaceful relations and trade among indigenous societies. Everyone benefited as these trade goods flowed smoothly among African groups and between Africans and Europeans.

The shift in European demand from gold, foodstuffs, and such products to slaves changed the relations among African groups and states. The prices Africans received for slaves made it more profitable for them to take captives from their neighbors than to establish networks for producing and selling other goods. In this way the slave trade encouraged strong states to raid weaker states for slaves. As a result, many African societies were torn by organized slave wars and general banditry. Successful slave-raiding and trading societies formed new states that were dominated by military groups and constantly at war with their neighbors.

Slave Exports from Central Africa

While the abolition movement achieved tremendous victories and did much good, in one way it had a negative effect on Africa. Abolition and the Christian reform movement with which it was closely linked gave Europeans a strong interest in the internal affairs of African states and an excuse to become involved in those affairs. Eventually the mission to stamp out slavery became, in the eyes of many Europeans, a justification for bringing African territory under their control. During the late 1800s they divided the continent into colonies.

Another legacy of the slave trade was the loss, in generation after generation, of young Africans who would play a productive role in the economic or political development of their homelands. Some parts of Africa were severely depopulated by the taking of captives and the flight of people trying to avoid capture. It is impossible to say what Africa could be like today had it escaped the widespread and long-lasting ravages of the slave trade. (See also Colonialism in Africa; Diaspora, African; Economic History; History of Africa.)