Slavery involves treating human beings as property that people can own. In the past, when slavery was legal or customary in many places, some slaves were granted certain rights and privileges. However, no slave ever had true liberty or freedom, and the institution of slavery rested on force or the threat of force that could be used against the enslaved.

In Africa, as in other parts of the world, forms of slavery have existed since the beginning of recorded history. The SLAVE TRADE forcibly removed millions of Africans from the continent, and many other individuals remained enslaved within Africa. In numerous African societies, slavery and the institutions and conditions related to it had economic, political, and cultural significance. Although slavery was abolished during the 1800s, variations of it have continued to exist in some groups in Africa into modern times.



Various type of servile institutions developed in Africa. Under systems of formal slavery, enslaved persons were considered property. Ownership gave masters the right to sell slaves and use them and their labor without regard for the slaves’ wishes. Such slavery existed in some traditional African societies as well as in the Muslim societies that developed in North Africa after Islam entered the continent in the A.D. 600s. Islamic law permitted slavery but included rules governing the relationship to prevent extreme cruelty and abuse. The law also defined categories of people who could or could not be enslaved. The categories varied. Muslims did not always agree, for example, on whether or not other Muslims could be enslaved.

Concubinage was a special category of slavery in which masters maintained female slaves called concubines as sexual partners. Concubines and their children sometimes had certain rights, especially under Islamic law. If a concubine bore a child fathered by her master, he could not sell her or the child. In non-Muslim areas, children born to concubines were usually treated as equal to the children of free women.

In some African societies, certain slaves belonged not to individuals but to a particular political position. They lived on land that was controlled by the individual who held that position at a given time. This form of slavery, in which people were bound to the land rather than to a particular master, has been compared to the condition of peasant workers called serfs in medieval Europe. Sometimes the bondage was religious rather than political. Along the coast of western Africa, for example, cult slavery was common. Slaves were presented to a shrine, and the priests of the shrine had access to their labor and their bodies. These slaves could not be sold because they belonged to the shrine, but they and their children were outcasts.

Debt peonage, also called pawnship, was a servile condition based on a relationship between a debtor and a creditor. Under this system a creditor held an individual—a “pawn”—as a guarantee that a debt would be repaid. Often the pawn was not the actual debtor but one of the debtor’s relatives. The pawn had to work for the creditor until the debtor paid off the debt, ending the pawn’s period of servitude. If the debt was not repaid, or if the creditor himself fell into debt before the pawn was released, the creditor could sell the pawn into slavery. In business arrangements, one side sometimes held individuals as commercial hostages. If the other side failed to complete the transaction, the hostages became slaves. In certain societies pawnship sometimes served as a way for men to acquire additional wives. Slave wives or concubines were captured or purchased, but pawn wives were gained in return for canceling debts.

Practices associated with pawnship and other forms of enslavement suggest that there were various stages between freedom and slavery in Africa. For example, not all war captives, political prisoners, and kidnapping victims became slaves immediately. Often they entered a form of servitude from which they could be released by payment of a ransom. If the ransom was not paid, they became slaves. Although in some cases individuals succeeded in moving out of slavery, countless other people were enslaved through kidnappings, raids, wars, or violations of safeguards that were supposed to protect pawns and servants.


Slavery occurred in both large and small societies in Africa and in various political settings. Economic conditions played a major role in the kinds of servile arrangements that developed and the number of people who were enslaved.

Economic Factors

Slavery became especially important in areas where large-scale agriculture, with its high demand for labor, developed into a major economic activity. Many slaves, for example, worked as agricultural laborers in the SAHEL, the region south of the SAHARA DESERT. One ruler of the Songhai Empire in Nigeria in the 1500s is said to have owned about 20 plantations along the NIGER RIVER, most of them producing rice and all of them worked by slaves. The importing of slaves into the Sahel continued into the late 1800s.

Along the Atlantic coast, slaves played a large role in the economy, working in agriculture and carrying goods to market. During the 1800s, thousands of slaves worked on plantations along the coasts of SENEGAL and the GAMBIA, producing groundnuts for export. Although the Jola people of the southern Senegal coast had resisted the slave trade for years, as the trade in groundnuts increased they began selling each other into slavery. The Jola slaves cultivated rice plantations that fed the groundnut producers.

During the 1800s European and Arab colonies in southern and eastern Africa made extensive use of slaves, especially in producing goods for export. On the island of ZANZIBAR and along the coast of eastern Africa, Arabs and SWAHILI established plantations where slaves cultivated cloves. The Portuguese used slave labor to grow sesame in MOZAMBIQUE, and cotton, coffee, and other crops in ANGOLA. These developments were part of a trend also seen in tropical areas of the Americas and Asia—the effort to capture export markets through the use of slave labor on plantations and in mines.

Enslaved persons from Africa had another economic role as well—as exports in the international slave trade. States of western Africa that supplied captives to the trade, such as ASANTE in present-day GHANA and Dahomey in BENIN, became the dominant powers in that region during the 1700s and early 1800s, when slave exports from Africa were at their peak.

Political Factors

Slavery and servile conditions existed in a variety of cultures in Africa. Slavery was present in some small communities in which the difference between groups or social classes was not great. In larger, more complex societies, it occurred on a larger scale. Such societies had many roles that slaves could fill. Some served as bureaucrats, soldiers, commercial agents, or wives and mothers of rulers; others labored in mines, plantations, or agricultural slave villages.

By the 1700s slaves and servile pawns were concentrated in Africa’s most centrally organized states and most economically developed areas. Political and commercial groups—rulers, nobles, and merchants—had acquired the majority of slaves. In many places rulers maintained their hold on political power by collecting a large personal following, which often included slaves and people in other servile conditions as well as relatives. Many male slaves were placed in their masters’ armies as soldiers, while female slaves generally lived and worked in the households of their masters.

In a number of African states, including Ghana, ancient EGYPT, and some Nigerian societies, slaves were killed when royal or noble masters died so that they could accompany the masters into the afterlife. Some groups sacrificed slaves into the 1800s. A funeral for a wealthy master was not the only occasion for such sacrifices—slaves might also be killed in religious ceremonies. Such events took place most often in societies where slaves had become very numerous. They had various purposes—to decrease slave populations, to terrorize slaves and make them easier to control, to punish criminals, and to frighten rival societies by killing captives.

Abolition—the movement to end the slave trade and slavery itself—became a powerful political force in Europe during the 1800s. Although the abolition movement grew out of the sincere belief that slavery was wrong, it also provided Europeans with a reason to invade and conquer the African continent. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the European powers established firm control over most of Africa. Together with the spread of Christianity, their rule undermined slavery and other servile institutions.

These institutions did not disappear overnight. In some regions reform was gradual, and slavery and pawnship died out slowly. Colonial administrations themselves established new servile institutions, such as forced labor for road-building projects or plantations. They also introduced taxation, which often required Africans to take whatever wage labor they could find in order to pay their taxes. As a result, many Africans labored in conditions not very different from servitude. In addition, local African rulers who cooperated with the new colonial administrations usually were allowed to keep some degree of power over those who had been slaves or pawns. Finally, although Europeans made the buying and selling of slaves illegal, the laws were not always easy to enforce. Traffic in slaves continued for years in parts of Africa. In some areas it survived even after the colonies gained independence in the mid-1900s.


Some anthropologists believe that African slavery is best understood in relation to African culture. African slavery, they argue, differed in key ways from the slavery practiced by Europeans and Americans who obtained slaves as laborers through the international slave trade. Western slavery was an economic institution—slaves were property whose value lay in the work they could perform. In Africa, on the other hand, slavery involved not only economic but also social and political factors. People acquired slaves for reasons other than economic usefulness. Ownership of a large number of slaves, for example, was a sign of power and importance.

African slavery was also closely related to issues of KINSHIP, the network of extended family relationships that form the primary social unit in most African cultures. Forcibly torn from their kinship groups or their lines of ancestry, slaves and pawns were stripped of their social identities. They became nonpersons in cultures that traditionally defined existence as membership in a social group rather than in terms of individuality.

Slaves who were intended for sale or sacrifice remained nonpersons. Once acquired by a master, however, slaves and pawns became part of the master’s social network, which could include immediate family members, more distant relatives, persons in various types of servile relationships, and other slaves. Although slaves occupied the outer rim of this network, they were still recognized as part of it. Generally they were given new names to mark the fact that their old identities had ceased to exist.

The main characteristics of Western slavery were the loss of freedom and the possibility of regaining it. In African societies, however, people placed a very high value on belonging to a kinship group. For them slavery also involved the loss of kinfolk. Newly acquired slaves in Africa possessed none of the rights or benefits of kinship, but in time they or their descendants could receive some of those rights and benefits as they gradually became part of the master’s kinship group.

Sometimes slaves were adopted outright and transformed into family members rather quickly. In other cases, the process occurred slowly, as succeeding generations came to be regarded more and more as part of the group, until eventually the boundaries between those of free descent and those descended from slaves became blurred. In this sense, the Western notion of slavery—the ownership of people as property—was very different from the realities of the institution of slavery in Africa. (See also Class Structure and Caste; Diaspora, African; Economic HistoryEthnic Groups and Identity; Plantation Systems.)