Diaspora, African

Today, Africans and their descendants are found on every inhabited continent. African traditions have influenced religion and art, and popular music the world over owes much to African rhythms and musical styles. This global presence is due largely to the African diaspora—a movement of people of African descent to areas outside their homeland.

The story of the African diaspora has three parts: dispersion, settlement abroad, and return to Africa. In the dispersion, or spreading out, people left Africa for other parts of the world. Some departed voluntarily, but many did not. The dispersion was driven by a SLAVE TRADE conducted by Arabs, Europeans, and Americans, who forced enslaved Africans to leave their homes and move to other areas. The second part of the diaspora, settlement abroad, concerns the lives of Africans and their descendants in their new countries—including their relationships with people of other races and their legal, social, and economic position in society.

Diaspora, African

Some dispersed Africans—and people of African descent—actually returned to Africa. Many of them played leading roles in the continent's social and political development. Others never set foot in Africa, but they drew upon the idea of their ancestral homeland for personal identity or for cultural or political purposes.

Africans in Africa and those who are a product of the diaspora share the legacy of the slave trade and of domination by other peoples who saw themselves as superior. Both in Africa and worldwide, Africans have reacted to this history of slavery and racial subjugation and persecution by striving to maintain their own identities and to claim freedom, independence, and equality.


For centuries Africans have settled in various parts of Asia and Europe in a dispersion that has included both voluntary migrations and forced movement as a result of enslavement.


In ancient times Africans traveled across the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Indian Ocean as merchants, sailors, soldiers, adventurers, and slaves. Ethiopian traders settled on the Arabian peninsula and in the Persian Gulf region long before those areas became part of the Roman Empire. Africans were taken as slaves to Arabia and Persia. In the A.D. 500s, the Ethiopian king Ella-Asbaha occupied parts of Yemen on the Arabian peninsula and left some people behind. People of African slave descent living in Arabia, the Persian Gulf region, and India became known as Siddis and Habshis. Some modern historians have found evidence that the Arabs and Persians of those regions had strong feelings of contempt for Africans and treated them as inferiors. Several men of African origin became poets known as the Crows of the Arabs. One of them, an African slave named Abu Dulama whose poetry was well known throughout the Arab world in the 700s, described Arabic society's view of his fellow blacks: “We are alike in color; our faces are black and ugly, our names are shameful.”

Africans sometimes rebelled against their lowly status. In the part of the Arab world that is now Iraq, enslaved Africans led freedom movements in 694 and again in 868. The second revolt led to the founding of an independent state called Dawlat al-Zanj that survived for 15 years. Over time, communities of free and enslaved Africans emerged in many Arabian and Indian towns and cities. Africans worked as merchants, dock workers, clerks, and agricultural laborers. Enslaved Africans also appeared in China, taken there by Arab traders in the 650s. The largest number of enslaved Africans in Asia, however, were resettled in India, where they worked as guards, soldiers, and sailors. A few rose to high positions in the armies or governments of various Indian states.

The life stories of some Africans in Asia are known. One of them, Malik Ambar, was captured in Ethiopia by Muslim Arab slave traders and sold in Baghdad, Iraq. There he learned Arabic and became a clerk. Later he was sold to Indians who took him to central India. He became a soldier, organized a revolt, and seized control of the Indian state of Ahmadnagar. He ruled from 1601 to 1626, employing Africans, Arabs, Persians, and Indians at his court. During his reign Ambar founded towns, built canals and roads, and encouraged trade, scholarship, and the arts. He also joined forces with other Siddis against Indian and European foes.

By the 1500s Europeans were competing with Arabs to trade both goods and slaves in Asia. Arab vessels carried Africans to the farthest reaches of Asia, including Indonesia, China, and Japan. The Europeans began abolishing the slave trade in the 1800s, but Arab traders continued to carry slaves from ports such as ZANZIBAR in East Africa to Arabian and Asian markets. By 1830 the city of Karachi in present-day Pakistan was importing about 1,500 African slaves each year.

Some of these Africans gained fame. Zahur Shah Hashmi and Murad Sahir became noted poets, and Mohamed Siddiq Mussafar wrote a compelling eyewitness account of the slave trade and the lives of enslaved Africans in Pakistan. Mussafar praised the achievements and hopes of African Americans such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, who fought for black freedom and dignity. His poem “Africa's Gift” recognized the global presence of people of African descent and their contributions to other societies.

During the early 1800s, free Africans continued to settle in Asia. Some were merchants. Others accompanied Asians for whom they had worked in East Africa. Like earlier African migrants, they adopted various aspects of Asian culture while maintaining some of their own as well. In parts of Pakistan, Habshis still celebrate the Waghu Mela, or Crocodile Festival, which has African roots. In scattered areas of India, people speak SWAHILI, the trade language of East Africa.


In ancient times trade relations between Europeans and Africans developed around North African cities, attracting merchants from the SUDAN, the Sahara region, and the Nile River valley. These early commercial contacts led to the migration of Europeans to Africa and of Africans to Europe. Enslavement also played a role in the movement of Africans to the Mediterranean region. The ancient Greeks and Romans, like the Egyptians, held Africans in bondage.

The African presence in Europe increased after the A.D. 700s, when Muslim Arabs from North Africa invaded and occupied Spain. The Muslims dominated the Mediterranean Sea until the 1400s. Throughout this time, Arabs and Europeans traded in African slaves. During the medieval period, a number of Africans were settled along stretches of the northern Mediterranean coast and on Mediterranean islands such as Sicily.

Free and enslaved Ethiopians also visited and lived in medieval Europe. ETHIOPIA, a Christian state since the A.D. 400s, was reaching out for connections with European Christians, and Europeans sought an alliance with Ethiopia against the Muslims. During the Middle Ages, a number of Ethiopians visited Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and official representatives from Ethiopia spoke at several important church conferences in Europe.

The greatest dispersion of Africans into Europe started when Europeans began exploring the world in the 1400s. Europeans formed direct links with the caravan trade in gold across the SAHARA DESERT, which led to a larger number of Africans visiting and settling in European cities. Some of them became interpreters and guides for Europeans exploring Africa. The Portuguese, disappointed by the amount of gold they obtained in the African trade, began trading in African slaves in the 1440s. Soon both enslaved and free Africans were at work in farms, mines, workshops, and armies in Portugal and Spain.

The voyage of English mariner William Hawkins to West Africa in 1530 led to an increase in the number of Africans in England. In 1556 Queen Elizabeth I complained that there were too many “blackamoors” in the country and suggested that they be returned to Africa. By the 1800s the African population in England had risen to about 15,000.

Many of them were poor and unwelcome. The number of Africans living in France increased as the French share of the slave trade grew. Officially, France did not permit SLAVERY, but it emerged there anyway. Africans could also be found in Italy, Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Russia, though little is known about the African diaspora to these areas.

The position of Africans in Europe was precarious. Although laws in Europe did not recognize slavery, those of European colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas did. As a result, enslaved Africans taken to Britain and France from the colonies were often kept as slaves in Europe.

This situation continued until 1772, when a British court declared that Africans in Britain could no longer be legally held as slaves. During the early 1800s, European nations gradually outlawed and ended the slave trade, changing the legal status of all Africans in Europe to free people.

Before that time, not all Africans in Europe had been enslaved. A few African students lived there, especially after the mid-1700s when African rulers began sending their sons to schools in Europe to learn the language and commercial skills needed for conducting business with Europeans. Some of these students became involved with the European abolition movement. One, Ottoban Cugano, wrote a book called Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787), which stirred debate about the slave trade.


Africans arrived in the Americas with the Europeans. From the early days of European exploration of North, Central, and South America, Africans were present. However, it was the slave trade that led to the greatest movement of Africans to the Americas. As a result of that forced migration and later waves of immigration, millions of Africans came to live in the Western Hemisphere. Today the majority of the people of Panama, Barbados, Haiti, and Jamaica are of African descent, but Brazil and the United States have the largest African American populations. In varying degrees, the African diaspora has played a role in shaping the social, cultural, and political fabric of all of these places.

African Migrations

By 1800 an estimated 10 million Africans lived in the Americas. Most were enslaved Africans and children born to them in captivity. About 2 million African Americans were in the United States, and this number doubled by the late 1800s. Another 2 to 3 million lived in Brazil, which continued the slave trade until 1888. By that time, Brazil's African population had increased by millions.

Most Africans brought to the Americas by the slave trade came from the region between present-day GHANA and CAMEROON and from the area around the mouth of the CONGO RIVER. However, smaller numbers of Africans also arrived from the eastern coast of the African continent, long dominated by the Arab slave trade and colonized by the Portuguese.

Africans were usually captured by African kings, sold to slave traders, and packed on ships bound for the Americas. Some shiploads included enslaved Africans who spoke the same or related languages, came from the same areas, or belonged to the same ethnic groups. This made communication among the prisoners possible and, in some cases, led to acts of resistance such as shipboard revolts. Records of these mutinies show that the prisoners sometimes spent days plotting them. Occasionally, African women who served as cooks on the ships helped prisoners plan their mutinies by passing on information gathered from the European crew.

A New Culture

Amid the horrors of the slave ships and the dangerous voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, Africans forged friendships that lasted into the system of slavery in the Americas. These relationships formed the beginning of a new culture, blending elements from different African homelands that would endure and continue to develop during the slavery period and beyond.

During the 1600s and 1700s, blacks adopted the terms African and Ethiopian as identifying labels. Slave masters renamed Africans, but many individuals tried to keep their original names. Although American laws made it a crime to speak African languages and practice African religions and customs, many enslaved people did so in private moments. In time, however, the Africans learned European languages spoken in the Americas and adopted some elements of European culture.

Africans in the Americas were unified by the relationships formed on slave ships and by the continuing use of their languages and customs. These bonds provided a strong base for freedom movements, which sometimes led to uprisings or to the establishment of communities for fugitive slaves. In the 1500s a black community called Coyula arose in Mexico; in 1603 black pearl divers revolted in Venezuela.

In the French colony of Haiti the struggle of enslaved Africans for freedom reflected the combination of African and Western cultures. It began in 1791 when an African named Boukman attracted a group of loyal followers and succeeded in turning the Africans against the slaveholders. Toussaint L'Ouverture, a Haitian-born African, joined Boukman and organized a guerrilla war. The war led to Haitian independence in 1804. The second independent American republic in the Western Hemisphere (after the United States), Haiti became a symbol of African freedom in the diaspora.

These freedom movements reveal the beginnings of African nationalism in the Americas. Africans did not want just revenge or escape from slavery. They sought control over their communities to promote their own values, goals, and traditions. Africans in the Americas made enormous contributions to the economic development of their countries and also fought for justice. Some became spokespeople for the idea of a larger African identity and, like African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, even traveled abroad to promote freedom for blacks in other parts of the world.

African Institutions

As Africans adapted to life in the Americas, they established churches, schools and other organizations that paralleled those of European-American society. Scholars are still investigating the history of these institutions to see how far they incorporated African ideas and traditions and how much they were influenced by European models.

African culture shaped many aspects of life in black communities in the Americas. Place names, speech patterns, proverbs and folktales, types of food preparation, decorative styles, personal adornments, beliefs, and ritual practices are a few examples. Areas that once had widespread slave-based plantation economies, such as the Caribbean and the southeastern United States, are the historic heartland of African-influenced culture. However, the influence has spread far beyond this heartland as a result of the movement of African descendants after the Civil War and more recent international migrations. In addition, non-African people have adopted elements of African style and culture.

Scholars have identified certain aspects of culture in the Americas as African. For example, the divination systems known as Santeria in Cuba and Candomble in Brazil are so similar to practices of the YORUBA people of NIGERIA that the African connection is clear. But other aspects of African American culture are not as easy to link to African sources. Scholars have long debated, for example, whether some types of African American social organizations, such as mother-centered families, are survivals of African traditions or were shaped by conditions in the Americas. Moreover, blacks in the Americas have sometimes “re-Africanized” themselves, seeking contact with or knowledge of Africa to strengthen their sense of African identity.


Throughout the Americas, religion reflects various forms of African influence. Many of the Africans who came to the Americas worshiped local gods and ancestors. Others were Christians, and some practiced hybrid religions, mixing Christian elements with traditional African beliefs. These people and their American descendants created a complex religious legacy that includes faiths that are specifically African and African influence in other religions.

Some religions in the Americas are distinctly African in their beliefs and practices—Candomble in Brazil, and Sevi Iwa (voodoo) in Haiti. The gods of these religions have recognizable counterparts in African societies. African-inspired forms of ancestor worship also continue to be practiced on Caribbean islands and among the descendants of escaped slaves in the South American nation of Suriname.

European influence has also been strong. In parts of the Americas colonized by Roman Catholics from Europe, Africans often came to identify their gods with Catholic saints and to use some Catholic symbols and rituals. Most practitioners of Candomble and Santeria consider themselves Roman Catholic as well. In addition, some followers of Candomble and other African-inspired religions claim Native American sources for their practices.

African influences also appear in American religions that do not view themselves as specifically African. In various African American Protestant churches, for example, the importance of dancing and of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” can be viewed as versions of African sacred dance and SPIRIT POSSESSION.

Religious practices are among the visible contributions of sub-Saharan Africa to American civilization. Yet many African elements have been touched and transformed by European and Native American practices and beliefs. In a process that began centuries ago with the arrival of the first Africans on American shores, these different traditions—African, European, and American—are constantly combining and influencing one another in different ways.


Africans in the diaspora remained attached to Africa, and many longed to return there. Numerous Africans lost their lives attempting to resist capture in their homeland, during slave-ship mutinies, or in revolts against enslavement. Some, however, succeeded and returned to join their families in Africa. Still others returned as businesspeople, teachers, and missionaries.

One early phase of the return to Africa began in Great Britain. By the late 1700s, that country's growing black population included many freed slaves from the United States who had fought for the British during the American Revolution. Abolitionists developed the idea of resettling these and other blacks in Africa. The hope was that the returning Africans would establish a society that would promote Christianity, the abolition of the slave trade, and Western principles of government. In 1787 a group of more than 400 Africans left Britain to found SIERRA LEONE, and by the mid-1800s, their descendants had brought the country's population to about 70,000. Many of the inhabitants were former captives freed from slave traders by the British. A group of people known as CREOLES emerged there, blending Western and African beliefs, customs, and language. As teachers, missionaries, and employees of the colonial governments, Creoles extended the influence of the diaspora across much of West Africa.

Free Africans in the United States made their own plans to return to Africa. The U.S. Navy seized American slave ships and delivered their cargoes to the African colony of LIBERIA, which was founded in 1821. By 1870 Liberia had more than 20,000 settlers. The majority came from the United States, and they patterned their political and social institutions after American ones. On declaring independence in 1847, Liberia became the second African nation to win international recognition (after Ethiopia) and the first whose leaders were part of the African diaspora.

In both Sierra Leone and Liberia the descendants of the returned Africans established governments that ruled over the indigenous population. As in Africa's European colonies, the indigenous peoples were treated as inferiors. Several prominent African Americans went to Liberia and made significant contributions there. One of them, Edward BLYDEN, emphasized the importance of African languages and culture and developed ideas about the blend of African and Western culture.

During the 1800s people of African descent from Brazil, Cuba, the Arabian peninsula, and India also returned to Africa. In modern times a two-way movement developed, with diaspora Africans returning to Africa and people from Africa migrating to other nations to work or study. These links contributed to a global sense of African identity and helped inspire the independence movements in Africa during the mid-1900s.


African traditions spread by the diaspora have influenced world culture in various ways, most notably in art and music. Artistic influences, particularly art forms created by people of African descent in the Americas, range from African-style painting and sculpture, masks carved in Yoruba style in Brazil, and a Cuban tradition of costumed dance that echoes the rituals of many peoples of West Africa.

Africa's greatest impact on world culture, however, has been through music. In the Americas, African traditions gave birth to many new musical forms, such as black gospel, blues, jazz, calypso in Trinidad and the West Indies, reggae in Jamaica, and samba in Brazil. African American music began to be recorded in the 1920s. By the mid-1900s records had made their way to Africa, where they inspired urban musicians to adopt some African American styles and blend them with traditional African ones.

African musicians have continued to borrow from African American music. In turn, American and European popular musicians have adopted the sounds of African popular music. Today, Africa is part of the world of popular music. The influence of African and African American music has shaped much of modern jazz, rock and roll, and pop music. (See also Art; Dance; Ethnic Groups and Identity; History of Africa; Humans, Early; Music and Song; Negritude; Refugees; Religion and Ritual.)