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Why was the Slave Trade More Prevalent in Africa than Other Regions?

March 7, 2017 17 comments

Note: Please read this post in its entirety before you comment on it.

Though I am writing up this post in early-2017, the question posed in the title first occurred to me a long time ago. So here is the context for it..

Most Americans (white, black and others) associate the African Slave trade with all of the morally and ethically repugnant behavior by whites towards people of African descent in USA starting with the importation of the first African slaves to work on plantations in what later became the ‘south’ starting in the 1600s. However, the transport of enslaved Africans to USA during those centuries is a piece within a much larger bigger story. The mass transport of enslaved people from Africa to the USA during the 17-19th century was a small part of a much larger slave trade known as the Atlantic Slave Trade. Curiously, the majority of enslaved Africans who were victimized by this trade ended up in places other than USA.

But a little further research into the issue of slave trade in the African continent reveals an odd and disturbing fact. The Atlantic Slave Trade, though the best known of all slave trades originating from the African continent, was not the only instance of long-term and systematic slave trade in that part of the world. There was the Arab Slave Trade, the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade and the Indian Ocean Slave Trade. I will try to find better links for the later two. Anyway, the point I am trying to make here is that systematic and organized slave trading has an unusually long history in the African continent. But why?

Why was long-term and systematic Slave Trade much more prevalent in the African continent than other places with lots of poor people? Why don’t you hear about long-term Slave Trade in other regions of the world such as the Indian subcontinent, East Asia or Europe? While slavery, of one form or the other, has been part of the history of all pre-industrial societies it seems to be an intermittent phenomenon (especially on a large scale)- usually in the wake of some large war or population displacement. However it seems that Slave Trade in the African continent has a far longer and continuous history than other parts of the world. But, once again, why?

Moreover, there is a pretty large body of evidence to suggest that being kidnapped or tricked by a relative or friend was the largest single mode of capture for the purposes of enslavement. If we add it in the percentages of those seized in minor wars or by some sort of judicial process, it seems that pretty much all of the work of enslavement was done by people who knew those who were enslaved. To be clear- something similar did occur in other parts of the world- notably eastern Europe during parts of the first millennium AD. However it never occurred over a period of time as long as in the African continent.

So here are my real questions- Why was systematic and organized slave trade a feature of many societies in that continent over a period of many centuries? Why don’t we find anything on that scale (length of time as well as sheer numbers) in other parts of the world? Does it have something to do with constant low-level warfare? lack of large-scale agriculture? lack of large centralized states? or something else? The thing is.. I have yet to find rational answers to these questions.

What do you think? Comments?