Home > Critical Thinking, Current Affairs, Dystopia, Musings, Philosophy sans Sophistry, Reason, Secular Religions, Skepticism > Why was the Slave Trade More Prevalent in Africa than Other Regions?

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

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?

  1. anonymous
    March 7, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    as much as I like your blog, I think you are somewhat wrong here. Slavery was a feature of all human societies until recently and can be argued that it still continues in lots of places even today. Don’t think that historically Africa has any kind of monopoly on it…

    I think a good start in the history of slavery is this podcast:

  2. March 7, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    Ancient Rome had a thriving slave trade that lasted for centuries. I don’t believe Africa was unique in this regard.

  3. anon
    March 7, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    During the Roman Empire, half the population was slaves at one time or another. Slavery was also rampant in China and India. The African slave trade came into existence because it was the last resource of human capital, after ancient slavery had evolved to peasantry and serfdom, then to eventual emancipation.

  4. Pat from SI
    March 7, 2017 at 11:06 pm

    Slavery is happening in NYC right now. Indentured servitude as well. We simply don’t hear about it.

    Progressives are obsessed about a microcossim of slavery because it’s a way to humiliate their opponents. They like their servants, they do not really care about equality. Let’s not pretend that they do.

  5. With the thoughts you'd be thinkin
    March 8, 2017 at 5:56 am

    I’ve heard it alleged that africa had lower population densities than the other comparable regions due to disease burden and so slavery played a major role in populating the african societies originally and then eventually turned into a lucrative export good. This argument is generally a subset of those arguing that lower density led to lower urbanisation and lower comparative development.

  6. anon
    March 8, 2017 at 9:43 am

    Few acknowledge today that emancipation of slaves really began with Christianity, when Jesus began His ministry in Nazareth with these words: The Spirit of the Lord is on Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and release to the oppressed. Luke 4:18

    Before Jesus, heathen nations everywhere despised manual labor, preferring to exploit the weak and poor to do the hard and dirty work, while their masters basked in the sun when they weren’t porking one of their 50 wives. Every other person in the Roman Empire during Jesus’ time was a slave. Think Spartacus, leader of an army of runaway slaves that shook Italy in 73-71 BC. Three-quarters of Greeks in Athens were slaves, a place where ownership of fifty slaves meant wealth. Egyptian slaves built the pyramids. It was a horrible time to be alive if you were not a slave owner.

    Then along came Jesus, the carpenter who made work fashionable by dignifying the use of the saw, hammer, chisel, plane and axe, who didn’t just preach emancipation but actually practiced it. Naturally, every slave in the world loved Jesus because he was lashing out against the entrenched, slave-owning, Leftist establishment. And when Jesus got too popular, a threat to the elites and entrenched establishment, well, they crucified him.

    Today, anyone who is not making a living wage is nothing more than a slave, no different than in ancient times. Demographically, that translates to about 80% of the population who cannot make a go of it without some sort of public assistance. And just like in Jesus’ time, anyone today who favors the middle class at the expense of elites and the establishment, is by strict rule labeled a heathen infidel. It’s why Trump and conservatives are hated so much by elites, the establishment, the press and the blood-sucking Leftist disciples who are out only for a free ride on the backs of those who actually work for a living and produce everything that is consumed by idle slackers. The Left is never going to be happy until Trump is crucified, too, and every member of the middle class is finally enslaved on a scale rivaled only during ancient times.

    They almost got away with it, but Hillary was found out.

  7. webej
    March 8, 2017 at 10:21 am

    Not sure the premise is true. Statistics are poor, and Africa is a very big and diverse region.
    Factors which could play a role:
    [1] Black slaves would have been conspicuous in other civilizations and made it into the record easily.
    [2] Although race is a 19th century concept, blacks my have been the most “other” from many of the people using the slaves. The more “other”, the easier it is to see them as sub-human.
    [3] Africa was tribally and geographically very diverse and in many cases not socially, technically, and militarily organized to the same degree, which would have helped to kidnap all kinds of people compared to collecting them from a more organized empire/civilization, where people were regarded as “citizens” of a certain “state”, that would punish maurauders that stole persons.
    There were two kinds of slavery: foreigners and prisoners of war on the one hand, and institutional slavery on the other (people that were ethnically and linguistically part of the culture). The latter case was fed by debt servitude and class/caste type distinctions. Debt slaves were sometimes released and would then resume their place in society again. They had rights and protections. Foreign/war slaves were often treated much worse and basically had no rights since they had been spared from death. By using the word “slave”, it is easy to confound many different type of slavery and institutional arrangements. The dynamics of foreign “white” or “black” or conquest slaves would seem very different from debt bondage or caste systems. There is also the question how different slavery then was in comparison to Pakistani’s (etc) who toil away in Saudi or UAE, have to hand over their passport so they are not free to go, and are de facto subject to different rights, laws, and obligations as the rest of society. In ancient times there were also large differences in customs, terminology, and concepts related to what we easily construe as “basically slavery”.

    In my opinion, the slave trade went on for so long in the African continent largely because there was a lack of stable states in that part of the world- the key word is “stable”. The lack of stable states is almost certainly a consequence of a poorly developed agricultural sector for growing food crops. Perhaps that in turn has something to do with numerous human and animal diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, various forms of schistosomiasis and insect borne viruses such as yellow fever etc.

  8. March 8, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    Slavery was pretty common around the world for thousands of years. Slaves were fossil fuel that powered the gears of society cheaply. They were also the alternative to simply slaughtering everyone if you were a conqueror.
    Think about it—As the industrial revolution caught on, then suddenly everyone starts making moral arguments about slavery and begins to phase it out.
    People got rid of it once there was a less messy alternative available. Until then, no one was going to give up a cushy lifestyle because it inconvenienced others.
    We can reason, that if industrial civilization ever phases out/collapses slavery will return as a major institution.

    Slavery in the sense it is understood today almost never made economic sense. It comes to to trust. You simply cannot trust a slave to do anything complicated and important. That is also why slavery in the USA was so intimately associated with plantations devoted to growing cotton or other cash crops.

    Also, historically assimilation of conquered people almost always worked far better than even temporary slavery- because it came with a far lower risk to the conquerors.

  9. Ed
    March 8, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    In the case of post 1400 Africa specifically, African kingdoms or tribes, whichever terminology you prefer, sold people convicted of crimes to the slave traders. That is really all there is to it.

    As the other commentators noted, this has been done in backwards regions throughout history, and there was nothing special about Africa. For most of history, Africa was somewhat unreachable due to distance and disease, especially to Europeans. You couldn’t ship slaves en mass to work them in the Western Hemisphere before 1500, for obvious reasons. Once Europeans developed the navigation technology and opened the Western Hemisphere, Africa was the largest available pool of potential slaves.

  10. slavery? That's why we have guns in America.
    March 9, 2017 at 9:17 am

    As far as I’m concerned, the subject of slavery is too marred in revisionist history and leveraging political capital to really get a strong sense of what it really is, was, and how to avoid it if circumstances promote its reemergence. I hope you take the time to look into it further.

    An immediate point. Slaves are humans; humans have evolved to resist situations that aren’t favorable to them. If a slave were to gain an upper hand over their captors, they’ll kill them. They should.

    A machine won’t do that. I agree with the theory that the advancement of labor reducing technology and labor reducing methods (we call this productivity), post the scaled agricultural slave era, had a lot to do with the subsiding of forced human labor. If a machine is more productive than its human counterpart, there would be a strong incentive to replace them. For instance, the cotton gin had a lot to do with replacing one form of input-output to another more productive form of input-output. I think it’s fair and accurate to say Africans didn’t develop technology and labor saving methods at the pace others did elsewhere. Why? I don’t think they needed to in many locations on the continent. If they did, they would have. Africa is huge. It has a lot of fertile land. I think it offered a lot of readily available food and water, to the point that it was as easy as picking it off of a tree and smashing a slow/small mammal over the head with a rock in order to eat it. The weather is nice there, no need for sophisticated shelter. In some places, clothing is optional, again the weather is nice. They didn’t need the only advantage agriculture brings, which is proximity to food and proximate food production, because again they had it (Jared Diamond kind-of covers this in Guns, Germs, and Steel). They had no need to enslave (except for sexual access), thus they had no need to learn the means to avoid it.

    You need large scale agricultural inputs-outputs before you can scale to the city-state and the class system it seems to require. Put another way, Africa never escalated to a Hobbesian level, the escalation of technology and methods to facilitate slavery as well as counter technology and counter methods to create incentives to do away with it.

    An aside. I do not fully understand human psychology to the point of why anyone would enslave another, other than certain male’s propensity towards a gut instinct to dominate those perceived as weaker in order to take advantage of them. I think that has a lot to do with slavery, the domination of others for the sake of domination. I don’t think economics, sociology, and philosophy can explain that at all.

    • anon
      March 9, 2017 at 10:03 am

      Actually, you’re promoting slavery every time you buy something made in a sweatshop or even when you patronize a restaurant where employees have no choice but to work for exploited wages in order to just stay alive. Slavery is slavery, no matter how you slice it, whether someone is in shackles or by proxy using money. Before money there was only barter, which is not slavery. Everything about the modern exchange economy, which is based upon money as tokens for goods and services, is about slavery, albeit slavery by proxy. He who has the tokens is the slave master, and he who needs the tokens is the slave.

    • anon
      March 9, 2017 at 10:12 am

      In fact, every time you pay too much for something, you are enslaving yourself. If you’re earning $1,000 per week, but you pay $1,000 too much for a new car, then you’re pissing away a week’s worth of labor. In other words, you worked an entire week for nothing, no differently than a slave who never gets paid.

      • hoipolloi
        March 9, 2017 at 4:34 pm

        I thought the slavery the post is about is the kind depicted in Alex Hailey’s Roots – the book and the TV miniseries,no?

      • anon
        March 9, 2017 at 4:42 pm

        How is your comment about slavery? You always have to have it both ways, no?

  11. March 11, 2017 at 8:17 am

    This is a question I have also often pondered. For slavery to occur, there must be a master. At varying times and places different ethnic groups or races seem more predisposed to conquest and domination, others not so much. Maybe innate physiological phenomena is contributory, maybe conditioning by environmental influence, perhaps both. It seems the peoples descended from northern tribes are more innately driven to expand their control in modern history. Until relatively recently, they were perhaps the more barbaric and less “civilized” of most peoples. It can be argued that currently their barbarism has not been subdued but merely masked. Perhaps they have been less influenced by religious dogma during the past few hundred years allowing them to intellectually accept, embrace, advance and build upon technological knowledge and innovation that began before the dark ages. The most recent greatest conflicts, WW1 and WW2, were orgiginated and resolved by descendents of the northern tribes. Nazi Germany, with its delusional nationalism and master race paradigm (a sentiment still prevalant today in the minds of most whites, admitted or not) was ultimately stopped by the allied efforts of Russia, England, and USA, all primarily comprised by descendants of similar origin. For whatever reason, the equatorial region and the entire Southern Hemisphere hasn’t seemed to generate so much conquest.

    Unrestricted freedom includes the freedom to dominate, control and utilize the lives of others. This exploitation is employed to enrich the lives of those willing and able to exercise their will, to whatever extent necessary, to maximize that control. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Those with the greatest will and the most ability preserver in this never ending contest for control. The contest is innate and universal in all living existence. It is a phenomena of nature and it is relentless.

    Any tribe who allows themselves to be enslaved or sells their members into slavery is selfevidently ignoble. “Give me liberty or give me death” is a popular quote used for generations to promote “freedom” and the “American dream”. It can be argued that this promotion has become merely another conscription into slavery, the rat race. Pactrick Henry’s quote certainly reflects tremendous resolve absolutely necessary to acquire and maintain freedom. However, the superficial over promotion of that quote, in its popularized modern context, obscures a concurrent reality far more significant. In reality, the man willing to die does not aquire freedom. Freedom is ultimately acquired by the man willing to kill for it.

  12. March 11, 2017 at 8:30 am

    If you want somthing, take it.

    EVERY aqusition involves risk.

    If your fear of taking exceeds your desire, then you will not take.

    If you allow yourself to infact be the item taken, then your fear is ultimately your highest master and those who enslave you are merely opportunists.

  13. anon
    March 11, 2017 at 9:11 am

    It’s always beneficial to keep the larger picture in mind, if one is interested in avoiding victimization by identity politics. Slave-mastering has never been ethnic-aware. Blacks on the African continent practiced slavery for thousands of years, as had every single other ethnicity and nation on earth. Slavery was even practiced among some Native American tribes. According to “The Persistence of Islamic Slavery:”
    “What is also seldom remembered is that many black Americans in the 19th Century owned slaves. For example, according to the United States census of 1830, in just the one town of Charleston, South Carolina, 407 black Americans owned slaves themselves.”

    On top of all that, slavery is more pernicious today than at any other time in history, made possible by the world proliferation of the modern exchange economy, which gradually has been dominated by monopolization, the mechanism of choice for transferring huge amounts of capital from working producers to idle elite stockholders. When our ancestors came to America, they didn’t buy houses. They built their homes using raw materials from the forest and environment, and when they finally moved in, they owned their homes free and clear. Today, your average brain-dead stiff buys a home, spending perhaps $250,000, which, after interest translates to a million dollars. When you consider that virtually 95% of all homes are purchased and financed in this way, that’s a phenomenally huge amount of capital that is transferred from working stiffs to stockholder elites. Of course, there can’t be any establishment elites unless there are first brain-dead consumers. You don’t need to buy a house to be a victim. If you patronize Starbucks, paying $3 for a $0.10 cup of coffee, well, you’re brain-dead, too, because you’re a Madison Avenue disciple and don’t even know it.

  14. Raki
    October 15, 2017 at 5:17 pm

    There is a book called “Daughters of the Trade”. It details how mixed marriages/offspring tradersbetween European and native African women provided a foothold in West Africa for exploitation. The author has a talk on YouTube as well.

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