The African Slaveries: Distinction of Trade

For millenniums slavery has infected cultures and civilization around the world, seeping its way into the histories of Babylon, Rome, and the Americas. Yet perhaps no slavery compares to that within the African continent, from which hundreds of millions of humans have been enslaved and trans-continentally exported for centuries, dating back to at least 800 A.D. Despite the common basis of enslavement that knotted African slave trades, the grouping of these different trades under a single umbrella of “slavery” overlooks their deep-seated disparities.

The first division between slave trades in Africa lay in the reasons for enslavement and the preferential selection of slave gender. Atlantic traders coming into Africa from European countries sought laborers who could tend plantations and perform hard labor for production in the New World. Traders correspondingly sought physically able bodies without much preference for gender. On the other hand, large Islamic states in the Mediterranean region desired slaves for use in harems, governmental tasks, military, and other such positions. Muslim traders, therefore, had high demand for females and eunuchs (Collins 277). The Indian-Ocean slave trade fluctuated in its predilections. Slave masters initially used African males (the Zanj, primarily) for salt and sugar cane production, similar to trans-Atlantic masters in later years, though periods following the Zanj rebellion tended to lean towards female and castrated male slaves for sexual use and abuse (Shoureshi). It should be noted that the trans-Atlantic trade only lasted about 400 years compared to the other two which endured milleniums. Nevertheless, the distinctions between gender preferences and form of servility evolved independently between the various slave trades. West Africa, where Europeans vigorously traded, and Saharan and East Africa, dominated by Muslim merchants, had few over time effects on one another (Nwokeji 51).

To compare the trans-Atlantic to the Indian-Ocean and trans-Saharan trades throughout their respective time periods would be misleading. Whereas the total numbers of slaves exported through the trans-Atlantic approximately equaled the exports in the other two trades, the trans-Atlantic slave trade lasted less than a third of the time than the Indian-Ocean and trans-Saharan. The latter two reigned within the estimated years of 800 to 1600, forming the basis for the modern Asian slave trade, including the Indian-Ocean and trans-Saharan regions, while the trans-Atlantic only lasted three centuries into the 1800s. As stated in Problems in African History, “During [the Asian slave trade], longer than a millennium, the number of Africans exported to Asia as slaves was approximately the same as the eleven million sent to the New World during the four hundred years of an intensive trans-Atlantic trade” (Collins 274). In fact, from 1600 to 1900, only five and a half million slaves were exported from the Saharan, Indian Ocean, and surrounding regions compared to the 11 million+ exported from the trans-Atlantic trade during the same period. These statistics illustrate the trouble in likening the various slave trades. In spite of comparability in total exports throughout time, the trans-Saharan trade only gradually altered the fixed societal structure in Africa alongside the spread of Islamic ideas. Granting slavery existed within the continent prior to outside intervention, primarily in the west and west central African states, Europeans inseminated the evolution of enslavement with propagation of trans-continental exportation in a mere 400 years. In other words, the annual volume of exported slaves through the trans-Atlantic trade greatly exceeded any previous, long-withstanding slaves trades.

Arguably, the distinct slave trades in Africa could be classified under one definition of “slavery” through their partial interceptions. The Portuguese interaction with pre-existing, Saharan markets and indigenous enslavement formed a backbone for Atlantic trade. Hence, the trans-Atlantic slave trade could be seen as an extension of the trans-Saharan, growing off of established internal trade networks (DeCorse 29). Muslim merchants, thereupon, provided a prototype for European exploitation of African slaves. However, contradictory to this theory, regions such as Upper Guinea, where no slavery nor trans-Saharan routes pre-existed, evolved independently of any previous influences (Rodney 434). Another argument claims that all slavery entails the involuntary enslavement and exploitation of peoples. But slavery is a much more complicated exchange than simply stripping people of their homes and enslaving them under new environment. It is important to emphasize the unique character of each of these trades to better understand how each specifically altered African societies. Slavery culturally changes the lands from which slaves are taken to and the lands they are taken from.

This point saturates itself in the complexion of the morally differentiated slave trades. Islam created a moral code for slave treatment and unified the Saharan region under a single cultural and political belief system. In the trans-Saharan networks, Islam influenced slave trade practice in accordance to the Islamic law. Under the Qur’an, the practice of slavery theoretically became more humanistic in its approach. Slaves received legal recognition by the states in exchange for willing themselves to the owner, who became liable for the slave’s wellbeing (Lewis 55). While not always practiced in this way, Islam did set at least a notion of regulation, such as rules set forth for compliance of good treatment between a master and his slave (Nyang).

Moreover, the rigid system of Islam translated itself politically, creating a unified government throughout the Sahara and eastern coast of Africa in contrast to the competitive pre-existing state structures perpetuated by other slave routes. Thus, as Muslim traders ventured trans-Saharan routes for slaves, they spread their religion, one that impregnated standing political systems. The message of unity and political advantages under Islam appealed to African leaders as conversion brought to nations new allies. Take the example of Mansa Musa, the first strong Muslim to rule Mali. His extravagant pilgrimage to Mecca caught the attention of increasing numbers of Muslim traders to Mali who strengthened the nation economically and politically (Department of the Arts of Africa). Conversion, therefore, could be seen as a savvy move to politically and socially tie strong countries. Islam preserved the uniquely African culture thereby introducing itself into Africa without much social disruption, unlike instances of Western-spread Christianity that displaced Africans’ cultural identities.

Western traders’ arrival in Africa set a different tone from that of Muslim merchants. Unlike Islamic law that united groups under a common belief system, Western presence promoted political instability. Whereas Europeans profited from the exploitation of human labor and commodities exchanged through slave ports, the trans-Atlantic trade stifled western Africa’s economic independence and social stability (M’baye 611). The highly competitive nature of the trade instigated frequent inter- and intra-tribal raids that led to fear and uncertainty in many African societies. This exploitative nature of enslavement illustrates itself in the journey of Ayuba, a Bondou elite captured by Mandinke men and sold to a man with whom Ayuba himself had recently negotiated with to sell his own slaves (Campbell, James 3). Unlike the trans-Saharan trade influenced by Islam, here there existed no means of administration over those enslaved or treatment of the captured. Consequently, the greatest discrepancy between the various slave trades lay in their dynamically different effects on African civilization, not solely on the lives of slaves but on the local African societies as a whole.

Though less studied than the trans-Atlantic trade, the Indian-Ocean trade distinguishes itself through the creation of a maritime proletariat who created new societies throughout the oceanic route. Slaves from East Africa had been sold to regions like the Persian Gulf and India for centuries but European power revitalized the trade throughout the Indian Ocean. The slave trade and migrations from Africa, Asia and Europe gave rise to new societies in the Indian Ocean, such as Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles, Reunion, and Mauritius, that thrived because of the trade. Plantation servility models, similar to those in the trans-Atlantic trade, increased in number. The island of Zanzibar became a major trade center of slaves in the East African region and thenceforth prospered because of the demand for slaves. While islands like Zanzibar relied on trade, Europeans continued to play into rising internal African political instability by bringing “capital and machine guns to bear on the age-old political tensions between central rulers and the heads of private retinues of slaves” (Campbell, Gwyn 185). Accordingly, increased warfare led to greater demand for weaponry. The exchange of wealth and weaponry for slaves further stimulated the trade. As long as Europeans kept resources flowing into East Africa, these societies would keep providing them with slaves.

Although slavery was not a new concept to the African continent, the trans-Saharan and Indian-Ocean slave trades introduced and galvanized the trans-continental transport of slaves as a means of societal and economic production. The trans-Atlantic slave trade rapidly played into this network, swiftly altering western and central African civilizations. Although united under the idea of trading slaves, these three systems form a concatenated history of not one but many “slaveries.” Reaching further, the end of slavery did not end the social injustices inflicted on African peoples, and many persist today. These long-standing social injustices reach beyond the scope of this paper, however, the study of African slaveries and the slave trades allow us to better understand the progression and regression of African society—and its global influence—to more effectively combat current issues of discrimination.


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Campbell, James T. “Ayuba’s Journey.” Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

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Nwokeji, G. Ugo. “African Conceptions of Gender and the Slave Traffic.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 1, 2001, pp. 47–68.

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Rodney, Walter. “African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave-Trade.” The Journal of African History, vol. 7, 443.3, 1966, pp. 431–443.

Shoureshi, Bacheh. “Zapping the Zanj: Towards a History of the Zanj Slaves’ Rebellion.”Zapping the Zanj: Towards a History of the Zanj Revolt., Oct. 2002. Web. 22 Jan. 2017 <>.

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