“Africans enslaved other Africans” has become a common refrain these days in discussions about the African Slave Trade. People usually invoke this phrase to make an argument that Africans themselves bear responsibility for selling their own people.
I also hear this a lot from the descendants of slaveholders, which of course comes across as a rationale for them to not have to think about slavery that much.
This phrase is a dubious construct that we don’t use when we talk about the slave trade elsewhere in history. It is also a simplistic way to view complex historical processes and to avoid doing the actual work required to understand it.
Like people all over the world, peoples on the continent of Africa lived in social groups arranged by their tribal affiliation and ethnicity. “Africa” was comprised of the Bakongo, Igbo, Hausa, Mina, Fulani, Mende, Wolof, Yoruba, and Mandingo groups just to name a few. There are hundreds.
While these groups shared certain broad linguistic and historical ties, they also differed. They had differences in dialect, in culture, in social and political arrangement, in spiritual beliefs and so on.
These ethnic groups (again, like groups all over the world) made peace alliances, sometimes intermarried, traded with one another and most importantly– warred with each other. They were in constant battle over land and resources.
In this context, we can see that ethnic/tribal groups did not see other groups as their people.
They did not view themselves collectively as “Africans”—they viewed themselves as what they were: Wolof, Igbo, Yoruba, Mende, Fon, Bakongo, Akan, etc.
An Englishman’s aversion to an Irishman in the 17th century would not diminish with the knowledge that they both lived in Europe. Spain’s hatred of and numerous battles with France did not abate because they both lived in Europe.
And so it follows that social groups elsewhere around the world did not self-identify based upon something as silly as shared continental geography.
Imagine you were dropped into Africa in 1495 or 1550 or any of the decades between the 15th and the 18th. Imagine you arrived at any of the numerous slave ports that European powers built at Whydah or Luongo or Annamaboe.
Do you think the people you met there would refer to themselves as Africans?
Sale and Trade
The vast majority of those sold into slavery during the African Slave Trade were those captured in war or raids or punished for crime. These social groups used the products of European nations (guns, ammunition, etc.) in order to gain competitive advantage over their rivals and to increase their own wealth.
Remember that the European nations during the trade were at the mercy of the tribal rulers. Consider this from the excellent book, Where the Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade, by Randy J. Sparks:
“In 1624, the Fante signed an exclusive trade agreement with the Dutch, who built a lodge or trading establishment at Annamaboe…Up until the end of the 17th century, gold was the region’s most valuable export and the Gold Coast was a net importer of slaves, who were needed in the mines as agricultural workers. But the Asanti wars of expansion, which began in the 1680s and continued into the next century, brought a steady stream of slaves to the Coast…”
“The value of gold gradually declined..in part, the decline resulted from the fact that the Fante traders increasingly demanded payment in gold … [Annamoboes wealth] continued as long as… the Fante were victorious over their rivals, as they were from the late 17th through much of the 18th century…The Fante victories allowed them to enslave their defeated enemies..It is important to note that this process was under way all over the Gold Coast and the interior….”
What is true is this: certain kings, chiefs and middle-men traders raided their enemies and captured their rivals in warfare. Some of them then sold those captives to Europeans.
Excuse me: sold them to the Portuguese, the British, the Dutch, the Danes, the Spanish and the French. Some of these middle-men and traders kidnapped people. These chiefs also kept captives as slaves in their own homes as a sign of status and wealth.
For example, the Dahomey Kingdom had a long history of this practice against their enemies, the Yoruba. So did the Asante. Other chiefs fought against the massive deportation of their people in the slave trade. This excerpt from King Affonso (of the Kongo) to the King of Portugal illustrates his displeasure with the level of kidnapping that was happening in his Kingdom:
King Affonso’s letter to the King of Portugal, 1526:
“…in our Kingdoms there is another great inconvenience which is
of little service to God, and this is that many of our people [naturaes], keenly
desirous as they are of the wares and things of your Kingdoms, which are
brought here by your people, and in order to satisfy their voracious appetite,
seize many of our people, freed and exempt men;
and very often it happens that they kidnap even noblemen and the sons of noblemen, and our relatives, and take them to be sold to the white men who are in our Kingdoms; and for this purpose they have concealed them; and others are brought during the night so
that they might not be recognized…
As always with human beings everywhere, greed and avarice led the way.
Ethnicities in the Slave Trade
The lumping together of various ethnicities under the European concept of “Africa” was primarily a consequence of the slave trade.
Documents from the trade tell us that traders at the time knew and well understood that they were dealing with entirely different peoples. Look at this slave register from St. Kitts in the early 1800s, which identifies the ethnicity (Poor Jenny and George are noted as “useless” children):
Gwendolyn Medlo Hall helps us understand this topic in her eponymous book “Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links.”
Hall and other scholars, such as Michael Gomez (“Exchanging Our Country Marks”) and John K. Thornton (“A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250-1820“) have provided much needed analysis.
Traders desired certain ethnicities for the skills and knowledge they had. For example, South Carolina and Georgia planters preferred peoples from Senegambia and Upper Guinea since these were rice-growing areas and people from those areas knew how to grow that crop.
This is one reason why, as Dr. Medlo-Hall explains, that of the hundreds of ethnicities found on the continent, only a small minority of those groups actually were brought to the Americas.
Depending upon the departing slave port, the trading country, and the timeframe, these ethnicities clustered regionally in the Americas. The Schomburg Migrations website has a wonderful set of maps about the slave trade, which include this one:
For clarity, what is this post saying? I am saying that in no other instance of war or genocide do we employ this rhetorical nonsense.
We don’t frame the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, or World War I as Europeans killing other Europeans. Try walking into the Holocaust Museum and stating that it was not Germans who murdered mostly Jews, but that it was Europeans murdering other Europeans.
Only when the topic turns to the African Slave Trade does this strange argument rear its head. Why is that?
My argument is that the framing is used for a reason. It’s goal is the implication of debased character. What kind of people would sell their own people? If they did that to each other, the Europeans traders weren’t all that bad. The next statement is usually a reminder that “slavery existed in Africa already.”
Too many people have blindly bought into these fictions. Remember that part of the invention of race was this idea that it was something inside of people, something internal and unchangeable made them slaves.
This notion of internal character traits driving a person’s external status is a very powerful idea that masterfully morphs and changes with the times.
African tribal chiefs and ethnic leaders, for the most part, did not sell their own people. [Why did I say “for the most part?” Because slaves were also gained by other methods, like punishment for a crime, debt, or outright kidnapping, etc.]
Tribal chiefs did sell other people. And slavery in Africa was very different from the racialized slavery that developed in the North American colonies.
I say it all the time: we need to be very deliberate about the words we use to describe historical processes, especially with regard to slavery and African-American history.
Others have distorted, diminished, and erased this history, so we need to be meticulous in our own recounting of these truths.
Let’s not rely on poor, weak arguments and popular catch phrases. What we should do if the topic interests us is invest time in the vast resources and scholarly materials that are widely available to learn more about this topic.
Let’s have a richer dialogue about the ramifications, direct causes and the lasting consequence of the removal of millions of people from a place. Let’s read some of the scholarly books on the subject like The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas and Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade by David Eltis and David Richardson.
And let’s not stop there: make sure we learn about the fact that substantially more enslaved people were sold in America during the Domestic Slave Trade after the African Slave Trade closed in 1808. In fact, the greatest growth in slavery came on American soil.
Slavery was not a sideshow in American history. It was the main event and the central defining force in all of our institutions. For most of our country’s existence, we were a slave society. African-Americans have not been free (153 years) as long as our ancestors were enslaved (246 years).
Let’s consider the whole story. I rather like Prof. Lolita Inniss’ response to this question in the New York Times on April 23, 2010:
Who is more culpable: the abductor who initially takes the victim, or the captor who obtains the victim and keeps him (and often his offspring) captive for generations?
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.