Slave trade and free labor

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Africans were ruled by monarchs as a mode of government in the pre-colonial period. There were empires such as Mali and Songhai with a centralized system of government. It should be remembered because, even before the arrival of the Europeans, there was slavery. These slaves were supposed to serve in the army, in the fields or in the locations where they were captured as workers. Since slaves were depleted in most regions around the world, European slave traders needed a steady supply of free labor to support the American economy, which continuously demanded that people work on their ventures. However, for the program at the time, it was not cost effective to get slaves from other regions of the world across the Atlantic to take slaves to America. Portugal was among the first European countries to take slaves. Most of these were taken to Lisbon to work in the city. In no time, Spain, Netherlands, and England followed suite so as to benefit from this trade. West Africa became the ideal region to source these slaves for the American market. The slaves were got through raiding neighbouring villages. It was through this hard work that a slave earned some sense of freedom in the places of captivity. Portuguese made contact with West Africa in a bid to find a sea route to India. However, as time moved on, there was increased contact with West Africa. Countries today like Cape Verde, Liberia, Ghana – Gold Coast then, and Cameroun among others were prominent for slavery.


Around 1400, Europeans were in Africa to get slaves that heavily destroyed the face of Africa and by the start of the fifteenth century, traders from Europe actively got involved in this inhuman activity. It involved raiding and capturing towns to get slaves that would later be taken to the coast and to the markets they were to be sold to. Also, Africans themselves raided other towns to get slaves who were later sold to the Europeans. Criminals and physically handicapped, debtors were among those who qualified to be slaves. In case someone wanted security for a debt, a slave would be offered. In other cases, when one was at loggerheads with a high profile person, they faced slavery as a form of punishment. Slavery was seen as a better alternative to facing extreme punishments like death and sacrifice as rituals among others. It is said that a war was orchestrated with a purpose of getting slaves to be sold.

The trade was boosted by the existing rivalries between societies or kingdoms for wealth and power. The more fields were toiled the more produce and food was available. This abundance was seen as wealth then. To be able to have larger fields toiled, there was a need for labour to do farm work and other activities. The West African kings looked at wealth and power as having many people on a productive land. The acquisition of slaves was mean to get more people working on land so it becomes productive. As such, their wealth also expanded over the years of their kingship. Some were simply got as porters to facilitate the trade of some physical items. Since transport was a problem, there was a need for an escort for items to be delivered to their destination in time and in the right quantity. Without slaves, it would be impossible to get that assurance that all this work would be done in time and in the way it should have been done. Therefore, more slaves were captured since these journeys were long and tedious. Sometimes, they could last months and yet there was a constant flow of information, some slaves were merely messengers as they were meant to deliver other slaves, trade items, and important equipment that facilitated trade. In short, slavery was mainly to boost the economic structure of the kingdoms then; it was a major factor that encouraged its growth over West Africa. These foreigners offered items that seemed precious to the kings in exchange for slaves what encouraged them to work even harder and acquire more slaves so they would be able to get these items from the European traders.

Slave trade had effects both positive and negative; although to the greater extent, social and economic effects were destructive to the people of West Africa. From the social perspective, this trade greatly decreased the population of the communities affected. Millions of people moved and were dispersed to other places in the search for safety in fear of being abducted to be sold. Since most slaves were men, there was a reduction in the number of men compared to women in West Africa which also affected the future growth in the population figures. The European slave traders often sold the African slaves to America where they worked on sugarcane and cash crop cultivation.

This trade also increased warfare within West Africa as the continued need to supply slaves required that the men are captured from neighbouring villages or kingships. De Corse (2001) suggests that the raiding was done so as to meet the demand for slaves. The Europeans offered quite a sizable payment that encouraged more raids to be made so as to supply enough slaves for their market. In turn, civil wars became prominent and continued unrest. With the destruction due to the civil wars, sustainability became impossible. There was no supply of food, which led to hunger and suffering. However, for states like Asante and Dahomey, due to their participation in the trade, they benefited from this. They became powerful and wealthy as they captured more slaves and actively traded as opposed to the states they captured and destroyed.

Slave trade affected the economy of West Africa greatly in the negative direction. With the labour force having been depleted by this trade, West Africa lost most of the people who could have developed it, what is still evident today. Those who resisted or tried to escape were brutally murdered; as such, with the long journeys made to the places of selling, many died along the way. There were various points of sale and this increased the trade since many people were captured for different trade centres. The slave trade had its lasting impact on the social relations amongst the states that participated; these relations were destroyed as well as many traditional values. The trade led to the growth of brutal regimes under kings. People were displaced since they often tried to go as far away as possible from the trade routes and possible abduction communities. This killed possible development since most of their time was spent in hiding or in a search for a safe haven for their freedom.

The slave trade destroyed relationships between kingdoms, communities, and tribes since they raided each other in a search for slaves to supply to the Europeans. There were newer structures of administration that were developed in some communities in a bid to protect the members from the scourge of slavery and its lasting impact on those communities. These administrative procedures were meant to protect some communities or its members from being taken as slaves by those who raided. The slave trade further led to European involvement in the administration of West Africa. Some of the Europeans who intervened intended to stop the slave trade or seek a strategic location to conquer colonies within Africa, including West Africa. In particular, Portugal started its conquest into Africa seeking colonies to effectively administer and spread their influence.

Slave trade destroyed the growing development in West Africa, disorganised the entire region and only prepared it for colonialism. It also created ghost towns as areas where slavery took place were disserted as people fled in fear of losing their independence and freedom to the Europeans. Even more, the profitability of slavery was way over the peak. There were natural resources to be exploited in America and slaves were the cheapest alternative to getting the work done. Furthermore, these resources were later sold to benefit the American entrepreneurs. In addition to that, the Europeans who supplied these slaves got really wealthy and as such, the business was only getting bigger. The cost of getting the slaves was relatively low, so some parts of the world developed through slavery, including Europe and America.

Slave trade led to the introduction of new items into West Africa. Since this trade was an exchange in nature, chiefs and kings got arms, and better technology at that time than they did before they started to trade in slaves. Since slavery involved capturing of women as well, some were forced into marriages unwillingly. Many women were married to some of the traders as they started families and bore children with them. Most of these marriages were polygamous in nature, although these slave wives were never accepted into the families they got married to. To a certain extent, this affected the social structure of these communities.

Rifts continue to exist up today between communities, gratefully to the slave trade, which affected African culture significantly as it was altered, changed or lost. Most virtues of African culture and historical facts could have disappeared around this time as most of the men were taken away from Africa through slavery. The slave trade introduced large administrative units, mainly stop centres within the land to collect slaves or act as meeting points. Many towns were developed primarily for the slave trade, with people getting employed to manage the entire process to the client by then – the Europeans.

Banditry all over West Africa rose with the increase in slavery across West Africa. This created administrative towns where they managed to properly manage the slave trade activities. These were like inland ports where raids and offensive tactics were planned. Also, resisting towns that were stubborn and fought slavery grew. Production was mainly subsistence after slavery as most people who were influential emphasized their efforts to slavery and those who produced heavily for trade stopped. During this time, it was only slavery that was profitable which heavily retarded the economy of West Africa. People lived in fear as there was a stretch of fear and tension even right after the end of slavery. Peace was disrupted and people could not live a normal and comfortable life as compared to other parts of the world.


Slave trade heavily affected West Africa up to today. It was an inhuman act that destroyed the lives of the people of West Africa. Furthermore, it altered the relationship of the people from the raiding towns and those that were raided, thus crippling the co-operation between them. Enmity grew with a gap existing amongst the people themselves. Empires fell to crumbles and this was the end of a peaceful era. Till today, there are places across the world where slavery still exists. It should be upon everyone across the world to stop slavery. It goes in the form of human trafficking, forced and unpaid labour which is unjust and an abuse of human rights. Countries and organisations should come together and fight this act as it has destroyed families and communities all over the world. Slavery does not benefit anyone; instead, it is through selfish people who have no consideration whatsoever for human beings and only value them as property. The law should take on all forms to see that maximum sentences are given to those proved guilty of slavery. Communities affected by slavery should be compensated, given hope of a newer life in a better place as opposed to being neglected for crimes against them. It should be a concern for every breathing individual to understand that slavery was among the greatest mistakes of mankind and those involved in it should face justice.


Christopher R. DeCorse (2001). West Africa During the Atlantic Slave Trade. A&C Black.

August 09, 2021



Colonialism Slavery

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Oppression Slave Trade

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Expertise Slave Trade
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