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Africans before Captivity, and West African Histories and Cultures

Updated: Aug 18, 2022

Module 1: African Origins - History and Culture

Most Africans who came to North America were from West Africa and West Central Africa. (See Figure 1-1) Western Africa begins where the Sahara Desert ends. A short erratic, rainy season supports the sparse cover of vegetation that defines the steppe like Sahel. The Sahel serves as a transition to the Sudan and classic savanna where a longer rainy season supports baobab and acacia trees sprinkled across an open vegetative landscape dominated by bushes, grasses and other herbaceous growth. Next comes another narrow transitional zone, where the savanna and forest intermingle, before the rain forest is reached. Finally, there is the coast, fringed with mangrove swamps and pounded by heavy surf (Newman 1995:104). The Sahara is likened to a sea lying north of West Africa and the Sahel to its shore. The desert and the Sahel form geographical barriers to sub-Saharan West Africa that, like of the Atlantic Ocean, contributed to the comparative isolation of the region from civilizations in Europe and the Middle East until the 15th century.

Figure 1-1 : African Slave regions by Grin20 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 . Map depicting major slave trading regions of Africa. Figure 1-2 : Niger river map , a derivative of Niger river map by Wizardist is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 . Map of the Niger River Basin and its inland delta. Knowledge of sub-Saharan West Africa is limited for the period before 800 A.D., after which the rise of Islam made Arabic records available, according to Phillip Curtin (1990:32). Evidence from Dar-Tchitt, an archeological site in the area of Ancient Ghana, suggests agricultural expansion and intensification gave rise to walled villages of 500–1000 inhabitants as early as 900–800 B.C. By 700 B.C. the settlement patterns changed to smaller, somewhat more numerous and unwalled villages. Jenne-Jeno, a second archeological site, was first settled around 250 B.C. Located around the inland delta of the Niger river, Jenne-Jeno probably started out as a place where local farmers, herders, and fisher folk brought produce to exchange with one another. (See Figure 1-2) Over time the location became an interregional trade center. It might have been the first one in the region, but if so others soon followed and several of these became sites for a series of kingdoms and empires in the Sahel and Sudan. Eventually the region was densely populated by people who had a social organization based on kinship ties and political forms that are properly called states, and cities based on Saharan trade, at least as far south as modern day Djenne, which is between Timbuktu and Bamako in southern Mali.

What we know comes from Berber travelers, who made their first visits to the region in the 8th century (Curtin 1990:45; Newman 1995:109–110). Oral sources included African poems, praise songs, and accounts of past events usually passed on through official oral historians such as Griots, who recite the histories from Ancient Mali and Songhai often while playing stringed instruments unique to West Africa such as the Kora and Ngoni. (3)

Medieval West Africa

Medieval West Africa

Figure 1-3 : African-civilizations-map-pre-colonial by Jeff Israel is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 . Map depicting major slave trading regions of Africa. When the Portuguese first explored the West African coastline, the cultures of African societies were highly evolved and had been so for centuries. In the millennium preceding Portuguese exploration, three large centers of medieval African civilization developed sequentially along the west coast of sub-Saharan Africa. (See Figure 1-3) The first polity that is known to have gained prominence was Ancient Ghana. Between 500 AD–1250 AD, Ancient Ghana flourished in the southern Sahel north of the middle Niger and middle Senegal Rivers. Ancient Ghana had a civil service, strong monarchy based on a matrilineal system of inheritance, a cabinet, an army, an effective justice system and a regular source of income from trade as well as tribute from vassal kings (Boahen 1966:4–9). As Ghana declined over the next 200 years, the ancient Mali Empire arose in the same area but descended territorially further along the Niger River. Mali encompassed a huge area stretching from the Lower Senegal and Upper Niger rivers eastward to the Niger bend and northward to the Sahel. Its great size made Mali an even more diverse state than Ghana. The majority of the people lived in small villages and cultivated rice or sorghums and millets, while some communities specialized in herding and fishing. Trade flourished in the towns, which housed a wide array of craftspeople, along with a growing number of Islamic teachers and holy men. The main commercial centers were its capitals Niani, Timbuktu, and Gao. Mansa Musa is the most remembered of the kings of Mali. During Musa’s reign 1307–1337, Mali’s boundaries were extended to their farthest limits. There were fourteen provinces ruled by governors or emirs who were usually famous generals. Berber provinces were governed by their own sheiks . They all paid tribute to Musa in gold, horses and clothes. Musa instituted national honors for his provincial administrators to encourage devoted service. He ruled impartially with a great sense of justice. To help in this work he had judges, scribes and civil servants. Musa established diplomatic relationships with other African states, especially Morocco, with whom he exchanged ambassadors. Mansa Musa is probably best known as the ruler who firmly established the Islamic religion in Mali along with peace, order, trade and commerce. Mansa Musa started the practice of sending students to Morocco for studies and he laid the foundation for what later became the city of Timbuktu, the commercial and educational center of the western Sudan (Boahen 1966:17–22). Present day Mande people trace their ancestry back to the great 13th century. Learn more about what archeology has uncovered in Jeno-Jenne about the past of the Mande people , Africans who helped settle America during the 17th and 18th centuries (Hall 1992:45). Around 1375, Gao, a small tributary state of Mali, broke away under the leadership of Sunni Ali and thus began the rise of the Songhai Empire. Over the next 28 years, Sunni Ali converted the small kingdom of Gao into the huge empire of Songhai. Songhai encompassed the geographic area of ancient Ghana and Mali combined and extended into the region of the Hausa states of ancient and contemporary northwest Nigeria. Mandinka, Wolof, Bamana, (also called Bambara) peoples, and others lived in the western reaches of the Songhai in the Senegambia area. Hausa and Fulani people lived in the region that is now northwest Nigeria. All of these cultures still exist. Islamic scholars and African oral traditions document that all of these states had centralized governments, long distance trade routes, and educational systems. Between the 13th and 17th centuries Mande and Mande-related warriors established the dominance of Mande culture in the Senegambia geographical region. Throughout the West African savanna where people migrated in advance of the Mande warriors, people spoke mutually intelligible Mandekan languages, and had a strong oral history tradition. In the 18th century people of the Mande culture were highly represented among those enslaved in the French Louisiana colony in North America (Hall 1992). By the time, Portugal and Spain embarked on exploration and conquest of the Western Hemisphere, Mohammed Askia I ruled over Songhai. Askia completed Mansa Musa’s project to create a great center of learning, culminating with the establishment of the Sankore University in Timbuktu. Sankore teachers and students were from all over sub-Saharan Africa and from the Arabic nations to the east. Leo Africanus, an eyewitness described Sankore University thus:

“[H]ere are great stores of doctors, judges, priests and other learned men that are bountifully maintained at the King’s (Muhammad Askia) costs and charges ([1600] 1896).”

Leo Africanus was born, El Hasan ben Muhammed el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati in the city of Granada in 1485, but was expelled along with his parents and thousands of other Muslims by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Settling in Morocco, he studied in Fez and as a teenager accompanied his uncle on diplomatic missions throughout North Africa. During these travels, he visited Timbuktu. As a young man he was captured by pirates and presented as an exceptionally learned slave to the great Renaissance pope, Leo X. Leo who freed him, baptized him under the name “Johannis Leo de Medici,” and commissioned him to write in Italian a detailed survey of Africa. His accounts provided most of what Europeans knew about the continent for the next several centuries.

West Africa, 1300 - 1800AD

West Africa, 1300 — 1800AD

From the 14th through the 18th century, three smaller political states emerged in the forests along the coast of Africa below the Songhai Empire. The uppermost groups of states were the Gonja or Volta Kingdoms, located around the Volta River and the confluence of the Niger, on what was called the Windward Coast, now Sierra Leone and Liberia. Most of the people in the upper region of the Windward Coast belonged to a common language group, called Gur by linguists. They also held common religious beliefs and a common system of land ownership. They lived in decentralized societies where political power resided in associations of men and women. Below the Volta lay the Asante Empire in the southeastern geographical area of the contemporary nations of Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and modern Ghana. By the 15th century the Akan peoples, who included the Baule, and Twi-speaking Asante, reached dominance in the central region. Akan culture had a highly evolved political system. One hundred years or more before the rise of democracy in North America, the Asante governed themselves through a constitution and assembly. Commercially the Asante-dominated region straddled the African trade routes that carried ivory, gold and grain. As a result, Europeans called various parts of the region the Ivory Coast, Grain Coast and Gold Coast. The transatlantic slave trade was fed by the emergence of these Volta Kingdoms and the Asante Empire. During the 17th and early 18th centuries African people called from these regions were predominately among those enslaved in the British North American mainland colonies (Boahen 1966). Just below the Gold Coast lay the Bights of Benin and Biafra. Oral history and findings in archeological excavation attest that Yoruba people have been the dominate group on the west bank of the Niger River as far as their historical memory extends and even further into the past. The 12th century found the Yoruba people beginning to coalesce into a number of territorial city-states of which Ife, Oyo, and Benin dominated. Old loyalties to the clan or lineage were subordinated to allegiance to a king or oni. The Oni was chosen on a rotating basis by the clans. Below him was an elected state hierarchy that depended on broad support from the community. The people were subsistence farmers, artisans, and long distance traders in cloth, kola nuts, palm oil, and copper. Trade and the acquisition of horses were factors in the emergence of Oyo as the dominant political power among the Yoruba states by late 14th and early 15th century (Boahen 1966). Dahomey, or Benin, created by the Fon ruling dynasty, came to dominance in the 17th century and was a contemporary of the Asante Empire. As early as the 17th century the Oyo kingdom had an unwritten constitution with a system of political checks and balances. Dahomey, located in Southern Nigeria, east of Yorubaland and west of the Niger River also claimed to have obtained kingship from the Yoruba city of Ife. Oyo and Ife not only shared a common cultural history but also shared many other cultural characteristics, such as religious pantheons, patrilineal descent groups, urbanized settlement patterns, and a high level of artistic achievement by artisans, particularly in ivory, wood, brass and bronze sculpture. Relatively few Yoruba and Fon people, the two principal ethnic groups in the Oyo kingdoms, were enslaved in North America. Most were carried to Santa Domingo (Haiti) and Brazil. During and after the Haitian Revolution, some of the Fon people who were enslaved in Haiti immigrated voluntarily or involuntarily to New Orleans (Hall 1992). The Ibo people, the third principal group found around the Bight of Biafra in the southeastern part of the region, predominated among those enslaved in the Chesapeake region during the late 17th and early 18th century. Later in the 18th century Africans, whom the Europeans called the “Congos,” i.e. Kongos, and “Angolas,” predominated among those enslaved in Virginia and the Low Country plantations of colonial South Carolina (Curtin, 1969; Morgan 1998:63; Eltis et al 2002). (3)

West Central Africa, 14th - 18th Centuries

West Central Africa, 14 th — 18 th Centuries

In the century before Portuguese exploration of West Africa, the Kongo was another Kingdom that developed in West Central Africa. In the three hundred years from the date Ne Lukeni Kia Nzinga founded the kingdom until the Portuguese destroyed it in 1665, Kongo was an organized, stable, and politically centralized society based on a subsistence economy. The Kongo is significant in exploring the historic contexts of African American heritage because the majority of all Africans enslaved in the Southern English colonies were from West Central Africa (Curtin 1969; Eltis et al 2001). The Bakongo (the Kongo people), today several million strong, live in modern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, neighboring Cabinda, and Angola. The present division of their territory into modern political entities masks the fact that the area was once united under the suzerainty of the ancient Kingdom of Kongo, one of the most important civilizations ever to emerge in Africa, according to Robert Ferris Thompson. The Kings of the Kongo ruled over an area stretching from the Kwilu-Nyari River, just north of the port of Loango, to the river Loje in northern Angola, and from the Atlantic to the inland valley of the Kwango. (See Figure 1-4) Thompson estimates the Kongo encompassed an area roughly equaling the miles between New York City and Richmond, Virginia, in terms of coastal distance and between Baltimore and Eire, Pennsylvania, in terms of inland breadth. Birmingham comments that by 1600, after a century of overseas contact with the Portuguese, the “complex Kongo kingdom…dominated a region more than half the size of England which stretched from the Atlantic to the Kwango (1981:29).” Figure 1-4 : KingdomKongo1711 by Happenstance is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Genericlicense. The Kingdom of Kongo The Bakongo shared a common culture with the people of eight adjoining regions, all of whom were either part of the Kongo Kingdom during the transatlantic slave trade or were part of the kingdoms formed by peoples fleeing from the advancing armies of Kongo chiefdoms. In their records slave traders called the Bakongo, as well as the people from the adjoining regions, “Congos” and “Angolas” although they may have been Mbembe, Mbanda, Nsundi, Mpangu, Mbata, Mbamba or Loango. Ki-Kongo-speaking groups inhabited the West Central African region then known as the Loango Coast. The term Loango coast describes a historically significant area of West Central Africa extending from Cape Lopez or Cape Catherine in Gabon to Luanda in Angola. Within this region, Loango has been the name of a kingdom, a province, and a port. Once linked to the powerful Kongo Kingdom, the Loango Kingdom was dominated by the Villi, a Kongo people who migrated to the coastal region during the 1300s. Loango became an independent state probably in the late 1300s or early 1400s. With two other Kongo-related kingdoms, Kakongo, and Ngoyo (present day Cabinda), it became one of the most important trading states north of the Congo River. A common social structure was shared by people in the coastal kingdoms of Loango, Kakongo, Ngoyo, Vungu, and the Yombe chiefdoms; the Teke federation in the east and the Nsundi societies on either side of the Zaire River from the Matadi/Vungu area in the west to Mapumbu of Malebo pool in the east. The provincial regions, districts, and villages each had chiefs and a hierarchical system through which tribute flowed upward to the King of the Kongo and rewards flowed downward. Each regional clan or group had a profession or craft, such as weaving, basket making, potting, iron working, and so on. Tribute and trade consisted of natural resources, agricultural products, textiles, other material cultural artifacts and cowries shells (Vansima 1962; Birmingham, 1981:28–30; Bentley, 1970:75). The “Kongos” and “Angolas” shared a “ lingua franca ” or trade language that allowed them to communicate. They also shared other cultural characteristics such as matrilineal social organization and a cosmology expressed in their religious beliefs and practices. Woman-and-child figures are visual metaphors for both individual and societal fertility among Kongo Peoples and reflect their matrilineal social organization, that is, tracing their kinship through their mother’s side of the family. (See Figure 1-5) Cosmology is a body of collective representations of the world as a whole, ordered in space and time, and a human’s place in it. Fu-Kiau, the renowned Kongo scholar, was the first writer to make Kongo cosmology explicit (Fu-Kiau 1969). According to Fu Kiau Bunseki,: “The Kongo cosmogram is the foundation of Kongo society. The circle made by the sun's movement is the first geometric picture given to human beings. We move the same way the sun moves: we wake up, are active, die, then come back. The horizon line is the kalunga line between the physical and spiritual world. It literally means ‘the line of God.’ When you have a circle of the Kongo cosmogram, the center is seen as the eternal flame. It is a way to come closer to the core of the community. If someone is suffering, they say ‘you are outside the circle, be closer to the fire.’ To stand on the cosmogram is to tie a social knot, bringing people together. Dikenga is from the verb kenga, which means ‘to take care, to protect,’ but also the flame or fire from inside the circle, to build and give life” (Fu-Kiau 2001). Figure 1-5 : KongoFemaleFigure by Cliff1066 is licensed under CC BY 2.0 Before the 1920s, male and female figures carved in stone served as Kongo funerary monuments commemorating the accomplishments of the deceased. The mother and child was a common theme representing a woman who has saved her family line from extinction. Kongo mortuary figures are noted for their seated postures, expressive gestures and details of jewelry and headwear that indicate the deceased's status. The leopard claw hat is worn by male rulers and women acting as regents. Matrilineal social organization and certain cosmological beliefs expressed in religious ceremonies and funerary practices continue to be evident in the culture of rural South Carolina and Florida African Americans who are descendants of enslaved Africans (Brown 1987, 1988, 1989, 1994, 2000, 2001; Thompson 1984; Thompson and Cornet 1981). European slave trade led to internal wars, enslavement of multitudes, introduction of major political upheavals, migrations, and power shifts from greater to lesser-centralized authority of Kongo and other African societies. Most notably the slave trade destroyed old lineages and kinship ties upon which the basis of social order and organization was maintained in African societies (MacGaffey 1986). The history and culture of West Central African peoples is important to the understanding of African American people in the present because of their high representation among enslaved peoples. It has been estimated that 69 % of all African people transported in the Transatlantic Slave Trade between 1517–1700 A.D. were from West Central Africa and, between 1701–1800, people from West Central Africa comprised about 38% of the all Africans brought to the West to be enslaved (Curtin 1969). In South Carolina, by 1730, the number of Africans or “salt-water negroes,” mostly from West Central Africa, and “native-born” African Americans, many descendant from West Central Africans, exceeded the white population. (3)

The African Slave Trade and the Atlantic World

Module Introduction

According to W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the preeminent black intellectuals and activists of the late 19th and 20th centuries, the African slave trade, which transported between 10 and 15 million Africans across the Atlantic to work as slaves in the Americas, was the most important “drama in the last thousand years of human history.” The trade tore Africans away from “the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell.” Module 2 examines the tragic history of the transatlantic slave trade that occurred between European and African traders along the west coast of Africa from the late fifteenth through the nineteenth century. It addresses why Europeans came to Africa to acquire slave labor, why powerful African kingdoms who controlled trade along the coast of Africa sold human beings to European traders in exchange for foreign commodities, how the trade generated early ideas of racial difference and systems of racism, and how the trade transformed Africa and the lives of the Africans who found themselves ensnared in a slave system sustained by cold, calculating economic rationality and human brutality.

Rather than a primitive, archaic system, the transatlantic slave trade, and the labor performed by African and African-American slaves, created the modern Western world – one characterized by a global, interconnected system of capitalist expansion. The trade regarded human beings as commodities who themselves labored to produce commodities – gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, cotton – that generated profits for plantation owners, manufacturers, and merchants. African and African-American slaves resisted enslavement at every stage and found ways to create new communities, new kinship networks, and new cultures in defiance of an inherently dehumanizing system of racial slavery that survived for more than four hundred years. (1)

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Exchanging People for Trade Goods


Figure 2-1: Ottoman Empire by André Koehne is in the Public Domain . Map of the Ottoman Empire’s geographical reach in the Mediterranean world from 1481 to 1683. Europeans made the first steps toward an Atlantic slave trade in the 1440s when Portuguese sailors landed in West Africa in search of gold, spices, and allies against the Muslims and the Ottoman Empire who dominated Mediterranean trade. (2) ( See Figure 2-1 ) When the Portugese landed on the coasts of Africa they found societies engaged in a network of trade routes that carried a variety of goods back and forth across sub-Saharan Africa. Some of those goods included kola nuts, shea butter, salt, indigenous textiles, copper, iron and iron tools, and people for sale as slaves within West Africa. The arrival of European slave traders in Africa also followed Muslim traders by some eight centuries. As early as the seventh century, Muslims from North African and other areas of the Mediterranean world established trade routes into Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa and acquired gold, pepper, ivory, dried meat and hides, and slaves, which they transported to North Africa, the Middle East and beyond (Curtin 1990:40–41, Collins and Burns, A History of Sub-Saharan Africa (2014), 202). As a result of the early West African slave trade by the Portuguese, a sizeable number of Africans ended up in Portugal and Spain. By the middle of the 16th century, 10,000 black people made up 10 percent of the population of Lisbon. Some had been freed while others purchased their freedom. Some were the offspring of African and Portuguese marriages and liaisons. Seville, Spain had an African population of 6,000. Some of these Africans accompanied Spanish explorers to the North American mainland. (Curtin 1990:40–11). All of the sub-Saharan African societies discussed in Module 1 participated in the slave trade as the enslaved or as slavers or brokers. While Europeans created the demand side for slaves, African political and economic elites did the primary work of capturing, transporting and selling Africans to European slave traders on the African coast (Thornton 2002:36). Since European traders were vastly outnumbered by West Africans who controlled trade along the coast, they first had to negotiate with powerful African chiefs who often demanded tribute and fair trading terms. Only then could European traders acquire African slaves. The reason why Africans participated in the slave trade, given its drain on the most productive adults from Africa’s populations, is complex. The violence and war sown by the slave trade greatly disrupted African societies. One answer is that the institution of slavery already existed in African societies. Slavery in Africa, however, was different from the kind of slavery that evolved in the New World, particularly the English colonies, a topic discussed in Module 3. (Curtin 1990:40–41). Most legal systems in Africa recognized slavery as a social condition. Slaves constituted a class of people, captives or their descendants, over whom private citizens exercised the rights of the state to make laws, punish, and control. Although these rights could be sold, in practice people of the slave class who had been settled in one location for a sufficient time came to possess a number of rights, including immunity from resale or arbitrary transfer from one owner or location (Thornton 2002:43). In Kongo in west central Africa, there was no such thing as a class of slaves but many people belonged to a transitory group of servile subjects. “These were people of foreign origin, people who had been outlawed for criminal acts, people who had lost the protection of their kinfolk, or become irredeemably indebted to others,” argues one historian. “They differed from those enslaved by Europeans in that under normal conditions they were likely to be reabsorbed into society (Birmingham 1981:32).” Many of those enslaved and brought to the New World were people who had participated in local and long-distance trade. Depending upon their resources, they were skilled agriculturists; artisans of textiles, bronze, gold, ivory sculpture, jewelry and sacred objects; craftsmen of wooden tools, furniture, and architectural elements; as well as potters and blacksmiths. Others were skilled linguists in more than one African language and often one or more European languages as well. In some cases, they had developed trade languages that facilitated inter-group communication even among African people whose language they did not know. Even though those who were enslaved became part of one of the most heinous of historical tragedies, Africans enslaved in North American also became part of one of the greatest triumphs of human history. African people and their descendants helped to develop the modern Western world and create a new nation in the process. (3)

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

The ninth through the fifteenth centuries were times of great struggle in Europe. The European powers struggled with one another for territorial and commercial dominance. Western and Eastern Christendom struggled with one another and with Islam for religious and cultural dominance. The struggle for religious dominance resulted in North African Berbers, Mid-Eastern Arabs and other Muslim peoples from Morocco occupying the Iberian Peninsula for 700 years from 712 A.D. to 1492 A.D. During this time, while the Iberian powers sought to free themselves of Moorish occupation, England and France embarked on the Crusades to retake the Holy Land from Muslims, whom Christians called the “infidels.” The periods of the ninth to fifteenth centuries were also times of external warfare among European powers over trade, the decline of chiefdoms, and of internal consolidation, all leading to the emergence of new European states. This era was marked by the loss of agricultural productivity, famine, disease, and epidemics. Peasants rebelled against increased demands by nobility for tribute to pay for the wars. To resolve the emerging crisis, European nations increased the scale and intensity of Old World wars for commercial dominance. These circumstances combined to deplete the wealth of European nobility and the Church (Wolf 1982:108–125). (3)

Economic Factors Leading to the Enslavement of Africans

Figure 2-2: Map of the Atlantic to illustrate colonization in America (1888) by Charles P. Lucas is in the Public Domain . Map showing the Atlantic world, including the places in African where European traders acquired slaves and the regions in the Americans where Europeans used them for labor. As the fifteenth century came to a close, Europeans embarked upon exploration of the New World and Africa in search of expanded territory, new goods, precious metals, and new markets. All of these enterprises required manpower to explore, clear land, build colonies, mine precious metals, and provide the settlers with subsistence. In the New World, Europeans first tried to meet these needs by enslaving American Indians and relying on European indentured laborers. Nevertheless, war, disease and famine among Native Americans and European settlers depleted the colonies’ already limited labor supply. When both of these sources proved inadequate to meet the needs for labor, Europe turned to Africa (Wolf 1982:108–125). The development of economies based on production of sugar, tobacco and eventually rice were contingent upon workers with particular attributes of material cultural knowledge, agricultural skills and the physical capability to acclimate to the New World environment. Africans first enslaved by the Spanish and Portuguese demonstrated that they were people who fulfilled these requirements (Wolfe 1982:108–125). In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadores sailed to the Americas lured by the prospects of finding gold. They brought a few Africans as slaves with them. Early Spanish settlers soon were reporting that in mining operations the work of one African was equal to that of four to eight Indians. They promoted the idea that Africans as slaves would be essential to production of goods needed for European colonization. Several factors combined to give impetus to the Spanish demand for an African work force. Native Americans died in large numbers from European diseases for which they had no immunity. At the same time, the Spanish clergy interceded to the Spanish Crown to protect exploitation of Indians in mining operations. The introduction of sugarcane as a cash crop was another factor motivating the Spanish to enslave Africans. In order to turn a profit, Spanish planters needed a large, controllable work force, they turned to Africa for laborers (Reynolds 2002:14). Once Portugal and Spain established the profitability of the African slave trade, other European nations entered the field. The English made an initial foray into the African slave trade in 1530 when William Hawkins, a merchant of Plymouth, visited the Guinea Coast and left with a few slaves. Three decades later Hawkins’ son, John, set sail in 1564 for the Guinea Coast. Supported by Queen Elizabeth I, he commanded four armed ships and a force of one hundred and seventy men. Hawkins lost many of these men in fights with “Negroes” on the Guinea coast in his attempts to secure Africans to enslave. Later through piracy he took 300 Africans from a Spanish vessel, making it profitable for him to head for the West Indies where he could sell them for money and trade them for provisions. Queen Elizabeth I rewarded him for opening the slave trade for the English by knighting him and giving him a crest that showed a Negro’s head and bust with arms bound secure (Hale [1884] 1967 Vol. 3:60). For more than a century after Columbus’s voyages, only Spain and Portugal established New World settlements. England did not establish its first enduring settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, until 1607. France founded a settlement in Quebec in 1608. Henry Hudson brought Africans with him in his Dutch sponsored exploration of the river that came to bear his name. Africans also accompanied the Dutch in 1621 when they established a trading post in the area of present day Albany. (3)

Race as a Factor

European participation in African enslavement can only be partially explained by economics. At the end of the medieval period, slavery was not widespread in Europe. It was mostly isolated in the southern fringes of the Mediterranean. Iberian Christians mostly enslaved Muslims, Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs who were “white” non-Christian eastern Europeans from whose name the word “slave” derives. When the transatlantic slave trade in Africans began in 1441, Europeans placed Africans in a new category. They deemed them natural slaves — a primitive, heathen people whose dark skin confirmed their God-ordained inferiority and subservience to Christian Europeans. (Gomes 1936 in Sweet 2003:5). Europeans thus created an emergent understanding of “race” and racial difference from their participation in the transatlantic slave trade and a system of racism codified in law and policy and driven by a desire for wealth and profit. The first transnational, institutional endorsement of African slavery occurred in 1452 when the Pope granted King Alphonso V of Portugal the right to reduce all the non-Christians in West Africa to perpetual slavery (Saunders 1982:37–38 in Sweet 2003:6). By the second half of the fifteenth century, the term “Negro” had become essentially synonymous with “slave” across the Iberian Peninsula and had literally come to represent a race of people, most often associated with black Africans and considered to be inferior (Sweet 2003:7). In the seventeenth century, Spanish colonizers created a sistema de castas, or caste system, that ranked the status, and power, of peoples based on their “purity of blood.” Spanish elites born in Spain sat the top of this racial classificatory system while African slaves occupied the bottom. Skin color thus correlated with status and power. Race-based ideas of European superiority and religious beliefs in the need to Christianize “heathen” peoples contributed to a culture in which enslavement of Africans could be rationalized and justified. These explanations, however, do not answer the question of why some Africans participated in the enslavement of other Africans in the transatlantic slave trade. (3) Figure 2- 3: Las castas mexicanas by Ignacio María Barreda is in the Public Domain .

Internal African Conflicts and Complexities

Western and African historians agree that war captives, condemned criminals, debtors, aliens, famine victims, and political dissidents were subject to enslavement within West African societies. They also agree that during the period of the transatlantic slave trade, internal wars, crop failure, drought, famine, political instability, small-scale raiding, taxation, and judicial or religious punishment produced a large number of enslaved people within African states, nations and principalities. There is general agreement among scholars that the capture and sale of Africans for enslavement was primarily carried out by the Africans themselves, especially the coastal kings and the elders, and that few Europeans ever actually marched inland and captured slaves themselves (Boahen, 1966; Birmingham 1981; Wolf 1985; Mintz 2003). African wars were the most important source of enslavement. (3) It is important to recognize, however, that there did not exist a common shared “African” identity among African peoples during the early stages of the transatlantic slave trade along the coast of West Africa. Consequently, when traders from West African kingdoms sold men, women, and children to Europeans slave traders most would have thought they were selling outsiders, rather than fellow Africans, from their societies and kingdoms — people who spoke different languages, people who were prisoners of war or criminals, debtors and dissidents. (1)

Just as there were wars between Europeans over the right to slave catchment areas and points of disembarkation, there were increasing numbers of wars between African principalities as the slave trade progressed. Whatever the ostensible causes for these wars, they resulted in prisoners of war that supplied slave factories at Goree and Bance Islands, Elmina, Cape Coast Castle, and James Forts and at Fernando Po along the West and West Central African coast. The fighting between African societies followed a pattern. Wars weakened the centralized African governments and undermined the authority of associations, societies, and the elders who exercised social control in societies with decentralized political forms. The winners and losers in wars both experienced the loss of people from niches in lineages, secret societies, associations, guilds and other networks that maintained social order. Conflict brought about loss of population and seriously compromised indigenous production of material goods, cash crops and subsistence crops. Winners and losers in the African wars came to rely upon European trade goods more and more. Eventually the European monetized system replaced cowrie shells as a medium of exchange. European trade goods supplanted former African reliance on indigenous material goods, natural resources and products as the economic basis of their society. At the same time Europeans increasingly required people in exchange for trade goods. Once this stage was reached an African society had little choice but to trade human lives for European goods and guns; guns that had become necessary to wage wars for further captives in order to trade for goods upon which an African society was now dependent (Birmingham 1981: 38).

While the slave trade often enriched the West African kingdoms that controlled the trade along the coast, it had a devastating impact on the societies as a whole. African societies lost kinship networks, agricultural laborers and production. The loss of people meant the loss of indigenous artisans and craftsmen, along with the knowledge of textile production, weaving and dying, metallurgy and metalwork, carving, basket making, potting skills, architectural, and agricultural techniques upon which their societies depended. Africa’s loss was the New World’s gain. These were the same material cultural expertise and skills that Africans brought to the New World along with their physical labor and ability to acclimate to environmental conditions that made them indispensable in the development of the Western Hemisphere.

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