The disgraceful slavery and abominable human rights abuses that resulted from colonialization cannot be denied. Chattel slavery will forever remain a stain on Western history. However, the notion that slavery in Africa was purely as a result of European powers is cognitively dissonant as well as historically false. Slavery has been part of culture in Africa, just as it has been globally for thousands of years.
Consider the historical evidence. Egypt had a history of slavery that lasted thousands of years, this is so obvious that it barely needs mentioning. African slavery was already lucrative in the Abbasid Caliphate (Arabic: ٱلْعَبَّاسِيَّةُ اَلْخِلَافَةُ , al-Khilāfah al-ʿAbbāsīyah) as early or earlier than the 7th Century AD. The Arabs treated their African captives cruelly and in September 869 Zanj Rebellion (Arabic: ثورة الزنج Thawrat al-Zanj / Zinj) began, lasting 14 years.
Later, the richest man in the world, Mūsā I of Mali (1332) had a personal retinue of 12,000 slaves. He had subjugated the Songhai Kingdom of East Africa thus taking over the slave trade in the region which in turn supplied the Arab world.
Later during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Ẹfúnṣetán Aníwúrà (c. 1790s – June 30, 1874) known for her love of using capital punishment on slaves that displeased her was a slaver of note. She was amongst the richest people in Africa and foremost in the slave trade in Ibadan. As a result of not being able to get pregnant herself, she created rules that ensured no slave in her household could get pregnant, or make anyone get pregnant, and instituted death as the penalty for this transgression. Records show that she had 41 of her slaves decapitated. Her tyranny ended when she was murdered by two of her slaves in 1874.
Efunroye Tinubu (c. 1810 – 1887), born Efunporoye Osuntinubu became highly influential in the pre-colonial and colonial Nigerian slave trade. She kept the slave trade going in Nigeria even though the treaty had banned it (Treaty Between Great Britain and Lagos, 1 January 1852). Instead of dealing with the British she went into business with the Brazilians and Portuguese which continued the slave trade and she sold slaves in exchange for guns. Ironically, she is now defended by many who said she had changed her ways, although the Nigerian biographer Oladipo Yemitan noted that in 1853, which is after slavery had been banned, Tinubu when speaking to another slave trader called Domingo Martinez in a dispute stated that "she would rather drown the slaves [20 in number] than sell them at a discount".
Ranavalona I (1778 – August 16, 1861), also known as Ranavalo-Manjaka I, was sovereign of the Kingdom of Madagascar, reformed her country’s economy into a slave economy. While slavery was already common, she imposed it harshly and drove up the demand for slaves. She forced conscription to supply troops for her bloodthirsty conquests. The combination of her terrible policies, executions, slavery and the resulting famines caused the death of 2.5 million people in a period of five years, which is to say 50% of the population!!!
Slavery in northern Nigeria was finally outlawed in 1936 but still continues. Ethiopia made several failed attempts to abolish slavery but it was only in recent history after pressure from Western nations that it finally came about. On 26 August 1942, Haile Selassie issued a proclamation outlawing slavery.
Unfortunately, the slave trade that supplied the European and North American market was comprised of middle men (and as the reader can see, women) who were either African or Arab. The reasons are more logistics and practicality than a lack of desire on the part of Europeans and North Americans at the time. Slaves were created via tribal wars or battles between Kingdoms which would then enslave their enemies and either keep them to work in various tasks or else sell them off as profits. Slaves were also simply free peoples who were captured by professional slavers. These slavers were African or Arabs who a) knew the terrain, b) could withstand the climate and dangers such as diseases etc and c) were physically formidable enough to capture able bodied people.
Europeans did not handle the heat well and would not have done well in either finding potential people to capture nor have had the physical ability to capture people who were at a great advantage knowing the terrain. Europeans would have no doubt liked to cut out the middle men but it simply was not a viable option. Hence, they bought slaves from these middle men, loaded them into terrible and inhumane conditions, then transported them across the world where if they survived they would be subject to the same inhumane treatment.
The sad reality though is that slavery never ended in Africa. Slavery still exists in Chad, Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Sudan, Eritrea, Burundi, and Central African Republic and even South Africa. Girls are sold as sex slaves or domestic workers, boys are sold to work in mines or other dangerous work, men and boys are forced to join militias. The cycle continues and the world gets to pretend that the evils of slavery in Africa have been solved and that everything ended when European powers left. This does nothing for the 9.2 million slaves in Africa today, the world gets to feel warm and fuzzy inside pretending that the problem has been solved.
So next time you feel the urge to virtue signal your pseudo-moralistic stance on social media about how much you care about the lives of black people and how terrible the past was, reflect for a moment that that new device in your hands has components such as cobalt that were almost certainly mined by a child slave in the heart of Africa. Slavery is not dead. If we do not consider the whole historical and whole modern picture, then there is little that can be done in terms of progress.
Campbell, Gwyn (October 1991). "The state and pre-colonial demographic history: the case of nineteenth century Madagascar". Journal of African History. 23 (3): 415–445. doi:10.1017/S0021853700031534.
Campbell, Gwyn. “Slavery and Fanompoana: The Structure of Forced Labour in Imerina (Madagascar), 1790-1861.” The Journal of African History, vol. 29, no. 3, 1988, pp. 463–486. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/182352. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
Yemitan, Oladipo. Madame Tinubu: Merchant and King-maker. University Press, 1987. p. 28.
Idowu, Olawale. "Gender and the Politics of Exclusion in Pre- Colonial Ibadan: The Case of Iyalode Efunsetan Aniwura". Journal of traditions and beliefs. Retrieved 2018-08-06.
Okunola, Akanji. "Research Note: Negative Life Events And Aggressive Behavior Of Efunsetan Aniwura" (PDF). African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies. Retrieved 2018-08-06.
Alaric Naudé is a professor specialising in education, linguistics and social science. He is widely recognised as having a great face for radio.