At the time of Columbus’s exploration in 1492, slavery in West Africa was common. The dominant Songhay, Ghana and Mali empires waged war against each other, enslaved those captured, and exacted slave tributes from their weaker neighbors. When the first Europeans ventured down Africa’s western coast, they found these tribes of substantial military power who were not to be threatened.
Each Side Knew Human Bondage
“The Africans, like other people throughout the world, had practiced slavery since prehistoric times. They took prisoners of war and forced them into domestic service, as they did to their criminals. A Dutchman describing Guinea in the sixteenth century wrote:
“The Kings of the Townes have many Slaves, which they buy and sell, and get much by them; and to be briefe, in those Countries there are men to be hired to worke or goe of any errand for money, but such as are Slaves and Captives, which are to spend their days in Slaverie.”
In Dahomey, one of the kingdoms, the ruler owned plantations run by overseers, who were expected to derive the maximum return from the estates. The slave laborers were inhumanly driven . . . a group of people known as the Nupe conquered and enslaved the more primitive tribes of northern Nigeria and set them to agricultural labor. The Ashanti used slaves in systematic agriculture and imposed a tribute of 2,000 slaves annually on one defeated tribe.
In Africa’s medieval states people conquered in wartime were treated as the feudal vassals had been. Historian Basil Davidson points out: “In the Songhay region of the fifteenth century along the Middle Niger, “slaves” from the non-Muslim peoples of the forest verge were extensively used in agriculture . . . “
A follower of the great Songhay ruler Askia Muhammud, [African scholar Mahmud] Kati wrote that when the emperor took the throne in 1493, he inherited 24 tribes of vassals. As time passed, the difference in status between the free man and the “slave” became less clear . . . [with] the decisive factor [being] the widening gap between the nobility and the rest of the people. All were subjected to the rulers to feudal arrangements by mutual duties and obligations. It was a system that varied from place to place . . . but it was essentially a tribal feudalism, and in some parts of Africa it still persists.
From their coastal forts . . . the Europeans conducted peaceful trade with the Africans. Each side had goods that the other wanted. Each side knew human bondage. The medieval Europeans sold slaves even of their own faith or nation, as did the Africans. Neither continent was a stranger to the slave trade. Both sides had long accepted it, and both sides joined in practicing it.”
(Slavery, A World History, Milton Meltzer, Da Capo Press, 1993, excerpts Slavery II, pp. 17-23)