Sep 24, 2015 - Slavery Worldwide    No Comments

Africa and Slavery

The Europeans arriving on the African coast found already enslaved black people marketed for sale, a trade which had been a staple of the Dark Continent’s economy for hundreds of years. Though traditionally slave owners themselves, the Tuareg tribe of Timbuktu were defeated in battle and those not killed and beheaded became slaves themselves. Ironically today’s Volkswagen SUV is named for this tribe of slave holders.

Bernhard Thuersam,


Africa and Slavery

“The West Indies were among Great Britain’s first colonial possessions, and for two centuries they had been the most prosperous, though that was changing as the slave and sugar economies shrank . . . [But] Africa was a rougher place.

In Sierra Leone, as in all the other European settlements along the western coast [of Africa], the activities of the expatriate whites – whether traders, officials or army officers – were restricted to villages easily accessible from the ocean, if not to the narrow confines of the trading beaches where they could escape to their ships or forts at night to avoid the pestilential diseases that were thought to come with the setting sun.

This isolation by the sea was only partly due to health concerns and the difficulty of travel through the rain forests. It was also the result of the slave trade, the middlemen of which had seen to it that their European customers were denied access to the hinterlands, the source of their own supply of new slaves. Though officially abolished, the “traffick” continued.

[As the Europeans learned], the indigenous peoples of West Africa were loath to let white men know too much about the geography and riches of their interior lands for all sorts of commercial and political reasons. Arab [slave] traders too, had a vested commercial interest in keeping the Europeans out. They helped sow distrust by relating stories of the British colonization of India, tales not lost on local African kings.

By 1821, fifteen years after the abolition of the slave trade in British colonies, it had become clear in London that there was much to be gained commercially, and also sometimes politically, by creating links with some of the powerful tribes of the interior instead of conducting all [slaving] business through intermediaries on the coast.

Tripoli had been the gateway to the African interior since per-Christian Garamantes tribesmen sold precious stones to the Carthaginians. Whoever rules Tripoli tried to keep the caravan routs open . . . [and] in the sixteenth century, Tripoli was invaded by the Turks. They governed, backed by a garrison of Janissaries. A Janissary was a soldier in an elite corps of Turkish troops drawn exclusively from abducted Christian boys trained to fight and brought up as Muslims.

The Janissaries in Tripoli intermarried with Arab and Berber women, and their sons were called Cologhis. The Cologhis, inevitably, grew more powerful until a fateful day in 1711 when one of them, Ahmad Karamanli, invited the officers of the Turkish garrison to a sumptuous banquet – and promptly slaughtered all of them as they ate. [Karamanli, calling himself “the bashaw”] founded a Tripolitanian dynasty that would rule for the next 125 years.

One [European] explorer, watching [Karamanli’s] army returning after a campaign [to the African interior] counted two thousand human heads on the tips of Cologhi spears. These grisly trophies belonged to rebellious Tuareg [tribesmen] whose decapitated bodies were burned in the desert.

In 1819, a combined Anglo-French squadron appeared off the shores of Tripoli . . . [to end attacks on Mediterranean shipping] . . . a huge financial blow to the bashaw. With a large part of his revenues cut, the bashaw had to turn elsewhere for money.

One source of income he thought he could exploit the sale of black slaves. With this in mind he started to organize slave caravans to strike deeper into Central Africa than Arabs had before.”

(The Race for Timbuktu, In Search of Africa’s City of Gold, Frank T. Kryza, Harper Collins, 2006, pp. 53-55; 67-70)


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