When Europeans traders first encountered Africa at the end of the Fifteenth century, the slave trade in West Africa was already in the experienced hands of Moslem slave traders. Through Islamic jihads during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, new Moslem states were created in West Africa “which in turn promoted enslavement on a larger scale.” The Moslems were also the dominant slave traders in North and East Africa, easily dwarfing the Europeans entering the trade.
Moslem Slave Trade Dominance in Africa
“Slavery was not unique to Africa or Africans, but was in fact common on every inhabited continent for thousands of years. As recently as the eighteenth century, it existed in Eastern Europe, and it continued to exist in the Middle East after the Second World War. What was unusual about the Africa was the magnitude of the trade in human beings within recent centuries.
[One end of the slavery spectrum in Africa] included brutal subjugation and using slaves as human sacrifices. In some parts of Africa, such as Egypt, the Sudan and Zanzibar, Africans were in fact plantation slaves on a large scale. Even where they were not plantation slaves, however, they often nevertheless lived separately from the free population, rather than in the kinds of paternalistic domestic living arrangements that existed elsewhere. In these other non-domestic occupations, mortality rates could be very high, as in Tanganyika and Zaire.
The proportions of slaves in the general population varied, ranging from a minority to a majority, even in a given region, such as the Sudan or Nigeria. Most African slaves remained in Africa – indeed, those captured in the Sudan remained in the Sudan and those captured in Nigeria remained in Nigeria – but the numbers exported were still enormous.
The magnitude of the slave exports from Africa are particularly striking in view of the relatively thin population of the continent then, as now.
The Arabs took more women than men, partly to fill the harems of the Ottoman Empire and other Islamic lands, so that the societies left in the African savanna tended to have an excess of men and children.
The Atlantic slave trade took more men than women, using slaves principally for plantation labor, so that the West African societies from which slaves were taken had an excess of women and children.
In both places the resulting sex imbalance in African societies led to a revision of traditional sex roles, including an increase in polygamy in West Africa.
Inland tribes were such as the Ibo were regularly raided by their more powerful coastal neighbors and the captives led away to be sold as slaves. European merchants who came to buy slaves in West Africa were confined by rulers in these countries to a few coastal ports, where Africans could bring slaves and trade as a cartel, in order to get higher prices.”
(Conquests and Cultures: An International History, Thomas Sowell, Basic Books, 1998, excerpts pp. 109-111)