Slave Trade Hypocrisy

The Slave Trade in Black Africans

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There are a lot of misconceptions about what happened during the Trans-Sahara slave trade and the Atlantic slave trade in black Africans, including how it began.

Many people believe the slave trade in Africans began in 1619. In truth, we know that slavery itself began much earlier. Refer to the laws of Hammurabi as one source of evidence that as early as the 2nd millennium BC, slavery was already in existence. Many cultures had slavery although some cultures didn’t. For instance, Sparta had Helots, who were their slaves. The first evidence of sizeable trafficking of black Africans comes from the terms of the baqt, a peace treaty signed in the 7th century of our era between the black majority & Christian kingdom of Makuria (of present day northern of Sudan) and Arabic majority & Muslim Rashidun caliphate, as new rulers of Egypt at the time.

Some prominent terms in the treaty were[1].

  • The Nubians were to supply about 360 slaves yearly to the Arabs.
  • Egypt had to supply wheat, lintils and goods which travelled South from North Africa, Europe and the Middle East
  • The promise of safe passage of each other’s citizens when passing through their lands.
  • The promise of no wars or ceasing of conflict.
  • Free trade between the two parties.
  • The Nubians were to return any runaway slaves or Muslim outlaws who fell into their hands.
  • Nubia was to be exempted from the war by Muslims.
  • The Nubians were to look after a mosque that the Muslims will build at Dongola.
  • The Muslims were not obligated to defend the Makurians if they get attacked by third parties.

Trans-Sahara Slave trade

This treaty of the 7th century laid the foundation for the Arab or North African slave trade in black Africans which lasted from the 7th century until as late 1950 in Morocco. This region of the slave trade lasted for longer than Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Black slaves served a multitude of roles in North Africa.

Men served as farm hands, builders, labourers, government officials, miners, guards and soldiers. The status of slaves were determined by the status of their masters. With the slaves of sultans commanding the most fear. In Morocco, successive Muslim dynasties relied on black slave soldiers to put down rebellions, defend their kingdom against foreign attack, and maintain fear and respect for the Head of state: the Umayyads (661 – 750 AD), the Almoravids (1040 – 1147), the Almohads (1147 – 1269), the Wattasid Dynasty (1472 – 1554), Saadi dynasty (1510 – 1631), the Alawite dynasty (1631 – 1912).

Women served as domestic help, farm hands and concubines. In this way, even some of the sultans of Morocco, such as Mawlay Ismail, were born from black women who had come into the Royal Palace as slaves. Slaves who bore children were entitled to freedom and so were their children under Islamic law, although the community would continue to remember the origins of such freed slaves.

North Africa acquired slaves through various means: through wars and piracy as in the case European slaves such as Thomas Pellow, by sending slave raiding parties into Sub-Saharan Africa; through treaties such as the baqt; by the caravan trade with West Africa; and also by enslaving their free indigenous black citizens.

Chouki El Hamel wrote the following: “With the advance of Islam into Africa, slave raiding in western sub-Saharan Africa increased and became even more common when the supply of slaves acquired either through purchase or as captives of war in the Iberian Peninsula and the Black Sea began to dwindle once the jihads, or holy wars, fought by Islamic states in the region died down. The decrease in the European supply of Slavs to the Muslims of the southern regions was also the result of an economic imperative. Europeans obtained sugar, a commodity that medieval Europeans used to call “a product from heaven,” from the Islamic lands, but soon learned to make it themselves in the late fourteenth century. By the early fifteenth century, the Portuguese started sugar production in Madeira; the Castilians followed suit in the last quarter of the fifteenth century.”

An official document from the British Consulate in Mogador dated April 12, 1876, by Consul R. Drummond Hay, stated:

There are two great caravans during the year, by which slaves are brought to Morocco by the Moorish traders with Timbuctoo, and by the slave dealers from that city. It is difficult to calculate the number of slaves imported into Morocco by Tindoof. I am informed by persons who have been engaged in the Timbuctoo trade at that station, and who are therefore well acquainted with all the particulars, that as many as 3,000 slaves have been known to arrive in a caravan. This, however, was an exception to the rule; and, as far as I can learn, the average number of slaves that enter Morocco viâ Tindoof annually, by the two great caravans, does not exceed 2,000 souls. The number imported by other means and routes is insignificant.

After the spread of Islam across North Africa, using to the curse of Ham (also sometimes called the curse of Canaan) as justification, a belief spread among most white-majority Muslim societies that humans with a dark skin were cursed and that it was God’s will to enslave them, initially only if such targets for enslaves were non-Muslim. Mawlay Ishmail, a mulatto sultan born of a black woman, later believed that all black Moroccans should be slaves. The Sultan ordered all judges to provide legal justification to ensure that free black Moroccans were included in his conscription project, in contravention of Islamic law. Judges who objected were threatened with fines, humiliation, torture, intimidation and death. In total he achieved the rounding up of circa 221,321 black Moroccans including all free black Moroccans.

In the case of Mawlay Ishmail, his actions were so controversial and unjust even some white Moroccan judges either objected or resigned. Ali b. ‘Isa al-‘Alami, a judge in the city of Chefchaouen handed in his letter of resignation to the city’s governor. The scholar and Sufi Ahmad b. ‘Ajiba at-Titwani (d. 1809) submitted his objection to the Sultan stating:

anybody who expresses prejudice and refuses to marry them and have children with them is a haughty ignorant […]. And anybody who witnesses any injustice committed against them and accuses them of being slaves and does not do anything to change this evil act is disobeying God and his messenger.”[2]

The pretext according to the sultan himself was as follows for his injustices:

To most eminent scholars, honorable jurists and men of legal advice and wisdom of the Islamic land in the East, living in Egypt; may God preserve it; and especially among you the muftis and teachers of the al-Azhar mosque […]. The essential of the matter […] concerns the states of the Maghreb. These states are in reality borderline areas and fortified places neighboring the infidel enemy and therefore needing, up and down the border, the presence of combatants and defenders fighting with perseverance in the name of Islam. There is therefore no doubt that the ruler of these lands is in need of a strong army consisting of united and prudent soldiers in order to defend the security of the Muslim community.”

He stated in his letter that free Arab and Berber Muslim men were irresponsible, lazy, weak, envious, and opportunistic, but slaves, and he emphasized black slaves, were different. They were content, satisfied, patient, and strong. These were necessary qualities to have in a person trusted to defend the coastal cities and to protect the land of Islam.

“Not having found upon our arrival in power an organized and available army on which we could rely and which could inspire confidence and security, we turned to God, imploring his help in the choice of convening and building up an effective army. We then realized that free men and the inhabitants of the Maghreb at this time would not be suitable for a military engagement and this for multiple reasons. Slothfulness and laziness were established in their habits, and the force of want as well as greed had become a character trait […]. It was then that we shifted our interest to slaves whom we bought from their owners, this having been done after searching for them and conducting investigations on them following the law and in respect for the tradition […].

We have chosen these slaves to make soldiers and to make up the shield of Islam because they possess distinctive traits not found in others, such as the fact that this stock is not very costly, that it is content with little, and that it is very satisfied with whatever is offered to it. In addition, this group of slaves is better qualified for the blessed task for which it has been chosen, and especially the surveillance of the frontiers and the combat fronts and the protection of the land of Islam. They are sufficiently strong and patient to put up with the movements and voyages imposed by this function. Because of this fact, they are worthy and can accomplish their task in the best way.”

slave trade routes through the sahara desert

Impact on the Indigenous Black North Africans

Due to the legacies of the Trans-Sahara slave trade, many people today falsely impose slave origins on certain indigenous black North African people groups even though these people originate from North Africa.

The Haratine of Morocco

The Haratine people are a “tribe” of indigenous black Moroccans. There are others in North Africa. After the onset of skin colour based racism (coinciding with the Arab conquest of North Africa) the Sultans of Morocco started to target the black Moroccans citing either the curse of Ham as justification or manufacturing the appropriate excuse as in the case of Mawlay Ismail.

According to the Tata oral tradition, the Haratine were free natives in this region long before the arrival of the Berbers and later the Arabs, who were the real outsiders, consequently the Arabs further altered the social and political structure of the southern oases. The Arabs added the sharif status (descent from the Prophet Muhammad), another layer, to the racial prejudice and the eco­nomic privilege in the social hierarchy, hence increasing the otherness of the Haratine.

Mohammed Ennaji made a similar observation when he reported that “[the Haratin] claim precedence as the valley’s first inhabitants and say that the whites, originally nomads, came later to abuse their hospitality and treat them as slaves.”[3]

The Toubou of Libya

The Toubou are indigenous to Libya, Chad and Sudan. They are also called the Tebu people. The Toubou have been in Libya since 500 Bc, perhaps also as early as 2,300 bc. There are 2 million of them in Africa.

Toubou means Rock people since they live near the Tibesti mountain range and various water mountains.

As late as the early 20th century, Egyptian explorer Hassanein found them in the deserts of Southwestern Egypt.

Some scholars think they traded with the Ancient Egyptians. In a letter from Pharoah Pepi II (2284 BC – after 2247 BC) to the governor of Upper Egypt Harkhuf, he calls a particular country “Ta-akhet-iu”

Ta means land.

Akhet was written as a mountain symbol super imposed with a sun disk on top, meaning horizon.

iu means people.

The translation could be land of the mountain people, or land of the horizon (meaning “distant”) people, or land of the ancestral spirits. This translation from Hieroglyphics matches what the Toubou call themselves, the Rock people.

We know in a time when the Egyptians used donkeys for long distance caravan expeditions, it took 3 months to reach “Ta-akhet-iu” from Harkhuf’s tomb inscriptions, for a journey starting at Memphis.

Due to the Trans-Sahara slave trade, the Toubou are an example of indigenous Black North African who have been assigned a slave origin even though their presence in North Africa pre-dates the Trans-Sahara slave trade.

Religious prohibitions of slavery

We have already seen that neither conversion to Islam or being a Muslim prevented black Africans from enslaved by white-majority Muslim states. We have also seen that when a ruler, even a black one, had a pretext for enslaving black Africans, anyone that stood against the ruler suffered.

Islam did not prohibit owning slaves but prohibited enslaving Muslims or trading in Muslims. Those who owned slaves were encouraged to manumit them as righteous act or to release slaves in order to receive absolution for wrongdoing. Conversely, this resulted in the wealthy amassing slaves to always have one or more slaves handy for gifts, times of fasting or to free slaves for acts of propitiation.

When an Islamic ruler had a project to accomplish, it was possible to violate Islamic law in order to achieve the project objectives.

We will later see that conversion to Christianity did not prevent Europeans from enslaving black Africans either, as it will be demonstrated by a letter from the King of Kongo to the King of Portugal.

In 590-604, Pope Gregory I banned Jews from owning Christian slaves. Later, around 741 – 752, Pope Zachary banned the sale of Christians to Muslims. In 840, Venice stopped trading in Christian slaves and instead started to target Slavs from Eastern Europe for enslavement. In 873 Pope John VIII declared the enslavement of fellow Christians a sin and commanded their release.[4]

By the time the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade begun, there was already an established practice of Christians not enslaving Christians, galvanized by the external threats of expansionist Islamic empires. Yet, for financial reasons, and with bigotry providing a justification for hypocrisy, white Christians would for two and a half centuries disregard the custom of not enslaving Christians when it came to black slaves converting to Christianity.

African Traditional Beliefs in Precolonial Africa

atlantic slave trade Sub-Saharan Africa's 'Age of Pre-colonial Civilization'


Africans who have not conducted thorough research often disseminate a myth that only Christians and Muslims sold black Africans as slaves. This is incorrect. African nations used either political unity or religious unity to set the boundaries of their nation while holding relative indifference to “others”. Even amongst the forest African kingdoms which were among the last to adopt Christianity and Islam, trade was regulated by shared religious systems. Within the Oyo Empire, the Yoruba were united by a shared belief in Sango, Ifa, and the ancestors. Within the Aro confederacy, identification with the shrine of Chukwu – a Great Spirit – transcending all local forces united various city-states into a trading network united by shared ritual beliefs. In Southern Cameroon-Gabon the bilaba system united another trading network. In the Cross-River area of Nigeria and parts of Cameroon the Ekpe Leopard force system united another trade network. While laws existed which either limited the reasons for enslavement to criminal punishment and captives from war, or which dictated the terms for time-bound debt servitude such as the Iwofa financial system, both legally compliant slave traders and law-breakers supplied the Trans-Sahara and Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

So for instance, we find the following written in 1795 about the pre-Islamic Hausa, from “Timbuctoo and the Houssa”:

“The king cannot make any of his subjects slaves. They get their cotton from Bengala. They have no salt, it comes from a great distance, and is very dear. Goods find a much better market at Housa than at Timbuctoo. There are merchants at Housa from Timboo, Bornoo, Moshu, and India; the travelling merchants do not regard distance. From Timboo and other great towns he has heard, and from his own knowledge can venture to assert, that they bring East India goods. Gold-dust, ivory, and slaves are the principal returns from Housa. The people of Housa have slaves from Bornoo, Bambarra, Jinnie, Beni Killeb (sons of dogs), and Beni Aree (sons of the naked); they are, generally, prisoners of war, though many are stolen when young, by people who make a trade of this practice. The laws are very severe against this crime; it requires, therefore, great cunning and duplicity; no men of any property are ever guilty of it. The slave stealers take the children by night out of the town, and sell them to some peasant, who sells them to a third, and so from hand to hand, till they are carried out of the country; if this practice did not exist, there would be few slaves for the Barbary market. Beyond the age of fourteen or fifteen, a slave is hardly saleable in Barbary. Few merchants bring to Housa above two or three slaves at a time; but there are great numbers of merchants continually bringing them. His own slave was a native of Bambarra, and was brought very young to Timbuctoo. Slaves are generally stupid; but his, on the contrary, was very sensible; he understood several languages, particularly Arabic; he bought him as an interpreter; he would not have sold publicly for above twenty ducats; but he gave 50 for him; his master parting with him very reluctantly. He bought two female slaves at Housa, at 15 ducats each. The value of slaves has since then doubled in Barbary; he does not know the present price at Timbuctoo. At Timbuctoo not ten slaves in the hundred bought there, are females; when bought, the merchant shuts them up in a private room, but not in chains, and places a centinel at the door: when the confidence of any of them is supposed to be gained, they are employed as centinels. Housa having a great trade, is much frequented by people from Bambarra, Foulan, Jinnie, and the interior countries.

Manufactures and husbandry are similar to those at Timbuctoo.”

(The Iwofa financial system was a Yoruba pre-literate financial lending system in which a borrower would receive money in advance, to pay for a wedding, a funeral or to start a business. The borrower would then use their skills to deliver acts of service part time for a period of months or years in order to settle the debt. Debt servitude could also be used to punish unjustified grievous bodily harm.)

Trans-Atlantic Slave trade

The Trans-Atlantic Slave trade is the most infamous case of human trafficking in human history. When we look at the numbers it becomes obvious why it gets so much attention.

Between 1500 AD and 1890 AD, over twenty-two million (22,000,000) Africans were sold into slavery (R.A. Austen 1979). Seven million (6,856,000) were sold east: with 3,956,000 were sold across the Sahara and 2,900,000 across the Red sea and the Indian Ocean (R.A. Austen 1979). Fifteen million (15,000,000) were trafficked across the Atlantic. 70% of all Africans sold into slavery in the Americas were transported by Portugal and Britain.

For a contrast, 22million is equivalent to 2x the current population of Sweden.

Atlantic slave trade destinations of victims

atlantic slave trade national geographic infographic

Source: Map by Geography in the News and

New World distribution included African slaves sent to: Brazil (4 million or 35 percent), Spanish Empire (2.5 million, 22 percent), British West Indies (2 million, 18 percent), French West Indies (1.6 million, 14 percent), British North America and the United States (500,000, 4.4 percent), Dutch West Indies (500,000, 4.4 percent), Europe and other islands (200,000, 2 percent) and Danish West Indies (28,000, 0.2 percent).

Atlantic slave trade points of departure of slave exports

The largest source of African slaves was from West and Central Africa accounting for more than 4 million, or 41 percent of the total slave trade between 1650 and 1900 (Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery, 2000).[5]




Angola CoastLoango coast and St. Helena



Bight of Benin



Bight of Biafra



Gold Coast



Senegambia and off-shore Atlantic



Southeast Africa and Indian ocean islands



Sierra Leone



Windward Coast






Trade routes of slave trade

atlantic slave trade and other trade routes


Quantity of slave exports: across the Atlantic


Quantity of slave exports: across the Indian Ocean


Trade route of slave exports: Indian Ocean

Related image

Source: Indian Trade route of slave exports: across the Sahara

Recitals of the events before Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

The international events which preceded the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade include:



The Umayyad over a period of 7 years from 711 to 718 captured Spain. For the next 700 years Spain was ruled by a succession of Islamic kingdoms

  • The Dependent Emirate (711-756)
  • The Independent Emirate (756-929)
  • The Caliphate (929-1031)
  • The Almoravid Era (1031-1130)
  • Decline (1130-1492)

Christians were enslaved and taken to North Africa

To attempt to regain the Iberian Peninsula there were continuous wars between the Christian kingdoms (Holy Roman Empire, Castile, Leon, Gascony, Barcelona, and Pamplona) and Muslim Moorish Hispania (also called Cordoba) from 711 to 1492.

Economic, political and religious rivalry between neighbouring Christian and Muslim kingdoms.

Exploration of the coast of West Africa by Henry the Navigator and his successors, and estimations of the profitability of the Trans-Sahara Trade from (ca 1336 AD – ca 1497 AD)

Opportunity to weaken Morocco, Cordoba and Islamic, the rivals to Christians in the Iberian Peninsula.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453

Closing off a strategic route to the Silk Road

Spanish recaptured Granada on 2 January 1492 from the King Boabdil (the last Muslim King in the Iberian Peninsula).

Closing off Muslim control over the entry into the Mediterranean Sea.

Map of al-Andalus and the Iberian Christian Kingdoms circa the year 1000

Islamic rule: Map of al-Andalus and the Iberian Christian Kingdoms c. 1000

After the loss of Constantinople in 1453 to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI wrote Pope Nicholas for assistance. Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the former Eastern Roman Empire from 330 to 1453 in modern day Turkey. Emperor Constantine XI hoped that the pope would rally the monarchs of Western Europe to aid him. Only the Portuguese king Afonso V responded but the conditions were not that helpful to the Byzantine Empire. Elsewhere, France and England were weakened from the Hundred Years War and Spain was still trying to reconquer the Iberian Peninsula.

Rather than what the Byzantine Emperor needed, the king of Portugal used the discussion to negotiate something else of interest to Portugal. In the recitals we pointed out that Portuguese explorers had identified that the Trans-Sahara trade which included the Trans-Sahara slave trade was crucial to the economic and military strength of North Africa.

The king of Portugal wanted a piece of the trade with West Africa. It was obvious that if Portugal circumvented Morocco by the Atlantic Ocean, that it would weaken the Maghreb. The Pope was probably happy to provide an edict that offered a chance to weaken North Africa by cutting it out as a middle man.

In the Catalan map of 1380, produced by the Majorcan cartographic school, it was already obvious that Southern Europeans already knew that West Africa could be a source of gold, ivory, pepper and spices. Later, Prince Henry the Navigator and his successors sponsored the exploration of the coast line of Mauritania by merchants, shipowners, financiers and participants interested in controlling the sea lanes around the Algarve and Coastline of West Africa from around 1415 to 1460.[6]

Later, in the context of the fall of Constantinople, a desire to enrich himself, avoid open warfare, and a desire to weaken Morocco, King Afonso V needed some kind of religious edict that would justify action against their 700-year enemies the Muslims of North Africa. What he got was the papal bull of 1452 granting the following:

We grant you by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.

These rights were “geographically unlimited” according to Wilhelm Grewe.

As the Portuguese ships started to export gold, ivory, pepper and spices to Europe and North Africa sourced from West Africa, it also realised that it could supply slaves to Europe and North Africa. By the 16th century, 10% of Lisbon’s population were Africans, with both free Africans and enslaved Africans coming to Portugal.

It was Portuguese merchants that started the transatlantic slave trade. The document which granted the monopoly to trade in non-Christian slaves to Portuguese merchants is the above papal bull issued in 1452 on 18 June, called Dum Diversas (in English meaning, “Until Different”), by Pope Nicholas V.

In 1481 King John II of Portugal sent emissaries to the Court of the Oba of Benin and for a while, Portugal and Benin enjoyed close relations. Both sides benefited, especially from trades; while Portugal got items such as pepper, ivory, cotton cloth, copper bracelets, cowry shells, palm oil and other items including slaves, Benin received coral beads, textiles from India, brass ingots popularly known as manillas (used as a form of currency and which could also be melted to make other things), many European manufactured tools, military aids for their wars in form of Portuguese soldiers/mercenaries and also guns & ammunition amidst other items.

The Kingdom of Benin benefited greatly from its relationship with the Portuguese. They used the firearms from the Portuguese to further rapidly expand their kingdom and tighten their grip of the lower Niger area.

The discovery of the Americas in 1492 added demand initially for small numbers of slaves in South America due to Spanish demand for forced labour for its silver and gold mines. Initially the Spanish tried to enslave native Americans and get them to work in the silver mines acquired from the spoils of war against native American nations but native Americans too frequently died from infectious diseases brought by Europeans. The demand for African slaves grew along with demand for European convicts and European indentured servants, since they were less susceptible to dying from European infectious diseases.

English and Dutch ships realised that they could raid Portuguese ships carrying slaves, gold and spices, the coastline of Africa to capture slaves, Spanish ships bringing silver and gold back from the Americas, and sell their loot to Europe and North Africa. An example of a famous pirate was Sir Francis Drake. The slave trade grew exponentially once English and Dutch involvement in the Atlantic slave trade began.

Portuguese exploration and discoveries: first arrival places and dates; main Portuguese spice trade routes in the Indian Ocean (blue); territories claimed during the reign of King John III (c. 1536) (green); Main Factories (orange)

The Benin Kingdom and Slavery

Ugwoton town more popularly known as Gwato featured prominently as a port city for the trades. It is located about 42 kilometres Southeast of Benin. It was founded around the 11th century but during the late 15th century, it experienced a rapid socio-political and economic transformation. This was partly due to its status as the ancient Ughoton market and hub of economic activities of the Benin Kingdom even before the coming of the Europeans, but mostly its advancement was due to trade interactions with Europeans during that era, which was majorly driven by the slave trade.

This Benin-European trade relationship brought a lot of wealth to the Benin kingdom. Akenzua I is remembered by tradition as one of the richest kings who ever sat on the Oba throne of Benin. It was Akenzua I that later reintroduced the export of male slaves, an activity that was previously banned by Oba Esigie in the 16th-century.

It could be said that trade generated by Benin-European relations and the wealth derived from it were the basis of sustenance of the Benin Empire at the time.

The coming of the Portuguese rapidly internationalized Benin as a power and paved the way for other Europeans.

After the coming of the Portuguese, the empire was besieged in quick succession by traders of various nationalities in search of varying items of trade including ivory and slaves.

Initially the Portuguese resold the slaves for gold on the Gold coast; that was when for the first time, the Southwestern coast of Nigeria and neighbouring parts of the Republic of Benin came to be known as the slave coast.

Portuguese interaction with the Benin Kingdom influenced the Kingdom, however, some notable factors checked Portuguese impact on the Kingdom.

The first was the reduced trade of commodities between the two parties, the Portuguese stopped trading certain commodities with the Kingdom. This was because Portugal gained access to better alternatives from elsewhere. For instance, they stopped buying pepper because of the availability of other spices in the Indian Ocean region.

Then there was the issue of religion, the Portuguese almost stopped trading entirely with the Kingdom because they refused to convert to Christianity, but most especially they stopped trading firearms.

Benin’s placement of an embargo or ban on male slave export around 1530 by Oba Osagie was also another factor. It subsequently evolved to a total ban that lasted for about 200 years. This inevitably isolated the Kingdom from the growth of what was to become the largest export from the Nigerian coast. Not only that, but the high price of Benin slaves also made the Benin slave market unattractive to the Europeans.

All of these culminated to the closing of the popular Ughoton trading post from 1506 to 1507. However, global competition led to dwindling demand for the kingdom’s products and forced them to reconsider their position, although at a much later date.

Around 1700 Oba Akenzua I lifted the slave trade ban and reopened the Kingdom once again to the Europeans.

The cessation of slaves supplied by Benin was to some extent mitigated by the opening of a slave market by the Portuguese at a village on the Benin river referred to as Oere, probably an Itsekiri settlement.

Other kingdoms within the confines of present-day Nigeria which took part in the slave trade include the Kingdom of Oyo and Dahomey, the Kanem-Bornu empire, and the Hausa states of Northern Nigeria.

It is important to note that slaves didn’t only originate from war captives, but also initially from slave raiding by Europeans on the coast of Africa.

The Triangular Trade

By the third quarter of the 16th-century slave trade had exploded and many European nations were jostling to control the trade. This gave rise to intense rivalry among the European powers. Most notable were Britain, The Netherlands, Spain, North America, France, Sweden, Denmark, and Brandenburg (Germany).

Around this time, Portugal’s influence on the slave trade began to wane. This was during the same period the Dutch attained naval superpower status. They challenged and took over Portuguese trading stations on the coast which were the main source of slaves for the Americas. Although they were later displaced by the French and the English, with the English to later dominate and monopolise the entire slave trade.

atlantic slave trade west african centres

The European rivalry further intensified with the introduction of plantation slavery in the Americas around the first quarter of the 17th century.

Plantation slavery was a major reason Britain fiercely pursued the slave trade, and it was the cause of the start of English involvement in the infamous triangular trade of enslaved Africans.

The triangular trade kicked off with ships in Europe loading trading commodities like alcohol, guns, mirrors etc. The ships sailed and anchored off the slave coast where they would raid towns and villages to create new slaves or trade with their goods to buy slaves. Next, they sailed across the Atlantic in overcrowded ships loaded with slaves towards the New World (Americas) where there was an insatiable demand for slaves owing to the plantations. The slaves were traded for high-value commodities like cotton and sugar, and of course money (at the time silver or gold). Finally, the journey back to Europe commenced with the goods which will be traded for mouth-watering profits.

The entire trade route upon completion makes a complete triangle hence, the triangular trade.

Rather than return across the Atlantic to Europe from North America, more ambitious ships would travel back to Europe across the Pacific to give them an opportunity to create undeclared riches, by taking goods from the Americas to China and Japan to trade for porcelain and gold. Between 1602 and 1682 the Dutch East India Company exported 30 million to 35 million porcelain pieces out of East Asia (China and Japan), while during the 18th century the English East India Company imported 30 million porcelain pieces, the Swedish East India Company 20 million pieces, the French East India Company 12 million, and the Portuguese East India Company 10 million pieces.

Around the late 16th century when the African coast was starting to supply slaves to the Americas, Portugal was still getting slaves from the Bight of Benin. Their slaving activities were mainly concentrated on the Angolan coast. The Angolan coast accounted for about 40% of all slaves that were shipped to the Americas throughout the transatlantic slave trade, despite this, the Portuguese still maintained a presence on the Nigeria coast as well.

Plantation slavery

Plantation slavery was a major driving force of the transatlantic slave trade.

In the 1640s the Dutch introduced sugar to the Barbadians and taught them how to produce it via the cultivation and processing of sugarcane.

The Dutch acquired sugarcane farming and harvesting techniques from Brazilian plantations. They claimed ownership of these Brazilian plantations by seizing them from the Portuguese in 1630 who earlier had also seized the plantations from the locals.

Around this time sugar and cotton were valuable items and highly sought after.

The Dutch supplied the slaves needed for the labour-intensive plantations and thus plantation slavery was born. This catalyzed the rapid transformation of Barbados from an English styled type of agriculture comprising many pockets of small farms to just a few owners that monopolized most of the lands and grew sugar cane.

atlantic slave trade plantation artwork

A Painting Depicting Slaves Working A Sugar Cane Plantation (source)

Initially, the planters sought labour by engaging convicts, indentured servants and a handful of African servants from Britain, but this was barely enough.

Growing, harvesting and processing sugar cane required plentiful labourers, and man-power just wasn’t enough to keep up with the growing demand, whereas the supply of African slave labourers by the Dutch never seemed to ever diminish. And so began the involvement of the English in the triangular trade of enslaved Africans, which they were later to completely dominate.

Not very long after, Barbadians were importing massive populations of slaves and passing harsh laws that restricted their rights and dehumanized them. Many of such laws were also enacted by Britain and its other American colonies.

In the 18th century, Britain was the dominant slaving power. Two-fifth of all the transatlantic traffic during the 18th century was conveyed by its ships.

Even though the flags on many European countries adorned all the slave ports from Lagos to Calabar, the role of Britain was still very significant.

Around this time, more slaves came from the Nigerian coast than Angola, and by the 19th century, the Nigerian coast had supplied about 30% of all the slaves that were traded across the Atlantic.

By the time the slave trade finally ended, roughly 3.5 million people have been shipped from Nigeria as slaves to the Americas. Most of them were Igbos and Yorubas but also included significant populations of Hausa, Ibibio and other ethnicities.

Non-African nations involved in the slave trade

See 10 Non-African Nations involved in the slave trade

African nations involved in the slave trade

See 10 African nations involved in the slave trade

African that resisted involvement in the slave trade

See 10 nations that didn’t take part in the slave trade

Further reading about the Atlantic slave trade

  • Hayes, Diana. 1998. “Reflections on Slavery”. in Curran, Charles E. Change in Official Catholic Moral Teaching.
  • Michael Ediagbonya: INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF HUMANITIES AND CULTURAL STUDIES – A study of the Portuguese-Benin Trade Relations: Ughoton as a Benin Port (1485 -1506), Volume 2 Issue 2 September 2015 ISSN 2356-5926
  • Dr. Toby Green: African Kingdoms: A Guide to the Kingdoms of Songhay, Kongo, Benin, Oyo and Dahomey c.1400 – c.1800, Version 1, page 39
  • Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Nigeria(1991): A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress. Available from (accessed 20 May 2020)
  • G.I. Eluwa and M.O. Ukagwu, History of Nigeria (Nigeria: Africana-First Publishers Limited, 1988) p.110.
  • Elizabeth Isichie, History of West Africa since 1800 (Macmillan Publishers, 1969) pp.90-93.
  • J.W. Blake, European Beginning in West Africa 1454-1578 (London: 1937).
  • A.T.T. Fragmentos, Maco 9. 20 Nov.1514. Quoted in A.F.C. Ryder, Benin and Europeans, p.7.
  • A.F.C. Ryder, “The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade” in Obaro Ikime (ed.) Groundwork of Nigeria History. (Nigeria: Heinemann Educational Books, 1980)
  • Volker, T. (1954) Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company London; Victoria & Albert Museum
  • Meister, Peter Wilhelm and Reber, Horst. European Porcelain of the 18th Century, 1983, Phaidon Press, ISBN 0714821977

Transportation of African indentured servants

In the 16th century some of the slaves sent to North America were white. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of white Europeans were enslaved. They were “indentured servants” which is basically slaves for a fixed period of time. “Indentured servants were men and women who signed a contract (also known as an indenture or a covenant) by which they agreed to work for a certain number of years in exchange for transportation to Virginia and, once they arrived, food, clothing, and shelter.


“The Oxford Dictionary defines [slaves as persons] who are the legal property of another person (or others) and bound to absolute obedience: in short, ‘human chattels’. By this definition white servants were [among the first slaves brought to America by Europeans] and it is upon their labour, and later that of African-American slaves, that the United States was initially built. Today, tens of millions of white Americans are descended from such chattels. It is a shame that few in America claim these largely forgotten men and women of the early frontier as their own (White Cargo Jordan and Walsh)

“Some saw the new world as a dumping ground for England’s poor. “The New World was a magnet for the poor. To get there, they had to mortgage their labour in advance. They were not to know that they had contracted into slavery and might well die in bondage.” (White Cargo Jordan and Walsh).

Initially, some of the black Africans brought to the Americas by Britain were a mixture of indentured black servants and chattel slaves. Chattel slave status arose where interlopers such as John Hawkins – lacking the authority of the Catholic church – had raided the West African coast to create slaves of free people. Indentured servitude was an accepted financial lending system in West Africa, for a borrower to purchase goods, services or assets in exchange for periods of service, much like a mortgage today. It existed in parallel to slavery.

The Yoruba people for instance had three systems of indentured servitude: Osomalo, Ologo and Iwofa. These systems were overseen by West African traditional courts, ensuring that indebted Africans were freed at the end of their period of service. In West Africa, indentured servants were free to go to their own homes after promised periods of work each day. In West Africa, an example term could be 2 days of work a week for 4 years.

Black Africans brought to the 13 colonies as indentured servants were generally in debt servitude, calculated by voyage costs, food costs and lodging costs provided to those black indentured servants. Indentured servants earned their freedom by working a pre-defined amount of time, equivalent to their debts. One indentured servant, Anthony Johnson, once free became the first black African to own land in the 13 British colonies and also the first black American to acquire wealth. Anthony took advantage of a law which meant that anyone who imported an indentured servant into America was entitled to 50 acres a head (per indentured servant) from the colonial government. This was called the headright system. He bought the contracts of five indentured servants, entitling him to 250 acres.

Africans that arrived by indentured servitude mortgaged their labour in advance of arriving in the North America.

At the beginning it appears black and white slaves were treated more or less the same.  Later a wedge was formed between them. So, the question is what happened? 

There are various contributing factors on this but there appear to be two main drivers. Firstly, allowing slaves to be freed after a period of time became unappealing to greedy plantation owners. It soon became common for plantation owners to hold black indentured servants past their time of service. Demand for labour was high. The second main driver was “divide and rule”. “The planters’ nightmare of a combined uprising by blacks and whites came true when a charismatic young aristocrat turned an Indian war into a campaign against his own class, the English grandees. Swearing never again, the grandees set out to divide the races. Eventually, a racial wedge was thrust between white and black, leaving blacks officially enslaved and whites apparently upgraded but in reality just as enslaved as they were before. According to contemporaries, some whites were treated with less humanity than the blacks working alongside them.

It invites uproar to describe as slaves any of these hapless whites who were abused, beaten and sometimes killed by their masters or their masters’ overseers. To do so is thought to detract from the enormity of black suffering after racial slavery developed. However, black slavery emerged out of white servitude and was based upon it. As the African-American writer Lerone Bennett Jr has observed: When someone removes the cataracts of whiteness from our eyes, and when we look with unclouded vision on the bloody shadows of the American past, we will recognize for the first time that the Afro-American, who was so often second in freedom, was also second in slavery.” (Jordan and Walsh). 

John Punch is believed to be the first African person to be sentenced to slavery for life in Virginia. This was a Punishment for him running away with two other white servants.

“Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board Brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and to have thirty stripes apiece one called Victor, a Dutchman, the other a Scotchman James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures, and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is Expired. By their said Indentures in recompense of his Loss sustained by their absence and after that service to their said master is Expired to serve the colony for three whole years apiece, and that the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere.”

H.R. McIlwaine, ed. (1924) Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia: 1622-1632, 1670-1676.

According to a paper published by Punch was an ancestor of Barack Obama.  He is also believed to be an ancestor of American diplomat Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize. 

In the 17th century Elizabeth Key was the first African American to sue for her freedom in a court in Virginia and win. Her argeumant was that since her father was an English man and she was baptized as. Christian. In response to Key’s suit the Virginia house of Burgesses passed laws that ensured this doesn’t happen again. 

“Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand Assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother; and that if any Christian shall commit fornication with a Negro man or woman, he or she so offending shall pay double the fines imposed by the former act.” 

This contrasted with English common law that stated a child’s social status was based determined by their fathers and not mothers. This law and several others that were past made slavery a racist institution in the America. 

In 1667 a law was passed forbidding freeing slaves who are baptized.

Virginia law enacted, declaring that “baptisme of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage.

“WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme, should by vertue of their baptisme be made ffree; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome; that diverse masters, ffreed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavour the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or those of growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament”.

In 1680 a law is passed preventing Negro slave insurrections.

“WHEREAS the frequent meeting of considerable numbers of negroe slaves under pretence of feasts and burialls is judged of dangerous consequence; for prevention whereof for the future, Bee it enacted by the kings most excellent majestie by and with the consent of the generall assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the authority aforesaid, that from and after the publication of this law, it shall not be lawfull for any negroe or other slave to carry or arme himselfe with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon of defence or offence, nor to goe or depart from of his masters ground without a certificate from his master, mistris or overseer, and such permission not to be granted but upon perticuler and necessary occasions; and every negroe or slave soe offending not haveing a certificate as aforesaid shalbe sent to the next constable, who is hereby enjoyned and required to give the said negroe twenty lashes on his bare back well layd on, and soe sent home to his said master, mistris or overseer. And it is further enacted by the authority aforesaid that if any negroe or other slave shall presume or lift up his hand in opposition against any christian, shall for every such offence, upon due proofe made thereof by the oath of the party before a magistrate, have and receive thirty lashed on his bare back well laid on. And it is hereby further enacted by the authority aforesaid that if any negroe or other slave shall absent himself from his masters service and lye hid and lurking in obscure places, comitting injuries to the inhabitants, and shall resist any person or persons that shalby any lawfull authority be imployed to apprehend and take the said negroe, that then in case of such resistance, it shalbe lawfull for such person or persons to kill the said negroe or slave soe lying out and resisting, and that this law be once every six months published at the respective county courts and parish churches within this colony.”

To prevent freed Negros from having white servants a degree was made in 1704

“Emancipation: In 1704, alarmed by the numbers of free Negroes who owned slaves, the legislature decreed that no Negro, mulatto, or Indian could purchase any Christian servant, except of their own complexion, as slaves. Negroes were forbidden to purchase any white Christian servant. During the next year, they reaffirmed the restrictions in travel, forbidding slaves to leave the plantation on which they lived without a certificate of leave. Slaves were also forbidden weapons. Penalty for disobeying these laws was twenty lashes for either offence.”

By the 1700s slavery had become a racist institution in the British North American colonies (the antecedent of USA) and would only come to an end in the 1860s.

Resistance against the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

There is a lie often repeated amongst even academics that 100% of Europeans slave traders sat on the coast of West and Central Africa, while “Africans” brought slaves to sell for guns and booze. The lies continue that 100% of slaves had this origin. The truth is many African states resisted slavery and the slave trade in many ways.

Some kingdoms resisted slavery using diplomacy

The King of the Kongo – King Mvemba a Nzinga, most commonly known as Afonso I of Kongo, or Nzinga Mbemba – wrote a damning letter to the King of Portugal asking him address illegal kidnapping by Portuguese. Initially the King of Kongo welcomed trade and cultural exchange allowing Christians to preach their faith. Unfortunately due to demand for forced labour in Spanish mines stolen from Native Americans in the New World, the Portugal turned to enslaving free Africans to provide a supply of slaves. The letter you are about to read is an English translation from the original Portuguese and reads as follows:

King Afonso to King João III of Portugal
Mbanza, Congo, July 6, 1526

My Lord, Your Highness wrote to have us ask him in our letters everything that we need. He would provide us with everything. The peace and well-being of our kingdoms lie, after God, on our life. However we are old already and we have often been affected by various diseases which weaken us to our last resources. The same diseases also strike our sons, relatives and countrymen. Yet in this kingdom we have neither doctors nor surgeons who would know how to administer the appropriate treatment to such infirmities. Also, we have neither pharmacies nor the most efficient medicines. Thus, because we have nothing, many of those who are already educated in the truths of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s holy faith die! Most of the inhabitants cure themselves with herbs and various woods or turn to traditional rites. If they survive, their faith in those herbs and rites grows and if they die they believe they are saved which does not favour God’s service.

To prevent such damageable erring, since, after God, it is from Your Highness that we receive in our kingdoms all the cures for health, we ask Your Highness to send here two doctors, two pharmacists and one surgeon. Let them come and stay in our kingdoms with all their medicines and tools for we need each of them very much. We shall grant them many favours, because they will be sent by Your Highness; should Your Highness agree to have them work here. We beg Your Highness in urgency to accept to send them to us because this matter is not simply about granting a particular favor but also about serving God for all the reasons we just gave you.

There is, my Lord, another great obstacle to the service of God in our kingdoms. Many of our subjects greatly covet the goods which your men bring in our kingdoms from Portugal. To quench this uncontrollable thirst they kidnap many of our free or freed black subjects, even nobles, sons of noblemen and even our relatives. They sell them to the white men who are in our kingdom after having delivered their prisoners in secret or during the night in order not to be recognized. As soon as the captives are under the white men’s power they are branded. This is how they are found by our guards when they board the ships. The white men then explain that they were bought but they cannot say from whom. Yet it is our duty, as the prisoners claim, to do justice and set them free. To prevent such incidents we have decreed that all white men buying slaves in our kingdoms, however it may happen, should first inform three noblemen and officers of our court to whom I entrusted this control….They will check whether the slaves are not actually free men. If they are found to be slaves nothing will prevent anyone from having them and taking them aboard. However, should the opposite be true, the captives will be taken away from the white men. We gave our consent to this favour and these services because of Your Highness’ participation in this trade. Indeed we know that it is for your service that these slaves are taken from our kingdoms. If it were not so, we would not agree to it for the reasons we have already given you.

We inform Your Highness of all this so that your subjects will not come to you and say it is otherwise. Indeed they tell Your Highness many lies to keep your mind from remembering the obligations you have towards us and our kingdom for God’s service. It seems to us that it would be a great favour if you could let us know through one of your letters what you think of these dispositions. We kiss Your Highness’ hands many times my Lord.

Some African states debated the legality of enslavement

We have already seen that some Morocco judges such as Ahmad b. ‘Ajiba at-Titwani (d. 1809) often tried to step in and were willing to confront even their ruler, when they witnessed slavery based on racist ideas, rather than Islamic law.

Some African states fought back

Kingdoms which resisted enslavement and the slave trade included the Fante of present day Ghana, the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo (of present day Angola), Imamate of Futa Toro (of present day Senegal), Jola (near Senegal), the Kikuyu (of Kenya), the Maasai (of Kenya and Tanzania), the Mossi kingdom (of present day Burkina Faso), the Kru (who are today spread across eastern Liberia and Sierra Leone), and the Balanta (of present day Guinea). It is also believed that 1 in 10 ships trafficking African slaves to the Americas experienced a slave revolt, mass suicide or saw the crew murder their cargo to realise value through insurance claims such as the Zong massacre of November 1781.

According to Dr Natalie Zacek, due to risks of slave rebellions, slave ship crew members were often armed. Their cannons could be turned inwards. Slaves were kept in quarters and chained.

atlantic slave trade west african kingdoms
Futa Toro and West African kingdoms, c. 18th century.

Baga people distribution in Guinea (approx).

Africans thrown overboard from a slave ship, Brazil

Africans thrown overboard from a slave ship, Brazil, ca. 1830s. This woodcut was originally published in The Liberator, the American abolitionist newspaper, 7 Jan. 1832 (vol. 11, p. 2) [Library of Congress photo, LC-USZ62-30833]

Some African states used embargos

The Benin Kingdom first came into contact with the Portuguese in the 15th century AD. Portugal and Benin went on to have good relations for a while, with the representatives of the King of Portugal visiting the Oba of Benin at the time. Benin became a trade hub for the Portuguese, but in the reign of Oba Esigie in 1530 Benin began an embargo – a total ban – of the export of all slaves from its port after seeing the effects of the slave trade on their workforce and society. Missionaries were also expelled. In this way, they refused to participate in the transatlantic slave trade. However, in the 18th century, under a new king (Oba) Akenzua I, the slave trade restarted. again.  atlantic slave trade benin

Example of a slave raiding mission to West Africa

18th Century world map showing the start point of the voyage at Bristol

Captain Woodes Rodgers in command of the Duke and Captain Stephen Courtenay in command of the Duchess leave Bristol in August 1708. Their financial backers included the mayor, the ex-mayor, alderman, sheriffs, physicians and town clerks. The main investor is Thomas Goldney II, the Bristol grocer.

18th Century world map showing the route of the voyage as far as the island of Juan Fernandez of the west coast of South America

A sailor Alexander Selkirk is found marooned on an island on the voyage. He had been on the island for 4 years and 4 months. Selkirk becomes the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.

18th Century world map showing the route of the voyage as far as California

Spanish ships are robbed of slaves, who are re-sold in the Americas by the Duke and the Duchess.

18th Century world map showing the route of the completed voyage circumnavigating the globe

Ships return in 1711 making their shareholders rich.

Map of Great Britain showing Bristol and Coalbrookedale, Shropshire

Shareholders use the money to invest in ironworks at Coalbrookdale, Shropshire and expand their estates.

Benefits of the slave trade

To illustrate the benefits of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, we will look at Britain as an example.

Local benefits of the slave trade


Map of Bristol

Sample of uses of slave trade profits:

  1. Pero’s Bridge
  2. Guinea Street
  3. The statue of Edward Colston
  4. Queen Square
  5. Merchants’ Hall
  6. Corn Street
  7. The Sugar House, Lewins Mead
  8. The Georgian House
  9. Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery and the Wills Memorial Building


Map of Liverpool

Sample of uses of slave trade profits:

  1. Pier Head
  2. Martin’s Bank (today called Barclays Bank). Martin’s Bank traces its origin to Heywood’s Bank, set up by Benjamin and Arthur Heywood, who provided finance to slave traders, after making their own money from the slave trade. Heywood’s Bank got absorbed into the Bank of Liverpool, which got absorbed into Martin’s Bank, which became Barclays Bank.
  3. The Town Hall
  4. The Walker Art Gallery
  5. Roscoe Memorial Gardens
  6. Rodney Street and Maryland Street

A Liverpool Slave Ship by William Jackson. Merseyside Maritime Museum

National benefits of the slave trade

There is no disputing that Britain benefited immensely from slave trading. Without slave labour, Britain would not have attained its status very early on as an economic power. Profits from the slave trade poured into:

  1. Universities (such as donations to All Souls College in Oxford and donations to Glasgow University)
  2. Museums such as the British Museum (from donations by Sir Hans Sloane ) and the National Gallery (from donations by John Julius Angerstein)
  3. The Tobacco industry
  4. The railway industry
  5. Banks and the banking industry. Prior to the 17th century, London had no banks. Profits from the slave trade were reinvested as credit instruments for start up and established slave traders.
  6. The Bank of England
  7. The Royal Navy
  8. Country Mansions (in Bristol, Liverpool, London, and the South East such as Harewood House, etc.)
  9. The Iron Industry
  10. The Guns Industry
  11. The Sugar Industry; 
  12. The Textile Industry; and
  13. Investment in Scientific Research.

The British economy was literally built off slave labour. It was the slave trade that caused the emergence and development of Britain’s wider economy, its financial, commercial, legal and insurance institutions all emerged to support the activity of the slave trade.

It is no coincidence that the time Britain became a prosperous nation between 1600 and 1700 coincided with the time of the cross Atlantic slave trade.

The wealth and success attained by Britain during 1600 to 1800 is usually attributed to ingenuity and hard work rather than the exploitation of African slave labour, trade, plunder and gunpowder. Today, you can sit in Economics History classes in prestigious universities where wealth creation in the United States and Western Europe during 1600 to 1800 is explained by capitalism, the enlightenment, and innovation without a meaning attribution to the slave trade.

Parts Of Britain’s Economy That Benefited From Slave Trade (SOURCE:

We’ll take a look at the role of African slaves in Britain’s industries and institutions which arose as a result of the former and made Britain an economic power, a status it still retains till date.

Some of them are Banks, cultural Institutions, Museums, Library, and many other different industries that generated immense wealth for the nation.

Banks and banking

Up until the mid-17th century, London had no banks. And even a century later after banks emerged in London, banking was still grossly underdeveloped outside of the city.

The slave trade caused an economic boom, but slave traders and plantation owners desperately needed credit.

The triangular trade, for instance, could take up to 18 months and various points of the trade; buying and selling Africans, buying and importing plant produce(mainly sugar) that was cultivated using African slaves required credit arrangements.

Provincial banking emerged because of the need for credit in the Atlantic slave trade. Liverpool’s slave merchants formed Heywoods bank which later became part of Barclays bank.

Modern banks such as Lloyds and The Bank Of England also emerged this way, they were all connected to the slave trade.

The people who formed The Bank of England were elite members of the society that made their fortunes wholly or partly from slave trade, and when they finally set up the bank in 1694, it underpinned the whole system of commercial credit.

Cultural institutions

While the connection between slavery and Britain’s cultural institutions might sometimes not be very obvious to see owing to the indirectness, it is still there nevertheless.

Sir Hans Sloan’s collections single-handedly kickstarted the British Museum with his over 73,000 collections when the Museum opened in 1759.

Sir Hans Sloane was a collector from childhood, he married the widow of a very wealthy Jamaican plantation owner. It was the wealth from her plantations that enabled Hans to fully indulge his passion for collecting unhindered, and by the time he died in 1753 he had amassed over 71,000 items.

Britain was handed all of his collections when he died, and it was with these collections that the original British Museum along with its offspring The Natural History Museum was started.

The National Gallery also began in a similar fashion. It was set up in the Pall Mall home of John Julius Angerstein with his collection of 38 pictures.

John Julius Angerstein made his fortune from plantations in the Caribbean and also as an underwriter with Lloyds, the latter of which most of the business was insuring slave ships in the Atlantic.

He invested his wealth in properties and luxuries of which included his grand Pall Mall home and a collection of the finest private arts.


Britain’s prestigious universities thrived off funding gotten from African slave labour or trade.

One of the finest libraries in Oxford, the Codrington Library located in All Souls College has its roots deep in African slavery.

It was founded from the proceeds of African slave labour.

The library is named after Christopher Codrington who owned a plantation in the Caribbean, his father was one of the richest planters in Barbados.

Codrington was also a book collector and at the time of his death in 1710, he had in his collection over 12,000 volumes which he bequeathed to the college. He also gave the college a staggering sum of £10,000 which in today’s money is about £1.7 million. He left instructions to build a library with £6,000 and use the rest of the money for books.

Glasgow University is another of such British learning institution. Recently it has pledged to pay £20 million as atonement for its involvement and benefit from the Atlantic slave trade.

Country mansions

Various magnificent buildings in Britain today that is often associated with British legacy was as a result of direct or indirect affinity with the African slave trade. The Harewood House is a classic example. It is among the grandest of English stately homes, and although it appears to have no connection with the world of slavery, it certainly does.

The Harewood House is home to the Lascelles family, Henry Lascelles the family head made his fortune in the 17th Century from sugar and African people enslavement. By the time he died in 1753, he was worth about £28 million by today’s estimate.

The Harewood House was built from the wealth generated by African slaves.

The Lascelles were merchants trading between Bristol/London and Barbados, they were also money lenders. They lent money to planters and took slaves and plantations as collateral. They went on to become major slave owners, owning up to 1,277 African slaves by the time of the emancipation in 1838, of which they received £26,000, roughly £3 million in today’s money as compensation for their freedom.

The Slave Trade And The British Economy (SOURCE:

Iron industry

Slavery caused the British iron industry to boom. The millions of African slaves that were traded required iron products; chains, padlocks, hundred of thousands of firearms used in barter for slave exchange, cages, slave ships, tools used in plantations and so many other iron products too numerous to mention brought the British iron industry to life.

Individuals like Boulton, an abolitionist, built steam engines that were sold to plantation owners which replaced manual labour thus reducing the number of slaves required. Many other iron manufactures whose businesses depended on plantations benefited immensely.

The Soho Museum of London is a testament to the link between the Atlantic slave trade and the early English iron and metals industry that supplied iron equipment for slave ships, and other iron exports to Africa and plantations of the Americas.

Tobacco industry

Many streets in Glasgow today are a testament to the influence and wealth of powerful Glaswegian tobacco barons. Their influence extended to the Americas, often buying up estates in the Caribbean.

The Gallery of Modern Art in Scotland testifies to the enormous wealth from tobacco that flowed into Scotland. Without African slave labour, it is highly unlikely there would exist such.

The economies of Virginia and Maryland in North America were rapidly transformed when North American settlers started cultivating tobacco using slave labour. Before long the two towns became one of the largest exporters of tobacco in the world.

Glaswegian tobacco merchants came to dominate the booming transatlantic tobacco trade while Scottish merchants established tobacco trading networks in Virginia, and by 1760 Glasgow had become the largest importer of tobacco, even overtaking London.

William Cunningham, a Glaswegian tobacco merchant who made his fortune from tobacco, headed one of three major cartels that controlled the flow of tobacco into Scotland.

He later on built one of the most magnificent buildings in the city, the Cunningham mansion in 1778. The townhouse cost a whopping £10,000, this translates to about $1.7 million in today’s money. After his death, the building was used for different things but stands today as The Gallery of Modern Art.

Sugar industry

Bristol dominated the sugar import trade and it was not until around 1799 that they were overtaken by Liverpool.

During the first half of the 18th century, it was not uncommon in Bristol for scores of English merchants and West Indian planters who made small fortunes off sugar imports to retire to magnificent houses in the west country.

The city prospered from the wealth generated by sugar imports from slave plantations across the Atlantic, sugar became the most lucrative of the city’s industries.

Sugar refineries emerged alongside the city’s warehouses and quaysides to process the crude sugar shipped from across the Atlantic.

Britain’s sugar market was booming as sugar was in high demand, it was needed to sweeten different delicacies but most especially it was used to sweeten tea. It did not take very long for Bristol to grow in prominence and stature.

Inevitably, as with many other English cities, there are structures all over the city that serve as reminders of how British life was impacted or linked to slave trade. The most famous was probably No 7 Great George Street, the home of the Pinneys family who were famous planters and founders of a trading house that was involved in the West India trade.

There are other buildings such as, The sugar house in Lewis Mead which is now a hotel, Pero’s Bridge named after a slave, Queens Square that was home to renowned sugar merchants, Merchants Hall which was the site of local merchants that greatly profited from the boom in slave trading and so many others.

Without the exploitation of African slaves neither Bristol nor Liverpool would have achieved the status they attained during that era.

Textile industry

The growth and development of the British textile industry in the 18th Century first depended on their Guianan, Brazilian and French Caribbean slave plantations. Then later, it overwhelmingly relied on the US Deep South plantations.

Cotton picked by slaves in America was exported to Britain. Although Britain was able to build machines to weave cotton. It took the use of violence and threats of violence against slaves in North America to produce cotton at a level of efficiency sufficient to match the processing speed of Britain’s cotton mills.

African Slave Labourers Resting on Packaged Cotton Ready To Be Shipped (SOURCE: Public Domain)

British cotton textile manufacture growth was at the same pace as the expansion of North American Deep South slavery and it was no coincidence.

By the 1850s, Over 70% of American cotton production was being exported to Lancashire in England.

By 1860 almost 90% of Britain’s cotton textiles were made from America’s imported cotton.

Inevitably as the number of African slaves working cotton plantations grew in their millions, it coincided with abundant job opportunities in the textile industry for British textile wage workers, providing about 460,000 jobs.

British and North American banks provided credit to the Deep South plantation owners that was used to purchase more lands and slaves, in essence, facilitating the expansion of cotton plantations. In return, the banks got the first call on the sale of the cotton crops.

Guns industry

Between the mid 18th Century and the abolition of the slave trade in 1801 over 20 million guns were traded for slaves, with the British accounting for half of that number while other European nations made up the rest.

The most direct link between the British iron & guns Industry and slavery was in the use of guns in exchange for slaves in West Africa. Of course, British gun powder exports also rose from 200,000 lbs to over 2,000,000 lbs at its peak in 1791. This was the time British guns manufacturer Farmer & Galton was churning out the equivalent of a musket every minute, most of which was used in the slave trade.

The gun trade led to the emergence of new and powerful slave states with armies that were armed with European weapons, and it forever transformed slave raiding and trading in Africa.

Today it has evolved to arming different groups all across the African continent, which is one of the major causes of unending conflicts in the region.

The growing demand for slaves in the New World plantations was equally met with the capture and supply of slaves by musket armed slave raiders.

It should be noted however that Britain did not manufacture guns primarily for slave raiding although it was connected with it since most of its gun production was for the 18th-century wars through which Britain won her plantation colonies. Also, the guns were made for the defence of these colonies, and suppression of slave revolts.

Legacies of British slave ownership

To further understand the impact of slave ownership, The Centre for the study of the Legacy of British Slave Ownership was established in 2010 by University College London. Its purpose was to reveal the impact of British slavery.

The Centre has a director, Nick Draper and chairperson Catherine Hall. They both argue that the central purpose of the research was to counter the issue of selective forgetting, whereby society tends to forget the human cost of slavery, but celebrates its emancipation.

The Centre has uncovered amongst many other findings that at least about 46,000 Britons received compensation from the 1834 Slavery Abolition Act, including not only the rich and the aristocracy, but also clergymen and the middle class. Many notable personalities are descendants of slavery beneficiaries including VIPs like David Cameron and Benedict Cumberbatch. Slavery generated immense wealth amongst many other findings.

The abolition of the slave trade and slavery

Children in the UK sometimes take away from classrooms an over-simplistic narrative about how slavery was abolished in the UK. While the actions of William Wilberforce in persuading the British Parliament to abolish the “slave trade” were honourable and noteworthy, an incomplete story is unfortunately provided to posterity. Slavery involved slave ownership whereas abolishing the slave trade only meant stopping citizens of the United Kingdom from transporting black Africans as chattel from Africa to the Americas. This image of Wilberforce abolishing slavery itself within the United Kingdom might be due to the sensationalist style of film, TV and print production, but the image isn’t the full narrative of what happened.

On one hand, European and North American abolitionists such as Granville Sharpe, Hannah More, Maximilien Robespierre in France, Abbé Grégoire, George Whitefield, Harriet Beecher Stowe through her work Uncle Tom’s Cabin, John Newton, John Wesley, Lourenço da Silva de Mendouça (1620 – 1698), Montesquieu in The Spirit of Laws (1748), Denis Diderot in the Encylcopédie, Thomas Clarkson – a speaker at Robert Haydon’s Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, a professor and abolitionist as important as Wilberforce or Granville Sharpe – and others contributed to the abolition of slavery in black Africans.

William Lloyd Garrison wrote in The Liberator, his abolitionist newsletter: “the Anti-Slavery cause cannot stop to estimate where the greatest indebtedness lies, but whenever the account is made up there can be no doubt that the efforts and sacrifices of the WOMEN, who helped it, will hold a most honourable and conspicuous position.”

John Wesley, a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford university, English theologian, cleric, evangelist and Methodist supported the abolitionist movement with his lectures, mobilisation of Methodist leaders, and incorporation of anti-racism messages into his teachings. He wrote the work “Thoughts Upon Slavery”. In it, he said for instance: “Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air; and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature”

Josiah Wedgwood in 1787 designed a British abolitionist seal with the slogan “Am I not a man and a brother?” using his pottery business.

Wedgwood medallion of kneeling slave

Josiah Wedgwood, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” (1787)

The salvation army in Johannesberg attempted to shock the public by putting children in boutique windows to demonstrate how the auction block for slaves worked. Behind the children was a banner with the inscriptions “Sale. 3-6 year olds. 7-10 year olds. 11-14 year olds.”

In 1839 a human rights organisation was founded called Anti-Slavery International. To raise awareness of the dehumanisation process of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, the organisation focussed on distributing pictures, sketches and schematics of the slave trade operations.

White abolitionists did not operate in a vacuum. It was a joint effort with former slaves, free black men and women, and former slave traders. Many black authors and campaigners were involved in pressuring the slave trading nations to abolish both slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, .

This article covers some of the black actors that worked to secure the abolition of both slavery and the slavery, or at a minimum wrote treatise on why the racist ideas were morally wrong.

Frederick Douglass, one of the most well-known African American writers, powerfully and effectively left us and his contemporaries, in his book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, a record of the dangers and inhumanity of slavery, charting his life as a slave, naming his former owner Thomas Auld, describing his escape from slavery along with his wife Anna Murray, a free black woman.

Henry Box Brown undertook a lecture tour and wrote a book called The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself to expose the brutalities of slavery and galvanise support for the abolitionist movement.

James Africanus Beale Horton, a West African by origin, explained the errors of racists theories about black Africans in his 1868 book West African Countries and Peoples, British and Native, and a Vindication of the African Race.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799) through his musical compositions demonstrated that musical genius was not the preserve of white Europeans. Joseph was a virtuoso violinist, composer, orchestra conductor and champion fencer. As a fifteen year-old fencing student, Bologne bested a fencing master Alexandre Picard, motivated by a racist insult uttered by Picard.

Moses Roper in a book titled “A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery” provided a powerful account of the sufferings of Africans trapped into the transatlantic slave trade system.

Olaudah Equiano wrote a slave narrative in support of the anti-racism and the abolitionist campaign through his book The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano; and gave many speeches.

Soujourner Truth (1797 – 1883) born Isabelle Baumfree gave lectures, for instance at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, and wrote speeches such as “Aint I a Woman?” to push the United States further towards the abolition of slavery.

William Wells Brown an former slave became an energetic speaker, embarking on anti-slavery lecture tours, and wrote various works. William escaped slavery to Ohio at the age of 20 in 1834. To raise awareness of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the second-hand market for slaves in the Unites States he wrote various pieces:

  • Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself, Boston: The Anti-slavery office, 1847.
  • Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself, London: C. Gilpin, 1849.
  • Three Years in Europe: Or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met. London: Charles Gilpin, 1852.
  • Brown, William Wells (1815-1884). Three Years in Europe, or Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met. with a Memoir of the author. 1852.
  • William Wells Brown, CLOTEL; or the President’s Daughter (1853), An Electronic Scholarly Edition, edited by Professor Christopher Mulvey
  • The American Fugitive in Europe. Sketches of Places and People Abroad. Boston: John P. Jewett, 1855.
  • The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. New York: Thomas Hamilton; Boston: R.F. Wallcut, 1863.
  • The Rising Son, or The Antecedents and Advancements of the Colored Race. Boston: A. G. Brown & Co., 1873.
  • My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People, Boston: A. G. Brown & Co., Publishers, 1880.
  • The Negro in the American Rebellion; His Heroism and His Fidelity …

These writers related to the public, or somehow those in denial about the system of chattel slavery in black lives, accounts to disseminate the brutality of slavery, its cruelties, its effects on the spirit of the slaves, the damage to black family units, and the wanton acts of rape committed against black women which explains the presence of over 600, 000 mulattos in the Unites States at end of the American Civil War, excluding Mulattos in the Caribbean and South America.

Slavery was not abolished purely by former slaves and abolitionists writing books, or abolitionist politicians like Wilberforce giving persuasive arguments in the British Parliament, some Black Africans either captured or born into slavery contributed to the abolition of slavery through slave revolts, attempted suicide and birth control.

Most famously there was the famous Haitian Revolution – one of the few successful slave revolts to occur in the history of mankind. This revolt was led by a flawed military tactician called François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, Toussaint Louverture for short. It is not usually remembered that this revolt involved a black military force having to take on four of the world super powers of the time including Spain, Britain, France and the United States. The rebel slaves defeated Spain and Britain but eventually lost to France, due to financial settlement Haiti had to sign to agree future terms of peace. The United States on the other hand took steps to oppose the Haitian Revolution by creating a century long blockade of Haiti, boycotting Haiti products to ensure the political project in Haiti set up by a free black population would fail.

Other slaves gained their independence either by joining Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian regiment or Abraham Lincoln’s Yankee army, which involved rebelling against their masters.

A painting of Louverture in a military uniform holding a document

A painting of Louverture in a military uniform holding a document

There were no fewer than 400 separate slave or anti-racism revolts during the period from 1500 to 1900. These included the Stono Rebellion of 1839, the New York City Conspiracy of 1741, the Gabriel’s Conspiracy of 1800, the Monrant Bay massacre, the German Coast uprising of 1811, Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 and Amistad Ship Revolt. These slave revolts exacerbated the American and European white paranoia about propensity of black people for wanton violence, as guilt and fear of revenge by white Americans and Europeans left them in a state of perpetual anxiety, always scared of suffering the kind of violence and cruelties they inflicted habitually on African slaves in the Americas.

The first slave revolt in North America occurred in 1663 Virginia and was a joint revolt by white indentured servants and black slaves. This probably happened because the conditions of white indentured servants in the early years of Europe settling the Americas was close to slavery. To avoid this ever happening again, the white bottom social class were given better privileges than black slaves, roles in policing, and plantation supervision which ensured that the white poor would always feel that receiving comfort, better wages than black denizens and safe working conditions was mutually exclusive to black inhabitants of America getting basic human rights.

Overall, various people of different national origins, skin tones and with different talents each in their own way contributed towards the eventual abolition of slave trade and also the abolition of slavery. In abolishing slavery, various countries these steps into law independently and at different dates. The abolition of slavery initially reformed slavery rebadging into convict leasing, or apprenticeships in combination with passing new kinds of vagrancy laws.

We can learn therefore that when slavery was abolished the campaign process was not over-simplistic, did not involve any one single man but was a disjointed pressure movement composed of various campaigners and supporters of anti-slavery and anti-racism.

Most slaves never got reparations when slavery was abolished. Perversely it was the slave owners that got compensated. The United Kingdom finished paying the 46, 000 slave owning families affected by the 1834 Slave Abolition Act no earlier than 2010.

Spread of slave owners

The maps below only cover a sample of location of slave-owners compensated by British government as part of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834. It doesn’t show the location of French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Brazil, Danish, Swedish and African slave owners.

Global map; Map of the slave owners who claimed compensation at the end of the Atlantic slave trade, Source: UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project.

Britain and Ireland, Map of the slave owners who claimed compensation at the end of the Atlantic slave trade, Source, UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project

Europe. Map of the slave owners who claimed compensation at the end of the Atlantic slave trade, Source, UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project

Africa, Map of the slave owners who claimed compensation at the end of the Atlantic slave trade, Source, UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project

Atlantic slave trade British American slaveowners

North America, Map of the slave owners who claimed compensation at the end of the Atlantic slave trade, Source, UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project

Atlantic slave trade Asian British slaveowners Asia, Map of the slave owners who claimed compensation at the end of the Atlantic slave trade, Source, UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project

Atlantic slave trade Australian slaveowners

Oceania, Map of the slave owners who claimed compensation at the end of the Atlantic slave trade, Source, UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project

Atlantic slave trade London slaveowners

London, Map of the slave owners who claimed compensation at the end of the Atlantic slave trade, Source, UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project

Atlantic slave trade Scottish slaveowners

Scotland, Map of the slave owners who claimed compensation at the end of the Atlantic slave trade, Source, UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project

Atlantic slave trade UK slaveowners

England, Map of the slave owners who claimed compensation at the end of the Atlantic slave trade, Source, UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project


  1. Jakobielski, S. 1992. Chapter 8: “Christian Nubia at the Height of its Civilization.” UNESCO General History of Africa, Volume III. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-06698-4

  2. Muhammad Dawuud. Tarikh Titwan. Tetouan, 1963, vol. 2, 41.

  3. Chouki El Hamel. Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam. Arizona State University. Publisher: Cambridge University Press; Online publication date: January 2013; Print publication year: 2012; ISBN 978-1-13919-878-3

  4. Denzinger, Heinrich P. (2012). Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals. Santa Francisco, California: Ignatius Press. p. 229. ISBN 978-0-89870-746-5.

  5. “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade – Estimates”slavevoyages. Retrieved 5 February 2021.

  6. Ross, Emma George. “The Portuguese in Africa, 1415–1600.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002)

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The Slave Trade in Black Africans

by Editorial Team time to read: 56 min