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In Africa there were a number of societies and kingdoms which kept slaves, before there was any regular commercial contact with Europeans, including the Asanti, the Kings of Bonny and Dahomey.

African Slave Owners

Many societies in Africa with kings and hierarchical forms of government traditionally kept slaves. But these were mostly used for domestic purposes. They were an indication of power and wealth and not used for commercial gain. However, with the appearance of Europeans desperate to buy slaves for use in the Americas, the character of African slave ownership changed.

In the early 18th century, Kings of Dahomey (known today as Benin) became big players in the slave trade, waging a bitter war on their neighbours, resulting in the capture of 10,000, including another important slave trader, the King of Whydah. King Tegbesu made £250,000 a year selling people into slavery in 1750. King Gezo said in the 1840’s he would do anything the British wanted him to do apart from giving up slave trade:

The ruling class of coastal Swahili society – Sultans, government officials and wealthy merchants – used non-Muslim slaves as domestic servants and to work on farms and estates. The craftsmen, artisans and clerks tended to by Muslim and freed men. But the divisions between the different classes were often very flexible. The powerful slave and ivory trader Tippu Tip was the grandson of a slave.

The Omani Sultan, Seyyid Said, became immensely rich when he started up cloves plantations in 1820 with slave labour – so successful was he that he moved the Omani capital to Zanzibar in 1840.

The East African Slave Trade

In East Africa a slave trade was well established before the Europeans arrived on the scene. It was driven by the sultanates of the Middle East. African slaves ended up as sailors in Persia, pearl divers in the Gulf, soldiers in the Omani army and workers on the salt pans of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Many people were domestic slaves, working in rich households. Women were taken as sex slaves.

Arab traders began to settle among the Africans of the coast, resulting in the emergence of a people and culture known as Swahili. In the second half of the 18th century, the slave trade expanded and became more organised. There was also a huge demand for ivory, and slaves were used as porters to carry it.

There were three main reasons why more slaves were required:

  1. The clove plantations on Zanzibar and Pemba set up by Sultan Seyyid Said, needed labour.
  2. Brazilian traders were finding it difficult to operate in West Africa because the British navy was intercepting slave ships. The Brazilians made the journey round the Cape of Good Hope, taking slaves from the Zambezi valley and Mozambique.
  3. The French had started up sugar and coffee plantations in Mauritius and Reunion.

A number of different people -Arabs and Africans – were involved in supplying slaves from the interior, as well as transporting ivory. They included: the prazeros, descendants of Portuguese and Africans, operating along the Zambezi, the Yao working North East of the Zambezi, the Makua operating East of the Yao, closer to the coast, the Nyamwezi (or Yeke) operating further north around Lake Tanganyika under the leadership of Msiri and Mirambo, who established a trading and raiding state in the 1850’s which linked up with the Ovimbundu in what is now modern Angola

The most famous trader of all was Tippu Tip, (Hamed bin Mohammed) a Swahili Arab son of a trader, and grandson of an African slave. He was born in Zanzibar of African Arab parentage and went on to establish a base West of Lake Tanganyika, linking up with Msiri. He and his men operated in an area stretching over a thousand miles from inland to the coast.

At the height of the slave trade in the 18th century an estimated six million Africans were forced to make a journey across the Atlantic often totaling over 4,000 miles. Over 54,000 voyages were made in the course of three hundred years between the 16th and 19th centuries. The large proportion of slaves ended up in the Caribbean, approximately 42%. Around 38% went to Brazil, and much fewer, about 5%, went to North America. The journey from Africa to North America was the longest. The journey could take as little as 35 days, just over a month (going from Angola to Brazil). But normally British and French ships took two to three months.

The slaves are said to have gone through ‘hell’ by the time they reached their destinations. Inside the ships, they would be packed like sacks of beans with no room even to turn, although in some ships a slave could have a space.  Women and men were kept separately. Men were chained together. In some ships there was a place in the bilges for defecating and urinating over the edge of the ship, in others there were brimming buckets. Women were given freedom to some degree as they were considered to be less of a threat than men but they were used as sex objects throughout the journey.

Due to the tough situations they would go through as well as brutal treatment, some of them would die along the way before reaching the destinations. Some ships would have someone to check the health of the slaves making sure that they lose any business. Most of them died of dysentery, followed by small pox. A third cause was sheer misery; sometimes slaves willed themselves to die out of sheer depression and hopelessness. They would refuse to eat, and the crew would resort to force feeding, or they would jump over the edge and drown in the sea. It’s estimated that an average of 20% of slaves were lost in transit, and as many as half the slaves have been known to die in one journey.

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