In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slavery in Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Pawnship
  • Military Slaves
  • North African and Trans-Saharan Slave Trade
  • Islam and Slavery
  • Senegambia and the Windward Coast
  • Gold Coast, Slave Coast, and the Bights of Benin and Biafra
  • West Central Africa
  • Southern and Eastern Africa
  • Gender

Atlantic History Slavery in Africa
Ty M. Reese
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0134


Slavery is viewed as an ancient and universal institution and thus it can be found in a diversity of forms throughout Africa. During the period of the Atlantic world, slavery served multiple roles within Africa and provided a foundation for the transatlantic slave trade in that Europeans found slaves for sale within Africa. In many parts of Africa, land was held in common and therefore people’s ability to work the land, and their position within their society, related to the number of people whom they controlled. This patron-client system meant that patrons were always looking for more clients, both free and unfree, as a way to increase their power. The nature of this agricultural and political system made slavery and pawnship (debt peonage) a common system in Africa, yet it was a system that is hard to generalize about and one that possessed great differences from the African slavery that developed in the Americas. While the role of African slavery in the Americas has been more thoroughly studied, and is better known, than slavery in Africa, the rise of the transatlantic slave trade, and then its gradual abolition in the 19th century, had important consequences for slavery within Africa.

General Overviews

The best starting point for the study of slavery in Africa involves Stilwell 2014, a broad treatment of the subject. This builds upon the debate that occurred between Walter Rodney and J. D. Fage concerning the origins of slavery in Africa. While Rodney 1966 argues that slavery did not appear until Africa’s sustained contact and interaction with Europeans within the context of the transatlantic slave trade, Fage 1969 argues that slavery existed before this in Africa; Fage 1969 is the accepted interpretation. One point that most studies make clear is that slavery in Africa differed greatly from slavery in the Americas and because of this it is hard to create a general definition of African slavery. An attempt to do so is seen within Miers and Kopytoff 1977, in Watson 1980, and in Meillassoux 1991, which challenges the accepted interpretation of Miers and Kopytoff. One common trend involves exploring the relationship between slavery in Africa and African slavery in the Americas. Scholars are especially interested in understanding the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade upon Africa, and one area of inquiry involves how external slavery affected internal slavery. Beyond this has been the attempt to understand the negative (see Manning 1990), and other consequences (see Lovejoy 2000), of the external slave trade on Africa. Law, et al. 2013 examines the relationship between abolition and the expansion of slavery within West Africa. Quirk and Vigneswaran 2013 focuses upon modern forms of slavery within Africa while making connections to earlier forms of slavery. The collection of essays in Rossi 2009 explores the legacy of slavery and the slave trade within West Africa while those in Lane and MacDonald 2011 provide insight into the archaeology and remembrance of indigenous slavery. Greene 2017 utilizes three biographies to explore the place of slavery within West Africa, while the edited collection Greene, et al. 2017 explores the diversity of master-slave relations along with the legacy of slavery within Africa.

  • Fage, J. D. “Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Context of West African History.” Journal of African History 10.3 (1969): 393–404.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700036343

    A response to Rodney 1966 that argued that slavery was not introduced by Europeans to Africa—rather it already existed. States that the Atlantic slave trade provided those who controlled slaves with a new option while expanding an already existing system.

  • Greene, Sandra E. Slave Owners of West Africa: Decision Making in the Age of Abolition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1zxz17q

    Utilizes three biographies to explore the place of slavery within West Africa. Demonstrates how a variety of factors influenced individuals’ reactions to the end of the Atlantic slave trade and the place of slavery within West Africa.

  • Greene, Sandra E., Alice Bellagmaba, and Martin Klein, eds. African Slaves, African Masters: Politics, Memories, Social Life. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2017.

    A series of essay that explore the relationships between masters and slaves in Africa and how African slavery changed over time. Many essays address the legacy of slavery in Africa.

  • Lane, Paul, and Kevin C. MacDonald. Slavery in Africa: Archaeology and Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197264782.001.0001

    A collection of essays that explore the latest archaeological investigations into slavery within a broad framework of African history and relates these sites to the public remembrance of slavery in Africa. Has a focus upon the Sudan, West Africa during the period of Atlantic slavery, and East Africa.

  • Law, Robin, Suzanne Schwartz, and Silke Strickrodt, eds. Commercial Agriculture, the Slave Trade & Slavery in Atlantic Africa. Woodbridge, UK: James Currey, 2013.

    An edited collection of essays that explores the relationship between the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and the development of large-scale agriculture within West Africa that often relied upon slave labor.

  • Lovejoy, Paul. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    A quantitatively revised edition of an important work that argues that the transatlantic slave trade transformed West Africa by reinforcing and expanding hierarchies while increasing militarism. Argues that while differences existed between African slavery and Atlantic slavery, the rise of the transatlantic slave trade increased slavery within Africa.

  • Manning, Patrick. Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    An examination of the negative consequences of the slave trade upon West African societies. Some sections are broad while others utilize models to measure issues such as the trade’s impact on Africa and the relationship between price and supply. Explores African slavery and how the external trade affected internal slavery.

  • Meillassoux, Claude. The Anthropology of Slavery: The Womb of Iron and Gold. Translated by Alide Dasnois. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

    Argues against Miers and Kopytoff’s interpretation of slavery in Africa (Miers and Kopytoff 1977). Develops an interpretation of the evolution of slavery in Africa that stresses violence and argues that slavery developed in a similar manner throughout much of Africa.

  • Miers, Suzanne, and Igor Kopytoff. Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.

    An edited collection that broadly explores the topic while stressing the difference between American and African slavery. Includes a long, and influential, introduction by the editors that argues that African slavery was a complex continuum in which slaves served a variety of roles and that slavery incorporated outsiders into a society.

  • Quirk, Joel, and Darshan Vigneswaran, eds. Slavery, Migration, and Contemporary Bondage in Africa. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2013.

    These essays focus upon the slavery that exists in Africa after the ending of Atlantic slavery. It not only provides insight into the long-term existence of slavery within Africa but also pays particular attention to more modern forms of slavery that the collection argues exist because of poverty and migration.

  • Rodney, Walter. “African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave-Trade.” Journal of African History 7.3 (1966): 431–443.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853700006514

    Argues against the idea that slavery was an ancient institution in Africa and instead contends that slavery in Africa was a result of the Atlantic slave trade and European involvement along the West African coastline.

  • Rossi, Benedetta. Reconfiguring Slavery: West African Trajectories. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846315640

    By stressing that slavery in West Africa has not been abolished, this collection of essays seeks to provide a new understanding of the institution. Many deal with slavery, along with its legacy and status, in a contemporary context.

  • Stilwell, Sean. Slavery and Slaving in African History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    A broad survey of slavery and slaving in Africa’s broad history. Connects these institutions to their internal and external causes along with a review of the major debates.

  • Watson, James L., ed. Asian and African Systems of Slavery. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.

    A collection of eleven essays that comparatively examine the diversities of slavery in two regions. The editor’s introduction endeavors to create a definition of slavery that works across boundaries.

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