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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Abolition of the Slave Trade and the Slow Death of Slavery in Africa

African Studies Slavery in Africa
E.S.D. Fomin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0085


Slavery in Africa is a very old institution with diverse origins, forms, and ramifications. It is therefore subject to different perceptions and definitions in different ex-slaving societies in the continent. Forms of servitude like polygyny, tribute payments, and retainership of royal households were practiced in Africa but were not slavery in the strict sense of the word, though they are known to have created enabling conditions for slavery. The history of slavery in the continent shows development from servitude to slavery, but large-scale outright enslavement and sales of captives were by-products of the external slave trades. The trans-Atlantic, trans–Red Sea/Indian Ocean, and trans-Saharan slave trades appear to have been largely responsible for introducing slavery and analogous practices among many African peoples. In this bibliography, slavery is defined as the subjugation of individuals to temporary or permanent involuntary servitude, including using such persons as chattels, as sex slaves, and in rituals. Slavery is not determined by the way an enslaved person is treated but by the fact that the function such a person performs is involuntary. Though slavery in Africa dates back to the periods of ancient Egypt, Roman imperialism in North Africa, and the epoch of ceremonial kingship of ancient empires of Sudan, it became a terrible experience only during the external slave trade. It was in this period that states whose rulers had not yet used retainers and who became involved in slave trade eventually practiced domestic slavery. As a rule, most polities that took part in the slave trade became slave users. The external slave trade is known also to have influenced development in the continent, albeit negatively, even after it fell. For instance, European colonization of Africa is linked to the trans-slave trade in that it weakened the continent so badly that it did not take much effort on the part of European imperialists to colonize it. It also exposed the rich resources of the continent, which the Europeans exploited with impunity through colonization. Recruitment and use of Africans in the exploitation of economic resources in the continent were involuntary; therefore, colonialism was another stage of European perpetration of slavery in Africa. While new forms of slavery are plaguing the continent every day, the legacy of past slave trading and slavery negatively pervades almost all aspects of African development. A good knowledge of sources on slavery in Africa is important in appreciating its role in the underdevelopment saga of this continent.

General Overviews

There are many scholarly works of a general nature on slavery in Africa that portray it as originally a multipurpose institution that was firmly grafted on the sociopolitical organization of many ancient slaving polities in Africa. It was different in comparison with slavery in Western Europe and the Americas where slavers exploited their slaves largely for economic purposes. In Africa, slavery was hardly an economic venture of any importance before the external slave trade began, in which many African collaborators of European slavers took part and benefited. Overviews on the history of slavery in Africa have treated it and its multiple ramifications as part of a general history or anthropology of Africa. Such works generally highlight slavers, the enslaved, and the processes of enslavement among some slaving peoples of Africa. Most early writings on slavery are of this nature. Klein 1993, Meillassoux 1975, and Fomin 2002 treat indigenous slavery practices and their ramifications in Africa; Miers and Kopytoff 1977 shows the transformations of some African societies that took part in varied slavery practices. Curtin 1969, Inikori 1982, Hodgkin 1997, and Thornton 1998 capture the magnitude of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from an African perspective.

  • Curtin, D. Philip. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

    Curtin’s work is on the population that West and Central Africa lost to North America, especially the United States. Though some historians have accused him of exaggerating the statistics, his work is useful as an overview of the Atlantic slave trade in Africa from a demographic point of view.

  • Fomin, E. S. D. A Comparative Study of Societal Influences on Indigenous Slavery in Two Types of Societies in Africa. New York: Edwin Mellen, 2002.

    This work is a comparative overview of how different and varied ethnic peoples of Africa adopted slavery to their cultural values. It compares ethnic polities with centralized political cultures to ethnic polities with noncentralized political cultures in Africa and the ways they organized their slavery institutions.

  • Hodgkin, Thomas. The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1870. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

    This work covers a great span of time and space in Atlantic slave trade history. It draws from valuable primary sources like records of ship captains and port statistics, thus providing a good linkage to specific areas of Africa, although it does not provide details of the events it tackles.

  • Inikori, E. Joseph, ed. Forced Migration: The Impact of the Export Slave Trade on African Societies. New York: Africana, 1982.

    The ten well-researched chapters of this book are focused on the many ramifications of the trans-slave trade on African people in different parts of the continent. It provides good coverage of West Africa and reasonable portions of East Africa. Each chapter provides good reference notes and a bibliography.

  • Klein, Martin, ed. Breaking the Chains: Slavery, Bondage and Emancipation in Modern Africa and Asia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

    This is a limited but important collection of edited works on slavery in Africa and Asia. The value of the work in the study of slavery in Africa lies in the epistemological conceptualization of slavery, bondage, and emancipation as used in both the African and the Asian systems.

  • Meillassoux, Claude, ed. L’esclavage en Afrique précoloniale. Paris: François Maspero, 1975.

    This work studies slavery in Africa from an institutional perspective and shows that slavery promoted new aristocracy in the states of Sudan and some coastal polities in Africa. The capitalist approach used may not be quite as helpful in studying indigenous slavery in Africa, but it opens up many new paradigms.

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

    Contributors to this work give, in various chapters, a survey of slavery in different parts of Africa from a societal perspective. The different background treatment gives a clear picture of the many ways slavery was organized in the continent, its impact on the lives of people, and its linkage with the Atlantic system.

  • Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511800276

    This is an ambitious piece of work in terms of the period it covers. It shows in outline form the roles that people of African origin in the continent and in the diasporas in Americas played in making this history, which exacted on their ancestors the greatest inhumanity in history.

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