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African Enslavement, Precolonial - EARLY EUROPEAN TRADE IN AFRICAN PRODUCTS, 1450–1650

market gold captives century

Between the 1440s and the 1860s, European traders and colonists shipped millions of people from sub-Saharan Africa to the Americas. The total number of Africans sent across the Atlantic is variously estimated to be no less than 12 million and no more than 20 million, making it by far the greatest forced migration of people the world has ever seen. Indeed, the long-term global impact of this massive transfer of people against their will is just beginning to be fully understood.

The role of diasporic Africans in the socioeconomic history of the Atlantic world has become recognized as a central issue in global history. As researchers have documented the violent process of procuring millions of people for export overseas, it has become clear that the impact of the long-term socioeconomic damage to Africa was immense, no matter what figures scholars prefer to accept. The debate has therefore shifted to the counter-factual question of whether inadequate agricultural resources and the disease environment in Africa would not have produced a similar outcome in the absence of transatlantic slaving. This and related issues continue to be examined by scholars. This entry focuses on the factors that facilitated the supply of the massive numbers of captives for export to the Americas.

Modern historians have struggled with this puzzle for several decades. Some have argued that widespread slavery in Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century was the main factor. This argument was first made by the European slave traders in response to the onslaught mounted against their business by the abolitionist movement in the late eighteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, the alleged widespread existence of slavery in Africa also became a popular theme for the agents of European colonialism, who tried to mobilize popular support in Europe behind the imperial enterprise, which was presented as a “civilizing mission in a dark continent.” Thus, they argued that the abolition of slavery and its evils in Africa would be one of the benefits of European colonial rule.

In the hands of modern historians, the argument has undergone much refinement. Social anthropology has provided a conceptual framework that perceives precolonial African societies as operating a uniquely African economic system, in which land laws precluded the development of private ownership of land; consequently, wealth accumulation took the form of the enlargement of the number of dependents (people with limit rights who depend on others) instead of the accumulation of land and capital that is said to characterize the history of Europe. Proponents of this view proceed to argue that the Atlantic slave trade grew out of this indigenous process of accumulating dependents as wealth and that the expanded supply of captives for export was sustained by the same process for the entire duration of the trade. As several of them claim, the Atlantic slave trade presented opportunities for African political and economic entrepreneurs to accumulate dependents. In contrast to European capitalists, who reinvested their profits in order to accumulate more capital, the argument goes, African political and economic entrepreneurs employed the surplus imported goods they received (in exchange for the captives they supplied) to accumulate more dependents.

Is this explanation consistent with what is known now of precolonial Africa? Or are there other factors that better explain what happened? Given prevailing conditions, precolonial societies in Africa responded to market opportunities much like their precapitalist counterparts in the rest of the world. The limited development of market economies in nineteenth-century sub-Saharan Africa, relative to the economies of other major regions at the time, was in fact the long-term effect of the transatlantic slave trade, and not the cause of it. This view is consistent with the historical reality, embedded in the intersection of the political and economic processes. The economic process involved the actions of individuals and groups of individuals responding to market opportunities as they struggled to meet the material needs of life. The political process, entailed the collective efforts of organized societies to resolve conflicts arising from the actions of individuals and groups of individuals, and to protect the lives and property of members. Conceptually, different market opportunities pose different problems, and societies at different levels of politico-military development possess differing capabilities in dealing with crises. It is therefore important to examine the structure of socioeconomic and political organization in sub-Saharan African societies on the eve of their contact with the Europeans, and to follow the historical process as it unfolded for the next four hundred years. This historical process can be organized into four broad periods: (1) the pre-European contact period; (2) the first two hundred years or so of the European coastal presence (c. 1441–1650), during which trade in African products generally dominated commercial intercourse between Europeans and Africans; (3) the main period of the transatlantic slave trade (c. 1650–1850); and (4) the last decades of the nineteenth century, after the effective abolition of the trade in captives across the Atlantic to the Americas.

It is also pertinent to examine briefly the export trade in European captives to the Middle East, which preceded the trade in African captives. A discussion of the factors that promoted and ended that trade can shed light on the main factors in the African case. This discussion also offers the opportunity to examine a related issue: Why the demand for slave labor in the Americas was focused exclusively on sub-Saharan Africa. Why were captives from Europe not exported to meet the demand? Was widespread anti-African racism in fifteenth-century Europe the explanation or, again, was it a result of the intersection of political and economic processes in Europe and Africa?


In the first two hundred years of European trade in western Africa, products from Africa’s natural endowment overwhelmingly dominated the trade. The flamboyant display of West Africa’s gold wealth by Mali’s Mansa Musa, during his pilgrimage to Mecca in the 1320s, inspired the Portuguese to search for a direct seaborne route to the source of the precious metal in West Africa. Thus, trade in West African gold was the main concern of the Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. That trade centered on the Gold Coast, so called because of the large amount of gold sold in the region. Another important product for the Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was red pepper from the Benin trading area of southwest Nigeria, which also supplied them with cotton cloth. In West-Central Africa, copper was the main product for several decades. All across western Africa, other products, such as ivory, supplemented the trade in gold, pepper, and copper.

Right from the beginning, a few captives were also shipped by the Portuguese. These were initially the victims of direct raids by the Portuguese on the small coastal communities. But in the first two hundred years of European trade in western Africa, the trade in captives paled in comparison with the trade in gold and other African products. Like the preexisting trans-Saharan trade in captives, the numbers involved were small and, with some exceptions (including the Kongo-Angola area of West-Central Africa), the socioeconomic and political disruption caused was limited.

As long as European trade concentrated on African products, political fragmentation posed no serious problem to the societies in Atlantic Africa. These societies responded positively to the market opportunities, as all societies across the globe have done. The case of the Gold Coast, where the early product trade was particularly large, may be taken to illustrate.

The European demand for gold considerably expanded the market for the Akan gold producers and traders. This stimulated the growth of specialization in gold production and trade, which created a domestic market for other producers in agriculture and manufacturing. The opportunities for productive investment in agriculture were seized by people who had accumulated wealth from the gold trade.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, these wealthy merchants invested their profits from commerce in clearing forests to develop farmlands. Given the early stages of development of the market economy in the region—and hence the nonexistence of a virile market for free wage labor—the Akan agricultural entrepreneurs had to rely on purchased imported labor. Some of these laborers were supplied from the north by the gold and kola nuts traders operating along the Jenne-Begho trade route, while others were brought by the Portuguese from other parts of western Africa (including the Benin and Kongo kingdoms). Again, economic rationality underpinned the investment decisions of the Akan merchants who invested their profits from trade in agriculture. They were not motivated by the desire to accumulate dependents as a form of wealth. On the contrary, they took care to avoid the creation of a slave class. What is more, no Akan land laws hindered the investment of profits from commerce in agriculture by wealthy traders when the market conditions were conducive for the investment. Indeed, in response to the general developments of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a land market had begun to evolve in the region. The site on which Kumasi was later built was purchased at this time for the equivalent of £270 (sterling) in gold. Similar developments were more or less associated with the early product trade in the other regions of western Africa.


A major long-term consequence of the transatlantic slave trade—arising from its adverse impact on population growth, its disruption of the development of export trade in products, and the widespread conflict and insecurity associated with the violent procurement of millions of people for export—was a retardation of market development and the spread of the market economy in western Africa between 1650 and 1850. Given this condition, merchants, rulers and their officials, religious leaders, and warlords had to rely on dependent populations to produce their subsistence—what has been called “subsistence servitude.” The fact that few of the dependent populations were employed by their lords in large-scale production of commodities for the market at the time was due to the limited market for the products of bonded labor, not because of laws that discouraged investment in large-scale commercial agriculture. As the case of sixteenth-century Ghana discussed earlier shows, there were no such legal barriers. Developments following abolition make this point even clearer.

A number of developments preceding and following the abolition of the slave trade led to a rapid growth of servile populations in western Africa. The conditions for sociopolitical conflicts created by the export demand for captives continued to generate conflicts after abolition. But without the export market in the Americas to absorb the captives produced by the conflicts, prices tumbled. At the same time, European demand for African products (vegetable oil and woods in particular) began to grow once again, stimulating the growth of the “legitimate commerce” of the nineteenth century. The domestic market for foodstuffs also began to develop, stimulated by the expansion of commodity production for export and population growth. African entrepreneurs responded to these market opportunities against the backdrop of falling captive prices and the nonexistence of wage labor. It was under these conditions that the population of servile producers grew rapidly in western Africa in the nineteenth century. There was economic rationality for the growth, and dependents were not just accumulated as a form of wealth.


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about 5 years ago

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over 5 years ago

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