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African societies and the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade

The beginning of the Atlantic slave trade uprooted previously established societal norms in West Africa.


  • Africans organized their societies around the family unit, and gold supply often dictated which society held the most power—until the start of the Atlantic slave trade.
  • The beginning of the Atlantic slave trade in the late 1400s disrupted African societal structure as Europeans infiltrated the West African coastline, drawing people from the center of the continent to be sold into slavery.
  • New sugar and tobacco plantations in the Americas and Caribbean heightened the demand for enslaved people, ultimately forcing a total of 12.5 million Africans across the Atlantic and into slavery.

Early West African society

West Africa stretches from modern-day Mauritania to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It encompasses lush rainforests along the equator, savannas on either side of the forest, and much drier land to the north. Until about 600 CE, most Africans living in this area were hunter-gatherers. In the driest areas, herders maintained sheep, goats, cattle, or camels. In the more heavily wooded area near the equator, farmers raised yams, palm products, or plantains. The savanna areas yielded crops including rice, millet, and sorghum.
Map of West African societies pre-colonization. Image credit: Wikimedia commons courtesy of Wikimedia commons.
Although there were large trading centers along the rivers—the Senegal, Gambia, Niger, Volta, and Congo—most West Africans lived in small villages and identified primarily with their extended family or clan, rather than an ethnic or national identity. Wives, children, and dependents were a sign of wealth; men frequently practiced polygyny, or the custom of having more than one wife. In times of need, West Africans relied on relatives from near and far for support. Hundreds of separate dialects emerged from different west African clans; in modern Nigeria, nearly 500 languages are still spoken.
African societies practiced human bondage long before the Atlantic slave trade began. Famine or fear of stronger enemies might force one tribe to ask another for help and give themselves in bondage in exchange for assistance. Similar to the European serf system, those seeking protection or relief from starvation would become the servants of those who provided relief. Debt might also be worked off through some form of servitude. Furthermore, prisoners of war between different African societies oftentimes became enslaved.
Typically, these servants became a part of the extended tribal family. There is some evidence of chattel slavery, in which people were treated as personal property, in the Nile Valley. It appears there was a slave-trade route through the Sahara that brought sub-Saharan Africans to Rome, a global center of slavery.
West Africans transported to the coast to be sold into slavery. Wikimedia Commons

Religion and the African empire

Religious movement helped shape African societal structure. Following the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, Islam spread quickly across North Africa, bringing not only a unifying faith but a political and legal structure as well. Only those who had converted to Islam could rule or be engaged in trade.
The first major empire to emerge in West Africa was the Ghana Empire. By 750, the Soninke farmers of the region had become wealthy by taxing traders who traversed their area. For instance, the Niger River basin supplied gold to the Amazigh (Berber) and Arab traders from west of the Nile Valley, who brought cloth, weapons, and manufactured goods into the African interior. Since Ghana’s king controlled the gold supply, he was able to maintain price controls and afford a strong military.
Soon, however, a new kingdom emerged. By 1200 CE, under the leadership of Sundiata Keita, Mali replaced Ghana as the leading state in West Africa. After Sundiata’s rule, the court converted to Islam, and Muslim scribes played a large part in administration and government. Miners then discovered huge new deposits of gold east of the Niger River. By the 14th century, the empire was so wealthy that while on a hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, Mali’s ruler Mansa Musa gave away enough gold to create serious price inflation in the cities along his route. Timbuktu, the capital city, became a leading Islamic center for education, commerce, and the slave trade.
The vast and glorious civilization of Timbuktu. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Atlantic slave trade

The Elmina slave castle in modern Ghana. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The European slave trade began with Portugal’s exploration of the west coast of Africa in search of a sea trade route to the East. The East had bountiful new resources, like spices and silk, and the Portuguese were eager to acquire these goods without the laborious journey by land from Europe to Asia.
In 1482, Portuguese traders built Elmina Castle in present-day Ghana, on the west coast of Africa. Originally built as a fortified trading post, the castle had mounted cannons facing out to sea, not inland toward continental Africa. The Portuguese had greater fear of a naval attack from other Europeans than of a land attack from Africans.
Although the Portuguese originally used the fort for trading gold, by the 16th century they had shifted their focus to trading enslaved people, as the demand for slave labor ballooned in the New World. The dungeon of the fort morphed to serve as a holding pen for Africans from the interior of the continent. On the upper floors, Portuguese traders ate, slept, and prayed. Enslaved people lived in the dungeon for weeks or months until ships arrived to transport them to Europe or the Americas. For them, the dungeon of Elmina was their last sight of their home continent.
The door of no return at Elmina Castle. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
By 1444, the Portuguese brought enslaved people from Africa to work on the sugar plantations of the Madeira Islands, off the coast of modern Morocco. The slave trade then expanded across the Atlantic as European colonies demanded an ever-increasing number of workers for the extensive plantations growing the labor-intensive crops of tobacco, sugar, and eventually rice and cotton.
Soon, the Spanish, Dutch, and English all followed the Portuguese in transporting enslaved people across the Atlantic. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database estimates that 12.5 million Africans were sent through the Middle Passage—across the Atlantic—to work in the New World. Many Africans died on their way to the Americas, and those who did arrive often faced conditions worse than the slave ships. Soon, the Atlantic slave trade would contribute to enshrining a racial hierarchy into New World culture.
Map showing the common slave trade posts in the western hemisphere.

What do you think?

How did religion, natural resources, and location each determine the prosperity of African societies?
What role did the Atlantic slave trade play within European competition during the colonial era?

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf green style avatar for user iprema07
    Native Americans were able to run and hide from European people when they were trying to enslave them. So why didn't the Africans hide and run from the Europeans when they were trying to enslave them?
    (24 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user John
      Because the slave trade in Africa had been started by the Turks and Arabs long before the Europeans, and by the Africans before that. Most of the Native Americans were simply wipe out. The Incas and Aztecs actually were used as slaves, along with many other tribes. However, they weren't very good slaves, especially because many of them died from European diseases. The Europeans decided that Africans made better slaves.
      (32 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Bethany
    Did Africans who were trading slaves ever become slaves themselves?
    (19 votes)
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    • purple pi teal style avatar for user sarah
      I think that depends on their status in society and whether it was stable or not. Most slaves were actually prisoners or outcasts in society, so, unless the slave traders went bankrupt(which is unlikely considering the profit coming from the slave trade at the time), they probably would not have become slaves.
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user 232mari
    How was African culture impacted by the slave trade? (eg. religion, language, etc.)
    (13 votes)
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    • female robot ada style avatar for user Shriya Sankaran
      This is a really interesting question you've asked.
      African culture was often lost, in the traditional sense. Slave merchants and slaveowners often renamed their slaves with white/Christian names, and banned the practice of their indigenous religion.

      However, it also led to the formation of Black culture across the United States and other parts of the Americas. Because these slaves were from different parts of Africa with different languages, it lead to the formation of creole and pidgin dialects of English/Spanish/etc. You also have a unique cuisine and strong sense of cultural unity because being Black is the only aspect of identity you may have. This created a unique musical, literary, and artistic environment that fostered the creation of some things that are fundamental to their respective nations.
      (19 votes)
  • leafers tree style avatar for user zoe
    When the article says "men frequently practiced polygyny, or the custom of having more than one wife" isn't that the same thing as polygamy? Is polygyny different or just the same word?
    (8 votes)
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  • scuttlebug blue style avatar for user nurrget
    So, according to this, a majority of African societies seemed to be shifting more toward Islam after the death of Muhammad. I know that they were quickly converted to Catholicism after being brought over by the Spanish to farm the cash crops, but where are the remnants, if any, of Muslim African culture in the Americas?
    (12 votes)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Amira
    I don't understand the"door of no return" through the cracks of the door it looked like daylight
    (5 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user elikemcan
    Why didn't the European people use their own man power for their work? How lazy were they? Couldn't they see that many of us Africans were dying?
    Is it that they just weren't strong or what?
    (5 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      Europeans, like many people in this world, were concerned purely about their profit. They thought it was okay to go to any means necessary to come out on top in front of the other European states. So, they turned to slavery to greatly increase their production output. After enslaving New World natives didn't work, they turned to Africans, which already had some tradition of trading slaves tribe-to-tribe and also with the Arabs. The Africans were resistant to Old World diseases, which again made them a good candidate in the Europeans' minds. You could say that the Europeans were lazy; they didn't want to participate in the labor involved in agriculture/mining/etc.
      (17 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Michael Batizaze
    It was such a cruel world back then
    (10 votes)
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  • female robot ada style avatar for user theycallmelili
    Does the Elmina Castle still stand and are people able to visit?
    (8 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Chemoiwadawn
    Was Transatlantic slave trade beneficial to Africa?
    (3 votes)
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