Slave Trade in West Africa


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The history of Africa has undergone an extensive development of communities and culture. Though perhaps arguably one of the most prominent and significant aspects was the time span of the Transatlantic slave trade. What initially began as a small commercial trading system within the interiors of Africa expanded to a large-scale capture and transportation of millions of Africans to the Americas upon European intervention. Powerhouses of Western Africa lost all potential to develop economically and maintain their social and political stability and received the shorter end of what was thought to be an equally divided stick. The Transatlantic slave trade substantially influenced the commodification of social relations and ultimately led to the rise and decline of former poweful states.

While domestic forms of slavery existed prior to European arrival, there is no questioning the colossal leap into a much more barabarous system of slave trade consequent to European involvement. The advent of their settlement on the West African Coast and establishment of slave ports in various parts of the continent triggered a continuous process of exploitation of Africa’s human resources, labor, and commodities. King Afonso’s letters to the King of Portugal are some of the first primitive sources that give us an insight of how slave trade led even the largest state in central West Africa to its inevitable downfall. Exposed to European culture and baptized into Catholic faith prior to his reign, Afonso promoted Portuguese influence throughout the kingdom of Kongo and sought to become a powerful and prosperous state with the aid of the Portuguese.

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However, this would soon prove to be catastrophic as the perpetual Portuguese involvement in slave trade unraveled Afonso’s jurisdiction and became overridden with the desire of wealth and power. In his first letter to Portugal, Afonso acknowledges that his authority in the kingdom was evidently spiraling beyond his control, as the excessive freedom granted to Portuguese settlers incited them to believe that they had total access and permission to establish shops with goods that were disclosed to be prohibited in the kingdom.

He writes, “Sir, Your Highness should know how our Kingdom is being lost in so many ways that it is convenient to provide for the necessary remedy, since this is caused by the excessive freedom given by your agents and officials to the men and merchants who are allowed to come to this Kingdom to set up shops with goods and many things which have been prohibited by us, and which they spread throughout our Kingdoms and Domains in such an abundance that many of our vassals, whom we had in obedience, do not comply because they have the things in greater abundance than we ourselves; and it was with these things that we had them content and subjected under our vassalage and jurisdiction, so it is doing a great harm not only to the service of God, but the security and peace of our Kingdoms and State as well.

” His very first statement alone revealed how inferior the King of Kongo had become to eyes of the Portuguese settlers as he pleads for assistance and the halt of all things contributing to the deterioration of his kingdom. The Portuguese showed no regard for the natives of Kongo and depleted the land of their resources and mutual respect. In the Portuguese’s perspective, their involvement and participation in the Transatlantic slave trade deemed much more important that the mutual respect of their coexisting neighbors. This mentality stirred apprehension throughout the Kongo kingdom, and feelings of inferiority soon transitioned into fear for their safety.

Afonso’s desperate attempt to coincide with the Portuguese proved to be futile as European merchants began kidnapping men from the kingdom to sell and trade. The Portuguese demand for slaves, pervasiveness of slave traders and merchants, and competition for the throne within the Kingdom all resulted in a dramatic and uncontrollable increase in slave capture and raiding throughout the Kingdom. Native men were now pitting against each other, conspiring with white men to capture their own kind to fulfill their selfish desires. Afonso addresses another concern to Portugal, noting, “Moreover, Sir, in our Kingdoms there is another great inconvenience which is of little service to God, and this is that many of our people, keenly desirous as they are of the wares and things of your Kingdoms, which are brought here by your people, and in order to satisfy their voracious appetite, seize many of our people, freed and exempt men, and very often it happens that they kidnap even noblemen and the sons of noblemen, and our relatives, and take them to be sold to the white men who are in our Kingdoms; and for this purpose they have concealed them; and others are brought during the night so that they might not be recognized.” With the fact that their lives were the equivalent of the pricing of an object engraved in the back of their minds, Kongo men converted into an “every man for himself” mentality.

The Atlantic trade had led to the formation of semi-feudal classes in Africa that collaborated with Europeans to sanction the oppression of their own people. Even so, Africans who were incited to participate in the slave trade didn’t benefit a fraction of the amount Europeans did. Large scale slave-raiding continued unchecked into the 16th century, when it culminated in the Jaga invasion of 1568-1570. Large-scale civil war ensued from 1665-1709, resulting in the collapse of the once-powerful Kingdom.

As European settlers manifested themselves into African lands and exploited their resources and people, the commodification of social relations became more barbaric. Africans were being kidnapped and exchanged as a form of human currency at an extreme wide scale. An extract from a newspaper regarding the slave trade in dominions of Imaum of Muscat exposes how a custom precails amongst Arabs who do not have the funds to buy slaves to go over to the coast of Africa, seize the natives, and forcibly take them for sale to the northward.

Moreover, the trading system had become such a reliant source of profit and wealth for European participants that a system of prices for slaves were established. Boys from seven to ten years ranged from seven to fifteen dollars, then ten to twenty years old for fifteen to thirty dollars, full-grown men were priced between seventeen to twenty dollars, and women, considered to be more valuable, had been priced to sometimes as high as thirty-five dollars. All former economic and political relationships Africa once held with Europe had deteriorated into a one-sided affair with the intent of commodifying, maximizing profit, and expanding markets.

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