IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > G. Africa, 1500–1800
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Historical Trends, 1000–1500)
G. Africa, 1500–1800
1. Overview
The arrival of Europeans and Africa's consequent participation in the new South Atlantic system were the primary events in African history during this period. The supply of slaves entering the South Atlantic system first affected West Africa, oscillated between West and West Central Africa in the 17th through the 19th century, and drew slaves from Central and East Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Historians have vigorously debated the impact of European contact on Africa and the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on African development. The debate focuses on whether the transatlantic slave trade built on long-established patterns or involved profoundly different political and economic forces leading to new patterns of economic dependence.  1
The volume of slave exports from Africa is also highly contested, although most historians agree on some broad estimates and on the fact that the trans-Saharan and Red Sea slave trades predated and then continued alongside the transatlantic slave trade. The exact numbers of slave exports will never be known for certain, but historians generally agree that roughly 9.5 million slaves were exported along the trans-Saharan and Red Sea trade routes over 11 centuries, and roughly 9.5 million slaves were imported into the Americas over four centuries. The similarity of these two figures masks considerable differences, however. The transatlantic slave trade estimates imports. When mortality of the Middle Passage is factored in (approximately 25 percent, although it was higher earlier in the trade and lower later), the exports from Africa rise to around 12 million slaves. More important, the volume of slave exports across the Sahara and up the Red Sea was relatively stable over 11 centuries, while more than 70 percent of slave exports across the Atlantic occurred during the 150 years from 1700 to 1850, when the trade was most active. The magnitude of the trans-atlantic slave trade, therefore, was much higher and its impact more concentrated than the longer-lasting trans-Saharan and Red Sea trades.  2
The acquisition of slaves was not foremost in the mind of the first Portuguese navigator as he sailed in 1434 to Cape Bojador, in present-day Mauritania—and successfully returned. Portuguese overseas exploration of sub-Saharan Africa was motivated by a series of linked objectives. It grew out of the political and economic transformation in Europe, particularly the consolidation of royal power in Portugal and the realignment of economic forces favoring trade over agriculture there. It was linked to the developing sense of European cultural, religious, and political superiority over non-Europeans, fueled by the Christian-Muslim wars and the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula. It was part of a general geopolitical strategy to outflank what the Portuguese understood as a monolithic Muslim world: to assist the besieged Christian monarch of the East, Prester John (there was indeed a besieged Christian ruler of Abyssinia) and to bypass Muslim and Jewish merchants' control over the trans-Saharan gold trade, which supplied 70 percent of the Mediterranean demand for gold before the discovery of the New World. The Portuguese were also interested in the commerce of exotic spices, textiles, and luxury goods and found themselves excluded from the established trade routes of the Mediterranean. The trade in slaves dominates the history of this period, but it is important to bear in mind that the Portuguese and other European merchants were interested in trade in a wide variety of goods as well as in forming political alliances.  3
It is also important to remember that Europeans were not yet able to impose their will on Africans. Indeed, Europeans did not have significant military superiority over Africans until the widespread use of the repeating rifle in Africa in the 1870s. Moreover, when Europeans actually sought to impose their will on Africans—as the Portuguese did in Angola and in Mozambique—they quickly found that they had to adopt African political and military tactics in order to survive. And finally, Europeans suffered extremely high mortality in tropical Africa, which undercut any sustained effort to colonize and control African territory directly, except for the more temperate regions of South Africa and isolated offshore islands of West Africa, the Bight of Benin, and the East African coast.  4
Because force did not work, the success of European commerce in Africa depended upon Africans' willingness to participate. This raises two important questions, which lie at the heart of historians' efforts to interpret the impact of the slave trade on Africa: Why did Africans willingly exchange such vast numbers of young men and women of the most productive and reproductive ages? Why did Africans become the laborers of choice in the New World plantation economies?  5
The second question must be answered first. Since the 12th century, there had been a renaissance in the Mediterranean Basin of large-scale agricultural units associated with sugar production. Sugar was a demanding crop, requiring strict, regimented labor. Slaves were widely used on these new sugar estates, and they were drawn from a variety of sources, including religious wars, the slave trade from the Black Sea, and sub-Saharan Africa. With the fall of Constantinople in 1452, the Black Sea sources of slaves for the expanding sugar frontier of the Mediterranean dried up, leaving the African slave trade the largest single source. Moreover, Africans had the misfortune of being part of two great disease environments: the Old World temperate and the Old World tropical. Africans therefore had childhood immunities to a host of nasty illnesses, which provided them with a statistically lower rate of mortality than European bonded labor or Amerindians and which made them simply a better investment—particularly when sugar plantations spread to the New World in the late 16th century.  6
The question of why Africans sold so many slaves also points to the intersection of a variety of processes. Captives had long been a byproduct of conflicts between groups in Africa. The volume of slaves increased as smaller polities fused into larger ones. The transatlantic slave trade favored the participation of larger enterprises, like states, as opposed to individual raiders or kidnappers. When states organized large military campaigns, these wars yielded more slaves. The demand for slaves unquestionably encouraged the military expression of political power and led to the development of warrior aristocracies throughout the regions of the continent engaged in the slave trade. While rulers might go to war for political reasons, warriors did so for the booty. Increased warfare and the pace of political consolidation sharpened perceived differences between groups, helped to crystallize ethnic identities, and heightened political instability, which in turn fueled more wars. Warfare and enslavement directed the investment of capital into horses and firearms (the means of destruction), into defensive walls, and into consumer goods at the expense of investment in the means of production, like agriculture, crafts, and mining.  7
Slaves were exchanged for an assortment of European and reexported goods from the Orient, especially Indian cloth. Cheap baubles and shoddy manufactures were included in this assortment, but so were firearms, metal utensils, hardware, fine cloth, iron bars, and cowrie shells, which served as a currency in much of West Africa. Moreover, the barter terms of trade (the composition of the assortment of goods exchanged for a slave “unit”) consistently moved in favor of African sellers, who demanded and received a larger volume and greater variety of goods over the course of the slave trade. Especially where kings controlled the slave trade (in Benin, the kingdom of the Kongo, and Dahomey, for example) many of these goods flowed outward from the political center through patronage systems. Rulers' efforts to control the slave trade were also expressed in the development of bureaucracies designed to regulate external commerce.  8
Rulers were not always successful in regulating the slave trade or in controlling its potentially dangerous consequences. The kingdom of the Kongo was a well-established polity in the interior, south of the Zaire River, when the Portuguese first arrived there in 1481. It was held together by military power, kinship, and the judicious redistribution of scarce goods. The BaKongo king, Alfonso I, initially welcomed the Portuguese, who came as traders and as missionaries. Alfonso sought to monopolize the new traders and to insert their new goods into the system of redistribution that tied outlying governors to the political center. He encouraged his son to convert to Catholicism and to be consecrated as bishop. He encouraged the court nobility to convert and invited the Portuguese missionaries and craftsmen to settle in the capital. As Portuguese demand for slaves increased, outlying governors became more interested in dealing directly with the newcomers. Eventually, the redistributive system collapsed and the Kongo kingdom plunged into civil war. In this period of chaos, a noblewoman, Beatrice Kimpa Vita, who was a Catholic, led a millenarian movement that married Christianity and local BaKongo beliefs in an effort to create a new sense of community, to Africanize Church teachings, and to expel Portuguese missionaries. The Portuguese and their BaKongo allies executed her as a heretic in 1706. The Kongo kingdom never regained its former prominence.  9
African participation in the slave trade had contradictory consequences for Africa. On the one hand, it led to political consolidation. On the other, because it fostered warfare, it created conditions for political dissolution. Similarly, the slave trade favored commerce, since many imported goods found their way into internal circuits of trade. Yet the export of millions of human beings reduced the size of the domestic African market. Warfare also discouraged long-term investment in agriculture, mining, and industry. Three aspects of the many contradictory consequences merit further discussion.  10
First, Africa's participation in the South Atlantic system clearly led to the export of many millions of young, productive men and women. However, it also led to the importation into Africa of New World cultigens, including maize, sweet potato, and cassava, which have become staples throughout much of tropical Africa. These New World crops yielded higher caloric returns than indigenous crops per unit of labor, and, according to some historical demographers, arrested population decline during the slave trade era. On a continent where land-to-labor ratios have historically been high, economic development might have been quite different if these cultigens had been imported and people not exported.  11
Second, although the proportion of male to female slaves exported from Africa to the New World changed over time and by region, historians estimate that 60 to 70 percent of those entering the transatlantic slave trade were males. Since warfare, kidnapping, and other forms of enslavement netted more females than males (because more males were likely to have been killed while resisting or defending or because they were more intransigent), what happened to those female slaves not exported overseas? The answer is that female slaves were retained in Africa because they were more valued than male slaves. The retention of female slaves in Africa hints at subtle changes in gender roles and contributed to both polygyny (many wives) and patriarchy (male power).  12
Finally, just as in the case of Beatrice Kimpa Vita, the slave trade contributed to new forms of resistance against established political rule. In West Africa, many ordinary Africans increasingly turned to Islam as a means of providing a model for a new and different community. Beginning around 1660 with Nasir al-Din, a more militant Islam emerged as a reaction against the old, established political order. Although the early jihads, or holy wars, actually contributed to the slave trade by producing captives, by the late 18th century Hausa peasants and Fulani herders swelled the forces of Usuman dan Fodio's militant Islamic movement. Many joined to protest the enslavement of Muslims by nominally Muslim Hausa aristocracy. Paradoxically, the success of this jihad led to the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate, one of the most powerful and dynamic polities in West Africa, which maintained itself through annual military campaigns. These campaigns yielded a steady supply of slaves to feed the demand for agricultural labor in the caliphate. (See Overview)  13
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.