Racism, Part 2, or How the Atlantic African Slave Trade Got Started

Posted on July 21, 2015


We started a little series a few weeks ago on racism, but taking the long, historical view to give us some perspective, a bit of breathing room if you will from the shouting and finger pointing.

Slavery in the New World began not with the Dutch selling a few African slaves to the English in Virginia in 1619, but in the middle of the fifteenth century.

Portuguese navigators, searching for commercial and trading opportunities, and the possibility of finding a way around Africa to the East, pushed down the coast of Africa in the 1440s.

They arrived in the area of Senegal and captured some Africans to be brought back to Portugal and sold into slavery.

Soon thereafter they discovered that it was more efficient, less confrontational, and quite a bit safer to deal directly with African kings and chiefs and their representatives along the coast and up the rivers of West Africa and buy slaves offered for sale by the Africans themselves.

That slavery existed in Africa, and that the Portuguese purchased most of their slaves thereafter from the Africans themselves, is indisputable.

The new Portuguese slave trade simply took advantage of a slave system already well developed in West Africa. As John Thornton wrote in his path-breaking book, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, “slavery was widespread and indigenous in African society, as was, naturally enough, a commerce in slaves.”

This African slavery flourished in such pre-colonial African empires as Dahomey and Ashanti (modern Benin and Ghana). Thornton summarized a whole generation of new research that very much corrected popular misconceptions of the African slave trade.

“Thus,” he wrote, “… the slave trade (and the Atlantic trade in general) should not be seen as an ‘impact’ brought in from outside and functioning as some sort of autonomous factor in African history. Instead, it grew out of and was rationalized by the African societies who participated in it and had complete control over it until the slaves were loaded onto European ships for transfer to Atlantic societies.”

Thus the Africans themselves were as complicit as the Europeans in pioneering the African slave trade that came into existence in this part of the Atlantic world.

As for Europeans controlling the slave trade and imposing themselves with unequivocal power and authority over a limpid and passive African society, that preconception too has been blown away by new research.

Early Portuguese attempts to seize scores of slaves either on offshore islands or from the mainland backfired. Within a few years Africans organized their naval forces with enough prowess to repel subsequent Portuguese expeditions.

In 1456 the Portuguese negotiated treaties of peace and commerce with the African rulers of the coast to establish peaceful ground rules for the slave trade since the Portuguese realized early on they could not impose their will on the region. The Portuguese and Africans then settled into a routine of sorts for the rest of the fifteenth century.

In the last two decades of that century, approximately 2000 slaves per annum were being bought by Portuguese traders on the African coast. Some were resold to Africans themselves in exchange for gold, the rest were carried to Portugal and southern Spain.

The slaves in southern Iberia were rarely used in agriculture or plantation slavery as would develop in the Americas. Rather they fit into society much like the Moorish slaves who preceded them, eventually being absorbed into the local society, becoming members of Christian brotherhoods, developing a significant free colored population, and, as Herbert Klein noted his The Atlantic Slave Trade, these “African slaves readily adopted the culture, language, and religion of their masters.”

The discovery and settlement of the Americas by Europeans after Christopher Columbus’s famous voyage of 1492 eventually led to the plantation slavery that evolved in the Americas. To fuel the growing need for labor in the sugar plantations of the New World, the Portuguese expanded the African slave trade across the Atlantic. That’s another story and a sordid one at best.

To conclude, those who demand “reparations” for descendants of African slaves in the New World might profitably study their history before creating their narrative. Playing the blame game can be not only divisive, but also based on error, ignorance or politics, or all three.

Africans enslaved Africans before the European slave traders arrived.

As Scripture reminds us,
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1-3, NIV)

This column published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday July 12, 2015.

Posted in: History