Roles played by leaders of African societies in continuing the trade

The Asante (Ashanti people) Empire dominated the area known as the Gold Coast (Ghana). They traded in gold as well as slaves. They fought many wars to defend and expand their empire.

The impact of the Atlantic slave trade was felt across all levels of African societies. But its effects were different for different groups:

  • Kings, elites and warlords
  • Middlemen, traders and merchants
  • Labourers and subsistence farmers

Kings and warlords

African slave sellers grew wealthy by selling captives to European traders on the coast. They were able to deal on equal terms with European traders.

On the African side, the slave trade was generally the business of rulers or wealthy and powerful merchants, concerned with their own selfish or narrow interests. At that time, there was no concept of being African – identity and loyalty were based on kinship or membership of a specific kingdom or society, rather than to the African continent.

States based on slavery grew in power and influence. For example the Kingdom of Dahomey became one of the most prosperous nations: total receipts from slave exports were an estimated £250,000 per year by 1750.

African rulers largely maintained and dictated the control and supply of captives to the Atlantic slave trade.

The impact of the trade was to increase individual fortunes in the short run. But through competition with each others, rulers could have their powers reduced or eliminated as well as strengthened.

In the long run, the scale of the Atlantic trade caused instability and collapse in many African states.

Middlemen, traders and merchants

The kings and warlords needed points of sale, and Europeans needed access to sources of slaves. Some African slave sellers became extremely wealthy from the expansion of the slave trade networks.

A group of ‘merchant princes’ developed in response to the European reliance on African intermediaries. These were often the sons of Afro-European parents, and commanded large bands of armed men. The slave trade was incredibly labour-intensive. Thousands found employment as porters, interpreters, guards, soldiers and peddlers.

Labourers and subsistence farmers

The proportion of African villagers actively involved in the slave trade was small. But in villages where slave raids took place the impact was so large as to be difficult to quantify or overstate. Attention to the effects can be split between those that were taken, and those left behind. The most significant impact of the Atlantic slave trade was on the individuals enslaved.

Implications of the Atlantic Slave Trade for Africa

  • Re-allocation of the resources of African economies towards raiding
  • Constrained the economic development of African states
  • Encouraged ethnic and social division
  • Provoked a culture of political violence and disregard for human life
  • Created widespread attitudes of racism and contempt for Africans

The effects of the slave trade varied widely from one region of western Africa to another. Some western African societies may have been wholly uninvolved in trade with the Europeans. Somes may only have mainly traded commodities other than slaves; and others who did engage in the sale of slaves for the Atlantic trade did so only marginally or briefly. But where societies did engage in the slave trade they did so as raiding for people was more attractive and profitable than the capture of land.

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