Africa Before the Transatlantic Slave Trade

West Africa was a thriving region from 900AD, trading ivory, salt and gold across the Sahara. The region boasted one of the oldest formal universities in the world, the University of Sankore, founded in Timbuktu during the 13th century. The history of the region includes the legacies of the successive kingdoms of Songhai, Mali & Ghana.

In the 14th century, the people of West Africa had been facing enslavement by Berber-Arab people from the Islamic Moorish states of North Africa, and from the Portuguese since the mid 15th century when Africans were captured, trafficked and presented to prominent Europeans as gifts.

Africa Map
Map of Africa, 1680

This map was presented to Charles II by the cartographer William Berry. The map is described as, ‘Africa: divided according to the extent of its principal parts, in which are distinguished one from the other the empires, monarchies, kingdoms, states and peoples, which at this time inhabit Africa’.
Image courtesy of Library of African Studies, Northwestern University

Where it Happened

There were over 173 city states and kingdoms in Africa affected by slavery between 1444 and 1853. Their citizens were exported as cargo on ships, with no hope of return. There were eight principal areas around West, West-Central, and South East Africa where the captives were held before being shipped to the Americas. These included present day Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Republic of Benin, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Angola, Mozambique, and others.

John Hawkins, who is credited as being the founder of the British slave trade, made his first voyage in 1562 when he raided a Portuguese slaving ship and stole their cargo of African people. These first captives were Mende people from the Sherboro area of West Africa. This area is known today as part of Sierra Leone.


Great Mosque of Djenne, Dogon Region of Mali

This is the largest adobe (mud brick) building in the world today. The site has been the location of a mosque since the original building was commissioned in 1240, before Djenne emerged as a major city of the empires of Mali and Songhai. This building dates from 1907.

Image courtesy of Eliot Elisofson Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute


The Introduction of Guns

During his third expedition, John Hawkins abandoned snatch-and-grab tactics to capture Africans. Instead, he took advantage of existing local tensions and made an alliance with a local leader and attacked a neighbouring town, called Bonga, capturing 500 people. This method, and the introduction of guns, became the catalysts for the widespread effect of the trade. Raiding states were developed with the increased supply of European guns. To prevent their own people being captured and enslaved, leaders would have to acquire guns and participate in the capture their neighbours.

In 1720, King Agaja of Dahomey, a former raiding state (now modern day Benin, Nigeria), wrote to the British Government informing them of the abolition of slavery within his state. To continue the supply of slaves for British colonies the British Government went on to sponsor their neighbouring enemies, shipping armaments to the people of Oyo State in modern day Nigeria to encourage the raiding of Dahomey.

Benin wooden head crarving

16th Century Benin Ivory Mask

Made by artisans from the Edo people of modern day Nigeria, this type of mask was worn by the Oba (king) of Benin, and represents the Queen Mother who had ruled in the 16th century. The figures on top of the pendant represent the Portuguese, who had been slaving in Africa since the mid 15th century.

Image courtesy of The British Museum