It should be clearly noted that slavery and the slave trade as an institution was quite different in Africa from how it was practiced by Europeans in the Americas. Slavery was not new to continental Africa. Before the Portuguese ever set their foot on the shores of West Africa, there were slave markets in the hinterland. Slavery as a system was as old as the human race. It was once upon a time practiced everywhere on earth. It was recorded in the scriptures of the Christians that the Israelite were slaves in Egypt. In ancient Rome, the Gladiators were used as sport and entertainment. The Gladiators were European slaves who were captured during wars but some sold themselves to pay certain debts. The Gladiators comprises of Europeans and very few Blacks.
The slave trade was a norm from the beginning of the human race. It was a norm not because it was a good system but mankind’s quest for economic development, lack of tolerance, greed, wickedness and lack of perseverance continued and these produced wars. Wherever wars were fought, there was bound to be losers and winners. The spoils of wars were taken. The winners regarded the prisoners of war as slaves. Some slaves were fortunate to have good masters while some unfortunate slaves were killed or used as sacrifices to thank or appease some of the different deities that existed. People were also kidnapped and taken far away from their homes to unknown destinations to be sold at slave markets.
The African chiefs were enticed by Europeans to supply them slaves. Some Africans rose up against the Europeans but the Europeans Superior weaponry subdued the Africans. The Portuguese merchants realized as early as the 1450’s that there was no hope in forcefully capturing slaves from Africa. So they were able to form partnerships with some African chiefs and kings. Such Chiefs were given the guns and canons to help them achieve their aim.
The Europeans consciously re-organized the slave trade in Africa because before their arrival, wealthy Africans and chiefs owned slaves. Their slaves worked on their usually large farmlands and some were domesticated and worked as house slaves or domestic slaves.
In Africa, before the advent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the numbers of slaves a person or family owned determined how wealthy such a person or family was. And because of the usefulness of slaves to the economy, no one initially raised an eyebrow against it.
Slaves were treated better in Africa, unlike what slaves experienced in the Americas. In Africa a fortunate slave could marry the daughter of his owner. Slave could become a king. Africans tolerated slaves to the point that a slave could rise to the position of eminence in his master’s house or in society.
Mansa Sakura was a slave who ruled the Melle (Mali) empire. He was a very good and strong king. He conquered Gad and added it to the Mali Empire, which was originally founded by Mari Djata whose original name was Sundiata.
Seriki Faremi William Abass of Badagry was also a former slave who became the paramount ruler of Badagry in 1895. Seriki Abass founded two towns in Yorubaland namely: Aiyetoro and Idogo, both in Ogun State – Nigeria. He became the paramount chief of the whole Western Yoruba land (Egbado corridor) in 1914 through the British system of indirect rule till his death in 1919.
King Jaja of Opobo was once upon a time a slave, yet he founded Opobo town in eastern Nigeria. He ruled Opobo as the first King and today his descendants still maintain the royal lineage.
In the Yoruba culture it is believed that there is no different between a freeborn and a slave (Bi a se b’eru la bi omo). They treated slaves with respect because it was believed that a slave before been sold into slavery could have originated from a noble family (Eru ma ni baba, ona lojin).
1. G.O. Onibonoje, 1965, Africa from the rise of Islam to the end of the slave trade, page 127.
2. M.C. English, 1959, An outline of Nigerian History, page 128.
3. G.T. Stride and Caroline Ifeka, 1969, Peoples and Empires of West Africa, Pages 208-209.
4. G.O. Onobonoje, 1965, Africa from the rise of Islam to the end of the slave trade, page 54.
5. W.C. Wormal, 1934, A report of the Egun speaking people of the Badagry District of the Colony of Lagos, page 32.
6. A.I. Asiwaju, 1975, Western Yorubaland under European rule , 1889-1945, Page 79.
7. Mama Moradeun, 2005, An Interview by James Akeem Osho Anago at Agbo’le Olori, Oke Ago Owu-Abeokuta. Mama was about 98 years as at the time of interview.
8. Basil Davidson, F.K. Buah, J.F.A. Ajayi, 1967, The growth of African Civilization, A history of West Africa 1000-1800, pages 173-174.
Yoruba Proverb: Bi a se b’eru la b’omo (There’s no difference between a slave and a free-born)
Yoruba Proverb: Eru ma ni baba, ona lojin (A slave before been captured or sold into slavery could have originated from a noble family).
Anago James Akeem Osho is a Tourist Guide, Historian, and Folk Singer