Early Modern Africa and the Emerging Atlantic World

The people of sub-Saharan Africa continued to observe the cultural practices of earlier times for many years. They often built states and societies based on kinship groups and traded with Muslim merchants from northern Africa and southwestern Asia. However, the emergence of global trading networks caused monumental changes in the region. Although the caravan trade continued, port cities began to prosper, as Africa participated in the greater trading world. Long distance trade in central and southern Africa with European merchants developed. Sadly, a substantial amount of the African trade was in human beings. Slavery, which had been practiced for many years in African societies, took on a life of its own; in fact turmoil between societies which had lived peacefully with one another erupted as raids were conducted to search for captives who would be sold as slaves to Muslim and European merchants. Millions of people were forcefully carried away from their ancestral lands to work on plantations and mines in the Americas and the Caribbean. Many never made it; but were rather consigned to a watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Early Modern African Politics and Society: The kingdom of Ghana had dominated sub-Saharan Africa as early as the eighth century C.E. The kings of Ghana had controlled and taxed the gold trade and had thereby gained the financial means to field a large army and influence a large portion of western Africa. The Mali Empire replaced Ghana as the dominant power in the thirteenth century. They continued the Ghana practice of controlling the trans-Saharan trade. Mali was in turn superseded by the Songhay Empire. In 11464, the Songhay ruler, Sunni Ali (r. 1464-1493) consolidated the empire by bringing the important trading cities of Timbuktu and Jenne under his control. He used their wealth to dominate the entire Niger River valley area.

Sunni Ali constructed an elaborate military and administrative structure to oversee the kingdom. Governors were appointed over provinces and a hierarchy of command instituted that made the army a formidable military force. An imperial navy was also instituted to patrol the Niger River. As a result, the empire extended its military authority north into the Sahara, east to Lake Chad, and west to the upper Niger River valley. The capital of the Empire, Goa, had over 75.000 residents, many of whom were merchants. All Songhay emperors were Muslim and contributed Mosques, built schools to teach the Qur’an and also supported a prestigious Muslim university at Timbuktu. Unlike the rulers of Mali and Ghana, Songhai Emperors considered Islam a cultural foundation for cooperation with Muslim merchants and the Islamic states of North Africa. Still, they did not abandon traditional African religious practices. Sunni Ali often consulted pagan magicians and diviners.

The Songhay Empire collapsed in 1591 when it was attacked by an army from Morocco armed with Muskets. Songhay forces were easily defeated, and peoples subject to the empire took the opportunity to revolt. In its place, a series of smaller regional kingdoms developed. Among them, Kanem-Bornu near Lake Chad; the Hausa in the West, the Oyo and Asante people in the forests south of the grasslands, and the Diula, Mande and others on the coast. The Coastal states established trading relationships with European merchant mariners who called at their ports after 1500. As the Atlantic trading states gained in prominence, the internal states which had relied on trans-Saharan trade as a financial resource (as had Mali and Songhay) weakened.

The Swahili city-states of eastern Africa were ultimately attacked by Portuguese mariners who used their superior firepower to force the Swahili to pay tribute. The Portuguese constructed administrative centers in Mozambique and Malindi and built forts throughout the region. They hoped to control the entire east African trade. They did not succeed; however their efforts caused a decline in Swahili cities from which they never recovered.

In 1483, a Portuguese fleet sailed up the Congo River and established commercial relations with the Kingdom of Kongo. Portuguese merchants established close relationships with the kings of Kongo; they supplied them with advisors and military garrisons (which also protected Portuguese interests) and also brought in tailors, shoemakers, miners, masons and Roman Catholic priests. As a result, the kings of Kongo converted to Christianity primarily as a means of establishing closer commercial and diplomatic relations with the Portuguese. They particularly were impressed that Christianity seemed to strongly endorse monarchical rule; and that Catholic Saints were similar to the spirits of traditional Kongolese religion. King Nzinga Mbemba, also known as King Alfonso I became a zealous Catholic who attempted to convert all his subjects, and reportedly studied the Bible so intensely that at times he forgot to eat. The Kongo capital of Mbanza, which the Portuguese called Sāo Salvador, had so many churches in the sixteenth century that it was often called "Kongo of the Bell."

The Portuguese traded textiles and weapons, and supplied artisans and advisors in exchange for copper, ivory, and primarily slaves. Although the Portuguese sometimes set out themselves on slaving expeditions, more often than not they allied with local authorities and provided them with weapons in exchange for slaves. Some of the local authorities were enemies of the King of Kongo, while others were his subordinates. Either way, the Portuguese undermined the authority of the kings of Kongo who repeatedly asked the Portuguese to either cease or at least limit their slave trade, all to no avail. Some Portuguese merchants even settled in Kongo and took local wives. They had a tendency to support the interests of their adoptive home rather than Portugal. Even so, relations between the Kongolese and Portuguese gradually deteriorated as the Portuguese persisted in the slave trade. In 1665, a Portuguese colony established south of Kongo went to war and defeated the Kongo army after which they decapitated the Kongo king. Thereafter, the Portuguese abandoned Kongo to search for more profitable opportunities in the kingdom of Ndongo to the South. They referred to it as Angola, from the title of the Ndongo king, ngola. The kingdom of Kongo had largely disintegrated by the eighteenth century.

Ndongo, which had been a subject chiefdom of Kongo, grew rich and powerful from the Portuguese trade. The Portuguese allied with neighboring tribes who delivered an increasing number of war captives to be sold as slaves. As the demand for slaves grew, the Portuguese campaigned in Ndongo to establish a colony to support the slave trade.

They were resisted by Queen Nzinga (r. 1623-1663) who mobilized central African people to oppose the Portuguese and even allied with the Dutch who were trading in the lower Congo River basin. She resisted and held off the Portuguese for forty years. Eventually, however, by means of superior weapons and wealth, the Portuguese were able to exploit divisions between the people of central Africa. After the death of Nzinga, the Portuguese faced less resistance and established control over all of Angola, the first European colony in sub-Saharan Africa.

During her lifetime, Nzinga had been a powerful leader who dressed as a male warrior when leading her troops into battle. She insisted that her subjects call her King, rather than Queen, and often was accompanied by a group of "concubines," young men dressed as women companions to the "king." On one occasion, when she met with the Portuguese governor of Angola, the governor refused to provide her with a chair. When he refused, she sat on the back of her servant while she negotiated with him.

After the fifteenth century, a series of smaller kingdoms replaced the rulers of Great Zimbabwe in the South, and the Portuguese and Dutch began to play a role in south African affairs. They often formed alliances and intervened in disputes as a means of advancing their own interests. In 1652, the Dutch built a trading post at Cape Town where they encountered the Khoikhoi people, whom they referred to as Hottentots. Aided by firepower, the Dutch established a colony and imported large numbers of colonists who commandeered Khoikhoi labor easily. They soon established settlements in the Orange and Great Fish River basins and laid the foundation for a series of Dutch and British colonies in the region.

Islam and Christianity in Early Modern Africa: Islam and Christianity attracted increasing interest in sub-Saharan Africa, although most Africans continued to observe traditional African religions. Islam was most popular in the west. Timbuktu had a prominent Islamic university and 180 Islamic schools where thousands of students studied. Even so, the people of the area often combined Islam with traditional beliefs to create a hybrid form of Islam that permitted much more familiar relations with men and women than was typically permitted by Islam. This often shocked the more conservative Islamic community, including the Fulani people of west Africa, who had formerly been a herding people but had settled into cities in the late seventeenth century. They practiced a strict, conservative form of Islam similar to that of Northern Africa and Arabia. They led a series of military campaigns to establish Islamic states and impose their own form of Islam in west Africa. They founded powerful states in present day Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and northern Nigeria, and promoted the spread of Islam beyond the cities to the countryside. They established schools in remote areas to teach Islamic doctrine and laid the foundation for a new series of Islamic states. Still, they did not eradicate traditional African religion.

Christianity also blended with local religions, although some individuals, such as King Alfonso I accepted a pure form of Roman Catholicism. Many Africans considered Christian missionaries as magicians and Christian symbols such as the cross as amulets which would drive off evil spirits. A particularly influential form of this hybrid Christianity was the Antonian Movement in Kongo which began in 1704 under the leadership of an aristocratic woman, Dona Beatriz who proclaimed that St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of Portugal, had possessed her and chosen her to carry his message. She gained a reputation as a miracle worker and used this prominence to promote an African form of Christianity. She taught that Jesus Christ had been a black African man, Kongo was the true Holy Land of Christianity, and heaven was for Africans. She urged the people of Kongo to ignore European missionaries and listen instead to her disciples. In 1706, the Portuguese, who were seriously challenged by her teachings, persuaded King Pedro IV of Kongo to arrest her, after which she was burned at the stake. The religion continued to grow and represented a threat to the monarchy supported by the Portuguese. In 1708 an army of 20,000 Antonians challenged King Pedro whom they considered an unworthy ruler.

African society continued to follow established patterns of kingship groups and agricultural villages under the leadership of prominent individuals. Still, interaction and trade with Europeans brought changes to traditional African society. Europeans brought textiles and high quality steel for trade and food crops such as manioc, maize and peanuts. The crops soon supplemented bananas, yams, rice and millet as part of the staple African diet. The most important was manioc, which thrived in tropical soils which were not suitable for other crops. The end result was a dramatic increase in the African population which ironically and tragically coincided with the increased number of Africans who were carried away because of the slave trade.

The Atlantic Slave Trade: Slavery was endemic in African society for many centuries prior to the institution of the Atlantic trade. Most slaves were war captives, although some were criminals or other individuals expelled from a clan. Once enslaved, one had no personal or civil rights. One could be ordered to perform any type of work, be punished at will or sold as chattel property. Interestingly, African tribal law did not recognize private property; but rather vested ownership of land in communities. Power and wealth came from control over human labor rather than the possession of land. Slaves were a type of heritable property and a means of measuring wealth. Those with large numbers of slaves could harvest more crops and thereby incur more wealth. Slaves were routinely purchased by African societies as a means of enhancing their power. It was possible that a slave might be assimilated into kinship groups within the clan and, within a generation, be emancipated and obtain an honorable position within a new clan.

Muslim merchants began participating in the African slave trade as early as the eighth century. They transported slaves by camel caravan across the Sahara or by ship at Swahili port cities where they were sent to work on agricultural plantations in the Mediterranean basin. The Islamic slave trade lasted until the twentieth century, during which time up to ten million Africans were enslaved and carried away. An established slave trading system was in place by the time Europeans entered sub-Saharan Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Islamic traders had captured, sold and distributed slaves for over 500 years. With the entry of Europeans into the trade, slave trading expanded dramatically.

The Portuguese were the earliest European slave traders. Records indicate that twelve men were captured in 1441 and carried to Portugal as slaves. Mariners soon learned that slaves could be purchased rather than captured, and by 1460, five hundred slaves per year were delivered to Portugal and Spain. In Europe they worked as miners, porters or domestic servants. Agricultural work was still done by serfs and free peasants. A much larger number were shipped to the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde Islands where they worked on sugar plantations. By the 1520’s, two thousand slaves per year were shipped to Sāo Tomé. The increasing demand for sugar in Europe led to the expansion of sugar cultivation to South America where slaves were imported directly from Kongo and Angola to Brazil. Brazil soon became the wealthiest sugar producing area in the western hemisphere.

Spanish entrepreneurs in the Caribbean and Americas increasingly relied on black slaves as Indians whom they enslaved succumbed to disease or either revolted or ran away. The first shipment of slaves from Africa directly to the Caribbean landed in 1518, where they were put to work on sugar plantations. Later, slaves were introduced to Mexico, Peru, and Central America where they worked as miners. The first slaves in North America landed in 1619 at Jamestown, where they were used for agricultural labor, particularly tobacco, rice and indigo.

The slave trade became increasingly profitable with the establishment of a system known as the triangular trade system. Under that system, European trade goods, usually cloth and metal goods were exchanged in Africa for slaves. The ships then transported the slaves to the Caribbean or Americas where they were sold for a substantial profit, often as much as 300%. Then, they purchased sugar or molasses which were transported to Europe and sold, then the entire process began again.

The slave trade was barbaric to the extreme. African chieftains often organized raiding parties or launched wars for no other reason than to capture victims for the ever growing slave trade. Often, victims were seized away from homes, fields or villages. Victims were immediately spirited away resulting in bewilderment and anger for the victims and their families and friends, who never saw them again. Captured victims underwent a forced march to the coast where they were kept in pens until a ship arrived to transport them to the west. At that point, they embarked on the hideous middle passage, aboard filthy, crowded ships. They were kept in hideously cramped quarters. Some ships had room to sit upright but not stand; others were chained in spaces scarcely twenty inches in height. Some slaves attempted to starve themselves or revolt. Crews attempted to preserve the lives of slaves in anticipation of a healthy profit when they were sold; but treated them with cruelty and contempt. At times they pried open the mouths of those who refused to eat, and pitched overboard those who were sick, so as not to have others infected or waste limited food supplies. The stench from unsanitary conditions was so bad that other ships often steered clear of slave ships to avoid the odor. The entire trip took four to six weeks with mortality often exceeding 50 per cent during the early days of the trade. Later, larger ships which carried more water were built and better food provided which reduced the mortality rate to five per cent. Best estimates are that a quarter of those who embarked on the middle passage ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic.

About two thousand slaves per year left Africa in the 1400’s and 1500’s; however by the eighteenth century, with increased population and cultivation of staple crops in the Americas, the annual number reached 55,000 per year. In the 1780’s, imports averaged 88,000 per year. In some individual years, the total exceeded 100,000. Best estimates are that twelve million people were transported. Another four million died resisting seizure or by way of the Middle Passage.

Some African societies, particularly the kingdoms of Rwanda and Bugunda were untouched by the trade, as they were too far removed from major slave ports, and also because they resisted the trade. Some few societies such as the Asante and Dahomey peoples obtained firearms from the slave trade and used it to build powerful empires. Some African merchants complained bitterly at the loss of income when the trade was abolished, and even attempted to undermine British efforts to patrol the Atlantic in an effort to stop illegal slaving. Overall, however, African society suffered immense losses. Total population actually rose due to the introduction of new crops from the Americas; many individual societies suffered severe losses, particularly those between Senegal and Angola, which were near the most active slave ports. Approximately two thirds of all slaves transported were male. Slavers preferred young men between fourteen and thirty five, as they offered the best return on one’s investment. The result was a sexual imbalance in Africa, so much so that in Angola where women were two thirds of the population, polygamy became common; and women were forced to perform duties that otherwise had been performed by men. The slave trade also caused tremendous turmoil even when slavers were not involved. Europeans often traded firearms for slaves. Dahomey rapidly absorbed neighboring societies by increasing its arsenal of firearms and maintaining a constant flow of slaves. The Dahomey army, which included a regiment of women, became primarily a slave raiding force. The trade and introduction of firearms actually engendered other conflicts that might never have happened but for the trade.

The African Diaspora: The first major European plantation for sugar cultivation was established on the island of Hispaniola (present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Plantations soon spread to Brazil, the Caribbean and other parts of the Americas. Although sugar was the primary staple crop produced by slave labor, rice, tobacco and indigo were also grown. Later, cotton and coffee became staple crops. Plantations typically grew one staple crop, although a small garden plot was maintained to furnish food. Large plantations might keep as many as one hundred slaves.

Plantation societies differed sharply from one geographical location to another. In the Caribbean and South America, slaves often died from malaria and yellow fever. Brutal working conditions, poor nutrition and sanitation also contributed to an enormous mortality rate. Since mostly male slaves were imported, few established families. A constant stream of slaves from Africa was needed to maintain the work force. Over half so called "salt water slaves" went to the Caribbean, and another third to Brazil. Only five percent went to North American destinations where diseases were less threatening and the conditions in which slaves were kept less harsh. North American planters imported large numbers of female slaves and encouraged them to have families and bear children. This was especially true in the eighteenth century, when the price of salt water slaves grew dramatically.

No slaves accepted their status willingly. They resisted often by working slowly sabotaging plantation equipment, or occasionally running away. Those who ran away, known as maroons, often formed self governing communities in mountainous, forested or swampy areas; and often raided plantations for arms, tools and even slaves to increase their numbers. Some survived for centuries, including the Saramaka people of Suriname, who trace their ancestry to eighteenth century maroons.

Sir Francis Drake relied on a group of maroons when he attacked the Spanish settlement at Panama in the sixteenth century. It was the attack as well as the participation of the maroons which infuriated Philip II who demanded that Elizabeth I of England surrender Drake to Spain for trial and punishment. Instead, when Drake (who sailed around the world to avoid capture) landed in England, Elizabeth knighted him on board his ship.

Slave revolts were the most severe form of resistance. Slaves usually far outnumbered others, which was a cause of constant fear among slave owners. However, because the owners had access to horses, guns, etc., few slave revolts were successful. Only in the French colony of Saint-Domingue did a slave revolt end slavery in 1793. The slaves there declared independence from France and renamed their land Haiti. They established a self governing republic in 1804. The Saint-Domingue rebellion was a major factor in Napoleon Bonaparte’s decision to sell Louisiana to the United States. The revolt also terrorized slave holders and inspired slaves; but no other slave revolt was successful, although many were quite bloody, including the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina.

The African slave trade is largely responsible for the development of prosperous societies in the Americas which otherwise would not have been possible. Enslaved Africans, however, were not allowed to maintain their inherited cultural traditions. They were often grouped with other Africans of different tribes and often joined societies shaped by American and European traditions. The end result was a distinctive African-American cultural tradition. A common result was the creation of creole languages such as Gullah and Geechee, often spoken in the low country of South Carolina and Georgia. Slave religion also combined elements of different societies. Some shipped from Africa were Christian; others became Christian upon arrival. Their Christianity was not European Christianity, however, but was a hybrid form which reflected African traditions. They normally did not develop a religious hierarchy; slave conditions prevented it. However, some notable religious developments were quite popular, including the practice of Voodoo in Haiti. In other areas, Christian saints were associated with African deities; and drumming, dancing and sacrifice of animals were common. A belief in magic, sorcery and witchcraft became prominent. African foods were also introduced to the west, and gave rise to a distinctive hybrid cuisine. African okra was used with vegetables and shell fish to create gumbo. (Okra and gumbo are African words.) Rice cultivation in South Carolina and other areas was introduced by slaves. Slaves also built houses, fashioned clay pots and wove grass baskets in West African styles.

The Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade: Opposition to slavery and the trade was as old as the trade itself. The American and French Revolutions, the one appealing for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and the other for "liberty, equality, fraternity," suggested a universal human right to equality. Africans contributed to the cause, as constant revolts made slavery both expensive and dangerous. Freed slaves, such as Olaudah Equiano, who published an autobiography of his experiences contributed to the cause.

In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included the Atlantic slave trade among his description of the wrongdoings of George III; however Southern Delegates to the Second Continental Congress insisted that it be removed.

Economic factors also worked against the maintenance of slavery. Slaves did not work enthusiastically, and the threat of rebellion meant that expensive defensive measures were necessary. Owners had to care for slaves throughout their lives, no matter how hard they worked. Expansion of sugar production in the Caribbean resulted in drastically lower sugar prices while the price of salt water slaves increased dramatically. European investors shifted emphasis from agriculture to manufacturing industries where paid labor was cheaper than maintaining slaves. Free workers spent much of their income on manufactured goods, which increased the factory owner’s return on his investment. It was increasingly obvious that the best policy was to leave Africans in Africa where they could produce raw materials and buy manufactured goods for Europeans.

The slave trade was abolished by Denmark in 1803, Great Britain in 1807, the U.S. in 1808, France in 1814, the Netherlands in 1817 and Spain in 1845. The institution itself continued long after the trade was abolished, however. Clandestine slave trading also still took place. The British sent naval squadrons to patrol the west coast of Africa, which finally caused the trade to grind to a halt. The last documented slave ship arrived in Cuba in 1867, two years after the institution was abolished in the U.S. Slavery itself was abolished in British colonies in 1833, in French Colonies in 1848, in the U.S. in 1865, in Cuba in 1888, and in Brazil in 1888. Saudi Arabia and Angola only abolished the trade in the 1960’s. Although officially abolished universally, remnants of slavery remain. The Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights estimates that over two hundred million people are kept in some form of bondage, usually though sham adoptions, debt bondage, or servile marriages; primarily in Africa, south Asia and Latin America.