Understanding History Of African Slavery: Europeans Were Not The Only Slave Traders – Analysis


By Lipton Matthews

In the vast pantheon of history, black people have been both victims and oppressors. Yet history has been so politicized that we hear endlessly about the former and almost never about the latter. Rhetoric has eclipsed facts. It is a fact, for example, that Africans participated in the transatlantic slave trade. History is now frequently used as a cudgel to hammer white people into submission.

Instead of recognizing nuance and complexity, many who should know better have embraced the simplistic narrative of activists. Mainstream publications like the Atlantic and the New York Times desperately want it to be true that blacks have only ever been victims of whites. Yet editorial sentimentalism cannot change the facts. A proper reading of history shatters the feel-good shibboleths of left-wing activists.

Such activists constantly invoke Europeans’ role in the transatlantic slave trade to evoke feelings of guilt among contemporary whites. Hidden behind the propaganda is the fact that Africans actually facilitated the trade. Slavery existed on the continent prior to contact with Europeans; Africans were therefore well accustomed to the business. In Slave Traders by Invitation, historian Finn Fuglestad argues that in some cases Europeans were solicited to partake in the trade. In fact, slavery was so lucrative for Africans they sometimes badgered European traders with business proposals. In The Golden Trade, Richard Jobson recounted that a trader expressed shock when the former declined his offer of slaves.

By entering the African slave trade, Europeans were only deepening a long-entrenched practice. And they were not oblivious to the reality that success meant genuflecting to African elites. Historian Pieter Emmer has overturned the politically correct consensus that Africans were marginal actors in the slave trade. He notes that if Europeans had set the terms, they would have procured a greater number of slaves from the coastal parts of West Africa closest to the New World—to reduce transportation risks. Yet most slaves were obtained from sections of the African coast that were distant from the New World and therefore harder to reach. Because Africans set the terms, Europeans resorted to purchasing more women than required. The type of slave supplied was contingent on the interests of African traders.

Africans made sure that Europeans understood the trade was being conducted on their turf. They established the conditions for trade arrangements so that cargoes scheduled for Africa reflected the peculiarities of African tastes. African elites were fastidious consumers who carefully scrutinized imports for flaws—sometimes to the chagrin of Europeans. In the 1660s, one German trader reported that Africans could quickly differentiate between high-quality Dutch or Indian textiles and their inferior competitors produced in England and Germany. His accounts are laced with complaints that Africans would defraud Europeans by combining gold with less valuable substances, and then barring Europeans from penalizing the suspected cheaters.

Without cooperating with Africans, Europeans could do no business on the continent. European traders were merely tenants on African soil, who had to pay elites to construct their trading posts. In the Asante empire, Europeans were mandated to pay ground rent or tribute whenever they built settlements. Similarly, the Whydah kingdom compelled European merchants to pay customs fees and distribute gifts to the king and his agents. Overcome with greed, one king in 1700 extracted fees equivalent to ten slaves from each European slaver to open the market, and then ordered them to purchase his slaves at an exorbitant price.

This was the pattern throughout Africa; rulers constantly reminded Europeans that Africans were in charge. Even the powerful British paid a yearly rent to the Fante to occupy the lands on which their forts were constructed. The cost of doing business in Africa increased further due to bureaucratic delays, despite mechanisms to expedite trade issues and settle commercial disputes. But because the Africans were so formidable, they could punish Europeans for challenging their authority.

James Nightingale, the governor of Fort Charles in the 1680s, expressed opposition to policy in Annamaboe and was promptly stripped naked, beaten, and removed from the fort. Europeans were also killed for supporting the wrong side in local civil wars or in wars between rival African rulers. Political authority in Africa often precluded Europeans from expanding their commercial enterprises.

The desire of Europeans for mines and plantations irked African leaders who believed that such acquisitions entailed a loss of sovereignty. As such, Europeans were unsuccessful at monopolizing production of African gold. Perhaps the only gold exported from Africa that was manufactured under European supervision emanated from Brazil in the late seventeenth century, having been sent to Africa as payment for slaves. Given the agency Africans had in their dealings with Europeans, some consider the slave trade a sign of Africa’s strength rather than a sign of weakness.

As historian Matthew Heaton writes, the trade became so important for certain states that it led to major rivalries. Blacks conquering and enslaving other blacks was evidently not uncommon:

In the early eighteenth century, Whydah and Allada attempted to tighten their control of the slave trade by establishing coastal monopolies over access to European traders. . . . The king of Allada did not forbid hinterland merchants to trade with Europeans but instead declared monopoly rights to the purchase of firearms and cowry shells. . . . This move infuriated Dahomey, one of the largest inland procurer of slaves, whose King Agaja, retaliated by attacking the port of Jakin in 1724, and Whydah in 1727, bringing them both into the Dahomey tributary network.

These facts should slay the myth that Africans only ever occupied a subordinate position in the slave trade. Further evidence should puncture the argument that slavery did not benefit Africans. Obviously, the trade was bad for the people who were exported, but concrete evidence for its devastating effects on Africa’s industries is lacking.

Historical analysis shows that the slave trade failed to deliver outsize profits for the parties involved, as it was a very costly activity. And evidence suggests the terms of trade gradually shifted to favor Africans by the late eighteenth century. Of course, this does not mean that profits from the slave trade enriched African societies. After all, the benefits largely accrued to elites. But it does negate the thesis that Europeans were the sole beneficiaries of the trade.

Another pernicious myth is that Africans did not benefit from European imports. Trade with Europe thrived because Europeans were willing to provide goods that Africans demanded, such as textiles, metals, and other luxury goods that could be manufactured more efficiently elsewhere. Europeans also introduced goods that were not previously produced on the continent. The historian Daniel Domingues da Silva has argued that most imports were not substitutes for locally manufactured items.

In some regions, he maintains, imported goods were diffused within the broader public, rather than being concentrated among elites. Da Silva’s conclusions complement David Northrup’s argument that “imports supplemented rather than displaced locally made products in inland regions.” Because elites craved luxury items that signaled their status to the community, imported textiles became wildly popular. Europeans cannot be faulted for responding to the market.

And on the matter of slavery, it is noteworthy that activists focus on the brutalities of the transatlantic trade while downplaying or ignoring those of the trans-Saharan trade. Research on the latter is rather sparse, even though it began much earlier and therefore lasted much longer. Arab slave masters tended to be particularly cruel, raping the women and castrating the men to prevent them from reproducing.

Slavery differed in the Arab world in that the most common motivation was acquiring women for sexual purposes. When traders could obtain Circassian, Slavic, Greek, and other white women at reasonable prices, they were generally preferred to blacks. Like Europeans, Arabs devised outlandish “theories” to justify their enslavement of black Africans:

Ibn Khaldun’s explanation is particularly disturbing: The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes (Sudan), owing to their low degree of humanity and their proximity to the animal stage. Other persons who accept the status of slave do so as a means of attaining high rank or power, as is the case with the Mameluke Turks in the East and with those Franks and Galicians who enter the service of the state in Spain.

Another myth that has become widely accepted is that black people were uninterested in colonialism. In 1822, the American Colonization Society established Liberia as a destination for freed black slaves. Since such individuals had faced severe racism in America, one might have expected them to advance the interests of the native black people in their new homeland. In fact, the opposite occurred.

The natives of Liberia were granted few civil rights by Liberia’s Constitution of 1847. Only a small number attained the franchise and the right to work in government departments. Like the British, the settler elites governed through indirect rule, which created its own problems. Corrupt and badly trained soldiers ravaged villages, pillaged farms, and raped women. The government imposed an annual “hut tax” on adult men. But the program became mired in corruption, with the village chiefs using the payments for personal business.

Elites lived lavishly and rarely paid taxes, while barely providing social infrastructure to the population. Local rebellions were quickly suppressed. The situation in Liberia got so bad that in 1930 the League of Nations investigated the allegation that Africans were being enslaved.

Many locals expected the arrival of African Americans would raise living conditions in the country, only to become disillusioned by the settlers’ incompetence. This perceptive letter from King Yado Gyude of the Cape Palmas Grebo tribe illustrates the frustrations of native Liberians:

In the year 1834 a batch of black colonists . . . reached our shores in search of a home. Pitying their condition and . . . anticipating that by their settlement among us the benefits of Christian enlightenment and civilization would be disseminated . . . our fathers opened their arms to them. . . . Our fathers have always befriended the Liberian Republic as a struggling nation of our race but the government soon began to despise us, placing us in their room and they in their masters’, just in the same fashion as in their slavery days in America.

The historical studies reviewed in this article reveal the complexities of humanity. All groups have the capacity to do bad, as well as good. Diminishing blacks’ capacity for bad, and casting them as the helpless victims of whites, is not only untruthful but also patronizing. It removes blacks’ agency, consigning them to a subservient role in every historical episode. The past must never be airbrushed or distorted in a misguided effort to elevate blacks’ self-esteem.

  • About the author: Lipton Matthews is a researcher, business analyst, and contributor to Merion WestThe FederalistAmerican Thinker, Intellectual Takeout, mises.org, and Imaginative Conservative. Visit his YouTube channel, with numerous interviews with a variety of scholars, here. He may be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter (@matthewslipton).
  • Source: This article was published by the Mises Institute


The Mises Institute, founded in 1982, teaches the scholarship of Austrian economics, freedom, and peace. The liberal intellectual tradition of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995) guides us. Accordingly, the Mises Institute seeks a profound and radical shift in the intellectual climate: away from statism and toward a private property order. The Mises Institute encourages critical historical research, and stands against political correctness.

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