The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Political Model


When the Europeans arrived on the coast of Africa during the late 1400s, new trade routes were opened and human labour was exported out of Africa on a massive scale. However, evidence of slavery prior to the Europeans’ arrival is currently the source of much debate. Walter Rodney writes that Africans did not have true slaves until Europeans arrived with the concept of slavery. According to Rodney, prior to the Europeans arrival, Africans employed “domestic slaves” (Rodney 256), who were not slaves and there was an ascertainable difference between the two.

Alternatively, John Thornton and John Fage both make the case that Africans did indeed have slavery before the Europeans arrived. Also controversial is the question of the effect of the slave trade on Africa. Rodney argues that Europeans coerced Africans into fighting wars solely to take captives and slaves, thus reflecting an economic model for the Atlantic slave trade. Thornton, however, argues that wars were fought on the basis of a political model and the slave trade was a by-product of those wars.

It is Thornton’s evidence that makes it clear that the slave trade was based on a political, not economic, model because slavery existed before Europeans opened the Atlantic trade route and Africans did not wage wars in order to supply Europeans with slaves. This is exemplified by the Ashanti kingdom in particular, which had slaves before the arrival of Europeans and after the Atlantic slave trade route opened, utilised the trade for political reasons. Africa had slaves before Europeans arrived with the demand, which implies that Africans followed a political model in the slave trade. In order to successfully analyse whether or not Africa had slavery before the Europeans arrived, a concrete definition of a slave must be understood. As stated by John Fage, ” After the opening of the Atlantic slave trade, Africans continued to wage war for the same reasons they fought before the Europeans arrived.

They were not coerced in any way by Europeans to fight in order to survive. An argument explained and later refuted by Thornton states that Europeans gave Africans weapons in exchange for slaves. According to this same theory, European arms were more effective than African weaponry, which meant that the Africans who did not trade slaves for artillery would be destroyed by other Africans. In his rebuttal, Thornton points out that European artillery was not, in actuality, a valuable means for African warfare. “…Europeans did not bring about…a military revolution that forced participation in the Atlantic trade route…” (Thornton 116) because the military goods offered were relatively useless for Africans. African warfare was dramatically different than European combat and the weaponry reflected that difference.

Obtaining European artillery was not an incentive to enter wars for Africans and the Europeans themselves did not force Africans to engage in the slave trade by creating an environment where European weapons were needed. In fact, Europeans still traded with African states that did not engage in the slave trade, clearly elucidating that Europeans were not forcing Africans to provide slaves. Once the demand for domestic labour was met in an African state, the nations ceased providing slaves to slave traders and there was no pressure “…to continue trading in slaves” (Thornton 111) from the Europeans.

Dealers from Europe found other commercial relations with non-slave trading countries; they did not want to sever ties with powerful African partners bec[removed][removed]ause Africa had many other goods to trade with Europe. African warfare did not suddenly cease being politically motivated, nor did the Europeans force Africans to engage in war in order to obtain more slaves with the onset of the European slave trade. A culture that utilised slavery in Africa before the European slave trade began was the Ashante kingdom. In Ashante society, it was the loss of kinship that defined a slave.

When the kingdom expanded, war captives were taken back to the main realm. These Africans were drastically different from the men and women living within the Ashante borders; they dressed differently, spoke differently, and acted differently. However, since the Ashante kingdom wanted to increase population, which is important because people, not land, were taxable, the status of these war captives, slaves, was changeable. Assimilation of a kinless man or woman into Ashante society was entirely possible by becoming a relative. Thus, a slave could be adopted by a master and become part of that family.

The Ashante recognised that having many slaves in one kingdom was a threat, so efforts were made to incorporate people from other cultures. After the Asantehene Nana Osei Bonsu waged war upon the Gyaman king Adinkera because Adinkera made his own stools, a large influx of slaves flowed into the Ashante kingdom. Bonsu knew he had to sell the war captives because having too many slaves in a territory is a large hazard. By selling these threats, Nana Osei Bonsu displayed that he was involved in the slave trade for political reasons. He did not sell the surplus slaves in order to gain money; he sold them to protect his kingdom. The Ashante kingdom is an excellent example of a society that had slaves before the Europeans arrived and utilised the slave trade as a powerful political tool.

Africans were not swindled by Europeans; prominent members of African societies sold the surplus human labour to people who wanted it, much like any other commodity. Europeans utilised an already existing slave market for their own purposes. Thornton and Fage make strong cases for the existence of both a slave trade before European arrival and a political model for the trade after European trading routes were established. Slavery was not the Europeans’ “…handiwork” (Rodney 259), it was a well-used source of manpower in a labour-starved continent for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Slavery in Africa was not an economic tool brought by Europeans; it was the by-product of wars that was not altered by the opening of an Atlantic trade route.

Works Cited

Fage, John. Problems in African History. Ed. Robert O. Collins. New York: Markus Wiener, Inc., 1994. 256-259.

McCann, James C. African History: Slavery. Boston University, Boston.

Rodney, Walter.Problems in African History. Ed. Robert O. Collins. New York: Markus Wiener, Inc., 1994. 256-259.

Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. 2nd ed. Cabridge, UK: University of Cambridge, 1992. 72-125.