African societies and the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade

The beginning of the Atlantic slave trade uprooted previously established societal norms in West Africa.


  • Africans organized their societies around the family unit, and gold supply often dictated which society held the most power—until the start of the Atlantic slave trade.
  • The beginning of the Atlantic slave trade in the late 1400s disrupted African societal structure as Europeans infiltrated the West African coastline, drawing people from the center of the continent to be sold into slavery.
  • New sugar and tobacco plantations in the Americas and Caribbean heightened the demand for enslaved people, ultimately forcing a total of 12.5 million Africans across the Atlantic and into slavery.

Early West African society

West Africa stretches from modern-day Mauritania to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It encompasses lush rainforests along the equator, savannas on either side of the forest, and much drier land to the north. Until about 600 CE, most Africans living in this area were hunter-gatherers. In the driest areas, herders maintained sheep, goats, cattle, or camels. In the more heavily wooded area near the equator, farmers raised yams, palm products, or plantains. The savanna areas yielded crops including rice, millet, and sorghum.
Map of West African societies pre-colonization. Image credit: Wikimedia commons courtesy of Wikimedia commons.
Although there were large trading centers along the rivers—the Senegal, Gambia, Niger, Volta, and Congo—most West Africans lived in small villages and identified primarily with their extended family or clan, rather than an ethnic or national identity. Wives, children, and dependents were a sign of wealth; men frequently practiced polygyny, or the custom of having more than one wife. In times of need, West Africans relied on relatives from near and far for support. Hundreds of separate dialects emerged from different west African clans; in modern Nigeria, nearly 500 languages are still spoken.
African societies practiced human bondage long before the Atlantic slave trade began. Famine or fear of stronger enemies might force one tribe to ask another for help and give themselves in bondage in exchange for assistance. Similar to the European serf system, those seeking protection or relief from starvation would become the servants of those who provided relief. Debt might also be worked off through some form of servitude. Furthermore, prisoners of war between different African societies oftentimes became enslaved.
Typically, these servants became a part of the extended tribal family. There is some evidence of chattel slavery, in which people were treated as personal property, in the Nile Valley. It appears there was a slave-trade route through the Sahara that brought sub-Saharan Africans to Rome, a global center of slavery.
West Africans transported to the coast to be sold into slavery. Wikimedia Commons

Religion and the African empire

Religious movement helped shape African societal structure. Following the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, Islam spread quickly across North Africa, bringing not only a unifying faith but a political and legal structure as well. Only those who had converted to Islam could rule or be engaged in trade.
The first major empire to emerge in West Africa was the Ghana Empire. By 750, the Soninke farmers of the region had become wealthy by taxing traders who traversed their area. For instance, the Niger River basin supplied gold to the Berber and Arab traders from west of the Nile Valley, who brought cloth, weapons, and manufactured goods into the African interior. Since Ghana’s king controlled the gold supply, he was able to maintain price controls and afford a strong military.
Soon, however, a new kingdom emerged. By 1200 CE, under the leadership of Sundiata Keita, Mali replaced Ghana as the leading state in West Africa. After Sundiata’s rule, the court converted to Islam, and Muslim scribes played a large part in administration and government. Miners then discovered huge new deposits of gold east of the Niger River. By the 14th century, the empire was so wealthy that while on a hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, Mali’s ruler Mansa Musa gave away enough gold to create serious price inflation in the cities along his route. Timbuktu, the capital city, became a leading Islamic center for education, commerce, and the slave trade.
The vast and glorious civilization of Timbuktu. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Atlantic slave trade

The Elmina slave castle in modern Ghana. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The European slave trade began with Portugal’s exploration of the west coast of Africa in search of a sea trade route to the East. The East had bountiful new resources, like spices and silk, and the Portuguese were eager to acquire these goods without the laborious journey by land from Europe to Asia.
In 1482, Portuguese traders built Elmina Castle in present-day Ghana, on the west coast of Africa. Originally built as a fortified trading post, the castle had mounted cannons facing out to sea, not inland toward continental Africa. The Portuguese had greater fear of a naval attack from other Europeans than of a land attack from Africans.
Although the Portuguese originally used the fort for trading gold, by the 16th century they had shifted their focus to trading enslaved people, as the demand for slave labor ballooned in the New World. The dungeon of the fort morphed to served as a holding pen for Africans from the interior of the continent. On the upper floors, Portuguese traders ate, slept, and prayed. Enslaved people lived in the dungeon for weeks or months until ships arrived to transport them to Europe or the Americas. For them, the dungeon of Elmina was their last sight of their home continent.
The door of no return at Elmina Castle. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
By 1444, the Portuguese brought enslaved people from Africa to work on the sugar plantations of the Madeira Islands, off the coast of modern Morocco. The slave trade then expanded across the Atlantic as European colonies demanded an ever-increasing number of workers for the extensive plantations growing the labor-intensive crops of tobacco, sugar, and eventually rice and cotton.
Soon, the Spanish, Dutch, and English all followed the Portuguese in transporting enslaved people across the Atlantic. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database estimates that 12.5 million Africans were sent through the Middle Passage—across the Atlantic—to work in the New World. Many Africans died on their way to the Americas, and those who did arrive often faced conditions worse than the slave ships. Soon, the Atlantic slave trade would contribute to enshrining a racial hierarchy into New World culture.

What do you think?

How did religion, natural resources, and location each determine the prosperity of African societies?
What role did the Atlantic slave trade play within European competition during the colonial era?
This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
This article was adapted from "West Africa and the Role of Slavery." OpenStax College, US History. OpenStax CNX. 2016.
  1. David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant: A History of the American People, 15th (AP) ed. (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013)
  2. Wikipedia, “Atlantic slave trade," last modified August 2016, accessed August 6, 2016,
  3. Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, "Voyages," accessed August 6, 2016,