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Slavery in Ancient Africa

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Slavery existed in Africa before the infamous Arabic and European slave trade changed the slavery paradigm forever after. The trade of captive human beings from enemy tribes was a common practice in early African society as a whole, but not nearly as brutal as what it later came to be.

An Unwelcome Change

Chinwe was only 13 years old when a raid overcame her tribe. The opposing tribe was brutal, killing all the men, even the young boys she had known since her birth. The youngest could stay with their mothers, but the rest were pierced and cut until the screams stopped. She and the other women were herded together into the middle of the village and then marched off into the wilderness. The journey took 4 days, but they were well fed and given water. Then men were not unkind, but she was scared anyway. Eventually, Chinwe and the others arrived in what would become their new home. Chinwe was put to work for the family of one of her captors and continued to work for three years until she was married to the son of her master and became a member of the family. Chinwe lived the rest of her life there, missing her father and brothers, but protected and free.

Early African Slavery

This story is just an example of many scenarios that took place in ancient Africa. The origin of this concept was most likely from the ancient Egyptians who freely traded slaves since 3500 BCE. Ancient Egypt was known as a land of slave labor. The Egyptians were equal opportunity slave traders, enslaving Semitic people, their own people, and African tribal people as they had the opportunity. One idea for the origin of slavery among African tribal people was the adoption by warring tribes throughout Africa after some of their own people were captured by Egyptians and removed for labor, servitude, or conscription. Like Chinwe, most slaves were women. Mature men and even young boys were usually slaughtered during raids because they would have been more of a threat than they were worth to the raiders. The young boys would be raised with little to no memory of the violence that broke their village culture. There are instances where mature men were taken captive and enslaved, depending on local practices and societal needs.

A statue of a black African slave owned in Egypt, circa 2nd century BCE
Black Egyptian Slave

While the means for slave trade were violent, the slave lifestyle usually was not. Generally, the women who were captured worked in fields, spinning, dyeing, and weaving fabric, and performed other domestic duties as required. In some cases, slaves were even adopted or married into families and after a few generations, thereby gaining their descendants' freedom. Slaves even owned slaves in some cases and some were elevated to high positions if they presented talents or skills that allowed them to ascend. Slavery practices varied from tribe to tribe and there were some instances where enslaved tribal members were afforded fewer or no rights. However, this was not standard practice until much later in African slavery history when other influences arrived.

Sometimes people introduced themselves into slavery for protection. For instance, if your father and brothers were killed or died, usually your protection and family prosperity would be at risk. This led to the practice of indentured servitude where you entered into the protection of another family. Indentured servitude was used for paying debts as well. If a tribesman or woman became indebted to someone else, they could offer service until the debt was paid.

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