The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth). Then more than four centuries (from the end of the fifteenth to the nineteenth) of a regular slave trade to build the Americas and the prosperity of the Christian states of Europe. The figures, even where hotly disputed, make your head spin. Four million slaves exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean.
Of all these slave routes, the "slave trade" in its purest form, i.e. the European Atlantic trade, attracts most attention and gives rise to most debate. The Atlantic trade is the least poorly documented to date, but this is not the only reason. More significantly, it was directed at Africans only, whereas the Muslim countries enslaved both Blacks and Whites. And it was the form of slavery that indisputably contributed most to the present situation of Africa. It permanently weakened the continent, led to its colonization by the Europeans in the nineteenth century, and engendered the racism and contempt from which Africans still suffer.
For two hundred years, 1440-1640, Portugal had a monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa. It is notable that they were also the last European country to abolish the institution - although, like France, it still continued to work former slaves as contract laborers, which they called libertos or engagés à temps. It is estimated that during the 4 1/2 centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Portugal was responsible for transporting over 4.5 million Africans (roughly 40% of the total). During the eighteenth century however, when the slave trade accounted for the transport of a staggering 6 million ...
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... men, women, and children were bound by hand and by neck throughout this journey, enduring beatings and rapes along the way. Those who fell sick or dead were left behind. Others remained bound to living captives.
Although the historical reality is sometimes difficult to accept by African Americans who still face racial discrimination over a century after the abolition of slavery, African complicity in the slave trade neither justifies today's social problems nor minimizes their seriousness. Fifteenth-century Africa, was not a homogenous group of people. Some African elites benefited from the enslavement of their rivals, their enemies, their poor, and other culturally foreign groups from the 15th century through the 18th and even into the 19th centuries. Class, language, religion, gender, and ethnicity divided Africans, and it was along these lines that certain Africans participated in the slave trade. Understanding the dynamics of African complicity in the slave trade is important in understanding Africans as historically active and diverse human beings. This understanding should not detract from the horrors of the slave trade or from its American legacy of inequality and racism.
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