How did African slavery grow from a relatively small market where slaves had rights, into a large system of warfare where slaves became property to be sold to the highest bidder? Well, this was as a result of rising demands for slaves. The African slave trade evolved into a system where traders would go to Africa to buy slaves and put as many as they could fit onto their ships. They would then sail to the Americas where those slaves were sold to work to death in the fields. Those slave traders then bought raw materials those slaves produced such as sugar cane, cotton, or cacao, sailed to Europe, and sold those raw materials for a profit. In Europe, those materials would be turned into manufactured goods like rum, clothing, or weapons. The traders then bought those manufactured goods and sailed back to Africa to sell them and use the profits to buy new slaves.
This was a good deal for everybody except the slaves; the Americans received slaves to use in the plantations, the Europeans received raw materials, and the West Africans received manufactured goods, and the plight of the slaves was not an issue to them. While at times Europeans tried to take slaves by force, this always failed because the African kingdoms were far too strong at the time. And so they maintained friendly relations with whichever country was willing to sell slaves.
Over the centuries, empires collapsed into civil wars and the slave traders were more than willing to buy their former trade partners as slaves to be shipped off to the Americas. And so as empires rose and fell, there were always merchants willing to buy slaves. The Kingdom of Congo for example fell apart into various factions. Each of those factions needed weapons and money to fund their war efforts and so they captured slaves from other parts of the former Kingdom of Congo and sold them to Portuguese traders. And as Europeans founded more and more colonies in the Americas, the more slaves that could be sold, the richer the traders became.
But this trade had a long term effect on the economies of Africa, both in West Africa as well as East Africa with the Ottomans because before industrialization, the economy of a country was determined by the amount of people living in the country. The more people you had, the larger your economy was. And if you had a large economy then you could have a small portion of your population focused on producing things other than food. In Europe, for example, craftspeople produced all sorts of things from alcoholic drinks to chocolate, but it took centuries for these industries to fully mature. In Africa however, these types of industries never matured like they did in the rest of the world because in Africa, craftspeople were enslaved and this had a tremendous impact on the African economy; while European, Asian, and American industries kept growing and improving, Africa’s industries stagnated. Soon Africa could no longer compete with European and Asian imports and the African industries became small and insignificant, because you could buy better and cheaper products from Asian and European markets.
But you might be asking yourself: why did the Africans go along with this? Well, because they had to. When you have several warlike empires surrounding you, you have to invest in a strong military to protect yourself. But if you put more money in the military, it means there is less money for you to spend on your own economy. So if an African leader realized what was going on, they couldn’t invest in industries because they had to protect themselves. And so, all the way into the 19th century, Africa’s economy was slowly declining because due to the slave trade while making a huge profit for those who captured or sold slaves. But why did Western Europeans and the Ottomans weaken Africa for hundreds of years? Read on by clicking here.