Stephen Howe on the Extent of Slavery in African States

One of the falsehood’s Stephen Howe’s book, Afrocentrism, tackles, is the denial by Afrocentric writers and activists of chattel slavery in indigenous African societies. And when they do acknowledge it’s existence, they claim that it was somehow more benign than European chattel slavery. This is, quite simply, wrong, and the proportion of the indigenous population that was enslaved in Africa could be quite high. It varied from people to people between 30 per cent to as much as 75 per cent of the population. Howe writes

‘A further major theme in Afrocentric historical fantasy should also be noted: the tendency to deny, against all the evidence, that chattel slavery existed in precolonial Africa – or to insist that, if it did, it was a marginal, small-scale and benign phenomenon. One might set against this romanticisation Orlando Patterson’s estimates of the scale of precolonial African slavery, in the fullest comparative global study of slavery ever attempted, Patterson suggests that in the major early states of West Africa – Islamic Ghana, Mali, Segou and Songhay – slaves constituted 30 per cent of the population. In the states of the central Sudan and the Hausa city-states, it was between 30 and 50 per cent. In the Fulani kingdoms established after the jihad of the eighteenth century, between 30 and 66 per cent of the people were enslaved, while in the state of what are now Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Ghana, figures ranged from 30 to 75 per cent. Among the precolonial Yoruba, from a third to a half of the population existed in servile status, while in many of the states of Central Africa – among the Kongo, Luvale and Lozi, for instance – the figure was over 50 per cent.

Internal African slavery and slave-trading were undoubtedly on a very significant scale, and long predated the advent of European slave-raiding: though it remains quite possible – indeed, likely – that their growth was greatly stimulated by the effects of European demand, so that African slavery in its later, most extensive and many of its harshest forms can reasonably be ‘blamed’ in part on Europe. One estimate has it that the number of people enslaved within Africa, across the sweep of modern history, equally the number exported across the Atlantic and Red Sea trades. Important aspects of intra-African economic interchange, like trans-Saharan trade routes, included or were even pioneered by the trade in human beings. Nor is it true that slavery within Africa was largely ‘domestic’ and therefore, by implication, relatively benign: large scale plantation slave labour systems were introduced in several parts of the continent, albeit probably most often under at least indirect European or Arab influence.’ (149-50).

This does not excuse European slaving, and I think most historians of African slavery consider that African slavery expanded massively in the 18th century due to European demand. But it does place it in context. Unfortunately, I really do feel that contemporary anti-racism activists are trying very much to deny that indigenous African slavery existed, and place all the blame for it, and the subsequent problems of western Blacks and Africa, on Europeans. This is explicitly the case with Postcolonial and Critical Race Theory, which won’t tackle the genuine problems and oppressive aspects of indigenous societies, but simply concentrate instead on the faults and horrors of European colonialism.

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