Slave Trade and Its Impact on West African Societies


If we look into the depth of slavery from historical perspective, we would see that this issue has covered many aspects of human exploitation across many civilizations from slavery to labour. The word ‘slave trade’ refers to an organized way of exploiting labour without consent. Travelled through many ages, this issue has entered many debates throughout America and Europe since late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries between the proslavery interests in Europe and the Americas. The issue covers slave traders, slaveholders and the abolitionist movements, besides conflicting arguments have been presented on a host of issues relating to slavery and the slave trade. Atlantic or transatlantic slave trade was the trade of West African slaves to the new world and lasted until the nineteenth century.

The Atlantic slave trade left an incurable wound on all the societies that it touched, directly or indirectly in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Its impact was not always fruitful; often slave traders and slave owners suffered losses because of the risky nature of slave trading and of plantation agriculture with slave labor. Slavery and slave rebellion, or the possibility or threat of rebellion, were inseparable, and in slave societies in the Caribbean, which relied heavily upon the slave trade for supplies of African labor, planters were acutely aware of the potential dangers of an increasing black majority (Inikori & Engerman, 1992, p. 302). Americans and Europeans had perhaps never speculated the consequences of slavery, had they imagined that slavery would never leave them they had not thought of resigning themselves to face the inherent risks of slave resistance.

Historical background of Slave trade in West Africa

The period between 1600 and 1860 is highlighted in the history for making African slaves’ part of the Atlantic slave trade. Although it initiated with the Europeans arrival when in the late fifteenth century Europeans arrived Ghana in search of gold, but the Portuguese were the first to trade in gold, ivory and pepper. With many new openings and opportunities in the then New World of 1500, the gradual demand for slaves in the Americas expanded and ultimately became the principal source of slaves for the New World. With huge profits the market became voracious, particularly for the voyagers and adventurers that travelled all the way from Europe in search of gold and slaves. Many conflicts arise during this era over the uncontrollable slave trade.

The slave trade in West Africa was beneficial for Europeans and Americans from fourteenth to eighteenth century. The Portuguese initiated trading African slaves in Europe in the 1440s, and by the early 1500s ships filled with slaves captured in Africa began sailing across the Atlantic to the New World. According to Philip Curtin during this era around 6.3 million slaves were shipped from West Africa to North and South America, of which 4.5 million were between 1701 and 1810 (WestAfrica, History). Slave trade captured the attention of many nations who participated and contributed in this business efficiently. However it is presumed that the demographic impact of the slave trade on West African society was not that much due to variations in the number of slaves actually enslaved because a significant number of Africans perished during slaving raids or while in captivity awaiting transhipment. Therefore all nations participated with an interest in West African slave trade. It was when after the business deals of the slave trade the relations between the Europeans and the local populations got strained leading to distrust and frequent clashes. Of course it was not in the business deal to compensate those diseases that caused high losses among the Europeans engaged in the slave trade, but the profits realized from the trade could not stop their attraction to this business. During the rest of the seventeenth century, however, the increase in slaves was small because of the presence of European indentured servants and because of the slow development of the South’s plantation economy (Duignan & Clendenen, 1963, p. 1). By 1815 the slave trade was no longer a respectable business, this came to be true for the United States was owing, in considerable degree, to the antislavery movement in Great Britain (Duignan & Clendenen, 1963, p. 1).

Towards the beginning of the nineteenth century the global system of the slave trade broke down into a set of isolated, regional slave systems in which large-scale slave trading was suppressed in the Occident, in the Orient, and finally in Africa. However, every system of the slavery areas sustained for generations after the end of the slave trade, even slave owners reformed their plantations according to new and gentler regimes, within which it was sometimes possible for slaves to reproduce themselves biologically (Manning, 1990).

Economic Impact of the slave trade

Although the trade remained profitable for many nations but literature tell us that the costs and benefits that occurred on the Atlantic slave trade of Africa gradually raised and distinguished between private and social costs and benefits. Literature and history reveals that those who raided and took captives, and the African traders who bought and sold the captives, all realized private gains. Though no quantifiable evidence exists for detailed measurement of the private gains and losses that incurred during the trade but one can argue on the basis of human rationality that the raiders and traders would not have sustained the captive business for centuries if there had been no private gains. Given the low prices at which the imprisoned were sold for export, the questions have been raised of why it was not privately more profitable for hegemonic African states to accept tribute from potential captives rather than capturing and selling them. For those who are antislavery claims that in fact there was no trade other than the kidnapping of continent’s human resources which after keeping in dehumanize conditions were sold out to the outsiders. This way the continent was exposed towards instability followed by appalling conditions on the slave ships to the New World where most of them died or laboured perpetually to build the New World without due compensation (Slavery, 16 Aug 2007). This also supports those slaveholders who think slave trade was not profitable to employ the captives to produce goods and services for the domestic markets (Inikori & Engerman, 1992, p. 2). The answer lies in that economic situation that witnessed the abolition of slaves due to malnutrition, overwork and poor health conditions.

The situation was followed by the export centres that were on the African coast and utilized the economical and demographical advantage from the trade. The African society succeeded in insulating themselves from the socio-political upheavals provoked by the trade in their hinterlands, these city-states realized short-term benefits that have been equated with private gains. On the other hand the market production of agricultural commodities to meet the limited needs of the slave ships for foodstuffs was limited because of the expansion in population as the coastal traders retained some of the captives for their business needs and for the production of their subsistence products, and so on. These port towns or city-states typically grew as commune economies.

Economists, who employed structural analysis to evaluate opportunity costs, described far-reaching social costs of the trade for African societies and argued that the Atlantic slave trade served as an opportunity to the New World part of Africa’s relative advantage in the production of commodities for the evolving world market.

Colonization impact of the slave trade

Whenever research is conducted to evaluate the statistics of African slaves, current population statistics are used to project the number of arrivals. American people at the results get invariably astonished upon hearing that the 25 million Americans who claim African descent are the progeny of only about 6% of the Atlantic slave trade, or some 600,000 slaves who were landed here. More than 10 million Africans were imprisoned in this trade with millions of slaves sent from sub-Saharan Africa to serve in households and plantations in North Africa and the Middle East and suffered heavy casualties on their difficult journey. Millions of Africans were incarcerated in the same net as those sent abroad, were condemned to slavery on the African continent. The fate of captives involved in the slave trade therefore, included not only losses among those headed for export at the Atlantic coast but the additional losses among those destined for export to the Orient and among those captured and transported to serve African masters (Inikori & Engerman, 1992, p. 117).

Demographical Impact of the Slave trade

As a result of these exports of slaves, the population of the Western Coast of Africa i.e., the region from Senegal to Angola from which most New World slaves were drawn declined significantly from about 1730 to 1850. In addition to the decline, the demographical ratio of slave removal was at the rate of roughly two males for every female, therefore the result was a relative shortage of males on the African continent. As a consequence adult sex ratios fell to 80 men per 100 women in many areas, and to 50 men per 100 women in such hard-hit areas as Loango and Angola. A serious population decline was followed where from about 1820 to 1890, slaves were taken both to Muslim areas in Arabia and the Persian Gulf and to European-ruled territories in the Indian Ocean and the New World (Inkori & Engerman, 1992, p. 120).

There are two viewpoints about slave trade, those who perceive it as a real ‘trade’ support the viewpoint that the influence of the Atlantic slave trade on the job sector of West African slave labor in commodity production influenced the economy for it provided opportunities for the development of a division of labor across diverse regions of the world, all linked together by the Atlantic Ocean. Of course from the Atlantic Ocean slaves were transmigrated to all parts of the world for business and trading purposes. The market was vast and so there were consumption opportunities which created pulled subsistence producers in Western Europe and North America irresistibly into production for market exchange. On the other hand, the slave trade brought Atlantic-wide division of labor and regional specialization within nations brought peasant crafts and the products that replaced them increasingly into the marketplace. The demographical impact according to Inkori & Engerman was distorted as it expanded the manufacturing for export and for domestic markets offered growing non-agricultural employment which further stimulated the growth of the domestic market.

Cultural Influence

African Americans with a culture that reflected both their African heritage and their acculturations to America were being born. This African American culture was the result of the slavery that reflected in the speech, music, religion, folklore, and even the dress of the slaves (Bailey & Green, 1999, p. 19). The African heritage and the shared experience of bondage provided cohesion to this ethnic community and at the same time, there were forces that threatened its unity. The cultural influence gave rise to tensions and jealousies in slave communities, because of the unique position of the slaves, these tensions and jealousies were sometimes related to differences such as skin color and status. Even there were divisions that existed between various slave types, house slaves and field hands. Akin to categories there were attitude differences, like the house servants were mostly relatives of the white family enjoyed not only higher status but better food, clothing, and living conditions than the field hands. Because of the close association with the white family, the house slaves were more loyal than field slave and were not be trusted by the slave community. However, recent historical research suggests that the life of the house slave was sometimes more oppressive than that of the field hand. The house slave was under the watchful eyes of the mistress of the house and was subject to the abuse of the master. In the case of the female slave, the sexual abuse of the master sometimes prompted the jealous rage of the mistress (Bailey & Green, 1999, p. 20).

Slave trade had a profound impact in context with the folk, popular, and alternative health beliefs and practices among West Africans which to a great extent was the result of the erosion of the institutional basis of West African medical techniques and approaches in the New World, which was caused by the imposition of chattel slavery and European cultural hegemony (Semmes, 1996, p. 65). Many decades of slavery caused the West African Americans to get influence from the typical folk, popular, and alternative medicine adopted under the Americans. In order to justify the exploitation of Western Africans in the New World under the brutal slavery, the ideology of White supremacy grew to permeate intellectual and popular thought among Continental Europeans and European settler colonies (Semmes, 1996, p. 65).

African slaves experienced significantly poorer health than others, environmentally, overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, malnutrition, and the stress produced by a White supremacy system heightened the conditions promoting disease. Later constraints that were reckoned by Western slaves after settling down were the developmental, literacy and education concerns that hindered self-help efforts among African Americans. Such ignorance on the social basis made it more difficult to conceive, execute, and institutionalize progressive health-enhancing activities. Thus, the poorer health of African Americans was produced by antibiosis and the resulting problem of underdevelopment (Semmes, 1996, p. 52).

African slavery was aimed to provide with a cheap and reliable source of labor for European systems of production, both large and small. Slaves were entitled to bondage and long, hard, tedious, and dangerous work was the norm and the health hazards of slave work were provided by farm animals, farm and industrial tools and machinery, the extremes of the weather, and punishment associated with the drive to produce. Brucellosis, a disease of goats, cattle, and pigs, could infect humans through direct contact between skin, wounds, and infected carcasses (Semmes, 1996, p. 33). Historian John Blassingame writes about how West Africans and Native peoples introduced the daily bath to Europeans with a lack of opportunity for personal and public hygiene for the slaves. There was simply no hygiene which promoted bedbugs and body lice. There were not even methods that ensure safety disposal of waste, due to which human excrement and decaying food was common.

Racism – The formation of identity

The destruction that slavery bought to the Western region was ‘racism’, the trauma of forced servitude and of nearly complete subordination to the will and whims of another was no doubt a dilemma but not that severe as ‘racism’ as it caused and raised the issue that came to be central to their attempts to forge a collective identity out of its remembrance. In a manner according to Eyerman (2001) slavery was traumatic in retrospect, and formed a ‘primal scene’ which could, potentially, unite all African Americans in the United States, whether or not they had themselves been slaves or had any knowledge of or feeling for Africa (Eyerman, 2001).

Racism and its causes that contributed towards negative dilemmas of slavery even remained unchanged in the post-slavery period. European initiatives to dominate and exploit new lands using African labor had already transformed the cultural influence in the form of ‘racism’. African slaves, who were the victims of brutalities and harsh realities, could not stop into being in stressful uncertainties that were stimulated by wide variations in Western racialist thinking. This thinking was largely couched in religious ideology but was expressed later in pseudoscientific theories that were intended to make inferior Africans and people of African descent (Semmes, 1996, p. 49).

The Caribbean slavery, where death rates were higher than the birth rates was followed by insignificant working conditions where no medical facility was given to the slaves. Instead salves were mastered to do overwork and that even without rest. West coast Africans were forced to be into the plantation economy where close to a million and a half slaves resident in America lived on sugar plantations. The plantation zones of dense black and mulatto populations ruled over by a few whites became the norm for the Caribbean islands as well as the mainland colonies. Although the Jamaican ratio of nine Africans or Afro-Americans for every white was the extreme, it was most common for blacks and mulattoes to be in the majority wherever the plantations were to be found (Klein, 1988, p. 65).

In the British West Indies the 18th century was followed by free colored slaves who were less than 10 percent of the 380,000 slaves, a ratio found as well among the 575,000 slaves in the British continental colonies of North America. In the French islands the free colored numbered but 36,000 compared with the 660,000 slaves. In contrast the free colored in the late 18th century were already an important part of the plantation world and its environs in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies (Klein, 1988, p. 66).

Caribbean literature has vocalized and focussed many aspects of slavery that were ignored in that era. Writers often have mentioned many comparable arenas in plantation that were competing Caribbean and West Indies at that time. For example when competing with Cuba, writers mention that though a few slaves had been on the island from its conquest in the 16th century, the relative importance of slaves within the population as a whole was quite small. Initially the island developed as a gold-mining centre based on Arawakan Indian slave labour; however like Caribbean the island began to develop exports of coffee, sugar, and tobacco along with its traditional exports of hides and wood in the eighteenth century. But these newer commodities were still primarily produced by free peasant labour.


From historical to modern era, slavery had always professed two notions. The business viewpoint despite the brutalities that are evident from literature still remembers the profit sustainability our ancestors used to share. On the other hand, economists and humanitarian writers and philosophers refute human slavery in any form. However, time has proven to us the worst consequence of slavery i.e., racism. The overall economic impact of the slave trade might be profitable to the world but what about the Africa’s economy which after so many decades of struggling with a heavy debt confronts the conflicts and poverty within. The colonization which occurred decades ago provides us the opportunity for calling names to the African Americans; this is where we can measure the start of racism. It is the slavery for which today the extent to the demographics and culture has influenced our ethnicity and way of living. But all the trading and benefits that were incurred are unable to determine the losses and catastrophes that were suffered by African slaves. Whether accepted or not, the fact is that the slave trade was nothing but the loot, violence and the gross abuse of the human rights of Africans.


Bailey Y. Frankie & Green P. Alice, (1999) Law Never Here: A Social History of African American Responses to Issues of Crime and Justice: Praeger: Westport, CT.

Duignan Peter & Clendenen Clarence, (1963) The United States and the African Slave Trade, 1619-1862: Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA.

Eyerman Ron, (2001) Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity: Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England.

Feagin R. Joe & Sikes P. Melvin, (1994) Living with Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience: Beacon Press: Boston.

Inikori E. Joseph & Engerman L. Stanley, (1992) The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe: Duke University Press: Durham, NC.

Klein S. Herbert, (1988) African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean: Oxford University Press: New York.

Manning Patrick, (1990) In: The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe: Duke University Press: Durham, NC.

Semmes E. Clovis, (1996) Racism, Health, and Post-Industrialism: A Theory of African-American Health: Praeger: Westport, CT.

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