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Why were African slaves preferred?

The reasons usually stated for African slaves being preferred by plantation owners is that they could more easily be bought from traders on the West African coast and were more immune to European diseases than indigenous Americans or imported white slaves. Although there is truth in these arguments they disguise the real reasons: Africans made better slave labourers than the Indians of the West Indies and North America because they came from a much more advanced type of society and were often skilled artisans.

The Indians of the West Indies were simple food gatherers and had not reached the stage where they were learning to keep animals and grow crops. When forced to sacrifice their freedom and to work all day under harsh discipline, they simply grew sick and died.

The people of West Africa, however, were much closer to the Europeans. Most of them were farmers who knew a great deal about growing crops in tropical conditions; others were skilled craftsmen such as iron-workers, miners and carpenters. They had come from West African societies that had seen the rise and fall of large empires throughout their history. They had traded with each other for centuries and had even fought wars against each other. They were very far from the uncivilised people that most Europeans thought they were. African society had very strict laws. Arab visitors who traded with African cities for centuries before Europeans found they could move from place to place with no fear of robbery or violence.  

Slavery existed in Africa, but not the chattel slavery introduced by Europeans. Africans usually enslaved "other" people, not their own particular ethnic group. Slaves were taken as prisoners of war, in payment for debt or as a punishment for a crime. To meet the growing demand from European traders, there was a marked increase in the numbers of wars, raids and kidnapping of individuals.

John Barbot, a European slave trader, describes the African Slave trade in 1682
Olaudah Equiano, aged 11 from Nigeria, remembers his kidnapping 1789

One major difference between Africans and Europeans at the time of the slave trade was "attitude to life". Evidence gathered regarding the early history of mankind indicates that people of African origin had roamed the World in search of new homelands. However, by the time of the slave trade they showed very little of the 'searching curiosity' now exhibited by the Europeans who came to Africa to make their fortunes. African society was established and reasonably settled. One African chief is quoted as saying;

We let the streams run on, and do not enquire whence they rise or whither they flow.

Not understanding African society, Europeans usually thought the worst and treated African customs with contempt. Slavery reinforced this attitude.

The African Slave Trade - an American lesson


Copyright 2002-2004, Andrew Nash