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African History of Selling Slaves

Slave trader and abolitionist: Madam Efunroye Tinubu (slave trader and abolitionist; copyright: Wikipedia)

The legacy of slavery is an undertone permeating discussions about race in the USA. I touched upon the juxtaposition of African immigrants arriving here voluntarily and the descendants of slave in my book, The African Piper of Harlem. Here, I delve into the topic of the African slave trade in more detail.

Pulitzer-Prize winner, Alex Haley’s fictionalized memoir, Roots, sparked an ongoing conversation about American slavery. A portion of the book contained his ancestor’s journey from what is now Gambia to slavery in America. Long before LeVar Burton became one of the best-known members of Star Trek, he impressed me with his depiction of Kunta Kinte, the ancestor, in the miniseries based on the book. Kinte’s journey was symbolically echoed in the words of a real slave and kidnap victim, Olauda Equiano’s account of his Atlantic crossing:

“The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air,”

When faced with such imagery, it is hard to remember that, once upon a time the whole world participated in slavery. While the degree of participation differed from society to society, Prof. Salahu contends that the trans-Sahara African slave trade during the seventh century was dominated by Arabs. The second phase, involving the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, was “pioneered” by the Portuguese, joined in later centuries by western European nations such as Great Britain, France, Italy, and the Netherlands.

In Martin Meredith’s book, The Fortunes of Africa, he describes Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English ships making regular calls along the “Slave Coast (including the lagoon ports of Popo, Ouidah, Offrah, and Lagos),” eager to collect their human cargoes. Trade was lucrative on both the outward bound and return journeys for the merchants. They would set out with metalware, beads, brandy, and firearms. When they returned to Europe and the Americas, the ships would be laden with sugar, tobacco, rum, and slaves.

The Niger Delta was one of the major sources for the more than a million slaves dispatched from Africa during the eighteenth century. Depending on the needs of their clientele, African merchants would travel farther inland to collect more humans at riverside markets. These slaves were typically war captives, condemned criminals, kidnap victims, or political prisoners. However, sometimes family members would sell their kin to settle debts or to procure food in times of famine. African rulers would typically barter with the merchants e.g., Meredith tells the story of one king to have required thirteen bars of iron for men and ten bars of iron for women.

But the passage of time can bring repentance, at least for some people. Madam Efunroye Tinubu (1810 -1887), a powerful Nigerian woman who partnered with the British to trade African slaves, later became an advocate for abolition when she realized the torture and suffering endured by slaves. Because of her influence, many traditional rulers ended the practice of Africans selling other Africans to the Europeans. A statue to Madam Tinubu stands in Lagos and the Independence Square in the same city was later renamed the Tinubu square.


1. Salahu, M.L. Slave Factor in the Development of Bida Emirate: 1857-1900. Afr. Res. Rev. 11(3): 13-22 (2017)

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