Skip to Top NavigationSkip to ContentSkip to Footer

Africa Before Slavery

Africa Before American Slavery

The peoples of West Africa had rich and diverse histories and cultures centuries before Europeans arrived. Africans had kingdoms and city-states, each with its own language and culture. The empire of Songhai and the kingdoms of Mali, Benin, and Kongo were large and powerful with monarchs heading complex political structures governing hundreds of thousands of people. In other areas, political systems were smaller, relying on agreement between people at the village level.

Art, learning and technology flourished, and Africans were especially skilled with medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. In addition to domestic goods, they made fine luxury items in bronze, ivory, gold, and terracotta for both local use and trade.

West Africans had traded with Europeans through merchants in North Africa for centuries. The first traders to sail down the West African coast were the Portuguese in the 15th century. The Dutch, British, French and Scandinavians followed. They were interested in precious items such as gold, ivory and spices, particularly pepper.

From their first contacts, European traders kidnapped and bought Africans to be sold in Europe. However, it was not until the 17th century, when plantation owners wanted more slaves to satisfy the increasing demand for sugar in Europe, that transatlantic slaving became the dominant trade. This material was derived, in large part, from the writings of the International Museum of Slavery