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Slavery in Ancient Africa

When we think about slavery in Africa, we often think of the millions of people who were taken away and sold to the Americas to work on plantations during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

What we are looking at here is slightly different. It is about slave systems within Africa where individuals were owned by other African people.

African Slave Trade

All countries and places in ancient times had systems of slavery, where some people did not own anything and worked for free for another person.

The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all had slaves.

Slavery had a big role to play in ancient African societies. Slaves are considered the lowest caste of society, but their rights and roles differed depending on where they lived and who their owner was.

We will learn about those differences here but first we will look at what slavery actually is.

What is slavery?


Slavery is a condition where a human being is owned by another human being. The person who owns the other person, the slave owner, will decide where this person lives and what they work as.

They will also decide what conditions they live in, how long they work for per day. The person who is made a slave, the enslaved person, works for no money.

Slavery has existed all through history. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Incas and Aztecs had slaves and so did societies in ancient Africa.

Ancient Greece

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How did people become slaves in Africa?

Many people in Africa and elsewhere in the world lived within systems of hierarchy. Sometimes, people are just born into slavery because of this system.

India map

A hierarchy is like a rank for people that decides who is more important than who and how people are treated. India has a system like this, called the caste system.

The Ancient Romans had a system like this too. In fact, many societies try to put people in order of who is wealthier and more powerful (from merchants to kings), and those who have no power (like enslaved people).

Do you think this is fair?

Christian slavery in Barbary

Another way to own a human being was to purchase the slave for money or goods. At other times, people were captured to be made slaves.

This could happen during wartime, for example, or if one country conquers another. Slaves could also be taken as prisoners of war. There were also whole groups of people who were slaves because of the ethnic group they are part of.

An ethnic group is a group of people who share the same language and culture.


In Africa, slavery could be slightly different. A slave could be given away to pay off one of their debts or pay for a crime.

In African communities, slaves normally came from outside of your own community group (ethnic group).

Sometimes, individuals from one African group enslaved captives from another group because they viewed them as outsiders.

Sometimes, slaves were even treated well. At times, they could become part of their master’s family and their children might become free.

However, they often had to leave their family and lost the protection of their loved ones.

Ruvuma River In Mozambique

What jobs did slaves in Africa have?

Slaves could work as farmers, servants in the home, carrying goods or even as advisors to Kings and Queens.

In the Islamic kingdoms like Mali and Songhai, in times gone by, there were slaves that were great traders.

Their masters would trust them with a lot of responsibility to trade back and forth across the Sahara on their behalf.


Some of them would even keep some of the money and would be able to buy back their freedom. However, a lot of them would still be dependent on their masters or former masters in some way.

One former slave called Mansa Sakura became an Emperor (Mansa) of the Mali Empire. In some societies, slaves could even own their own slaves.

Slavery in Africa

Slavery in Africa was different to the European slave trade and the Islamic slave trade. These slaves are normally called chattel slaves.

A chattel slave is someone with no rights who is sold as a piece of property.

Christian slavery in Barbary

In Africa, a person’s wealth and status (how powerful they are) was often based upon how many people they owned or ruled over.

Kings therefore often owned a lot of slaves and built their power around the number of people they owned. By owing all these people, these kings or elites owned the products of the slave’s labour.

The Islamic Slave Trade


What is called the Arab slave trade began in around 700 CE when the Arabs took over North Africa. Slaves were captured in Central Africa and taken across the Sahara.

Scholars have found evidence of slaves being taken across the Sahara desert in great number. Europeans arrived on the coast of Africa in the 1400s to begin capturing people to transport them to the Americas.

When they arrived, they found a slave system already in place.

The European Slave Trade

Homann Heirs Map

The European transportation of slaves from Africa to the Americas was one of the biggest crimes against humanity to have ever happened.

When Europeans arrived on the coast of Africa, the demand for slaves was so great that lots more people were captured and enslaved to meet the demand (many more than were already enslaved in Africa).

Slave merchants pushed slave raiders (sometimes these were other African people too) to go further and further inland to capture slaves.


Historians estimate that 12 million people were sold to Europeans between the 1400s and the late 1800s, but it was probably many more.

This slave trade was called the Trans-Atlantic slave trade because people were taken across the Atlantic Ocean to work on plantations in the Americas.

They were taken in horrible conditions and packed into ships on the bottom deck. They were never treated as human beings again. Over 10% of these enslaved people died on the ships.


Being captured and taken as a slave became a real fear for years and years if you were living in Africa. Some wars were even started just to capture slaves and make money.

Anyone could be taken in theory, even kings and queens.

Imagine waking up every day and not feeling safe because you might be captured.


Modern-day slavery

Unfortunately, slavery still exists in the world (in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia). People are sold to other people and they are exploited to make someone else money. We call this modern slavery.

Selling people for money is called human trafficking.

Quiz Time

quiz activity for kids

What is a slave?

What other cultures (aside from ancient Africa) had slaves?

What does the word hierarchy mean?

When did the Arab slave trade begin?

How many people were transported from Africa to Americas during the Transatlantic Slave Trade?

Ancient Africa

ancient african religious painting

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