The transatlantic slave trade is one of the darkest chapters in human history, marked by the forced migration of millions of Africans to the Americas to work as slaves. While European slave traders were the driving force behind this brutal system, they were not the only participants. African societies also played a role in the capture, sale, and transport of enslaved people. Among the African tribes and kingdoms involved in the slave trade were the Ashanti, Dahomey, Oyo, and Kingdom of Whydah. These societies benefited economically from the trade, but at a great cost to their surrounding communities, resulting to the loss of countless lives and the disruption of societies. This article aims to explore the African kingdoms that thrived on slavery and their role in the transatlantic slave trade.
West African Kingdoms that Actively Participated in the Transatlantic Slavery
The kingdoms below relied on a militaristic culture of constant warfare to generate the great numbers of human captives required for trade with the Europeans.
Oyo Empire (Yoruba)
The Oyo Empire, also known as the Oyo Kingdom, was a powerful and influential empire that existed in what is now southwestern Nigeria from the 15th to the 19th century. While the Oyo Empire’s involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade was not as extensive as some other West African tribes, it did play a role in the commerce of enslaved people during this period.
The Oyo Empire’s participation in the slave trade was mainly through the sale of captives acquired during inter-tribal warfare. As conflicts and raids occurred, prisoners of war were often taken, and some of them were subsequently sold into slavery. These captives became valuable commodities for both local and European slave traders, as the demand for slaves in the Americas and Europe grew.
The Yeke Kingdom, led by King Msiri, was a relatively short-lived but highly influential state of the Garanganze people in Katanga, DR Congo. It existed from approximately 1856 to 1891, yet during this time, it emerged as the most dominant power in south-central Africa. The kingdom controlled a vast territory encompassing around half a million square kilometers and held authority over the sole trade route connecting the east and west of the continent.
The Yeke Kingdom’s power was attributed to its control of valuable natural resources and the use of military force. Msiri, the kingdom’s ruler, engaged in trade primarily involving Katanga’s copper, as well as slaves and ivory, in exchange for gunpowder and firearms. This allowed him to consolidate his power and expand his influence in the region. However, the fate of the Yeke Kingdom took a dramatic turn with the arrival of King Leopold‘s Stairs Expedition, which sought to claim Katanga during the era of the “scramble for Africa.” The expedition resulted in the downfall of the kingdom as Msiri was killed, and the territory came under the control of the Congo Free State.
Kingdom of Whydah
The Kingdom of Whydah was a kingdom on the coast of West Africa in what is now Benin. It was a major slave trading area which exported more than one million enslaved Africans captured from villages in the interior of Africa to the United States, the Caribbean and Brazil before closing its trade in the 1860s.
Kingdom of Dahomey
The Kingdom of Dahomey, located in present-day Benin, was a significant West African kingdom from around 1600 to 1904. It expanded its territory in the 18th century by conquering strategic cities like Whydah, granting it access to the tricontinental triangular trade. This expansion coincided with the Atlantic slave trade, leading Dahomey to become a major supplier of enslaved individuals to European traders.
Dahomey’s militaristic society engaged in warfare and raids against neighboring nations to capture individuals for the slave trade. In return, Dahomey obtained European goods such as rifles, gunpowder, fabrics, cowrie shells, tobacco, pipes, and alcohol. Notably, the kingdom of Dahomey stood out for its Amazons—an all-female military unit that gained attention from European observers and played a significant role in Dahomey’s military structure.
In the year 2000, Benin issued an official apology to the descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States, acknowledging and expressing remorse for the country’s historical involvement in the slave trade.
The Fon Kingdom
The Fon people, who resided in the Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin), actively participated in the slave trade. They were known for their strong military and organized slave raids, capturing individuals from neighboring tribes and selling them to European traders. The Fon’s involvement in the slave trade was driven by economic gains, as well as the desire to maintain political power and expand their kingdom’s influence. Cities built by the Fon include Abomey, the historical capital city of Dahomey on what was historically referred to by Europeans as the Slave Coast.
The Mandinka Empire
The Mandinka Empire, also known as the Mali Empire, was one of the largest and most powerful empires in West Africa. The Mandinka people, led by notable figures such as Mansa Musa, participated in the transatlantic slave trade. While the empire’s primary economic activity was not centered on slavery, some Mandinka communities engaged in the capture and sale of slaves. The motivations for their participation varied, including economic gains, intergroup rivalries, and power dynamics.
The Arochukwu Kingdom, situated in present-day southeastern Nigeria, played a significant role in the Transatlantic slave trade as a central power in the region. Renowned for its strategic location and political influence, the kingdom actively engaged in the trading of enslaved individuals. The Aro Kingdom, composed of a vast slave trading network and an alliance of Igbo and Cross River communities led by the Aro people, thrived during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their influence extended throughout Nigeria’s West Delta region, the entire Eastern region, and the Southern Igala territory. There are claims that their reach even reached parts of present-day Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.
Imamate of Futa Jallon
The Imamate of Futa Jallon, located in the Fouta Djallon highlands of modern Guinea, was a theocratic state that emerged through a Fulani jihad around 1727. Throughout its existence, the Imamate actively engaged in the transatlantic slave trade, becoming a significant participant in this dark chapter of history. Slaves were captured through extensive raiding expeditions conducted by the inhabitants of Futa Jallon, and they were subsequently sold to European trading houses along the coastal regions. Additionally, the state established agricultural colonies known as “runde,” where slaves, referred to as “hubbu,” were settled. By the mid-19th century, it is estimated that slaves accounted for approximately half of Futa Jallon’s population, highlighting the immense scale of their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
The Bambara Empire, situated in present-day Mali with its capital at Ségou, was a significant West African state that played an active role in the Transatlantic slave trade. While the empire’s economy flourished through various forms of trade, including the exchange of goods, it notably thrived by capturing and trading enslaved individuals. The demand for slaves created a continuous cycle of warfare as the Bambara people engaged in frequent conflicts with neighboring communities to secure captives for sale.
Kingdom of Khasso
The Khasso Kingdom, an influential West African realm from the 17th to 19th centuries, occupied territories in present-day Senegal and Mali. The kingdom heavily relied on the slave trade for its economy, with slave ownership determining social status. Wars were waged to acquire more slaves. This brought the Khasso Kingdom into contact with European settlements along the West African coast, particularly the French, who profited from the transatlantic slave trade. The slave trade profoundly shaped the kingdom’s interactions and had a significant impact on its socio-economic landscape.
The Ashanti Kingdom
The Ashanti Kingdom, located in present-day Ghana, was one of the most powerful and influential West African states during the era of the transatlantic slave trade. While the Ashanti people resisted European colonization fiercely, they actively engaged in the slave trade. They captured and sold prisoners of war, criminals, and individuals deemed social outcasts to European slave traders in exchange for firearms, luxury goods, and other valuable commodities. The Ashanti’s involvement in the trade was driven by economic incentives, political considerations, and the desire to strengthen their own power. In 2006, Ghana apologized to the descendants of enslaved Africans for the role the Ashantis had played in the slave trade.
Sultanate of Zanzibar
During the 19th century, Zanzibar emerged as a notable kingdom actively involved in the transatlantic slave trade. The leaders of Zanzibar seized control and consolidated their power around the lucrative east African slave trade. The city of Malindi in Zanzibar became a pivotal hub for the slave trade with the Middle East, serving as the main port along the Swahili Coast. Astonishingly, it is estimated that around 50,000 enslaved individuals were transported annually through this port during the mid-19th century. Many of these captives were under the control of Tippu Tib, a notorious figure recognized as an Arab/Swahili slave trader and ivory merchant. His involvement further intensified the scale and impact of the slave trade in the region.