Trade and Piracy in Africa


Trade or Piracy?

      Slave trading became an unexpected product Europeanís search for new commodities.  African tribes often times used war captives and criminals as slaves rather than killing them.  Europeans tapped into this already established African slave system. Many people have only one image of the Atlantic slave trade: European slave traders invading and taking over Africa, brutally capturing members of any tribe available and shipping them to the New World by way of the Middle Passage.  Few, however, are aware that an actual, valid trade did occur where both parties gave items of agreement and in returned received commodities that were beneficial in some way to the economy, societies, and development of their countries.  The trade between Europe and Africa was a trade, as well as a form of piracy in its latter years during the rise of the plantation complex and the heavy colonization of the New World.

Benefits of the Slave Trade

(Dow, 2)


Cape Coast Castle, the principle English settlement on the gold coast.


     In the early stages of the slave trade between Europe and Africa, the negations between the traders were a largely peaceful process in which both received benefits.  Europeans brought cloth, iron, jewelry, alcohol, and cowry shells, (Thornton, 43-46).  In exchange, Europeans received slaves that were usually war captives bought from tribes.  Agricultural establishment such as Portuguese plantations in Brazil and Dutch plantations in the Caribbean began to expand and increase in technology, power, and create the rise of capitalism.  African technology was also increasing due to the tools they made with the metals brought by the Europeans. Slave trade solved the problem of overpopulated African states, such as Asante, with their increased number of war captives; trading slaves to Europeans relieved them of the burden of these captives, (Worger, 132).  Through peaceful traders Africans were willing to negotiate with the Europeans in order to receive the benefits they wanted as well as give Europe the commodities it needed.


Europe's Rise in Power
     Aspects of the slave trade began to change as Europeís power increased in the 1700s.  European societies were becoming more industrialized and the demand increased for raw materials.  European trading companies dominated the Middle Passage with their slaving ships, as well as the coast of Africa with their exports.  Slave trading was increasing at a rapid pace and between 1700 and 1850 six million slaves were taken from Africa, (Hair, 26).  There were not enough criminals and war captives to meet the demands of the rising New World.  Instead traders would purposely create wars in order to capture Africans for trading.  Peaceful purchases between traders and tribes turned into brutal captures of innocent citizens.  Europeans began exploiting the valid system of slave trade they had created with Africans and allowed violence to take over their means of operation.  The latter years of the slave trade, consisting of brutality and piracy, are often the origin of the common images that fill the minds of people today.

(Northrup, 75)

Portrait of Olaudah Equiano, a native African captured directly from his house and forced into slavery.


(Mannix and Cowley, 146)

Bartering for slaves on the Gold Coast


Both Trade and Piracy

     The Atlantic Slave Trade was both a form of legitimate trade as well as piracy.  Europeans originally established a justifiable trade with the Africans where both parties received goods that benefited their society.  However, Europeans allowed greed to take over their judgment.  The development of new technology increased their need for slave labor and their reliance on African caused them to exhaust their resources by mass migration of slaves to new colonies. The reliance on historian's research and original documentation is the key to developing an understanding of the slave trade that goes beyond the common image and encompasses aspects of both trade and piracy. 

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