Was the initiation of the slave trade inevitable following Portuguese navigation down Africa's west coast? How complicit were West Africans?

Quick answer:

When the Portuguese arrived in West Africa, they found a slave trade already in place. West African slave traders then found a ready market for slaves with the Europeans. So perhaps the slave trade was inevitable, for it already existed and both sides profited from it.

Expert Answers

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To help you get started answering these questions, let's review some of the facts of West African slavery before the coming of the Europeans. Slavery and the slave trade existed in West Africa long before the Portuguese arrived on the African coast. West African people made slaves of people from other tribes or groups that had been conquered in war or captured in raids. Sometimes they kept these people for their own, treating them as their personal property. Other times, the slaves were forced into a trade network and driven to other parts of Africa where they were sold to willing buyers as forced labor.

When the Europeans arrived, they actually relied on African slave traders as one of the primary sources of slaves. Some scholars estimate that up to 90% of slaves sold into the European slave trade were actually provided by African slave traders. So there was certainly African complicity in this practice. African slave traders saw a chance for significantly increased profits from an activity in which they were already engaged, and they picked up their pace, willing to provide their fellow Africans to the Europeans with little thought to their fate.

This isn't to say, though, that the Europeans didn't bring a new level to the slave trade when they arrived on the African coast. They brought demand, and plenty of it, which made the slave trade pick up its pace throughout West Africa. Millions of African slaves were captured and shipped to the Americas to live in servitude and often extremely harsh conditions. Upon these people, slavery was forced. Yet for other West Africans, slavery was accepted and even appreciated as a source of wealth.

So was the slave trade inevitable? Perhaps it was, for the Portuguese found a slave trade already in place when they reached West Africa. They used and expanded a system that was already there, turning it to suit their own agendas and profits.

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