This paper examines three views which have been widely held about slavery and the slave trade in West Africa, and which have tended to mould interpretations of its history, especially for the period from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. These are:
(1) That the institution of slavery was endemic in, and a natural feature of, indigenous West African society, so that when foreigners arrived in West Africa with a demand for slaves, West Africans were able immediately to organize an export trade in slaves on an ever-increasing scale.
(2) A contrary view, that it was the external demands for labour which led to a great growth of the institution of slavery in West Africa, and so corrupted its indigenous society.
(3) A view which may or may not be combined with (2), namely that the external demand for slaves became so considerable that there was a disastrous effect on its population.
Relevant evidence is touched upon from about the eleventh century onwards, and a fourth interpretation is developed which seems better to fit the economic and social realities which can be ascertained.
In essence this is that economic and commercial slavery and slave-trading were not natural features of West African society, but that they developed, along with the growth of states, as a form of labour mobilization to meet the needs of a growing system of foreign trade in which, initially, the demand for slaves as trade goods was relatively insignificant. What might be termed a ‘slave economy’ was generally established in the Western and Central Sudan by about the fourteenth century at least, and had certainly spread to the coasts around the Senegal and in Lower Guinea by the fifteenth century.
The European demand for slaves for the Americas, which reached its peak from about 1650 to about 1850, accentuated and expanded the internal growth of both slavery and the slave trade. But this was essentially only one aspect of a very wide process of economic and political development and social change, in West Africa. The data recently assembled and analysed by Curtin for the volume and distribution of the export slave trade do not suggest that the loss of population and other effects of the export of labour to the Americas need have had universally damaging effects on the development of West Africa. Rather, it is suggested, West African rulers and merchants reacted to the demand with economic reasoning, and used it to strengthen streams of economic and political development that were already current before the Atlantic slave trade began.