Studies of slavery in Africa during the period of the Atlantic slave trade have largely ignored questions of how political processes affected enslavement during the period and also the extent to which notions of who could be enslaved were modified. Documentation for the kingdom of Kongo during the 1500s to 1800 allows us to explore how the trade was sustained and the social and political dynamics behind it. In a state that consistently exported large numbers of slaves throughout the period of the trade, kings of Kongo at first observed quite a pronounced distinction between foreign-born captives subject to enslavement and sale in the Atlantic trade and freeborn Kongos who were largely proctected from enslavement and sale overseas. In time, however, the distinctions that separated foreign-born and Kongos fell apart as later political authorities and others disregarded such distinctions and all Kongos became subject to enslavement and sale overseas. This was a product of internal Kongo conflicts, which witnessed the collapse of institutions and the redefinition of polity, what it meant to be a citizen or freeborn, and who could be enslaved.
Key Words:Central Africa; Angola; Congo – Democratic Republic of; currencies; money; economic; precolonial; slavery; slave trade
* This article was first presented in 2007 at a conference held at the University College of London in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the ending of the Atlantic slave trade. I would like to thank Emmanuel Akyeampong, Joseph Miller and John Thornton for their constructive criticisms.