The term slave has its origins in the word slav. The slavs, who inhabited a large part of Eastern Europe, were taken as slaves by the Muslims of Spain during the ninth century AD.
Slavery can broadly be described as the ownership, buying and selling of human beings for the purpose of forced and unpaid labour. It is an ancient practice, mentioned in both the Bible and the Koran.
As for those of your slaves which wish to buy their liberty, free them if you find in them any promise and bestow on them a part of the riches which God has given you.
Koran, Chapter 24, Verse 32.
Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.
Old Testament, Ephesians 6, Chapter 6, Verse 8.
Indeed, the main religious texts of Judaism, Islam and Christianity all recognise slaves as a separate class of people in society. Going back further in time the Mayans and Aztecs kept slaves in the Americas, as did the Sumerians and Babylonians in the Near East. The Egyptians employed huge numbers of slaves, including the Jews, Europeans and Ethiopians.
The Greeks and Romans kept slaves as soldiers, servants, labourers and even civil servants. The Romans captured slaves from what is now Britain, France and Germany. Slave armies were kept by the Ottomans and Egyptians.
In Imperial Russia in the first half of the 19th century one third of the population were serfs, who like slaves in the Americas, had the status of chattels and could be bought and sold. They were finally freed in 1861 by Emperor Alexander II. Four years later slavery was abolished in the southern states of America following southern defeat in the American Civil War.
In Africa there were a number of societies and kingdoms which kept slaves, before there was any regular commercial contact with Europeans, including the Asanti, the Kings of Bonny and Dahomey.
African Slave Owners
Many societies in Africa with kings and hierarchical forms of government traditionally kept slaves. But these were mostly used for domestic purposes. They were an indication of power and wealth and not used for commercial gain. However, with the appearance of Europeans desperate to buy slaves for use in the Americas, the character of African slave ownership changed.
GROWING RICH WITH SLAVERY
In the early 18th century, Kings of Dahomey (known today as Benin) became big players in the slave trade, waging a bitter war on their neighbours, resulting in the capture of 10,000, including another important slave trader, the King of Whydah. King Tegbesu made £250,000 a year selling people into slavery in 1750. King Gezo said in the 1840’s he would do anything the British wanted him to do apart from giving up slave trade:
“The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth…the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery…”
Some of the descendants of African traders are alive today. Mohammed Ibrahim Babatu is the great great grandson of Baba-ato (also known as Babatu), the famous Muslim slave trader, who was born in Niger and conducted his slave raids in Northern Ghana in the 1880’s. Mohammed Ibrahim Babatu, the deputy head teacher of a Junior secondary school in Yendi, lives in Ghana.
“In our curriculum, we teach a little part of the history of our land. Because some of the children ask questions about the past history of our grandfather Babatu.
Babatu, and others, didn’t see anything wrong with slavery. They didn’t have any knowledge of what the people were used for. They were only aware that some of the slaves would serve others of the royal families within the sub-region.
He has done a great deal of harm to the people of Africa. I have studied history and I know the effect of slavery.
I have seen that the slave raids did harm to Africa, but some members of our family feel he was ignorant…we feel that what he did was fine, because it has given the family a great fame within the Dagomba society.
He gave some of the slaves to the Dagombas and then he sent the rest of the slaves to the Salaga market. He didn’t know they were going to plantations…he was ignorant…”