Slavery is an old age practice in Africa. The institution of slavery has existed in the history of human beings both in the primitive societies and the civilized societies. Most ancestors were either slaves or slave owners. In southern Africa, the most slaves were found in Mozambique and Angola. West Africa also had several slaves who came from Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ghana.
This paper will discuss slavery as practiced in traditional African societies of Sena and Ibo, found in Mozambique and Nigeria respectively. It will look at the two communities, reasons for slavery, where slaves would be obtained, and how slaves were treated by slave owners.
Sena society is found in the northern coast of Mozambique. The Sena of Mozambique used kinship terms to define the position of slaves. They were referred to as akaporo. When they arrived to their destination, slaves received the clan name, mutapa, of their patron. This act was symbolic and was intended to create fictitious links since there was no blood relationship. The Akaporo referred to their patrons as “baba” or father. They also used the right kin terms when referring to other adopted relatives. Akaporo was also required to pay homage to the local ancestor spirits. This was done, periodically, during religious ceremonies. Today, evidence is still there that show enslavement legacy. The tangible legacy serves testimony in showing the exploitation that was in Mozambique.
Ibo society is found in Nigeria. It is an influential ethnic group in the country. The Transatlantic slave trade that took place between 16th-19th centuries immensely affected the Ibo society. Most slaves from Ibo society came from Bight of Biafra (Bight of Bonny). This area represents the modern day northern Gabon, Western Cameroon, Southeastern Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. The leading trade ports in this region include Bonny, as well as Calabar town. In these towns, a large number of slaves had come from the Ibo society. The slaves would be sold to Europeans. They would be kidnapped, or even bought from the villages in the hinterland by Aro-Confederacy.
Most slaves from the Ibo society were indebted people or people who had committed crimes or abominations. Therefore, they were not victims of expeditions and raiding wars. Between the years 1650 and 1900, Bight of Biafra produced 15% of the slaves. This was one of the greatest percentages during the transatlantic slave trade. Slaves who came from the Ibo society were considered rebellious. Most of them would commit suicide as a way to rebel against slavery. Igbo slaves would be dispersed to Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, Tobago, United States, Haiti and Haiti.
Slaves were needed in the traditional African society so as to provide labor in the following sectors; agriculture, trade and industry. Some other slaves worked in the administrative sectors. Others worked in the military while others performed domestic chores. A few others were sacrificed. Traditionally, slaves were used in economic activities such as fishing, farming, hunting and animal rearing. They would help in growing foodstuffs in forests, savanna regions, and along the coast. They would also help to collect food plants such as kola nuts, coconuts, Shea butter, and oil palm. They were also employed as trading agents, porters or merchants. Similarly, other slaves would be put on trade routes for the purpose of collecting tolls.
In the political society, slaves would be recruited in the military divisions as soldiers. Others worked in the battlefields while others acted as bodyguards to the kings and chiefs. Slaves would also work in the palace as drummers. In the palace, some slaves worked as horn blowers. Some other slaves worked in the religious departments as the caretakers, soul washers, among others. As diplomatic corps, they would be sword bearers.
Other slaves performed domestic chores. In the palace, both male and female slaves would perform domestic chores. Domestic chores were also performed in shrines and individual households. The chores included sweeping, cooking, fetching water, cleaning, and fetching firewood, among others. Some other slaves would be sacrificed in relation to traditional beliefs during festivals, religious observances, ceremonies and death of significant personalities.
Slaves were also used for person gain. The reasons for this ranged from prestige, power to procreation. If a person had many slaves, it symbolized his prestige and status in the traditional African society. Men whose wives were barren went to the market to buy slaves who would bear kids. Barren women would also purchase slaves for adoption. The state would also acquire female slaves to procreate following diminishing of the country’s population; perhaps due to diseases, famine or even war.
Slaves would be obtained through warfare, Kidnapping, market supply, tribute, and pawning. Prisoners of war would be enslaved and, in fact, they comprised the largest proportion of slaves. Markets had also been established where slaves would be traded. Raiding and kidnapping were also common means of obtaining slaves. Slaves would also be obtained through tribute paying whereby the subjected communities would pay annual tributes. Situations were also there whereby people were offered as security for something previously borrowed. The pawn would work for the creditor, but failure to pay the debt led to complete slavery of the pawn.
Slaves, in the traditional African society enjoyed certain rights. For instance, they had the right to be given food, be housed, and see their children they would also marry their fellow slaves or even free people. Among the Sena, when a female slave got married to another lineage, the bride wealth would be received by the patron. Slave owners did not have complete rights over the slaves. The powers to kill a slave rested upon the kings and the chiefs. Slaves would obtain their own land and were also entitled to inheritance. In Nigeria, the slave owners had the absolute powers over their slaves but, authorization of death would only be done by the Sultan. Slaves were also given legal protection. For instance, the Sena of Mozambique made provisions for manumission of slaves.
Slaves from both Sena and Ibo societies suffered several disabilities. A disabled slave would be sacrificed according to traditional customs. They would also be referred to as slaves even if they rose socially through assimilation/integration. Among the Igbo, slaves would be incorporated in the kinship structure, but their status as slaves remained. When it came to payment of debt, a slave from the Sena society would be handed over. The slaves were required to dress simply and were not required to mix freely with free people. Disabled slaved were not required to work as hard as normal slaves, but they were required to work harder than free men and women.
In conclusion, slavery in African traditional societies existed long before colonization. Among the Sena and Ibo communities, slaves were those people whose behavior was regarded different from that of the community. Those people who committed crimes were treated as slaves. Slaves would also be obtained from warfare, Kidnapping, market supply, tribute and pawning. The slaves would work in the agriculture, trade and industry sector. They would also be recruited in the administration sector, while others worked for other people by assisting in domestic chores. They were entitled to certain rights and privileges. Disabled slaves were exempted from doing certain activities, but they still remains ‘slaves’ even after being integrated in the community.