History of Slave Trade in Nigeria

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In today’s Nigeria, slavery and the slave trade have become history —  a complex, multifaceted one. Quite some museums have been established to exhibit information about these histories. The government-owned Calabar’s Slave History Museum and the privately-owned Seriki Faremi Williams Abass Museum were established solely for this reason.

However, the history of the slave trade in Nigeria is often told from a singular facet of view. Even at that, it’s not fully told. We are only told about the arrival of the Europeans, the development of the slave trade and its abolishment.

There’s obscurity surrounding the fact that the practice of slavery had been entrenched in Nigeria’s social institution before the 15th-century arrival of the Europeans. There’s little information on the impacts of the Transatlantic slave trade on modern Nigeria.

In this article, we “attempt” to tackle the topic — History of Slave Trade in Nigeria — putting the above in mind. So, if you are interested in this, let’s go on a ride!

History of Slave Trade in Nigeria

Before we go on, let’s get this — slavery was not invented by the West. On the African continent, it had been in existence before the arrival of the Europeans. What was new, however, was the “aggressive” practice of slave trade (exchange of humans with items) which was popular during the Trans-Saharan and Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Trans-Saharan Slavery in Nigeria (before the 1500s)

The Arab slave trade started in the 8th century AD. The Arabs required human labour for specific duties, which compelled them to venture into the African hinterland to obtain slaves.

Initially, Arab traders operated along the East coast of Africa near the Rift Valley. As they engaged in trade, they also introduced their religion. This led to a decline in slavery in the areas where they had traded, and eventually, they reached West Africa. Over time, West Africans began to embrace Islam, which prohibited slavery.

The Rise of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Nigeria

A demonstration of Children slaves shackled to another
A typical demonstration of slavery
The Portugal-Benin Relationship

The origin of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Nigeria could be traced back to as early as the middle 15th century  — 1441 to be precise. Portuguese navigators, full of overzealousness for profit and glory, had arrived at the West African coast.

By 1471, their ship had reconnoitred the coast and went as far as the Niger Delta. Tapping into the fabled gold trade in the Saharan region was their great dream. At first, the Portuguese captured Nigerians during raids on local coastal communities, but as the demand for slaves multiplied, they began to rely on trading slaves with local rulers in exchange for items and industrial products.

In 1481, emissaries sent by the king of Portugal visited the Oba of Benin’s court. This singular sparked the possibility of a close relationship between Portugal and Benin. Portuguese soldiers lent their hands to the Benins during their wars. Later, the Portuguese (language) was spoken at the court of the Oba.

The Oba of Benin offered ivory, pepper and a significant number of slaves in exchange for coral beads, rum, horses, industrial products, muslin cloth,  imported textiles from India, European-made articles, including tools and weapons; and manillas (brass and bronze bracelets that were used as currency and also were melted down for objets d’art).

Manillas are also known as “slave trade currencies”. They are a kind of brass or bronze metal bracelet or armband that served as a form of payment during the Atlantic slave trade. Manillas are usually melted down for objets d’art.

The Benin kingdom tighten their hold on the lower Niger area by exploiting the guns and firearms they got from, the Portuguese. The close ties between Portugal and Benin continued to flourish as it benefitted both sides. By 1490, over 3000 slaves per year were conveyed to Spain and Portugal from Africa.

However, the spread of Benin and Portugal’s influence was soon put in check. The reason was that Portugal, due to the availability of other spices in the Indian Ocean region, stopped purchasing pepper from Benin. Another reason was that Benin had placed an embargo on any exporting of slaves. This move by Benin dragged her backwards in the “slave-trading business” which was just about to boom in Nigeria.

Benin continued to capture slaves from neighbouring communities but employed them for domestic purposes. They became isolated from the new trade happening along the Nigerian coast.

Initially, the Portuguese bought the slaves to re-sell them on the “Gold Coast” (present-day Ghana), where slaves were traded for gold. Owing to this, the coast along South-Western Nigeria and areas neighbouring Nigeria’s border with the Republic of Benin became popularized as the “Slave Coast”

The Expansion of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Nigeria

Portuguese, Dutch, French and English (in that order...)

When the expanding and colonizing power of the Europeans plunged the West Indies and America, the slave trade in Nigeria took a bigger turn — it was transformed into a gargantuan, global trade.

In the final third of the 1600s, the African coast supplied slaves to the Americas, while the Portuguese got their slaves from the Bight of Benin. Around this time, slave trading in Africa was much more concentrated on the Angolan coast.

The ¨Americas¨ is used to refer the North and South America and the Caribbean colonies.

In fact, about two-thirds of all slaves conveyed by ship to the Americas during the Trans-Atlantic trade were from the Angolan. Still, some slaves were shipped from the Nigerian coast.

The days of the Portuguese monopoly on West Africa and Nigeria’s trade were finally over as they could not resist the enormous power of the Netherlands’s navy. So, the Dutch took over all the trading stations on the coast that supplied the American slaves. Later, competition rose from the French and English. This undermined the position of the Dutch in the slave trade market.

Dutch is used to refer to people from the Netherlands. 

Though several European-maritime countries (like Denmark, Sweden, and Brandenburg) and North American colonies were pegging their flags in slave ports across Lagos to Calabar, Britain was a far dominant and powerful side in the 18th century.

British ships conveyed forty per cent of “trans-Atlantic” slaves in the 1800s. The French and Portuguese were responsible for another forty per cent.

Throughout this period of the Great expansion of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, Nigeria maintained its crucial position as a source of slaves. In fact, in the 1800s, more slaves were exported from the Nigerian coast than from Angola. Three polities in Nigeria the Oyo, the Hausa and the Arochukwu Confederacy — were largely responsible for the exporting of slaves from Nigeria.

Within related ethnic groups, internecine wars ensued. They were fighting for one reason — who would hold control of the slave trade export? For example, the Yoruba civil wars ensued during this period, causing the fall of Oyo in the 1820s. Slaves from these wars were later soTwo reasons fueled the increasing demand and supply of slaves from Nigerians. The first reason is that alcohol and guns were scarce and something of high importance in Nigeria at the time. The second reason was that there was a demand for more labour in Europe for the production of more sugar and cotton, particularly cheaper ones.

Over this trade period, over 3.5 million slaves were sent to America from Nigeria.  Most of whom were Igbo or Yoruba. Certain ethnic groups such as the Hausa and Ibibio were also prominent. Local brokers were employed to supply captives. This system destroyed and degraded pre-existing political, religious and social structures.

In 1807, local slavery was abolished by the British administration. Britain’s ban on the slave trade was rather for a selfish reason — they no longer needed slaves. This ban was met with serious agitations from the likes of Benin and Aro Confederacy, as well as from Spain and Portugal. The British, however, silently allowed the slave trade to persist until the 1930s, and it only came to a complete halt in the 1940s.

Major Slave-Exporting States in Nigeria

Though the Europeans did forcefully capture slaves from Nigeria, the fact that Nigerians were willing to sell/enslave their fellow Nigerians was crucial because then, the Europeans couldn’t go deep into the inland. For one, the Europeans were susceptible to mosquitoes. They needed collaborators.

Some Polities in Nigeria helped serve their needs. They sold off fellow Nigerians to the Europeans. Aro, Edo and Ashante are some of the best examples of people who turned their neighbours into slave depots.

Now, let’s look at how they contributed to the slave trade in Nigeria:

1. Oyo

Following the expansion of Oyo in the middle of the sixteenth century, they became very significant in the growth of slave exporting across the Atlantic. The Oyo’s calvary journeyed southward along the path opened up by the Benin Gap and thereby gained access to the coastal ports.

Benin or Dahomey gap is the natural opening in the forest where the savanna stretches to the Bight of Benin.

Later, Oyo experienced a series of internal and tribal power struggles in the eighteenth century that was related to its enormous success as a dominant slave exporter. Most of the slaves sold in the nineteenth century were from the Yoruba civil wars that led to the fall of Oyo in the 1820s.

2. Aro

Arochukwu confederacy, also known as Aro, is comprised of a mixed clan of Igbo and Ibibio origins. In the late sixteenth century, the Aro took its root from treaties and arbitrations with several Igbo clans. Whenever disputes ensued throughout the Igboland, the Aro served as arbitrators. Their famous oracle at Arochuckwu was treasured as the court of appeals for different disputes. The Aro were untouchable by custom. Some Igbo clans gave them mercenaries to serve as guards.

The Aro also collected payment in the form of slaves. Also, masters usually dedicate their slaves to the gods as sacrifices for their sins. Thereby, these slaves became Aro’s property who had the freedom to sell them anytime.

After the collapse of Oyo in the 1820s, Aro enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the slave trade. Any village suspected of going behind the treaties with Aro was subject to raids that produced several slaves for exports. Aro had a powerful influence. They had treaties with coastal ports from which people were exported in branches in Bonny, Elem Kalabari and Calabar.

3. Ijaw

The Ijaw occupied a tidal area in the south-east, close to the Igbos. Before the slave trade began, they lived frugally from the sale of dried fish and salt (which they got from the sea) to communities inland. After the advent of the slave trade, the major Ijaw villages grew into cities with thousands of inhabitants ruled by strong men.

The Ijaw became slave middlemen — they received slaves from Aro and resold them to the Europeans. They were an entrepreneurial community. Amongst the Ijaws, personal wealth mattered more than individual status; it was the basis for political power.

Typically, the government of Ijaw was controlled by councils composed of wealthy merchants, headed by an amanyanabo. Later, the office of the head became hereditary.

 ¨amanyanabo¨ means chief executive.

4. Igbo

Traditionally, the Igbo followed the Osu caste system of the Odinani religion. Those regarded as Osu were Igbos too, but they were considered spiritually inferior, and hence were segregated. Osu were either left to remain as slaves or sold in the slave markets.

When the slave trade in Nigeria was in its heyday, the Igbos only sold “Efulefu”. Efulefu are people who are deemed “lazy” and “worthless” in the Igbo culture.

5. Yoruba

Slavery had been in practice among the Yoruba people before the emergence of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the Yoruba society, slaves were seen as a symbol of status. The wealth or influence of a Yoruba person can be judged by the number of slaves he/she owned.

Slaves in Yoruba land were usually captured during territorial expansion and intertribal and internal wars. For instance, if a town wins against another in a war, the residents of the defeated town would be enslaved. Some of the slaves acquired typically worked for powerful Yoruba elites who tasked them with farm works such as cultivation and clearing of land.

Of the categories of slaves in the Yoruba societies are the “Iwofa”. The term “ìwọ̀fà” is used to denote slaves who were willingly given by one family to another as “collateral to settle a debt.

The popularity of slavery among the Yoruba people was enhanced by their contact with the Europeans and Arabs. Powerful Yoruba elites such as warriors, influential kings, nobles, and affluent traders, engaged in the slave trade because it proved to be a lucrative means of earning money. In return, foreign merchants supplied Yoruba trading associates with potent firearms, like rifles, in return for enslaved individuals.

Did Africans Resist Slave Trade?

For certain, most Africans did not find the slave trade favourable. They did indeed oppose slavery. However, the unfortunate reality is that by the time these efforts to resist began, it was already too late. Historical records from Lloyd’s list reveal that between 1689 and 1807, approximately 17% of all slave ships experienced damage due to the actions of enslaved individuals who received assistance from local communities.

Effect of Slave Trade in Nigeria

The practice of slave trade in Nigeria has some long-standing adverse effects, we look at some of them here:

A demonstration of the History of Slave trade in Nigeria
A demonstration of the History of Slave trade in Nigeria

1. Destroyed Families

One of the most devastating consequences of the slave trade was the disintegration of families, with loved ones being forcibly separated and dispersed over great distances. This led to the erosion of religious beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions within Nigerian societies.

2. Famine and Hunger

The environments in which Nigerian slaves were placed (during conveyance) resulted in a high prevalence of illness and hunger. These slaves were not given adequate nourishment and lacked proper sanitation facilities.

3. Lack of Trust

In those days, it was difficult to sell a fellow tribesman into slavery. Hence, different tribes sell to each other. An Nri man would find it quite easy to sell an Ezza man. This mistrust engendered between tribes. The Efik mistrust of Igbo (Aro), Esan mistrust of Edo, and Ewe mistrust of Asante are still there today.

4. Shattered Nigerian Economies

The Europeans took advantage of the “free” slaves they got from Nigeria. This ruined the Nigerian economy. It helped the Europeans a lot because they got all of the money, but meanwhile, Nigeria’s human labour was being used up without providing any revenue to her economy.

5. Decentralized Economy

The slave trade caused any leftover Nigerian economies to completely collapse and all the societies were torn apart.

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