Africa before European slavery

Photo of the recreated Igbo compound

The museum's 'Life in West Africa' gallery includes traditional African artefacts and this recreation of an Igbo compound|.
Photograph © Redman Design/International Slavery Museum

The peoples of West Africa had a rich and varied history and culture long before European slavers arrived. They had a wide variety of political arrangements including kingdoms, city-states and other organisations, each with their own languages and culture.

The empire of Songhai and the kingdoms of Mali, Benin and Kongo were large and powerful with monarchs heading complex political structures governing hundreds of thousands of subjects. In other areas, political systems were smaller and weaker, relying on agreement between people at village level. As in 16th century war-torn Europe, the balance of power between political states and groups was constantly changing.

Art, learning and technology flourished and Africans were especially skilled in subjects like medicine, mathematics and astronomy. As well as domestic goods, they made fine luxury items in bronze, ivory, gold and terracotta for both local use and trade.

West Africans had traded with Europeans through merchants in North Africa for centuries. The first traders to sail down the West African coast were the Portuguese in the 15th century. Later the Dutch, British, French and Scandinavians followed. They were mainly interested in precious items such as gold, ivory and spices, particularly pepper.

From their first contacts, European traders kidnapped and bought Africans for sale in Europe. However, it was not until the 17th century, when plantation owners wanted more and more slaves to satisfy the increasing demand for sugar in Europe, that transatlantic slaving became the dominant trade.