The capture and sale of enslaved Africans

Detail of rows of cowrie shells, threaded together to make a headdress

Detail of a headdress made of cowrie shells, which were used as currency. Find out more about this headdress on the collection pages.
Accession number MMM 56.25.161

European traders captured some Africans in raids along the coast, but bought most of them from local African or African-European dealers. These dealers had a sophisticated network of trading alliances collecting groups of people together for sale.

Most of the Africans who were enslaved were captured in battles or were kidnapped, though some were sold into slavery for debt or as punishment. The captives were marched to the coast, often enduring long journeys of weeks or even months, shackled to one another. At the coast they were imprisoned in large stone forts, built by European trading companies, or in smaller wooden compounds.

When the slave ships arrived from Europe they were laden with trade goods. Captains offered gifts to local African leaders and paid taxes for the right to trade. They then began the serious business of barter and exchange, offering a wide variety of trade goods such as textiles, firearms, alcohol, beads, manillas and cowries.

The experience of the Africans themselves

Find out more about the experiences of former enslaved African Olaudah Equiano and African agent Egboyoung Offeong in their own words on this website.