Did black Africans trade in slaves? My recollection from high school history class is that the local dealers who sold the slaves to Europeans were mostly Arabs. But lately I’ve been hearing that the Africans themselves sold each other into slavery. This not being the most politically correct topic in the world, I trust only you to give me the Straight Dope. –Name withheld, New York

Nobody can say I’m not evenhanded, man. I antagonize everybody. What you’ve been hearing is right–black Africans were major players in the slave trade. In fact, it’s fair to say that if black Africans hadn’t done the dirty work of capturing other Africans and selling them to European traders, the slave trade with the Americas would never have reached the proportions that it did: 15 million slaves shipped to the New World over three centuries.

Many, perhaps most, African cultures kept slaves prior to European contact, as most societies in the world have done at one time or another. These slaves typically were war captives, convicts, or debtors, or else had been offered in tribute to a ruler. They apparently were not badly treated. But everything changed once Europeans arrived and let it be known they would pay good money (good pig iron, actually, iron being one favored medium of exchange) for slaves. Slave capture became a major commercial enterprise for African tribes and family groups. Where once taking slaves had been an incidental result of war, now it was often the primary purpose.

Slaving changed the political complexion of much of central Africa. The Europeans supplied African tribes with firearms, which they used to obtain slaves, either through war or by exacting tribute. Power passed from elders and other traditional leaders to “big men,” entrepreneurial black African slavers who with their kinsmen contrived to dominate the trade in their areas. New African states were created, their economies based principally on the traffic in slaves. The more aggressive African slavers raided far inland in the search for more victims; others obtained slaves through trade with interior tribes.

Slaving corrupted many Africans. Enslavement due to criminal conviction, once reserved for major crimes, was now meted out for the moral equivalent of jaywalking or for no crime at all. Free-lancers kidnapped the unwary and sold them for beer money to slave ships.

During the 18th century Africa’s chief export was human livestock. The driving force behind slavery, of course, was Europeans’ need for cheap labor in the New World. But black Africans played a central role. They were both the sellers and the sold–sometimes both. White slavers told of buying a load of slaves from a black trader, then whupping him upside the head and throwing him in the hold as well. But that probably didn’t happen often. Most whites were afraid to venture far from the coast and principal rivers, and they needed black middlemen to do the dirty work.

Why were black Africans so willing to sell other blacks? In part it was because of the fragmented nature of politics in west Africa, the principal embarkation point for slaves destined for the Americas. There were numerous competing tribes with vastly different cultures and languages who had no greater love for one another than the Serbs have for the Croats.

To be sure, there was the occasional story of an African potentate who would burn one of his own villages and enslave the inhabitants to make some easy cash. But such incidents were rare. In most cases the slaves offered for sale to Europeans were outsiders–nonpeople in the eyes of their black captors. If their own tribesmen were captured–say, by white men making the occasional raid on their own–Africans could react violently, attacking European boats and forts.

The bottom line is that, far from being passive victims of the slave trade, black Africans were active participants in it. White slavers at the time tended to regard Africans as hopeless mopes. But the truth seems to be that they were shrewder and more cynical than many today would care to admit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.