Historically, African societies were not based on slavery. Beyond everyone’s belief, what do historical facts tell about slavery in Africa? We are going to answer with the utmost objectivity. To do so, we will review the Pharaonic period and the Imperial period.

Did Africans practice slavery in the Pharaonic period?

Travailleurs égyptiens
Egyptian workers

Several myths about slavery in Egypt have been propagated by the Bible and Hollywood. But facts tell a different story. Egypt has never had a slave trade-based economy. This means there has never been wealth generation over slavish labor as in Europe or in the Arab world at a certain time. Throughout black history, workers were organized in socio-professional castes.

The workers’ caste in Egypt was in charge of building monuments to the glory of Imana/Amen (God), His-Her messenger the Sun (Ra), His-Her principles (deities), His-Her agents (Ancestors), and the kingship. That caste was trained, paid, free and fully respected like any citizen of the country. Cheikh Anta Diop went even further and talked about the inalienable freedom of the Egyptian. The following testimonies are some evidence:

It is written on Pharaoh Menkauré (Mykerinos)’s tomb – For whom was built one of the three great pyramids of Giza – ” His Majesty wants no man to be taken and forced into labor but everyone must work to his own satisfaction” [1].

The legendary Ramesu Maryimana (Ramses II) will say “Oh chosen and hard-working workers. Oh! You are good fighters who ignore fatigue; you are the ones who run the work firmly and effectively. I will give you all my benefactions, food will overflow for you. I will provide for you in every way, and you will work for me with a loving heart. I am the defender of your job (…)

your food will be very copious, for I truly know your hard work, for which the worker can only exult when his belly is full (…) I have also set up a large staff to meet your needs: fishermen will bring you fish, others, gardeners will grow vegetables, potters will work at the tower to have many pitchers manufactured, thus for you, water will be fresh in the summer season “ [1].

Under Ramesu Hekayunu (Ramses III), a workers’ strike broke out and the king openly defended them. The priest judge Kai said “I have paid them (workers) in beer and bread and had to make them swear that they were satisfied “ [2]. In the words of Cheikh Anta Diop, the strike settlement gives an account on how the demands were moderated, showing that workers were already quite comfortable.

Menkauré, Ramesu Maryimana, Ramesu Hekayunu

Experts also argue that given the extreme sophistication of Egyptian monuments, whose accuracy and complexity of construction are superior to those of today’s buildings, this can only be the work of fully volunteer workers in full possession of their ability.

So if there was neither slaves nor a slavery-based system on Black natives, what about foreigners? All Egyptologists agree on the fact that there are no words in the ancient Egyptian language corresponding to the word “slave”, as confirmed by the African-Caribbean Jean Philippe Omotunde [3].

There are, in our ancestors’ language, the words Bak and Sekher Ankh. Bak means “servant”, a term which refers to the household employee like today, without being enslaved in any way. The other notable word is Sekher Ankh, which means the living injured, and designates a war prisoner. After the 200 years’ invasion by Hyksos from Asia, Egypt became a warrior and imperialist nation by reaction, making captives. Those Sekher Ankh were branded and put into bondage in the temples.

Djehouty-Messou écrasant ses enemis Gravure du temple de Karnak
Djehuty-Mesu crushing his enemies
Rock engraving, temple of Karnak

From the prestigious 18th Dynasty which truly inaugurated the era of African imperialism, there were Pharaohs demanding that women from conquered countries should be delivered. Those women, often noblemen’s daughters of vanquished countries, were deported with servants. The historical documents on Menkheperre Djehuty-Mesu (Thutmose III), the greatest African ever, mention this: he received hundreds of women from present Syria and Irak. In that vision of political submission, the king of Asia Khatousil sent his daughter to Ramesu Maryimana (Ramses II). Ramesu fell in love, and made her his principal wife. Nefertari, daughter of Khatousil, was the only white queen of the indigenous dynasties in the history of Egypt.

Furthermore, Phoenicians, who were the primordial black inhabitants of the Near East, major allies of their Egyptian brothers, first civilizers of Europe and exceptional navigators, raided European coasts to capture white women who were sold in Egypt. So what was ultimately the fate of all these women and war captives?

Egyptologist Bernadette Menu told us that the war captives were “committed to particular tasks” [4] and “were paid”. Also according to her, they were integrated in the Egyptian society “through educational processes.” And concludes: “Nothing can detect in the history of Egypt, the slightest trace of a private slavery.” This means that even if it is extremely regrettable that all these people were deported from their homes, they ended up living free in Egypt.

What about the Jews being enslaved in Egypt?

Illustration de Moise ouvrant la Mer rouge pour faire sortir les Hébreux d'Egypte. Il s'agit là d'une fable absolument grotesque. Aucun pharaon n'est mort noyé dans la mer
Illustration of Moses supposedly opening the red sea to allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt where they were enslaved. Facts actually show that no Pharaoh died in the sea. On the other hand, the opening of a sea is, scientifically, an impossible phenomenon.

According to the Bible, the Jews suffered 430 years of slavery in Africa. It is necessary to say from the foregoing that nothing in authentic sources shows a long period of servitude. How could Africans enslave a people for four centuries without either mentioning it in their writings or showing it on their walls? However, this biblical story might have a specific origin.

In 1730 BC, Egypt is invaded by peoples from Asia, the so called Hyksos, who will occupy the north of the country for 200 years and spread chaos. The Hebrews were the allies of the Hyksos. When Pharaoh Yahmesu (Ahmose), founder of the 18th dynasty, freed definitively the country, he was ruthless with the Hyksos and their allies and shown no mercy.

The Hebrews would therefore have suffered repression from Yahmesu’s armies under the legitimate liberation of Africa; hence perhaps the very origin of the biblical and exaggerated myth of their enslavement in Egypt. Finally, the Hebrews supposedly entered Egypt about 1000 years after the building of the pyramids; we should now relegate those Hollywood movies, about Jewish slaves building pyramids while being whipped, to the rank of tales.

Yahmesu (Ahmosis), the king presumably at the origin of the myth of the enslavement of Hebrews in Africa

On Egypt, the researcher Jacques Pirenne concluded “What characterizes, in fact, the Egyptian civilization and distinguishes it from all other civilizations of the antiquity, is firstly that it has not experienced slavery, and secondly it gave the woman – in its great individualists periods – absolutely equal legal status to that of man “. [5]

The conclusion is that Africans of the Pharaonic era never practiced slavery. There was no enslavement of the Jews and if our glorious ancestors committed highly reprehensible acts by deporting hundreds of innocent people, they did not mistreat them.

Did Africans of the Imperial Period practice slavery?

The Imperial period is that golden era of the African empires, beginning with the birth of the Wagadu Empire (ancient Ghana) on the Niger River, around 300 AD. We can divide this part of the Black history in two parts, the early period between 300 and 1500 AD with the beginning of the destruction of Africa by the European slave trade, and the late period between 1500-1885, when kingdoms were still erected like the Ashanti, the Danhome or the Kuba kingdom. That period ended with the official start of colonization by the Berlin conference.

Askia Mohammed Touré, dit Askia le grand Illsutration de Léo Dillon pour Anheuser Busch
Askia Muhammad Ture, also known as Askia the Great, Emperor of Songhai, the largest State of the Imperial period
Illsutration by Léo Dillon

Here too, there has never been a slavery-based economy. The caste system had survived and never were slaves employed and dehumanized for wealth generation. There were at that time two forms of servitude – so remarkably invariable – throughout the whole sub-Saharan Africa, including in Madagascar:

  • The war prisoner: After the migration of Africans from the Nile Valley and the Great Lakes region, the State building process involved wars of conquest, with their captives. In many cases, those captives became the royalty property. The militaries among them eventually constituted a body in the regular army, and they were led by one of them who ended up being given a status of Prince.

Those captives eventually enjoyed the benefits of their condition and were considered as subjects of the king. So although they were the property of the Crown, although they were owned, they were not mistreated and had even in some ways, an enviable status. But downside, their daughters could serve in the king’s harem at the time of the Songhai Empire for example. That reintegration of prisoners had exceptions, in the Danhome kingdom for instance (present Benin) where war captives were killed by thousands to keep them from rising against the kingdom.

  • The home slave or house servant called Jam Neg in Wolof in Senegal and Andevo in Madagascar. In authentic Africa, prison did almost not exist. Justice was made locally by the community council of elders. When one committed an offence or could not clear his debts, the wrongdoer could be sentenced to be owned by someone, often by his creditor in the second case. He thus became the property of a householder or a housewife. And he could buy his freedom if he had served his sentence. But it happened very often that the sentence was transferred by inheritance over generations. The servant thus became a member of a lower caste that African historians today call the dependents.

How were the dependents treated?

This was based on the state of belonging to the father or the mother. Under the African matriarchal system, the mother’s dependent was very well esteemed. He ended up becoming a respected and influential family member, consulted and feared by children. He was in no way mistreated. The father’s dependent meanwhile, was absolutely not respected because the father is a distant relative and so is his servant.

Even though the father’s dependent was not suffering from bad treatment either, he had no advantages, and was nurturing bitterness and frustration. All the dependents could own a plot of land, which in the African tradition was never sold but was distributed by the local chief. Therefore, the dependent like other citizens had a roof, could cultivate and feed his family, and even get rich. He had his freedom of movement but had to ask permission to travel very far.

In the Mossi Empire (Burkina Faso), according to the constitution the representative of that caste was the third personality of the State, after the King and the Prime Minister. In the kingdom of Ndongo (Angola), dependents (Quizicos) took part in the appointment of the King in 1620 with the electors and chiefs.

Le traitement du dépendant ou esclave en Afrique fut à des années lumières de la cruauté, l'exceptionnelle et inimaginable cruauté, qu'ont subit les Africains en Amérique, en Irak et en Tanzanie.
The treatment of the dependent or slave in Africa was light years away from the cruelty, the exceptional and unimaginable cruelty, that Africans endured in America, Iraq and Tanzania

In the empires on the Niger loop, the dependents’ tribes were responsible for providing grass for the king’s horses, others provided fish for caravanners on the river. That was the tax they paid each year while maintaining their wealth that they were free to grow. In no way, all those people were horribly abused like in Europe or in Iraq and Tanzania during the Arab slave trade.

The explorers and historians stated some facts in this direction:

Historian Liliane Crété, who yet defends the thesis of Africans’ main responsibility in the European slave trade, ended up admitting the truth: “let’s tell it: their fate cannot be compared to the one of the slaves transported to the Americas. Although a “non-free” could not get out of bondage, nor his descendants, he was generally neither mistreated nor unloved. Slaves were part of the family. Their relationship with their master, says a missionary, “seems narrow; they almost always eat in the same gourd and sit on the same layer“” [6].

Michel Izard speaking about the Mossi people of Burkina Faso said “The captive has the right to self-determination, he can marry and cultivate the land (…) The relationship that grows between the captive and the one who has authority over him is reminiscent of the one that combines an ordinary person to the head of household ” [7].

The French colonizer Louis Gustave Binger says “(the slaves) are treated with gentleness: they live under the same roof (as their master), are fed and dressed in the same way” [8].

Ghanaian historian Albert Adu Boahen said about slaves among the Akan “(They had) the right to own property and to marry free citizens. Some were even appointed to positions of responsibility and could inherit property from their masters. They were considered as full members of the family (…) Most of them were perfectly integrated into the society in which they lived and not to disclose their origin was (…) a sacred rule” [9].

Could the dependent be sold? 

Yes but in exceptional cases. At the time of the Songhai Empire, Askia Muhammad Ture, who had tremendously improved the economic conditions of his dependents by lowering their taxes, was selling children of this caste to buy horses. But the home dependents were not sold, except in case of crime committed or starvation, and only after the master had obtained the difficult assent of the other dependents. Liliane Crété carries on and reports the words of an English postman who seemingly went to Senegambia. He said “I have heard only of one case of a house slave being sold” [6]

In conclusion, Africans of the Imperial era have never had a slavery-based economy. Slavery or dependency was a local practice, rudimentary, without the degradation of the servant’s human condition, even though he could be sold in exceptional cases.

The Particular case of black Maghreb

Since historical science gave back the memorial property of the Maghreb to Blacks until the beginning of its whitening in the 8th century, it is therefore necessary to know if there’s been a practice of slavery by Blacks on the other side in the Sahara. We now know that the whitening of the Maghreb, except Arabic and Turkish influx would be primarily due to the enslavement of white Europeans by the Muslim world. Professor Robert Davis, an American academic, estimated to 1,250,000 the number of Europeans bought, raided and enslaved in Maghreb and Libya by the Arabs and black and white Berbers only between 1530 and 1780 [10].

Moorish dignitaries playing chess in Spain. Beside them, two maids – a white lady and a black one – and a black musician. 1283; Source: the Golden age of the Moor, Ivan van Sertima, page 29
Black Berbers also called Moors or Saracens during their domination over Southern Europe. Here two dignitaries playing chess in Spain. Beside them two maids – a white lady and a black one – and a black musician. 1283; Source: the Golden age of the Moor, Ivan van Sertima, page 29

Entire villages were decimated through kidnappings and many Europeans cooperated in the sale of their fellow Europeans. The British historian Bernard Lewis said, “Merchants or intermediates were never lacking (…) among white Europeans ready to capture their neighbors and sell them as slaves on a booming market” [11]. Sub-Saharan Blacks were also enslaved by Blacks and Whites in the Maghreb. The important slave trade here is a fact which is not culturally African, it is especially necessary to see the Arab influence. But how were all these slaves treated by Blacks?

Take the case of Morocco with the black King Mulay Ismael, regarded by many as the greatest king in the country’s history. Mulay Ismael remained famous partly for his 150,000 black slaves and 25,000 white slaves. He made the Blacks, called Abid al Bukhari, powerful. He had full confidence in them and made them the main military force of the country to the extent that after his death, they are the ones who settled the succession to the throne between his sons. Tough the raid he led to get them is not African, the way he treated them, as discussed above, was fully African.

White slaves were responsible for the construction and maintenance of his palaces. They were living in neighborhoods, grouped according to their original nationalities. The Jews, mandated by the King, were in charge of paying them. Each group had its own hospital, the food was plentiful. The treatment of those slaves under Mulay Ismael has nothing to do with what was happening in Europe. Nevertheless, there are stories about cases of captivity comparable to the concentration situation in America. The Turks, during the Ottoman domination over North Africa, used practice those methods. We do not know if Africans did so.

General conclusion :

The slavery-based economy, rooted in the European culture and known to the Semitic cultures was unknown to the black world throughout African history. Servitude, out of the Arabic influence, was a community and rudimentary punishment. The authentic African society “astonishingly human” as the historian Louise Marie Diop-Maes would say, practiced a local slavery or dependency, without mistreatment, and has never had a slavery-based economy.

Follow us on our Instagram Page


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here