The Slave Trade: Causes, and Impacts on African Society

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Written by Tadese Faforiji

Slave trade simply is a trade where people are traded as articles of trade. The term widely gained prominence by the obnoxious trans-Atlantic slave trade in which European merchants, regulated by the force of mercantilism, met themselves purchasing humans like them from Africa to engage them in the ongoing plantations in the discovered New World- America and West Indies. 

Causes of the Slave Trade 

 There were many factors responsible for the causes of the slave trade which lasted for over four hundred years, starting from when one Gonzalves, an explorer, visited Africa in 1441 A.D., left with twelve Africans and presented them to Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, as a gift from his great voyage to the black world.

Starting from then, European merchants abandoned using the weak Amerindians in the plantations and sought to get labour from the African continent.

The idea pushed forward by European writers like Charles Darwin; seeing the black race as the inferior race; the need to get stronger labourers to engage on plantation due to the frailty and breakable nature of the Amerindians.


The advice of Las Casas who suggested getting labourers from Africa (as people who could work for long hours under the hot sun), the urge to establish coastal route along the coast of Africa to Spice Islands and India,  the already practice of slavery (pawns) in Africa among others, were responsible for the causes of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Slavery Institution in Pre-colonial Africa

At this juncture, the pawnship system in African society should be elucidated. In a situation whereby a debtor could not pay his debt, he would give a pawn (usually a child) to the creditor and the pawn would have to work for the debt, and later his emancipation.

After the payment of the debt, he is incorporated into the society as a normal citizen. As mostly referenced in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, King Jaja of Opobo was (a slave) given as a pawn who later paid the debt, bought his emancipation,  and later rose to the fame of the household.

The above reference shows that this practice was though indigenous to African society before the coming of the European slave traders, but the trans-Atlantic slave trade took (high price) larger scale with the inclusion of the European slave traders in this brutish business, and also there was no system of integration of freed slaves in the slave trade.

This has left lasting effects in Africa generally, resulting in calamities, disasters and has been the very basis for African underdevelopment. Actually, the impact of slaves can never be examined thoroughly in an article because some of its negative effects are yet to surface. 

slaves. BBC photo

Impacts of the Slave Trade

One of the impacts of the slave trade is the depopulation of Africa. Over thirty to forty million Africans were carried to Europe, America and far Australia to engage them in hard work.


As slaves were being captured either by hiring or in a Gestapo style, they were then chained from one right leg to the other left leg, to prevent them from escaping. It claimed thousands of millions of population of Africa and this later led to backwardness in terms of demographic distribution, and later, overall progressiveness.

Loss of Lives and Properties 

It also led to loss of lives and properties. As earlier explained, the slaves were actually treated like animals. A recalcitrant slave who did not want to get to the shore would be (drowned) pushed the sea, and the slave traders kept moving with the rest. Also, the course of getting captives was not easy, many properties were destroyed, and many people lost their lives to this.


Wars and Crises

Furthermore, the slave trade led to wars and crises among African leaders. Since the African leaders wanted ammunitions of the European slave traders, they met themselves “getting more slaves to get more guns to get more slaves.” (Walter Rodney). This encouraged wars of all against all in order to get captives to sell to the slave traders at the coast of the country.

This threw light on the manner of getting slaves; the slave traders were not solely waging war against the indigenous people, but with the help of gun-thirsting African leaders, many slaves were captured by wars, and they were later sent to the shores in Lagos, Calabar, Niger Delta region among others in that line.

Therefore if Europe has always been condemned to this ‘greatest sin against humanity,’ it should be noted that Africans themselves were involved in the obnoxious trade; it was not solely a European enterprise.

Africa’s Backwardness  

It stopped African technological development. The age-long technological advancement of African society evidenced by the prehistoric materials as excavated by Thurstan Shaw, Frank Williams, Ekpo E. among others, was put paid to, by the slave trade.

The archaeological excavations of some sites in Nigeria (by Shaw), Tanzania, South Africa, Chad, etc. shed more light on African technological progress before the contact with the Europeans who ventured into the land and shattered the established glory.

Sierra Leone and Liberia

It also led to the establishment of Liberia and Sierra Leone, promoted racism, set a paradigm for endemic corruption, mismanagement of resources, black colonialism, and finally prepared the ground for colonization.

Sierra Leone was established in 1787 by British humanitarians and Liberia in 1821 by American philanthropists. These established colonies served as dumping grounds for ex-slaves from Europe, America and other places where slaves were being used prior to the industrial revolution.


As the slave trade had already prepared the ground for colonization by dictating the fate of African socio-political, economic and religious settings, Christian missionaries in the pretext of preaching against slavery, and slave traders entered the hinterland of Africa and prepared ground for the unfortunate colonization that took effect in the early twentieth century which has so far prepared the basis for African underdevelopment.

Abolition of the Slave Trade

Finally, the industrial revolution, which led to the invention of machines that could produce more and faster than human labour, the slave trade started to seem to European slave traders as unfortunate trade against humanity. If there was no industrial revolution, perhaps the trade would have continued for centuries.


The efforts of humanitarians like Granville Sharpe, Thomas Clarkson, William Pitt, William Wilberforce, the 1807 Abolition Act and 1833 Emancipation Act, the Mansfield Judgment of 1772, the efforts of the missionaries among others, led to the gradual abolition of the slave trade, and finally, the decisive civil war between the two Americas in 1861-65 totally led to the abolition of the slave trade.

Now international organizations like the League of Nations (1920-1939), and later United Nations Organization (1945-till date) have treaties negating unfortunate trade in humans. 

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Read more

  1. Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Wikipedia.
  2. Transatlantic slave trade, part of the global slave trade that took 10–12 million enslaved Africans to the Americas from the 16th to the …Britannica
  3.  The Atlantic slave trade became the largest enforced movement of humanity ever recorded. It attracted all the maritime nations of both Europe …..historyextra
  4. The Atlantic slave trade began in 1442 when African captives from the Senegal river were taken to the port of Lagos in southern Portugal and sold as slaves..wasscehistorytextbook
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About the author

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Tadese Faforiji

I am Tadese Faforiji, a history student of the prestigious Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State- 21st-century University, properly called. I am a blogger and an avid writer.


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