Did Africans truly export slaves to the Americas?

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In their book, “African development in historical perspective”, Professors Emmanuel Akyeampong, James A. Robinson and some other Harvard and non-Harvard professors reported that Africans exported slaves to the Americas. (Akyeampong et al, 2014) This report could be misinterpreted as a distortion of history, defence of status quo, or effort to generalize and offload the responsibility for the cruelty, cultural dislocation and horrible effects of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade on Africans. And without clarifying this narrative, it can demoralize many Africans in their efforts to understand, reconnect and rebuild their communities, countries and continent.

Oxford Advanced learners’ dictionary defines the verbal mode of the word ‘export’ as:

1. To sell and send goods to another country

2. To introduce an idea or activity to another country or area

3. To send data to another program, changing its form so that the other program can read it.

Exporting slaves (not data) can only apply to the first and second definitions. So, the expression that Africans exported slaves will either mean that Africans acquired and transported, or gave orders to transport slaves to America, or that Africans introduced slavery as an activity to the Americas. This will place Africans as the directors and originators of the Trans-Atlantic slave-trade, and not just employed agents or participants in the venture. Before confirming the truth or falsity of this expression, it is important to highlight the difference between the peoples of North Africa and those of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa is the second largest continent, and it is unevenly divided by a large stretch of uninhabitable land called the Sahara desert. This Sahara desert runs horizontally across at the top of the continent, separating 6 countries at the top North from the other 48 countries at the lower part. (Orjiako, 2001) It is difficult to say when the area became a desert. But with its dryness and wideness, the Sahara desert prevented easy movement between the Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa. So, due to their nearness to Europe and Asia, the different nations in the Northern Africa had more socio-cultural contacts with Asians and Europeans. (Sowell, 2015) Even before medieval era, some Europeans and Arabians invaded and spread across the North Africa, which is one of the reasons North Africans have lighter skin than Sub-Saharan Africans. (Gearon, 2011) On the other hand, due to the difficulty in crossing the desert, the communities, kingdoms and nations in Sub-Saharan Africa were almost cut off from most cultural contacts with Europe and Asia. Hence, they were less exposed to some of the era’s technological flow than peoples in North Africa. This limited contact with the era’s flow of technology held Sub-Saharan Africans from developing more industry, transport or war equipment of the era, and made them easy targets for invasions (Hassan, 19999). Also, the many communities and kingdoms in Sub-Saharan Africa were culturally unrelated and often clashing against one another, such that foreigners could easily use one community against the others. (Rodney, 2009).

Trans-Atlantic slave-trade refers to the capture and transport of Blacks mainly from sub-Saharan Africa to the Americas. Before the Trans-Atlantic slave-trade, by 1445, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal crossed into Sub-Saharan Africa to raid, capture and transport Blacks to be enslaved in Europe. And after Columbus discovered the American continent and its vast fertile lands in 1492, many Europeans migrated to colonize it from the 1500s. Then, they needed more manpower to cultivate the vast lands in the Americas. This need for manpower in the Americas created a huge demand for slaves. So, the capture and trade of blacks, which Prince Henry (Portuguese) was already doing in Europe, became lucrative for other European traders, mainly from Britain, Portugal and Spain, to capture and transport black people to be enslaved in America.(Whitburn et al, 2018) While the British mainly took their captives to North America, the Portuguese and Spanish went more to South America. Most times, the European traders would pay chiefs on Africa’s coastlands to invade the hinterlands to get captives for them. “Soon, wars began to be fought between one community and another for the sole purpose of getting prisoners for sale to Europeans.” (Rodney, 2009) The African leaders that resisted this slave-trade like Queen Nzinga of Matamba, Chief Tomba of Baga and Agaja Trudo of Dahomey were subdued by neighbouring chiefs with the help of the European traders. Even the British John Hawkins was funded and knighted by Queen Elizabeth I to use a ship named ‘Jesus’ to catch, transport, sell captives and make huge profits for Britain. More so, many European firms like (David and Alexander) Barclays’ bank, Lloyds’ insurance and James Watt’s electric inventions were born or supported from profits made from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.(Rodney, 2009).

So, to answer the question of whether (Sub-Saharan) Africans exported or could have been the ones that exported slaves, it is necessary to identity three major elements for export as:

1. Knowledge of a demand to be met in another country or society or,

2. Capacity to create demand for your product in another country or society using adverts or force, and

3. Capacity to mobilize logistics or supply chain to acquire, transport and trade your products/ideas

Due to the geographical boundary of Sahara desert and Atlantic ocean, and their socio-economic limitations, Sub-Saharan Africans could not have had any of these three elements. They could not have known of, or influenced demand for manpower in the new continent (America), since the first Africans in America were taken in chains, and there were no phones or internet to report back. Even if some Sub-Saharan Africans knew of the demand, their technological limitations at the time could not have allowed them to mobilize logistics to finance, transport, advertise or force the trade into the European-dominated new continent. The few African chiefs involved in the slave-trade did not know or care about where the European traders took the captives. They had no ships or devices to track the shipments. Instead, they simply took captives from other communities to exchange for European weapons, money or products. This places the African collaborators as low-level participants in a purely European venture, and not as the trade’s originators or directors.

Another book by Professor James A. Robinson, which was used in that “Africa’s development in historical perspective” was titled “Why did Africa export scarce labour?” This title must have come from a faulty assumption that Africans are one entity like a single group of people or community who had a consensus to export their members even against their common interest of scarce labour. It failed to recognize the wide geographical and cultural differences between the thousands of unrelated and often clashing communities and kingdoms. The clashes between the communities enabled the European-traders to use one community to invade and take prisoners from other communities, many of whom (like Akan, Benin and Buganda) were already integrating captives into their own societies and thus, resisted slave trade. So, saying that Africans exported slaves against their interest commits the fallacies of false cause and generalization. It is like saying that Europe (without distinction) bombed and destroyed Europe against Europe’s interest in the World Wars; or that Europe slaughtered and raped Europe, and roasted millions of Jews in gas chambers. Thus, a similar book title could emerge as “Why did Europe destroy or rape Europe against its own interest or against their own people?” or other self-defeating and confusing titles.

In conclusion, (Sub-Saharan) Africans were not the exporters of slaves to America, nor the real actors in Trans-Atlantic slave trade. European traders mainly from Portugal, Britain and Spain exported ‘African captives’ to be enslaved in both North and South America. They often used few African coastland chiefs to invade and get captives from hinterland communities. And this low-level participation in the trade does not qualify the African collaborators as the exporters, but only as assistants in capturing people to be enslaved by Europeans. Yet, the Professors’ expression that Africans exported slaves should not be seen as an intentional distortion of history, defence of status quo or evasion of responsibility, but an innocent or semantic mistake. It only shows that we all make mistakes, even Harvard professors; and that the best of our humanity is not found in our mistakes, but in our ability to correct them for a better world.


1. Emmanuel Akyeampong et al, “African development in historical perspective” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.8, 16 footnote, 17, 28, and more.
2. Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, 8th edition, s.v. export
3. Humphrey Orjiako, Killing Sub-Saharan Africa with aid (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2001), p.xi.
4. Thomas Sowell, “Just how weak were Africans before the imperialists?” in Thomas SowellTV, YouTube. https://youtu.be/eSC2wTgZxgg 3rd November, 2022.
5. First the Greek under Alexander the Great invaded Egypt around 332bce, before Arabians in the 7th century. Cf. Eamonn Gearon, “Arab Invasions: The First Islamic Empire” in History Today. 6th June 2011. www.historytoday.com/archive/arab-invasions-first-islamic-empire retrieved 23rd January, 2023.
6. Saliu, A. Hassan. Issues in Contemporary Political Economy of Nigeria. Ilorin: T.A. Olayeri press, 1999.
7. LDHI, African Laborers for a New Empire: Iberia, Slavery, and the Atlantic World, Pope Nicolas V and the Portuguese Slave Trade. ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/African_laborers_for_a_new_emp/pope_nicolas_v_and_the_portugu retrieved 20th December, 2022
8. Robin Whitburn and Abdul Mohamud, “Britain’s involvement with New World slavery and the transatlantic slave trade” in British Library, 21st June, 2018. www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/britains-involvement-with-new-world-slavery-and-the-transatlantic-slave-trade. Retrieved 24th January, 2023.
9. Walter Rodney, How Europe underdeveloped Africa (Abuja: Panaf press, 2009), p. 88.
10. Walter Rodney, op. cit., p. 91.
11. Walter Rodney, op. cit., p. 93-94.
12. Wikipedia, John Hawkins (naval commander), en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hawkins_(naval_commander)
13. Walter Rodney, op. cit., p.97.
14. Walter Rodney, op. cit., p. 128.
15. Emmanuel Akyeampong et al, ibid, p.28 References
16. Walter Rodney, op. cit., p. 140.
17. It commits a fallacy of false cause by suggesting that Africans were the real actors in the slave trade instead of the Europeans, and a fallacy of generalization by extending the participation of few African chiefs in the slave trade as an action from Africa.
18. Joseph Inikori, “Reversal of fortune and socioeconomic development” in Africa’s development in historical perspective, op. cit. p.68. Professor Inikori was cautious to refer to the people being transported as “African captives”, instead of slaves. Most of them were free in their communities, before being invaded, captured and shipped off. They only became slaves when they were taken to the Americas and enslaved.