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date: 01 March 2021

Slaving in Bantu-Speaking Regionslocked

  • Joseph C. MillerJoseph C. MillerCorcoran Department of History, University of Virginia


Small communities of Bantu-language-speaking cultivators, and eventually also cattle herders, settled and thrived during the last three millennia throughout nearly the entire African continent east and south of Cameroon. They mobilized the people who did so in many ways, transferring many of them among the groups they formed. Mobility was assumed to be normative. Most they repositioned by mutual agreements protecting the daughters or others they moved as wives, some sought new places voluntarily as clients, and others found themselves involuntarily abandoned, captured, or otherwise isolated and vulnerable to the strangers who took them in. The last group most resembled the people who, in modern societies, we recognize as “enslaved.”

However, those who acquired these vulnerable people used them for purposes very different from the plantations and backbreaking labor associated with African “slavery” in the Americas. And they faced futures more varied than the permanently and inheritably enslaved Africans in the New World. This essay sketches these varied purposes and outcomes of enslavement in the context of Bantu speakers’ worlds built around premises that often contrasted with the modern world we take for granted. It adds a historical argument that Bantu-speaking communities met the major challenges in their three-thousand-year history by mobilizing personnel through slaving.

This essay follows three broadly defined eras in which Bantu speakers over more than a hundred generations used strategies of slaving to create historical changes. The earliest slaving moved people who were unwanted in their home communities, or destitute survivors of communities that had failed and dispersed, into vulnerable places among the communities of others. As early Bantu speakers gradually grew in number, they intensified collective local strategies to create diverse communities in which they ultimately valued obligating relationships with one another more than they accumulated personal material wealth. Prizing people more than property, they saw themselves as perpetually short of personnel, particularly of women as wives to bear succeeding generations. Politics more than production motivated their quests for males, often clients but also opportunistically supplemented with the destitute and their neighbors’ cast-offs.

Dependency was the norm and not a violation of individual freedom, since everyone was beholden to others. Since residential groups and neighborhoods routinely circulated their members in several ways, the distinctions between those moved involuntarily as slaves and others who moved in protected conditions as wives or clients were much subtler than our familiar (though unrealistic) dichotomy of mutually exclusive “slavery” and “freedom.” Despite modern searches for Bantu speakers’ terms cognate with “slavery,” they created no discrete, permanent social condition similar to the institutionalized commercial slavery of the Atlantic. The acquiring groups treated slaves better than the abandoned, isolated, displaced outsiders whom we treated as little more than inanimate “property,” always vulnerable to further removals by sale. To the contrary, the early Bantu-speaking groups tended to find places for the people they acquired and treated them as human resources of significant value in the complex politics of their neighborhoods and communities.

In the second phase, from roughly 500 to 1500 ce, trading opportunities tended to promote connections over greater distances, among strangers. These opportunities supplemented the small scales of the earlier personal networks of kinship, affinity, guilds of skilled hunters and healers, and clientage. Communities in propitious locations recruited isolated outsiders to sustain local production, while insiders moved out with their products. Some networks of more regular interactions among otherwise unfamiliar contacts at greater distances consolidated into political systems distinguishable from the balanced communities of familiarity composing them. They kept the peace among themselves by recognizing neutral central authorities among the components, and the central figures who gained significant independent power recruited kinless outsiders to build retinues of their own.

Some of these central political authorities eventually obtained commercial resources from Indian and later also Atlantic Ocean merchant networks. They used these imported goods, bought or borrowed on terms of commercial credit, as working capital to consolidate their positions locally. At first, they paid for what they had borrowed with low-investment exports of extracted commodities (ivory, gold, and other natural resources). Increasing extraction depleted resources and provoked greater borrowing to seek resources farther afield. Growing commercial credit soon inflated local competition and accelerated the needs for additional personnel to protect the initial windfall gains they had made. By the end of the 17th century, Atlantic merchants attempting to serve vast markets for captive Africans in American mines and plantations introduced goods in quantities that exceeded the capacities of African domestic economies to pay for them without resorting to raiding for captives to sell abroad to pay their debts.

So long as populations farther from the sea remained undisturbed and vulnerable to violent seizure and sale, Africans financed by growing Atlantic credit tended to retain more people than they had to sell off into the maritime trade. They were the profits from people kept in Africa and who increasingly populated expanding trading networks. As European investment grew, so did African indebtedness. For more than three centuries from the late 1500s until the second half of the 19th century, the resulting Atlantic “frontier of slaving violence” moved haltingly inland. The circumstances of the captives kept in regions closer to the coast grew correspondingly more contingent and abusive, vulnerable to being sold abroad, and the means of acquiring them became more violent. An Indian Ocean counterpart took shape in the later 1700s, and eastern and south-central Africa sank into violent displacements of whole populations. Commercial credit and slaving had enabled Bantu-speaking Africans to transform their world from communities dedicated to reproducing their members to warlords and bands of enslaved mercenaries that thrived by capturing people whom others had reproduced.

Commercialized slaving in Bantu-speaking Africa produced more captives for the export trades of both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans than from any other region of the continent, but slaving within the continent was also the principal strategy that people used there, over more than two thousand years, to create the major historical changes in their lives. Each succeeding historical context on growing geographical scales—increasingly politicized, and eventually commercialized—had been an outcome accomplished by the slaving developed in its predecessor.

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