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date: 26 September 2022

Slavery in Decentralized Societieslocked

Slavery in Decentralized Societieslocked

  • David GlovskyDavid GlovskyUniversity at Albany State University of New York


Slavery and enslavement were common processes across Africa, increasingly so during the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In decentralized societies—societies without centralized political states—enslavement took particular forms; in some regions, people were most commonly enslaved through warfare, slave raids, kidnapping, and other forms of violence. In other areas, people were primarily enslaved through judicial processes, witchcraft accusations, debt, and pawning. In many decentralized societies, all of these methods of enslavement existed simultaneously. Regardless of how enslavement occurred, enslaved men and women were integrated into societies across Africa unevenly. In some societies, incorporation was a relatively quick process, facilitated by marriage or assimilation into kinship networks or lineages. However, in some cases it took generations for enslaved individuals and their descendants to become equal members of society.

People in decentralized societies enslaved men and women within Africa and also sold them into the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In response to rising demand for enslaved persons from Atlantic traders, members of decentralized societies undertook raids of neighboring societies and transformed their communities to protect themselves. Within Africa, enslaved men and women played integral economic roles in agriculture, trade, mining, and other economic tasks. They played an important social function in increasing the prestige of particular individuals, households, and communities. Enslaved persons were typically treated as lesser members of households and lineages and subjected to more violence than others, typically ranking lowest in societal hierarchies. In general, decentralized societies valued enslaved women and children more than men because they were more easily brought into households. However, there were important regional variations. While decentralized societies were long seen as victims in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, studies of particular societies have shown the ways these societies participated in and defended themselves from enslavement.


  • Slavery and Slave Trade

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