The Story of Africa| BBC World Service


Mohammed Ibrahim Babatu, great great grandson of Baba-Ato standing with his grandfather who holds slave shackels
African Slave Owners

Many societies in Africa with kings and hierarchical
forms of government traditionally kept slaves. But these were mostly used for
domestic purposes. They were an indication of power and wealth and not used
for commercial gain. However, with the appearance of Europeans desperate to
buy slaves for use in the Americas, the character of African slave ownership



In the early 18th century, Kings of Dahomey (known
today as Benin) became big players in the slave trade, waging a bitter war on
their neighbours, resulting in the capture of 10,000, including another important
slave trader, the King of Whydah. King Tegbesu made £250,000 a year selling
people into slavery in 1750. King Gezo said in the 1840’s he would do anything
the British wanted him to do apart from giving up slave trade:
“The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people.
It is the source and the glory of their wealth…the mother lulls the child to
sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery…”


Some of the descendants of African traders are
alive today. Mohammed Ibrahim Babatu is the great great grandson of Baba-ato
(also known as Babatu), the famous Muslim slave trader, who was born in Niger
and conducted his slave raids in Northern Ghana in the 1880’s. Mohammed Ibrahim
Babatu, the deputy head teacher of a Junior secondary school in Yendi, lives in Ghana.

“In our curriculum, we teach a little part of the history of our land. Because some of the children ask questions about the past history of our grandfather Babatu.

Babatu, and others, didn’t see anything wrong with slavery. They didn’t have any knowledge of what the people were used for. They were only aware that some of the slaves would serve others of the royal families within the sub-region.

He has done a great deal of harm to the people of Africa. I have studied history and I know the effect of slavery.

I have seen that the slave raids did harm to Africa, but some members of our family feel he was ignorant…we feel that what he did was fine, because it has given the family a great fame within the Dagomba society.

He gave some of the slaves to the Dagombas and then he sent the rest of the slaves to the Salaga market. He didn’t know they were going to plantations…he was ignorant…”

Listen hereListen to Mohammed Ibrahim Babatu, great great grandson of the famous Muslim slave trader Baba-ato

young Moroccan traveler and commentator, Leo Africanus, was amazed at the wealth
and quantity of slaves to be

found in Gao, the capital of Songhay, which he
visited in 1510 and 1513 when the empire was at the height of its power under
Askiya Mohammed.

“…here there is a certain place where slaves are
sold, especially on those days when the merchants are assembled. And a young
slave of fifteen years of age is sold for six ducats, and children are also
sold. The king of this region has a certain private palace where he maintains
a great number of concubines and slaves.”


The ruling class of coastal Swahili society
– Sultans, government officials and wealthy merchants – used non-Muslim
slaves as domestic servants and to work on farms and estates. The craftsmen,
artisans and clerks tended to by Muslim and freed men. But the divisions
between the different classes were often very flexible. The powerful slave
and ivory trader Tippu Tip was the grandson of a slave.

Listen here
Listen to historian Abdul Sheriff introducing Tippu Tip’s autobiography followed by a BBC dramatisation of the slave trader’s own writing

The Omani Sultan, Seyyid Said, became immensely rich when he started up cloves
plantations in 1820 with slave labour – so successful was he that he moved the
Omani capital to Zanzibar in 1840.

Find out more about the Swahilis


The Asanti (the capital, Kumasi, is in modern
Ghana) had a long tradition of domestic slavery. But gold was the main commodity
for selling. With the arrival of Europeans the slaves displaced gold as the
main commodity for trade. As late as 1895 the British Colonial Office was not
concerned by this.

“It would be a mistake to frighten the King of Kumasi
and the Ashantis generally on the question of slavery. We cannot sweep away
their customs and institutions all at once. Domestic slavery should not be troubled
at present.”
attitudes changed when the King of the Asanti (the Asantehene) resisted British
colonial authority. The suppression of the slave trade became a justification
for the extension of European power. With the humiliation and exile of King
Prempeh I in 1896, the Asanti were placed under the authority of the Governor
of the Gold Coast and forced therefore to conform to British law and abolish
the slave trade.


In 1807, Britain declared all slave trading illegal.
The king of Bonny (in what is now the Nigerian delta) was dismayed at the conclusion
of the practice.

“We think this trade must go on. That is the verdict
of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can
never stop a trade ordained by God himself.”


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