African peoples have been subjected to many different types of slavery both within Africa and externally. Slavery is an economic system, which relies on the free labour of enslaved people. It denies those people their freedom and what we today call their ‘human rights’ . This may be for a fixed period of time, or, as in the case of the transatlantic slave trade, for life.
Ottobah Cuguano was from Adjumako, today in modern Ghana in West Africa. He was kidnapped and enslaved in about 1770. He was sold to a plantation owner on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean. Within the year, he was rescued from ‘this dreadful captivity and horrible slavery’. He was purchased by a new master, Alexander Campbell, and brought to England. By 1788 he was free, whether by the gift of his owner or by buying it for himself we do not know. He wrote his autobiography, called Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, which was published in 1787. Cuguano wrote ‘Some of the Africans in my country keep slaves, which they take in war, or for debt …’. Cuguano had been enslaved in his teens, so he had firsthand experience of the subject. People were enslaved in Africa for various reasons. They might be prisoners of war taken after fighting between warring states or ethnic groups. They might be people unable to pay back debts and taken by the person to whom money was owed. Slaves might be taken into their master’s household to work and eventually become accepted as part of the family. Or, slaves could be sold by whoever captured them to foreign slave traders from North Africa or Europe.
At the time when the trade in slaves was occurring, Africans did not have a common identity. They did not think of themselves as Africans, as they might do today. Instead they thought of themselves as members of their own separate ethnic, or cultural, group. Those being sold into slavery would have been seen as ‘outsiders’ from the seller’s own community. Treating outsiders in such a way seemed acceptable.