The West and East African Slave Trades, Compared

For those with an interest in colonial history, the West versus East African slave trade is a compelling comparison. I had the opportunity to visit the 16th century Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya. Fort Jesus stands as probably the best-preserved site at which to understand the difference between the two different slave trades on the opposite coasts of Africa. Here is what I considered during my visit, and some thoughts I had on the differences between West and East African slave history. All of these facts are taken from written citations, signs, or conversations with local experts, and not confirmed in publications, so they should be considered carefully.


1. Routes: In the West, slaves were sent to the Americas as part of a triangle of trade. Men and women were kidnapped from West Africa and sent to North America, South America and the Caribbean. Then, the raw goods they produced, such as cotton and tobacco, were shipped to Europe. In turn, refined goods, such as lace, liquor, weapons, etc. were used to buy further slaves in West Africa. This sustained the triangle of exploitation.

However, slaves in East Africa were sent primarily to Middle East, and to Asia to a lesser extent, in more linear routes. Fort Jesus is important because it fortified the first Western domination over the Indian Ocean slave trade, by Portugal over Oman.

2. Mortality Rates: In East Africa, 4 out of 5 slaves died just during the journey from the interior to the coast, not including shipping. During the West African trade, 2 of 3 captives died during the entire passages across the Atlantic, including shipping. This means that the East African trek across land had a higher mortality rate than the entire transcontinental passage.

I would guess that the Portuguese and the Arabs had to venture farther into the eastern interior to get their captives, perhaps due to less densely populated coastlines in East Africa. Populations tend to congregate and grow around port and coastal areas. Or, because countries like Nigeria have an ample network of connecting creeks, using the creeks as transport routes would have facilitated kidnapping coastal peoples via boat from the deep interior. The East African trek was simply longer due to population spread over more challenging land routes. Having to travel further inland would also require Middle Eastern and Portuguese slave traders to expend more resources per slave, decreasing the overall quantity they could take from the east. This would just be my hypothesis.


3. Duration and Intensity: The West African trade was shorter in duration and more intense in terms of number of slaves shipped per year than the East Africa one. The West African trade lasted about 300 years, with Portugal being the first trader in the 1400s, finally ending right around the time it lost control of Kenya in 1700. Perhaps the West African slave trade was more “professionalized” and thus able to export more slaves per year because each European power had its own territory and business venture clearly defined.

In comparison, the East African trade was lower impact, but sustained for longer.  Arab settlements in places like Kenya and Tanzania, the latter of which was the largest source of slaves for Arabs, created the Swahili culture and language. Arabs established an African slave trade to the Middle East long before the Europeans did, as early as the 7th century. Trade reached its peak in the 18th century, but there is even a story of the Sultan of Oman bringing slaves to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, long after the trade had ended.

It is important to note the difference in the nature of the two slave trades.  The transatlantic trade was chattel-based and slaves were worked to death with hard labor in the Americas. Those slaves, owned by Christians, were rarely able to keep their families together or buy their own freedom.  Slaves in the Arab world often had families and were able to possibly buy their own freedom over time, based on Quranic principles. East African slaves had a small degree of rights, and much of the female labor came in the form of domestic servitude rather than agricultural.

4. From Slavery to Independence: While exploring Fort Jesus, I wondered why West African countries seemed to gain independence just slightly before East African ones.  Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria gained independence in 1957, 1958, and 1960 respectively, while Tanzania didn’t become independent until 1961, and Kenya until 1963. A possible explanation for this is pan-Africanism and the effects of the American Civil Rights Movement. The exchange of ideas, ala Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, was geographically easier between West Africa and the U.S. than it would have been between East Africa and the U.S. simply because of proximity. Conversely, East Africa has much stronger ties to the Arab world, where slavery was still even practiced into the 1950s, e.g. Yemen, Oman. In other words, the Arab influence slowed down the independence movement in East Africa.

One of the true pleasures of being in the field is the freedom to consider history as it lies in front of you.  There seems to be less pressure to make sure your ideas are always “right,” and there is greater space to allow your thoughts to meander through the centuries.


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