THE SLAVE TRADE
The Atlantic Slave Trade--
The Commodification of Labor on a Global Scale
Although considerable debate and controversy surrounds many aspects of
the history of slavery, it is perhaps best to start with the numbers.
Estimates of the volume of the trade have varied widely and scholars still
debate the figures and their implications, but the range of calculations has
been narrowed by recent research.
Between 1450 and 1850 it is estimated that
about 12 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic, and with a
mortality rate of 10 to 20 percent on the ships, about ten or eleven million
Africans actually arrived in the Americas.
How many people died in Africa as a
result of the slaving wars or in the forced marches to the coast is unknown,
but estimates have been as high as one-third of the total captured.
Trend Toward Expansion
The volume changed over time. In the 16th century, numbers were
relatively small, but they increased to perhaps 16,000 per year in the 17th
The 18th century was the great age of the Atlantic slave trade;
probably over seven million slaves, or over 80 percent of all those embarked,
were exported between 1700 and 1800.
By the latter date about three million
slaves resided in the Americas. Even in the 19th century, when slavery was
under attack, the trade continued in volume to some places. Cuba received some 700,000 slaves and Brazil took over one million in that century alone.
The high volume of the slave trade was a necessity because in most of the
slave regimes in the Caribbean and Latin America slave mortality was high and
fertility was low (partly because more men than women were imported). Thus,
over time there was usually a loss of population.
The only way to maintain or
expand the number of slaves was by importing more from Africa. The one
exception to this pattern was the southern United States, where the slave
population had a positive rate of growth due perhaps to the temperate climate
and the fact that few worked in dangerous and unhealthy occupations like sugar
By 1860 almost six million slaves worked in the Americas, but
about four million of them lived in the southern United States, an area that
depended more on natural population growth than on the Atlantic slave trade.
In terms of total population, however, slaves in British North America were
never more than one-fourth of the whole population, while in the British and
French Caribbean they made up between 80 and 90 percent of the population.
The dimensions of the trade varied over time, reflecting the economic and
political situation in the Americas. From 1530 to 1650, Spanish America and
Brazil received the majority of African slaves, but after the English and
French began to cultivate sugar in the Caribbean, the islands of Jamaica,
Barbados, and St. Domingue (Haiti) became important terminals for the slavers.
By the 18th century, Virginia and the Carolinas in North America had also
become major destinations, although they never rivaled the Caribbean or
If we view the whole history of the slave trade from about 1550 to 1850,
it is possible to see the relative proportions of the trade. Brazil alone
received between 3.5 and 5 million Africans, or about 42 percent of all those
who reached the New World.
The Caribbean islands, dedicated to sugar
production, were the other major destination of Africans. The island colonies
of St. Domingue and Jamaica each received over one million slaves in the 18th
It should be emphasized that these figures represent only the volume in
the Atlantic slave trade. The older trans-Sahara, Red Sea, and East African
slave trades in the hands of Muslim traders continued throughout the period
and added another three million people to the total of Africans exported as
slaves in this period.
The Atlantic trade drew slaves from across the continent and its
concentration shifted over time. In the 16th century, the majority of slaves
were exported from the Senegambia region but by the 17th century West-central
Africa (modern Zaire and Angola) was the major supplier.
It was joined by the
areas of the Gold Coast and the Slave Coast - Dahomey and Benin - at the end
of the century when Benin alone was exporting over 10,000 slaves per year. In
the following century, wars for control of the interior created the large
states of Asante among the Akan peoples of the Gold Coast and of Dahomey among
the Fon peoples. These wars were both the cause and the result of increasing
slave exports from these regions.
The demographic patterns of the Atlantic slave trade also merit
discussion. The trans-Saharan slave trade had carried a majority of women to
be used as concubines and domestic servants in North Africa and the Middle
East, but the Atlantic slave trade concentrated on men.
The slave ships
carried mostly young men. To some extent this was because planters and mine
owners in the Americas were seeking workers for heavy labor and were not
anxious to risk the purchase of children due to high levels of mortality.
the other hand, African societies that sold captives into slavery often
preferred to sell the men and keep the women and children as domestic slaves
or to extend existing kin groups.
The Atlantic trade seems to have had a demographic impact on at least
certain parts of West and central Africa. One estimate is that the population
of about 25 million in 1850 in those regions was about one-half what it would
have been had there been no slave trade.
It is true that the trans-Atlantic
trade carried more men than women and more women than chvldren, but captive
women and children who remained in Africa swelled the numbers of enslaved
people and skewed the proportion of women to men in the African enslaving
Finally, as the Atlantic trade developed, new crops, such as maize
and manioc, were introduced to Africa that provided new food resources for the
population and helped it recover from the losses to the slave trade.
Organization Of The Trade
The patterns of contact and trade established by the Portuguese were at
first followed by rival Europeans on the African coast. Control of the slave
trade or a portion of it generally reflected the political situation in
For one and one-half centuries until about 1630, the Portuguese
controlled most of the coastal trade and were the major suppliers of their own
colony of Brazil and the Spanish settlements in America. The growth of
slave-based plantation colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere led other
Europeans to compete with the Portuguese. The Dutch became major competitors when they seized El Mina in 1637 and temporarily took Angola (1641-1648) in order to supply their conquests in northeastern Brazil.
By the 1660s the
English were anxious to have their own source of slaves for their growing
colonies in Barbados, Jamaica, and Virginia. The Royal African Company was
chartered for that purpose.
The French made similar arrangements in the 1660s,
but it was not until the 18th century that France became a major carrier. Even
smaller European nations like Denmark had its agents and forts on the African
Each nation established merchant towns or trade forts at places such as
Axim, Nembe, Bonny, Whydah, and Luanda from which a steady source of captives
could be obtained.
For the Europeans stationed on the coast, Africa was also a graveyard
because of the tropical diseases encountered. Less than ten percent of the
employees of the Royal Africa Company who went to Africa ever returned to
England, and the majority died in the first year out.
European mortality among
the crews of slave ships was also very high due to tropical diseases like
malaria. The slave trade proved deadly to all involved, but at least for some
of the Europeans there was choice, while for the enslaved Africans there was
European agents for the companies often had to deal directly with local
rulers, paying a tax or offering "gifts." Various forms of currency were used:
iron bars, brass rings, cowrie shells. Traders calculated slaves and European
goods in units of these currencies.
The Spanish developed a complicated system in which a healthy adult male was called an "Indies piece," while children and
women were valued at fractions of that value.
Slaves were brought to the coast
by a variety of means. Sometimes, as in Angola, European military campaigns
produced captives for slaves or African and mulatto agents would purchase
captives at interior trade centers.
In Dahomey, a royal monopoly was
established to control the flow of slaves. Some groups used their position to
tax or control the movement of slaves from the interior to the coast. Although
African and European states sought to establish monopolies over the trade,
often private merchants circumvented restrictions.
Clearly, the slave trade was a trade that involved both Europeans and
Africans. It was also not always clear which side was in control. One group of
English merchants on the Gold Coast complained of African insolence in 1784
because in negotiations the Africans had emphasized that "the country belongs
to them." In any case, the result of this collaboration was to send millions
of Africans into bondage in foreign lands.
Historians have long debated the profitability of the slave trade. Some
have argued that the profits were so great and constant that they constituted
a major element in the rise of commercial capitalism and, later, the origins
of the Industrial Revolution.
Undoubtedly, many people derived a profit from
the trade in Africans. An individual slaving voyage might gain a profit of as
much as 300 percent and merchants in the ports that specialized in fitting out
ships for the slave trade, such as Liverpool, England, or Nantes, France - as
well as African suppliers - derived a profit from the slave trade.
slave trade also involved considerable risks and costs, so that in the long
run profitability levels did not maintain such high returns. In the late 18th
century, profitability in the English slave trade probably ran between five
and ten percent on the average and in the French and Dutch trades it was
The slave trade was little more profitable in the long run
than most business activities of the age, and as such it alone was not a major
source for the capital needed in the Industrial Revolution.
It is more difficult, however, to calculate the full economic importance
of slavery to the economies of Europe because it was so directly linked to the
plantation and mining economies of the Americas. During some periods a
"triangular" trade existed in which slaves were carried to the Americas;
sugar, tobacco, and other goods were then carried to Europe; and then European
products were sent to the coast of Africa to begin the triangle again. Were
profits from the slave trade accumulated in Liverpool invested in the nascent
textile industry of England? And if so, how important were these for the
growth of that industry?
The value of goods produced in Europe for exchange in
the slave trade as well as the profits derived from the colonies would need to
be calculated in order to adequately measure the importance of slavery to the
growth of the European economies. Still, the very persistence of the trade
indicates its viability. The slave trade surely contributed to the formation
of emerging capitalism in the Atlantic world and made Africa very much a part
of the process. In Africa itself, the slave trade often had the effect of
deforming economies into dependence on trade with Europeans and suppressing
the growth of alternative economic activities.
The slave trade was profitable enough to keep merchants in
it, and it contributed in some way to the expanding economy of western Europe.
It was also the major way in which Africa was linked to the increasingly
integrated economy of the world.
Impact on Africa
Europeans in the age of the slave trade sometimes justified enslavement
of Africans by pointing out that slavery already existed on that continent.
However, while forms of bondage were ancient in Africa, and the Muslim trans-Saharan and Red Sea trades were long-standing, the Atlantic trade interacted with and transformed these earlier aspects of slavery.
African societies had developed many forms of bondage and servitude that varied from a kind of peasant status to something much more like chattel slavery in which people are considered things - "property with a soul," as Aristotle put it.
African states were usually nonegalitarian and since in many African societies all land was owned by the state or the "ruler," the control of slaves was one of the few, if not the only way, in which individuals or lineages could increase their wealth and status.
Slaves were employed in many ways as servants, concubines, soldiers, administrators, and field workers. In some cases, as in the ancient empire of Ghana and in Kongo, there were whole villages of enslaved dependents who were required to pay tribute to the ruler.
The Muslim traders of West Africa who linked the forest region to the savanna had slave porters as well as villages of slaves to supply their caravans. In a number of situations, these forms of servitude were relatively benign and were an extension of lineage and kinship systems.
In others, however, they were exploitative economic and social relations that reinforced the hierarchies of various African societies and allowed the nobles, senior lineages, and rulers to exercise their power.
Among the forest states of West Africa, such as Benin, and in the Kongo kingdom in central Africa slavery was already an important institution prior to the European arrival, but the Atlantic trade opened up new opportunities for expansion and intensification of slavery in those societies.
Despite considerable variation in African societies and the fact that slaves sometimes attained positions of command and trust, in most cases slaves were denied choice about their lives and actions. They were placed in dependent or inferior positions, and they were often considered aliens.
It is important to remember that the enslavement of women was a central feature of African slavery. Although slaves were used in many ways in African societies,
domestic slavery and extension of lineages through the addition of female members remained a central feature in many places.
Some historians believe that the excess of women led to polygyny and the creation of large harems by rulers and merchants, whose power was increased by this process while the position of women was lowered in some societies.
In the Sudanic states of the savanna, Islamic concepts of slavery had been introduced. Slavery was viewed as a legitimate fate for nonbelievers but an illegal treatment for Muslims.
Despite the complaints of legal scholars like the Ahmad Baba of Timbuktu (1556-1627) against the enslavement of Muslims, many of the Sudanic states enslaved their captives both pagan and Muslim.
In the Niger Valley many slave communities produced agricultural surpluses for the rulers and nobles of Songhay, Gao, and other states. Slaves were used for gold mining and salt production, and as caravan workers in the Sahara. Slavery was a widely diffused form of labor control and wealth in Africa.
The existence of slavery in Africa and the preexisting trade in people allowed Europeans to mobilize the commerce in slaves relatively quickly by tapping existing routes and supplies.
In this venture they were aided by the rulers of certain African states who were anxious to acquire more slaves for themselves and to supply slaves to the Europeans in exchange for aid and commodities.
In the 16th century Kongo kingdom, the ruler had an army of 20,000 slaves as part of his household, and this gave him greater power than any Kongo ruler had ever held. In general, African rulers did not enslave their own people, except for crimes or in other unusual circumstances, but rather sought to enslave their neighbors.
Thus, expanding, centralizing states were often the major suppliers of slaves to the Europeans as well as to societies in which slavery was an important institution.
Slaving And African Politics
As one French agent put it, "the trade in slaves is the business of kings, rich men, and prime merchants." European merchants and royal officials were able to tap existing routes, markets, and institutions, but the new and constant demand also intensified enslavement in Africa and perhaps changed the nature of slavery itself in some African societies.
In the period between 1500 and 1750 as the gunpowder empires and expanding international commerce of Europe penetrated sub-Saharan Africa, existing states and societies were often transformed. Although, as we saw in Chapter 14, the empire of Songhay controlled a vast region of the western savanna until its defeat by a Moroccan invasion in 1591, for the most part the many states of central and western Africa were relatively small and fragmented.
This led to a situation of instability caused by competition and warfare as states sought to expand at the expense of their neighbors or to consolidate power by incorporating subject provinces.
The warrior or soldier emerged in this situation as an important social type in states such as the Kongo kingdom and Dahomey, as well as along the Zambezi River. The incessant wars promoted the importance of the military and made the sale of captives into the slave trade an extension of the politics of regions of Africa.
Sometimes, as among the Muslim states of the savanna or the Lake Chad region, wars took on a religious overtone of believers against nonbelievers, but in much of West and central Africa that was not the case. Some authors see this situation as an endemic aspect of African politics; others feel it is the result of European demand for new slaves.
In either case, the result was the capture and sale of millions of human beings. While increasing centralization and hierarchy could be seen in the enslaving African societies, a contrary trend of self-sufficiency and antiauthoritarian ideas developed among those peoples who bore the brunt of the slaving attacks.
One result of the presence of Europeans on the coast was a shift in the locus of power within Africa. Whereas states like Ghana and Songhay in the savanna had taken advantage of their position as intermediaries between the gold of the West African forests and the trans-Saharan trade routes, now those states closer to the coast or in contact with the Europeans could play a
Those right on the coast tried to monopolize the trade with Europeans, but European meddling in their internal affairs and European fears of any coastal power that became too strong blocked the creation of centralized states under the shadow of European forts. Just beyond the coast it was different.
With access to European goods, especially firearms, iron, horses, cloth, tobacco, and other goods, West and central African kingdoms began to redirect trade toward the coast and to expand their influence.
Some historians have written of a gun and slave cycle in which increased firepower allowed these states to expand over their neighbors, producing more slaves that then could be exchanged for more guns. The result was unending warfare and the disruption of societies as the search for slaves pushed ever farther into the interior.
Asante And Dahomey
Perhaps the effects of the slave trade on African societies are best seen in some specific cases. A number of large states developed in West Africa during the slave trade era.
Each, in its own way, represented a response to the realities of the European presence and to the process of state formation long under way in Africa.
Rulers in these states grew in power and often surrounded themselves with ritual authority and a luxurious court life as a way of reinforcing the position that their armies had won.
In the area called the Gold Coast by the Europeans, the empire of Asante (Ashanti) rose to prominence in the period of the slave trade. The Asante were members of the Akan people (the major group of modern Ghana) who had settled in and around Kumasi, a region of gold and kola nut production that lay between the coast and the Hausa and Mande trading centers to the north.
There were at least 20 small states based on the matrilineal clans that were common to all the Akan peoples, but those of the Oyoko clan predominated. Their cooperation and their access to firearms after 1650 initiated a period of centralization and expansion.
Under the vigorous Osei Tutu (d. 1717) the title of asantehene was created as supreme civil and religious leader. His golden stool became the symbol of an Asante union that was created by linking the many Akan clans under the authority of the asantehene but rec- ognizing the autonomy of subordinate areas. An all-Asante council advised the ruler, and an ideology of unity was was used to overcome the traditional clan divisions.
With this new structure and a series of military reforms, conquest of the area began. By 1700 the Dutch on the coast realized that a new power had emerged, and they began to deal directly with it.
With control of the gold-producing zones and a constant supply of prisoners to be sold as slaves for more firearms, Asante maintained its power until the 1820s as the dominant state of the Gold Coast. Although gold hontinued to be a major item of export, by the end of the 17th century the value of slaves made up almost two-thirds of Asante's trade.
Farther to the east in the area of the Bight of Benin (between the Volta and Benin rivers on what the Europeans called the Slave Coast), a number of large states developed in the slave trade era. The kingdom of Benin was at the height of its power when the Europeans arrived. It traced its origins to the city of Ife and to the Yoruba peoples that were its neighbors, but it had become a separate and independent kingdom with its own well-developed political and artistic traditions, especially in the casting of bronze.
As early as 1516 the ruler, or oba, limited the slave trade from Benin, and for a long time most of the trade with Europeans was controlled directly by the king and was in pepper, textiles, and ivory rather than slaves. Eventually European pressure and the goals of the Benin nobility combined to generate a significant slave trade in the 18th century, but Benin never made the slave trade its primary source of revenue or state policy.
The kingdom of Dahomey, which developed among the Fon (or Aja) peoples, used a different strategy of response to the European presence. It began to emerge as a power in the 17th century from its center at Abomey about 70 miles from the coast. Its kings ruled with the advice of councils that had considerable power, but by the 1720s access to firearms allowed the rulers to
create an autocratic and sometimes brutal political regime based on the slave trade.
In the 1720s, under king Agaja (1708-1740), the kingdom of Dahomey moved toward the coast, seizing in 1727 the port town of Whydah, which had attracted a large number of European traders.
Although Dahomey became to some extent a subject of the powerful neighboring Yoruba state of Oyo, whose cavalry and archers made it strong, Dahomey maintained its autonomy and turned increasingly to the cycle of firearms and slaves. The trade was controlled by the royal court, whose armies (including a regiment of women) were used to raid for more captives. As Dahomey expanded it eliminated the royal families and customs of the areas it conquered and imposed its own traditions. This resulted in the formation of a unified state that proved more lasting than some of its neighbors.
Well into the 19th century, Dahomey was a slaving state. Dependence on the trade in human beings had negative effects on the society as a whole. The large-scale sacrifice of human victims in the annual renewal festival, or Customs, at the royal court was one example of the cheapening of life that the trade produced.
Historians argue about whether the expansion of Dahomey was driven by the desire for more slaves or by an attempt to unify all the Aja peoples, but in any case, slavery played a central role in the history of the area. Over 1.8 million slaves were exported from the Bight of Benin between 1640 and 1890.
East Africa And The Sudan
West Africa was obviously the region most directly influenced by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but there and elsewhere in Africa, long-term patterns of society and economy continued and intersected with the new external influences.
On the East Coast of Africa, the Swahili trading cities continued their
commerce in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, accommodating to the military presence of the Portuguese and the Ottoman Turks.
Trade to the interior continued to bring ivory, gold, and a steady supply of slaves. Many of these slaves were destined for the harems and households of Arabia and the Middle East, but also a small percent were carried away by the Europeans for their plantation colonies.
The Portuguese and Indo-Portuguese settlers along the Zambezi River in Mozambique made use of slave soldiers to increase their territories, and certain groups in interior East Africa specialized in supplying ivory and slaves to the East African coast. Europeans did establish some plantation-style colonies on islands like Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and these depended on the East African slave trade.
On Zanzibar and other offshore islands, and later on the coast itself,
Swahili, Indian, and Arabian merchants actually followed the European model and set up plantations producing cloves, using African slave laborers. Some of the plantations were large, and by the 1860s Zanzibar had a slave population of around 100,000. The sultan of Zanzibar alone owned over 4000 slaves in 1870.
Slavery became an extensive feature of the East African coast, and the slave trade from the interior to these plantations and to the traditional slave markets of the Red Sea continued until the end of the 19th century.
Across the continent in the northern savanna at the end of the 18th century, the process of Islamization, which had been important in the days of the empires of Mali and Songhay, entered a new and violent stage that not only linked Islamization to both the external slave trades and the growth of slavery in Africa, but also produced other long-term effects in the region.
After the break up of Songhay in the 16th century, a number of successor states had developed. Some, such as the Bambara kingdom of Segu, were pagan.
Others, such as the Hausa kingdoms in Northern Nigeria, were ruled by Muslim royal families and urban aristocracies but continued to contain large numbers of animist subjects, most of whom were rural peasants.
In these states the degree of Islamization was slight, and an accommodation between Muslims and animists was achieved.
Beginning in the 1770s Muslim reform movements began to sweep the western Sudan.
Religious brotherhoods advocating a purifying Sufi variant of Islam extended their influence throughout the Muslim trade networks in the Senegambia region and the western Sudan.
This movement had an intense impact on the Fulani (Fulbe), a pastoral people who were spread across a broad area of the western Sudan.
These upheavals - moved by religious, political, and economic motives were not unaffected by the external pressures on Africa.
They fed into the ongoing processes of the external slave trades and the development of slavery within African societies.
Large numbers of captives resulting from the wars were exported down to the coast for sale to the Europeans, while another stream of slaves crossed the Sahara to North Africa.
In the western and central Sudan the level of slave labor rose, especially in the larger towns and along the trade routes.
Slave villages, supplying royal courts and merchant activities as well as a sort of plantation system, developed to produce peanuts and other crops.
Slave women spun cotton and wove cloth for sale, slave artisans worked in the towns, and slaves served the caravan traders, but most slaves did agricultural labor.
By the late 19th century regions of the savanna contained large slave populations - in some places as much as 30 to 50 percent of the whole population.
From the Senegambia region of Futa Jallon, across the Niger and Senegal basins, and to the east of Lake Chad, slavery became a central feature of the Sudanic states and remained so through the 19th century.
One area of Africa little affected by the slave trade in the early modern period was the southern end of the continent.
This region was still occupied by non-Bantu hunting peoples, the San (Bushmen), and by the Khoikhoi (Hottentots) who lived by hunting and sheep herding, and, after contact with the Bantu, cattle-herding peoples as well.
Peoples practicing farming and using iron tools were living south of the Limpopo River by the 3d century a.d.
Probably Bantu-speakers, they spread southward and established their villages and cattle herds in the fertile lands along the eastern coast, where rainfall was favorable to their agricultural and pastoral way of life.
The drier western regions toward the Kalahari Desert were left to the Khoikhoi and San.
Mixed farming and pastoralism spread throughout the region in a complex process that involved migration, peaceful contacts, and warfare.
By the 16th century, Bantu-speaking peoples occupied much of the eastern regions of southern Africa.
They practiced agriculture and herding; worked iron and copper into tools, weapons, and adornments; and traded with their neighbors.
They spoke related languages such as Tswana, Sotho, as well as the Nguni languages such as Zulu and Xhosa. Among the Sotho, villages might have contained as many as 200 people, but the Nguni lived in hamlets made up of a few extended families. Men served as artisans and herdsmen; women did the farming and housework, and sometimes organized their labor communally.
Politically, chiefdoms of various sizes - many small, but a few with as many as 50,000 inhabitants - characterized the southern Bantu peoples.
Chiefs held power with the support of relatives and with the acceptance of the people, but there was considerable variation in chiefly authority.
The Bantu-speaking peoples' pattern of political organization and the splitting off of junior lineages to form new villages created a process of expansion that led to competition for land and absorption of newly conquered groups.
This situation became intense at the end of the 18th century, either because of the pressures and competition for foreign trade through the Portuguese outposts on the East African coast
or because of the growth of population among the southern Bantu. In any case, the result was farther expansion southward into the path of another people who had arrived in southern Africa.
In 1652 the Dutch East India Company established a colony at the Cape of Good Hope to serve as a provisioning ground for ships sailing to Asia.
On the fertile lands around this colony relatively large farms developed.
The Cape colony depended on slave labor brought from Indonesia and Asia for a while, but it soon enslaved local Africans as well.
The expanding colony and its labor needs led to a series of wars with the San and Hottentot populations, who were pushed farther to the north and west. By the 1760s the Dutch, or Boer, farmers had crossed the Orange River in search of new lands. They viewed
the fertile plains and hills as theirs, and they saw the Africans only as intruders and as a possible source of labor.
Competition and warfare resulted. Around 1800 the Cape colony had about 17,000 settlers (or Afrikaners as they came to be called), 26,000 slaves, and 14,000 Khoikhoi.
At the same time that the Boers were pushing northward, the southern
Bantu were extending their movement to the south.
Matters were also complicated by European events when Great Britain seized the Cape colony in 1795 and then took it under formal British control in 1815.
While the British government helped the settlers to clear out Africans from potential farming lands, government attempts to limit the Boer settlements and their use of African labor were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile competition for farming and grazing land led to a series of wars between the settlers and the Bantu during the early 19th century.
Various government measures, the increasing arrival of English-speaking immigrants, and the lure of better lands caused groups of Boers to move to the north.
The "voortrekkers" moved into lands occupied by the southern Nguni, eventually creating a number of autonomous Boer states.
After 1834, when Britain abolished slavery and imposed restrictions on landholding, groups of Boers staged a "great trek" far to the north to be free of government interference.
This movement eventually brought them across the Orange River and into Natal on the more fertile east coast, which the Boers believed to be only sparsely inhabited by Africans.
They did not realize at the time that the lack of population was due to a great military upheaval taking place among the Bantu peoples of the region.
The Zulu Rise To Power
Among the Nguni peoples, major changes had taken place.
A process of unification had begun among some of the northern chiefdoms, and a new military organization had emerged.
In 1818 leadership fell to Shaka, a brilliant military tactician who reformed the loose forces into regiments organized by lineage and age. Iron discipline and new tactics were introduced, including the use of a short stabbing-spear to be used at close range.
The army was made a permanent institution, and the regiments were housed together in separate villages.
The fighting men were only allowed to marry after their service had been completed.
Shaka's own Zulu chiefdom became the center of this new military and political organization that began to absorb or destroy its neighbors.
Shaka demonstrated considerable talents as a politician, destroying the ruling families of those groups he incorporated into the growing Zulu state.
He ruled with an iron hand, destroying his enemies, acquiring their cattle, and crushing any opposition. His policies brought power to the Zulu, but his erratic and cruel behavior also earned him enemies among his own people.
Though he was assassinated in 1828, Shaka's reforms remained in place and his successors built on the structure he had created.
Zulu power was still growing in the 1840s, and the Zulu remained the most impressive military force in black Africa until the end of the century.
The rise of the Zulu and other Nguni chiefdoms was the beginning of the mfecane, or wars of crushing and wandering.
As Zulu control expanded, a series of campaigns and forced migrations led to incessant fighting, as other peoples sought to survive by fleeing, emulating, or joining the Zulu.
Groups spun off to the north and south, raiding the Portuguese on the coast, clashing with the Europeans to the south, and fighting with neighboring chiefdoms. New African states, such as the Swazi, that adapted aspects of the Zulu model emerged among the survivors.
One state, Lesotho, successfully resisted the Zulu example.
It combined Sotho and Nguni speakers and defended itself against Nguni armies. It eventually developed as a kingdom far less committed to military organization and one in which the people exercised considerable influence on their leaders.
The whole of the southern continent, from the Cape colony to Lake Malawi, had been thrown into turmoil by raiding parties, remnants, and refugees.
Superior firepower allowed the Boers to continue to hold their lands, but it was not until the Zulu Wars of the 1870s that Zulu power was crushed by Great
Britain - and even then only at great cost.
During the process, the basic patterns of conflict between Africans and Europeans in the largest settler colony on the continent were created.
These patterns included a competition between settlers and Africans for land, the expanding influence of European governmental control, and the desire of Europeans to make use of Africans as laborers.