The Slave Trade

International Trade from Africa

Before we look at how the slave trade affected Zambia, we have to look at the slave trade worldwide.  Trade in people had gone on for centuries in most societies.  It continued because people were thought of as a commodity, especially poor people, and could be used in trade.  Throughout Europe and Asia, slave trading had been common, as it was in Africa. 

The slave trade had been going on for hundreds of years along the east coast of Africa.  From around 1000AD the Arabs had been trading along the coast.  Their trade items included gold, elephant tusks and slaves.  The Arabs set up their own kingdoms along the east coast.  Zanzibar is probably the most well-known but there were other centres, including Madagascar, Pemba, Lindi.  The slaves were taken to Arabia to work on farms, in houses, as sailors and soldiers and as sex workers. 

When the Portuguese arrived in the 1500s they took over trade along the coast of present-day Mozambique.  They too traded in slaves but, because they also had a port on present-day Angola, the transatlantic slave trade the majority of their slaves came from there.  They were taken to Brazil to work on the vast plantations, mostly sugar plantations.  Brazil was another colony of Portugal.  The slaves captured along the east coast by the Portuguese were mainly used on the estates in Mozambique or shipped over to one of the nearby islands for onward sale.

Some years later clove, coffee and sugar plantations were set up on islands in the Indian Ocean – Mauritius, Reunion, Zanzibar, Comores – and there too slaves were taken to work. 

In Britain and Portugal the slave trade was abolished in the early 1800s; in Brazil it was 1888.  The British navy deployed ships in 1807 on the Atlantic Ocean to stop, as much as they could, the transatlantic slave trade but they did not put ships in the Indian Ocean.  The trade in the Indian Ocean continued long after that of the Atlantic. It was not always governments who were involved in trade, it was also private individuals, some of whom were very unscrupulous.  Slaves were still a good trade item in Brazil so, after the abolition in Europe, the ships started to arrive along the east coast, knowing that there was less chance of being caught. 

It was not only slaves who were a big trade item, the other was ‘ivory’.  All the texts I have read about the trade in elephant tusks, refer to elephant tusks as ‘ivory’.  On purpose I have used ‘elephant tusks’ instead of ‘ivory’ so that we can understand that each tusk had been part of an elephant, an elephant which had been killed in order to obtain its valuable commodity.  Elephant tusks, in Europe, during this era were used for piano keys, billiard balls, cutlery handles and much more. 

The Trade in the Interior of Africa

Our region, being in the centre of Africa, was the last area to be preyed upon by the slavers from both the east and west coast.  As people and elephants disappeared from near the coast, the traders moved further and further inland.  The captured slaves were not only valuable as a commodity to be sold, but they were also porters, carrying elephant tusks to the ports. In fact, the elephant tusks were often more profitable than the people.

Slavery was a way of life for the Bantu tribes.  Someone captured in warfare would become a slave to work for his master.  Women would become wives.  So, when the slave trade came to our region the ‘use’ of slaves was nothing new to the Bantu economy.  What was new was the introduction of guns (beginning with muzzle-loaders) and the sheer commercial scale of the operation of slave capture. 

Because of the scale of the trade in slaves and elephant tusks, large areas of our region became uninhabited by people and elephant.  There is one example of a representative of the British Government, when arriving along the Luangwa River, found that it was totally unpopulated.  He therefore declared the area as British territory without the usual compliance from local chiefs. 

The slave trade did not have a dramatic effect on our region until the mid-1800s when caravans of armed men arrived from the coast, set up camp, and started to negotiate to buy slaves and elephant tusks.  The trade grew in size to the end of the 1800s when, finally, the last slave caravan was captured in 1898. The traders constructed their own villages where they intermarried with the local population and convinced local tribes to cooperate in the collection of trade items.   Once sufficient slaves and elephant tusks had been collected, they would be sent off to the coast for sale at the ports.  These caravans of slaves carrying an elephant tusk each could be 1,000 strong or even more. 

The Swahili

Throughout this text, I have called the traders who came from the north ‘Swahili’.  They had other names including Arab or Muslim.  The Arabs had been trading along the east coast of Africa for hundreds of years and, during that time, they had intermarried with local people, had developed their own language (Swahili) and become ‘Africanised’.  So, when we think of these traders, they often looked no different from our Bantu except that they wore a different kind of dress and practiced a form of Islam.  They rarely interfered in local traditions but would exploit any weakness in authority.  Their only interest was in trade and they would use any advantage.

The Swahili set up villages in the north and east of our region.  Their camps were near Lake Tanganyika (Sumbu) and Lake Mweru (Chienge); in Malawi, they were at the north end of the lake. In our region, they mostly used men from the Bemba tribe, who they armed with guns, to prey on the weaker nearby tribes.  In Malawi, it was the Yao people.

The slave caravans trekked to Zanzibar on the east coast, through present-day Tanzania. 

The Chikunda

The Chikunda were an offshoot from Mozambique.  Originally the Chikunda were slaves on the Portuguese estates in Mozambique and had been trained by the Portuguese as security guards to protect the vast estates.  At some point, when the Portuguese estates began to crumble, groups of Chikunda had fled up the Zambezi River to avoid being sold off as slaves.  They settled along both sides of the Zambezi River inland, some of them joining in the slave and elephant trade.  They raided all along the Zambezi River, even as far as Tongaland.  They often set up their camps on islands in the Zambezi River, a strategy which kept their slaves in a form of jail, as there was no escape.  Their slaves and elephant tusks were exported to the east coast where they were sold to the Portuguese. 

The Mambari

The Mambari were a group of Ovimbunda from the highlands, inland of the west coast in present-day Angola.  Over the years of Portuguese trading along the west coast, the Bantu tribes had become expert traders, travelling long distances in search of slaves and elephant tusks.  Eventually, once most of the weaker tribes had been decimated in Angola, a group of Ovimbunda, now known as Mambari, reached our region to find new sources.  They often used the people from the Lovale as intermediaries in the trade and concentrated their efforts north of Loziland.  They did not have much luck in Loziland for their trade as the Lozi economy was dependent upon the people – to lose their workforce, would have ruined their economy. 


The Yeke

Sometimes called the  Garanganze, the Yeke, around 1850, had invaded the land in Katanga between the Lunda Empire and Kazembe’s Lunda.  Their chief was Msiri.  They had come from the east side of Lake Tanganyika, where they were known as the Nyamwezi.  The Nyamwezi or Yeke had been employed by the Swahili traders as security along the trade routes from our region to the east coast.  But, from their new capital in Katanga, they also raided for themselves, selling their slaves to the highest bidder, whether from the east or west coast. 

The Yao

The Yao were a Bantu Muslim tribe, having been converted to Islam during the times of Arab trading along the east coast.  They had become good traders and extended their villages from Mozambique into Malawi and Tanzania.  Many lived between Lake Nyasa (Malawi) and the coast.   They invaded our region, often using a dhow, which they had copied from the Arabs of the coast, to cross Lake Nyasa (Malawi) and then inland from there.  They were intermediaries for the Swahili who were camped at the north end of the lake.    The Yao did not only want slaves for trade they wanted female slaves as wives.  The Yao were a matrilineal society which meant that the wives, and hence their children, still ‘belonged’ to the wife’s family.  By taking slaves as their wives, the Yao men got to keep their wives and any children they bore.  Some Yao villages became huge as Yao men took slave wives, one account commenting on 600 huts for a Yao Chief – one hut for each wife!

The End of the Slave Trade

Why, after thousands of years of trading in people, did the trade become outlawed?  It has to be the changes in the human psyche which gradually came to the conclusion that it was wrong.  Had it got something to do with ‘empathy’, the ability of the human brain to feel the pain and joy of another human being?  I think so.  Christianity had been part of the lives of the Europeans for hundreds of years but it was only in the 1800s that Christians took on the challenge of changing the minds of the elite who ruled. 

The official end of the slave trade came in the early 1800s, and British ships started to patrol the west coast of Africa, with the aim of capturing any slave boats.  Although this had some impact on the trade it continued and got worse. The demand for slaves increased with ship-owners finding routes to avoid the British patrols.  Also, as the ships were only on the west coast the trade continued unhindered on the east. 

By 1850 the slave trade was ‘thriving’ in the interior of Africa.  It wasn’t until 50 years later that it would be ended altogether in our region.  As I mentioned, the British navy was operating on the Atlantic Ocean and seizing any slave ships but the British people did not realise that the slave trade was still continuing on such a large scale.  It was David Livingstone’s diaries, books and lectures during the 1860s which had changed the perception of men in Britain that the trade was destroying the interior of Africa and had to end. 

No government had the resources to send armies into Africa to end the trade, but the missionaries took up the challenge.  At the time, Europe was very religious, and missionaries were plenty.  Inspired by David Livingstone many missionaries came to Africa, set up their stations and tried to convert the people to Christianity.  This is a story for another chapter.

The missionaries faced enormous challenges and eventually, under the leadership of Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company, men were sent in to end the trade, starting in present-day Malawi and then west into Zambia.