Ancient African Slavery

When people think of Africa and slavery, they think of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that lasted from the 16th through 19th centuries CE.

However, Europeans were not the first people to enslave Africans. The slavery of members of different tribes and states was an important part of ancient African society and culture.

Slaves provided a valuable source of labor and could be forced to do unpleasant jobs for their owners.

Most slaves were captured men, women, and children from an enemy tribe that had been defeated in war.

Others were people who had been captured from their homes by raiding parties. Over time, children could be born into slavery if their mother was one.

Nineteenth-century engraving of Arab slave-trading caravan transporting African slaves across the Sahara

Ancient African slavery took many different forms and not all slaves were treated the same. Some tribes acted like slaves were another member of the family.

Others treated them terribly and believed they were expendable. And, of course, not all tribes and cultures practiced slavery.

The most common forms of slavery were:

  • Domestic Service
  • Chattel Slavery
  • Debt Bondage or Pawnship
  • Human Sacrifices
  • Military Slavery
  • Sex Slavery

Domestic Service

Domestic service was the most common form of slavery. In this one, men and women were captured and forced to do chores like cooking, cleaning, weaving, and preparing food.

This was the most lenient form of slavery because the people were considered part of the household.

Many had some freedoms and could earn wages from part of their labor, which they could use to buy goods and food. Their children were considered slaves too.

Chattel Slavery

Chattel slavery was common in North and East Africa. In this form, the slave was considered an owner’s property and could be bought, sold, traded, and even killed without repercussions. They had no freedoms and were not considered people.

Debt Bondage

Debt bondage is similar to the concept of indentured servitude. If someone owed a debt to someone else, they could give themselves or a member of their family to be the other person’s servant for a set period of time.

The individual who worked as a servant still had some freedoms and rights, but had to repay their debt. They did not get paid and would not receive anything once the service was done.

This was another common form of slavery because it was an easy way to cancel debts. If the debtholder was the man in charge of a house, he could make his wife or children serve as a slave instead of himself.

This was a popular practice. Some peoples who practiced debt bondage were the Akan, Edo, Ewe, Ga, and Yoruba tribes.

Human Sacrifices

Being a human sacrifice was a terrible form of slavery. These were people who were captured in war or kidnapped and found to not be good enough for slavery.

In much of West Africa, they would be sacrificed for religious purposes rather than kept alive.

A Zanj slave gang in Zanzibar

Military Slavery

The slaves taken for military slavery tended to be young, healthy men. In this form of bondage, individuals were abducted and forced to become soldiers.

Even when war ended, they would be considered military slaves. They were often forced to join units led by a man called a patron, who was the leader of a government or an independent warlord.

Again, this type of slavery was most common in West Africa, where big states developed. Only men would become military slaves. Women who were captured were forced into an even worse form of slavery.

Sex Slavery

It’s difficult for modern historians to find evidence of this form of slavery. In general, many women who were captured and taken as slaves were forced to become prostitutes or ‘wives’ for soldiers and warriors.

In some tribes, even domestic servants were sexually abused by the men of the house. Young boys and girls were also the victims of this form of slavery, which sadly continues around the world today.


  • Which form of slavery treated slaves like they were part of the household?
    Domestic service.
  • What is debt bondage?
    Debt bondage was when someone became a servant for someone else to repay a debt.
  • Which part of Africa practiced military slavery the most?
    North Africa.
  • What is chattel slavery?
    Chattel slavery is when slaves were treated like property instead of people.