Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

3 - Africa at the Time of the Atlantic Slave Trade


The political, economic, and social structures of sub-Saharan Africa were well developed when the Europeans opened up the West African coast to international trade at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Advanced civilizations existed throughout the continent, most regions to the Cape had been settled, and the basic plants and animals had been domesticated for several centuries. Throughout the continent, advanced mining and industrial activity existed alongside agriculture and herding. Gold had been exported to the European and Middle Eastern markets for centuries, and iron was smelted from local ores throughout the continent. A large part of this region had already been in direct contact with North Africa and the Mediterranean world since the classic civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Even before 1400 its eastern coast had been in contact with India and the Pacific islands. Finally, along the southern fringes of the Sahara from coast to coast it was a basic part of the Islamic world order.

Sub-Saharan society and economy developed later than North Africa. Complex societies, urban centers, and the spread of plants, animals, and technology to all regions from the savannas of the Sudan to the Cape of Good Hope were not achieved until the post-Christian era. It took from 200 b.c. to a.d. 500 for advanced agricultural, grazing, and mining culture to reach all of central and southern Africa. By then there were complex stratified societies based on settled village agriculture everywhere in Africa.