Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
Did a market for slaves exist in Africa, and were slaves purchased in an economically rational way? These seemingly innocuous questions have created enormous debate as some writers have even denied the existence of such a market, assuming that all slaves were taken by piratical seizure of European traders. Thus, the first question to ask is, Did a market exist? The answer from all known sources is that all African slaves were purchased from local African owners and the exchange of goods for slaves represented a real market by anyone's definition. Although early in each European trade there are cases of ignorant slave captains seizing local Africans who appeared before them on the coast, these practices stopped quickly. European buyers were totally dependent on African sellers for the delivery of slaves. European traders never seriously penetrated beyond the coast before the late nineteenth century because of the military power of the African states and the threat of disease. The coastline itself was often lightly populated and had few slaves. Slaves in numbers sufficient to fill the holds of the slave ships only arrived to the coast via African merchants willing to bring them from the interior. The complexity of this exchange was such that it explains why slaves were purchased in such small numbers on the coast and why Europeans took months to gather a full complement of them for shipment to America.