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IntroductionDepartureMiddle PassageArrivalAbolitionLegacy

Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas
West African Social and Historical Background
Activity: Dahomey Tapestry
Activity: Ayo
Activity: Write an African folk Tale

Captive Passage
has been made
possible in part by:
National Endowment for the Humanities
Recognition of
additional sponsors
for this exhibition
can be found by
clicking on

DepartureDeparture from AfricaWest Africa Before Slaving
Contact Between Europeans and AfricaThe Enslavement of AfricansResistance and Endurance

West Africa Before Slaving

The peoples of West Africa had many rich and diverse cultures long before European slavers arrived. Some Africans possessed skills in the fields of medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. Art, learning, and technology flourished; artisans made fine luxury items in bronze, ivory, gold, terra cotta, and other materials for local use and trade. For many early African peoples, art was an integral part of everyday life.

Africans lived under a variety of political arrangements, each with its own language and culture. Some were large and powerful kingdoms with monarchs ruling complex political structures. Others were smaller and weaker, relying on agreements between people at village level. As has been the case throughout history and cultures, relationships between political states and groups were constantly changing.

Slavery had existed in Africa, as it had in other parts of the world, for centuries, but it was not based on race and it did not result in the dehumanization and death that transatlantic slavery created. Because the economies of Africa did not depend on slave labor, the number of enslaved people was small until European traders arrived.