The discovery of the Americas in 1492 gave Europeans access to almost inexhaustible reserves of raw materials in mines and on plantations, which they could ship to their rapidly industrialising countries. However, they lacked sufficient labour to exploit them. Therefore, they resorted to a long-standing industry in Africa: the slave trade.
Within a very short time, violence and war began to spread within African societies. African kings, chiefs and village elders began to raid neighbouring kingdoms, towns and villages to capture slaves. These were exchanged on the coast for goods from European industrial production – and above all weapons – so that they could go on raids even more efficiently. And anyone who didn’t have his own weapons quickly became a victim himself, and weapons could only be obtained in exchange for slaves. The slave trade began to feed on itself and caused African societies to break into smaller and smaller structures, and trust in even the smallest family units eroded.
In 1526, Afonso, 5th King of the Congo Dynasty (born Mvemba a Nzinga), wrote a letter to the King of Portugal demanding the end of illegal slave traders: “Every day the traders kidnap our people – children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people from our own family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is completely depopulated. We need only priests and school teachers in this kingdom and no goods, unless it is wine and flour for the mass. It is our wish that this realm should not be a place for trade or the transport of slaves”
His wish went unheard and African societies continued to disintegrate over time. Read more in Africa’s century – Is the grip on prosperity succeeding?