African Slave Owners.

Graham Charles Lear
10 min readJul 12, 2019


The early 18th century, Kings of Dahomey (known today as Benin) became big players in the slave trade, waging a bitter war on their neighbours, resulting in the capture of 10,000, including another important slave trader, the King of Whydah. King Tegbesu made £250,000 a year selling people into slavery.

That today's money is worth £29,167,300.00 a year. In 1750. King Gezo said in the 1840’s he would do anything the British wanted him to do apart from giving up slave trade.

He said

The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth…the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery…

Some of the descendants of African traders are alive today. Mohammed Ibrahim Babatu is the great great grandson of Baba-ato (also known as Babatu), the famous Muslim slave trader, who was born in Niger and conducted his slave raids in Northern Ghana in the 1880s. Mohammed Ibrahim Babatu, the deputy headteacher of a Junior secondary school in Yendi, lives in Ghana.

He says

“In our curriculum, we teach a little part of the history of our land. Because some of the children ask questions about the past history of our grandfather Babatu.

Babatu and others didn’t see anything wrong with slavery. They didn’t have any knowledge of what the people were used for. They were only aware that some of the slaves would serve others of the royal families within the sub-region.

He has done a great deal of harm to the people of Africa. I have studied history and I know the effect of slavery.

I have seen that the slave raids did harm to Africa, but some members of our family feel he was ignorant…we feel that what he did was fine, because it has given the family great fame within the Dagomba society.

He gave some of the slaves to the Dagombas and then he sent the rest of the slaves to the Salaga market. He didn’t know they were going to plantations…he was ignorant…”

The young Moroccan traveler and commentator, Leo Africanus, was amazed at the wealth and quantity of slaves to be found in Gao, the capital of Songhay, which he visited in 1510 and 1513 when the empire was at the height of its power under Askiya Mohammed.

“…here there is a certain place where slaves are sold, especially on those days when the merchants are assembled. And a young slave of fifteen years of age is sold for six ducats, and children are also sold. The king of this region has a certain private palace where he maintains a great number of concubines and slaves.”

The ruling class of coastal Swahili society — Sultans, government officials, and wealthy merchants — used non-Muslim slaves as domestic servants and to work on farms and estates. The craftsmen, artisans, and clerks tended to by Muslim and freedmen. But the divisions between the different classes were often very flexible. The powerful slave and ivory trader Tippu Tip was the grandson of a slave.

The Omani Sultan, Seyyid Said, became immensely rich when he started up cloves plantations in 1820 with slave labour — so successful was he that he moved the Omani capital to Zanzibar in 1840.


The Asanti (the capital, Kumasi, is in modern Ghana) had a long tradition of domestic slavery. But gold was the main commodity for selling. With the arrival of Europeans, the slaves displaced gold as the main commodity for trade. As late as 1895 the British Colonial Office was not concerned by this.

“It would be a mistake to frighten the King of Kumasi and the Ashantis generally on the question of slavery. We cannot sweep away their customs and institutions all at once. Domestic slavery should not be troubled at present.”

However British attitudes changed when the King of the Asanti (the Asantehene) resisted British colonial authority. The suppression of the slave trade became a justification for the extension of European power. With the humiliation and exile of King Prempeh I in 1896, the Asanti were placed under the authority of the Governor of the Gold Coast and forced, therefore, to conform to British law and abolish the slave trade.

In 1807, Britain declared all slave trading illegal. The king of Bonny (in what is now the Nigerian delta) was dismayed at the conclusion of the practice.

He said

“We think this trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself.”

The East African Slave Trade

In East Africa, the slave trade was well established before the Europeans arrived on the scene. It was driven by the sultanates of the Middle East. African slaves ended up as sailors in Persia, pearl divers in the Gulf, soldiers in the Omani army and workers on the salt pans of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Many people were domestic slaves, working in rich households. Women were taken as sex slaves.

Arab traders began to settle among the Africans of the coast, resulting in the emergence of a people and culture known as Swahili. In the second half of the 18th century, the slave trade expanded and became more organised. There was also a huge demand for ivory, and slaves were used as porters to carry it.

There were three main reasons why more slaves were required:

1. The clove plantations on Zanzibar and Pemba set up by Sultan Seyyid Said, needed labour.

2. Brazilian traders were finding it difficult to operate in West Africa because the British navy was intercepting slave ships. The Brazilians made the journey around the Cape of Good Hope, taking slaves from the Zambezi valley and Mozambique.

3. The French had started up sugar and coffee plantations in Mauritius and Reunion.

A number of different people -Arabs and Africans — were involved in supplying slaves from the interior, as well as transporting ivory. They included,

  1. The prazeros, descendants of Portuguese and Africans, operating along the Zambezi,

2. The Yao working North East of the Zambezi

3. The Makua operating East of the Yao, closer to the coast

4. the Nyamwezi (or Yeke) operating further north around Lake Tanganyika under the leadership of Msiri and Mirambo, who established a trading and raiding state in the 1850s which linked up with the Ovimbundu in what is now modern Angola.

The most famous trader of all was Tippu Tip, (Hamed bin Mohammed) a Swahili Arab son of a trader, and grandson of an African slave. He was born in Zanzibar of African Arab parentage and went on to establish a base West of Lake Tanganyika, linking up with Msiri. He and his men operated in an area stretching over a thousand miles from inland to the coast.

Tippu Tip, immaculately groomed, polite, speaker of perfect Arabic, and helpful to Europeans in distress, was also the most powerful of the Arab traders of slaves and ivory in East Africa during the last half of the 19th century. He and his minions — Arabs and Swahilis aided by thousands of central African men absorbed into the trade as slaves or freed slaves — struck terror into the hearts of chiefs and villagers, compelling them to hand over tusks and slaves in exchange for their lives.

Villages that resisted saw their crops destroyed, granaries raided, dwellings burned, and inhabitants kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Whole villages disappeared, whole regions were depopulated.

Tippu Tips House

On the map of trade routes below, Tippu Tip’s area is shown by the dotted lines in the Lake Tanganyika area. It covered the entire eastern half of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where violence rules even today.

Most of the thousands upon thousands of slaves taken here were used to carry ivory to the coast and supplies back to the interior; they were not for export. Of every caravan, at least 20 percent died en route of hunger, disease, and exhaustion, a loss that required constant replenishment.

The numbers taken in this internal slave trade are not known, but this trade should be acknowledged in any total count for the Arab slave trade.

It has been suggested that the Arab slave trade created a whole new disruptive social system, “fragmenting society and leading toward the emergence of distinct cultural groups,” among them undisciplined, detribalized African men, neither slave nor free, who formed marauding private armies.

The Abolitionist

David Livingstone spent his final years in Africa — 1866 to 1873 — searching for the source of the Nile, a quest that led him deep into Arab slave-and-ivory trading country, where Tippu Tip held sway. He set out believing that the Arab slavers were not as harsh as the Portuguese, whose depredations he had seen on previous journeys.

He soon found out otherwise. The following quotations and are all from his last journals.

27th June 1866. — To-day we came upon a man dead from starvation, as he was very thin. One of our men wandered and found a number of slaves with slave-sticks on, abandoned by their master from want of food; they were too weak to be able to speak or say where they had come from; some were quite young.

“A method of securing slaves,” Alfred J. Swann

28th July 1867. — Slavery is a great evil wherever I have seen it. A poor old woman and child are among the captives, the boy about three years old seems a mother’s pet. His feet are sore from walking in the sun. He was offered for two fathoms [a measure of cloth], and his mother for one fathom; he understood it all, and cried bitterly, clinging to his mother. She had, of course, no power to help him; they were separated at Karungu afterward.

And soon this brief entry:29th July 1867. — Went 2½ hours west to the village of Ponda, where a head Arab, called by the natives Tipo Tipo, lives; his name is Hamid bin Mahamed bin Juma Borajib.

Ill and destitute, Livingstone accepted help from this Tipo Tipo.

The great slaver gave the great abolitionist supplies and guaranteed safe-conduct on the next legs of his journey through a region seething with violence. The horrors of this trade exceeded all else he had so far seen in Africa. “To overdraw its evils,” he wrote, “is a simple impossibility. The sights I have seen, though common incidents of the traffic, are so nauseous that I always strive to drive them from memory.”

“Africa is bleeding from every pore,” wrote an Englishman making his way through this region shortly after Livingstone’s death.

In 1871, Livingstone witnessed a massacre carried out by rival slave traders and their men, some of whom he suspected belonged to his own party. It filled him with “intolerable loathing.”

“The massacre of the Manyuema women at Nyangwe,” based on Livingstone’s sketch.

July 15, 1871 . . . As I write I hear the loud wails on the left bank over those who are there slain . . . . Oh, let Thy kingdom come! No one will ever know the exact loss on this bright sultry summer morning, it gave me the impression of being in Hell.

The Arabs estimated the loss at between 400 & 500 souls.

Why would David Livingstone — missionary, explorer, ardent abolitionist to the end — accept help from Tippu Tip? At the beginning of his last journey, he wrote in his journal what every wilderness-lover knows: “The mere animal pleasure of traveling in a wild unexplored country is very great.” But by the time he encountered the famous slaver he was an already a sick man, virtually alone in Africa (except for a few porters and his faithful servants, Chuma and Simi), and most of his possessions, including his medicine chest, had been stolen. Simply put, he needed help and the Arab trader offered it.


David Livingstone
After the massacre, a sick and deeply demoralized Livingstone returned to Ujiji, on Lake Tanganyika, where Henry Morton Stanley found him in 1871. When Stanley departed, Livingstone remained behind; he died in 1873 in a village on the shore of the lake. Chuma and Simi buried his heart there, carried his remains to Zanzibar, and accompanied the body back to London. In 1874, Livingstone was buried in Westminster Abbey. The plaque on his tomb bears a reminder of his life-long crusade against slavery — words he wrote on May 1, 1872, exactly one year before his death.

All I can add in my solitude is, may heaven’s rich blessing come down on everyone, American, English, or Turk, who will help to heal this open sore of the world.

Tippu Tip

The notorious slaver extended his power in central Africa, eventually claiming the entire eastern Congo for himself and the Sultan of Zanzibar. He also helped various English and German explorers find their way through the region; one of those was Henry Morton Stanley. Dr. Heinrich Brode, a German official who knew Tippu Tip in his later retirement and translated his autobiography from the Swahili (written in Arabic script), wrote “. . . the paths traced out by his blood-stained hands have supplied the framework for all the subsequent cartography of German East Africa and the Congo Free State. Thus a life-work of destruction has served to aid the advance of civilization.”

Around 1890, realizing that the Belgians coming up the Congo River from the west and the European missionaries and Germans penetrating the interior from the east were gaining the upper hand politically, he returned to Zanzibar and wrote his autobiography. He died in 1905, a vastly wealthy man, having accumulated seven huge clove plantations on Zanzibar and some 10,000 slaves to work them.



Graham Charles Lear

What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.