African Diaspora Research Paper

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The African diaspora was the dispersal of African peoples to Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The term is used most commonly for the coerced movement in various slave trades, but the word diaspora has also been used to refer to voluntary migrations from Africa and for population movements within Africa.

In some ways, the most consequential movement of peoples from Africa was the first, when the early stages of human evolution took place in the highlands of East Africa. From there, over the last million and a half years, human beings spread out across Africa, gradually adapting to different environments, and then into Asia, Europe, and eventually the Americas. More recent large-scale movements of peoples have occurred within Africa. For example, over the last 2,500 years, people speaking Bantu languages have spread out from a base in the NigeriaCameroon borderlands over most of southern and central Africa, absorbing most preexisting populations.

The Emergence of a Market for Slaves

Almost six thousand years ago, complex civilizations marked by powerful imperial states began emerging in the alluvial valleys of Mesopotamia, then in Egypt and India. These were slave-using societies, though not as dependent on slave labor as some more recent societies. They were also involved in long-distance trade. They tended to obtain their slaves from warfare, from trade with lessdeveloped neighbors, and through debt and social differentiation. Athenian Greece, the first real slave society, acquired slaves from the Balkans, the Black Sea areas, and Asia Minor. There was, however, from an early date some movement of Africans into these worlds both as slaves and free persons. Egyptians were involved in conflict with Nubia and were ruled by dynasties from the south. Nubia, and perhaps the Horn of Africa, were sources of Egyptian slaves, though slaves also came from many other groups. Statuary and paintings from ancient Egypt clearly indicate the presence, sometimes as rulers, of people with African physical features. There were certainly Africans elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. Authors of the Old Testament and from classical antiquity were clearly familiar with Africans. Trade across the Indian Ocean was also taking place at least two thousand years ago, and clearly involved some movement of people, both free and slave.

The emergence of Islam in the seventh century and the subsequent conquest of the Middle East and much of the Mediterranean world expanded the market for slaves. Although Islam forbade the enslavement of fellow Muslims, it also created a demand for slaves, particularly as concubines, servants, and soldiers, but also sometimes as laborers. There was, for example, a major revolt in ninth-century Mesopotamia among the Zanj, East African slaves who were subject to harsh labor draining the swamps of lower Mesopotamia. Exploitation of African slaves seems to have been rare, however. The Muslim empires got most of their slaves from eastern Europe and the Caucasus, as did the Christian cities of southern Europe. For the Muslim Middle East, eastern Europe remained the most important source of slaves into the eighteenth century.

A trade in slaves with Africa, however, remained significant. Christian kingdoms in the middle Nile region paid a tribute to Egypt, which was partly in slaves. Ethiopia seems to have sold slaves to Muslims. The introduction of camels in the first centuries of the Common Era increased trade across the Sahara; trade was further increased when Arab conquerors revitalized the Middle East. The trans-Sahara trade led to the emergence of Muslim states in the savanna belt known as the Sudan, which comes from the Arabic bilad-es-sudan, “land of the blacks.” For many of these Sudanic states, slaving became a source of labor and services, as well as an export that could be exchanged for Middle Eastern products. For Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, the export of slaves supplemented a trade in gold, but for Kanem and Bornu in the central Sudan, slaves were the major export. Slaves were probably less important to the Swahili cities of the east coast, though they were a constant export.

African slaves from Ethiopia and East Africa served as soldiers and concubines in India. In 1459 there were supposedly eight thousand Africans in Bengal’s army. A number of African military commanders became rulers of small states, of whom the best known was Malik Ambar (d. 1626), who was noted for his tolerance and his patronage of the arts. Communities of people of African descent known as Habshis or Sidis are still found in India and Pakistan. There were also African merchants and sailors in India.

Africans could also be found, in different roles, in many parts of the Arab world. There were, for example, a succession of poets in pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia known as the “black crows.” One of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632) was an African, Bilal, who served as the first muezzin for the Muslim community. In the Muslim empires, particularly that of the Ottoman Turks, black eunuchs were common. They played an important role in the Ottoman harem. African slaves were particularly important in Morocco and Tunisia and provided much of the labor in the mines and oases of the Sahara. Some scholars have estimated that African slave exports into the Middle East were as numerous as those across the Atlantic. They did not, however, leave as deep a footprint. Most were women who became concubines. As concubines, they produced few offspring and those offspring were free members of their masters’ families. Soldiers probably experienced high mortality and thus left behind few identifiable communities. As a result, few self-reproducing African communities developed in the Arab world.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

The Portuguese ships that cruised along the African coast were not primarily interested in slaves, but slaves could be procured. The first were taken in raids, but trade soon proved more effective. Slaves could be purchased from many African societies, and the profits from the slave trade helped pay for many early expeditions. Some slaves were exchanged within Africa—for example, for gold along the Gold Coast—but most were sold in Portugal or at Mediterranean slave markets where a shortage of slaves developed after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 limited Mediterranean access to eastern European slaves. African slaves became important in Lisbon, southern Portugal, and Mediterranean cities.

A more important market soon developed on the Atlantic islands, which had become underpopulated or depopulated when earlier populations were decimated by slaving and by European diseases, though many islands, like Madeira, had no native population at all. Sugar was the key to their prosperity and to the development of a particularly harsh slave system. Venetian and Genoan planters had begun the exploitation of sugar in the eastern Mediterranean during the Crusades. As improved technology reduced the cost of producing sugar, an expanding European market offered large profits, and the Atlantic islands offered European investors an opportunity to extend sugar cultivation. Madeira was briefly the world’s largest sugar producer, and then São Tomé. On Madeira and in the Canaries, both slave and peasant labor was used, but the equatorial climate of São Tomé made the island unattractive to European peasants, and a plantation system developed there that depended exclusively on slave labor. In the late sixteenth century, this plantation system was extended to Brazil, where once again, the decimation of Indians by European diseases led to the use of African slave labor. The plantation model was extended to the West Indies in the seventeenth century.

The use of slaves was attractive wherever labor was in short supply and new crops offered prospects of profit. Slave labor produced rice in South Carolina and tobacco in Virginia. Slaves were also used to grow indigo, spices, and coffee. Slaves were found everywhere in the Americas and were important even in the Middle Atlantic colonies. The availability of slaves meant that they could be acquired for many purposes. They worked as servants; they worked on the docks; and after the invention of the cotton gin they provided the labor for the extension of cotton over the southeastern United States. Sugar, however, created the biggest market for slaves.

Slave exports grew from about a quarter million in the sixteenth century to over six million in the eighteenth. Only in what became the United States did natural population growth among slaves eventually make the slave trade irrelevant. As native slaves either died out or were absorbed into an African population, slavery came to be seen as the lot of the African. This is probably the first time that enslaveability was defined in terms of race.

To meet the steadily increasing demand, slave traders pushed routes deeper and deeper into the interior of Africa. Prices rose, old states were militarized, and new states appeared that were willing to provide the slaves Europe wanted. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth century saw the emergence of a series of powerful slaving states that responded to rising prices and demand in the West Indies. A smaller slave trade emerged in East Africa after islands in the Indian Ocean were colonized. The conquest of what is now the Ukraine by the Russians closed off the major source of white slaves in the late eighteenth century. Increasingly, during the last years of the international slave trade, the Middle East looked to African sources for their slaves. The East African slave trade was also stimulated by the development of a plantation economy in Zanzibar and on the East African coast, as well as economic growth in the Middle East.

The World of the Diaspora

Many of the early sugar planters treated slaves as expendable. Sugar was a particularly brutal crop, and slaves worked long hours under abusive conditions. The mortality rate, particularly for men, who did the most dangerous work in pressing and boiling rooms, was high. For planters, it was often easier to buy a slave than to raise one, and many early planters literally worked slaves to death. With time, however, family life developed because planters found that slaves worked better when allowed to live in family relationships. Though mortality remained high until the end of the slavery era, the ratio of men and women gradually moved toward parity.

Family life and natural reproduction among slaves developed much more quickly elsewhere. In the tobacco areas of Virginia, the slave population had been growing since the 1720s. Slave culture was shaped by the beliefs and culture that slaves brought with them from Africa, by the conditions of slavery, and by the world of their masters. The perpetuation of slave culture was influenced by the identification of slave status with African origins. In the European world, color became an important boundary that persisted even when slaves were freed.

African roots show especially vividly in religions. Throughout the diaspora, we find religious cults of African origin: candomblé in Brazil, shango in Trinidad, Santeria in Cuba, vodou in Haiti, gnawa in Morocco, bori in Tunisia, and zar in Istanbul and southern Iran, all of them involving spirit possession and the use of music. Like the African systems from which they emerged, these cults assimilated elements of dominant religions, but also in many cases influenced those religions. This is most striking in the United States, where the African impact is found less in distinctive cults than in the way Africans shaped the practice of Christianity, particularly among Baptists. African religious practices, like the ring shout, led to a highly emotive and richly musical practice of Christianity among African Americans. Similarly, in Hindu and Muslim parts of the world, Africans were absorbed into the dominant religion but often infused it with an African approach.

African musical traditions are also prevalent throughout the diaspora: the drumming of sides in India, gnawa music in Morocco, Afro-Cuban music, and calypso in Trinidad, as well as gospel, blues, and various kinds of jazz. These different traditions have taken on a life of their own and feature a variety of musical instruments, but all have African roots. So too with language. The grammatical structure of African languages often shaped the development of pidgin languages, and African terms became a source of slang. In Maroon communities, formed by runaway slaves, African political traditions also shaped the states that were created. Some scholars see the African family structure in the kind of extended and often fictive family that evolved in the slave quarters and protected Africans from the insecurity of slavery, where a family member could be sold off at any time. African folklore and African craft skills, such as pottery or raffia work, also remained important in many diaspora communities.

Free Migrants

Not all Africans migrated in chains. Many free migrants traveled within and from Africa, including those who went to Morocco, Egypt, or the Arabian Peninsula to study at Islamic institutions. Many medieval African rulers made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and some supported hostels for their subjects who were studying at Muslim schools. Some of these travelers stayed and married. Africans also migrated to Europe. Missionaries brought Africans to Europe to study, some of whom returned to Africa. Others came as ambassadors. Free Africans also worked on oceangoing vessels in both the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. The Kru in Liberia, for example, developed a tradition of working on European vessels. By the eighteenth century, there were small populations of free Africans in many major port cities of Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East. In the nineteenth century, the Soninke of the upper Senegal River area moved from working on riverboats to hiring on to oceangoing vessels. Most went home, but many settled in port cities of Europe.

These migrations increased with the end of slavery, particularly the migration of Africans who traveled to get an education. In the early twentieth century, there were about one hundred South Africans studying in the United States and more in Europe. The establishment of colonial rule also made it easier for Muslim Africans to travel, both for the pilgrimage and to seek an education. During the colonial period, most African migration took place within Africa, but there were also migrations from parts of the diaspora. Jamaicans, for example sought plantation work in Central America and Cuba, and some people from the West Indies immigrated to the United States and England. The number of Africans in North America and Europe increased significantly after World War II (1939–1945); this population was spearheaded by students but also included working-class economic migrants. There was also a process that Michael Gomez calls “reconnection,” as some people from the diaspora went back to Africa. Edward Blyden from the Virgin Islands, for example, became an influential intellectual in nineteenthcentury Sierra Leone and Liberia. In addition, missionaries from black churches in Europe and the Americas, particularly the African Methodist Episcopal Church, took Christianity to various parts of Africa. A sense of having roots in Africa was more important to diaspora intellectuals than to those who remained in Africa. Five Pan-African congresses were held between 1900 and 1945, only the last of which included major African participation. Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) organized a “back to Africa” movement, and diaspora intellectuals in France developed the literature of négritude.

Migration increased dramatically after independence came to most of Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. Increasing numbers of African students sought higher education abroad during the postindependence period, and African workers started going to Europe and then to North America. Some fled oppressive political conditions, while others left because their home countries’ stagnant economies offered them little future. Today, many highly skilled African professors, engineers, and scientists emigrate to better use their skills and achieve a more comfortable life. The Mourides, a Muslim religious fraternity in Senegal, have helped organize the emigration of people who work as street vendors. In the cities of Europe and North America, the different branches of the diaspora are merging, the newest migrants from Africa joining migrants from the West Indies and an indigenous population of African descent. By the beginning of the twentyfirst century, these migrations, particularly of unskilled workers, were beginning to meet resistance in Europe.


  1. Alpers, Edward, and Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy, eds. 2004 Sidis and Scholars: Essays on African Indians. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press.
  2. Conniff, Michael L., and Thomas J. Davis. 1994. Africans in the Americas: A History of the Black Diaspora. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  3. Gomez, Michael. 2005. Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Harris, Joseph E. 1971. The African Presence in Asia: Consequences of the East African Slave Trade. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
  5. Harris, Joseph E., ed. 1993. Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.
  6. Hunwick, John O., and Eve Troutt Powell, eds. 2002.The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Weiner.
  7. Lewis, Bernard. 1990. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press.
  8. Lovejoy, Paul. 2000. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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