Early Cultural Interaction, West Africa in 1580
polygyny, African peoples, secret societies, Bantu, slave trade
In Central and West Africa, the great inland kingdoms of Mali and Ghana were influenced (and largely converted) by Islam, and these kingdoms had traded with the Muslim world for hundreds of years. From the beginning, slaves were among the articles of trade. These earliest enslaved Africans were criminals, war captives, and people sold by their relatives to settle debts. New World demand increased the slave trade and changed it. Some of the coastal kingdoms of present–day Togo and Benin entered the trade as middlemen. They conducted raids into the interior and sold their captives to European slavers. Nearly all of the Africans enslaved and brought to America by this trade were natives of the western coastal rain forests and the inland forests of the Congo and Central Africa.
About half of all Africans who were captured, enslaved, and sent to the Americas were Bantu–speaking peoples. Others were from smaller ethnic and language groups. Most had been farmers in their homeland. The men hunted, fished, and tended animals, while women and men worked the fields cooperatively and in large groups. They lived in kin–based villages that were parts of small kingdoms. They practiced polygyny (men often had several wives, each of whom maintained a separate household), and their societies tended to give very specific spiritual duties to women and men. Adolescent girls and boys were inducted into secret societies in which they learned the sacred and separate duties of women and men. These secret societies provided supernatural help from the spirits that governed tasks such as hunting, farming, fertility, and childbirth. Although formal political leaders were all men, older, privileged women exercised great power over other women. Thus enslaved African peoples in the New World came from societies in which women raised children and governed one another, and where men and women were more nearly equal than in America or Europe.
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