Prior to 1650, procurement practices for slaves common to African societies included the transfer of enslaved people from one lineage group to another through pawning (short term for loans) or bride-price (permanent), or by birth.11 Enslaved people were also criminals who had been enslaved as a punishment for their crimes or for the practice of witchcraft.12 Enslavement also resulted from debt payment either by masters or by the enslaved persons themselves. In this sense, a form of voluntary enslavement was also common.13 Above all, however, warfare was the chief means by which enslaved people were obtained.
In many cases, those enslaved as a result of capture in wartime were professional soldiers, crafty military strategists or statesmen who were trained not only in the skills of warfare, but also in diplomacy. This diverse and often impressive background from which West African slaves emerged meant that they were not only valuable trading commodities but also had experience in a wide range of productive activities. However, although the slave mode of production was similar, in that it was geared for the material benefit of the master and often based on coercion, the social relationships that underpinned the productive mode in West African and Atlantic world slavery were profoundly different.
In West Africa the value of the enslaved person was understood beyond capital terms. African slave masters knew that slaves were the basis of their wealth and, in a society where land did not have the private value that it commanded in Europe, emphasis was placed on the value and person of the enslaved within the economy. West African laws and customs also reflected a greater appreciation of enslaved people within the society. Islamic law, for example, decreed that the children of enslaved mothers were to be freed, and there is even evidence that many caliphs were born of enslaved mothers/concubines.14
Historically then (in Western and Central Sudan for example), enslaved people often rose to become elite soldiers. In the Oyo empire "the ilari formed a whole caste of enslaved officials, easily identified by their half-shaven heads and their black costume."15 Although not the rule for all enslaved West African people, their slave mode of production demonstrated a fluidity of positions that allowed enslaved people to appreciate the crucial importance of their functions. This understanding of their crucial importance was not lost by transference across the Atlantic. Indeed, CLR James's The Black Jacobins,16 more than any other work, highlighted the reality of this incipient intellectualism rooted within the Black underclass that was not destroyed by the ravages of Atlantic World Slavery.17