While many people think of Africa and the issue of slavery only in the context of the Atlantic slave trade and the slaves brought to the West, slavery actually existed in Africa long before the slave trade began. Various forms of slavery were practiced in Africa since before recorded history and some forms still exist today. Centuries before the Atlantic slave trade began, slavery in Africa became largely controlled by Arabs of Muslim backgrounds from the north, who raided a number of regions of the lower part of the African continent for slaves. These slaves were sent to various parts of the world, such as northern Africa and various Asian countries. Over the course of several centuries the Arab slave traders turned slavery into a well-established industry, so when Europeans later came in search of cheap labor for working in colonies and plantations, they found a slavery system already in place that was easy to exploit.
Slavery in Africa before the development of the Atlantic slave trade often functioned differently than it would when the Europeans became heavily involved. Slaves were sometimes treated as property, but there were also circumstances where slaves were treated fairly well, and were even given the opportunity to work themselves out of slavery or better themselves in different ways. Slaves sold into the Atlantic slave trade were generally treated harshly, and were never considered to be anything more than the chattel, or property of their owners.
The expansion of European nations into the “New World” of the Americas was largely built on slave labor. Countries such as Portugal, Spain, and England established colonies and plantations over regions of South, Central, and North America. Many of the colonies were built around plantations that grew a variety of crops for shipping back to Europe. Conditions were difficult in this period, and many Europeans died of illness or starvation, making the need for labor that much more significant. It was the labor from the Atlantic slave trade that allowed the colonies to survive and grow, and set the foundation for the development of this part of the world over the next several centuries.