African Peoples Before Captivity



Mama Africa is the birthplace of the human race; we are all her children.

Americans often speak of the huge continent of Africa as if it were a single country. In fact, like Europeans of the same era, Africans created great civilizations that made early, important, lasting contributions to world culture in:

  • astronomy, mathematics, medicine and other sciences
  • technologies like metallurgy, ship-building and maritime navigation
  • agriculture, including domestication of animals and plants
  • literature, art, architecture, and culture
  • global commerce


The lives of Africans before captivity and enslavement were much like the lives of the Europeans who captured them. They lived in a wide variety of ethnic and national groups, spoke many different languages, and worshiped through different religions. Some lived in great cities, others in small towns, still others in the countryside. Some were rich and some were poor. Sometimes they lived in peace; sometimes they made war.

Like us, they honored their parents and adored their children. They worked hard and, when the work was done, they enjoyed making music, art, and crafts. On special occasions, or just for fun, they liked to dress in beautiful clothing, put on make-up, and see and be seen.

Imagine the traumatic shocks that came with being captured. Imagine being permanently separated from your loved ones, forced to leave without saying goodbye or even letting family know what happened to you. Imagine being bound together with people from other ethnic groups whose languages and customs were incomprehensible – or who may have even been your enemies.

Imagine having to face the endless suffering of the Middle Passage and slavery, something that many of the captured would have heard about during the hundreds of years when white people were hunting for and purchasing black people in Africa.


All ABHM history galleries are works-in-progress (see Exhibits to Come below). Please visit periodically to see new exhibits as we add them. 



Early African Women: Hunters, Warriors, & Rulers

A portrait of Queen Nzinga that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London, England. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery)

The fascinating stories about the surprising roles some women played in several African societies.

Enslaved Peoples in African Societies Before the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Slave memorial in Zanzibar

Slavery in Africa originated as the rewards of war and a punishment for criminals. People were not commonly born into slavery. Unlike in the Americas, Slavery was not automatically passed from parents to children. People enslaved in African societies often gained freedom before the end of their lives. At times they even became equal family members with those who once enslaved them.

Three of the World’s Most Influential Empires: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai


These West African empires controlled more wealth and conducted more global trade than did any European power during their time in history. They also left lasting, influential contributions to the world’s knowledge base, art, culture, and religion.

Some Exhibits to Come – African Peoples Before Captivity

Ancient manuscripts about mathematics and astronomy from Timbuktu, Mali

See a list of of some of the exhibits planned for this gallery.