Reality is a lot more complicated.
I came upon a fascinating speech by Adanzu II, King of Dahomey, which was printed in an American magazine in 1792. (Dahomey is now the West African nation of Benin.) The speech was reprinted in Carter G. Woodson’s Journal of Negro History in 1916.
Adanzu was most definitely running shit. (Dahomey wouldn’t be colonized by the French until a century later.) This king, like other Dahoman kings, maintained power and wealth by going to war with neighboring tribes, then selling some of the captives to European slave traders.
Those captives were the lucky ones.
Others were killed by the hundreds as human sacrifices in royal voodoo ceremonies known as the “customs.”
The throne of the Dahoman kings (now in a museum in Benin) is mounted on four human skulls.
In the 1792 speech, Adanzu was evidently addressing visitors from England. So here, from the pages of the Journal of Negro History, is the “Remarkable Speech of Adahoonzou, King of Dahomey, an Interior Nation of Africa, On Hearing What Was Passing in England Respecting the Slave Trade”:
ADANZU II: I admire the reasoning of the white men; but with all their sense, it does not appear that they have thoroughly studied the nature of the blacks, whose disposition differs as much from that of the whites, as their colour.
The same great Being formed both; and since it hath seemed convenient for him to distinguish mankind by opposite complexions, it is a fair conclusion to presume that there may be as great a disagreement in the qualitie of their minds; there is likewise a remarkable difference between the countries which we inhabit.
You, Englishmen, for instance, as I have been informed, are surrounded by the ocean, and by this situation seem intended to hold communication with the whole world, which you do, by means of your ships; whilst we Dahomans, being... hemmed in amidst a variety of other people, of the same complexion, but speaking different languages, are obliged by the sharpness of our swords, to defend ourselves from their incursions, and punish the depredations they make on us.
Such conduct in them is productive of incessant wars. Your countrymen, therefore, who alledge that we go to war for the purpose of supplying your ships with slaves, are grossly mistaken. ...
In the name of my ancestors and myself, I aver, that no Dahoman ever embarked in war merely for the sake of procuring wherewithal to purchase your commodities.
I, who have not been long master of this country, have without thinking of the market, killed many thousands, and I shall kill many thousands more. When policy or justice requires that men be put to death, neither silk, nor coral, nor brandy, nor cowries, can be accepted as substitutes for the blood that ought to be spilt for example sake[.]
[B]esides if white men chuse to remain at home, and no longer visit this country for the same purpose that has usually brought them thither, will black men cease to make war? I answer, by no means, and if there be no ships to receive their captives, what will become of them?
I answer, for you, they will be put to death. ... Did not you see me make custom – annual ceremony – for Weebaigah, the third king of Dahomey? And did you not observe on the day such ceremony was performing, that I carried a bow in my hand, and a quiver filled with arrows on my back?
These were the emblems of the times; when, with such weapons, that brave ancestor fought and conquered all his neighbors. ...
Did Weebaigah sell slaves? No; his prisoners were all killed to a man. What else could he have done with them? Was he to let them remain in this country to cut the throats of his subjects?
This would have been wretched policy indeed; which, had it been adopted, the Dahoman name would have long ago been extinguished, instead of becoming as it is at this day, the terror of surrounding nations. ...
You have seen me kill many men at the customs; and you have often observed delinquents at Grigwhee and others of my provinces tied, and sent up to me. I kill them, but do I ever insist on being paid for them?
Some heads I order to be placed at my door, others to be strewed about the market place, that the people may stumble upon them, when they little expect such a sight. This gives a grandeur to my customs, far beyond the display of fine things which I buy; this makes my enemies fear me....
Besides, if I neglect this indispensable duty, would my ancestors suffer me to live? Would they not trouble me day and night, and say that I sent no body to serve them? That I was only solicitous about my own name, and forgetful of my ancestors?
White men are not acquainted with these circumstances; but I now tell you that you may hear and know, and inform your countrymen, why customs are made, and will be made, as long as black men continue to possess their country[.]
[T]he few that can be spared from this necessary celebration, we sell to the white men; and happy, no doubt, are such, when they find themselves... to be disposed of to the Europeans. “We shall still drink water,” say they to themselves; “white men will not kill us. ...”