West African Slave Trade Essayscorer

The Atlantic slave trade or transatlantic slave trade involved the transportation by slave traders of enslaved African people, mainly from Africa to the Americas, and then their sale there. The slave trade used mainly the triangular trade route and its Middle Passage, and existed from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The vast majority of those who were enslaved and transported in the transatlantic slave trade were Africans from central and western Africa, who had been sold by other West Africans to Western European slave traders (with a small number being captured directly by the slave traders in coastal raids), who brought them to the Americas.[1] The South Atlantic and Caribbean economies especially were dependent on the supply of secure labour for the production of commodity crops, making goods and clothing to sell in Europe. This was crucial to those western European countries which, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, were vying with each other to create overseas empires.[2]

The Portuguese were the first to engage in the Atlantic slave trade in the 16th century. In 1526, they completed the first transatlantic slave voyage to Brazil, and other European countries soon followed.[3] Shipowners regarded the slaves as cargo to be transported to the Americas as quickly and cheaply as possible,[2] there to be sold to work on coffee, tobacco, cocoa, sugar and cotton plantations, gold and silver mines, rice fields, construction industry, cutting timber for ships, in skilled labour, and as domestic servants. The first Africans imported to the English colonies were classified as "indentured servants", like workers coming from England, and also as "apprentices for life". By the middle of the 17th century, slavery had hardened as a racial caste, with the slaves and their offspring being legally the property of their owners, and children born to slave mothers were also slaves. As property, the people were considered merchandise or units of labour, and were sold at markets with other goods and services.

The major Atlantic slave trading nations, ordered by trade volume, were: the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch Empires. Several had established outposts on the African coast where they purchased slaves from local African leaders.[4] These slaves were managed by a factor who was established on or near the coast to expedite the shipping of slaves to the New World. Slaves were kept in a factory while awaiting shipment. Current estimates are that about 12 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic,[5] although the number purchased by the traders was considerably higher, as the passage had a high death rate.[6][7] Near the beginning of the 19th century, various governments acted to ban the trade, although illegal smuggling still occurred. In the early 21st century, several governments issued apologies for the transatlantic slave trade.


See also: History of slavery

Atlantic travel

The Atlantic slave trade developed after trade contacts were established between the "Old World" (Afro-Eurasia) and the "New World" (the Americas). For centuries, tidal currents had made ocean travel particularly difficult and risky for the ships that were then available, and as such there had been very little, if any, maritime contact between the peoples living in these continents.[8] In the 15th century, however, new European developments in seafaring technologies resulted in ships being better equipped to deal with the tidal currents, and could begin traversing the Atlantic Ocean. Between 1600 and 1800, approximately 300,000 sailors engaged in the slave trade visited West Africa. In doing so, they came into contact with societies living along the west African coast and in the Americas which they had never previously encountered.[10] Historian Pierre Chaunu termed the consequences of European navigation "disenclavement", with it marking an end of isolation for some societies and an increase in inter-societal contact for most others.[11]

Historian John Thornton noted, "A number of technical and geographical factors combined to make Europeans the most likely people to explore the Atlantic and develop its commerce".[12] He identified these as being the drive to find new and profitable commercial opportunities outside Europe as well as the desire to create an alternative trade network to that controlled by the Muslim Empire of the Middle East, which was viewed as a commercial, political and religious threat to European Christendom. In particular, European traders wanted to trade for gold, which could be found in western Africa, and also to find a maritime route to "the Indies" (India), where they could trade for luxury goods such as spices without having to obtain these items from Middle Eastern Islamic traders.[13]

Although many of the initial Atlantic naval explorations were led by Iberians, members of many European nationalities were involved, including sailors from Portugal, Spain, the Italian kingdoms, England, France and the Netherlands. This diversity led Thornton to describe the initial "exploration of the Atlantic" as "a truly international exercise, even if many of the dramatic discoveries were made under the sponsorship of the Iberian monarchs". That leadership later gave rise to the myth that "the Iberians were the sole leaders of the exploration".[14]

African slavery

Main article: Slavery in Africa

Slavery was practiced in some parts of Africa,[15]Europe,[15]Asia[15] and the Americas for many centuries before the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. There is evidence that enslaved people from some parts of Africa were exported to states in Africa, Europe, and Asia prior to the European colonization of the Americas.[16] The African slave trade provided a large number of slaves to Europeans and many more to Muslim countries.[17][18]

The Atlantic slave trade was not the only slave trade from Africa, although it was the largest in volume and intensity. As Elikia M’bokolo wrote in Le Monde diplomatique:

The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth).... Four million enslaved people exported via the Red Sea, another four million[19] through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean.[20]

According to John K. Thornton, Europeans usually bought enslaved people who were captured in endemic warfare between African states.[21] Some Africans had made a business out of capturing Africans from neighboring ethnic groups or war captives and selling them.[22] A reminder of this practice is documented in the Slave Trade Debates of England in the early 19th century: "All the old writers... concur in stating not only that wars are entered into for the sole purpose of making slaves, but that they are fomented by Europeans, with a view to that object."[23] People living around the Niger River were transported from these markets to the coast and sold at European trading ports in exchange for muskets and manufactured goods such as cloth or alcohol.[24] However, the European demand for slaves provided a large new market for the already existing trade.[25] While those held in slavery in their own region of Africa might hope to escape, those shipped away had little chance of returning to Africa.

European colonization and slavery in West Africa

Upon discovering new lands through their naval explorations, European colonisers soon began to migrate to and settle in lands outside their native continent. Off the coast of Africa, European migrants, under the directions of the Kingdom of Castile, invaded and colonised the Canary Islands during the 15th century, where they converted much of the land to the production of wine and sugar. Along with this, they also captured native Canary Islanders, the Guanches, to use as slaves both on the Islands and across the Christian Mediterranean.[26]

As historian John Thornton remarked, "the actual motivation for European expansion and for navigational breakthroughs was little more than to exploit the opportunity for immediate profits made by raiding and the seizure or purchase of trade commodities".[27] Using the Canary Islands as a naval base, Europeans, at the time primarily Portuguese traders, began to move their activities down the western coast of Africa, performing raids in which slaves would be captured to be later sold in the Mediterranean.[28] Although initially successful in this venture, "it was not long before African naval forces were alerted to the new dangers, and the Portuguese [raiding] ships began to meet strong and effective resistance", with the crews of several of them being killed by African sailors, whose boats were better equipped at traversing the west African coasts and river systems.[29]

By 1494, the Portuguese king had entered agreements with the rulers of several West African states that would allow trade between their respective peoples, enabling the Portuguese to "tap into" the "well-developed commercial economy in Africa... without engaging in hostilities".[30] "Peaceful trade became the rule all along the African coast", although there were some rare exceptions when acts of aggression led to violence. For instance, Portuguese traders attempted to conquer the Bissagos Islands in 1535.[31] In 1571 Portugal, supported by the Kingdom of Kongo, took control of the south-western region of Angola in order to secure its threatened economic interest in the area. Although Kongo later joined a coalition in 1591 to force the Portuguese out, Portugal had secured a foothold on the continent that it continued to occupy until the 20th century.[32] Despite these incidences of occasional violence between African and European forces, many African states ensured that any trade went on in their own terms, for instance, imposing custom duties on foreign ships. In 1525, the Kongolese king, Afonso I, seized a French vessel and its crew for illegally trading on his coast.[31]

Historians have widely debated the nature of the relationship between these African kingdoms and the European traders. The Guyanese historian Walter Rodney (1972) has argued that it was an unequal relationship, with Africans being forced into a "colonial" trade with the more economically developed Europeans, exchanging raw materials and human resources (i.e. slaves) for manufactured goods. He argued that it was this economic trade agreement dating back to the 16th century that led to Africa being underdeveloped in his own time.[33] These ideas were supported by other historians, including Ralph Austen (1987).[34] This idea of an unequal relationship was contested by John Thornton (1998), who argued that "the Atlantic slave trade was not nearly as critical to the African economy as these scholars believed" and that "African manufacturing [at this period] was more than capable of handling competition from preindustrial Europe".[35] However, Anne Bailey, commenting on Thornton's suggestion that Africans and Europeans were equal partners in the Atlantic slave trade, wrote:

[T]o see Africans as partners implies equal terms and equal influence on the global and intercontinental processes of the trade. Africans had great influence on the continent itself, but they had no direct influence on the engines behind the trade in the capital firms, the shipping and insurance companies of Europe and America, or the plantation systems in Americas. They did not wield any influence on the building manufacturing centers of the West.[36]

16th, 17th and 18th centuries

The Atlantic slave trade is customarily divided into two eras, known as the First and Second Atlantic Systems.

The First Atlantic system was the trade of enslaved Africans to, primarily, South American colonies of the Portuguese and Spanish empires; it accounted for slightly more than 3% of all Atlantic slave trade. It started (on a significant scale) in about 1502[37] and lasted until 1580 when Portugal was temporarily united with Spain. While the Portuguese were directly involved in trading enslaved peoples, the Spanish empire relied on the asiento system, awarding merchants (mostly from other countries) the license to trade enslaved people to their colonies. During the first Atlantic system, most of these traders were Portuguese, giving them a near-monopoly during the era. Some Dutch, English, and French traders also participated in the slave trade.[38] After the union, Portugal came under Spanish legislation that prohibited it from directly engaging in the slave trade as a carrier. It became a target for the traditional enemies of Spain, losing a large share of the trade to the Dutch, English, and French.

The Second Atlantic system was the trade of enslaved Africans by mostly English, Portuguese, French and Dutch traders. The main destinations of this phase were the Caribbean colonies and Brazil, as European nations built up economically slave-dependent colonies in the New World.[39] Slightly more than 3% of the enslaved people exported from Africa were traded between 1450 and 1600, and 16% in the 17th century.

It is estimated that more than half of the entire slave trade took place during the 18th century, with the British, Portuguese and French being the main carriers of nine out of ten slaves abducted in Africa.[40] By the 1690s, the English were shipping the most slaves from West Africa.[41] They maintained this position during the 18th century, becoming the biggest shippers of slaves across the Atlantic.[42] However, it was the Portuguese colony of Angola and nearby Kingdoms in the Congo region which overwhelmingly dominated as the slave trade's main sources of slaves, with the Angola city of Luanda early serving as the main port for the Portuguese slave traders.[43] By the 18th century, Angola had become the principal source of the Atlantic slave trade.[44]

Following the British and United States' bans on the African slave trade in 1808, it declined, but the period after still accounted for 28.5% of the total volume of the Atlantic slave trade.[45]

A burial ground in Campeche, Mexico, suggests slaves had been brought there not long after Hernán Cortés completed the subjugation of Aztec and Mayan Mexico in the 16th century. The graveyard had been in use from approximately 1550 to the late 17th century.[46]

Triangular trade

Main article: Triangular trade

The first side of the triangle was the export of goods from Europe to Africa. A number of African kings and merchants took part in the trading of enslaved people from 1440 to about 1833. For each captive, the African rulers would receive a variety of goods from Europe. These included guns, ammunition, and other factory-made goods. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean Islands. The third and final part of the triangle was the return of goods to Europe from the Americas. The goods were the products of slave-labour plantations and included cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum.[47] Sir John Hawkins, considered the pioneer of the British slave trade, was the first to run the Triangular trade, making a profit at every stop.

Labour and slavery

The Atlantic Slave Trade was the result of, among other things, labour shortage, itself in turn created by the desire of European colonists to exploit New World land and resources for capital profits. Native peoples were at first utilized as slave labour by Europeans until a large number died from overwork and Old World diseases.[48] Alternative sources of labour, such as indentured servitude, failed to provide a sufficient workforce. Many crops could not be sold for profit, or even grown, in Europe. Exporting crops and goods from the New World to Europe often proved to be more profitable than producing them on the European mainland. A vast amount of labour was needed to create and sustain plantations that required intensive labour to grow, harvest, and process prized tropical crops. Western Africa (part of which became known as "the Slave Coast") and later Central Africa, became the source for enslaved people to meet the demand for labour. Despite not being a part of the recognized Slave Coast, it has been acknowledged that Angola and nearby Kingdoms dominated as the main source for the slave trade.[49][50]

The basic reason for the constant shortage of labour was that, with large amounts of cheap land available and lots of landowners searching for workers, free European immigrants were able to become landowners themselves after a relatively short time, thus increasing the need for workers.[51]

Thomas Jefferson attributed the use of slave labour in part to the climate, and the consequent idle leisure afforded by slave labour: "For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour."[52]

African participation in the slave trade

Africans played a direct role in the slave trade, selling their captives or prisoners of war to European buyers.[19] The prisoners and captives who were sold were usually from neighbouring or enemy ethnic groups.[citation needed] These captive slaves were considered "other", not part of the people of the ethnic group or "tribe"; African kings held no particular loyalty to them. Sometimes criminals would be sold so that they could no longer commit crimes in that area. Most other slaves were obtained from kidnappings, or through raids that occurred at gunpoint through joint ventures with the Europeans.[19] But some African kings refused to sell any of their captives or criminals. King Jaja of Opobo, a former slave, refused to do business with the slavers completely.[citation needed]

Africans also participated in the slave trade through intermarriage, or cassare, meaning "to set up house". It is derived from the Portuguese word "casar", meaning "to marry". Cassare created political and economic bonds between European and African slave traders. Cassare was a pre-European practice used to integrate the "other" from a differing African tribe. Powerful West African groups used these marriages as an alliance used to strengthen their trade networks with European men by marrying off African women from families with ties to the slave trade. Early on in the Atlantic Slave trade, these marriages were common. The marriages were even performed using African customs, which Europeans did not object to, seeing how important the connections were.[53]

European participation in the slave trade

Although Europeans were the market for slaves, Europeans rarely entered the interior of Africa, due to fear of disease and fierce African resistance.[54] In Africa, convicted criminals could be punished by enslavement, a punishment which became more prevalent as slavery became more lucrative. Since most of these nations did not have a prison system, convicts were often sold or used in the scattered local domestic slave market.[citation needed]

As of 1778, Thomas Kitchin estimated that Europeans were bringing an estimated 52,000 slaves to the Caribbean yearly, with the French bringing the most Africans to the French West Indies (13,000 out of the yearly estimate).[55] The Atlantic slave trade peaked in the last two decades of the 18th century,[56] during and following the Kongo Civil War.[57] Wars among tiny states along the Niger River's Igbo-inhabited region and the accompanying banditry also spiked in this period.[22] Another reason for surplus supply of enslaved people was major warfare conducted by expanding states, such as the kingdom of Dahomey,[58] the Oyo Empire, and the Asante Empire.[59]

Slavery in Africa and the New World contrasted

Further information: Slavery in Africa

Forms of slavery varied both in Africa and in the New World. In general, slavery in Africa was not heritable – that is, the children of slaves were free – while in the Americas, children of slave mothers were considered born into slavery. This was connected to another distinction: slavery in West Africa was not reserved for racial or religious minorities, as it was in European colonies, although the case was otherwise in places such as Somalia, where Bantus were taken as slaves for the ethnic Somalis.[60][61]

The treatment of slaves in Africa was more variable than in the Americas. At one extreme, the kings of Dahomey routinely slaughtered slaves in hundreds or thousands in sacrificial rituals, and slaves as human sacrifices were also known in Cameroon.[62] On the other hand, slaves in other places were often treated as part of the family, "adopted children", with significant rights including the right to marry without their masters' permission.[63] Scottish explorer Mungo Park wrote:

The slaves in Africa, I suppose, are nearly in the proportion of three to one to the freemen. They claim no reward for their services except food and clothing, and are treated with kindness or severity, according to the good or bad disposition of their masters.... The slaves which are thus brought from the interior may be divided into two distinct classes – first, such as were slaves from their birth, having been born of enslaved mothers; secondly, such as were born free, but who afterwards, by whatever means, became slaves. Those of the first description are by far the most numerous...."[64]

In the Americas, slaves were denied the right to marry freely and masters did not generally accept them as equal members of the family. New World slaves were considered the property of their owners, and slaves convicted of revolt or murder were executed.[65]

Slave market regions and participation

There were eight principal areas used by Europeans to buy and ship slaves to the Western Hemisphere. The number of enslaved people sold to the New World varied throughout the slave trade. As for the distribution of slaves from regions of activity, certain areas produced far more enslaved people than others. Between 1650 and 1900, 10.24 million enslaved Africans arrived in the Americas from the following regions in the following proportions:[66]

African kingdoms of the era

There were over 173 city-states and kingdoms in the African regions affected by the slave trade between 1502 and 1853 when Brazil became the last Atlantic import nation to outlaw the slave trade. Of those 173, no fewer than 68 could be deemed nation states with political and military infrastructures that enabled them to dominate their neighbours. Nearly every present-day nation had a pre-colonial predecessor, sometimes an African Empire with which European traders had to barter.

Ethnic groups

The different ethnic groups brought to the Americas closely corresponds to the regions of heaviest activity in the slave trade. Over 45 distinct ethnic groups were taken to the Americas during the trade. Of the 45, the ten most prominent, according to slave documentation of the era are listed below.[67]

  1. The BaKongo of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola
  2. The Mandé of Upper Guinea
  3. The Gbe speakers of Togo, Ghana, and Benin (Adja, Mina, Ewe, Fon)
  4. The Akan of Ghana and Ivory Coast
  5. The Wolof of Senegal and the Gambia
  6. The Igbo of southeastern Nigeria
  7. The Mbundu of Angola (includes both Ambundu and Ovimbundu)
  8. The Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria
  9. The Chamba of Cameroon
  10. The Makua of Mozambique

Human toll

The transatlantic slave trade resulted in a vast and as yet still unknown loss of life for African captives both in and outside America. Approximately 1.2 – 2.4 million Africans died during their transport to the New World.[68] More died soon upon their arrival. The number of lives lost in the procurement of slaves remains a mystery but may equal or exceed the number who survived to be enslaved.[69]

The savage nature of the trade led to the destruction of individuals and cultures. The following figures do not include deaths of enslaved Africans as a result of their labour, slave revolts, or diseases suffered while living among New World populations.

Historian Ana Lucia Araujo has noted that the process of enslavement did not end with arrival on the American shores; the different paths taken by the individuals and groups who were victims of the Atlantic slave trade were influenced by different factors—including the disembarking region, the kind of work performed, gender, age, religion, and language.[70]

Estimates by Patrick Manning are that about 12 million slaves entered the Atlantic trade between the 16th and 19th century, but about 1.5 million died on board ship. About 10.5 million slaves arrived in the Americas. Besides the slaves who died on the Middle Passage, more Africans likely died during the slave raids in Africa and forced marches to ports. Manning estimates that 4 million died inside Africa after capture, and many more died young. Manning's estimate covers the 12 million who were originally destined for the Atlantic, as well as the 6 million destined for Asian slave markets and the 8 million destined for African markets.[71] Of the slaves shipped to The Americas, the largest share went to Brazil and the Caribbean.[72]

African conflicts

According to Kimani Nehusi, the presence of European slavers affected the way in which the legal code in African societies responded to offenders. Crimes traditionally punishable by some other form of punishment became punishable by enslavement and sale to slave traders.[citation needed] According to David Stannard's American Holocaust, 50% of African deaths occurred in Africa as a result of wars between native kingdoms, which produced the majority of slaves.[69] This includes not only those who died in battles but also those who died as a result of forced marches from inland areas to slave ports on the various coasts.[73] The practice of enslaving enemy combatants and their villages was widespread throughout Western and West Central Africa, although wars were rarely started to procure slaves. The slave trade was largely a by-product of tribal and state warfare as a way of removing potential dissidents after victory or financing future wars.[74] However, some African groups proved particularly adept and brutal at the practice of enslaving, such as Oyo, Benin, Igala, Kaabu, Asanteman, Dahomey, the Aro Confederacy and the Imbangala war bands.[75]

In letters written by the Manikongo, Nzinga Mbemba Afonso, to the King João III of Portugal, he writes that Portuguese merchandise flowing in is what is fueling the trade in Africans. He requests the King of Portugal to stop sending merchandise but should only send missionaries. In one of his letters he writes:

Each day the traders are kidnapping our people—children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves…

Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects.... They sell them. After having taken these prisoners [to the coast] secretly or at night.... As soon as the captives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron.[76]

Before the arrival of the Portuguese, slavery had already existed in Kongo. Afonso believed that the slave trade should be subject to Kongo law. When he suspected the Portuguese of receiving illegally enslaved persons to sell, he wrote to King João III in 1526 imploring him to put a stop to the practice.[77]

The kings of Dahomey sold war captives into transatlantic slavery; they would otherwise have been killed in a ceremony known as the Annual Customs. As one of West Africa's principal slave states, Dahomey became extremely unpopular with neighbouring peoples.[78][79][80] Like the Bambara Empire to the east, the Khasso kingdoms depended heavily on the slave trade for their economy. A family's status was indicated by the number of slaves it owned, leading to wars for the sole purpose of taking more captives. This trade led the Khasso into increasing contact with the European settlements of Africa's west coast, particularly the French.[81]Benin grew increasingly rich during the 16th and 17th centuries on the slave trade with Europe; slaves from enemy states of the interior were sold and carried to the Americas in Dutch and Portuguese ships. The Bight of Benin's shore soon came to be known as the "Slave Coast".[82]

King Gezo of Dahomey said in the 1840s:

The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth...the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery...[83]

In 1807, the UK Parliament passed the Bill that abolished the trading of slaves. The King of Bonny (now in Nigeria) was horrified at the conclusion of the practice:

We think this trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself.[84]

Port factories

After being marched to the coast for sale, enslaved people were held in large forts called factories. The amount of time in factories varied, but Milton Meltzer states in Slavery: A World History that around 4.5% of deaths attributed to the transatlantic slave trade occurred during this phase.[85] In other words, over 820,000 people are believed to have died in African ports such as Benguela, Elmina, and Bonny, reducing the number of those shipped to 17.5 million.[85]

Atlantic shipment

After being captured and held in the factories, slaves entered the infamous Middle Passage. Meltzer's research puts this phase of the slave trade's overall mortality at 12.5%.[85] Their deaths were the result of brutal treatment and poor care from the time of their capture and throughout their voyage.[86] Around 2.2 million Africans died during these voyages where they were packed into tight, unsanitary spaces on ships for months at a time. Measures were taken to stem the onboard mortality rate, such as enforced "dancing" (as exercise) above deck and the practice of force-feeding enslaved persons who tried to starve themselves.[73] The conditions on board also resulted in the spread of fatal diseases. Other fatalities were suicides, slaves who escaped by jumping overboard.[73] The slave traders would try to fit anywhere from 350 to 600 slaves on one ship. Before the African slave trade was completely banned by participating nations in 1853, 15.3 million enslaved people had arrived in the Americas.

Raymond L. Cohn, an economics professor whose research has focused on economic history and international migration,[87]

Map of the Atlantic, African slave labor source, and European colonization in the Americas
Group of men, children, and women being taken to a slave market
The Portuguese presenting themselves before the Manikongo. The Portuguese initially fostered a good relationship with the Kingdom of Kongo. Civil War within Kongo would lead to many of its subjects ending up as enslaved people in Portuguese and other European vessels.
Portrait of an African Slave Woman, probably painted by Annibale Carracci in the 1580s
Slave traders in Gorée, Senegal, 18th century
Major slave trading regions of Africa, 15th–19th centuries
Ghezo, King of Dahomey, was under pressure from the British to end the slave trade
Diagram of a slave ship from the Atlantic slave trade. From an Abstract of Evidence delivered before a select committee of the House of Commons in 1790 and 1791.
Diagram of a large slave ship. Thomas Clarkson: The cries of Africa to the inhabitants of Europe, 1822?

Slave Trade:

the African Connection, ca 1788

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The labor-intensive agriculture of the New World demanded a large workforce. Crops such as sugar cane, tobacco and cotton required an unlimited and inexpensive supply of strong backs to assure timely production for the European market. Slaves from Africa offered the solution. The slave trade between Western Africa and the America's reached its peak in the mid-18th century when it is estimated that over 80,000 Africans annually crossed the Atlantic to spend the rest of their lives in chains. Of those who survived the voyage, the final destination of approximately 40% was the Caribbean Islands. Thirty-eight percent ended up in Brazil, 17% in Spanish America and 6% in the United States.

Young boys wait to be loaded
aboard a slave ship
It was a lucrative business. A slave purchased on the African coast for the equivalent of 14 English pounds in bartered goods in 1760 could sell for 45 pounds in the American market.

A slave's journey to a life of servitude often began in the interior of Africa with his or her capture as a prize of war, as tribute given by a weak tribal state to a more powerful one, or by outright kidnapping by local traders. European slave traders rarely ventured beyond Africa's coastal regions. The African interior was riddled with disease, the natives were often hostile and the land uncharted. The Europeans preferred to stay in the coastal region and have the natives bring the slaves to them.

Dr. Alexander Falconbridge served as the surgeon aboard a number of slave ships that plied their trade between the West African coast and the Caribbean in the late 1700s. He described his experiences in a popular book published in 1788. He became active in the Anti-Slavery Society and was appointed Governor of a colony established for freed slaves on the coast of modern-day Sierra Leone. His service was brief as he died in 1788 shortly after his appointment. We join his story as he describes the process through which the native African looses his freedom:

"There is great reason to believe, that most of the Negroes shipped off from the coast of Africa, are kidnapped. But the extreme care taken by the black traders to prevent the Europeans from gaining any intelligence of their modes of proceeding; the great distance inland from whence the Negroes are brought; and our ignorance of their language (with which, very frequently, the black traders themselves are equally unacquainted), prevent our obtaining such information on this head as we could wish. I have, however, by means of occasional inquiries, made through interpreters, procured some intelligence relative to the point. . . . From these I shall select the following striking instances: While I was in employ on board one of the slave ships, a Negro informed me that being one evening invited to drink with some of the black traders, upon his going away, they attempted to seize him. As he was very active, he evaded their design, and got out of their hands. He was, however, prevented from effecting his escape by a large dog, which laid hold of him, and compelled him to submit. These creatures are kept by many of the traders for that purpose; and being trained to the inhuman sport, they appear to be much pleased with it.

I was likewise told by a Negro woman that as she was on her return home, one evening, from some neighbors, to whom she had been making a visit by invitation, she was kidnapped; and, notwithstanding she was big with child, sold for a slave. This transaction happened a considerable way up the country, and she had passed through the hands of several purchasers before she reached the ship.

A man and his son, according to their own information, were seized by professed kidnappers, while they were planting yams, and sold for slaves. This likewise happened in the interior parts of the country, and after pass­ing through several hands, they were purchased for the ship to which I belonged. It frequently happens that those who kidnap others are themselves, in their turns, seized and sold.

. . . During my stay on the coast of Africa, I was an eye-witness of the following transaction: a black trader invited a Negro, who resided a lit­tle way up the country, to come and see him. After the entertainment was over, the trader proposed to his guest, to treat him with a sight of one of the ships lying in the river. The unsuspicious countryman read­ily consented, and accompanied the trader in a canoe to the side of the ship, which he viewed with pleasure and astonishment. While he was thus employed, some black traders on board, who appeared to be in the secret, leaped into the canoe, seized the unfortunate man, and dragging him into the ship, immediately sold him.

The preparations made at Bonny by the black traders, upon set­ting out for the fairs which are held up the country, are very consider­able. From twenty to thirty canoes, capable of containing thirty or forty Negroes each, are assembled for this purpose; and such goods put on board them as they expect will be wanted for the purchase of the number of slaves they intend to buy.

When their loading is com­pleted, they commence their voyage, with colors flying, and music playing; and in about ten or eleven days, they generally return to Bonny with full cargoes. As soon as the canoes arrive at the trader's landing place, the purchased Negroes are cleaned, and oiled with palm-oil; and on the following day they are exposed for sale to the captains.

A device used to control
unruly slaves

When the Negroes, whom the black traders have to dispose of, are shown to the European purchasers, they first examine them rela­tive to their age. They then minutely inspect their persons, and inquire into the state of their health, if they are afflicted with any infirmity, or are deformed, or have bad eyes or teeth; if they are lame, or weak in their joints, or distorted in the back, or of a slender make, or are narrow in the chest; in short, if they have been, or are afflicted in any manner, so as to render them incapable of much labor; if any of the foregoing defects are discovered in them, they are rejected. But if approved of, they are generally taken on board the ship the same evening. The purchaser has liberty to return on the following morning, but not afterwards, such as upon re-examination are found exceptionable.

The traders frequently beat those Negroes which are objected to by the captains, and use them with great severity. It matters not whether they are refused on account of age, illness, deformity, or for any other reason. At New Calabar, in particular . . . the traders, when any of their Negroes have been objected to, have dropped their canoes under the stern of the vessel, and instantly be headed them, in sight of the captain.

As soon as the wretched Africans, purchased at the fairs, fall into the hands of the black traders, they experience an earnest of those dreadful sufferings which they are doomed in future to undergo. . . . They are brought from the places where they are pur­chased to Bonny, etc. in canoes; at the bottom of which they lie, hav­ing their hands tied with a kind of willow twigs, and a strict watch is kept over them. Their usage in other respects, during the time of the passage, which generally lasts several days, is equally cruel. Their allowance of food is so scanty, that it is barely sufficient to support nature. They are, besides, much exposed to the violent rains which frequently fall here, being covered only with mats that afford but a slight defense; and as there is usually water at the bottom of the canoes, from their leaking, they are scarcely ever dry."

   This eyewitness account appears in Falconbridge, Alexander, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (1788); Curtin, Phillip D. Atlantic Slave Trade (1969); Matheson, William Law, Great Britain and the Slave Trade, 1839-1865 (1967).

How To Cite This Article:
"Slave Trade: the African Connection, ca 1788" EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2007).

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