Topic 2C Sources – The Atlantic Slave Trade
1. Thomas Phillips – “A Journey of a Voyage made in the Hannibal of London” (1693-1694)
Phillips’s account discusses a slaving voyage made in 1693-1694 along the western coast of Africa. This portion of the account discusses his visit to a location in present-day Benin where his company maintained a “factory” (a facility for holding purchased slaves). This account helps us to understand the actual operation of the slave trade. How were slaves procured and transported? How did they come into the hands of European slave traders? How were they treated by these slave traders? How would you characterize the relationship between European slave traders and African rulers?
[p.43] Our factory built by Capt. Wiburne … stands low near the marshes, which renders it a very unhealthy place to live in; the white men the African company send there, seldom returning to tell their tale…. After we had procured a parcel of slaves, and sent them down to the sea-side to be carry’d off, it sometimes proved bad weather, and so great a sea, that the canoes could not come ashore to fetch them, so that they returned to the factory, where they were secured and
[p.44] provided for till good weather presented, and then were near to embrace the opportunity, we sometimes shipping off a hundred of both sexes at a time.
As soon as the king understood of our landing, he sent two of his cappasheirs, or noblemen, to compliment us at our factory…. Mr. Peirson, myself, Capt. Clay, our surgeons, pursers, and about 12 men, arm’d for our guard, were carry’d to the king’s town, which contains about 50 houses….
We returned him thanks by his interpreter, and assur’d him how great affection our masters, the royal African company of England, bore to him, for his civility and fair and just dealings with their captains; and that notwithstanding there were many other Places, more plenty of negro slaves that begg’d their custom, yet they had rejected all the advantageous offers made them out of their good will to him, and therefore had sent us to trade with him, to supply his country with necessaries, and that we hop’d he would endeavour to continue their favour by his kind usage and fair dealing with us in our trade…. After having examin’d us about our cargoe, what sort of goods we had, and what quantity of slaves we wanted, etc., we took our leaves and return’d to the factory, having promised to come in the morning to make our palavera, or agreement, with him about prices, how much of each of our goods for a slave.
According to promise we attended his majesty with samples of our goods, and made our agreement about the prices….
[p.45] When we were at the trunk, the king’s slaves, if he had any, were the first offer’d to sale … tho’ as I observ’d they were generally the worst slaves in the trunk, and we paid more for them than any others, which we could not remedy, it being one of his majesty’s prerogatives: then the cappasheirs each brought out his slaves according to his degree and quality, the greatest first, etc. and our surgeon examin’d them well in all kinds, to see that they were sound wind and limb, making them jump, stretch out their arms swiftly, looking in their mouths to judge their age; for the cappasheirs are so cunning, that they shave them all close before we see them, so that let them be never so old we can see no grey hairs in their heads or beards; and then having liquor’d them well and sleek with palm oil, ’tis no easy matter to know an old one from a middle-age one, but by the teeths decay….
When we had selected from the rest such as we liked, we agreed in what goods to pay for them, the prices being already stated before the king, how much of each sort of merchandize we were to give for a man, woman, and child, which gave us much ease, and saved abundance of disputes and wranglings … then we mark’d the slaves we had bought in the breast, or shoulder, with a hot iron, having the letter of the ship’s name on it, the place being before anointed with a little palm oil, which caus’d but little pain, the mark being usually well in four or five days….
When our slaves were come to the seaside, our canoes were ready to carry them off to the longboat, if the sea permitted, and she convey’d them aboard ship, where the men were all put in irons, two and two shackled together, to prevent their mutiny, or swimming ashore.
The negroes are so wilful and loth to leave their own country, that they have often leap’d out of the canoes, boat and ship, into the sea, and kept under water till they were drowned, to
[p.46] avoid being taken up and saved by our boats, which pursued them; they having a more dreadful apprehension of Barbadoes than we can have of hell, tho’ in reality they live much better there than in their own country….
We had about 12 negroes did wilfully drown themselves, and others starv’d themselves to death, for ’tis their belief that when they die they return home to their own country and friends again.
I have been inform’d that some commanders have cut off the legs and arms of the most wilful, to terrify the rest, for they believe if they lose a member, they cannot return home again: I was advis’d by some of my officers to do the same, but I could not be persuaded to entertain the least thought of it, much less put in practice such barbarity and cruelty to poor creatures, who, excepting their want of Christianity and true religion (their misfortune more than fault) are as much the works of God’s hands, and no doubt as dear to him as ourselves, nor can I imagine why they should be despis’d for their colour, being what they cannot help, and the effect of the climate it has pleas’d God to appoint them….
[p.48] When our slaves are aboard we shackle the men two and two, while we lie in port, and in sight of their own country, for ’tis then they attempt to make their escape, and mutiny, to prevent which we always keep sentinels upon the hatchways, and have a chest full of small arms, ready loaden and prim’d … they are fed twice a day, at 10 in the morning and 4 in the evening, which is the time they are aptest to mutiny, being all upon deck; therefore all that time, what of our men are not employ’d in distributing their victuals to them, and settling them, stand to their arms … till they have done and gone down to their kennels between decks. Their chief diet is call’d dabbadabb, being Indian corn ground as small as oat-meal … and after mix’d with water, and boil’d well in a large copper furnace…. Three days a week they have horse-beans boil’d for their dinner and supper, great quantities of which the African company do send aboard us for that purpose; these beans the negroes extremely love and desire, beating their breast, eating them, and crying Pram! Pram! which is Very good! they are indeed the best diet for them, having a binding quality, and consequently good to prevent the flux, which is the inveterate distemper that most affects them, and ruins our voyages by their mortality….
When we come to sea we let them all out of irons, they never attempting to rebel, considering that should they kill or master us, they could not tell how to manage the ship, or must trust us, who would carry them where we pleas’d…. We often at sea in the evenings would let the slaves come up into the sun to air themselves, and make them jump and dance for an hour or two to our bag-pipes, harp, and fiddle, by which exercise to preserve them in health; but notwithstading all our endeavour, ’twas my hard fortune to have great sickness and mortality among them.”
“The Voyage of the Hannibal, Carrying Slaves from West Africa to Barbados (1693-94). In Africa and the West: A Documentary History, Vol. I, ed. William H. Worger et. al. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2010.
2. Olaudah Equiano – “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” (1789)
In contrast to the previous document, this one gives us a view of the slave trade from the perspective of an African who was kidnapped and transported to the Americas. This account is probably the most famous description of the slave trade, and played an important role in the campaign in Europe to abolish the slave trade. In addition to futher illustrate how the slave trade worked, this document also provides some insight into the experience of slavery for those Africans who were enslaved. What was it like to become a commodity in the Atlantic slave trade, and how did these Africans interpret and respond to what was happening to them?
My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family, of which seven lived to grow up, including myself and sister, who was the only daughter…. I was trained up from my earliest years in the art of war: my daily exercise was shooting and throwing javelins, and my mother adorned me with emblems, after the manner of our greatest warriors. In this way I grew up till I had turned the age of eleven, when an end was put to my happiness in the following manner: Generally, when the grown people in the neighborhood were gone far in the fields to labor, the children assembled together in some of the neighboring premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us — for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents’ absence, to attack and carry off as many as they could seize….
One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound, but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time. The next morning we left the house, and continued travelling all the day…. When we went to rest the following night, they offered us some victuals, but we refused it; and the only comfort we had was in being in one another’s arms all that night, and bathing each other with our tears. But alas! we were soon deprived of even the small comfort of weeping together.
The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other’s arms. It was in vain that we besought them not to part us; she was tom from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually; and for several days did not eat anything but what they forced into my mouth. At length, after many days’ travelling, during which I had often changed masters, I got into the hands of a chieftain, in a very pleasant country. This man had two wives and some children, and they all used me extremely well, and did all they could do to comfort me; particularly the first wife, who was something like my mother. Although I was a great many days’ journey from my father’s house, yet these people spoke exactly the same language with us. This first master of mine, as I may call him, was a smith, and my principal employment was working his bellows, which were the same kind as I had seen in my vicinity….
Soon after this, my master’s only daughter, and child by his first wife, sickened and died, which affected him so much that for sometime he was almost frantic, and really would have killed himself, had he not been watched and prevented. However, in a short time afterwards he recovered, and I was again sold. I was now carried to the left of the sun’s rising, through many dreary wastes and dismal woods, amidst the hideous roarings of wild beasts….
From the time I left my own nation, I always found somebody that understood me till I came to the sea coast. The languages of different nations did not totally differ, nor were they so copious as those of the Europeans, particularly the English. They were therefore easily learned; and, while I was journeying thus through Africa, I acquired two or three different tongues. In this manner I had been travelling for a considerable time, when, one evening, to my great surprise, whom should I see brought to the house where I was but my dear sister! As soon as she saw me, she gave a loud shriek, and ran into my arms — I was quite over-powered; neither of us could speak, but, for a considerable time, clung to each other in mutual embraces, unable to do anything but weep. Our meeting affected all who saw us; and, indeed, I must acknowledge, in honor of those sable destroyers of human rights, that I never met with any ill treatment, or saw any offered to their slaves, except tying them, when necessary, to keep them from running away….
Thus for a while we forgot our misfortunes, in the joy of being together; but even this small comfort was soon to have an end; for scarcely had the fatal morning appeared when she was again torn from me forever! I was now more miserable, if possible, than before. The small relief which her presence gave me from pain, was gone, and the wretchedness of my situation was redoubled by my anxiety after her fate, and my apprehensions lest her sufferings should be greater than mine, when I could not be with her to alleviate them….
I did not long remain after my sister. I was again sold, and carried through a number of places, till after travelling a considerable time, I came to a town called Tinmah, in the most beautiful country I had yet seen in Africa. It was extremely rich, and there were many rivulets which flowed through it, and supplied a large pond in the centre of the town, where the people washed…. Their money consisted of little white shells, the size of the finger nail. I was sold here for one hundred and seventy-two of them, by a merchant who lived and brought me there.
I had been about two or three days at his house, when a wealthy widow, a neighbor of his, came there one evening, and brought with her an only son, a young gentleman about my own age and size. Here they saw me; and, having taken a fancy to me, I was bought of the merchant, and went home with them. Her house and premises were situated close to one of those rivulets I have mentioned, and were the finest I ever saw in Africa: they were very extensive, and she had a number of slaves to attend her…. Everything here, and all their treatment of me, made me forget that I was a slave. The language of these people resembled ours so nearly, that we understood each other perfectly. They had also the very same customs as we. There were likewise slaves daily to attend us, while my young master and I, with other boys, sported with our darts and bows and arrows, as I had been used to do at home. In this resemblance to my former happy state, I passed about two months; and I now began to think I was to be adopted into the family, and was beginning to be reconciled to my situation, and to forget by degrees my misfortunes, when all at once the delusion vanished; for, without the least previous knowledge, one morning early, while my dear master and companion was still asleep, I was awakened out of my reverie to fresh sorrow, and hurried away even amongst the uncircumcised….
All the nations and people I had hitherto passed through, resembled our own in their manners, customs, and language; but I came at length to a country, the inhabitants of which differed from us in all those particulars. I was very much struck with this difference, especially when I came among a people who did not circumcise, and ate without washing their hands. They cooked also in iron pots, and had European cutlasses and cross bows, which were unknown to us, and fought with their fists among themselves…. At last I came to the banks of a large river which was covered with canoes, in which the people appeared to live with their household utensils, and provisions of all kinds. I was beyond measure astonished at this, as I had never before seen any water larger than a pond or a rivulet; and my surprise was mingled with no small fear when I was put into one of these canoes, and we began to paddle and move along the river….
Thus I continued to travel, sometimes by land, sometimes by water, through different countries and various nations, till, at the end of six or seven months after I had been kidnapped, I arrived at the sea coast….
The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions, too, differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke (which was very different from any I had ever heard), united to confirm me in this belief. Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country. When I looked round the ship too, and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who I believed were some of those who had brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay; they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair. They told me I was not, and one of the crew brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine glass….
I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly; and I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to undergo. I was not long suffered to indulge my grief; I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced anything of this kind before, and, although not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it, yet, nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not; and besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water; and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut, for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This indeed was often the case with myself.
In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation, which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. I inquired of these what was to be done with us? They gave me to understand, we were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them. I then was a little revived, and thought, if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate; but still I feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves. One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. This made me fear these people the more; and I expected nothing less than to be treated in the same manner….
At last, when the ship we were in, had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel. But this disappointment was the least of my sorrow. The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died — thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the gaffing of the chains, now became insupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. Happily perhaps, for myself, I was soon reduced so low here that it was thought necessary to keep me almost always on deck; and from my extreme youth I was not put in fetters. In this situation I expected every hour to share the fate of my companions, some of whom were almost daily brought upon deck at the point of death, which I began to hope would soon put an end to my miseries. Often did I think many of the inhabitants of the deep much more happy than myself. I envied them the freedom they enjoyed, and as often wished I could change my condition for theirs. Every circumstance I met with, served only to render my state more painful, and heightened my apprehensions, and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites….
One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea; immediately, another quite dejected fellow, who, on account of his illness, was suffered to be out of irons, also followed their example; and I believe many more would very soon have done the same, if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew, who were instantly alarmed….
At last we came in sight of the island of Barbadoes, at which the whites on board gave a great shout, and made many signs of joy to us. We did not know what to think of this; but as the vessel drew nearer, we plainly saw the harbor, and other ships of different kinds and sizes, and we soon anchored amongst them, off Bridgetown. Many merchants and planters now came on board, though it was in the evening. They put us in separate parcels, and examined us attentively. They also made us jump, and pointed to the land, signifying we were to go there. We thought by this, we should be eaten by these ugly men, as they appeared to us; and, when soon after we were all put down under the deck again, there was much dread and trembling among us, and nothing but bitter cries to be heard all the night from these apprehensions, insomuch, that at last the white people got some old slaves from the land to pacify us. They told us we were not to be eaten, but to work, and were soon to go on land, where we should see many of our country people. This report eased us much. And sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages….
We were not many days in the merchant’s custody, before we were sold after their usual manner, which is this: On a signal given (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamor with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehension of terrified Africans, who may well be supposed to consider them as the ministers of that destruction to which they think themselves devoted. In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again.
“Africans in America: Equiano’s Biography.” PBS.org, n.d. Accessed 14 August 2015.
Secondary Sources – Scholarly Sources
1. Kwasi Konadu – “Vessels and Villains: African Understandings of Atlantic Commerce and Commodification”
Konadu is interested in understanding how Africans understood and experienced slavery, both within Africa and as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Why does he object to the statement that “Africans sold other Africans into slavery?” In what specific ways does he contrast the institution of slavery in Africa with the form of slavery that developed as part of the transatlantic trade?
[p.31] Before leaving the town of Tinmah (Utuma?) near the Niger Delta and eventually boarding the terror-inducing “slave-ship,” [Oludah] Equiano remarked everything in the town, “and all their treatment of me, made me forget that I was a slave. The language of these people resembled ours so nearly, that we understood each other perfectly. They had also the very same customs as we…. In this resemblance to my former
[p.32] happy state I passed about two months; and I now began to think I was to be adopted into the family, and was beginning to be re-reconciled to my situation, and to forget by degrees my misfortunes.” That Equiano, in his condition of captivity in the Bight of Biafra, could invoke a “happy state” as remedy for his “misfortunes” and realistically contemplate adoption into his holder’s family speaks to African understandings of family, society, and bondage and that transatlantic slaving converted humans in kinless objects. Equiano was “hurried away” while his “dear master and companion [the holder’s son] was still asleep,” ending all possible hope of reunion with natal family, village, or reintegration into communities that resembled his own on African soil. Indeed, on African soil, such hopes could have been realized, and for Equiano this could have happened from “the time I left my own nation” where he “always found somebody that understood me” until the time he “came to the sea coast.” The languages, and thus cultures, of the various communities he encountered en route to the coast were “easily learned,” and “while I was journeying thus through Africa, I acquired two or three different tongues.” Multilingualism meant fluency in multiple or related cultures and thus multiple opportunities for re-establishing kin relations and belonging. And for all those who were or came to be in Equiano’s position as a captive, they knew that captive peoples co-existed with and within familial structures – for Equiano, “My father, besides many slaves, had a numerous family” – and that, in the period of transatlantic slaving, both children and adults would “look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us; for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents’ absence to attack and carry off as many as they could seize.”
The existence of the potential captive and the potential captor make nonsense out of the fictitious but popular phrase that “Africans sold other Africans into slavery.” Said another way, this phrase is troubling because the homogenizing term “African” therein contains three false premises: that individuals and groups viewed their own and others as “Africans,” that these undifferentiated “Africans” ceded their “brothers and sisters” into “slavery,” and that this “slavery” was unproblematically the same as the one in Africa. African behaviors about what we casually call “slavery” confounds our understandings of it, since the villains were and were not Africans at the same time—Equiano too was baffled while writing in England about his and his
[p.33] sister’s bondage in “Igboland” some 36 years earlier. “I must acknowledge:’ Equiano admitted, “in honour of those stable destroyers of human rights [i.e., his captors], that I never met with any ill treatment, or saw any offered to their slaves, except tying them, when necessary, to keep them from running away. When these people knew [the two of us] were brother and sister they indulged us together; and the man, to whom I supposed we belonged, lay with us, he in the middle, while she and I held one another by the hands across his breast all night; and thus for a while we forgot our misfortunes in the joy of being together.” It might seem absurd that the two men and one woman who seized Equiano and his sister from their home could be honorable villains or, in Equiano’s words, honorable “destroyers of human rights.” But along Equiano’s journey from natal village into the hands of various kinds of villains, these holders seemed more like kin than captors, and Equiano and they understood that localized forms of kin networks co-existed with—and sometimes morphed into—commercial or slaving networks that fed the transatlantic market, hence community watch groups were on the lookout for would-be kidnappers. Thus, after he and his sister were seized and then separated, Equiano “got into the hands of a chieftain, in a very pleasant country. This man had two wives and some children, and they all used me extremely well, and did all they could to comfort me; particularly the first wife, who was something like my mother.” Comfort and motherly affection seem to contradict most of our common views about “slavery” in Africa as well as African understandings of this idea. In fact, in Tinmah, Equiano the captive was “washed and perfumed,” he “ate and drank before [his female holder] with her son,” he was surprised that “the young gentleman should suffer me, who was bound, to eat with him who was free” and that this same “free” son “would not at any time either eat or drink till I had taken first, because I was the eldest, which was agreeable to our custom.” No wonder “all their treatment” made Equiano “forget that [he] was a slave.”
Equiano knew well enough that his culture of commerce had changed drastically to a commerce in cultural beings when he boarded that river-bound canoe, eventually leading to a British slave ship, itself transformed from a commercial or luxury vessel into a machine of terror – the same terror Equiano aptly recalled before and after boarding. Listen to Equiano:
I was carried on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into
[p.34] a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions too differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, (which was very different from any I had ever heard [on African soil]) united to confirm me in this belief.
Indeed such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country. When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace or copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted…. Soon after this the blacks who brought me on board went off, and left me abandoned to despair. I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly; and I even wished for my former slavery in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind….
Having only encountered the beginnings of his transatlantic voyage, Equiano’s wish for his “former slavery in preference to [his] present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind,” was not simply exaggeration as a rhetorical device. He knew the interior corridors of African captivity since he lived it, but he also knew—and appropriately interpreted—transatlantic slaving as another cultural and commercial “world of bad spirits,” filled with … commodified “black people”, terrifyingly “deprived of all chance of returning” home.
For Equiano and his fellow captives the terror and an embarkation into the world of kinlessness had only begun, for transatlantic slaving was a surgical procedure premised on severance with the rustiest of
[p.35] chains and the scalpel of violence and fear.
[p.36] This chapter examin[es] various African systems of commerce and their local, regional, and even transnational character, and how these experiences prepared Africans for or departed from the dynamics of Atlantic commerce and commodification. It is important to grapple with African understandings of commodification and not simply their exchange of human and nonhuman commodities, for commodification of African humanity was deeply crucial to transatlantic slaving and represented new forms of dehumanization and homogenization—where a multitude of peoples were smashed into new identities as “Negroes” or “Africans” or “Igbos”—at a time when most African societies valued people above property and goods and where most European merchants involved in transatlantic slaving were accepting “payment” almost exclusively in humans. In the transformation of Africans into captives and then commodities and laboring chattel, the villains were manifold, and so too the vessels or the modes of transport within and from homelands to a diaspora and from individuals who could write their own destinies to ones with subjugated fates. This state of affairs also meant that a number of African states became more stratified and local communities commodified, so much so that a number of decentralized peoples were transformed into slave-trading communities. African understandings of these transformations are central to wider concerns of Atlantic human trafficking and commodification within the entangled histories of Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
Africa’s long-standing trans-Saharan, Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean trade connected its peoples from primarily northern and eastern Africa with those from the Mediterranean world and western and southern Asia. Transatlantic slaving was built upon these
[p.37] previous commercial systems. Because of the endurance of Africa’s historic relations with Eurasia through these trade networks, transatlantic slaving would surpass rather than replace them, even as the global economy gradually shifted from the Indian Ocean world in the east to the Atlantic Ocean world in the Western Hemisphere. The world of transatlantic slaving began in the late fifteenth century and reached its height in the eighteenth century, but this global system of enslavement was not unique in its oceanic formation or in its stubborn reliance on captive labor and what they produced. By the early thirteenth century, Genoese and Venetian merchants had already established slaving ports using captive “Slavs” and other peoples to produce sugar for export within a commercial system that stretched from the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean, and to the Black Sea. This “Italian” model of plantation slavery was soon used by Portugal and Spain, expanding it to islands off the northwest and west central African coast (e.g., Madeira Islands, São Tome, and Principe) in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Ottoman capture of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in the late fifteenth century diverted the flow of eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea captives, including Christian Europeans sold by their countrymen, to the lands of Islam. This led to an “Africanization” of the commerce in enslaved peoples, as Portugal and Spain came to dominate the transatlantic slave system until the mid-seventeenth century and as Britain and Portugal would continue that dominance until the first decade of the nineteenth century. The Portuguese and Spaniards would control the trafficking in captive Africans after international slaving was decreed illegal until the end of the nineteenth century—the charter generation of European slavers ended where and how they started.
The vast majority of enslaved Africans were clustered in and exported through major ports that dotted the 4,000-mile coastline from Senegambia to the Kôngo-Angola region in west central Africa and in southeast Africa during the nineteenth century. We should not, however, conflate regions of embarkation with regions or ports of origin; many captive Africans were drawn from political and, at times, religious areas wider and more inland than the major coastal ports, some traveling hundreds of miles to the coast on foot…. A number of these paths on which captives traveled were new, but many were
[p.38] created long before this trafficking by those engaged in local, regional, and, in some cases, transnational commercial networks. Most African societies forged mixed economics where pastoralism, agriculture, fishing, and some mining were woven into the fabric of communities that varied from independent and interdependent villages to states and kingdoms with dependent communities within and those on their internal frontiers. In all, a diversity of food crops (supplemented by animal and fish protein), metals, cloths, leather and wood works, and other commodities were central and often exchanged for locally produced copper, iron, gold (dust), bead, and seashell currencies. Taken together, African commerce was tempered by an unfixed set of relationships—independent, interdependent, and dependent ones—and that commerce hinged on the exchange of various commodities across equally varied ecologies, the least commodity of which was bonded human beings….
[p.39] West central African societies prior to the arrival of the Portuguese generally valued people above property and merchandise. A few decades after Diogo Cão’s landfall near the mouth of the Kôngo River in 1483, Portuguese influence and colonization reached as far as Mbanza Kôngo and later Ndongo (Angola). This influence had two related consequences. First, independent communities and states of various sizes in the region became more stratified as the transatlantic slave system grew and as increasing numbers of predatory groups and local “big men” aligned themselves with Portuguese officials as vassals or intermediaries. Those “big men” of local origin, including so-called “Luso-Africans” of mixed African-Portuguese parentage and prazeros warlords (Portuguese settlers with large estates worked by enslaved Africans secured through slave raiding and through their private armies), were dependent on credit extended from the Atlantic to acquire guns and captive Africans. Second, societies using laborers, whether war captives or inherited as subjugated persons, turned into slave-raiding and slave-trading societies. In northwestern Angola, the Imbangala state of Kasanje (ca. 1620-1912), for instance, became a major supplier of European goods to the new series of slave frontiers in the east as well as a key supplier of captured Africans destined for the Atlantic coast of Angola in the west and eventually to the Americas. In both Ndongo and the Kôngo, transatlantic slaving made it possible for people—criminals (by way of real or imagined offenses), kidnapped victims, or captive peoples secured from the interior—to be exchanged for political power in the form of imported European goods and guns, which widened the cycle of violence involved in the importation of captives from the interior and guns from the Atlantic coast.
[p.40] For the region that historian Boubacar Barry has called Greater Senegambia—from Mauritania to Guinea-Conakry in the south and Mali to the east—the factors of Islam and trans-Saharan commerce have also shaped the politics and cultural landscape of local societies, but, like west central Africa, in tandem with transatlantic slaving beginning in the second half of the fifteenth century…. Commercially prosperous towns linked to trans-Saharan commerce, such as Jenne-Jeno and its surrounding areas, resisted centralization until the arrival of Islam, which brought to the region a stratified political-religious order where Islam certified local and trans-Saharan slavery and where non-Islamic people, like the non-Christians in a Catholicized Kôngo-Angola region, became prey for predatory, jihadist states. Indeed, those states formed through jihad (“holy war”) reformist movements led by African Muslims ended up slaving and exploiting captives in more systematic ways….
On the eastern end of West Africa, Igbo communities such as the settlement of Igbo-Ukwu maintained a noncentralized organization of large and dense populations and local economies for centuries well into the transatlantic era. Like parts of the Kôngo-Angola region,
[p.41] however, trade networks such as those under Aro merchants, for whom the vast majority of captives were Igbo and Ibibio, became the primary slave raiding and exporting vehicles in the Bight of Biafra that fed the transatlantic slave system from the mid-seventeenth century onward. As was true in west central Africa, the Gold Coast, and other major slaving regions bordering the Atlantic, so too did Aro “big men” become patrons for noncaptive and non-Aro individuals who sought their protection and integration into Aro society – patronage was the latter’s only way to “become” Aro and thus reduce the risk of exportation…. In all of the above parts of Africa, forms of captivity were not central to social ordering and social evolution; a “slave mode of production” and clear distinctions between the enslaved and the enslaver did not really exist, though dependencies related to kinship persisted well into the later centuries.
From Senegambia to west central Africa, and certainly southeast Africa in the nineteenth century, transatlantic slaving grew out of Africa’s earlier connections with Eurasia in terms of a commercial network and from captive plantation labor regimes in and around the Mediterranean, shifting from the east to the Atlantic by the fifteenth century. By then, innovations in maritime commerce, in ship construction and navigation, in grasping the temperament of ocean currents and trade winds, in expelling one’s foreign (read: Muslim) overlords, and in consolidating racial and religious ideas into the ubiquitous trademarks of “negroes” or “black barbarians”—who were now the objects of conquest, commerce, and conversion—all came together to benefit the Iberian siblings of Spain and Portugal. In Iberia of the mid-fifteenth century, the terms negro/negra (and later, prêto, describing “black” skin complexion) became synonymous with “slave” (escravos) in the same way the term for “slave” (‘abd, pl. ‘abid) in a number of Arabic dialects became a synonym for Africans. In fact, it was the agreement between Iberian and Islamic racial-religious thinking about deviants from their respective cultural and religious norms, encoded in language and in law, that enshrined Africans as “blacks” and “slaves.” In effect, “Europeans” with the influence to do so made themselves and others like them into “free-white-Christians” and Africans (or “Negroes”) into “enslaved-black-pagans” in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. These transformations from within and applied to those “others” from without would shape the very course and context of Atlantic slaving and commodification.
Konadu, Kwasi. Transatlantic Africa, 1440-1888. African World Histories. Oxford University Press, 2015.
2. Trevor Getz – Cosmopolitan Africa
Getz tries to put the era of the Atlantic slave trade in wider historical context. What does he see as the major theme of African history in this period? In what specific ways does he think that this period (and in particular the Atlantic slave trade) changed African societies?
[p.25] The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were an oceanic era in world history. This is true not so much because there was a major turning point in oceanic travel in this period, but rather an acceleration of the trading voyages across the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean that had been operating for thousands of years and the transatlantic voyages that had in the fifteenth century. In the 300 years preceding 1750, innovations in shipbuilding, food preservation, medicine, and the science of navigation had helped to connect the populations of the world’s continents to a greater degree than ever before. By the late eighteenth century, therefore, the volume of oceanic trade, including routes involving Africa, was steadily rising…. This oceanic integration had an enormous impact on coastal African societies and a less significant but still important effect on Africans of the interior.
[p.26] As a continent, Africa faces the rest of the world along three broad frontiers. In the north, the Mediterranean is little more than a pond between Europe, southwest Asia, and the North African societies of Egypt and the Maghreb. Records of voyages across this sea stretch back many thousands of years. To the east, the long coastline stretching from the Red Sea along the horn of Africa and down thousands of miles to the southern tip of the continent is connected by relatively predictable seasonal wind patterns to Arabia, India, the Indian Ocean islands, and Asian destinations beyond.
[p.27] Voyages between these localities helped to create the cosmopolitan societies of the horn of Africa and the Swahili coast over many hundreds of years. In the west, the vast Atlantic separates Africa from the Americas, with few islands between. This was the last-breached frontier, first crossed by significant numbers of Europeans, Africans, and some Americans in the sixteenth century.
In 1750, all three frontiers were alive with commercial networks that connected Africans to other continents. The so-called Columbian exchange was in full effect as people, foodstuffs, diseases, species, and goods crossed the Atlantic between Europe, the Americas, and Africa. Trade in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean was also increasing, if less dramatically. As a result, Africans living in this cosmopolitan age were keenly affected by many global events….
[p.33] By contrast with trade in the African societies bordering the Mediterranean, intercontinental exchange on the Atlantic coast of Africa was a much newer trend. Both the vast distances of the Atlantic and the wind patterns off West Africa meant that extensive reciprocal trade and migration from Atlantic Africa dated back only to the fifteenth-century Spanish and Portuguese voyages of exploration. Yet from the moment that the first Portuguese ships rounded Cape Bojador and reached the mouth of the Senegal River, Africans had been active participants in the new intercontinental trading system connecting Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
Portuguese explorations had been incremental and initially aimed more at reaching Asia than at interacting with Africans. However, the Portuguese rapidly found African goods that they desired—gold, malagueta peppers, ivory, beeswax, and gum being chief among them. West and West-Central Africans were involved from the beginning not only as producers but also in the transportation and securing of goods across the oceans. Few were owners of the large oceangoing vessels that plied the Atlantic routes in this period, although some Africans owned large sailing vessels and canoes that were engaged in the local “coasting” trade. Additionally, Africans served in the tens of thousands as sailors; as soldiers in forts in Africa, Asia, and the Americas; and as interpreters, porters, and artisans across the Portuguese trading network.
[p.34] However, the greatest force drawing Africans into the Atlantic world in the period leading up to and including the eighteenth century was the Atlantic slave trade, which by the 1850s had coerced approximately 11 to 12 million Africans into a forced migration to the Americas, Europe, and other parts of Africa…. Any attempt to understand the Atlantic coast of Africa from 1750 to 1875 must include a survey of the trade’s impact on the African continent. In fact, different parts of Atlantic Africa were affected in different ways and to various degrees, but several general conclusions can be made. First, large regions of Africa suffered significant demographic loss as productive members of society were enslaved and their communities torn apart in the slaving process. Even those inhabitants of these regions who evaded capture generally had to move to safer areas—swamps, mountains, forests, and caves—and thus lost much of their ability to produce food for themselves and as surplus. In addition, over time, many West and West-Central African societies underwent a social transformation as “big men”—those who could provide security through the use of force—came to replace more complex, egalitarian models of society suited to more peaceful times. These men took advantage of their position and power to increase their access not only to wealth and resources but also to women, causing polygamy to expand in many coastal societies. In some areas, these big men propped up growing states like Dahomey and Asante that profited from the Atlantic slave trade. In other areas their aspirations tore apart existing states. Both Kongo and the Jolof Confederation south of the Senegal River were dismembered in this way.
In the process, the Atlantic slave trade reoriented the web of economic ties in the area into a more directed coast-to-interior trading network, and European and American slave traders introduced new types of credit and debt arrangements to encourage local big men to cooperate with them. These new credit relationships helped to create the complex, cosmopolitan, but often hierarchical societies that emerged during the era of the Atlantic slave trade at the points of greatest interaction between Africans and Europeans—especially the towns clustered around major ports and trading positions on the Atlantic coast. These included islands like Saint-Louis on the Senegal River, castles built at the edges of existing towns like Elmina in the Gold Coast, and new urban centers like Freetown in Sierra Leone. These areas came to be the centers of creole societies—the term
[p.35] “creole” connoting the mixing of African, European, and in some cases Asian people, cultures, religions, and economies. Nor were creole societies just the sum of their parts. Rather, the cultural mixing set off a creative energy that gave birth to new, hybrid identities and processes of adaptation and invention….
[p.39] Following the western coast of Africa, Portuguese adventurers and pirates in 1498 rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean world. Unlike the societies of the Atlantic coast of Africa, however, those of the Indian Ocean edge of the continent had been engaged in intercontinental exchange and commerce for hundreds (and in some cases thousands) of years. The new European arrivals temporarily had a technological advantage over the locals in their ship-borne cannon and fast caravels, which they used to ransack the trading cities of the coast and waylay local merchant ships. They also managed to take over a portion of the shipping trade from East Africa to Arabia and India. However, their hegemony on the seas here was never complete. By the 1580s, the Portuguese caravels and galleons were heavily pressed by Ottoman, Iranian, and Omani (Arab) shippers.
[p.40] The principal challenge to Portuguese control of East African trade before 1750, however, came from Swahili-speaking merchants who inhabited a broad swath of the coast from Mogadishu in the north to Mozambique in the south. Swahili-speaking society was highly cosmopolitan. Based largely on the Bantu-speaking population of East Africa, Swahili society had over the preceding millennium also integrated Somalis, Arabs, and South Asians. Swahili-speakers in turn left the continent to travel deep into the Indian Ocean as sailors and merchants, often setting up homes in Arabia and India. The key Swahili trading vessels were dhows, which evidence suggests were owned by collaborating groups of merchants who also owned parts of the cargo and who crewed the vessel as well. From about the eighth century onward, these dhows had helped knit together the people of the East African coast into a society with shared characteristics: a common language based on Bantu grammar but incorporating Arabic and Persian conventions and words, a key role in trade routes linking the African interior and Indian Ocean, a common religion in Islam, and a diverse but unified sense of aesthetics that included coral architecture and gold jewelry.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these loose-knit Swahili-speaking communities were locked in intermittent conflict with Portuguese over who would control the large coastal trading towns and the trade that went through them. Seeking to drive out the Portuguese, the major Swahili sultanates in the seventeenth century sought alliances with Muslims from outside of Africa, including Omani aristocrats from the Arabian Peninsula. The Omani were already engaged in outright naval warfare against Portuguese in the Red Sea. Thus when the Swahili-speaking rulers of Mombasa and others turned to the sultan of Oman to help liberate them, he responded positively. Between 1698 and 1729, the sultan licensed Omani merchants to help fight the Portuguese and also brought his own royal vessels to the East African coast. As a result, the Portuguese were largely driven out of the region other than a few southern positions (now Mozambique). By the 1750s, however, the Omani merchant-sultan alliance found themselves in competition with another commercial “state,” the English East India Company, which was licensed and supported by the kings of Great Britain. Taken together, these two groups made possible the increasing volume of trade and the large-scale movements of people that marked the next century in East African history.
To the Swahili-speakers, the Omani were potential allies against the Portuguese. For the Omani sultans, in turn, the lucrative Indian
[p.41] Ocean trade in dates, ivory, spices, and other goods provided the funds they needed to pay for their conflict with religious dissidents. In this fight, Africans were useful to the sultans not only for the revenue they provided but also as both slave laborers and royal soldiers. Together, the Omani and their Swahili-speaking allies came in the eighteenth century to control much of the long-distance trade between East Africa and India, which was immensely lucrative. They then solidified this position by turning their British competitors into allies through a series of negotiations and treaties….
Both the Omani sultans and those Swahili city-states that remained independent in this period were tightly tied not only into the Indian Ocean trade but also into commerce with African peoples in the interior. In the eighteenth century, especially, new trade routes were constructed from their coast cities deep into the interior. In the south, towns like Kilwa were linked with peoples of the interior like the Nyamwezi and Yao who hunted for ivory and helped to transport
[p.42] gold. By the nineteenth century, these trade routes had grown to such importance that large communities of Swahili-speakers began moving from the coastal towns to the interior to organize caravans and buy goods more cheaply.
Getz, Trevor R. Cosmopolitan Africa, c.1700-1875. African World Histories. Oxford University Press, 2013.
HI 333 History & Politics of Africa Topic 2B Sources – The Atlantic Slave Trade 20