Modern history


Slave Harbors II

“At 5 a.m. at Aqua landing; it was a fine morning, so I go on board the Cooper and come ashore. I make an agreement for two slaves with captain Osatam. After 9 o’clock at night I send 5 of my people to go to Yellow Belly’s daughter, the mother of Dick Ebrow’s sister, to stop one of my house-women from giving [any slaves] to the ship, because her brother gave one of my fine girls, which I gave my wife, to Captain Fairweather, who did not pay me. . . .”

Diary of Antera Duke, June 17, 1785, in Old Calabar

BEYOND THE SWAMPY ESTUARY of the river Volta, the coast continued in a generally eastern direction but, as far as the modern city of Lagos and beyond, there lay a series of lagoons, which enabled almost continuous transport, and much fishing, by canoe. Behind the lagoons lay a savannalike landscape, extending almost to the sea, allowing the breeding or at least the use, of cattle, horses, goats, sheep, chickens, guinea fowl—and, after the arrival of the Portuguese, pigs. (Dogs were also fattened and eaten in this region at the end of the seventeenth century, as they had been in ancient Mexico.)

All European travelers noted both the large population—the inhabitants of the towns were said by Spanish missionaries to be so numerous in 1660 that “the squares, streets and roads form a continuous ant-hill”—and the “prodigious number of palm trees,” from which palm oil (from the fruit) and palm wine (from the sap) derived (though the indigenous Africans here preferred to drink beer made from sorghum).

At the end of the eighteenth century, this coast was dominated by the powerful King Kpengla of Dahomey, whose state had been built up by his father and grandfather. The story of the family’s capture of authority is intimately linked with that of the slave trade, which was in the 1780s by far the biggest economic activity of the kingdom. Kpengla’s grandfather Agaja, the father of the country, was described by a French slave captain as “slightly bigger, and having wider shoulders, than Molière”; Kpengla’s father, Tegbesu, who sold over nine thousand slaves a year, chiefly to the French and Portuguese, was estimated as having an annual income in 1750 of about £250,000—a figure which far exceeded that of the richest merchants of Liverpool or Nantes. (The richest English landowner might expect, in the eighteenth century, an income of £40,000 to £50,000.1)

There had been almost no slave exports from the so-called Slave Coast in the sixteenth century. Instead, seawater was boiled to make salt, smiths created iron weapons, beads were made, and both cotton and palm leaves were, from very early days, woven to make clothes. About 1550, the Portuguese began to trade there and, by 1600, regular commerce had begun, with some merchants established more or less permanently: Pieter de Marees, the first Dutch traveler in the region, wrote, “The Portuguese do a lot of trade here.”2 The Dutch themselves were on this coast by the 1630s, and set up a trading post. The Danes, the Swedes, the English followed—the Company of Adventurers founded a trading post next to the Dutch one—and the French eventually set up their base at Whydah.

This territory was inhabited by two peoples, the Aja and the Yoruba, both of whom had established a multiplicity of kingdoms, some with a capital on which depended a number of subject towns and hamlets, others being autonomous cities. The Aja occupied the coastal stretch of land, and their main political entities, each with a recognizable monarch, were Allada, or Ardra, about forty miles inland; Popo and Whydah on the coast; and Dahomey, whose capital, Abomey, was about 120 miles inland. Allada was the “father-state” of all these places, though its kings usually found it impossible to control their nominally subject cities once the Europeans arrived.

The peoples of this region were sophisticated. They had a currency based on cowrie shells (“They prefer them even to gold,” Barbot wrote), and they traded salt, cotton, wooden carvings, and some iron products, at large markets.

Yet farther inland lay the Oyo empire, the main Yoruba monarchy, to whose ruler, the alafin, the Aja had been for a time subservient. The Oyo, also known in the seventeenth century as the Ulcumy, or Lukumi, as the slaves sold there were designated in Cuba, came into being in the fifteenth century, and their rise was marked by the skillful use of cavalry. The Oyo supplied Allada with slaves, receiving European goods in return—muskets included, once the Dutch and English had arrived. Unlike the coastal polities, they had always supplied slaves to their Arab neighbors to the north.

The European trading posts were never here as formidable as those on the Gold Coast. In 1670, the French were refused permission by the king of Allada to build a post in the “European fashion,” since that would have enabled them to install cannon and so become masters of his realm, as the Portuguese had become on the Gold Coast through the establishment of Elmina (that monarch had been educated in a convent on São Tomé). The modest European trading posts for which permission was granted were obliged to set themselves up inland and were thus incapable of resisting African attacks very long should they occur. Most Europeans, therefore, traded from ships, which were sometimes anchored permanently in lagoons in unhealthy conditions. The monarchs of Allada tried to ensure that the Europeans concentrated all their commerce in their kingdom. They failed, as completely as the Capuchin monks who visited them in the 1640s failed to turn them into Christians.

The Dutch reached Allada first among the Europeans, but seem not to have traded in slaves. Then the chevalier Dubourg and François D’Elbée led a French expedition to that city in 1670 and persuaded the king to supply four shiploads of slaves a year, the loading to occur at Offra or at Jaquin, on the coast.I Dubourg died in Allada, but D’Elbée carried the slaves to Martinique on his vessel, the Justice, of Le Havre. Thereafter the slave trade prospered, though Allada’s raids in search of captives in the interior were sometimes obstructed by the kings of Dahomey, and though the Aja never found as many slaves as did their subordinate neighbor, the king of Whydah. Further, the people of Allada became accustomed to selling slaves in lots, so that the European buyers had to take good and bad slaves together, whereas elsewhere slaves could be bought singly, and so could be carefully selected.

Whydah was by 1700 de facto independent, and its ruler was soon priding himself on being able to produce several thousand slaves a year. An important part in the rise of the place had been played by the Polish-Danish adventurer Henrick Carloff, who established a trading station which he named Pillau just outside Whydah, in the hamlet of Gléhoué (Glehue), on behalf of the French (Pillau, now Baltisk, was his birthplace on the Baltic Sea near Königsberg). Here France maintained from 1671 its only permanent sub-Saharan outpost: a reflection of the popularity of the slaves from the port. Pillau was managed by about eleven Europeans, who supervised the work of a hundred Africans. It was a more elegant emporium than most European lodges in West Africa, for orange trees were planted in the large courtyard, onto which looked a fine dining room. Had it not been for the malaria and the yellow fever, Whydah would have been “one of the most delicious countries in the universe,” wrote the French writer Prévost, for “the green of the fields, the grandeur of the trees and the multitude of the villages formed a charming perspective.”3 Outposts were also established at Whydah by the Portuguese (São João Bautista) in the 1670s the Dutch in 1682, the English the following year, and even the Brandenburgers in 1684. All these newcomers enjoyed an unusual kind of free trade. The king kept the place open to ships of all flags, and there was an enlightened agreement, after 1704, that the vessels of one country should not interfere with those of another, even if the two were at war.

The Slave Coast was soon sending about sixteen thousand slaves a year to the Americas, nearly half the African total then. The Portuguese specially prized slaves from Whydah who, they thought, had a magic nose for knowing where gold deposits were. In fact, much of the success of the gold mines of Minas Gerais depended on the resilience, if not the magic, of slaves from Whydah, mostly obtained from merchants representing the Oyo empire, and most of them being from the Yoruba linguistic group.

Petley Weyborne who, having been an interloper from Bristol, became an agent of the RAC, described the English establishment: “This morning I went ashore at Whydah, accompanied by my doctor and purser, Captain Clay, the present captain of the East-India Merchant, his doctor and purser, and about a dozen of our seamen of our guard, armed, in order here to reside till we could purchase 1,300 slaves. . . . Our factory lies about 3 miles from the seaside, where we were carried in hammocks which the factor, Mr Joseph Peirson, sent to attend our landing, with several arm’d blacks that belonged to him for our guard; we were soon trussed in a bag, toss’d upon negroes heads and conveyed to our factory . . . low near the marshes . . . a very unhealthy place. The white men sent to live there seldom return to tell their tale: [it] is compass’d about with a mud wall, about six feet high and, on the south side, is the gate; within, is a large yard, a mud-thatched house, where the factor lives, with the white men; also a store house, a trunk [a prison] for slaves, and a place where they bury their dead white men, called, very improperly, the hog-yard; there is also a good forge and some other small houses. . . .”4

As for payment, Whydah merchants, including the kings, were specially interested in importing cowries as a price for the slaves: “Each ship brings its thirty to sixty or even eighty thousand weight,” wrote the French official Pruneau de Pommegorge in the late eighteenth century.5

A third harbor of interest, after Allada-Offra (later Allada-Jaquin) and Whydah, was opened at Popo and, for a generation or more, the people there vied with those of Whydah and Offra in promoting the slave traffic. A Danish surgeon, Paul Edmond Isert, was much impressed by the three-story mansions belonging to the African slave merchants which he saw at Popo. Dutch, French, English, and Brandenburger lodges were soon to be found there.

Though the Europeans were relatively peaceful in the harbors of the Slave Coast, their new African friends were not. Sometimes the princes employed European mercenaries, and sometimes the Europeans interfered in local politics to ensure a succession to one of the thrones of the ruler who they thought would collaborate best with them. That occurred in 1671 even in Allada, as well as in 1703 in Whydah (when the director of the English fort, Peter Duffield, imposed his candidate). The issue behind these conflicts was often the requirement to kidnap as many neighbors as possible, in order to fulfill the demanding export opportunities. For a time, Allada was successful in persuading the other cities of the region to exclude Whydah from the slave-raiding territories in the north, and the foreign representatives all had to report that captives had become scarce between 1714 and 1720. The French, English, and Dutch collaborated to send weapons to assist Whydah against Allada, but the king of the former, the youthful Huffon, was unable to put these to good use. After a while, a modus vivendi was established, Allada allowing enough slaves through to maintain Whydah’s prosperity.

To the northeast of these feuding but wealthy little ports lay two inland kingdoms: the Weme (Ouémé), on the river of that name—the only river of any significance here; and Dahomey, with its capital at Abomey, whose territory was separated from the coastal zone by an extensive swamp known as “the Lama.” It does not seem as if there was a kingdom at all in Dahomey before about 1625, and the place may have been founded by an exile from Allada. In the early eighteenth century, King Agaja, one of the most formidable African rulers with whom the Europeans came into contact,II and his captains were “great admirers of fire arms [that is, muskets] and have almost entirely left off the use of bows and arrows.”6 The Dahomeyans also had a high standard of discipline in comparison with their neighbors. Much blood was shed, and prisoners were regularly sacrificed with an almost ancient Mexican sense of dedication.

In the early eighteenth century, Agaja conquered his near neighbor, the king of Weme, and so gave notice that he was a power to be reckoned with. That led to an appeal for help from a defeated candidate in a struggle for succession in Allada and that, in turn, led to Dahomey’s conquest of that monarchy, too. Bullfinch Lambe, the representative of the RAC, was present at the final battle for Allada, and saw eight thousand captives being counted afterwards, among the bodies, where, “had it rained blood, it could not have lain thicker on the ground.”7

Some of the other local leaders (for example, the king of Jaquin) then submitted to Agaja who, after careful preparations stretching over three years, turned on Whydah, at that time on the brink of civil war. King Huffon put up no resistance and fled; five thousand people were killed, and over ten thousand enslaved. All the European posts were sacked, and their directors imprisoned. The Dahomeyans, it is true, were next year defeated by the Oyo, for whose cavalry, despite their firearms, they were no match. But they retained what they had won on the coast on condition of paying a tribute to their own conquerors.

The trade in slaves from Whydah was in the doldrums for several years after the Dahomeyan conquest. The exiled Whydah people, the Dahomeyans, the Oyo, and the Europeans all struggled for control. The English and French commanders were both killed. But soon after concluding a treaty with the Oyo, King Agaja revived the commerce of slaves with the Europeans from Whydah. That he wanted to keep all the captives on whom he could lay his hands in order to work them on his own farms appears to be a myth: what he seems to have disliked was having to treat with middlemen to deal with the Europeans. Nor did he want his own Dahomeyans enslaved. The king did interrupt the old deliveries of slaves from the far interior and tried to control them. But he sold the captives whom he obtained in war on a considerable scale, and began again, with alacrity, the business of raiding the territories to the north, which his predecessors in control of these ports on this so-called Slave Coast had carried out. The slave trade from Dahomey was not the royal monopoly which it is sometimes represented to have been—many chiefs were also permitted to trade—but King Agaja until 1740, and then his son King Tegbesu, and his grandson King Kpengla after him, all played a decisive part in this commerce. New trading posts were built, and the old rhythms of trade were revived on a larger scale than that before 1725. Hundreds of Dahomeyans assisted in the regulation of the slave trade, of course, being usually paid in cowries.

Europeans of all the slave-trading nations would thereafter often embark on the regular journey from Whydah 120 miles inland to the king’s palace at Abomey, to observe the royal celebrations and the human sacrifices, to admire the exhibitions of silks and textiles, or to stand aghast at the place set round with skulls “as thick as they can lie one by another,” while their agents negotiated at the coast in Whydah.

These monarchs of eighteenth-century Dahomey imposed law by brutality: they cut off the head of anyone who stole a single cowrie. The kings carried out periodic arbitrary, ruthless, and effective purges of provincial officials. Tegbesu and Kpengla were surrounded by an ample court of soldier women (“Amazons,” according to most Europeans), and were tyrants to be placated and not fought, a perennial subject of fascination for European traders.

In the late eighteenth century Dahomey went through a depression as a slave-trading center, and the kings tried many expedients in order to stimulate the commerce. For example, since the monarch and his family had come, like so many other Africans, to appreciate the Brazilian market more than any other, attracted by that sweet if third-rate Brazilian tobacco, King Adandozan (Kpengla’s successor) sent an emissary to Bahia in 1795 to suggest that his realm should become the exclusive source of supply of slaves from the coast of Mina for Brazil. The governor of Bahia rejected the idea, not only because he thought that monopoly would increase prices, but because he was fearful of the political consequences of bringing many slaves from the same place, all speaking the same language. The king then sent an emissary to Lisbon, only to receive the same polite rejection of his ideas. Despite the rebuff, Whydah recovered and, in the 1790s, was once more seen as one of the most important slaving centers, especially favored by the last generation before the French Revolution of slave captains from Nantes. The incompetent English representative at Whydah, Lionel Abson, wrote in 1783 to Richard Miles, the commander at Cape Coast, “Since I have been on the coast, I have never seen the quantity of Frenchmen arrive that has lately.”8

By that time, a new port, Porto-Novo, had opened on the extreme east end of this windward coast, on the sea, not the lagoon, and there a branch of the old rulers of Allada managed to establish themselves. Another group of Allada exiles set themselves up at Badagry, as a result of the initiative of a Dutch free-lance captain, Heinrik Hertogh, the founder of the city. Both Porto-Novo and Badagry were prosperous in the late eighteenth century, though the latter was destroyed in 1784 by the king of Dahomey. Popo continued to be a resort of exiles from Whydah, and sometimes these outcasts attacked their old home—once, in 1763, being repelled only thanks to the intervention of the British commander of the trading post, William Goodson. Beyond, originally a colony of Benin, to the east, lay Onim, the island on which the modern Lagos stands. Onim was an important slave port in the late 1780s, obtaining most of the cargoes from merchants from the lagoons to the west. The freedom of action of these ports, despite Dahomeyan power, was due to the protection of the Oyo empire.

The Oyo, indeed, always in the background of Dahomeyan politics, were now the principal suppliers of slaves to all these ports, using a large market, Abomey-Calavi, as their chief trading center. Abiodun, the emperor (alafin) of the Oyo after 1774, had been a trader in potash before his accession, and looked on the new city of Porto-Novo as, as he put it, his own “callabash.” By the 1780s, it was in consequence more prosperous than Whydah. The Oyo not only ensured that the merchants there had prisoners of war to sell, but also bought slaves from their Arab northern neighbors and resold them to their southern ones, including the Dahomeyans, whose independence was thus shown to be growing as limited in commerce as it had been for so long in politics. The Oyo still dominated the region, directly or indirectly, at the end of the eighteenth century, despite repeated efforts by the Dahomeyans to escape their shadow. Only in the 1790s was Oyo power in relative decline, and the alafin went so far as to ask for the assistance of King Kpengla of Dahomey in certain military activities, a move which was to prove his and his people’s eventual undoing.

Perhaps two million slaves were exported from this stretch of coast between the river Volta (Little Popo) and Lagos-Onim between, say, 1640 and 1870, about half (900,000 or so) being carried by Portuguese or Brazilian traders, with the British (360,000), the French (280,000), the Dutch (110,000), the Spaniards, and the North Americans following behind.

• • •

Next in his journey along the slave harbors of Africa, the late-eighteenth-century traveler would come to the five “slave rivers” encountered by the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century, of which the largest, the Rio Fermoso, or Benin, led to the city and kingdom of that name. That monarchy, apparently of Yoruba origin, had been, through its port of Ughoton, a major exporter of slaves at about the turn of the sixteenth century. This was the territory where the Florentine merchant Bartolommeo Marchionni had from the king of Portugal his lucrative license to trade slaves in the late 1480s. But Benin was not a major slave zone after 1530, and the oba (king) tried to cut off the traffic completely in 1550. Cloth, an excellent pepper, and elephants’ tusks then became the main exports. The Portuguese had earlier tried hard to convert the oba of Benin and his subjects to Christianity, but neither the Franciscans in the sixteenth century nor the Capuchins in the late seventeenth met with more than politeness.

Because of the risks to health, including the currents and the sandbars, this part of Africa was considered a dangerous zone by European seamen. One famous rhyme went:

Beware and take care of the Bight of Benin;

Few come out, though many go in.

The beautiful river Benin (Fermoso) itself seemed especially hazardous. That was where, appropriately, the first English captain to go to the place, Thomas Wyndham, had died in 1553.

Another Northern European, the Dutch traveler Pieter de Marees, about 1600 thought that the king of Benin had a great many slaves, and that it was the women’s task to carry water. But they may have been more servants than slaves and, anyway, they were not for sale, or at least not to Europeans. The success with which Benin avoided trading in slaves after 1550 showed that such restraint could be exercised if an African king really willed it.

In the late seventeenth century, some slaves began to be sold again by the oba or his chiefs to the Portuguese. In the 1720s, his slaves were also being bought by Dutch, French, and eventually and above all, English traders, when the prices of ivory and cloth had fallen. The oba even removed his ancestor’s sixteenth-century ban on selling males. Though he maintained the trade as a royal monopoly, the business fell into the hands of the ezomo, a grand vizier of the kingdom. This official, sitting in his throne room encrusted with cowries, supported by his own captives, and who had his visitors’ feet washed in a large brass bowl before presiding at, for example, a yam festival, including human sacrifices, was henceforth the potentate with whom the European traders had to deal in Benin.

The French, led by the Burgundian captain Jean-François Landolphe—who had long experience of the slave trade and had worked for the Compagnie de Guyane—set up a short-lived factory at Ughoton, on the lower Benin River, in 1778, for trading goods (ivory and cloths) as well as slaves, and then established another more effectively near the river’s mouth in Itsekiri territory in 1783. (Landolphe brought home to Paris a nephew of the olu, or king, of the Itsekiri in 1784.) But yellow fever took its toll of the French traders; Landolphe was outmaneuvered by Liverpool shippers; and he never fulfilled his plans of making Benin a port where he could buy three thousand slaves a year.

There was a strong English interest in this territory by the mid-eighteenth century, some of the demand being satisfied by Itsekiri traders. Thus five ships left Liverpool in 1752 to buy 1,280 slaves in Benin.

All the same, neither the oba nor his ezomo organized a major slave-trading network in the style of Ashanti or Dahomey (or, as will be shown, Calabar), and they were never able, because unwilling, to satisfy European demand.

Beyond Benin, on the Rio dos Forcados, “the swallowtails,” was a principality called Ode Itsekiri, ruled by a family of princes who were related to those of Benin. They had in the 1560s begun to take the place of Benin as a supplier of slaves to São Tomé and then to the new trade to the Americas. The Itsekiri, like their neighbors and rivals, the Ijo, were known for their powerful, long war canoes, with which they dominated the lower waters of the Benin River, and with which they ensured a regular supply of captives to sell to whosoever would buy from them.

Even worse than the rivers of Benin in terms of health was the Rio Reale, the Bonny River to the English, on the Bight of Biafra for, in the late eighteenth century, the death rate from malaria, at least on the British ships which slaved from there, was over ten a voyage, twice as bad as in any other slave region. The captains were trading in the estuaries of the delta of the great Niger, here to be seen also in the form of the Cross River and the Old Calabar River, between which innumerable creeks provided an elaborate network of waterways into the interior. The entire territory was most unhealthful. The nineteenth-century traveler and entrepreneur Macgregor Laird would call the lower reaches of the Niger “one extensive swamp, covered with mangrove and palm trees [from which] the fen-damp rose in the mornings, cold and clammy to the skin, like the smoke from a damp wood fire.”9

The Bight of Biafra was an important zone of slave trading as early as 1700: at least 4,500 slaves a year were exported in 1711-30, and perhaps a third of all the slaves carried by Britain in the eighteenth century came from these ports, as did possibly a quarter of all the slaves carried to North America. The main anchorages here were Old Calabar, at the mouth of the estuary (called Iboku by the Efik); Adiabo, ten miles up the river Calabar; and Mbiabo, on the Cross River (Curcock to Europeans). Lower down, near the sea, was Duke Town, called after its leader, Duke Ephraim, which later became the core of New Calabar. Beyond were Bonny and Opobo, still rather small cities at the end of the eighteenth century.

The Portuguese knew of the Cross River and its tributary the Calabar, but they did not trade there and, in 1600, the Dutch traveler Pieter de Marees advised traders to avoid the place, because there was nothing to be gained, with always a danger of being wrecked. There was, indeed, a large reef in front of the Old Calabar River. But by the 1600s, the English had learned to avoid that, and were trading extensively, buying slaves for Barbados, as well as monkeys and ivory for England. By 1700, so many English ships were “gone to old Calabar” that other Europeans knew that “you cannot have trade there.” The slaves of Calabar were considered the least satisfactory, since they were rebellious. In the course of the next hundred years, the place became, however, with its many rivers, one of the most favored of slave regions, for the French and Dutch as well as the English.

The Efik traders, an Ibibio-speaking people, had moved southeast to these waterways in the seventeenth century (according to legend because of a quarrel over an ax); when they matured from fishermen to become traders, in slaves among other things, they founded a powerful commercial brotherhood, known as the Egbe. The leaders of this association, realizing the importance of having a trading language with the Europeans, developed an engaging version of English, which used the words of that tongue with a syntax based on Ibibio. James Barbot, a slave captain at the end of the seventeenth century (a brother of Jean, the memorialist), speaks of these leaders as Duke Aphrom (Ephraim), King Robin, King Mettinon, King Ebrero, and even Old King Robin. The titles were allusions to leaders rather than monarchs. Most slaves sold in Old Calabar in the seventeenth century came from the relatively near-at-hand Ibo hinterland but, a hundred years later, they were often bought at fairs many miles inland. The strong preference for exchange was for copper bars to begin with, then iron ones. For a time, copper bracelets constituted a kind of currency. Some of the sons of these traders visited England and, in consequence, schools were established at home in Old Calabar for “the purpose of instructing . . . the youth belonging to families of consequence.” Materials for building houses were also obtained from Europe, and one black African trader called his house Liverpool Hall: Antera Duke, one of the slave traders, noted in his diary in the late eighteenth century, “After 10 o’clock, wee go chop for Egbo Young house, Liverpool Hall.”10

The most famous of the Efik slave traders, Eyo Nsa (Willy Honesty to the English), was not in fact an Efik, for he had himself been brought to Old Calabar as a slave. He became a successful general in the Efik service, especially in fighting the pirates at the mouth of Ikpa Creek. He married an Ambo princess and, in later life, became rich as a slave trader. He had an immense household of slaves, whom he sold when the price was right.

Imports from Europe were seized on in the region of Calabar as wonderfully helpful to the local economy. Old wooden agricultural implements could be tipped with European iron and so made more efficient. The salt-boiling communities recognized that they benefited from the import of brass “neptunes” (large basins) and the imports of textiles were most useful to a people which had previously produced little. On the other hand, in this zone the population declined constantly from the 1690s till 1850, presumably as a direct consequence of the trade in slaves: the most serious decline in population in Africa in these years. (This whole territory was, however, one of the few areas of Africa where there was a real shortage of land for the population, so a drain of slaves may have been advantageous.)

The sacred Aro shrine at Arochuku, the so-called Long Juju, was the focus of slave dealing in this part of Africa at the end of the eighteenth century. The oracle was offered slaves as fees or fines, and the priests then sold them. This trade came to be dominated by mercenaries, the Akpa, their power based on firearms, the first such to be used inland of the Bight of Bonny.

An English traveler, John Adams, said that here was a “wholesale market for slaves, as not fewer than 20,000 are annually sold here; 16,000 of whom are . . . Heebo [Ibo], so that this single nation has not exported less than . . . during the last twenty years . . . 320,000.”11 He probably exaggerated. More important, he failed to realize that the majority of the slaves sold by the Ibo at Bonny were brought from the interior, and were, therefore, of many origins. Nor did he notice the even more interesting characteristic of the slaves exported from the Bonny River: that they included the highest percentage of females in all West Africa.

In 1789, some account of how the trade was managed here was given to the British Privy Council: “These traders go up . . . the rivers to the distance of about eighty miles from Bonny, and the same from New Calabar, in large canoes with two or three principal persons and about forty men in each. . . . At the head of these two rivers, there is a mart for trade, where the black traders purchase these slaves of other black traders who bring them down from the interior. . . .” These traders came down the river about once a fortnight with twenty or thirty canoes, each with twenty or thirty slaves, who had their arms tied behind their backs with twigs, canes, grass rope, or other “ligaments of the country.” They were treated roughly, but when they came to the coast they were oiled, fed, and “made up for sale.”12 Another description was given by Isaac Parker, an English shipkeeper who jumped ship in Duke Town in 1765. He told how he had gone on an expedition to find slaves with a dealer named Dick Ebro—it was a journey of kidnappers, pure and simple. His African friends armed some canoes and went up the river, “lying in the bushes in the day when they came near a village, and taking hold of everyone they could see. These they handcuffed, brought down to the canoes, and so proceeded up the river, till they got . . . forty-five, with whom they returned to New Town. . . . About a fortnight after, they went again, and were out eight or nine days, plundering villages higher up the river. They seized on much the same number as before, brought them to New Town, gave the same notice and disposed of them as before among the ships [that is, the slavers].”13

This zone reached its peak as a slave exporter in the years 1711-20, when there were exports of over 150,000. Exports continued high throughout the eighteenth century, never falling below seventy thousand in a single period of ten years. The territory’s importance in the Atlantic slave traffic continued well into the nineteenth century. Canoes, sometimes eighty feet long and carrying 120 people, were the chief instrument of the traffic.

Beyond the delta of the Niger, the coast of Africa at last begins to turn south again and there, in the Cameroons, in the late eighteenth century, Liverpool merchants from England pioneered a new branch of the slave trade. Farther on, and well to the south, the river Gabon, just north of Cape Lopez, was also coming into full activity as a slave region in the 1780s. This area seemed, to the Reverend John Newton, to possess “the most humane and moral people I ever met with in Africa,” perhaps “because they were the people who had the least intercourse with Europe at that time.” But off the coast, the Dutch had for a long time used the island of Corisco (the word in Portuguese means “flash of lightning”) as a trading center, though not specifically for slaves.

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the main slave emporium in this whole region was São Tomé, that tragic island-prison of four hundred square miles nearly 170 miles off the mainland. The equator runs through the island’s southern tip. For generations, slave traders from there had dominated the Niger Delta, the Cameroons, and the northern Congo. From there, the Hispano-American markets were accustomed to buying slaves whom they spoke of as “casta de São Tomé,” “novos,” “Terra Nova,”or merely “Congos.” São Tomé was, by nature, a delightful place, for it was dominated by a high, wooded mountain, the vegetation was lush, and fresh fruit (including pineapples and grapes) and vegetables were always available. Numerous lemon trees grew in the valleys, and there were plenty of wild turkeys, geese, ducks, and even partridges, as well as fish. In its capital were four churches. For a short time in the seventeenth century, the Danes had a lodge there. But the place remained Portuguese, and there was always aPortuguese governor. For many generations, slave ships provisioned there and took on water. Prices were high, but São Tomé was too convenient to be avoided.

The nearby smaller island of O Principe (so called because the taxes of the island had been settled on the heir to the throne of Portugal) had similar benefits, if on a more modest scale. Its water was good, and it contained innumerable monkeys and two churches.

All these territories, like the Cape Verde Islands, had, as a result of continual contact between the Portuguese and the Africans, a thoroughly mulatto population.

To the south, on the mainland, there were various minor trading places, such as Cape Saint Catharine, and then several harbors belonging to the Vili kingdom of Loango: Mayumba, the large harbor of Loango itself, and the two smaller ports, Malemba and Cabinda, beyond. The charm of the Loango kingdom for traders was that, despite Portuguese opposition, the maloangos, the strong monarchs of the Vili kingdom, were able, over many generations, to maintain free trade to all the Europeans (much as the kings of Dahomey had done). Thus the Dutch had established a trading post at Mayumba and at Loango in the late sixteenth century, and the French were the favored customers in the eighteenth. At first these Europeans had concerned themselves with ivory, redwood, copper, and palm cloth, but the Dutch began to trade a few slaves in the 1640s and, by 1670, the Vili traders were finding slaves more profitable than ivory. The Dutch West India Company was that year carrying three thousand slaves a year from Loango. The king, the maloango, now entered into the commerce with a will, usually obtaining slaves along the rivers to the south, and dealing with the Europeans through a special official, the mafouk, in each of his main ports. The slave traders of Loango were soon competing successfully with those from Luanda, and obtained many slaves from the same sources. The success of the region was such that the British decided to establish a fort there, and appointed a governor, Captain Nurse Hereford, who left England for Cabinda with nine staff and six soldiers in 1721. The fort was built, but it was destroyed by the Portuguese with the help of Congo soldiers. Despite this setback, the English colonies, including those in North America, were probably getting a fifth of their slaves from this region in the eighteenth century. In the 1760s, and again in the 1780s, energetic Portuguese governors of Angola tried to prevent this by sending a Portuguese garrison there; but the soldiers sickened, many died, and the remainder were expelled by a French squadron in 1784.

In the 1770s, a Portuguese expedition of inquiry sent up from Luanda reported that there were seventeen ships on the Loango coast: nine French, four English, and four Dutch. Twenty thousand slaves were said to be carried from there by these carriers every year, but fourteen to eighteen thousand would be a probable annual average between 1765 and 1790. Many of the slaves were Monteques or Quibangues, who had been seized in the far interior, and carried to the coast along waterways earlier developed for trade by copper and ivory merchants.

The Vili state of Loango was in decline in the late eighteenth century, partly because of the adverse effects of the slave trade. This commerce had opened up many opportunities for merchants outside the old oligarchy which had once run the place, and themaloango’s power declined in relation to that of the port officials, the mafouks. A symbolic change occurred. In the past, when a maloango died, he was succeeded by his sister’s son. But a new ruler could only be chosen when the late maloango had been buried. In the late eighteenth century, the last maloango was not buried for fifty years, so no successor was installed. The kingdom began to split up into small entities.

To the south of the Vili kingdom of Loango, the more ancient and long-Christian kingdom of Congo was now a weak semi-Christian monarchy, dependent on Portugal, with a large mulatto community in all the important towns. Congo had exported many slaves in the seventeenth century, but that enterprise seemed beyond the capacity of the incoherent princelings. The now independent Sonyo were, however, trading extensively, and there was some slaving from the estuary of the Congo itself, where a people named the Zombo became the main traders in the mid-eighteenth century.

• • •

To the south of the Congo lay the great center of Angola. “Casta Angola,” “Manicongos,” “Loandas” (from Luanda), or “Benguelas,” the last from the city of that name, were the products of that market when as slaves they reached their destinations. From the middle of the seventeenth century, the coasts here produced a steady supply of slaves, for Brazil above all but also for the whole of Latin America. Perhaps three-quarters of the slaves imported into Brazil derived from Angola. A study of African slaves in Mexico suggested that two-thirds of them were originally from Angola, too.

The main exporting harbor here was Luanda, the city on the island in the estuary of the river Cuanza, established in 1575, for two centuries the biggest European town in Africa (though still with only four hundred “whites”), which probably supplied five to seven thousand slaves a year in the seventeenth century, and seven to ten thousand a year throughout the eighteenth, in twenty or thirty ships; but Benguela, two hundred miles to the south, was supplying about a quarter of the Brazilian trade in the late eighteenth century. The majority of the slaves carried by the Portuguese Pernambuco-Paraíba Company derived from here.

Luanda was described by a Portuguese, Pacheco Pereira, as long ago as 1504. He spoke of the little “low and level and sparsely wooded islands” at the mouth of the Cuanza, where African women busied themselves looking for the shells known as nzimbus. (By now, only slaves judged inferior could be bought for these once-prized objects.) Luanda, like Benguela, was set in decidedly dry territory, and needed supplies of food to be brought from remote places. Drinking water was also always in short supply. Thus the slaves carried from here to Brazil, and elsewhere, were often suffering from malnutrition and dehydration even before they were put on the ships which would carry them to Brazil.

Luanda in the eighteenth century was on the estuary not just of a river but of a huge network of trading waterways which penetrated far into the interior of Africa. Near the coast these constituted a narrow corridor, along the lower rivers Bengo and Cuanza but, in the interior, the ways broadened, and there were also footpaths which connected the rivers with Kasanje in the middle valley of the Kwango, and the internal monarchies of the forest.

The slave trade from these ports was a complicated affair. First the slaves themselves were procured, almost always bought in the interior, by Luso-Africans—mulattoes of half-Portuguese, half-Angolan descent—who kept their captives in barracoons, waiting for ships to take them to Brazil. In contrast with what obtained elsewhere, these merchants were the owners of the slaves till they were sold in the Americas. The captains of the slave ships were usually paid by these merchants and so had not themselves a direct economic interest in the lives of their charges. In the eighteenth century, these were usually Brazilians, not Portuguese. The Portuguese officials in Luanda had an interest in the trade, since government income (hence their own salaries) depended on duties levied on slaves: and those taxes were farmed out to Lisbon merchants until 1769, but paid direct to officials of the exchequer thereafter.

Benguela was, for most of the eighteenth century, almost a colony of Brazil and, with the hand of Lisbon’s law running lighter, evasions of rules, such as the law of 1684 about the treatment of slaves on the journey across the Atlantic,III were the more easily accomplished. There, the so-called arqueação—the capacity tonnage—permitted under that law seemed no more than an invention for giving money to the officials in charge of the measurements.

Benguela’s slave trade grew greatly after the 1760s, thanks to the growth of farming in southern Brazil, as well as to the activities of French interlopers. Most slaves from Benguela were marked out from Africa as being destined for Brazil but they were often smuggled into Cuba or other parts of the Spanish empire. The Overseas Council in Lisbon was so perturbed by the risk of losing taxes through the growth in the trade from Benguela that it even forbade all sailings from there to Brazil—an unusually ineffective decree.

These two Portuguese cities of Luanda and Benguela were, in the eighteenth century, managed by a powerful white or mulatto slave-owning and -trading class of merchants. This oligarchy was sustained largely by Brazilian food and alcohol. The slaves were brought down to the sea in “coffles”IV of about a hundred each, of which one or two would typically come every week, and were held on the coast till an appropriate buyer appeared. Now no African monarchy threatened the Portuguese dominion, but the Portuguese themselves had long before ceased to be aggressive, or curious, imperial adventurers. In 1760, the expulsion of the Jesuits had exacerbated the intellectual decline. The dedication of the enlightened and energetic Governor CoutinhoV had little permanent effect. An intelligent historian, Fernando da Silva Correa, reported about 1789 that 88 percent of the income of Luanda derived from the trade in slaves.14

Behind these kingdoms, and still acting as a center of supply in the eighteenth century, lay the Lunda people, whose headquarters was on the river Kasai, about six hundred miles inland. The Lunda wars of expansion had taken them as far as Lake Tanganyika in the east and the river Kwango in the west. These conquests led to a great channel of tribute being opened for slaves from the heart of Africa. The Lunda were a commercially active people by the mid-eighteenth century; their old capital, Mussumba, was the site of a great fair, and one at which the trading of slaves was the most profitable business. A trade route ran from Mussumba to the coast at Loango, bypassing Angola and Congo, sometimes providing the Vili with slaves from what would now be Zambia.

The Mbundu kingdom of Ndongo, ruled by the ngola, the ruler from whom Angola takes its name, also survived. The ngola’s capital, Kabasa, (whence he still purported to govern from a series of interlocking huts roofed with peacock feathers) lay in fertile and hence prosperous territory, its palm trees produced wine, its women were concerned with raising cattle, and the currency had become rock salt, obtained in square blocks from the mines of Kisama. The river Cuanza gave easy access to the interior.

The Portuguese colonists in Angola also had a great many slaves of their own; some individuals are said to have enjoyed the service of as many as three thousand. These were employed either in farming or in fishing, and some were hired out, or performed the functions of barbers or even doctors, while no Portuguese in Angola in the late eighteenth century would have dreamed of going outdoors without two slaves who carried a hammock, while a third would carry a parasol.

Angola was thus primarily maintained for trading slaves who, indeed, were everywhere to be seen. Many came from the center of the continent, or even farther away: Captain Louis de Grandpré, a French explorer, in 1787 met a black African who, he realized, must have come from East Africa, since she remembered “seeing the sun rising over the water.”15

Benguela was the last slave-trading harbor on the long coast of West and West Central Africa. The explanation was partly the lack of harbors but also because the Africans there fiercely resisted the Portuguese. But from the earliest days of the terrible traffic, slaves were often carried across the Atlantic from Mozambique and Madagascar, and also from the Portuguese Asian possessions. There was a substantial trade in slaves to the Indian islands, too: 125,000 are said to have left Mozambique in European ships for those harbors between 1720 and 1800. French interest in this East African trade was considerable. For example, the Trois Cousins left Saint-Malo on January 11, 1784, for India and Mauritius. On its return, the ship reached West Africa on June 2, 1785, and, at Malembo, just to the south of Loango, bought 888 slaves, who were carried to Cap François, in Saint-Domingue, where seven hundred were delivered live. But the main trade was still under the auspices of the Portuguese, who had had a decisive influence in the whole region since they first opened it up in the early sixteenth century. As early as 1520, Simão de Miranda had been in control of the captaincy of Sofala and Mozambique, and concerned himself to send home slaves to Portugal. By the eighteenth century, this commerce, directed to the Americas, was more important on that coast than anything else.

Many captives were also obtained from Madagascar, “a vast island abounding with slaves,” in the words of William Beckford, lord mayor of London.16 In the seventeenth century, these were sometimes shipped eastward, via Manila across the Pacific to Acapulco, where they were sold as “chinos.”VI But this trade died out, because even the Spaniards found that distance excessive. In the late eighteenth century, English traders, from Bristol, were much involved. The South Sea Company, inadequately supplied by the RAC, dispatched slaves to the Americas from Madagascar, in considerable numbers. Like Frederick Philipse of New York, they were warned off by the East India Company, which looked on Madagascar as one of its reserved trading zones. But Bristol merchants continued their activities. New England merchants intervened, too, and the taste for slaves from here was strong in Charleston. One advertisement there ran: “The character of the slaves from the East coast of Africa is now so well-known that it is unnecessary to mention the decided preference they have over all other negroes.” The port of Quelimane also entered the international slave trade about 1780. The pioneer was a French Portuguese, Pedro Monero, one of those innumerable personalities of mixed blood to be found in powerful positions throughout the checkered history of the Atlantic slave trade.

IOffra was also known to the Europeans as Little Ardra (Allada).

IIOn the throne since 1708.

IIISee page 419.

IVFrom the Arabic kafilah, meaning a string of men, or animals, forced to travel together.

VFor whom see page 279.

VINot to be confused with the small number of Chinese and Filipinos, also known as chinos, who, after the opening up of the Pacific by Miguel de Legazpi in 1564-65, were carried to Mexico in the “Manila galleons.”

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!