Modern history


A Great Strait for Slaves

“[The king of Whydah] often, when ships are in a great strait for slaves and cannot be supply’d otherwise, will sell 300 or 400 of his wives to complete their number. . . .”

Captain Thomas Phillips, c. 1695

BY THE END of the eighteenth century, something approaching eighty thousand black African slaves were being carried every year across the Atlantic. The question how those slaves were obtained troubles people now, and it troubled them at the time. In 1721, the Royal African Company (RAC) of London set afoot one of those inquiries for which Britain is still famous: it asked its agents in Africa to discover how slaves were originally taken, how many days they spent on their march down to the coast from their own country, whether they had become slaves in any manner other than by “being taken prisoners in war time [and] whether they have any other method of trading for them than this bringing them down to the coast of Africa to sell to the Europeans.”1 The conclusion was obscure even after the meticulous gathering of evidence.

The overwhelming majority of slaves were certainly obtained by the European traders in Africa by purchase or negotiation with local rulers, merchants, or noblemen. Some were obtained directly through European wars, principally in Angola; except the first days of the Portuguese on the coast, up till 1448, only a small number were obtained by Europeans by kidnapping.

The Africans from whom the Europeans obtained most of the slaves to be shipped acquired them much as in antiquity in the Mediterranean, or in medieval Europe: first, as a result of war; second, in consequence of enslavement as a punishment for the people concerned; third, from poverty, resulting in someone’s being constrained to sell his children, or even himself; or, fourth, from kidnapping, which was as frequent among Africans as it was rare among Europeans.

African monarchs also often bought slaves (who might earlier have been obtained in any of these ways) from dealers, in order to sell them again to Europeans (or to other Africans, and especially Arabs).

Different observers made different judgments, often decisive, as far as they themselves were concerned. In the fifteenth century, the Venetian Alvise Ca’da Mosto reported that most slaves had been captured in war, many of them having been for a time integrated into the local economy, whereas others were regularly sold to “Moors” in exchange for horses. Over a hundred years later, in 1600, Pieter de Marees thought that the slaves on the Gold Coast were, first, “poor people who are enslaved because they could not earn a living; secondly, persons who owe their King some fines which they cannot afford to pay; thirdly, they are young children who are sold by their parents because they do not have the means to bring them up.” Jean Barbot, after two slave voyages in the late seventeenth century, believed that “the slaves [whom the African monarchs] possess and sell are prisoners of war . . . or, if from among themselves, are condemned to slavery for some crime. But there are also those who have been kidnapped by their compatriots, these being mainly children who had been stationed in the fields to guard the mill, or who had been seized when traveling along the main roads.”2 A little later, Willem Bosman, of the Dutch West India Company, was of the view that war explained the existence of slaves: “It sometimes happens, when the inland countries are at peace, here are no slaves to be got. So . . . the trade of this place is utterly uncertain.”3 In 1730, Francis Moore, an experienced English trader in slaves, for he had been a factor of the RAC at Fort George on the river Gambia, described how the Mandingos, then the middlemen in the slave traffic in the region, brought down to the coast “slaves to the amount of two thousand, which, they say, are prisoners taken in war: they buy them from the different princes who take them.”4 Some years later, John Newton, who spent some years at Bissau as well as serving on slave ships, as mate as well as captain, believed that most slaves came from wars, that the wars would cease if the slave trade ceased, but that the Europeans did not especially foment these conflicts.

In 1789, a witness at another British inquiry into the nature of the traffic, this time of the Privy Council, Sir George Young, captain in the Royal Navy (subsequently an admiral of the blue), thought that the greatest number of slaves were taken as prisoners of war, “one village that was stronger than another seizing that which was weaker, and disposing of the inhabitants to the ship.”5 James Penny, a Liverpool captain who had made eleven slaving voyages to Africa, told the same investigation: “At Bonny . . . traders go up into the country to purchase slaves . . . in large canoes with two or three principal persons, about fifty men in each. The canoes go in a body altogether, to defend themselves if attacked. At the head of these two rivers there is a mart for trade where the black traders purchase these slaves of other black slave traders, who bring them from the interior country.” When asked if he had ever observed whether these slaves had marks of any fresh wounds, Penny replied, “Not often”; but he had sometimes done so.

He added: “From the great number of slaves which [sic] are annually exported . . . one would be led to imagine the country would in time be depopulated; instead of which no diminution of their numbers is perceived; and from every account we have been able to acquire from the natives themselves, who travel into the interior country, it is extraordinarily populous; but how such a number of slaves are procured, is a circumstance which I believe no European was ever fully acquainted with. The best information . . . is that great numbers are prisoners taken in war, and are brought down, fifty or a hundred together, by the black slave merchants; that many are sold for witchcraft, and other real or imputed crimes; and are purchased in the country with European goods and salt; which is an article so highly valued and so eagerly sought after by the natives, that they will part with their wives and their children and everything dear to them to obtain it, when they have not slaves to dispose of and it always makes part of the merchandise for the purchase of slaves in the interior country. . . . Death or slavery were, and still are, the penalties for almost every offence. . . . The fate of prisoners was also in a great measure determined by the season of the year, and the occasion they had for their services. If they were taken after the harvest was over, they were seldom spared; but those who were captured before the commencement of the rice season experienced a different fate, as they were reserved to cultivate the rice ground; and sold, after the harvest, to those tribes bordering the sea who had no other means of acquiring slaves than by purchase; or were kept as labouring slaves and forever fixed to the spot.”6

Thirty years later, Eyo Honesty II of Creek Town, on the Old Calabar River, told the English missionary Hope Waddell that slaves came “from different countries and were sold for different reasons—some as prisoners of war, some for debt, some for breaking their country’s laws, and some by great men who hated them. The king of a town sells whom he dislikes or fears; his wives are sold in turn by his successor. A man inveigles his brother’s children into his house and sells them. The brother says nothing, but watches his opportunity and sells the children of the other.”

After these differing views, based on partial if personal observation, and asserted with conviction by many persons of contrasting experience, it is a relief to find some statistical evidence. This derives from an analysis of the origins of slaves brought to Sierra Leone, then a colony of freed slaves, made by a dedicated philologist, Sigismund Koelle, in the 1850s. It could not be accurate for the whole era of slave trading throughout West Africa, from Arguin to Mozambique, but the figures show that 34 percent of Koelle’s informants were taken in war, 30 percent had been kidnapped (by Africans), 11 percent had been sold after being condemned by judicial process (adultery figured largely because that was one of the few “crimes” to which people would confess), 7 percent had been sold to pay debts, and another 7 percent had been sold by relations or friends. (The remaining 11 percent were slaves who fitted into more than one category: for example, refugees who were kidnapped.) Of those stated to have been taken in war, most had been victims, in one way or another, of a recent Fulani Islamic jihad, the greatest manufactory of slaves in the later eighteenth century—though the Fula and the Mande had both been sellers of slaves on a substantial scale for generations before the jihad.

During the debates in North America and England about the abolition of the trade in slaves, the philanthropists would often insist that wars were deliberately undertaken by Africans to obtain slaves for the Europeans. Yet wars were frequent before the Europeans arrived in West Africa, and were probably sometimes undertaken in order to obtain slaves even then: Ca’da Mosto, for example, remarked, “The black chiefs are continually at war with one another”; and Pacheco, as has been seen,I said the same when talking of Benin. In the late eighteenth century, King Kpengla of Dahomey and King Osei Bonsu of Ashanti were both asked by European visitors (Archibald Dalzell, a friend of the slave trade in the case of Kpengla, Jean-Louis Dupuis, an opponent, in the case of Osei Bonsu) whether they went to war to provide the Atlantic slave trade with captives; they both said that they did not, and had their own political motives for their conflicts. They may have been lying, but it is unclear why they should have done so. Yet the kings of Dahomey more than once appealed to their European trading partners for arms to enable them to carry out the raids on their northern neighbors which alone could provide the slaves needed to fill the European boats.

There were certainly some occasions when wars were undertaken to provide slaves for sale, to Europeans as to Arabs. For example, a governor of Cape Verde, de Almada, thought in 1576 that the ruler of Cayor, on the river Gambia, had embarked upon fighting his neighbor simply to enable him to pay a debt which he owed to a merchant of Cape Verde. Even if the war concerned might have had an indigenous origin, it might very well have been pursued further than it was because of the potential sale of captives offered by the Atlantic trade. This was specially so in the region of Senegambia, a mainstay of slaving in the early seventeenth century. Then there were certainly instances of war being undertaken by Europeans in order to obtain slaves. One such conflict was that embarked upon by Mendes de Vasconcelos, the governor of Angola, in 1620, so helping to swell the large exports of slaves in those days. The Portuguese also sometimes acted as military advisers to African rulers—to those of the Congo, as of Benin, both in the sixteenth century—and their arms were useful in achieving victories, and hence slaves. Sometimes, in the monarchies of West Africa, if there was a big demand for slaves, or poverty in the region, a chief might exaggerate some slight, and order the alleged guilty party’s village to be razed and the people of it reduced to slavery. Sometimes such a thing no doubt occurred because the African chief desired European goods. In the early eighteenth century, the RAC plainly convinced itself that wars were good for business: for example, an agent of that body, Josiah Pierson, in Cape Coast in 1712, commented that “the battle is expected shortly, after which ’tis hoped the trade will flourish.”7

In the late eighteenth century, the Newport Mercury reported that there had been a time “when the Akims and the [A]shanties were fighting, the worthy Fanties [people on the coast] were very busy pillaging and stealing the Akims, who were so reduced by famine, that they have given themselves up in great number to any body which would promise them victuals, so that slaves became very plenty. . . . Neither did they confine themselves to stealing the Akims only: for the Shanties began to pillage the Fanty Crooms [towns] and plantations, by which conduct the Fanties picked up about 1,000 of them, 300 of which we [the Royal Africa Company] purchased in eight or nine days, in Castle Brew [the headquarters of Richard Brew].”8

On the other hand, a witness at a House of Commons inquiry, John Matthews, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, who knew the west coast of Africa well, said: “That slaves are often captives taken in war is a position I readily accede to; but that those wars are undertaken merely for the purpose of procuring slaves is by no means the case; for . . . the king or chief of a tribe has not power to make war upon any other tribe without the consent and approbation of the principal people of his nation; and it can scarcely be conceived that such consent could be obtained to a measure that would draw down upon them the resentment of the neighbouring states.” The fact was, he went on, quite fairly, “the nations which inhabit the interior parts of Africa . . . profess the Mahometan religion; and, following the means prescribed by their prophet, are perpetually at war with the surrounding nations who refuse to embrace their religious doctrines. . . . The prisoners made in these religious wars furnish a great part of the slaves which are sold to the Europeans; and would . . . be put to death if they had not the means of disposing of them. . . .”9

All the same, the Swedish mineralogist Carl Bernard Wadström, a disinterested observer, commented: “The wars which the inhabitants of the interior parts of the country . . . carry on with each other are chiefly of a predatory nature, and owe their origin to the yearly number of slaves, which the Mandingos, or the island traders, suppose will be wanted by the vessels which arrive on the coast. Indeed, these predatory incursions depend so much on the demand for slaves that, if in any one year, there be a greater concourse of European ships than usual, it is observed that a much greater number of captives from the interior parts of the country is brought to market the next.”10

The variations were considerable. For the Bight of Biafra, for instance, there is nothing to show that raids and war produced more than a small percentage of slaves exported in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. War, though it was always being waged, was on too small a scale to produce many captives. In some places in that part of Africa, the locally accepted rules even prevented prisoners from being sold as slaves. Instead, the prisoners might be eaten; or the heads of enemy captains cut off as trophies, as Europeans cut off the heads of animals which they killed when hunting. Alexander Falconbridge, a ship’s surgeon in Bonny in the 1780s, wrote: “I never saw any negroes with recent wounds; which must have been the consequence at least with some of them, if they had been taken in battle. And it being the particular province of the surgeon to examine the slaves when they are purchased, such a circumstance could not have escaped my observation.”11

Nevertheless, in Central Africa—whence, after all, most slaves were exported, through Congo and Angola—there can be no question but that the slave trade stimulated wars. The guns traded by the Northern Europeans exacerbated the aggressive characteristics of anyway aggressive peoples. The constant raids of the Lunda on their neighbors, those of the Jaggas on theirs, and the Angolan troops—white, mulatto, or black—on the borders of their dominions are to be explained largely by the demand for slaves. Many of the problems of Central African monarchies would no doubt have occurred without the Atlantic slave trade. But the connection between the trade and the collapse of some kingdoms and the rise of others is certain; there had in this region before 1500 never been a large slave trade to the north, as had occurred in the land known so generally as “Guinea,” and one historian of the “kingdoms of the Savannah,” Vansina, has said that “the trade explains most of the history of the kingdoms of Central Africa between 1500 and 1900.”12

The Dutch, meantime, persuaded themselves that their trade had a peaceable effect on the Africans: reports of the Dutch West India Company show that its employees thought that peace was essential to get the slaves to the coast: “That the fire of war among the natives there has been to a large degree extinguished is very sweet and pleasant news,” ran one report.13 Yet the Dutch, in the seventeenth century, unlike the Portuguese before them, had no hesitation about exchanging guns, principally muskets, for slaves. The English and French were similarly unconcerned.

• • •

There was often little difference in practice between a war of two peoples and a raid by one leader on his neighbor’s town or village. Nor was there much difference between capturing prisoners on the field of battle and seizing them in a village after it had been captured. Still, kidnapping of individuals by kings in “general pillage” was performed almost every day in Africa, at least in the dry season, in Dr. Wadström’s opinion, and practiced by all the kings on the coast. This was certainly sometimes encouraged by Europeans. For example, the militaristic Bissagos Islanders in their devastating canoes were seeking no territory and no strategic alterations when, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they launched their raids on each other and on the mainland: they wanted to obtain slaves for the Portuguese. In the late eighteenth century, Sir George Young thought that, in Senegambia, slaving was “excited by the French officers and the mulattoes that accompanied the embassy by means of a constant intoxication.” The surgeon John Atkins described how the king of Whydah was “as absolute as a boar, making sometimes fair agreements with his country neighbours, . . . but, if he cannot obtain a sufficient number of slaves that way, he marches an army, and depopulates. He and the King of Ardra [Allada],” added this witness, “commit great depredations inland.”14

In such raids, old men and women, as well as children, were considered valueless and often killed. Sometimes, as the German explorer Heinrich Barth recorded as late as the 1850s, at Bornu in northern Nigeria, men in the prime of life to the number of 170 were left to bleed to death after a raid. The British naval officer Sir George Young once found a beautiful infant boy who had been kidnapped the night before and whom the Africans could not sell. They had said that they would throw him into the sea; at this, Young bought the boy for “a quarter cask of vidonia [Canary Island] wine,” and presented him in England to the prime minister, Lord Shelburne (who, he believed, still seems to have owned him ten years later). In Angola most slaves were obtained through kidnapping (by black middlemen); but razzias were common in the north, where such raids accompanied the consolidation of the Sokoto caliphate.

Occasionally, kings of Africa would resort to raids among their own people so as to satisfy the European demand for slaves, but this was unusual: had it not been through such a practice that the Akwamu empire had collapsed? All the same, in the 1730s, a king on the river Saalum, between Cape Verde and Gambia, often attacked his own villages at night, set fire to the houses, and seized the escaping residents for slaves; the Ashanti kings Kusi Obudum and Osei Kodwo, in the 1760s, also permitted the defeated King Ebicram to raid their dependent cities in regions of Akwapim and Accra.

Kidnapping by merchants or individuals was a “general way of procuring single slaves,” in the words of Wadström. The consequence was that, if people had to travel at all, they traveled in large, and armed, groups. Wadström explained: “Every town having their own cabiceers or ruling men . . . [are] all so jealous of the others’ panyarring [that is, kidnapping] that they never care to walk even a mile or two from home without firearms; each knows it is their [own] villainies and robberies upon one another that enables them to carry out a slave trade with Europeans; and, as the strength fluctuates, it is not infrequent for him who sells you slaves to-day to be a few days hence sold himself at some neighbouring town. . . .”15

Children were almost always left with neighbors if their parents were away, and many of them spent numerous hours sitting in trees watching for kidnappers. Olaudah Equiano, a slave from the region of the Gambia, and one of the very few who lived to describe their experience of the trade, explained: “Generally, when the grown people in the neighbourhood were gone far in the fields to labour, the children assembled together in some of the neighbours’ premises to play; and, commonly, some of us used to get up a tree to look out for an assaillant or kidnapper. . . . One day, as I was watching at the top of a tree in our yard, I saw one of those people come into the yard of our next neighbour but one, to kidnap, there being many stout young people in it. Immediately . . . I gave the alarm of the rogue, and he was surrounded . . . so that he could not escape till some of the grown people came and secured him. But . . . 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, 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.” Equiano explained that, when they reached a neighborhood which he recognized, he tried to cry out, whereupon his captors put him in a sack. He was soon separated from his sister, and sold to an African chief, who was reasonably kind. He escaped from him, returned home, was captured again, resold, and subsequently sold again to people who sold him to the English.16

Wadström described how this “pillage” was “practised by individuals who, tempted by the merchandise brought by the Europeans, lie in wait for one another. For this purpose, they beset the roads, so that a travelling negro can hardly ever escape them. . . . A Moor [a Muslim] seized a negro and . . . brought him to Sénégal and sold him to the [French Sénégal] company. A few days afterwards, this Moor was himself taken by some negroes in the same manner and brought to be sold in his turn. The Company [of Sénégal] seldom buy Moors: but, as they were obliged, in consequence of their privileges, to supply the colony of Cayenne with a certain number of slaves, and as several ships then in the road . . . could not complete their cargoes, they made the less scruple to buy him. . . . Chance so directed that the Moor, after he had been purchased, was carried on board the same ship in which the negro lay. They no sooner met than a quarrel took place between them, which occasioned for some days a great tumult in the vessel. Such encounters frequently happen on slave ships,” added the Swede, “and the uproars occasioned are seldom or never quieted, till some mischief has been done.”17

Willem Bosman, speaking from forty years’ experience on the African coast, wrote in the early eighteenth century that “nine parts in ten of the slaves are of other countries.”18 That comment suggested that the tenth part would have been obtained from the people who were doing the selling. There were two possibilities: either that the slaves became so as a result of being enslaved as a punishment; or that they were sold as slaves because of the poverty of their parents. Sir George Young thought that punishment was, indeed, the second-most-usual way of making slaves available. Judicial enslavement was certainly frequent in Angola. Debtors, murderers, and adulterers were also often punished in West African societies by being sold into slavery. Sometimes, the most minor offenses were so punished: “Every trifling crime is punish’d in the same manner,” wrote Francis Moore of the RAC in the 1730s. Insolvency was sometimes treated in the same way. The mere existence of the Atlantic slave trade, Moore thought, meant that more and more offenses were punished by slavery and, there being an advantage to such condemnations, “they strain for crimes very hard, in order to sell into slavery. . . . In Cantor [on the Gambia] a man seeing a tiger [presumably a lion] eating a deer which he had killed and hung up near his house fired at the tiger and the bullet killed a man; the King not only condemned him, but also his Mother, three brothers and three sisters to be sold. . . .”19

Bonny, on the way to becoming the largest slave market in the delta of the Niger at the end of the eighteenth century, was usually provided with slaves in consequence of fines levied by the oracle Chukwu. These slaves were demanded from convicted individuals or even families. It was then said that the oracle had eaten them. In fact, they were passed to the merchants on the coast by the Aro priests—a clerical commitment which was certainly not excelled by the Jesuits. Votaries who consulted the oracle, and whose questions were thought to be stupid, were also sometimes seized as slaves, an unusual treatment of folly. It has been suggested, perhaps with exaggeration, that more than half the slaves from the delta ports passed through this medium.

Sale as a slave was a frequent punishment in all parts of Africa for repeated theft. Kidnapping another for purposes of sale was also often rewarded by being enslaved oneself. Adultery by a woman, or by a man if he were to seduce a wife of an important man, could also lead to enslavement. In 1821, an Efik was sold at Calabar for “ravishing his father’s wives.” Oddities were also often sold into slavery: twins, the mothers of twins, children with deformities, even girls who menstruated before the expected age.

Thomas Poplett, of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, in Gorée during its control by the British during the Seven Years’ War, reported that very often slaves in his neighborhood were supplied by villages in the region of the Sénégal in default of tribute: “To furnish the revenues . . . every village pays a regular custom to the King. . . . This . . . is paid in slaves, powder, shot, brandy, tobacco and other merchandise brought from Europe; when this custom is not paid regularly, the King gives notice to pay it and, if not then paid within a certain time, he comes down with a force, and breaks the village; that is, he takes a great number of the inhabitants prisoners, whom he detains for some time; if the duties are paid, he restores the prisoners; if not, they are sold as slaves.” Captain Phillips recalled in 1694 that the king of Whydah “often, when ships are in a great strait for slaves and cannot be supply’d otherwise, will sell 300 or 400 of his wives to complete their number. . . .”20

The sale of children sometimes occurred when a family had nothing to eat. The children might be pawned. Domestic slaves might also be sold: indeed, in the 1850s, 30 percent of Sigismund Koelle’s informants had been domestics before they were sold by masters.

The Europeans kidnapped some Africans. But most European traders, especially if working for a great national company such as the RAC, were always determined to keep on good terms with the Africans and, therefore, to avoid random kidnapping, which would deprive the African trader of his payment; but the “separate traders,” the interlopers, men from Nantes or Bristol in the early eighteenth century, “had little concern for the future in comparison with their desire for immediate profit,” and so sometimes broke the rules. Sometimes those who kidnapped came to grief: Dr. Wadström described how, on the island of Gorée, the captain of an English ship, which had been for some time on the river Gambia, enticed several natives on board and then sailed away with them. “His vessel was . . . driven back to the coast from which it set sail, and was obliged to cast anchor on the very spot where this act of treachery had been committed. At this time, two other English vessels were lying in the same river. The natives, ever since the transaction, had determined to retaliate. . . . They accordingly boarded the three vessels and, having made themselves masters of them, killed most of their crews. The few who escaped to tell the tale were obliged to take refuge in a neighbouring French factory.”21

In general, therefore, experienced slave traders from Europe avoided seizing Africans without negotiation and payment, because such a practice damaged future prospects. But this prudent self-denial did not apply to the lançados, those interesting Afro-Portuguese settlers whose families had lived in the estuaries of the rivers of Guinea for three centuries. They conducted themselves as if they were Africans and raided coasts for slaves in the region of Bissau or Cacheu. Captain Towerson, the first English trader to go to the Gold Coast, was told by the king of Shama in the 1550s that “the Portugals were bad men and . . . they made them [the Africans] slaves if they could take them.”22

Yet Europeans always obtained a few slaves by “stealing” them. In 1702, the Africans near Cape Mesurado complained to Willem Bosman of the Dutch West India Company that “the English had been there, with two large vessels and had ravaged the country, destroyed all their canoes, plundered their houses, and carried off some of their people as slaves.”23 In 1716, the monarch of Fooni received five men from the RAC’s chief agent on the river Gambia, whose mission was to “take a place up the river named Geogray and to ‘panyar’ [kidnap] the people and make them slaves.”24 Two years later, Bennet, the RAC’s man at Commenda, on the Gold Coast, was accused of encouraging his gunner, an African, to seize black girls and boys in order to sell them to English captains. John Douglas, on the Warwick Castle, a slave ship, reported that he went ashore at Bonny in 1771 and “saw a young woman come out of the wood to the waterside to bathe; afterwards, I saw two men come out of the wood who seized the woman, secured her hands behind her back, beat her and ill-used her, on account of the resistance she made, and brought her down to me, and desired me to put her on board, which I did; for it was the captain’s orders to the ship’s company whenever anybody came down with slaves, instantly to put them on board the ship.” Richard Drake, a garrulous captain of the nineteenth century, wrote that on the first ship on which he served, about 1805, Captain Fraley of Bristol usually conducted his trade by barter, “but he also organised hunting expeditions on his own account . . . on the small rivers which emptied into the Gambia. . . . It was customary for parties of sailors and coast blacks to lie in wait near the streams and little villages, and seize the stragglers by twos and threes when they were fishing or cultivating their patches of corn.”25 General Rooke, in command at Gorée when it was in British hands after the Seven Years’ War, told the Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1790 that, when about 150 Africans came to greet him as governor, three English slave captains suggested that they should carry them all off to the West Indies, asserting that every previous governor would have accepted the idea straightaway.

Still, there was always a sense, let us say, of priorities among slave traders. Francis Moore explained that, besides the slaves whom the merchants brought down from the interior, many were bought along the river Gambia: “These are either taken in war, as the former are, or else men condemned for crimes, or else people stolen, which is very frequent. . . . The Company’s servants never buy any of the last if they suspect it, without sending for the alcalde or chief man of the place, and consulting with them about the matter.” In 1765, Captain Charles Thomas, who had taken the Black Prince directly from Virginia to Guinea, was furious at the suggestion that he “clandestinely carried off by force several free men from the coast of Africa. . . . It gives me much concern that I should be accused of an action which I should condemn in another.”26

• • •

Fairs where slaves could be bought and sold, and which were available to the coastal peoples, thrived long before the coming of the Europeans to the coast of Africa. The large markets of Senegambia, for instance, included Bambuhu, Khasso, Segú, and Bambarena. In the late eighteenth century, near the last-named, the local ruler maintained and guarded something like a slave village, where captives could be held until they were able to be sold. Sometimes, naturally, slaves were born in these villages; and Mungo Park, the redoubtable botanist and son of a farmer on the duke of Buccleuch’s estate at Fowleshiels near Selkirk who traveled in the region in the 1790s, thought that the African merchants preferred those who had been brought up in such circumstances since, never having known freedom, they did not think of running away.

In this so-called western Sudan, most slave traders in the eighteenth century were Muslims. Islam, of course, still prohibited the enslavement of its own devotees, but blessed that of pagans by Muslims. By about 1780, most of the Muslim states in the interior depended on slave labor. There were slaves in households, in workshops, in the fields, in the harems (as eunuchs and as concubines), in the civil services, and in the armies. Some slaves rose to high positions, as they had done under Rome or in Muslim Spain, though even privileged slaves always risked injustice at the whim of their masters. Kings and noblemen lived by slave raiding and slave trading. If there had been no slaves, women would have had to work, and so would not have been kept in seclusion. That would have been a serious crime according to the Koran and would, indeed, risk hell-fire for the criminal.II

Slaves in the Muslim world had some undoubted advantages. They alone were socially mobile in the society concerned. Transport in a slave coffle was a terrible experience but, once settled, slaves could make a life for themselves better than they generally could in the Americas. Household slaves were always, not just occasionally, treated as members of the family. Slaves in slave villages would usually have their own plots on which they could grow plants. Though there was always a legal distinction between a freeman and a slave, there was little economic or social difference. Slaves could even own slaves, and some slaves also participated in slaving expeditions. None of this affected the Atlantic slave trade directly, but the presence in the African interior of a vast slave society encouraged coastal monarchies, whether or not they were Muslims, in their own slaving activities.

Thus, in the far interior of what is now Nigeria, there were many markets (including some full-scale fairs) where slaves were sold and bought. For example, just below the confluence of the rivers Niger and Benue, near Igala, the capital of Idah, there was an important island market at which eleven thousand slaves were sold a year—three hundred a session. These markets might serve the Atlantic slave trade, or the trade to the Muslim north, or both.

Of markets such as these, Mungo Park would write: “There are indeed regular markets, where . . . the value of a slave in the eye of an African purchaser, increases in proportion to his distance from his native kingdom. . . .” For that purpose, the slave was frequently transferred from one dealer to another, until he lost all hopes of returning to his native kingdom.

The slaves purchased by the Europeans on the coasts were, Park thought, usually of this description: “When a free man is taken prisoner, his friends will sometimes ransom him by giving two slaves in exchange; but, when a slave is taken, he has no hopes of redemption. . . . The slaves which Karfa [an African trader who befriended Park] brought with him were all of them prisoners of war. . . . Eleven of them confessed that they had been slaves from their infancy; but the other two refused to give any account of their former condition.” They were all very inquisitive; and they viewed Park with looks of horror, and repeatedly asked if his countrymen were cannibals. “They were very desirous to know what became of the slaves after they had crossed the salt water. I told them that they were employed in cultivating the land; but they would not believe me; and one of them, putting his hand on the ground, said to me . . . ‘have you really got such ground as this to set your feet upon?’ ”27

From these internal markets, the slaves would be marched under guard, in coffles, of about a hundred people, to the ports. The slaves would often be chained together in twos or threes, and sometimes they were forced to carry goods (water, sorghum, ivory, wax, hides) or even stones on their heads in order to discourage them from trying to escape.

Slaves were, of course, harshly treated in Africa before they were bought by Europeans. Barbot reported how most of them were “severely and barbarously treated by their masters, who subsist them poorly, and beat them inhumanely, as may be seen by the scabs and wounds on the bodies of many of them when sold to us. They scarcely allow them the least rag to cover their nakedness, which they take off them when sold to Europeans; and they always go bare-headed. . . . When dead, they never bury them, but cast out their bodies into some place, to be devoured by birds, or beasts of prey.”28

Both the RAC and Barbot, like all Europeans, were, admittedly, at the mercy of wild stories: and Africans who sold the captives would give out that, in the interior of the continent, “there were cruel, and ferocious, irreconcilable enemies who drank human blood and ate their prisoners . . .” Such exaggerations were put about by merchants who transported their slaves by means of the yoke of a so-called bois mayombé, by which, if the slave pulled, the supervisor could tug and choke, even strangle, the slave. They did not want European inquiries into any of their activities.

Many of the slaves on the coast near the estuary of the Gambia, Willem Bosman wrote, were Brumbrongs and Petcharias, people who each have a different language, “and are brought from a great way inland. Their way of bringing them is, tying from each other, thirty or forty in a string, having generally a bundle of corn or an elephants tooth upon their heads. In their way from the mountains, they travel thro’ very great woods, where they cannot for some days get water, so they carry in skin-bags enough to support them for that time. . . . They use asses as well as slaves in carrying their goods, but no camels or horses.”29

A French officer, Meinhard Xavier Golbéry, traveled in Sénégal in the 1780s. Visiting twenty African peoples in the hope of extending French influence there, he described seeing “whole chains of captives arrived from all parts, at the market of the trade, and we were astonished to learn that many of these caravans of slaves did not arrive at Galam in the Sénégal . . . and at the factories of the rivers Sherbro, Gabon, Volta, Benin, and Zaire [Congo], before they had performed marches of sixty, seventy, and eighty days; and by calculating these routes, it was evident that they must have come from the most central regions of Africa. We may, therefore, be convinced,” he added, “that the interior of this continent is not so desert a place as has been long imagined. . . .”30

The costs of a slave on the coast would have to be shared by a multitude of people who would have to pay tolls, taxes, and so on en route, so that, quite possibly, the original enslaver, the kidnapper, or the original captor in a half-forgotten skirmish, might receive only 5 percent or so of the price obtained on the coast.

Wadström noted in Senegambia: “The unhappy captives, many of whom are people of distinction, such as princes, priests, and persons high in office, are conducted by the Mandingoes in drives of twenty, thirty, and forty, chained together either to Fort St Joseph on the river Sénégal or . . . to places near the river Gambia. . . . These Mandingoes perform the whole journey, except at certain seasons of the year when they are met by the traders belonging to the coast, who receive the slaves from them, and give them the usual articles of merchandise in exchange. . . . I was curious enough to wish to see some of those that had just arrived, [and] I applied to the director of the Company who conducted me to the slave prisons. I saw there the unfortunate captives, chained two and two together, by the foot. The mangled bodies of several of them, whose wounds were still bleeding, exhibited a most shocking spectacle. . . .”31

Portuguese pombeiros (usually mulattoes) entered the tropical forests to the east of Luanda and Benguela innumerable times, but none of them left an account. The only European to accompany an African slave caravan for any length of time, and to write of it, was Mungo Park. His heroic journey, to Segú, the capital of the Bambara, the great slave market, where he saw, on July 20, 1796, “with infinite pleasure . . . the long sought for, majestic, Niger, glittering to the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing eastward,” thereby correcting the geographical errors of centuries, needs no commemoration.III, 32

Park reported in 1799 (on behalf of the African Association, an initially scientific, latterly commercial body founded in 1788), that a typical slave coffle in the upper valley of the river Sénégal would spend about seven to eight hours on the road every day, and would start at daybreak, continuing till the early afternoon—before, that is, the worst heat of the day. An average march would be twenty miles a day in good circumstances. Some caravans would comprise a thousand slaves, which would necessitate several hundred porters and guards. The leader of the koffle, the saatigi, would be chosen by discussion.

Park wrote that the slaves whom he saw were usually secured by placing the right leg of one and the left leg of another into the same pair of fetters. If the fetters were connected by a string, these men could walk, though slowly. Every four slaves might also be fastened together by the necks, with a strong rope of twisted thongs and, at night additional fetters would be put on their hands. Sometimes, a chain would be passed round their necks. Those slaves who protested were imprisoned in a thick billet of wood about three feet long and, a smooth notch being made upon one side of it, the ankle of the slave was bolted to the smooth part by means of a strong staple, one ring of which was passed on each side of the ankle. All these fetters and bolts were made from African iron.

In some respects, the treatment of slaves was, Park thought, far from being harsh or cruel. They were led out in their fetters every morning to the shade of the tamarind tree, where they were encouraged to play games of chance, and asked to sing, to keep up their spirits. (Among the freemen accompanying the caravan were six singing men, whose musical talents were used both to divert the slaves and to obtain a welcome from strangers.) In the evening, the irons were examined and hand fetters put on; after which they were conducted to two large huts, where they were guarded during the night by domestic slaves of the coffle’s leader.

When Park and the coffle left the town of Kamalia, they were followed for about half a mile by most of the inhabitants of the town, some of them crying, and others shaking hands with relations who were about to leave them forever; and, when they had gained a piece of rising ground from which they had a view of the town, all the slaves were ordered to sit in one place, with their faces towards the west, and the townspeople were asked to sit down in another place, with their faces towards Kamalia. The schoolmaster pronounced a prayer. When this ceremony was ended, all the people belonging to the coffle sprang up and, without taking formal farewell of their friends, set off. Since many of the slaves had remained for years in irons, the sudden exertion of walking quickly, with heavy loads upon their legs, occasioned spasmodic contractions of those limbs, and the procession of slaves had not journeyed a mile before it was found necessary to detach two of them from the rope and allow them to walk more slowly.

Bala was the first town beyond the limits of the Mandingo kingdom. The slaves marched towards the town in a procession. In front walked the singing men, and they were followed by other free people. Then came the slaves, fastened, in the usual way, by a rope round their necks, four of them to a rope, and a man with a spear between each two groups of four. After them came the domestic slaves and, in the rear, the free women. In this way, they walked until they came within a hundred yards of the gate of the town. Here the singing men began to chant loudly, intending to flatter the vanity of the inhabitants by extolling their well-known hospitality to strangers and their particular friendship for the Mandingos. When they entered the town, the procession went to the center of the place, where the people gathered round the coffle to hear its history. This was related by two of the singing men. They related every circumstance which had befallen the coffle. When that account was ended, the chief of the town gave the leaders a small present, and all the people of the coffle, both free and enslaved, were invited home by some person or other and accommodated for the night.

The next town which they approached was Koba. Before they entered it, the names of the people belonging to the coffle were called over, and one freeman and three slaves were found to be missing. All presumed that the slaves had murdered the freeman and escaped. It was, therefore, agreed that six people would go back to the last village, both to find the body and to collect news of the slaves. The remaining slaves waited, lying down in a cotton field, all forbidden to speak except in a whisper.

Towards morning, the six men returned, having heard nothing of the missing man or the slaves. Since no one had eaten for the last twenty-four hours, it was agreed that the expedition should continue to Koba and seek provisions. They accordingly entered the town before daylight, and the leader bought food, in the form of groundnuts, which they roasted and ate for breakfast. About eleven o’clock, the freeman and slaves who seemed to have deserted the coffle entered the town. One of the slaves, it appeared, had hurt his foot. . . .

The expedition was later joined by some Serawoolli traders. A slave dropped a load from his head, for which he was whipped. The load was replaced; but the slave had not gone more than a mile before he let it fall a second time, for which he received the same punishment. After this, he traveled in great pain. The day being remarkably hot, he became exhausted, so that his master was obliged to release him from the rope, for he lay motionless upon the ground. A Serawoolli, therefore, undertook to remain with him and try to bring him to town during the cool of the night. About eight o’clock the same evening, the Serawoolli returned and said that the slave was dead. The general opinion was that the Serawoolli had killed him, or left him to perish on the road: the Serawoollis were known to be more cruel to slaves than the Mandingo were.

At about ten o’clock the next morning, the coffle met another one of some twenty-six people and seven loaded donkeys; the people explained that they were returning from the valley of the river Gambia, which was not far away. Most of the men in the new coffle were armed with muskets, and several wore broad belts of scarlet cloth, no doubt from Manchester, over their shoulders, with European hats on their heads. These men explained that there was little demand for slaves on the coast, for no trading vessel had arrived for some months past. On hearing this, the Serawoollis separated themselves and their slaves from the coffle. They could not, they said, maintain their slaves in the estuary of the Gambia until a vessel arrived, and were unwilling to sell their captives at a loss. They therefore left for the north towards the Sénégal. . . . Park with his group continued on his way through the wilderness, and traveled through a rugged country covered with extensive thickets of bamboo.

One of the slaves belonging to the coffle who had traveled with great difficulty for the previous three days was found unable to continue. His master, a singing man, proposed to exchange him for a young slave girl belonging to one of the townspeople at the next village. The girl concerned was ignorant of her fate until all the bundles carried by the slaves were tied up in the morning and the expedition was ready to depart. Then, coming with some other girls to see the coffle set out, her master took her by the hand and delivered her to the singing man. “Never,” said Park, “was a face of serenity more suddenly changed into one of the deepest distress. The terror which she manifested on having the load put upon her head and the rope fastened round her neck, and the sorrow with which she bade adieu to her companions, were truly affecting.”

Park wrote that he parted for the last time with “my unfortunate fellow travellers, doomed as I knew most of them to be to a life of captivity and slavery in a foreign land,” with great emotion. “During a wearisome peregrination of more than five hundred British miles, exposed to the burning rays of a tropical sun, these poor slaves, amidst their own infinitely greater sufferings, would commiserate mine; and frequently, of their own accord, bring water to quench my thirst and, at night, collect branches and leaves to prepare me a bed in the wilderness.”33

When slaves came from the far interior, as they so often did, the long journey to the coast weakened the captives terribly; many died from shortage of food, exhaustion, exposure, as well as dysentery or other diseases. Raymond Jalamá, a merchant of Luanda, estimated, in the late eighteenth century, that nearly half of the captives might be lost through either flight or death between the moment of capture and arrival at the sea.34 Whatever the truth of the matter, as a modern historian points out with respect to Angola, where either warfare or kidnapping caused the initial capture, “the victims would have begun their odysseys [across the Atlantic] in exhausted, shaken, and perhaps wounded physical condition.”

ISee page 47.

IIOne specialty remained a characteristic of the Muslim slave trade, which did not occur in its sister commerce of the Atlantic: a continuing interest in eunuchs, to guard the harems of the monarchies of Africa and the Ottoman empire. Some eunuchs became civil servants. The gelding of fully grown young men was a normal practice in the western Sudan, even though, unless the surgeon was a member of the reputedly skilled Mossi tribe (who inhabited what is now Upper Volta and northern Ghana), the loss in life was considerable.

IIIIt was not commemorated at all on July 20, 1996, at a time when many far less important discoveries were amply recalled.

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