Many Africans around the world today refuse to believe that coastal Africans were not only active partners and participants with Europeans in the Atlantic Slave Trade, but actually controlled the trade on the coast and the interior. I have been involved in a number of African web forum debates where people have stoutly insisted that Europeans must have used some overt or covert method of compulsion to get Africans to commit such a grave moral transgression as selling their own people. You can find a form of this argument in Afrocentric scholar Dr. Molefi Kete Asante’s claim that the Europeans employed “overpowering force” to make Africans assist them in their “agenda.”
One reason for this refusal to believe is ideological and the other is moral. There is an ideological belief strongly held by many educated Africans—and promoted by Africanist ideologues like Walter Rodney—that European-instigated Atlantic Slavery is a primary, if not THE primary, cause of present African underdevelopment. This firm belief that African backwardness was imposed from outside makes it difficult for some Africans to accept that Africans of the slavery era were willing participants since it would mean that Africans were deeply involved in the creation of their own backwardness.
There is also an underlying moral assumption that slavery has always been known to be a great evil, recognized as such by everyone in the past. I sometimes think people imagine Atlantic slavery to be something like the drug dealing and sexual slavery of today, where the dealers are a minority of morally bankrupt people who know that what they are doing is wrong, but just want to make easy money, and don’t care whom they harm. Thus innocent Africans cannot have possibly sold their people to those cruel Europeans without some form of coercion being involved. The sense of shame that Africans have attached to slavery makes them want to avoid any hint of culpability. But all this is based on a mistaken understanding of the moral world of the slave era and the role of slavery in the pre-modern economy.
Slavery was one of the earliest forms of labour in the world, and until very recent times, the primary form of labour. It was a universal practice found in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Free paid labour was a minority form of labour, and slavery was used for most domestic and economic labour purposes. Slavery historian Seymour Drescher tells us that as late as the 1850s in the US south, free labour was regarded as “a little experiment” from “a corner of Western Europe,” that was “a cruel failure.” British historian Jeremy Black explains: “….free labour ….is a product of particular environments, notably those with high liquidity in which the purchase of work by means of wages could be used as the means to secure labour.” In other words, free labour evolves in places where there are high levels of liquid cash to pay regular wages; how do you pay regular wages in an economy that depends primarily on barter, for instance?
In Africa before the Atlantic Slave Trade, most communities kept slaves and bought and sold slaves in internal markets. Mohammed Bashir Salau, the Nigerian historian of West African plantation slavery, reports that the first record of slavery in Kano in Northern Nigeria dates back to the 14th century. He also writes that “In West Africa, various Islamic states employed slaves in plantations from the medieval era through the nineteenth century.” In those African societies, hard as it may be for us to understand today, slavery was seen as an economic and social necessity, and was normal, lawful and not a moral evil.
It was not a moral transgression in Europe either, at least not until the 18th century when the great European moral transformation began in England with the abolition movement. The slave ship captain and later fervent abolitionist, John Newton, writer of the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote about his participation in the infernal trade: “During the time I was engaged in the slave trade, I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness. I was, upon the whole, satisfied with it as the appointment Providence had marked out for me.” In other words, he believed slave trading was the job God had created him to do.
The idea that slavery is a great evil was puzzling to Africans of the time of abolition. For example when the British emissary Joseph Dupuis visited the Asantehene (king) Osei Bonsu in 1820, the king of the Asante people asked Dupuis a question about something the king found baffling. “….the white men do not understand my country,” he said to Dupuis, “or they would not say that the slave trade was bad. But if they think it bad now, why did they think it good before?” It was a question Dupuis could not answer.
King Guezo of Dahomey was even more forthright about the importance of slavery to his kingdom. In 1850, when told by Lieutenant Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy that Queen Victoria, “for the welfare of the human race,” wanted him to stop the trade in slaves, he replied, “My people are a military people, male and female; my revenue is the proceeds of the sale of prisoners of war.” He explained that the people of Dahomey did not farm, and were entirely dependent on the sale of slaves. He instead requested that the Royal Navy close all other slave ports, but leave his own port at Whydah open so he could export slaves to Brazil.
But was force used elsewhere? Is Dr. Asante still right in claiming that “overpowering force” was used in making Africans “assist” Europeans in the slave trade?
The Europeans recognized early that the balance of military power rested with the coastal Africans, and negotiated with them for a “peaceful” trade. There were recognized rules and customs, and each side knew what to expect from the other—in simple terms, the Europeans brought manufactured trade goods, and exchanged them for slaves gathered by the Africans. The Africans were always trying to manipulate and game the rules, and this irked the Europeans who left records. But they went along with it and probably saw it as a cost of doing business. Their greatest ire however was reserved for those European slave ship captains who violated the rule that forbade the kidnapping of free Africans because such behavior put the next slave ship that came along in danger of revenge attacks from the Africans.
Obviously the Atlantic Slave Trade was a vast and complex undertaking and if you look hard enough, you will find instances where force may have been used. The case cited most often by force advocates is the 16th century Kongo kingdom where King Afonso Mvemba a Nzinga, attempted to regulate slavery in his kingdom. King Afonso is often presented as an African abolitionist who was forced to trade in slaves by the Portuguese. Dr. Asante claims that Afonso did not want slave trading in his kingdom, and “in 1526, the Mani-Kongo [Afonso] attacked the Portuguese,” but there is no evidence of this. The evidence in the complaining letters Afonso sent to King Joao III of Portugal suggests that Afonso was offended not by slavery per se, but by the kidnapping of Kongo noblemen and relatives of the king to sell as slaves. Other sources, like the Dictionary of African Biography, assert that Afonso’s main concern was that private Portuguese traders did not respect his monopoly of the slave trade, and did not pay him commissions. Eventually Afonso agreed to the slave trade, and there is no evidence force was used to compel him or his kingdom to do so. One reason why he changed his mind, according to the Dictionary, is because new slave markets that were under his royal administration were created. Another is that he was able to begin to tax the Portuguese on the sale of slaves.
Advocates of the idea that Europeans used force to compel Africans ignore the fact that, in most cases during slavery, it was the coastal Africans, not the Europeans, who were in the best position to employ “overpowering force”. There are a number of reasons for this.
The first is that Africans had numbers on their side. The typical slave ship had a crew that ranged from about 30 to 60 sailors performing various tasks. Coastal kingdoms could marshal from 10,000 to 15,000 warriors. Even if the Europeans had guns and the Africans did not (and in many cases, the coastal Africans did have guns), the disparity in numbers was simply too great to overcome with the primitive guns of the time. For a discussion of the type of guns available to Europeans of the time and their general ineffectiveness, see the post “Their guns were greater.”
In addition to being outnumbered, the Europeans had very little resistance to the diseases found in West and West Central Africa, killer diseases like Malaria falciparum, the deadliest strain of malaria in the world, found mostly in the slave trade regions of the Gold Coast and Bights of Benin and Biafra. During the slave trade, there was no cure for malaria or any of the deadly West African diseases, and nobody knew or understood the real cause of the deaths that were happening: they often thought it was due to bad air (mal aria) from swamps. European sailors started to die at a rapid rate only a few days after they arrived on the coast, and some have put the average death rate at about 20% of slave ship crews. In the British settlements in Sierra Leone and Gambia in 1825 and 1826, the average number of deaths among British soldiers there ranged from 50% to 100% (see, Africa and the West: A documentary history, by Worger et al, p.156). In other words, in a conflict, Africans really did not have to find ways to kill the Europeans—the disease climate could do the job quite well.
But there are indeed a few cases where Europeans tried to use force to compel Africans to trade in slaves. Let us look at an illuminating example. In a January 31, 1757 report from Captain Baillie of the slave ship Carter to the ship’s owners in Liverpool, he records that the ship had arrived at Bonny, a slave port in the Bight of Biafra, in December 1756. He found there two other slave ships—the Marquis of Lothian, and the Hector—and both ships had not yet filled their holds with slaves. At the time of writing, he had only 15 slaves on board, and another slave ship, the Phoenix, had arrived on the 3rd of January. A dozen members of Baillie’s crew were very sick and he had just buried two in the last week. He himself had had a strong fever for 8 days that had sometimes made him delirious.
On the 19th of January, the people of Bonny suddenly stopped trading slaves with the four European ships. This is something Africans often did along the coast when they felt the Europeans were in desperate straits. It enabled the Africans to squeeze higher slave prices from Europeans eager to leave a region deadly to their crews.
The four slave ship captains then marched on shore to “know the reason [for the stoppage] and applied to the King thrice, though he constantly ordered himself to be denied, and wou’d not admit us.” The frustrated ship’s captains went back to their ships and held a meeting at which they decided to bombard the town of Bonny with their ship’s cannon to make the king see reason and resume trade. This they did the next morning. Their cannon unsurprisingly had very little effect from the Bonny River. The inefficient cannon of those days fired stone or solid iron balls and had an effective range of a few hundred yards. Because they were doing very little damage, the captains decided to send two ships, the Phoenix and the Hector, into the creeks closer to the town.
Very bad idea, because the well-armed Africans were waiting for them. The Bonny Africans peppered the ships with musket fire from the shore, a distance of about 20 yards, and hit the Phoenix several times with cannon balls from Bonny’s own shore-based cannon. These were weapons the Africans had acquired in the past from the Europeans in exchange for slaves. Many coastal African kingdoms were well-equipped with pistols, muskets and cannon.
The Africans on shore and the crew of the Phoenix traded gunfire for a while, with the ship getting the worst of it. This led the captain to “strike the colours,” or lower the ship’s flags, an indication of surrender. But the Africans were not having it, and kept up their cannonade on the now shattered ship. When the ship’s crew and captain saw several canoes filled with armed men approaching to swarm the ship, they escaped under fire in the ship’s row boats to the Hector. The Africans then boarded the Phoenix, offloaded her cargo of trade goods, and set the ship ablaze. The other ships withdrew with all possible speed.
This sort of event, while rare, was not a one-off. There were a number of other instances of Africans on the Slave Coast besting Europeans in a confrontation, or Africans acting against European interests with impunity.
Another example of Africans on the coast showing the Europeans who was in charge was in Axim on the Gold Coast, where an Akan chief known as John Conny (or John Canoe, immortalized in the Caribbean today in the Jonkanoo festivals ) seized the German Fort Fredericksburg in 1708 and held it for 20 years. The town was a watering place for slave ships, and Conny made everyone who stopped to fill their water casks pay him a tax of one ounce of gold. Those who refused were imprisoned by Conny or beaten up by his men. Conny had leased the land on which the fort was built to German traders, but they had sold the fort to the Dutch apparently without John Conny’s knowledge. Conny refused to give up the fort to the Dutch. According to Royal Navy surgeon John Atkins who visited Axim in 1721, the Dutch came to claim the fort with, “a bomb-Vessel and two or three Frigates… to demand a Surrendry.” After bombarding Ahanta, Conny’s home town, the Dutch sent ashore 40 armed men to seize the fort. But they were outnumbered by John Conny’s men who “cut them in pieces,” and “pav[ed] the entrance of his Palace soon after, with their Skulls.”
In 1727, the great warrior king of the inland kingdom of Dahomey, Agaja Trudo, invaded and captured the slave port of Whydah, and most of the Europeans there fled. The ones who remained behind were force-marched 92 miles to Abomey, the king’s capital, to meet the king before they were freed. In a previous attack on the kingdom of Allada, King Agaja captured an English slave factor or agent, Bulfinch Lambe, who due to his inability to pay a debt had become a slave of the king of Allada. Agaja kept Lambe a slave (though a privileged one with many perks) in Abomey for two years before setting him free.
But Agaja’s most outrageous act in the eyes of some Europeans was the kidnapping, torture and execution of Charles Testesole, the English governor of the Whydah fort owned by the English slave trading firm, the Royal African Company. According to the slave ship captain William Snelgrave, Governor Testesole brought disaster upon himself by his “imprudent” acts: for some reason, he had become offended with the people and traders of Dahomey, and sought every opportunity to abuse them. He went as far as to whip one of their chief traders, and told the man that he would whip his king Agaja too if he had the opportunity. Well, he never did because when Agaja heard this, he gave orders to his men to kidnap the English governor, and bring him back to Abomey. There, he was tied to stakes face down on the ground. And in the words of Snelgrave, “…with sharp Knives [they] cut open his Arms, Back, Thighs and Legs in several places, and filled the Wounds with a mixture of Limejuice, Salt and Pepper mixed together; which put him to inexpressible Torment.” Eventually, Agaja’s men cut off the governor’s head.
So who was in control in Africa? You be the judge. Some historians say that the African elites of the slave trade era believed that they were getting the best of the slavery deal. But we now know that history has proven those African elites wrong.
Abolition: A history of slavery and anti-slavery by Seymour Drescher
Slavery: A new global history by Jeremy Black
Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 by John Thornton
Transformations in Slavery: A history of slavery in Africa by Paul E. Lovejoy
The West African Slave Plantation: A case study by Mohammed Bashir Salau
History of the Liverpool Privateers and Letters of Marque, with an account of the Liverpool Slave Trade 1744-1812, by Gomer Williams.
The Atlantic Slave Trade edited by David Northrup
King Guezo of Dahomey, 1850-52 edited by Tim Coates
Dictionary of African Biography, Vol I, edited by Emmanuel K. Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Africa and the West: A documentary history, Vol I: From the slave trade to conquest, 1441-1905, by William H. Worger, Nancy L. Clark, and Edward A. Alpers.
Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, Vol II, the eighteenth century, by Elizabeth Donnan.
A Voyage to Guinea, Brazil, and the West Indies by John Atkins
A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave Trade by William Snelgrave