In his chapter on the effects of the Atlantic slave trade, Walter Rodney, author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, engages in the typical sleight of hand found in much of the book. He admits that, with minor exceptions, what happened between Africans and Europeans on the coast was trade. In other words Africans traded slaves for European goods. He even admits that Africans traded slaves back and forth in the interior before the slaves got to the point of embarkation.
But then, when he examines the effects of the slave trade on the African continent, he drops any reference to the African side of the business, and calls it “the European Slave Trade.” After that, he declares that measuring its effects is the same as measuring social violence because it was a result of “warfare, trickery, banditry and kidnapping.” Here the distortions and biases of the book are clearly manifest: he does not mention that all this war and banditry and kidnapping was carried out enthusiastically by Africans.
This blog has established that “warfare, trickery, etc.” is only half of the story, and the other half is that slavery was part of the legal systems in many parts of West Africa—some slaves were not acquired through warfare and kidnapping, but became slaves as punishment for crimes against their society. In the way that our societies today banish transgressors to jail, those African societies banished transgressors into slavery. Others became slaves through an inability to pay off debts, or through sale by relatives trapped by poverty. This blog has also sought to establish that slavery was once a universal practice, a method—abhorrent today—of solving labour problems in the days before paid wage labour became widespread.
Rodney’s main concern in that particular book is not with explaining slavery and its economic, social and historical causes, but with laying blame. That blame-Europe-at-all-costs trope is sorely damaged though by what happened when Europeans finally decided that slavery was morally reprehensible, and needed to be stopped.
Did the Africans suddenly say, “Hallelujah, now we can stop enslaving our people, and freedom can now reign supreme?” No they did not.
Many African states and kingdoms just kept on trading slaves internally as they had done for centuries before the Europeans showed up. As a matter of fact, the internal slave trade grew in some places to absorb the supply of slaves that would have gone abroad.
But what is most damning for Rodney’s position is that some African kingdoms steadfastly refused when the British tried to persuade them to stop the illegal slave trade to the Americas. The ones most likely to ignore the British were the inland kingdoms far removed from bombardment by British warships after the British began to enforce the demand to end the slave trade. But even then, some like Bonny and Lagos on the coast defied the British and continued to trade in slaves. In fact, a few were ready to go to war for the right to sell slaves to the Portuguese, Brazilians, Americans and other non-African slave traders who were not in agreement with the British desire to abolish slavery.
Let us examine two prime examples of this refusal on the West Coast of Africa: the kingdom of Dahomey, and the kingdom of Lagos. These two kingdoms had become the center of the illegal trade that ran the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery blockade.
The British government tried peaceful diplomacy to get the two kingdoms to make the switch from the export of slaves to the export of palm oil and other “legitimate trade.” In October 1849, Lord Palmerston, the British foreign secretary and later prime minister, first sent Mr. John Duncan, Vice-Consul of Dahomey, and Lt. Frederick Forbes of the Royal Navy, to Abomey, capital of Dahomey, to negotiate with King Guezo to stop the abominable trade. After Guezo excused himself from signing an anti-slavery treaty on the grounds that slavery was the primary source of income for his kingdom, Palmerston again sent John Beecroft, Consul for the Bights of Benin and Biafra, as well as Lt. Forbes, to Abomey in May of 1850. They were authorized to make a proposal to King Guezo for him to switch from slaves to “legitimate trade” in palm oil and or cotton.
Palmerston anticipated that the king may not bite given that the switch may take some time in which the king would not earn any income. He authorized Beecroft and Forbes to offer the king, “an annual present [from the British Government] as a compensation for the loss which he would during that period sustain”. The “present” would be given in each of three years, and would be in goods or money according to the wish of the king.
Once again, the king rejected the proposal, saying, “If I stop the Slave Trade how can ….the [slave] merchants…who pay me 5,000 dollars annually, duties and presents, afford to pay their Customs? I cannot send my women to cultivate the soil, it would kill them. My people cannot in a short space of time become an agricultural people…..All my nation—all are soldiers and the Slave Trade feeds them.”
In the face of this refusal, the British then set up a naval blockade of the Dahomey ports, and in 1851, Guezo signed a treaty that promised to end all slave trading from Dahomey. The British believed that he never kept to the terms of the treaty, instead selling to traders who worked from other ports.
About the same time, in the seaport kingdom of Lagos east of Dahomey, two members of the royal family, Akitoye and the incorrigible Kosoko, were locked in a battle for the throne. Both were slave trading royalty, but Akitoye was a “nice guy,” while Kosoko was a total badass who seduced a major kingmaking chief’s betrothed, and as a result lost support in his struggle for the throne. He was exiled, and the throne was given to Akitoye. This is what we learned in school in Lagos, and it is true in most respects (As often happens with famous “bad guys,” the nickname “Kosoko” was very popular among teenage schoolboys when I was in high school).
But against the advice of his chiefs, Akitoye unwisely invited Kosoko back in an effort at reconciliation. Kosoko returned, and could think of nothing better to do than to carry out a palace coup in 1845, and drive King Akitoye and his followers out of Lagos.
In exile, Akitoye learned about the British demand that African kings stop the slave trade, and promised them that if they helped him get his throne back, he would sign the anti-slavery treaty.
Hoping to go the peaceful route, British Consul Beecroft first approached King Kosoko and asked him to sign the treaty. He refused, claiming that he was only a vassal of another king, the Oba of Benin, and could not do it without permission. The British then resorted to gunboat diplomacy in November 1851. They approached the Lagos Bar with a flotilla led by the warship HMS “Bloodhound,” supported by other smaller gunboats carrying a white flag of truce, while the cruisers “Waterwitch,” and “Harlequin” waited. King Kosoko had earlier warned the British not to show up in force. But the British boats kept coming. When the Brits came within range, the Lagosians opened up with musket fire.
The British ships hauled down their flag of truce and kept advancing. The Lagos defenders on shore then began a cannonade with their heavy guns, and the gunboats responded in kind with shrapnel and round shot. The British landed 180 marines, but “the natives made a most determined resistance and a most skilful use of the advantages of their position,” Commander Heath of the gunboat “Niger” wrote in a report to the Secretary of the British Admiralty. The Brits were exposed to “flanking fire down every street.”
The British marines were forced back on their gunboats and compelled to beat a hasty retreat. Round one went to King Kosoko and the Lagos slave traders.
But of course, the British were not going to let the Africans get away with defeating the vaunted Royal Navy. In December, they returned in overwhelming force. This time, they came with four warships, the “Bloodhound,” the “Teazer,” the “Sampson” and the “Penelope.” Even then, it was not easy: three days of fierce fighting ensued, known in Lagos traditions as Ogun Ahoyaya, or “Battle of the Noisy Weapons.”
On the first day of action, December 24, the “Bloodhound” merely reconnoitred the Bar while the Lagos defenders unleashed salvoes at the warship from well-placed guns entrenched in a stockade built from coconut tree trunks.
The invaders took Christmas Day off, returning on the 26th and attempting to land marines to spike the enemy cannon that were giving them fits. They were unsuccessful: “They did all that men could do, but it was found impossible to make their way through the showers of musketry opened against them,” wrote Captain Jones of the “Bloodhound.”
The Brits suffered 11 casualties which included one fatality and ended the day holding their positions and firing at the Lagos defenders who were trying to bring up more heavy guns to interdict the invaders.
On the third day, the 27th of December, the British moved up some rocket-firing gunboats, and set fire to many houses on shore, including the house of Kosoko’s War Chief, Oshodi Tapa, which brought forth a huge cheer from the British sailors. When the War Chief’s house subsequently exploded, possibly due to the munitions it held, this started a conflagration in Lagos, and the inhabitants began to abandon the city, moving out their possessions by canoe. Once the Brits heard that Kosoko was abandoning the city with the inhabitants, they knew the battle was over and they had won. Two days later the Royal Navy marines went ashore and spiked 58 of Kosoko’s heavy guns.
The Brits suffered a total of 90 casualties in both November and December engagements, of which there were about 16 dead. The number of African dead and wounded is unknown. Akitoye was soon installed Oba or king of Lagos by the British, and he quickly signed an anti-slavery treaty with them.
In Captain Jones’ report about the Lagos preparations for the conflict, he wrote: “The lines of defence are the most cunningly devised scheme for entrapping assailants into ambush that can be conceived.”
That the Africans would go through so much trouble, death, and destruction to retain the right to continue to sell fellow Africans, while the British were willing to sacrifice British lives to end the trade in human beings, is proof that simplistic ideas of blame are hard to maintain.
King Guezo of Dahomey: 1850-52 (a collection of official papers and correspondence between West African kings, and chiefs, and the representatives of the British Government)
A History of Nigeria by Sir Alan Burns
Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos 1760-1900 by Kristin Mann
A Lagosian of the 20th Century by Musliu Anibaba
The Cambridge History of Africa, vol 5, from 1790 to 1870, edited by John E. Flint
Papers Relative to the Reduction of Lagos by Her Majesty’s Forces on the West Coast of Africa. Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty. 1852.