The Scottish slave trader Archibald Dalzel (1740-1811) was the author of the famous and authoritative History of Dahomy, which, though written in defense of the slave trade, dealt seriously with the traditions of that country.
Archibald Dalzel (Dalziel until 1778) was born at Kirkilston on Oct. 23, 1740, the oldest of four brothers and one sister. Trained as a surgeon, he saw medical service in the Royal Navy during the Seven Years War but failed to enter private practice afterward. After several false starts he became a surgeon for the Committee of Merchants Trading to Africa (the African Committee). Sent to Anomabu in 1763, he was soon slave-trading on his own account, suppressing his initial qualms with the lucrative prospects of his new career.
From 1763 to 1778 Dalzel enjoyed steadily increasing success. In 1767 he was made director of the English fort at Whydah on the Slave Coast, main port of the kingdom of Dahomey, where he prospered, netting up to £1,000 a year, until he decided to retire to England. He arrived in London in 1771; his profits, however, had been inadequate, and he turned again to slaving, at first in partnership and then independently as the owner of three ships and a budding plantation in Florida. By 1778 Dalzel fancied himself ready to become a gentleman planter at Kingston, Jamaica, when he and practically his entire wealth were seized by a privateer while en route to England, where he arrived bankrupt.
Out of humiliation he changed his family name to Dalzel. He spent the next 13 years in irregular and often bizarre employments, by turns a candidate for the civil service, a pirate, a bookseller, and a Spanish wine merchant, failing in all and never, it seems, considering seriously the medical profession for which he was at least indifferently qualified. He then became a lobbyist for the slave-trading interests against the abolitionist movement in the 1780s. This brought him once more to the favorable notice of the African Committee, who in 1791 appointed him governor of their West African headquarters at Cape Coast Castle.
From 1792 until 1802 Dalzel labored energetically, yet in the end unsuccessfully, to restore the revenues of a declining company. Dalzel's governorship was a personal failure, as all his ventures had been, and he was still a poor man upon his retirement in 1802.
History of Dahomy
Archibald Dalzel died bankrupt in 1811, but the events and circumstances of his disappointed life were lightened by a conspicuous achievement: his great book, History of Dahomy. Recognized since his time as a work of literary merit and intellectual power, it appeared in 1793 and was an unusual event for the 18th century, given the Enlightenment's scorn for the non-European past.
Dalzel conceived and wrote his book as an intellectual and moral defense of the slave trade. Notwithstanding this aspect of the work, his history continues to receive respect for its general accuracy, and recognition for its value as a colorful supplement to African traditions, because it deals seriously and with acute observation with the one state of the West African interior with which Europeans had direct contact over the entire course of its history.
Elizabeth Donnan's classic Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America (4 vols., 1930-1935; repr. 1965) prints Dalzel's testimony on the slave trade to the Committee of the Privy Council in 1789. Dalzel's History of Dahomy (1793; new imp. 1967) contains an introduction by John D. Fage, who reviews Dalzel's career and gives him credit, despite Dalzel's antiabolitionist intent, as a historian of that African kingdom. The best account of the rise of Dahomey is I. A. Akinjogbin, Dahomey and Its Neighbors, 1708-1818 (1967). Akinjogbin disagrees with Dalzel's and Robert Norris's theories of Dahomean motives for expansion. Dalzel gave, nonetheless, as Akinjogbin himself asserts, the best single account of Dahomey in the 18th century. Further mention of Dalzel's career is in John D. Hargreaves, West Africa: The Former French States (1967). □