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Slave Trade

Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade was one of the most important demographic, social, and economic events of the Modern Era. Extending over four centuries, it fostered the involuntary migration of millions of African peoples from their homelands to forced labor in the Americas and elsewhere around the globe. In the process, it reshaped African societies; provided much of the raw material for constructing new social, economic, and political structures in the New World; promoted the development of a new industrial order; and furnished essential ingredients of modern world culture. It also left an unfortunate legacy of racism by establishing a connection between servility and barbarity and peoples of African descent.

The eighteenth-century interest in slavery derived from the nature of the mercantilist imperial structures that supported the production of tropical staples through plantation labor. Africa was the source of this labor. Since the material or technological distance between Africa and Europe was not then as great as it was to become later, Europeans approached Africans as approximate equals. European traders were highly dependent upon their African partners and associates to ensure an orderly trade. Since trade frequently depended upon the political vagaries on the African coast, European traders had to be aware of political and social conditions in the areas where they wanted to trade. Consequently, they stationed agents ("factors") where Africans would permit, and these factors collected slaves and forwarded reports on African conditions to mercantile companies in Europe. Although these reports were colored by ethnocentrism, factors made a serious attempt to understand the situations they encountered, mainly because such comprehension was crucial to their ability to offer trustworthy advice. In this way, Europeans disseminated important information about Africa and Africans.

While the circumstances of African migration were unique, neither slavery nor the plantation have been singularly associated with blacks. Slavery maintained a continuous

existence in southern Europe from ancient times into the Early Modern Era, and it shaped the attitudes and outlooks of southern Europeans when it was reinvigorated in the New World. In addition, the European-sponsored Atlantic trade was not the only market for bound African labor. Historians have estimated that about six million Africans were taken to Asia and the Middle East, starting as early as the seventh century ce, but reaching a peak between 1750 and 1900. Moreover, an additional eight million slaves were involved in an internal African trade, mostly between 1850 and 1914. But the Atlantic trade, starting as early as the fifteenth century but becoming important after the discovery of America (it reached its height from about 1650 to 1850), carried approximately twelve million people to captivity in the New World. It was the largest mass movement in history up to that time.

The slave trade can be divided into four epochs, determined by source, destination, and the major carriers of slaves. During the era of Iberian domination in the sixteenth century, when Portugal was practically the sole carrier, slaves were taken from Guinea to Spanish colonies and from the Congo-Angola region to Brazil. During this period, slaves were only one of a number of African commodities, all of equal importance. The seventeenth century was a period of transition. The Dutch broke Spanish control of the seas, destroyed the Portuguese monopoly of the African and Indian trades, and established themselves as the leading European maritime nation. Between 1630 and 1650, Dutch control of the sea and of trade was supreme. Dutch ships carried slaves and supplies to Spanish, French, and English colonies, and they transported New World staples from these colonies to Europe. After 1650, England and France moved to establish themselves in Africa and to tighten the mercantilist system in their respective imperial spheres. The eighteenth century thus represented a period of French and English dominance. They took most of their slaves from the Slave Coast (an area along the Bight of Benin), from east of the Volta River, and from the Niger Delta, while maintaining important interests at the peripheries in Upper Guinea and in southern Africa along the Loango Coast. They carried these slaves in British and French ships to their respective possessions in the West Indies and to Spanish America. This represented the height of the period of trade when human cargo was the over-riding European interest in Africa. Finally, there was an Iberian epoch in the nineteenth century. Northern Europeans abolished the trade north of the equator and deprecated the practice everywhere, but the demand in Brazil and Cuba continued until the middle of the century.

The Portuguese Hegemony

Although the acquisition of slaves was not the prime motivating force of the Age of Discovery, it was an early consideration. The era is dated from the Portuguese taking of Ceutaon the Moroccan coast across the Straits of Gibraltarin 1415. The first black slaves reached Portugal directly from the Atlantic coast of Africa in 1442, and the first slave trading company was formed in 1444. It obtained slaves through periodic raids. But the Portuguese learned early that trade, whether in slaves or other commodities, proceeded best in cooperation with, rather than in opposition to, Africans. In the fifteenth century, when they laid claim to all of Africa, they divided the western coast into a series of regional monopolies, and the right of exclusive trade in these areas was sold in Lisbon. Some of the Portuguese agents settled in Upper Guinea, intermarried with local peoples, and became middlemen in the trade between Africans and Europeans. These Afro-Portuguese had been joined by a class of Afro-French and Afro-English by the eighteenth century, and these groups operated in competing spheres of influence for the benefit of their respective metropolitan powers. Racially and culturally mixed, they achieved political influence through real or fictitious consanguineous ties to local royalty, and they achieved economic power through their control of trade. Because of their prestige, theyin traditional African fashiongathered to themselves full-blooded Africans (grumetes ), who adopted their cultural affectations and became part of a hybrid trade community on the coast. Whereas in the sixteenth century these people were usually in a state of subservience to native chieftains, this condition had reversed by the eighteenth century. By this time they were also able to repel European attempts to circumvent them and establish direct contact with local peoples in those places where they assumed hegemony.

Captain William Bosman

"Not a few in our country fondly imagine that parents here sell their children, men their wives, and one brother the other. But those who think so, do deceive themselves"

a new and accurate description of the coast of guinea. london, 1705, p. 363.

But Portuguese activities were not uniform over all the coast. While a policy of peaceful penetration was adopted in Upper Guinea, in the Gulf of Benin and the coastal regions leading to it a relationship of power politics developed. The Portuguese could not move around freely, but instead were restricted to fortified coastal stations. The most venerable of these, São Jorge da Mina (established in 1482), was important to the Portuguese as a source of gold rather than slaves, with the metal being obtained through barter with local peoples. Africans brought gold from the interior, and because of the long distances they had to travel, they required porters to carry goods secured in trade on the coast to the interior. The slave trade that developed was an internal African trade in which the Portuguese

participated. They brought slaves from the African kingdom of Benin; from their settlement at São Tomé, an island farther down the coast; and from locations in Upper Guinea to meet the demand. The gold trade was so important that in 1610 the king forbade Portuguese subjects to take captives within several miles of São Jorge da Mina so as not to disturb it.

The fifteenth-century slave trade was basically an Old World affair. The Portuguese utilized Africans in colonial settlements on islands off the African coast, where they produced sugar, and they also supplied them to southern Europe and the Mediterranean. Between 1450 and 1500, about thirty thousand Africans were shipped to Europe. Lisbon now served as entrepot, an intermediary center of trade and transshipment for the Mediterranean trade. In 1551, 10 percent of the city's population was servile, consisting of Moorish and Guinea slaves. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the servile percentage was about the same, but they were now nearly all black.

During the sixteenth century, the center of major Portuguese slaving activity gradually shifted from Guinea to south-central Africa, in association with the development of a New World plantation system. São Tomé was entrepot for this trade, which for most of the century centered around the Congo. It was here that the first voluntary African attempt at westernization and Christianization played out, as the Portuguese treated the king of the Congo (Manicongo) as an equal and sent craftsmen and missionaries to aid him. But the attempt foundered on the shoals of the slave tradethe Portuguese slaving interests fomented discontent to encourage warfare, from which they secured captives. The kingdom broke up under the strain.

The ruler of Angola was not treated as an equal. Instead, the Portuguese king granted the region to one of his nobles. In 1576 the Portuguese founded Luanda, which supplanted São Tomé as the center of slaving operationsand Angola replaced the Congo as the major source of slaves. Slaving operations were different in Angola than on the Guinea coast. Instead of setting up trading posts, or "factories," to which native chieftains brought captives, merchants sent out their own servants or employees (generally blacks or mulattos) called pombeiros, who went into the interior to secure bondsmen by trading or raiding. When captives could not be had, they incited wars or rebellions. Captives were brought to Luanda where they were kept in barracoons, or holding stations, to recuperate until ships arrived to take them away. As in Upper Guinea, a racially and culturally hybrid Luso-African trading community developed. Unlike their counterparts on the northern coast, however, the Afro-Portuguese in Angola kept control of their slaves through the Middle Passage and could benefit directly from the price of slaves in Brazil, though they also had to suffer the loss of slaves at sea. The latter consideration caused them to confine their interests to Africa by the end of the eighteenth century. In the three centuries between 1550 and final abolition of the Brazilian slave trade (1850), Angola furnished the majority of Brazil's captive labor.

The Dutch

The Dutch destroyed Portuguese pretensions to an African monopoly. By 1642, Arguim and Gorée in Upper Guinea, São Tomé in the Gulf of Benin, Luanda in Angola, and all the Portuguese forts on the Gold Coast were in Dutch hands. Although Portugal recaptured São Tomé in 1648 and retained the Cape Verde Islands and Cacheu, Holland was the strongest European power in Guinea during the 1650s. The Dutch advantage, however, and their virtual control of the whole European carrying trade for a time, drew the concentrated ire of the English and the French. The latter part of the seventeenth century, therefore, was one of keen competition. Dutch success derived in part from her capitalistic, joint-stock West India Company, formed in 1621. While the Portuguese, claiming all of Africa, granted individual monopolies in various parts of it, the Dutch, claiming parts of Africa, granted a monopoly of trade to one corporation in all of it. Only members of the West India Company were legally enabled to carry slaves or other goods from Africa to Dutch colonies or elsewhere. To better compete, other European nations followed the Dutch model. Most important were the French West Indies Company (1664) and the English Company of Royal Adventurers trading into Africa (1660), which was superceded by the Royal African Company (1672).

The Spanish, largely excluded from African trade but possessing large territories where slaves were useful, resorted to the asiento. This slave contract provided exclusive rights to importation of African bondsmen into Spanish colonies for the nation who held it. The movement of this contract from one European nation to another is to some extent a measure of its ascendancy in the slave trade. It was held successively by the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English.

The French and the English

Although slaves were the single most important trade article by the eighteenth century, gold, ivory, beeswax, rice, camwood, and malaguetta pepper were also traded in significant quantities. The French and English followed in the Dutch wake, establishing their own companies, designated as sole carriers of their countries' trade between Europe, Africa, and the American colonies. These companies were responsible for maintaining factories in areas where Africans would permit in order to secure their nation's position in trade. The British had forts along the Gambia, the French along the Senegal, and each at various other locations in the region, and they all engaged in competition to attract African middlemen. The two nations, along with other Europeans, had outposts along the Gold Coast and adjacent areas, where competition was likewise stiff. The expense of these factories was born by the companies as partial recompense for their monopoly.

The African Input

At the height of the trade in the eighteenth century, the whole coast was regulated on the African side by middlemen who were highly conscious and jealous of their position. They had a monopoly on trade with the interior and insisted that business be conducted through them. Moreover, they refused to be bound by any one European power and insisted on free trade with the outside world. On different parts of the coast, however, different circumstances required distinctive considerations, which changed over time. In Upper Guinea, African polities competed with Afro-Europeans for trade at the posts set up by the French and English in the Senegal and Gambia rivers to

attract commerce. On the leeward coast in the Gulf of Guinea, Akan and Fon kingdoms mediated the trade. In the Niger Delta, various city-states, both monarchies and republics, grew up in response to new opportunities for exchange. Ruled by special political associations, they developed a distinctive trade organization known as the "House system." In Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830-1885, K. Onwuka Dike describes this as "a kind of co-operative trading company based not so much on kinship as on commercial association between the head of a dominant family, his relatives and trading assistants, and all their followers and slaves" (1956, p. 31)in other words, a creative adaptation to business opportunities. In Congo-Angola, local governments also ruled, though the Portuguese, busily creating a colonial preserve, claimed exclusive rights in parts of the region. These disparate governments and people had their own peculiar requirements in articles, seasons, and methods of trade. Even the trade mediums or units of accounts diverged, with Europeans adopting African practices. In Upper Guinea they used the iron bar; on the leeward coast, the ounce of gold (in the west) and the cowry shell (in the east); in the Niger Delta, the manilla, a bracelet of brass or lead; and in Congo-Angola, a piece of local cloth. For these reasons, European representatives had to be seriously attentive to peoples and conditions at their station or lose trade to their rivals. They had to treat Africans traders with considerable respect.

African Slavery

Early European observers often justified slaving activities by arguing that many, if not most, Africans existed in some form of indigenous servitude, and that the European version was preferable. Later Europeans justified imperialism on the same basis of Africans' widespread enslavement, which they now sought to abolish. Opponents sought to counter these rationales for injustice by contending that few examples of involuntary servitude existed in Africa before European contact, and that where they existed they were of such a nature as to be scarcely comparable to the Western conception let alone the American reality. Where observers stated otherwise, according to these opponents, they were deluded by racism, ethnocentrism, or ignorance. In Slavery in Africa (1977), Suzanne Miers

and Igor Kopytoff argue that this confusion results from a misapprehension of the nature of African society. Based on kinship relations that give people social existence to the extent that they belong to or are part of a local lineage, they regard those outside the group as nonpersons. Outsiders, whether slave or free, are nonpersons. Indeed, in some African societies the words for "slave" and "outsider" are the same. There is no dichotomy between slavery and freedom (with its emphasis on autonomy and individualism) as exists in the West, but between nonperson and person (whose identity is found in his association and obligation to the group). Nor are the dichotomies absolute; there are degrees of belonging connected with increasing privileges and acceptability.

Those slaves susceptible of sale (trade slaves) were usually adult males captured in warfare who might never adjust to their captivity and therefore posed a danger to their hosts. At the very least they might run away. They could best serve the community by what they brought in trade. Women and young children, however, were more pliable and less likely to be sold, and therefore were more likely to be absorbed by the local community. The demands of the Atlantic trade were coincident with these African outlooks, in that while Atlantic slavers had more call for adult males, internal African requirements placed more value on women. Consequently, women were not equally available for trade on all parts of the coast, a consideration that slavers had to weigh. Yet Africans who participated in the trade made their decisions within their own contexts and for their own reasons. African slaves were seldom viewed as the simple commodities that capitalism made them in the Americas.

The American Demand

New World planters, thinking of slaves as work units, and being interested in maximum production for the least outlay, ideally desired an adult male in his twenties or thirties. Women, who could also be worked in the fields, were in less demand. Consequently, planters normally asked for slaves in the proportion of two men for every woman. This desire for men was especially great in sugar-producing regions, which had a firm capitalist base by the seventeenth century and considered profit above everything else. Brazilian and Caribbean planters, for example, regarded harsh treatment contributing to high slave mortality in as few as five to seven years after importation to be a more economical management practice than expending either time or money to better the slave's condition and extend his life for labor. They viewed the raising of slave children as equally unprofitable and did not encourage it. Consequently, they had to depend on the slave trade to replenish their labor force for most of the period of slavery's existence in their regions. British planters in North American, raising different crops, computed their finances differently, and while they also asked for slaves in the normal proportions, by the first decades of the eighteenth century they had come to recognize the value of a self-perpetuating labor force. They began to encourage reproduction, an effort that required a more equal balance between males and females. Cargoes containing more males than females, therefore, were likely to find a better market in North America, though such cargoes sold everywhere.

Planters also had distinctive slave preferences, which varied from region to region and over time. The economy of seventeenth-century Brazil was highly dependent on bound labor from Angola, and planters described these laborers as the best that Africa had to offer. In the eighteenth century, both the source and judgment of African labor changed: Brazilian planters now rated "Sudanese" or "Mina" slaves from the leeward coast of West Africa as superior. Indeed, a special relationship developed between the northern Brazilian city of Bahia and the leeward coast, while southern Brazilian traders, centered in Rio de Janeiro, maintained an attachment to Angola. Eighteenth-century Jamaicans exhibited an affinity for Akan-speaking peoples from the Gold Coast, while South Carolina planters desired Senegambians. Virginians expressed no strong likes or dislikes. Traders had to consider these slave fashions,

among other factors, when they planned their voyages. They had also to figure climatological conditions and seasonal variations, since the winter months in North America or the hurricane season in the West Indies could create hazards to trade and sales. Slaves were in greatest demand when they could be put directly to work, and they sold more briskly in some seasons than in others.

Nineteenth-Century Abolition

Humanitarian sentiment against the slave trade grew during the second half of the eighteenth century, supported by economic change in industrializing powers like Great Britain. This sentiment began to have some effects by the century's end. Northern Europeans moved to stop the trade during the nineteenth century's first decade. Denmark outlawed the trade for its citizens effective in 1802, and Great Britain (the largest of slave traders) and the United States followed in 1808. The British government used diplomacy to try to evoke a consensus that the trade was objectionable, andjoined occasionally by the United States, France, and other nationsthey sent ships to patrol the African coast to interdict the trade. As the world's strongest naval power, the British attempted to make agreements with other nations that would allow its warships to search vessels suspected of engaging in human commerce, and to seize those that did. Few nations, excluding even the United States, possessed Britain's moral fervor, however, and the struggle continued throughout most of the century.

Iberian nations were conspicuously absent from the developing consensus. Economic expansion in Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico placed a high premium on slaves, and neither Spain nor Portugal regarded the prospect of restricting its labor supply with any enthusiasm. Britain pressured Portugal in 1810 into confining its trade to Portuguese imperial possessions in Africa and America, an agreement that meant that Portuguese subjects could carry slaves only between those regions in Africa where Portugal already had a claim or sphere of influence and other regions within the Lusitanian monarch's realmmost importantly, to Brazil. Portugal agreed to limit the trade to her African possessions below the equator in 1815. That same year, France prohibited the trade. Spain fell into line in 1820, and Brazil, having separated from Portugal, did so in 1830.

These legal prohibitions bore little relationship to reality, however, particularly in Cuba and Brazil. A greater volume of slaves came into Brazil in the first half of the nineteenth century (approximately 1.5 million between 1801 and 1850) than had ever gone to any plantation region, including a half-million or more in the twenty years between its legal cessation and its effective termination by British naval action in 1850. While most of those involved in Brazil's illegal traffic were Brazilian or Portuguese, Spain's replacement of the asiento with a free-trade policy in 1789 opened the Cuban market to United States, British, French, and other merchants, and American traders dominated the market after Spain agreed in 1835 to permit Britain the right of search and seizure. By then, the flag of the United States, as the only important seafaring nation to refuse to come to a reciprocal arrangement with Great Britain, provided slavers their sole refuge. Some American traders smuggled slaves into the United States, but the market was better in Cuba and Brazil. Not until the American Civil War did American official attitudes change, effecting the end of the Cuban trade in 1865. Still, by various ruses the trade continued until the end of the century. For example, the French and Portuguese adopted theoretical systems of contract labor that were nothing short of slavery: the indentured, often bought in Africa as slaves and legally freed on the coast, had little or no say

in the matter and were shipped off to colonial possessions in the Americas and elsewhere. Even the British and the Dutch, who considered themselves enlightened in this regard, adopted similar practices for short periods. Nevertheless, in practice, the Atlantic slave trade essentially came to an end with the closing of the trade to Cuba. Moreover, New World slavery itself was moribund, although it lingered in Cuba and Brazil until the 1880s.

Nineteenth-Century Trade Distinctions

In the process of its long expiration, the nineteenth-century slave trade developed some distinctive features. Economic expansion, together with the prospect of the trade's termination, caused slave prices to rise in the Americas, while the activities of British anti-slave-trade squadrons off the African coast caused them to fall there. At the same time, increased demand and depleted resources near the Congo-Angola coast caused slaves to be brought from regions farther inland, which involved different African middlemen. Although slaves might be smuggled from any part of the coast, slaving was heaviest in this region of west-central Africapartly because it was a Portuguese preserve and legal there (for Portuguese subjects) until 1836, which permitted smugglers to use the Portuguese flag for cover, and partly because the British naval presence was not as great there as along the northwestern coast. It remained a focus of activity after the 1830s ban. Few Atlantic slavers went to Mozambique in the eighteenth century, but in the nineteenth century the trade there at one point reached a height of twenty-five thousand slaves yearly, encouraged by increased demand and an initial absence of British warships from the eastern coast. Portuguese, Arab, East Indian, and mixed-blood middlemen facilitated the trade and dispensed their human cargo to Spanish, French, Brazilian, and American vessels. The Portuguese edict ending the trade in Angola in 1836 applied equally to Mozambique, but neither ceased before rigorous British action rendered it infeasible after 1850. Slavers maintained their preference for males over females, but they accepted more children than formerly because they occupied less room than adults and more could be carried.

By the nineteenth century, then, the trade had come full circle. The Portuguese, having initiated an Atlantic trade in slaves, were among the last to abandon it. Nevertheless, the nineteenth-century Iberian trade would have been much more difficult without active British and American collaboration. Even while their government sought to abolish it, British merchants continued to invest in Brazilian slave-trading voyages, and British manufacturers continued to produce and forward to Brazilian middlemen goods suitable only for the African market. Americans, meanwhile, furnished speedy ships suitable for evading patrolling squadrons, and they innovated the use of steamships, which could carry larger numbers of slaves, though they did not always carry them better as slaves placed too close to boilers could be burned or scalded. Many of the vessels involved in the West Coast trade, and most of those involved in Mozambique, though manned by citizens of other nations, were constructed in the United States.

In a final irony, the desire to abolish slave trading and establish "legitimate" commerce in Africa furnished the basis for British imperialism there, an example that other Europeans copied. In many places, the forced migration of African peoples from their homelands, either to other parts of Africa or to regions outside of it, was ended by the imperial dictates of western Europeans, though not completely before the twentieth century. By that time, Africans, or peoples with a significant African genetic component, populated much of the globe.

See also Slavery; Slavery and the Constitution


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daniel c. littlefield (2005)

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