The British Empire’s active participation in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which saw millions of Black Africans forcibly transported from their homelands to the Americas, where they were simply sold as chattels, is undoubtedly one of the darkest and least honourable episodes of Britain’s long and generally distinguished history. Commonly used to undermine Britain’s enormous and undoubted contribution towards creating the modern world that we all now inhabit, along with the supposedly wholesale destruction of numerous native societies, the capture, imprisonment, transportation and abuse of millions of Black Africans, remains first and foremost the biggest single charge laid against the founders of Britain’s great Empire. Interestingly however, those who are generally quick to point to Britain’s early and extensive involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, appear to be reluctant to publicise the fact that it was Britain, which ultimately played a leading role in helping to outlaw the generally barbarous trade by the first half of the 19th century.
It is also perhaps worth noting from the outset that slavery, in one form or another, is known to have existed throughout much of the ancient world and was reported to have been a common feature of most of the great human civilisations of the past, from the Greeks to the Romans, from the Persians to the Mongols. Even in Western Europe, the Roman legions were reported to have regularly enslaved hundreds of thousands of people from the territories that they conquered, often transporting them against their will to the various villas, houses and amphitheatres of Rome, where they would serve out their days for the comfort or amusement of the Roman elite, yet few historians are thought to be critical of that fact. Even after the fall of the great Roman Empire, slavery was said to have continued within numerous individual states and countries, where captured prisoners of war, or the indigenous population were simply sold into slavery, often being transported to slave markets in North Africa and the Middle East, where the buying and selling of human cargoes, was reported to have been a relatively commonplace event. In Britain, as elsewhere in Western Europe, large numbers of its native peoples, who were conquered by the likes of the Barbary Corsairs, Mongols, Anglo Saxons and even the fearsome Vikings were all thought to have been stolen away from their family, friends and homelands to be sold into permanent servitude in foreign lands, where strange languages and unknown customs were thought to have surrounded them for the remainder of their lives.
Even before, during and after the Roman settlement of Western Europe, large numbers of slaves were reported to have been taken from the countries that had been invaded by the legions of Roman, principally to serve the citizens of Rome or the Empire’s other great cities, who regarded the ownership of slaves, as an obvious indication of their own personal wealth and status. It has even been suggested by some historians that up to 25% of the entire population of the vast Roman Empire were slaves, including those convicted of debt, prisoners-of-war, orphans and the children of slaves, who by their very birth were automatically delivered into slavery. The Romans themselves were said to have inherited the idea of slavery from the earlier Greek Empire, who undoubtedly inherited it from even earlier peoples and Empires that had existed hundreds, if not thousands of years before the Greek Empire ever came into being. For both the Greeks and the Romans, slavery was not only an economic imperative, but was also thought to have become an essential part of their social structure, as in the case of the gladiators who fought in their arenas, the prostitutes who serviced their troops and the personal sex slaves who were owned by individual citizens. According to early Roman law, a slave was said to have been defined as anyone whose mother was a slave, anyone that had been captured in battle, or anyone who sold themselves into slavery, in settlement of a debt. Significantly, even early Christian leaders of the time, rather than attacking the concept or practice of slavery, were known to have supported it, telling their followers who were slaves to “obey their masters and dedicate their suffering to God”, suggesting that their enslavement was both a common and entirely legal process that the early church had little interest in overturning.
With the almost inevitable demise of the Roman Empire, much of Europe was then reported to have descended into chaos, with weaker countries exploited by their much stronger neighbours, a part of which would have involved their populations being snatched away to be sold in the thriving slave markets of the east, or within the aggressor nations own territories. In addition to the generally domestic western raiders, like the Anglo Saxons and Vikings, most of Europe’s leading western nations were thought to have been ravaged by marauding bands of sea borne Arab slave traders who would attack coastal communities on a fairly regular basis, robbing, burning and stealing away their citizens, particularly women, who would be carried away to the eastern slave markets, to be sold as domestic servants, or worse still, as prostitutes or sex slaves. Even in England itself, prior to the 11th century, slavery was thought to have been fairly common, especially with the early Anglo Saxon’s who had invaded Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. However, with the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066, the practice was said to have been generally outlawed by the new English ruler, although even by 1086, the time of the Domesday Book, at least 10% of the native English population were still thought to have been enslaved in one way or another.
Chattel slavery, as an outright form of ownership, was said to have been formally abolished in England around 1102, although bonded slavery, indentured service and serfdom were all thought to have continued after that date. Of the three forms of service, serfdom was said to be the most common, as it inextricably tied a common individual to the lands of a particular overlord or landowner, leaving them at the beck and call of that particular nobleman. Unlike a chattel however, serfs could buy and sell land, acquire personal possessions, get paid for their labours and generally enjoy many of the rights and freedoms that any free man might expect. This was thought to have remained the case throughout much of Britain’s history, with English Common Law, generally protecting the rights of the common man and curtailing the excesses of the nobles; and it was only in the 16th and 17th centuries that this protection was said to have been removed, but even then, only for those that were outside of Great Britain and Ireland.
That is not to say however that the British population were immune from the effects of the Slave Trade, especially that which was being operated by foreign traders, such as the Vikings and the Barbary Corsairs. For many hundreds of years, numerous British and Irish citizens were thought to have been stolen away from their coastal communities, which were rarely protected by the native forces and were therefore left to defend themselves from such seaborne assaults. The Vikings of northern Europe were known to have been particularly adept at raiding throughout the wider region, although after 1000 AD they were thought to have become less and less of a problem, as they chose to settle around the British Isles and were eventually absorbed into the native British communities, adding their own distinctive language and culture to the country. According to some sources, the Vikings tended to follow regional Scandinavian rules, in relation to the taking and treatment of slaves, which dictated that native slaves could not be sold abroad, yet foreign slaves could.
Additionally, slaves were only ever accorded equal rights to any other chattel or possession, which meant that they had no human rights as such and therefore the killing of a slave, was not generally regarded as being a serious offence within the Norse community, with the offender only being required to compensate the owner for the cost of the slave, much the same as if a common farm animal had been unlawfully slaughtered.
The Barbary Pirates or Corsair’s, were reported to have been a largely North African and Mediterranean sea-based confederation, which raided the coastal communities of North Africa, the Mediterranean and Northern Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries, taking thousands of people captive, either for ransom or for sale in the eastern and African slave markets. In a single Corsair raid, which was said to have taken place in June 1631, these seaborne pirates were reported to have attacked the Irish community of Baltimore in County Cork; and stolen away almost the entire population of the town, who were subsequently said to have been delivered into a life of slavery in North Africa or the Middle East. Hundreds of individual European ships, along with their crews, as well as many thousands of coastal dwelling people from throughout the Iberian and European region were said to have been snatched away by these raiders, who were only finally suppressed when the western nations sent their combined navies into the pirates strongholds and destroyed them.
Before looking at the actual history of Britain’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, perhaps it is worth clarifying exactly what the situation was before a single English ship ever sailed anywhere near the west coast of Africa. It is also worth reiterating that human bondage is thought to have been an integral part of all of the great civilisations, be they early or late, east or west, Christian or non-Christian, rich or poor. Where great strength and weakness exists, there is almost always the potential for the strong to exploit the weak, an aspect of human nature that can be seen in the histories of the world’s greatest empires and kingdoms, including the Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Portuguese, Spanish and of course the British. It is also worth recalling that from the late 12th century onward, Britain was not a slave owning society, even though indentured service or serfdom was known to have existed for hundreds of years.
Unlike many parts of the world, including the far flung British colonies of the Caribbean and North America, the question of chattel slavery in Britain remained largely ignored, simply because it did not affect the lives of most everyday citizens, be they rich or poor, educated or uneducated. There were undoubtedly chattel slaves in Britain, who were brought back with their owners from the foreign lands that they visited, but in most cases, such human property would have been hidden away from the public gaze, in the fancy houses or on the great estates of their affluent masters. Owning slaves was thought to be as much about personal choice, as it was about the local culture that accepted chattel slavery as a normal, everyday occurrence, something that was not the case in Britain from the 16th to 19th century, when the Transatlantic Slave Trade was operating. Instead it was only a commonly accepted form of ownership in those British colonies that were permanently isolated from their motherland by great distances and where the social structure was very different to that which operated in Britain itself. Even though the British colonies of the Caribbean and parts of North American were known to be lands of great financial opportunity, it was usually only the most daring or desperate who would actually leave Britain to live there, such was the poor reputations of those particular regions.
Not only had these lands and islands been initially settled by adventurers, but later more permanent settlements were thought to have been populated by large numbers of convicted criminals or political prisoners, who the British establishment in London had been glad to see the back of. Added to, by any number of outcasts from many of the western European nations and large numbers of businessmen and speculators who saw the potential profits from the various commercial opportunities that presented themselves, these were the social classes that often made up the ranks of the British communities in places like Barbados and Jamaica. In common with Ireland, much of the land of these great plantation estates was thought to have been owned by a relatively small number of absentee landlords, who delegated the running of their Caribbean businesses to appointed agents, who had little interest in anything else, but making a profit for his employer who was back in Britain. With this one single financial imperative in mind, it is perhaps small wonder that all other considerations, including the treatment of his slaves, would automatically have become secondary to this primary aim.
Notable British absentee landlords of the time were said to have included William Beckford, Lady Home, Erle Drax, Sir Peter Parker, Lord Maynard and Admiral Rodney. Although a significant number of the sugar cane producers and their families were known to have lived on their foreign plantations, it was probably the case that many of them had originated from the convicts and indentured servants who had been brought to the islands many years before. Often with questionable characters to begin with, their own treatment and hardships undoubtedly helped to shape their own attitude to the African slaves that now worked on their own estates, highly negative views that were no doubt reinforced by a belief that they were somehow superior to their non-European workforce. It is also likely that such attitudes and beliefs would have been passed from one generation of planters to the next, with levels of discrimination and indifference becoming stronger and more deeply engrained as the planters children became more and more deeply imbued with the often racist and highly intolerant attitudes of their own parents.
It should also be remembered that for much of its known history the African continent has been exploited for its natural resources, its animals, its mineral deposits, its valuable metals, as well as its rich resource of people. Firstly, the native peoples of Africa were said to have been exploited by one another, the militarily strong preying on those that were militarily weak, delivering tens of thousands into continental slavery and sometimes death. The tribes of Africa were then said to have been exploited by the great civilisations of Egypt and Rome, then by the Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East, with millions of black Africans having been taken from their native homelands, before a single European foot ever touched the soil of the so-called “Dark Continent”. Of course, it would be foolish to deny that racial prejudice or religious dogma has not played a part in the exploitation of Africa’s native people, especially amongst other non-African nations. But such prejudices are not simply modern themes, but are known to have existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years and have even been the subject of debates based on biblical scriptures that experts continue to argue over, even through to the modern day.
It is often these historic debates, interpretations and beliefs that have supposedly informed western nations about the black African and ultimately determined their approach to and treatment of the peoples of Africa. Clearly the subject of religion was a major factor for most western Christian nations during and after the 15th century, the very time that the lands of Africa were first being explored by western European nations like the Portugal and Spain. The fact that most native African tribes of that time, were reported to have still held to a pagan or native belief system, inevitably helped European Christians to justify their treatment of native Africans, views that were often endorsed by biblical teachings or by individual Pontiffs. In the opinion of some early biblical scholars, both the Old Testament and the New Testament advocated the use of slavery, although it is worth noting that just as many people disagree with this interpretation, which is why the subject has been the subject of heated discussion for hundreds of years and remains so today.
Those who believe that the Bible endorses slavery, generally point to certain ancient texts, which supposedly state that enslavement of another person is not unchristian, provided that it is along the lines of what later became known as indentured service, rather than outright chattel slavery. A number of these early Christian sources believe that slaves or servants should be released from their service after a specified number of years and given parting gifts to celebrate their release and to help them start a new life for themselves. However, there are an equal number of early Christian saints and evangelists who condemned any form of slavery or servitude outright, but at the same time accept that slavery could and did play a normal part of everyday social practice.
Christian doctrine as advocated by Christ’s representative on earth, the Pope, has been mixed on the subject of slavery throughout the early history of the church. It seems that most early Popes, preachers and ministers took the view that although slavery was not ideal, it was a natural occurrence and state within most human societies and could not therefore be condemned or abolished outright. In America, church leaders refused to condemn slavery or those that were involved with it right through until the middle of the 19th century when the practice of slavery was outlawed by statute. But even then, ministers in certain slave owning states still refused to condemn the practice of slavery up until the middle of the 20th century when national legislation finally outlawed any sort of discrimination within the United States. Such was the divisive nature of the slavery debate that even churches were reported to have split in two, having disagreed over the moral right and wrongs of the practice of enslavement, divisions that remain within those communities to this very day.
Likewise, the slave trades, both Arab and European, undoubtedly owed much to basic racial discrimination, which like its counterpart; religious intolerance, has been a feature of human civilisation from the very earliest times. However, it would be wrong to suppose that such virulent racism is an entirely white characteristic, as this is not the case. Even in early religious literature, which was largely thought to have been written by Arab or Middle Eastern scribes, black people were generally seen as being descended from the biblical character “Ham”, the sinful son of Noah, who had been cursed by God. The ancient Empire of Egypt was equally damning about black people, who they believed to be less civilised and less lawful than their Arabic counterpart.
This theme was thought to have continued well beyond the time of the pharaohs, with the 15th century Arab historian Al-Abshibi stating that “when the black slave is sated, he fornicates and when he is hungry, he steals”. Other Arabic scholars were equally disparaging about the abilities of black people, with one of their number comparing black Africans to dumb animals “who lived in thickets and caves, ate herbs and unprepared grain, as well as occasionally eating one another” Most historians agree that virtually every major African city and town had a slave market, where captured prisoners-of-war, convicted criminals and society’s troublemakers were offered for sale to their fellow Africans, or to the Arab slave merchants who regularly attended such markets. It seems clear that slavery within Africa itself was a common practice before the Portuguese, Spanish or indeed the English had even begun to explore the continent in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. That having been said, then Europeans cannot be blamed for introducing the basic principle of slavery itself into Africa, but are simply guilty of somehow industrialising a process that was endemic to the continent in the first place.
For hundreds of years, prior to the first Portuguese ship sailing into African coastal waters, native Africans had regularly been traded in large numbers, by the Arab tribes of North Africa and by merchants based in the Middle East. Through historic Saharan routes, across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, millions of black Africans were reported to have been transported by both land and sea, in a trade that was said to have existed from the 9th century, right the way through to the 19th century, representing a millennium of exploitation and misery. According to some sources, even the Arab Slave Trade was thought to have begun as a supplementary feature of the trade in gold, ivory and pepper, which had already existed in the region for hundreds of years.
Likewise, some historians have also suggested that the Arab Slave Trade was at least equal to, if not greater than the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which both followed and accompanied it. Significantly, the Arab Slave Trade is thought by some reporters to have had much more of an impact on the female population of Africa, simply because African women were in generally greater demand within the Arab world, both as domestic workers and as both prostitutes and sex slaves. This is thought to be the opposite effects, as was caused by the Transatlantic Slave Trade, where strong young African males, were very much in demand, due to their ability to work long hours in the fairly arduous conditions of the sugar plantations, gold mines, etc. Clearly both the Arab and the Transatlantic Slave Trades impacted heavily on both sexes, of the native African population; and it would be wrong to simply assume that Arabs only enslaved women or the European slavers only men, as both parties were known to have taken both genders, although according to some reporters in equally disproportionate numbers.
According to some sources, the Indian Ocean slave route, had begun as a relatively small scale operation in the 9th century, but was one that developed substantially over time, eventually accounting for tens of thousands of African slaves being taken into the Middle East for similar reasons as elsewhere. The port of Zanzibar, on the east coast of Africa, was reported to have been the largest and most important slave trading centre in the whole of Africa, with a reported 50,000 slaves being traded and passing through the port during the height of the trade in the 19th century. The African Slave Trade was also known to have played a significant part within early African societies and of course their regional economies, with some native kingdoms employing roving bands of warriors, to attack and capture neighbouring tribesmen, who would then be sold into captivity.
For some tribal monarchs, the slave economy allowed them and their peoples to accumulate great wealth, as was said to be the case of the predominant tribes of modern day Ghana and Nigeria, who became rich by selling their fellow Africans. Even though the capture and selling of neighbouring tribesmen was a major financial benefit of such inter-tribal warfare, fundamentally such conflicts were thought to have been precipitated for the same reasons as elsewhere, which was regional dominance, land or border disputes, access to and acquisition of natural resources such as water, etc, or simply as the result of personal and tribal vendettas. Prior to the advent of both the Arab and Atlantic though, some of these tribal captives were reported to have been ritually killed in annual native ceremonies, rites and punishments, which were thought have become far less common as the slave trades developed and expanded. Although the majority of slaves were not thought to have been subjected to such ritual ceremonies, prior to their sale to the European slave trading nations, most captives were thought to have been employed as farm workers, soldiers, domestic servants and occasionally public servants, such as civil servants or administrators. With the large scale development of both the Arab and Atlantic slave trades however, so such native captives were less commonly used within the native African kingdoms, but were more commonly traded to the European nations.
Within many of these early African societies however, the concept of slavery was thought to have been regarded in an entirely different way, as were the captives themselves. Unlike western nations, where captives might commonly be treated as a chattel, being the possession of a particular master, in some African societies, slaves were said to have been treated reasonably well, occasionally being paid for their labour, being allowed to accumulate possessions and wealth; and sometimes even being able to buy their freedom from the person who had originally purchased them. This was in complete contrast to most Arab and European slave owners, who generally took the view that African slaves were a possession that could be bought and sold in the same way that one might buy or sell an animal, which had absolutely no rights whatsoever.
But of course it would be wrong to over-simplify, what was in reality a much more complex set of circumstances that laid the basis for the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which ultimately proved to be so lucrative for some and so catastrophic for others. Primarily the reasons behind the establishment and large-scale development of this inhumane trade was said to have been the greed and acquisitive natures of those that drove it forward, both the African tribal leaders who sacrificed their fellow Africans for their own prosperity and the Europeans who not only chose to disregard the rights of their human cargoes, but deliberately exploited native African traditions of enslavement, for their own financial and national benefit.
According to some experts on the subject, up to 80% of those traded into slavery, had been taken captive by other African tribes, as a result of neighbouring wars or disputes and were therefore commonly regarded as booty by the victorious warriors. Of the remaining 20%, some were reported to have been sold into slavery as a punishment for their own wrongdoing, while others were simply child slaves, sold into captivity by their parents, who were either unwilling or unable to care for them. Some, although not all, of this early slave trading was also thought to have been as a result of a native caste system, which continues to exist in parts of the world today, most notably in parts of Africa, the Indian Sub-Continent and in Asia. Within the African continent, the largest number of slaves was reported to have been taken from the region now occupied by the modern day states of Congo, Angola, Ghana, Sierre Leone, Madagascar, Mozambique and Cameroon.
One of the main African slave trading nations within the continent, were reported to be the Ashanti people, whose territories included the modern day states of Ghana and Togo; and who were said to be one of the principal suppliers to the western European slave trading nations. Reportedly at their height, between the 17th and 19th centuries, from 1670 to 1870, the Ashanti were thought to have become one of the primary slave trading nations through the use of the modern weapons which had originally been supplied by the likes of Britain and Holland. According to some sources the main African tribes who were said to have fallen victim to slave traders were the Bakongo, Igbo, Mande’, Wolof, Akan, Fon and Makua peoples who were generally thought to be natives of the African states which were previously noted.
The Igbo people for example, were said to have originated from the south east region of the modern state of Nigeria and were thought to have been enslaved during the period of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and transported from the area then known as the Bight of Biafra. The Bakongo or Congolese people were said to have been members of the much larger Bantu people, who originated from the west coast of Africa, including the area of modern day Angola. Reportedly, some of the earliest African people to have established trading links with the Portuguese around the 15th century, initially the merchandise exchanged between the two sides, was said to have included ivory, copper and slaves, who were undoubtedly prisoners-of-war, or criminals who had first been enslaved by the Bakongo themselves.
The Makua people were thought to be yet another offshoot from the much larger Bantu people, who were taken as slaves from their tribal homelands of both Mozambique and Tanzania. The kingdom of Dahomey was reported to have been formed by a combination of the Aja and Fon peoples in Western Africa, who, during the 17th century were thought to have been ruled by an individual called Wegbaja. Native rituals within this particular tribal society were said to have included human sacrifice, especially during times of war, pestilence, natural disaster or even the death of a monarch, when hundreds and possibly thousands of captives were reported to have been sacrificed by having their heads removed. It was said that these human sacrifices were killed in order to provide the dead king with servants in the afterlife and they joined the late monarch’s many wives who were reportedly buried alive to await their ruler husband in the next world. On one occasion, several thousand prisoners-of-war were said to have been killed in celebration of the Dahomey’s victory over a neighbouring tribe. King Wegbaja was reported to have been actively involved in the sale of slaves, to the Western European nations, who visited his kingdom during the 17th century and was thought to have become extremely wealthy and powerful through the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Even before the rise of the kingdoms of Dahomey and Ashanti, much of the region now occupied by the modern states of Nigeria, Benin and Togo was said to have been dominated by the Oyo Empire of the Yoruba people, who were reported to be a highly skilled and militaristic tribe that subjugated many of the smaller native kingdoms and made them their vassal states. The Oyo Empire was reported to have been actively involved with the supply of slaves to the newly arrived western European traders, as well as other commodities such as gold, ivory and textiles.
However, as their military strength and political influence eventually declined, the Yoruba people themselves were said to have been suppressed and exploited by the emerging kingdoms of both the Dahomey and the Ashanti, who enslaved many of their former oppressors and delivered them into the hands of the transatlantic slave traders, forcing them to share a similar fate, as had many of their former captives. Other native tribes that were thought to have been complicit in the Transatlantic Slave Trade were the Imbangala from Angola and the Nyamwezi of Tanzania, both of whom were said to have involved themselves with the sale of captured Africans, as well as participating as roving slave catchers.
The Imbangala were thought to be a native African people who originated from the coastal and highland regions of what is now modern day Angola. Said to have been a highly aggressive and militaristic tribe, they were reported to have been traditional raiders who roved throughout their home regions attacking neighbouring tribes, seizing their possessions and enslaving their people. Interestingly, this early tribe has also been accused of forcibly recruiting child soldiers to fight in their ranks, a practice that continues to be employed in parts of Africa even through to the present day, especially in many of the inter-tribal conflicts that have wracked the continent during the past fifty years or so. It has also been reported that many of the Imbangala’s war captives were occasionally sacrificed to their native deities and worse still perhaps, some members of the tribe were thought to have been cannibals, who not only killed their prisoners, but ate them as well.
The first European nation to contact the Imbangala, was said to be the Portuguese in the early 17th century; and although initially appalled by some of the Imangala’s native rituals, went on to form extensive trading links with the native tribe. Over time and undoubtedly because of the Portuguese’ influence with members of the tribe, many of their less attractive practices were thought to have been abandoned, with war captives generally being transported to the Americas, rather than being killed, or even eaten.
The Nyamwezi people were reported to have originated from western Tanzania and were yet another tribe that was said to have been involved in supplying native Africans to the Transatlantic Slave Trade between the 17th and 19th centuries. Reportedly famed for their individual slave and cattle holdings, the Nyamwezi were noted for their highly acquisitive society, where any means of acquiring personal wealth, was deemed to be acceptable. Members of this tribe were also reported to have been renowned ivory traders, who slaughtered significant numbers of African elephants, in order to supply the demand for such “elephant’s teeth”, which was said to have been driven by traders from both the east and the west. Although they were said to have retained many captive African slaves, for use as porters and manual workers, the Nyamwezi were also thought to have transported large numbers of enslaved Africans to the west coast slave ports, for sale to the western European Europeans who were based there.
Likewise, the Mali Empire was yet another native African kingdom, which was thought to have believed in and practiced a culture of human enslavement, with captives commonly being employed as bearers or even units of trade. One 14th century Imperial ruler of the Mali Empire was said to have routinely travelled with a large contingent of female slaves, who were thought to have been used as payment for foreign trade goods, although gold, ivory or gemstones might just as easily have been used. As a largely Islamic society, the Mali Empire has generally been more commonly associated with the much larger North African Empire, which was dominated by Arab traders. However, the Portuguese were reported to have made contact with the rulers of Mali in the second half of the 15th century; and traded quite extensively in a range of goods, including slaves. By the middle of the 16th century though, the Mali Empire was beginning to be undermined by the emergence of the neighbouring Songhai Empire, which would eventually go on to dominate that particular region of the African continent.
Linked to this early Mali Empire, were the Mandinka people, reputedly one of the largest tribal groups throughout the whole of western Africa. According to some reports, members of the Mandinka tribe were thought to have been some of the most heavily exploited by those nations that were actively involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and were said to have been indigenous to a large number of west African states including Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Sierre Leone, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Liberia, Niger, Mauritania and Chad. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, large numbers of the Mandinka people were said to have been forcibly transported across the Atlantic to work on the sugar cane plantations that were being established by the leading European states. According to most historic reports, the Mandinka people were mainly farmers by tradition, which might well account for their susceptibility to attack by other well armed and more militaristic African tribes. However, there were also thought to be significant numbers of skilled artisans among the various Mandinka communities that were raided by African slave traders, including woodworkers and metalworkers who were said to have been much prized within the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
The final two native African slave trading nations who are undoubtedly noteworthy were the kingdoms of Whydah (Ouida) and Bonny. Whydah was reported to have been a prominent slave trading society up until 1695 when it was finally overrun by the rival kingdom of Dahomey. Even though it only had a 10 mile stretch of coastline facing the Atlantic, which later became part of the infamous Slave Coast, between 1692 and 1700 the kingdom of Whydah was estimated to be delivering in excess of one thousand slaves per month to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. For its part, the kingdom of Bonny was reported to have been populated by the Ibani people, who were said to have been prominent slave owners and traders from the 15th to the 19th centuries and was centred around the region of modern day south east Nigeria.
It has often been suggested that many of the native African slave traders were completely unaware of the type of service that they were selling their fellow countrymen into, believing that they were being transported elsewhere to undergo the relatively benign kind of indentured servitude that was common within many African societies. However, it is now evident that most prominent slave traders were fully aware of the privations, hardships and cruelty that was being commonly inflicted on their neighbours, but continued to supply them nonetheless. During the 17th century, a number of African ambassadors were known to have travelled the Transatlantic Slave Trade route, on their way to the royal courts of their European partners; and were reported to have visited the Caribbean plantations, as well as witnessing the degrading and cruel treatment inflicted on the black African slaves, which they undoubtedly would have reported back to their own particular tribal leaders.
Yet despite what they had seen; and the obvious inhumanity that was being levied against their countrymen, they continued to supply hundreds of thousands of their fellow Africans to the European traders, making any subsequent pleas of ignorance highly improbable at best. Even a number of today’s leading African academics accept that such claims of ignorance on the part of those African’s, who actively participated in the enslavement of other native tribes are generally unlikely. They also tend to accept that even if the likes of the Ashanti, Imbangala, Nyamwezi or the Dahomey had initially been unaware of the Europeans intentions towards and treatment of black African slaves, then these same native slave traders and catchers would almost certainly have continued to supply slaves regardless. This is testified to by the fact that they did not stop catching and trading millions of slaves with the European nations, or destroying thousands of the native communities that they attacked, but chose instead to enhance their own power and influence, whilst at the same enriching themselves at the expense of their fellow Africans.
Of course, this was not a one-sided bargain and the European powers too, were equally culpable in the establishment, organisation and continuance of this barbaric trade. It is clear that where the western nations chose to directly involve themselves in Africa, it was generally to support a native monarch or tribe, who were sympathetic to their needs for black African labour, often supplying these same allies with arms or other goods that would not only enrich them, but also help them to subjugate even more of their African neighbours.
However, it should also be pointed out that some native African tribes could and did refuse to participate in the enslavement of black African people. The Xhosa people of southern Africa for example, were reported to have been contacted by European slave traders, who were seeking new regions to exploit, but were rebuffed by the Xhosa leaders and consequently had to look elsewhere for their labour supplies. There are no reports of the Xhosa people having suffered as a result of their outright refusal, suggesting that these European traders did not feel compelled to press their request through military force, which seems to have been the case throughout much of Africa. This can only lead to the presumption that the Transatlantic Slave Trade could and would not have existed without the direct complicity of certain African tribes, who were more concerned with improving their own positions, than they were about the fate of their fellow Africans. Such a presumption, of equal culpability on the part of both native Africans and certain western European states, would therefore fundamentally undermine any modern day claims for financial reparations that are regularly being made by some leading African nations.
It seems to be common knowledge that the state of slavery was recognised as being legitimate by most African kingdoms and societies before, during and after the 15th century, as was the practice of transferring ownership of a human being from one person to another. Although some historians have suggested that many of the tribal leaders who actively participated in the slave trade did not necessarily agree with the western idea and practice of chattel slavery, they seem to have done little to prevent it, possibly be refusing to supply slaves to the European nations, so their opposition to such practices can only really be regarded as anecdotal. The rulers of the kingdom of Congo for instance, were said to have been deliberately enticed into the slave trade, by western traders who would only exchange their valuable and exotic goods for slaves, rather than anything else. However, such suggestions seem entirely improbable, when one considers that other native African goods such as gold, ivory and gemstones would have been available for trade at the same time, so the idea that European traders would have refused such items, in favour of a human being, seems highly implausible.
Slavery was known to be an acceptable form of punishment under Congolese law, so was not an invention of the European nations or their representatives in Africa by any means. One of the principal tribes of the kingdom of Congo were thought to be the Lunda people, who were reported to be active participants in the enslavement of other African tribesmen, before, during and after the period of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but most notably during the 17th century. The king of Congo himself was reported to have sent several gifts of up to fifty slaves to Portuguese representatives in the first quarter of the 16th century, which suggests that the practice of gifting human beings to other people was a fairly commonplace practice within Congolese society, as opposed to being any sort of foreign custom that had been adopted by the African monarchs. It is also known that a number of the first Portuguese traders to visit Congo visited the local slave markets and purchased native Africans, who were then taken out of the country and back to Portugal, with absolutely no objections being raised by the local Congolese authorities.
In fact the only restriction that seems to have been placed on these early Portuguese traders by the Congolese was that they refrained from purchasing female slaves, although the exact reason for this particular restriction is unclear. In addition to allowing outsiders to buy African slaves, the Congolese monarchy was also said to be paying for foreign trade goods with enslaved Africans, who were subsequently taken out of their homelands, presumably to be employed in the sugar cane plantations of the Portuguese empire. What makes this trade in native Africans more interesting, are reports from the beginning of the 16th century which state that African states were regularly paying for foreign trade goods with shipments of copper, ivory and native textiles, suggesting that other forms of payment were available and indeed acceptable, other than enslaved African people.
Where there were disagreements between the Portuguese and Congolese authorities with regard to the trading in African slaves, these tended to be about numbers, rather than the trade in human beings itself. According to some sources, the Congolese monarch publicly expressed his concerns to the Portuguese representatives that some European traders were enslaving all African citizens, regardless of whether they were free or not, actions that might well have ended the relationship between the two parties. It was thought that many of these incidents had involved renegade slave traders, who chose to ignore local customs; and simply seized any African that they happened to come across and through their actions put the whole trading relationship at risk. However, despite these occasional contraventions of local trading practices, both sides seem to have been reluctant to allow such instances to bring an end to their mutually beneficial trading arrangements. For the Portuguese, continuing a trade that gave them access to an unlimited supply of African labour, as well as gold, ivory and other exotic trade items was essential. For the Congolese monarch and his noblemen, who were reported to be getting richer and more powerful through the trade, the prospect of losing access to the guns, ammunition and western goods that helped to make their people so respected and even feared in the region, was not something that they were likely to give up easily.
Even though retrospective and sometimes extremely slanted reporting of the Transatlantic Slave Trade might suggest that many of the native slave traders of Africa were somehow coerced or forced to participate in the trade, this does not appear to have been the case in most instances. Had the Western European nations wanted to enslave the native African states by force, then they were more than capable of doing so, much the same as the Spanish conquistadors had done in the New World. However, rather than land large numbers of heavily armed troops onto the continent and suppress the local tribes by simply military means, instead they chose to establish equitable trading relationships with the local tribal leaders, who appear to have been equally keen to develop such trade links. According to most contemporary reports, early western traders went to great lengths in order to avoid upsetting local leaders and even adopted the usual trading customs, then being practiced by the indigenous people of Africa. It was only after good trading relations had been established that the European states began to construct the westernised port facilities and protective forts that were required and even then it was only with the express agreement of the local monarch or tribal leader. The only major exception to these usual practices was said to have taken place when the Portuguese were reported to have landed a large number of troops in the region of modern day Angola, in response to a military dispute with the local tribes.
The first western European nation to actively engage in the African slave trade was said to be the Portuguese in the 15th century and it was they, along with their Spanish neighbours who were said to have inaugurated what became commonly known as the Triangular Trade. The first black Africans to be traded in the Caribbean by the Spanish were said to have been sold there in 1518, during the reign of the Spanish monarch Charles I, who was reported to have granted a licence to a member of his royal household, to import some 4,000 African slaves to the Americas. These slaves were thought to have been landed in the area of Hispaniola, later Haiti and the Dominican Republic, before being shipped on to the Spanish held regions of Mexico, Venezuela and Chile, where they were principally employed in mining for the gold and other treasures that had first brought the Spanish to the New World.
However, it was not just the Spanish gold mining industry that required large numbers of manual labourers, but also the sugar cane plantations of Mexico, Colombia, Peru and the Antilles, the cocoa plantations of Venezuela, grape and olive farms in Peru, as well as the wheat growing farms of Chile. Spanish exploration, exploitation and settlement of the New World, South America, North America and the Caribbean had begun in the latter half of the 15th century, following the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Initially, the Spanish Conquistadors were said to have enslaved the native tribes of South America to carry out these duties, but their population had subsequently been decimated, both by the Old World diseases such as Smallpox, Typhus, Measles and Influenza, brought by the Spaniards and by the sheer overwork levied upon them by their new masters, leaving the Spanish with no effective workforce.
Portuguese planters were known to have been employing black African labour since the early 15th century, on a number of sugar plantations located on volcanic islands to the west of Africa, most notably the islands of Madeira, the Azores and Cape Verde. In common with the rigorous climate of the New World, some of these Atlantic islands were thought to be generally unwelcoming for most European settlers, so African labour was employed to help plant, harvest and process the sugar cane crops grown there. Parts of the Cape Verde islands were thought to have been discovered by Portuguese mariners, as early as 1456, although it was said to have been after 1496 that the first settlers and first black African slaves were brought to the region to help cultivate and colonise these new lands. The island’s geographical position, alongside some of the main Transatlantic Slave routes also helped them to become synonymous with the trade and to bring great prosperity to these new Portuguese territories in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Azores were said to have been discovered by Portuguese seafarers as early as 1427 and like the Cape Verde islands, along with Madeira was not thought to have been settled immediately, but were eventually colonised over a period of time. Madeira itself was reported to have been discovered by the Portuguese in the first half of the 15th century, with most sources suggesting a date of around 1420. The first colonists, who were said to have included sugar planters, were thought to have arrived there in around 1455 and by 1490 large numbers of African slaves were reported to have been employed there to plant, cultivate and harvest the sugar cane crops that had become a vital part of the island’s economy. It was also thought to be the same Portuguese planters who had first settled and farmed these islands that later moved across the Atlantic and set about farming in the Americas, bringing with them the black African labour force, which would eventually help to build the New World’s economy.
It was said that modern day Brazil was first settled by the Portuguese in 1516 and within thirty-odd years had become the principal sugar exporting country in the New World, as well as being the largest importer of African slave labour. In fact, according to some sources, of the 11 million or so Black African slaves landed alive in the Americas throughout the period of the slave trade, some 38% of the total were said to have been transported to Brazil, with 51% being employed by the Spanish, British and French in their Caribbean and South American colonies. Of the remaining 11%, some 6% were reported to have been sent to the North American colonies and the other 5% put to work in the Caribbean colonies of the Dutch, Danes and the Swedes.
It is perhaps surprising to note though that although the Spanish Empire employed a great number of slaves, very few were actually transported to the Americas by Spanish owned ships. Instead, it seems that Spain commonly bought slaves that had been transported by other European nations, including the Portuguese, Dutch, French and of course the English. However, this possible reluctance or refusal to actually carry enslaved Africans aboard Spanish ships seems to have changed around 1700, when they were thought to have become actively engaged in all aspects of the Triangular Trade, including the Middle Passage.
Typically, the first leg of the Triangular Trade was said to have involved slave merchants stocking their ships with a plethora of trade goods, including cloth, beads, pots and pans, alcohol and armaments, all of which were manufactured in the factories of Britain, France, Holland and India. Not only were these factories able to produce a wide variety of goods, but were also able to manufacture them in comparatively large numbers, unlike the native African tribes who tended to produce most of their own necessary goods on a fairly local ad-hoc basis. Iron, Copper and Brass items were thought to have been particularly popular trade items, as were the brightly coloured Cowry shells, which were often used by local tribesmen as personal adornments. Likewise, guns were said to have been a highly prized trade item for most local African tribes, as not only were they unusual items in themselves, but also offered the recipient the chance to dominate their home regions, often at the expense of their neighbours who did not have such advanced weaponry. For the European suppliers of such armaments, allowing one particular tribe to achieve military dominance had its obvious benefits, as these tribes were then able to attack and capture neighbouring tribes with increasing regularity, providing even more African captives who could then be transported into slavery.
Major West African slave trading regions were thought to have included the Upper Guinea Coast, or Senegambia, now marked by the modern area that lies between the Senegal and Gambia rivers, the Ivory Coast, marked by modern day central Liberia and the Lower Guinea Coast, now marked by today’s Ivory Coast. The region of the Slave Coast was identified as the area of modern day Togo, Benin and Western Nigeria, with Gabon and Angola reportedly supplying almost half of the total slave numbers transported across the Atlantic during the trade. Of the thirteen million black Africans thought to have been transported across the Atlantic between 1650 and 1860, some three million were said to have been shipped from ports and forts in the area of Congo and Angola, one and a half million from the Gold Coast, two million from the Slave Coast, two million from Benin and one million more from the Mozambique and Tanzania regions.
The kingdom of Benin, which was reported to have flourished from the 14th century through to the 17th century was said to have been heavily involved with the slave trade, principally through its principal tribal group, who were known as the Edu people. Just under half of the thirteen million slaves reportedly shipped from these African ports, around six million people, were thought to have been destined for work in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and South America. Another two million were thought to have been sent to the coffee plantations of South America, with the majority of the remaining five million African slaves said to have been employed in various tasks such as mining, planting, harvesting and production of both cotton and cocoa, as well as other general construction work.
It also seems clear that shipping numbers were largely spread over a period of some 350 years, from 1450 through to 1900, with a peak of activity between 1700 and 1900. From 1450 to 1600 an estimated 500,000 black African slaves were thought to have been transported across the Atlantic, mostly by Portuguese and Spanish traders who were supplying workers to their own nation’s new South American and Caribbean colonies. Between 1601 and 1700 a further one and a half million Africans were reportedly shipped across the Atlantic by a number of European nations, including the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Swedes and the English. From 1701 to 1800, up to seven million Africans were thought to have been forcibly transported across the Atlantic with the vast majority being transported by Portuguese, French, Dutch and English ships, in order to supply the ever increasing demands from South America and the Caribbean region. Even though the Transatlantic Slave Trade was said to have been largely abolished by most of the leading European nations by the beginning of the 19th century, between 1801 and 1900, an estimated three and a half million Africans were said to have been carried across the Atlantic, often by illegal slave traders or by the ships of those nations that had chosen to ignore the widespread abolition of the trade. At least one other source has suggested that between 1651 and 1807, British ships were reported to have carried an estimated two million Africans across the Atlantic, whilst in the same period French ships transported one and a half million and the Dutch an additional half a million black slaves, most of who were destined for work in the Caribbean.
In virtually all of the previously mentioned African regions, there were thought to have been numerous forts and ports, which were used as trading posts by the western nations, although slaves might just as easily be transferred to the western trading ships, from inland River Stations that could be accessed via local creeks and rivers. According to some contemporary reports, it was also common practice for slaves to be held for months in secure stockades called “Barracoons”, or on various coastal beaches, before being delivered to the ships on specially built coastal vessels that were capable of carrying up to 200 enslaved Africans below their decks. It has also been reported that up to 40% of the slaves captured from their native villages, were thought to have died on the journey from their place of captivity to these river stations, coastal beaches or western slave forts, which is said to account for the deaths of several million Africans, who died before ever reaching the western traders, who were waiting to transport them across the Atlantic. If these reported figures are anywhere near accurate, then that would mean that some eight million Africans died before they could be traded to the western nations, as opposed to the one million or so, who were thought to have died during the Middle Passage, or those that died once they had reached the New World. Clearly, such massive loss of human life is a tragedy, but the fact that a greater number of Africans were thought to have died at the hands of their fellow Africans, rather than the financially driven white Europeans is a point worth noting, when considering the whole subject of the African Slave Trade and more importantly who was most responsible for the huge loss of life that resulted from it.
The series of European “forts” that were said to have been built at various sites along the western coast of Africa, were primarily constructed to serve a number of purposes, including securing trade items that were being brought in and out of the country, as well as providing a secure defensive redoubt for those white Europeans, who lived and worked in the region. Although most of these bases were thought to have been constructed with the express permission of the local reigning monarch or tribal leader, conditions and people often changed, so it was necessary for traders to have accommodations that might offer them a secure position, until the next European ship visited the area and was able to rescue them. Originally built of timber, over time, these trading forts were generally reconstructed on highly defendable areas of open ground and rebuilt using stone and rocks that were sometimes specifically imported for that particular purpose. As such centres were redeveloped and became more and more sophisticated, so they began to include large covered warehouses, where trade goods could be stored, jetties and wharves which allowed merchandise to be ferried to and from the various ships that sat offshore, as well as dungeons or yards, which could be used to hold the tens of thousands of black African slaves that would almost inevitably pass through their gates.
In what is now modern day Ghana, the Cape Coast Castle, was reported to have been one such European constructed trading fort, which was originally built by Swedish explorers and traders, sometime before the first half of the 17th century. By around 1665 however, the fort was thought to have fallen into a British trading company’s hands and was then used as a defensive position and trading centre to secure their interests in the region. Imported trade items such as guns, rum and tobacco, were reported to have been brought into the castle, to be traded with the local tribes, in exchange for locally sourced gold, ivory, pepper, coffee, corn and of course black African slaves.
Possibly the earliest of these European trade forts, was thought to have been Elmina Castle, which was reported to have been constructed by Portuguese explorers and traders in around 1482. Built to protect the goods that were being brought in and out of the region, as well as the Portuguese trading monopoly, the base later fell into the hands of Dutch traders around 1637 and remained in their possession, until well after the Slave Trade had been abolished by most western nations in the early 19th century. A trade fort with one of the most interesting names was reported to have been Fort Metal Cross, which was said to have been originally built by the British based Royal African Company in around 1692, although the base itself was reported to have relatively uncompleted until 1698, due to ongoing hostilities with local African tribesmen. The base was said to have been so vital to British interests in the region, which were constantly under threat from other European nations that its garrison took great care to ensure its security, including the emplacement of some twenty-odd canons around its perimeter, which were employed to deter any would-be attackers, be they black or white.
The rather odd sounding name is thought to have been a legacy of its later Dutch inhabitants, who were thought to have occupied the base sometime after 1867, when its days as a slave trading centre were long since over. However, one of the most infamous and notable slave trading centres that was employed by a number of British mercantile companies was thought to have been Bunce Island, which was located only some twenty miles or so, from what later became Freetown in Sierre Leone. This river based island was reported to have first been occupied by the British in 1670, by agents of the Royal African Company and the Gambia Adventurers Company, both of whom were seeking to exploit the natural and human resources of the region. However, despite the best efforts of these early traders and explorers, the base was said to have been generally unsuccessful and by around 1740, the site was said to have been abandoned by its original inhabitants.
Within a few years though, Bunce Island was reported to have been reoccupied by two more London based British trading companies, Grant, Oswald and Company, along with John and Alexander Anderson, who between them were said to have made the base an extremely profitable enterprise for all of those concerned. Trading in slaves and other native goods, Bunce Island was thought to have been used as a transit point for tens of thousands of captured black Africans, who were later transported against their will to the New World, most notably to the region of the British and French West Indies.
Notable British families who were reported to have participated in the Bunce Island slave trade include the likes of the Caulkers, Tuckers and the Clevelands, all of whom were said to have made their fortunes from the misery of the native African tribesmen that they processed within the base. One of the main indigenous tribes within the area of Sierre Leone, were thought to be the Mende people, who were reported to be farmers and hunters by tradition, although elements of the Mende, were also said to have been actively involved in the slave trade, whilst others became victims of it. Some of the families that were directly involved with the slave trade were thought to have been of Anglo-African descent; their white fathers have married or formed relationships with black African women by whom they had children. One of these families was said to be the Sherbro Tuckers, who were said to have originated from an English slave trader called Tucker, who married an African Sherbro princess and went on to form his own dynasty of slave traders and merchants. The Sherbro were an indigenous African tribe that had formed extensive trading links with both the Portuguese and British traders that came to West Africa in search of riches. When the first English explorers and merchants visited Sierre Leone in around 1620, it was the Sherbro that were one of the first people that they encountered and with whom long-term relationships were formed, ultimately creating families like the Tuckers. Likewise, the Caulkers of Sherbro were said to have been yet another Anglo-African family group, who benefited from slave trading within the region of Sierre Leone and one that was said to have employed the previously mentioned Mende people to help enslave other native African tribes for the Transatlantic trade.
In the meantime, onboard the slave ships themselves, the ships carpenters would have been busily altering the internal structure of the ship, by reconstructing slave decks within the holds that would eventually hold the expected cargo of unwilling passengers. This human cargo ultimately replaced the merchandise, which had been traded for their freedom; and in order to maximise their profits, ship’s crew were said to have packed slaves into these claustrophobic and unsanitary conditions, regardless of the hardship and loss of life that they caused. Once the ship had reached the Americas and off loaded its cargo of African slaves, these slave decks would commonly be removed by the ship’s carpenter, in order that the holds could be used for the transportation of more usual trade commodities, which were then taken back to Britain to be sold.
Perhaps typical of the men who were involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade was the Welsh sea captain, John Phillips, who was reported to have commanded the Royal African Company ship, “The Hannibal” and who sailed from London to Guinea on the west coast of Africa, with a cargo of guns, gunpowder, cloth and other goods, which could then be traded for slaves. Having exchanged these items for a cargo of individually selected slaves, Phillips was then thought to have sailed his newly laden ship, across the Atlantic to St Thomas’ and Barbados in the Caribbean, where the African slaves were off loaded and then sold to local agents and planters. “The Hannibal” having been cleaned and made ready for sea, Phillips then had a cargo of sugar loaded into the holds, which was then carried back across the Atlantic to his home port of London.
Yet another slave ship captain was said to be Hugh Crow, a one-eyed Manxman, who was known to have made several voyages to West Africa during his long and colourful career and to have carried African slaves across the Atlantic. Despite his involvement with the slave trade however, Crow was reputed to have been a generally kind and Christian-like man, who took great care of his human cargoes, although he was said to have been deliberately vague about the day-to-day running of his ship, when publishing his life story some years later. Having witnessed the tribal sacrifice of a dead African king’s wives, presumably to accompany their lord to the after-life, Crow was said to have come to the conclusion that far from enslaving black Africans, European traders were in fact saving them from their highly primitive and cruel lives in their homelands. Whether or not he actually believed this or not is unclear, but it does seem as though Captain Crow experienced mixed feelings over the rights and wrongs of the slave trade, much of which was informed by his own limited experience of it. Although he undoubtedly witnessed first-hand, some of the more extreme cruelties of the native African cultures that he visited, he obviously had little, if any knowledge, of the fairly brutal lives he was delivering them to in the Caribbean.
The common practice of trading African slaves for European merchandise seems to have been a fairly lengthy process, being largely dependent on meeting the right African agent or “factor”, selecting the appropriate number and type of fit and healthy slaves, who might be expected to survive the long and arduous journey across the Atlantic and agreeing terms with the local tribal leader or king through his appointed agent. Sufficient food and water supplies also had to be arranged by the captain and his crew, so that everyone on board might be adequately fed and watered throughout the lengthy voyage and it was often the most inexperienced seafarers who happened to misjudge this aspect, leading to starvation amongst the slaves. Most experienced sea captains tried to ensure that they carried sufficient food supplies for cater for everyone on board, both the slaves and his own crew. They would have also taken onboard a surplus of both food and water, which might keep the ships company fed and watered during any unexpected delays caused by damage or adverse weather conditions. Reports from the time suggest that supplies of local foodstuffs were commonly taken aboard the ship, to specifically cater for the African palette, including rice, peppers, corn, palm oil and potatoes. It was also thought to have been common practice for some captains to include stocks of rum, cheese and salt, as well as occasional luxuries such as coconuts that could be distributed amongst both the crew and their captives.
Where an inexperienced or over-confident sea captain was in charge of a vessel and the ship subsequently faced unforeseen delays in its transatlantic journey times, then it was often the slaves who starved, especially when additional food stores had not been loaded onto the ship beforehand. Although not specifically relating to the matter of food stores, the Royal African Company was reported to be one of the worst performing companies in terms of slave survival rates aboard their ships. Between 1680 and 1688 the company was said to have lost around 15,000 of the 60,000 Africans that they shipped across the Atlantic, a full 25% of their total human cargoes. Although whole ship losses might have accounted in part, for this extremely high mortality rate, it seems just as likely that such high death rates, were actually caused through overcrowding, a wilful lack of care, disease and malnutrition, all of which might have been avoided if financial profits had been a secondary consideration to common humanity.
In at least one notable case, the captain and crew of the slave ship “Zong”, were known to have deliberately cast over 130 African slaves over the side of the ship and to their certain deaths, purportedly to save the rest of the ships company from disaster. The ships owners then made a claim against their insurers for the loss of the slaves, a claim that was successfully upheld by the British courts. The fact that a ship’s captain could essentially murder 130 human beings and yet not face charges, whilst at the same time receive compensation for their loss was a clear and damning indictment, not only of the trade, but also of some of the men and legal system that were involved with it. Often though, the treatment that each cargo of slaves might receive from the crew of a particular ship was entirely dependent on the nature of the master who was in control of the vessel. Some were generally good natured men who despite their involvement in the slave trade, tried to make the journey bearable, whereas there were also those who saw the captives, as little more than animals and treated them in a similar manner. It has also been suggested that often the differences in treatment, which African slaves experienced, was sometimes just determined by the captain’s personal financial involvement with the cargo. A master who owned and operated a ship at his own expense, was thought to have a far greater interest in the health and well-being of his cargo, than did the master, who was simply employed on a fixed wage to take a vessel full of slaves across the Atlantic, but had little financial interest in whether or not they arrived there dead or alive.
The actual process of selecting slaves was said to have been just the first of many humiliations that would be suffered by those Africans who had been captured by their neighbouring tribesmen. Typically, selections were reported to have been carried out by the ships doctor, or surgeon, who in conjunction with the ships captain, would inspect all of the available slaves and choose the most suitable. Aside from looking for any obvious injuries or deformities that might reduce the financial value of the slave, the ships surgeon would also inspect each individual, looking for signs of communicable diseases, including any venereal disease that might be passed from one slave to another during the long sea voyage. Once the agreed number of physically fit slaves had been chosen, each of them would have been branded, either with the name of the ship or their new owner’s initials. Generally these brands would be placed on the African slave’s breast or on their shoulder and was possibly the first of many such marks that they might receive during their lifetime.
The second leg of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which was commonly known as the Middle Passage, was often the most dangerous and potentially fatal part of the journey, for both the ships crew and their human cargo, as they were far away from land and unlikely to be saved, if the ship suffered damage, or was caught in adverse weather conditions. As most ships crews were generally far smaller, than the numbers of African slaves actually aboard the ship, there was also the danger of the vessel being taken over by their unwilling passengers, so great care and even extreme measures were taken to ensure the European crew’s safety. Often fettered by the feet and joined by the wrists, the African slaves were thought to have often been brought above decks, weather permitting, to allow the clearing of the holds, with the unhygienic accumulation of bodily fluids being washed away and the dead and dying slaves simply deposited into the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, happily spared from the future horrors, which awaited their fellow passengers once they had reached the New World.
These sessions, which were said to have occurred maybe once or twice a week, also allowed the slaves to be exercised, often at the end of a whip, for those slaves who refused to participate in such activities. It also appears commonplace for the ships weapons to have been primed during these exercise periods, so great was the risk of rebellion, by the enslaved Africans and numerous occurrences have been reported where crews had to suppress revolts by enraged African slaves, often at the point of a cutlass or the barrel of a gun. Although conditions were generally thought to have been fairly deplorable during the Middle Passage, with men, women and children all accommodated in relatively confined areas, according to some reports women and children were often given more freedom than their adult male counterparts. Perhaps believing that the women and children posed significantly less risk to the safety of the ship and its crew, than the African men, they were sometimes allowed to roam the ship, helping to prepare meals for the slaves or carrying out the more mundane tasks for the captain and his crew. Female slaves however, also regularly faced the risk of being sexually abused by the crew of the ship, who saw little wrong in raping the slave women who were aboard and it was sometimes only the intervention of a fairly strict captain that might have helped prevent such attacks.
The length of time taken to cross the Atlantic was said to have been subject to a number of different factors, including the actual port of departure and the ship’s final destination, as the greater the distance, the greater the journey time. The actual size and basic speed of each individual ship were also thought to have been determining factors in journey times, as was the sorts of weather that the ships encountered, as they crossed the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. During the 16th century, basic ship design was thought to have limited the speed of most ships, which typically took several months to cross from Africa to the New World. However, by the 18th century, journey times were said to have been cut in half, from twelve or fourteen weeks, down to six or eight weeks, with much of this reduction having been brought about by improved maritime technologies in the field of ship design and building.
Fortunately these technological improvements were also thought to have had a direct effect on the mortality rates amongst the African slave cargoes, reportedly reducing death rates among the slave cargo from around 15-20% to 10-15% on average, with quicker transatlantic journeys, having a less negative effect on the health and well-being of the ships company. Having spent several weeks at sea, during which time unknown numbers of their fellow slaves would have died from diseases such as dysentery, smallpox, malaria and scurvy, as well as desperation leading to suicide, the remaining Africans would have been landed in one of the many slave ports that had been established throughout the Americas. It was only towards the late 1700’s and as the value of individual slaves increased that national governments, such as the British and French, began to enforce legislation upon the slave traders and their ships. Insisting that each ship carried a doctor, to care for the slave cargoes that they transported across the Atlantic, making slave numbers proportionate to the size of the ship; and specifying a minimum amount of space and headroom for slave holds, were all reported to have become legal obligations imposed by the various national authorities.
However, it seems likely that it was more the financial value, rather than any sort of human consideration, which saw these new regulations introduced and the rigours of Middle Passage improved, so that the previous death rates amongst the human cargoes were steadily and significantly reduced. Clearly, by the beginning of the 18th century, more and more ships captains were starting to reduce the numbers of slaves that they carried on each voyage, in order to more adequately preserve their precious cargoes, by reducing occurrences of deaths caused by disease and depression. Although unscrupulous slave traders would continue to overload their ships, regardless of any changes demanded by the various national governments, most slave traders did try to reduce the stress and strain on their unwilling passengers by adopting these new measures. Interestingly, the slave ship “Brooke” is commonly used to illustrate the typical layout and size of most transatlantic ships, showing the African cargo being tightly packed and with little room given over to each individual slave. It has also been regularly reported that most ships employed for the purpose, offered as little as 18” of headroom to each confined person, which was not only clearly claustrophobic, but also prevented slaves from being able to turn over easily.
Even though the “Brooke” was generally typical of its type, it did not necessarily follow that it was completely representative of every ship that plied this particular trade, as not every ship’s captain could or would allow his ship to be loaded in such a way. Although there were undoubtedly cramped areas of the slave deck, most illustration, pictures and paintings of the time, show decks that were several feet high and with adequate room for slaves to move around, albeit in a fairly limited way. Rather than all slave ships handling many hundreds of captured slaves, there are numerous reports of European ships actually only carrying tens or dozens of enslaved Africans, who clearly would not have been subjected to the sort of cramped and inhumane conditions, so often considered to be the norm. In fact, it has now become clear that the widely used image of the slave ship “Brooke” was deliberately chosen and used by the Abolitionist movement, to both shock the general public around the world, as well as to underpin their own campaign against the Transatlantic Slave Trade generally.
Read Part Two of Britain & The Transatlantic Slave Trade by clicking HERE:
Read Part Two of Britain & The Transatlantic Slave Trade by clicking HERE: