African Slave System

At the end of the 14th century Europeans started to take people from Africa against their will. Initially they were mainly used as servants for the rich. The Europeans justified the taking of slaves by arguing that they were providing an opportunity for Africans to become Christians. By the 17th century the removal of slaves from Africa became a holy cause that had the full support of the Christian Church.

When Spanish and Portuguese sea-captains began to explore the Americas they took their African servants with them. Some of these Africans proved to be excellent explorers. The most important of these was Estevanico, who led the first European expedition to New Mexico and Arizona.

The people living in the Americas resisted the attempt by the Europeans to take over their land. One of he most important struggles took place in Cuba in 1512. Resistance was led by Hatuey. According to Bartolomé de Las Casas Hatuey claimed: "They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters. Incapable of matching us in valor, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break"

Diego Velázquez eventually suppressed the rebellion. He captured Hatuey and he was executed on 2nd February, 1512. It is estimated that over a million people lived in Cuba before the arrival of the Europeans. Twenty-five years later there were only 2,000 left. Large numbers had been killed, while others died of starvation, disease, committed suicide or had died from the consequences of being forced to work long hours in the gold mines.

After the arrival of the Europeans there was a sharp decline in the local population of most of the islands in the Caribbean Sea. This created a problem for the Europeans as they needed labour to exploit the natural resources of these islands. Eventually the Europeans came up with a solution: the importation of slaves from Africa. By 1540, an estimated 10,000 slaves a year were being brought from Africa to replace the diminishing local populations.

According to Suzanne Schwarz, the author of Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade (1995): "This sophisticated trade in human cargo was global and international, involving all the maritime powers in Europe, from Spain and Portugal to France, England, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and even Brandenburg. Some 37,000 slaving voyages cleared from ports of the Atlantic littoral between the early sixteenth and the mid-nineteenth century and, collectively, they transported an estimated eleven million individuals from Africa."

British merchants became involved in the trade and eventually dominated the market. The West indian Atas of 1796 commented that "every year about 72,000 slaves are carried from Africa to the West Indies... the Danes carry away about 3,0000, the Dutch 7,000, the French 18,000, the Portuguese 8,000, the English have all the rest."

The British built coastal forts in Africa where they kept the captured Africans until the arrival of the slave-ships. The merchants obtained the slaves from African chiefs by giving them goods from Europe. At first, these slaves were often the captured soldiers from tribal wars. However, the demand for slaves become so great that raiding parties were organised to obtain young Africans.

It has been estimated that 326,000 slaves were taken from the Bight of Bonny between 1780 and 1800. Over 85% of the Africans exported were carried in British ships. Most of these were based in Liverpool. The slave-ship surgeon, Alexander Falconbridge, reported in 1790 that the goods used to buy slaves from this area included guns, gunpowder, textiles, iron bars and brandy. Other popular items traded included copper, brass and pewter goods. Paul Lovejoy, the author of Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (1983) has argued that the goods were of a high quality "thereby disproving the myth that Africa got virtually nothing for the export of its sons and daughters."

John Newton was a slave-captain between 1747 and 1754. He wrote in Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787): "The slaves, in general, are bought, and paid for. Sometimes, when goods are lent, or trusted on shore, the trader voluntarily leaves a free person, perhaps his own son, as a hostage, or pawn, for the payment; and, in case or default, the hostage is carried off, and sold; which, however hard upon him, being in consequence of a free stipulation, cannot be deemed unfair. There have been instances of unprincipled captains, who, at the close of what they supposed their last voyage, and when they had no intention of revisiting the coast, have detained, and carried away, free people with them; and left the next ship, that should come from the same port, to risk the consequences. But these actions, I hope, and believe, are not common."

In 1784 William Dillwyn joined forces with John Lloyd to publish The Case of our Fellow Creatures, the Oppressed Africans. Dillwyn claimed that the slave-trade encouraged wars between the different tribal groups in Africa: "This traffic is the principal source of the destructive wars which prevail among these unhappy people, and is attended with consequences, the mere recital of which is shocking to humanity. The violent reparation of the dearest relatives, the tears of conjugal and parental affection, the reluctance of the slaves to a voyage from which they can have no chance of returning, must present scenes of distress which would pierce the heart of any, in whom the principles of humanity are not wholly effaced. This, however, is but the beginning of sorrows with the poor captives."

Hugh Crow, the captain of The Elizabeth, arrived at Annamaboe in December, 1790. Crow later recalled: "We came to anchor at Annamaboe in December, 1790, after a passage of seven weeks. We lay there about three weeks without transacting any trade, the king of that part of the coast having died some time before, in consequence of which all business was suspended. According to a barbarous custom of the country on occasion of the decease of a prince twenty-three of his wives were put to death while we remained; and many no doubt had met with a similar fate before our arrival."

James Irving was the captain of the slave-ship, The Ellen, that was based in Liverpool. Irving wrote to his parents on 2nd January 1791: "We have been very busy loading the vessel.... We are bound for Annamaboe in the Gold Coast, discharge what goods we have for that price and set sail from it again within 48 hours after we arrived. Then we are to call at Lagos, Accra and other parts whose name I have forget. We are then to go down as far as Benin River and stay a day or two and then go back to Anomabo from which place we are to sail for the West Indies." The arrived at Annamaboe on 5th April 1791, before moving onto Lagos and Accra. While on the Gold Coast Irving purchased 341 Africans, eighty-eight of whom were transferred to other ships.

Mungo Park explored Africa in 1795. He encountered the Mandingo tribe that were part of the Mali Empire. He later claimed that most of the people he encountered were slaves: "I suppose, not more than one-fourth part of the inhabitants at large; the other three-fourths are in a state of hopeless and hereditary slavery; and are employed in cultivating the land, in the care of cattle, and in servile offices of all kinds, much in the same manner as the slaves in the West Indies. I was told, however, that the Mandingo master can neither deprive his slave of life, nor sell him to a stranger, without first calling a palaver on his conduct; or, in other words, bringing him to a public trial; but this degree of protection is extended only to the native of domestic slave. Captives taken in war, and those unfortunate victims who are condemned to slavery for crimes or insolvency, and, in short, all those unhappy people who are brought down from the interior countries for sale, have no security whatever, but may be treated and disposed of in all respects as the owner thinks proper. It sometimes happens, indeed, when no ships are on the coast, that a humane and considerate master incorporates his purchased slaves among his domestics; and their offspring at least, if not the parents, become entitled to all the privileges of the native class."

Alexander Falcolnbridge was a surgeon aboard a a slave ship from Bristol. He wrote about his experience in An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa: "When the negroes whom the black traders have to dispose of are shown to the European purchasers, they first examine them relative to age. They then minutely inspect their persons, and inquire into their state of health; if they are afflicted with any infirmity, or are deformed, or have bad eyes or teeth; if they are lame, or weak in the joints, or distorted in the back, or of a slender make, or are narrow in the chest; in short, if they have been afflicted in any manner so as to render them incapable of such labour they are rejected. The traders frequently beat those negroes which are objected to by the captains. Instances have happened that the traders, when any of their negroes have been objected to have instantly beheaded them in the sight of the captain."

Offobah Cugoano was one of the young men captured from Africa: "I was early snatched away from my native country, with about eighteen or twenty more boys and girls, as we were playing in a field. We lived but a few days' journey from the coast where we were kidnapped, and consigned to Grenada... We were soon led out of the way which we knew, and towards evening, as we came in sight of a town. I was soon conducted to a prison, for three days, where I heard the groans and cries of many, and saw some of my fellow-captives. But when a vessel arrived to conduct us away to the ship, it was a most horrible scene; there was nothing to be heard but the rattling of chains, smacking of whips, and the groans and cries of our fellow-men. Some would not stir from the ground, when they were lashed and beat in the most horrible manner."

Olaudah Equiano was living in an Igbo village in the kingdom of Benin in the 1756. He told his story in Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of America (1787): "One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both; and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound; but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time. The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew."

Mungo Park was an explorer who witnessed the taking of slaves from Africa. "The slaves are commonly secured by putting the right leg of one, and the left of another into the same pair of fetters. By supporting the fetters with string they can walk very slowly. Every four slaves are likewise fastened together by the necks. They were led out in their fetters every morning to the shade of the tamarind tree where they were encouraged to sing diverting songs to keep up their spirits; for although some of them sustained the hardships of their situation with amazing fortitude, the greater part were very much dejected, and would sit all day in the sort of sullen melancholy with their eyes fixed upon the ground."

Gad Heuman and James Walvin, the authors of The Atlantic Slave Trade (2003) have argued that: "Though the history of the Atlantic crossing is remarkably varied and changed across time and from place to place, the evidence remains astounding. Something like 12 million Africans were forced into the Atlantic slave ships, and perhaps 10.5 million Africans survived the ordeal to make landfall in the Americas... So expansive was this demand in the Americas that English monopolists were never able fully to satisfy it. Yet by 1670 the British had become the dominant force in the Atlantic trade. Indeed, in the 150 years to 1807 (when the British abolished their slave trade) they carried as many Africans across the Atlantic as all other slave-trading nations combined. They shipped some 3.5 million Africans in those years, at a rate of about 6,700 a year in 1670 and perhaps 42,000 a year a century later."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Ottobah Cugoano, Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of Africa (1787)

I was early snatched away from my native country, with about eighteen or twenty more boys and girls, as we were playing in a field. We lived but a few days' journey from the coast where we were kidnapped, and consigned to Grenada. Some of us attempted, in vain, to run away, but pistols and cutlasses were soon introduced, threatening, that if we offered to stir, we should all lie dead on the spot.

We were soon led out of the way which we knew, and towards evening, as we came in sight of a town. I was soon conducted to a prison, for three days, where I heard the groans and cries of many, and saw some of my fellow-captives. But when a vessel arrived to conduct us away to the ship, it was a most horrible scene; there was nothing to be heard but the rattling of chains, smacking of whips, and the groans and cries of our fellow-men. Some would not stir from the ground, when they were lashed and beat in the most horrible manner.

(2) Hugh Crow, The Memoirs of Captain Hugh Crow (1830)

We came to anchor at Annamaboe in December, 1790, after a passage of seven weeks. We lay there about three weeks without transacting any trade, the king of that part of the coast having died some time before, in consequence of which all business was suspended. According to a barbarous custom of the country on occasion of the decease of a prince twenty-three of his wives were put to death while we remained; and many no doubt had met with a similar fate before our arrival. Yet to become the wives of these great men was considered, by the parents of the females, a high and honourable distinction. It was stated to me that the late king of Dahomy, a great kingdom in the interior, had seven hundred wives, all of whom were sacrificed soon after his decease; and Captain Ferrer, a gentleman of talent and observation, who happened to be at Dahomy during the perpetration of this horrid butchery, afterwards testified the fact in the British House of Commons. His evidence was, however, of little avail, for Mr. Wilberforce and his party threw discredit upon the whole statement.

After some delay at Annamaboe (where I first became acquainted with my excellent friend Captain

Luke Mann), we proceeded to a place called Lagos, with negroes, and thence to Benin. We traded between both places for several months, so that I acquired a considerable knowledge, as a pilot, of that

part of the coast. I was much pleased with the gentle manners of the natives of Benin, who are truly a fine tractable race of people. When they meet an European they fall down on the right knee, clap their hands three times, and exclaim "Doe ba, doe ba;" that is " We reverence you!" They then shake hands, in their way, by giving three fillips with the finger.

The agents who were employed on different parts of the coast by our owner, Mr. Dawson, having all fallen victims to the climate in a few months after their arrival, in order that we might convey to him the melancholy news as soon as possible, we took in a quantity of ivory and other articles and sailed

from Benin. We arrived at Liverpool in August, 1791 - where after my recovery from an attack of jaundice I engaged to go as mate in a fine ship called The Bell, Captain Rigby, belonging to William Harper, Esq. and bound to Cape Mount, on the windward coast of Africa.

(3) Olaudah Equiano, was captured and sold as a slave in the kingdom of Benin in Africa. He wrote about his experiences in The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African (1789)

Generally, when the grown people in the neighbourhood were gone far in the fields to labour, the children assembled together in some of the neighborhood's premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us; for they sometimes took those opportunities of our parents' absence, to attack and carry off as many as they could seize.

One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both; and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night. We were then unbound; but were unable to take any food; and, being quite overpowered by fatigue and grief, our only relief was some sleep, which allayed our misfortune for a short time. The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.

(4) William Dillwyn and John Lloyd, The Case of our Fellow Creatures, the Oppressed Africans (1784)

It would surely have been more constant with the avowed principles of Englishmen, both as men and as Christians, if their settlement in heathen countries had been succeeded by mild and benevolent attempts to civilize their inhabitants, and to incline them to receive the glad tidings of the gospel. But how different a conduct towards them has been pursued. It has not only been repugnant, in a political view, to those commercial advantages which a fair and honourable treatment might have procured, but has evidently tended to increase the barbarity of their manners, and to excite in their minds an aversion to that religion...

This traffic is the principal source of the destructive wars which prevail among these unhappy people, and is attended with consequences, the mere recital of which is shocking to humanity. The violent reparation of the dearest relatives, the tears of conjugal and parental affection, the reluctance of the slaves to a voyage from which they can have no chance of returning, must present scenes of distress which would pierce the heart of any, in whom the principles of humanity are not wholly effaced. This, however, is but the beginning of sorrows with the poor captives...

Under their cruel treatment on the ships, where, without regard to health or decency, hundreds are confined within the narrow limits of the hold, numbers perish; and, by what is called the seasoning in the islands, many are relieved by a premature death, from that suffering.

(5) John Newton, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787)

Some people suppose, that the ship trade is rather the stealing, than the buying of slaves. But there is enough to lay to the charge of the ships, without accusing them falsely. The slaves, in general, are bought, and paid for. Sometimes, when goods are lent, or trusted on shore, the trader voluntarily leaves a free person, perhaps his own son, as a hostage, or pawn, for the payment; and, in case or default, the hostage is carried off, and sold; which, however hard upon him, being in consequence of a free stipulation, cannot be deemed unfair. There have been instances of unprincipled Captains, who, at the close of what they supposed their last voyage, and when they had no intention of revisiting the coast, have detained, and carried away, free people with them; and left the next ship, that should come from the same port, to risk the consequences. But these actions, I hope, and believe, are not common.

With regard to the natives, to steal a free man or woman, and to sell them on board a ship, would, I think, be a more difficult, and more dangerous attempt, in Sherbro, than in London. But I have no doubt, that the traders who come, from the interior parts of Africa, at a great distance, find opportunity, in the course of their journey, to pick up stragglers, whom they may meet in their way. This branch of oppression, and robbery, would likewise fail, if the temptation to it were removed.

(6) Mungo Park was a Scottish explorer who went to Africa to find the source of the River Niger. He wrote about his experiences in his book Travels to the Interiors of Africa (1799).

The slaves are commonly secured by putting the right leg of one, and the left of another into the same pair of fetters. By supporting the fetters with string they can walk very slowly. Every four slaves are likewise fastened together by the necks. They were led out in their fetters every morning to the shade of the tamarind tree where they were encouraged to sing diverting songs to keep up their spirits; for although some of them sustained the hardships of their situation with amazing fortitude, the greater part were very much dejected, and would sit all day in the sort of sullen melancholy with their eyes fixed upon the ground.

(7) Alexander Falcolnbridge visited Africa in the 1780s. He wrote about what he saw in his book An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (1788).

When the negroes whom the black traders have to dispose of are shown to the European purchasers, they first examine them relative to age. They then minutely inspect their persons, and inquire into their state of health; if they are afflicted with any infirmity, or are deformed, or have bad eyes or teeth; if they are lame, or weak in the joints, or distorted in the back, or of a slender make, or are narrow in the chest; in short, if they have been afflicted in any manner so as to render them incapable of such labour they are rejected. The traders frequently beat those negroes which are objected to by the captains. Instances have happened that the traders, when any of their negroes have been objected to have instantly beheaded them in the sight of the captain.

(8) John Brown, aged 87, interviewed as part of the Federal Writers Project in 1937.

Most of the time there was more than three hundred slaves on the plantation. The oldest ones come right from Africa. My grandmother was one of them. A savage in Africa - a slave in America. Mammy told it to me. Over there all the natives dressed naked and lived on fruits and nuts. Never see many white men. One day a big ship stopped off the shore and the natives hid in the brush along the beach. Grandmother was there. The ship men sent a little boat to the shore and scattered bright things and trinkets on the beach. The natives were curious. Grandmother said everybody made a rush for them things soon as the boat left. The trinkets was fewer than the peoples. Next day the white folks scatter some more. There was another scramble. The natives was feeling less scared, and the next day some of them walked up the gangplank to get things off the plank and off the deck. The deck was covered with things like they'd found on the beach. Two-three hundred natives on the ship when they feel it move. They rush to the side but the plank was gone. Just dropped in the water when the ship moved away.

Folks on the beach started to crying and shouting. The ones on the boat was wild with fear. Grandmother was one of them who got fooled, and she say the last thing seen of that place was the natives running up and down the beach waving their arms and shouting like they was mad. The boat men come up from below where they had been hiding and drive the slaves down in the bottom and keep them quiet with the whips and clubs. The slaves was landed at Charleston. The town folks was mighty mad because the blacks was driven through the streets without any clothes, and drove off the boat men after the slaves was sold on the market. Most of that load was sold to the Brown plantation in Alabama. Grandmother was one of the bunch.

(9) Gad Heuman and James Walvin, The Atlantic Slave Trade (2003)

The number of Africans involved is stunning. Though the history of the Atlantic crossing is remarkably varied and changed across time and from place to place, the evidence remains astounding. Something like 12 million Africans were forced into the Atlantic slave ships, and perhaps 10.5 million Africans survived the ordeal to make landfall in the Americas. Although it would be wrong to concentrate solely on the simple data and to be sidetracked into the statistics of the problem, it is nevertheless vital to get the figures right and to come to as accurate a conclusion as possible about the volume and scale of this enforced human migration. The figures cannot speak for themselves, of course, and must be teased apart to reveal the human experience which lurks behind them. Fortunately, the research of the past thirty years now allows us to make some straightforward assertions about the Atlantic slave trade....

The English were drawn to West Africa by the Portuguese and Spanish successes. Their initial efforts were mainly privateering raids, but by the early seventeenth century the English began to trade seriously in the region, thanks in part to the acquisition of colonies in the Americas. The English slave trade was organised first through state-backed monopoly companies. But from the beginning, interlopers sought to penetrate those trading restrictions. Like others nations before them, the English found that the key to the expansion of their slave trading was to be found in the Americas. The settlement of West Indian islands, notably Barbados and Jamaica, and the development of the Chesapeake colonies, laid the foundations for British colonial demand for imported labour. After experiments with different forms of labour, local settlers in all those places turned to African slaves. In Barbados between 1650 and 1680, the slaves increased from 50 per cent to 70 per cent of the population. In Jamaica the 9,500 slaves of 1673 grew to 100,000 by 1740. The numbers in the Chesapeake were smaller, but still significant. The handful of Africans landed at Jamestown in 1619 had increased, but only to 1,700 by 1660, to 4,000 in 1680, with perhaps an extra 3,000 arriving in the last years of the century. This changed dramatically in the next century, however, when 100,000 Africans were landed in the region.

So expansive was this demand in the Americas that English monopolists were never able fully to satisfy it. Yet by 1670 the British had become the dominant force in the Atlantic trade. Indeed, in the 150 years to 1807 (when the British abolished their slave trade) they carried as many Africans across the Atlantic as all other slave-trading nations combined. They shipped some 3.5 million Africans in those years, at a rate of about 6,700 a year in 1670 and perhaps 42,000 a year a century later.

Three British ports - London, then Bristol and, from about 1750 onwards, Liverpool - dominated the British slave trade. By 1728-1729 half of the British tonnage clearing for Africa came from Bristol, and by the early 1730s Bristol merchants were investing up to £60,000 a year into the slave trade, rising to £150,000 a year at mid-century. But a host of small ports joined in, although often it is true on a very small scale. These included, remarkably enough, Lyme Regis, Whitehaven and Lancaster. Throughout, however, London remained the dominant financial force within the British slave trade. Though ports drew on local backers and skills, London financed most slave-trading investments until the early eighteenth century. From about 1750 onwards that role fell to Liverpool, although London was always vital to the Atlantic trade, accepting bills of exchange used by West Indians, Americans and Britons. From a total of some 11,000 slave voyages made by British ships, about one-half sailed from Liverpool.