Slave trade

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The Slave Trade

Firstly, calling it a 'Slave trade', is sort of a misnomer, because when they come up to you with a gun in your face, a cannon pointed at your family and torches ready to set your town ablaze with a history of such in neighboring towns, then it becomes much less of a trade and more of a rape.

Many slaves were initially brutally abducted by the highly armed military colonial forces, and others were sold by overpowered blackmailed, cornered and sometimes just greedy desperate African leaders.

See cartoon representations: [1]

  • In the account given by Captain Lord Esme Gordon Lenox,- 'With The West African Frontier Force' in the 'Bequest of Edwin Conat', from the Harvard library. [2]

His words-

"...Towards evening a timid looking native turned up in a canoe and informed us that he was the
chief of the town. We asked where all his people had gone, and he told us they had all made
off as they were too frightened of the soldiers to remain at home. he like the others,
promised to give us assistance, and we told him that if he did not his town will be
burnt......we stormed down to Amassana, which was a town supposed to be friendly and fined
them 25 goats and 20 chickens for non-assistance, then returned to Agbeni and burned 
half...October 1st was spent in continuance of yesterdays incendiraism by burning every town or
farm we could see. I shudder to think of how many houses we have destroyed in these two days.
On our way back to Egbbeddi in the afternoon we passed by Sabagreia and told our old friend
Chief Ijor that most likely we should burn down Sabagreia the next day...."

Related, see Jaja and British Invasion

Cultural collisions

The transatlantic slave trade is a major element of global history. The forced movement of West African people across the Atlantic resulted in unprecedented forms of cruelty and subjugation, a marked decline in the West African population, shifts in notions of race and cultural identity, racism, inequality, and significant economic and agricultural developments in Britain and the Americas. The legacies of this history served to marginalise peoples of African descent across Britain, Europe and North and South America and normalise notions of superiority amongst white populations.

The impact of slavery

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Rich in its history and culture, West Africa prior to the transatlantic slave trade had long standing civilizations with developed political systems and established commercial networks. When European merchants realized that a trade in human beings would yield more lucrative returns than their highly sought gold or ivory, the decimation of the Atlantic coast’s African populations began. Along side the Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese, British merchants established trading bases in countries, including modern Benin, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and established dependent commercial ties with African slave traders. In all, estimates of Africans kidnapped from their homelands during the transatlantic slave trading years are placed between one hundred and two hundred million. The impact of this mass removal of the population still resonates across the African continent today. The pace of subsequent economic development in African nations has been attributed to the transatlantic slave trade. Slave traders sought men and women between the ages of 18-40 and into the 1750s began transporting large numbers of children as young as 7 to the Americas. This meant that over time West African farm lands were not cultivated to their full potential in societies affected by the slave trade and in turn, unable to secure the foundations for industrialization. Many African people became enslaved as a result of internal warfare but a peaceful region could dramatically slow down the trade. “War makes gold scare but negroes plenty.” Dr. Akosua Adoma Perbi, Ghana’s Legion University, citing a trader’s writing. Guns were a highly sought European commodity by African traders within the Triangular Trade. Many European traders within such warring environments, however, would only trade guns for people, forcing some African people to calculate human exchange in terms of defensive strategies and overall human loss. The introduction of guns into African regions dramatically changed the scale and style of warfare. Today, these regions hold centuries old hostilities from this period. These ongoing conflicts can be linked back to the period of the slave trade. As conquering intentions changed in the late 19th century and Europeans moved beyond their protective encampments along the coast, the ‘Scramble for Africa’ resulted in European colonial domination of most of the continent. Many scholars have argued that the previous decimation of indigenous populations because of the slave trade and the lack of stable political entities within African regions made the process of colonization easier for European powers. For them, Africa meant new markets of raw materials, cheap labour and global strategic significance. Britain particularly saw an African stronghold as a key link to India, negotiating a vast colonial holding across Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, Malawi, Orange Free State, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa. The English poet, Rudyard Kipling, coined the justification for colonial activity in his poem, White Man’s Burden. Here non-European cultures were seen to require the protection and direction of

Resistance and Rebellion

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Uprisings The African people who were enslaved resisted the system of slavery, from the moment of capture to life on the plantations. Resistance took on many forms, from retaining aspects of their cultures and identities to escape and plotting uprisings to overthrow the plantocracy. The most successful uprising was the revolution in St Domingue, which led to Haiti becoming the first independent republic outside Africa. Revolts and rebellions played a significant part in abolition and emancipation.

The fight for freedom Contrary to the way in which Africans were often perceived - as submissive, subdued and incapable of sophisticated intellectual thought - which enabled the British to justify their superiority and the continuation of the slave trade, there was a continual undercurrent of resistance and rebellion. Individuals sought their freedom through escape, even though the odds were overwhelmingly against them.

Uprisings, or rebellions, were the most dramatic and bloody way that slaves could resist their enslavement. Several hundreds of rebellions were recorded from as early as 1522 on the Spanish island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and before the end of the 17th century there had been rebellions on the islands of St Kitts, Barbados, Guadeloupe and Jamaica. Slave rebellions continued into the 18th century and intensified in the early 19th century as slaves heard rumours of the abolition of slavery. Failed attempts at escape or rebellion brought severe punishments.

Slave revolts on board ship

As well as the high death rates on board ship through disease there was a regular loss of African life through revolts. Africans were, ‘ever upon the watch to take advantage of the least negligence of their oppressors’, Alexander Falconbridge, slave ship’s surgeon. John Newton noted in his diary, ‘I was at first, continually alarmed with their almost desperate attempts to make insurrections upon us’. He, like most slavers, kept the men in chains until ‘we saw the land in the West Indies’ because ‘we receive them on board, from the first as enemies’.

Some of the revolts were violent, others demonstrated resistance through suicide. As the ‘Prince of Orange’ of Bristol landed in St Kitts in 1737, about 100 captives jumped overboard. The crew tried to save as many as they could but 33 died.

John Newton was faced with revolt twice on his ‘Duke of Argyle’ voyage. A young slave freed from his chains because of ulcers managed to pass a spike through the deck grating to the hold below. In one hour twenty men had broken their chains but were caught (and no doubt punished with the whip or thumbscrews) by the crew. Another ship, the ‘Adventure’ of London trading close to Newton in 1753 was taken over by captives who ran the ship aground and destroyed it. The Africans on board the King David from Bristol killed the captain and five crew members, and later threw nine more overboard in shackles meant for the slaves. In one case the women (who were not normally chained) on the ‘Thomas’ bound for Barbados seized muskets, overpowered the crew, and freed the men. They did not succeed in sailing the ship back to West Africa and eventually a British warship recaptured them.

The extent of slave revolts is hard to quantify, but there was probably a significant revolt on British slavers very two years. Cases were often brought to public attention by insurance claims for loss of cargo. Parliament again regulated the slave trade in 1790 by declaring that the loss of slaves by natural death, ill treatment or throwing overboard, such as the case of the ‘Zong’, was not covered by insurance.

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European rule.

Decolonization followed, with visionary Pan Africanists like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, spearheading modernization efforts in countries ruled directly or indirectly by European interest for hundreds of years. Nkrumah united the divided Gold Coast territories and also created the Organization for African Unity, which is the forerunner to the African Union, a consortium of African states that works to achieve continental cohesion and political, economic and social advancement for modern Africa. Representations of Africa in the media today often overlook the inherited challenges that remained post decolonization and contributions by African leaders and activists presenting at limiting view of the continent as AIDS ridden and war torn, omitting the complex history and issues confronting African nations today.

Cultural identity

Anti -slavery jasperware medal l ion, 1786 The African men and women who were enslaved came from many regions including: Asante of modern Ghana, Igbo or Yoruba of Nigeria or Mandinka of Mali. Many languages, religious beliefs, oral traditions and histories could be found on any one plantation. People lost the right to freely and openly maintain and celebrate links to Africa during slavery. The rules and attitudes which governed plantations insisted that African people had little culture. A slave’s past was irrelevant and so inconsequential to the slave owner’s future prosperity. The other and opposite view positioned the enslaved Africans’ cultural forms as collective weapons for rebellion and revolt. This, for instance, is manifest in suppression of drumming in many communities across the Americas as it aided communication across the plantations in preparation for uprisings. The naming traditions inherent in African cultures were also ignored through slavery as owners renamed people in accordance with their own whims, usually replacing traditional given names with arbitrary fore names. Slaves were identified by the surname of their owners, names such as Brown, Beckford, Crawford, Campbell or Hunt. As a result of slavery many Caribbean and African American families have maintained these names through the generations as there is little or no record or living memory of their African origins.

Race, representation and racism

Some representations of black people in modern society can be traced back to slavery. For instance, labels like ‘slow’ or ‘lazy’ were born out of the power clashes between enslaved peoples, who used ‘slow downs,’ as a form of resistance against their masters. Another label applied to enslaved people was ‘stupid’ or ‘slow witted.’ Enslaved people often feigned ignorance and stupidity as a means of self-preservation tacit to avoid recrimination. Racialterms, like ‘nigger’ or ‘negroes’, in many English speaking former slave societies or ‘Creole’ in Brazil remain negative and taboo for use in mainstream society because of the power dynamic and the brutality they bring to mind from the slave trade. The development of the transatlantic slave trade subsequently impacted on perceptions of people of African descendant. Slavery defined negative and derogatory images and attitudes toward enslaved and freed black people. In the 1700s British people had little or no experience with African people. Attitudes developed based on notions of superiority andinferiority, as Africans were depicted as different, barbaric savages, or child-like. Africans were defined as possessing little to no intellect. The existence of the slave trade relied on the notion that African people were inhuman. Eighteenth century abolitionists, like Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, excluded the views and input of freed black people living in England. The Sons of Africa, an association of freed black Africans in London, engaged in abolitionist work along side the Society for the Abolition for Slavery. Accomplished men like Oladuah Equiano or Ottobah Cuguano, were not invited to speak at the Society’s meetings or their publicly sponsored lectures on an equal footing. In 1816, Wilberforce seated invited black guests behind a screen at the African and Asiatic Society dinner. Such actions revealed the strong hierarchy embedded in the British social class system and this social order was deeply ingrained in people’s thinking. Many abolitionists held paternalistic views, meaning that enslaved and freed black people alike were by nature different from themselves. Scientific work in the nineteenth focused on classification of species and resulted in the development of pseudo-scientific attempts to prove that African people were an inferior race. Anthropometric measurements of the body and the skull, and the fashionable ‘science’ of phrenology purported to establish that based on physical characteristics, Europeans were more intelligent and innately superior to Africans. The later application of Darwinist theories, particularly ‘survival of the fittest’, to pseudo-scientific thinking encouraged these commonly held notions. These theories formed what was called ‘scientific’ or ‘academic’ racism. They served as a tool to justify success and failure alike. The concept of white, especially as equated British superiority, was widely promoted in order to justify the collapse of the apprenticeship system and the marginalization of the emancipated black people in post-slavery societies. Such attitudes underlined the policies of inequality that would keep black people living and working in the same roles they had before slavery was abolished. In countries like the United States, academic racism fuelled state-led legislation and ultimately segregation within the southern states. Western-led colonialism more broadly linked scientific theories of progress with social progress itself, proclaiming that Africa was in need of the civilizing influence of European powers. Georg Hegel, a renowned German philosopher, captured this predominant view when he wrote, “Africa is no historical part of the world.” Scientific racism developed and fuelled public notions about race and racial hierarchy during the Victorian era at the popular level. Phrenologists were consulted on decisions like who to hire or who to marry by British people across social classes. Museums and amusement park style exhibitions displayed people as if they were ‘exotic specimens brought from the dark corners of the Empire’. These ‘human zoos’ were frequented, especially in European and American capital cities. Saartje Baartman, renamed the ‘Hotenttot Venus,’ was an immensely popular London ‘attraction’ in the late 19th century. Baartamn was a South African Hotenttot woman whose figure was regarded as a ‘spectacle’. People were used in this way to purposely reinforce notions of African people as ‘other.’

As more mass-produced consumer products began flooding 19th and 20th century market places, racist propaganda continued to impact and reflects public views on black people. Pear’s soap from the early 19th century used the image of a white child washing a black child, who then becomes white apart from his face. The advertisement reinforces the views of the period of black skin as ‘dirty’ and ‘impure’ whilst white skin as the desirable state. In the late 19th century, the ‘Golliwog’ began life as a popular children story in Britain and America. He bore exaggerated facial features that represented how white British people viewed black people at the time. Robertson jam and marmalade used this motif to sell their products from 1910 until 2001, despite years of protest by anti-racist campaigners who insisted the ‘Golly’ was degrading and racist. Anti-discrimination activism led the Greater London Council to boycott Robertson on racist grounds in the 1980s. Throughout the 20th century, the development of radio, film and television demonstrated many examples of the racist legacy of the transatlantic slave. Music hall black face performance in the United States, the popular twenty year run of the Black and White Minstrel Show (1961-1978) in Britain and the absence of black people in mainstream media reinforced racism.

Inequality and prejudice

By act of Parliament, Britain outlawed slavery in 1833 but enslaved people in British holdings were not released from bondage until 1838. Slavery legally continued until Brazil abolished its practice in 1888. Some nations resolved this issue with acrimonious debates in legislative chambers whilst other with guns and further blood shed on the battle field. The result of freedom for the black peoples of the Americas, who had been for generations classified as chattel, did not result in equality. Prejudicial treatment instead resulted in social, economic and legal practices that aimed to keep black people subjugated and separated from the full benefits of free citizenship. As the brutal apprenticeship system collapsed and led to the emancipation of 800,000 enslaved people in British colonies, plantation owners received reparations, which totalled 20 million pounds (£1.34 billion today), and represented forty percent of the national budget at the time. On August 1st 1838, the former slaves of the British Empire received permission for freedom alone, but received no financial or transitional aid from the government. Freedom meant for most former slaves continued toil on plantations. The trauma suffered by people during enslavement and the fact that freed men and women knew no other life meant that many slaves stayed on plantations. Without access to new skills and still largely no political voice, most people remained in the types of roles their families had done for generations. Most freed slaves became tied to their former masters, who often maliciously tricked them into continued binding service by offering promises orally which did not match the terms of their new written contracts. Former slaves, therefore, became bound to the owner’s land within a share cropper system or signed on for meagre wages, which only covered the inflated rents charged by plantation officials. This new economic reality left little extra to invest in material comforts or educational opportunities.

Former slaves were often taken on as domestic helpers. For the same reasons field labourers remained in the fields, so domestic servants continued to take care of children, cook and clean. Breaking free from such prescribed roles was further complicated due to prejudicial attitudes as black people attempted to find new roles in society. Hattie McDaniel, an American radio and film actress, struggled to secure roles other than maids and mammies; and due to her race, she became type cast. McDaniel was the first African American to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of Mammy in the popular 1930s film, Gone with the Wind. Heavily criticized for not playing roles that challenged and changed the perception of African Americans in a post-slavery society, she simply replied: “What do you want me to do? Play a glamour girl and sit on Clark Gables’ knee? When you ask me not to play the parts, what do you have to offer me in return?” McDaniel’s response showed that art imitated life and that society, as well as Hollywood, offered limited opportunity on racial grounds for black actors. Practices within post-slavery societies remained culturally ingrained and dictated and condoned racist behaviours and customs. The United States enshrined in law their prejudicial practices towards black people. During Reconstruction after Civil War ended enslavement in 1865, new legislation positioned anti-black feeling within the South. Again black people took on the same types of roles seen by freed black people in the British Empire, but under law they became second class citizens as ‘separate but equal’ statutes dominated Southern life into the 1960s. This meant that water fountains, public benches and other amenities were divided and reserved based on race. The quality of the black person’s provision, moreover, did not need to match that of their white counterpart, particularly on railways or in public gathering spaces. Poll taxes meant that black people remained disenfranchised from politics. This institutionalized separation in the United States was based on race alone and protected by formal institutions such as the police, and vigilantly groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Klan- style lynching became endemic in the American South, as black men and women were physically abused and murdered within a justice system where their attackers were often not prosecuted for such criminal offences. African American singer and actress Josephine Baker migrated to France, because she refused to play in segregated American theatres and remained disgusted by prejudicial and hypocritical attitudes that differed from the proclaimed American values. She justified her departure by chastising the American system: “It [the Eiffel Tower] looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty?” Britain also became home to African-Americans escaping the aftermaths of war, racism and segregation as early as the 18th century and also to other freed black people from across the Empire and the world. The beginning of the Caribbean diaspora in Britain occurred with the arrival of the troop ship, SS Empire Windrush, at Tilbury. Post-World War II employment opportunities offered by British Government for commonwealth citizens insured new waves 6 of migration from islands such as Jamaica, the Bahamas, the Bermudas and Trinidad into cities in the UK such as London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leicester and Manchester. On arrival, Caribbean people faced discrimination, firstly visible through public attitudes and then through the development of racist policies in areas like housing. Neighbourhoods, like Brixton and Notting Hill in London, grew out of the urban pockets generated to accommodate so many new arrivals. Many native British residents resented competition from black migrant workers in a housing market where demand was high and supply was short after years of bombing. The arguments ignored the service of commonwealth soldiers in the war, many of whom alone or with their families made the journey to Britain, and advanced that British people had fought Hitler and deserved priority treatment in a post war society. A process of racial separation began forcing black people to live in predominately black urban areas, and working in the factory and service industry and as domestics. Many migrants initially came with the intention of returning to Caribbean within a few years but many eventually made Britain their permanent home. Fighting between black and white communities and anti-establishment conflicts drew attention to the impact of inter-racial division in urban locations including the social and economic cost of community fracture to families and society as a whole. Riots in 1958, 1965, 1976, and throughout the early 1980s across English cities illuminated divisions experienced between black and white communities and black communities and local police. Activism, emanating largely from the black empowerment movements and the peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as government-led enquiries as responses to social unrest began to highlight the link between racism, inequality, (urban) violence and economic deprivation. Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian born activist and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival, believed that cultural display prompted positive exchange within divided communities and proved a strong antidote to healing racial fracture. New legislation also grew out of this era, with the establishment of The Race Relations Act of 1976 and The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. This act defined racist practices in the areas of housing, education, employment, goods facilities and service and stop and search by police, with penalty under law to those who violated the statute.

History and heritage

Evidence of the transatlantic slave trade on the modern British landscape surrounds us today. For many years talking about, or asking people to remember, the transatlantic slave trade was avoided. How this past is remembered and what is included or excluded from dominant narratives has over the past two hundred years led to many contemporary views about the British Empire and what it means to be ‘British’ today. Engraved commemorative coin, the Amacree, 1788 The transatlantic slave trade enabled the British Empire to flourish as it contributed to its wealth and powerful status. The forced use of human being as free labour enabled the production and supply of raw materials to British markets and impacted the lives of every person living in the Empire. Sugar, cotton, and tobacco satisfied the needs of consumers and merchants and fuelled the industrial revolution. Slavery meant prosperity, especially for port towns like Liverpool and Bristol. Owners celebrated the wealth generated by the transatlantic voyages made by Liverpool based trading ships. The profits of the trade were re-invested in Britain. Benevolent gestures, like Colston Hall in Bristol, reflected the philanthropy of wealthy merchants, like Edward Colston, who made their fortunes off the back of slavery. Stately homes that were built because of their owners’ success in the British Caribbean remain a central focus of British heritage. Men like William Wilberforce made a significant contribution to ending the slave trade. Activists like Thomas Clarkson and Olaudah Equiano, also worked for this cause, but have not received equal treatment in text books. The history of African traders and the home front demand for products produced in the Caribbean and Americas has been largely excluded. Fuller narratives about the transatlantic slave trade and its legacies enable British society to enter into broader analysis of this complex history and its relationship to diversity and heritage.

Abolition of the Slave Trade

In 1807 the Houses of Parliament in London enacted legislation prohibiting British subjects from participating in the slave trade. Indirectly, this legislation was one of the reasons for the collapse of Oyo. Britain withdrew from the slave trade while it was the major transporter of slaves to the Americas. Furthermore, the French had been knocked out of the trade during the French Revolution beginning in 1789 and by the Napoleonic wars of the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century. Between them, the French and the British had purchased a majority of the slaves sold from the ports of Oyo. The commercial uncertainty that followed the disappearance of the major purchasers of slaves unsettled the economy of Oyo. Ironically, the political troubles in Oyo came to a head after 1817, when the transatlantic market for slaves once again boomed. Rather than supplying slaves from other areas, however, Oyo itself became the source of slaves.

British legislation forbade ships under British registry to engage in the slave trade, but the restriction was applied generally to all flags and was intended to shut down all traffic in slaves coming out of West African ports. Other countries more or less hesitantly followed the British lead. The United States, for example, also prohibited the slave trade in 1807 (Denmark actually was the first country to declare the trade illegal in 1792). Attitudes changed slowly, however, and not all countries cooperated in controlling the activity of their merchant ships. American ships, for instance, were notorious for evading the prohibition and going unpunished under United States law. It should be noted, moreover, that the abolition movement concentrated on the transatlantic trade for more than five decades before eventually becoming a full-fledged attack on slave trading within Africa itself.

The Royal Navy maintained a prevention squadron to blockade the coast, and a permanent station was established at the Spanish colony of Fernando Po, off the Nigerian coast, with responsibility for patrolling the West African coast. For several decades, as much as one-sixth of all British warships were assigned to this mission, and a squadron was maintained at Fernando Po from 1827 until 1844. Slaves rescued at sea were usually taken to Sierra Leone, where they were released. British naval crews were permitted to divide prize money from the sale of captured slave ships. Apprehended slave runners were tried by naval courts and were liable to capital punishment if found guilty.

Still, a lively slave trade to the Americas continued into the 1860s. The demands of Cuba and Brazil were met by a flood of captives taken in wars among the Yoruba and shipped from Lagos, while the Aro continued to supply the delta ports with slave exports through the 1830s. Despite the British blockade, almost 1 million slaves were exported from Nigeria in the nineteenth century. The risk involved in running the British blockade obviously made profits all the greater on delivery.

The campaign to eradicate the slave trade and substitute for it trade in other commodities increasingly resulted in British intervention in the internal affairs of the Nigerian region during the nineteenth century and ultimately led to the decision to assume jurisdiction over the coastal area. Suppression of the slave trade and issues related to slavery remained at the forefront of British dealings with local states and societies for the rest of the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth century.

Lagos, where the British concentrated activities after 1851, had been founded as a colony of Benin in about 1700. A long dynastic struggle, which became entwined with the struggle against the slave trade, resulted in the overthrow of the reigning oba and the renunciation of a treaty with Britain to curtail the slave trade. Britain was determined to halt the traffic in slaves fed by the Yoruba wars, and responded to this frustration by annexing the port of Lagos in 1861. Thereafter, Britain gradually extended its control along the coast. British intervention became more insistent in the 1870s and 1880s as a result of pressure from missionaries and liberated slaves returning from Sierra Leone. There was also the necessity of protecting commerce disrupted by the fighting. The method of dealing with these problems was to dictate treaties that inevitably led to further annexations.

Source [3]