Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1518-1865

By the time the transatlantic slave trade was finally abolished in the late 19th century, an estimated thirty to forty million Africans had died in the immoral trade which left an indelible ink of guilt in the heart of mankind and civilisation. The story of the transatlantic slave trade touches the heart and pricks the conscience. For over 200 years Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery, not just by the white slavers but also by their fellow Africans. In the process families were separated; wives from their husbands, husbands from their wives, children from their parents and parents from their children. They were kidnapped and sold into slavery to work in plantations in the Caribbean, America and Europe.

Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1518-1865 written by Daniel P. Mannix and Malcolm Cowley about 50 years ago gave a glowing and step by step account of the origin, the dealings and the eventual abolition of the trade. Africans were reduced to an object of transaction, amusement and sexual satisfaction, completely stripped of their dignity, respect and esteem as human beings. They were subjected to the level of goods and wares and sold openly to the highest bidders in the slave markets in Europe, America and the Caribbean.

Their journey from their homeland was an arduous one. Packed in the slave ships just like goods are packed today in containers with little or no space for movement and breathing, they were forced to sleep, lie and eat in on their own defecations, vomits and urines. They were treated like wild pigs and forced to endure various harsh elements during the journey to the new world. The compartments where they were packed in the ships were very hot for them to bear in the tropical heat and as a result many of them died on board. Even while nearing their destination, the cold weather was very unbearable for them. Most of them that succumbed to the harsh elements and died before reaching the destination were simply tossed overboard. Even when they were able to endure these natural inclement conditions, the poor sanitary condition of the ships posed a great risk for them. They were parked so near to each other that there was no way fresh air could be circulated. In that condition a good number of them contracted contagious diseases which killed them.

In fact according to Mannix and Cowley, most of the slave ships did not reach their destination complete with all the slaves on board from the point of origin. Out of a ship of that carries about 1000 slaves, about 400 on the average were likely to survive the journey that took about 3 months to reach its destination. Most of these slaves came from areas controlled by native rulers notably the present day The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Togo and Nigeria on the west coast of Africa and the north and south of the Congo River as well as from the east coast rivers that flowed into the Mozambique Channel. All these areas, according to Mannix and Cowley, were very rich in slaves and the native rulers played a pivotal role in supplying the white slavers with their subjects.

The native rulers engaged in constant warfare amongst themselves just for the sake of capturing slaves to sell to the slavers. They invented punishments for many crimes even slightest ones in their kingdoms and made them punishable with slavery in exchange with rums, cottons and other European goods from white slavers that were not even up to the standard of ones they have in Europe. For instance, according to Mannix and Cowley, most of these rums were diluted with water while the cottons were just cheap calicos. Africans were duped and cheated into capturing their own and selling them into slavery and rewarded with substandard goods in return.

The white slavers who claimed superior knowledge and justified that trade using same knowledge failed to see something wrong with it. They carried on with the business with all impunity and disregard for human rights of their victims. Even the Africans shamelessly joined in the immoral trade of enslaving and selling their own brothers out of stupidity and greed. The trade would continue till opposition developed in Europe notably the United Kingdom. This school of opposition was led by the Quakers and prominently by William Wilberforce. These groups of abolitionists met a stiff opposition in their crusade to have the trade abolished not only in the United Kingdom but in all the British Empire. They fought with papers and whatever they could lay their hands on. William Wilberforce would later stand for election as a Member of Parliament which he won and used the office to campaign strenuously for the abolition.

According to Mannix and Cowley, the campaign was not in vain though William Wilberforce did not live to see the fruit of his efforts. He died couple of months after the trade was declared illegal in the whole British colony. The struggle to ensure that other nations followed suit in the abolition was literally a war between the United Kingdom and other powers notably Spain, Portugal and The United States. In fact at a point these powers enacted an international instrument to prevent one nation from boarding and searching a ship flying the flag of another nation just to scuttle the abolition. Even the local chiefs notably the Yoruba King of Badagry and King Gezo of Dahomey resisted the abolition vehemently. It was a blow to the abolitionist but they never relented till America eventually abolished the trade in the middle of 1800s and joined the United Kingdom in patrolling the West coast of Africa capturing the slavers and their ships and setting them free in Sierra Leone for the British and Liberia for the Americans.

This however did not dissuade the local chiefs including the King of Badagry. In 1851 the British with the support of Akitoye, a pretender to the local throne, sent in a squadron of six warships to bombard Lagos to submission. It worked and Akitoye was installed the King of Lagos. He would later reopen the slave trade leading the British to take over the whole area in 1861. In America it generated a huge controversy between the north and the south which would later indirectly lead to the civil war. The north saw slavery as evil that must be abolished while the south argued that, “The Negroes were ideally designed to serve and the whites were ideally designed to rule in leisure and cultivate the arts of life and government. Slavery in short was an absolute good and it was their patriotic and human duty to give it the widest possible extension”. The south lost the war.

Cover picture courtesy of Penguin Books.

1 comment:

  1. in regards to paragraph 5, does anyone know where abouts in the book that it talks about the leaders selling off their own as slaves?