Modern history


Great Pleasure from Our Wine

“The Wolofs are great drunkards and derive great pleasure from our wine.”

Valentim Fernandes, c. 1500

THE CARGOES FOR THE SLAVE TRADE changed over the centuries, depending on the character, the purse, and the imagination of the European supplier who responded to a great variety of constantly changing African demands. Although the cargo must always have cost about two-thirds of the total outlay of a slave voyage, there were many differences as to how goods for the trade were carried and financed. For example, by the late eighteenth century, because of the exceptional nature of the Angolan-Brazilian commerce, Portuguese merchants would carry goods to Angola and return with some African product as ballast, leaving the Luso-Africans who ran the Angolan side of the Brazilian business to exchange the European goods for slaves as and when seemed best. In the early days, when the Portuguese were still carrying slaves from Benin direct to Portugal, or to Elmina, the royal factor in São Tomé would instruct captains bound for Ughoton, the port of Benin, that, even for the best slaves, they should not pay more than fiftymanillas(bronze leg bracelets). But, by the next century, such an all-or-nothing approach would have been inconceivable: thus, in 1628, no fewer than 218 different types of goods for trading were to be found in Elmina. In the late eighteenth century, a bill of lading from Newport, Rhode Island, might run: “Shipped by the Grace of God, in good order and well-conditioned, by Jacob Rod[rígues] Rivera and Aaron Lopez, on their joint account, . . . upon the good ship called Cleopatra, whereof is master under God for the present voyage James Bourk, and now riding at anchor in the harbour of Newport, and by God’s grace bound for Africa, to say, two hundred and thirty-four hogsheads New England rum; two barrels wine, six barrels tarr, six barrels pitch, six barrels turpentine, two half barrels [gun]powder, sixty-four kegs water bread [water biscuits], six casks Indian corn, one tierce [a large cask] gammon, one thousand hogsheads’ hoops, six hundred and seventy-feet white oak boards, three hundred and thirty red oak boards, eleven hogsheads and one small cask calavants [chickpeas], two hogsheads’ black-eyed peas, six tierces and two hogsheads rice, twenty barrels common flour, ten barrels superfine flour, thirty sheep and provender, eight casks common ships’ bread, six hogsheads and four tierces hard-baked bread, twenty-eight barrels beef, twenty-four barrels pork, one firkin [a small cask] butter, and two cases window frames and shutters, two masts and two pieces timber, one bundle sailors’ clothes, twelve pounds chocolate; and, half a hundred weight sugar . . .”1


A surgeon in the British navy, John Atkins, reported, following an expedition in 1721 whose purpose was to destroy pirates such as the murderous Captain Roberts: “The windward and the leeward parts of the coast are as opposite in their demands [with respect to slave goods] as is their distance. Iron bars which are not asked for to leeward are a substantial part of windward cargoes. Crystals, oranges, corals, and brass-mounted cutlasses are almost peculiar to the Windward coast; as are brass pans from the Rio Sethos to Apollonia [the Gold Coast] and cowries . . . at Whydah, [and] copper and iron bars at Callabar; but arms, gunpowder, tallow, old sheets, cottons [that is, Indian cottons] . . . and English spirits [whiskey] are everywhere called for. Sealing wax and pipes are necessary in small quantities, they serve for dashees [tips]. . . .”2

These reports show how varied the business of trading slaves was. As for the nature of the exchange, at Whydah, Dahomey, in 1767, a slave might be bought for sixteen anchorsI of brandy; or twenty cabess of cowriesII; or two hundred pounds of gunpowder; or twenty-five guns; or ten long cloths; or ten blue bafts (lengths of coarse blue cotton made in India); or ten pattern chints (chintz); or forty iron bars.

On the coasts of Malemba and Cabinda (semi-independent ports in what is now Angola), “the negroes, before striking a bargain, go and mark off . . . in the captain’s store, which is on the sea side, the pieces of stuff they choose to take; & he who has sold four slaves at fifteen goods a head goes to receive 60 pieces of the stuffs marked off. . . . It is customary to give for each slave . . . the ‘over and above,’ for example, 3 or 4 guns and as many swords, 15 pots of brandy, 15 pounds of gunpowder, and 12 knives. . . .”3

In places such as Loango Bay, when slaves were said to cost “thirty,” it did not mean thirty pieces of stuffs, but “30 times the ideal value which they fix on, and call a piece. So a single piece of stuff is sometimes estimated at 2 or 3 pieces, and sometimes several objects must form a single piece. . . .”4

Overall, the cargo carried by most slave traders, and most sought after in Africa, reckoned in terms of cost in Europe, was cloth: woolen and, later, cotton cloth, made in Europe, in India, or just possibly elsewhere. The typical exchange for a slave in the sixteenth century between Congolese and Portuguese merchants was a piece of textile large enough to clothe a single individual, only about two yards of stuff. One type of cotton cloth, guinée cloth, une pièce de guinée, was once a currency on the river Sénégal, as cloth had been in ancient Mexico before the coming of the Europeans. An African-made cloth was also for a time similarly used in Angola, and the cloth of the Cape Verde Islands, especially the large blue “barafula,” was also for a time a currency in the exchanges of settlers there with the mainland. But normally the cloth was worn, since most men in Africa dressed in some kind of loincloth, and all but the poorest women in Africa wore an upper garment, as well as a cloth of about one and a half to two yards long wrapped round the waist. Rich men had even larger loincloths.

West Africans had cloth of many different kinds before the Europeans arrived in their harbors, and early Portuguese visitors admired its quality. The dyes, especially the indigo dyes from the river Núñez, were excellent. Most West African communities had a tradition of spinning and weaving, and so the European products were merely added to an existing industry. Some cloths used in the slave trade were indeed African: for example, the “high cloths,” woven in the Cape Verde Islands by the Afro-Portuguese settlers (or their slaves), cloth from Benin and elsewhere in what is now southern Nigeria, as well as “Quaqua” cloths from the Ivory Coast, were exchanged for slaves by European traders on the Gold Coast. Sometimes, as in the case of the cloth of Allada (Dahomey), the Africans merely treated European cloth with their own dyes to make the bright products which European traders were able to sell in, for example, Barbados.

But there was too little African cloth, and the choice offered by the Europeans was attractive. People in the region of Guinea preferred white cloth, those in Angola blue.

In the earliest days, when the slave trade was controlled by the Portuguese, the most popular items were lambens, which were full-length cloaks bought in North Africa. They had armholes and an opening in the center for the head, comparable to a Peruvian poncho. Sometimes, they were striped: red, green, blue, white. One good lamben from Algeria might be exchanged for a prime male slave. These were known to West Africans before the arrival of the Portuguese caravels, because the Sahara trade had brought many desirable objects from the Mediterranean, though never enough to satisfy demand.

During the two centuries when they dominated the slave trade, the Portuguese carried to Africa many different textiles from Europe, including, long before those nations entered the traffic, woolens from England and Holland.III

A manifest of the ship Santiago, which set out in 1526 for Sierra Leone and Cacheu (the river Sao Domingos, as it was then known) and brought back to Lisbon 125 slaves, included as its most important items 1,600 cubits of vermilion or yellow cloth, 357varasof handkerchief material, 24 from the Portuguese province of Alentejo, 8 varas of hemp for sacks, and 120 bells, as well as 2,345 brass manillas and 1,240 bracelets of tin.

The northern protestant countries, entering the slave trade in the seventeenth century, each had their special textile to offer to the Africans. Thus the English specialty was, in the early days, woolen cloth, then and now a protection against the fierce cold wind of the Gulf of Guinea, the harmattan (when “the sharpness of the air . . . obliged all persons whatsoever, white or black, without exception . . . to keep to their houses or chambers”), and for use as blankets during those harsh nights of shivering known to the English as “rigours.” So woolens were always a staple in West Africa: particularly serges and “says,” a fine woolen cloth, sometimes mixed with silk, originally produced in the villages near Lille, Arras, Valenciennes, and Armentières, but using wool from Spain, Scotland, Germany, or Friesland. Later, says were made by the English, who also produced perpetuanas (a tough cloth like tweed, woven in Devon), bays (baize), bridgwaters (from Bridgwater, in Somerset), or “Welsh plaines” (a simply woven cloth made in the Midlands as well as in Wales).

Each of these products has its own history, and in England their manufacturers were to be found among those who protested first against the exclusion of “interlopers” from the legal slave trade towards the end of the seventeenth century, and also against the idea of abolition, at the end of the eighteenth. Perhaps 85 percent of English textile exports went to Africa before 1750, and over 40 percent during the following twenty years. In the 1780s, the percentage was much lower, varying between 11 and 32 percent because of the much-increased European market. But England, after the Methuen Treaty of 1703, dominated Portugal and its empire, being able to export cloth there without paying duty, in return for the much more modest Portuguese right to carry their wine similarly freely (that really meant port wine). Much English cloth went to Lisbon, to be traded in turn for slaves by Portuguese merchants.

Though the Germans played a tiny part in the Atlantic slave trade as principals in the business, their cloths were important in it, just as their brass manillas had been earlier on. German linen goods were specially in demand in the harbors of the Bissagos Islands, and the African trade as a whole was an important outlet for all German textiles, made in Westphalia, Saxony, and Silesia.

Dutch woolen goods for the slave trade were mostly made in Leiden or Haarlem. Linen also played an important part in the Dutch trade, particularly secondhand linen sheets which were sold for clothing. Barbot noted that everyone on the Gold Coast seemed to wear a cloth from Holland which passed between the thighs, and “whose ends hung down to the ground behind and before. . . . When they go through the streets, they take a length of Leyden serge or perpetuana two or three ells in length, which they pass over their necks . . . like a mantle.”5 Noblemen and merchants alike were often seen on the same stretch of land wearing Chinese satin, taffeta, or colored Indian cloths—apparel made possible since, in the seventeenth century, the Dutch began to take with them to Africa such exotic offerings as Japanese silk dressing gowns or other silks from China or India. The Dutch East India Company brought back many such things from the East, especially from India, and many of them were immediately transferred to the slave trade.

In the beginning, English and French merchants bought these Indian textiles from Holland for their slave cargoes. Ships from London, for example, might make a special detour to Rotterdam on their outward journey, if they had not bought the goods in London. Ships from La Rochelle would also plan to pick up at Le Havre all their supplies from Holland, England (knives and forks), Sweden (iron bars), Rouen (handkerchiefs), Honfleur (cider), and Amsterdam (sheets), as well as Dutch chains and razors.

For a long time, Indian goods were banned from the English and French home markets. But, obtained through the Dutch, and then the British, East India companies, they were much appreciated in West Africa: partly because of their bright colors, partly because of their durability. In good years in the late seventeenth century, twenty thousand pounds’ worth or so of East Indian goods would go to Africa on British ships alone, principally as fabrics. The merchants of Bristol gave a special emphasis to these goods: they accounted for over a quarter of the value of all goods shipped from England to Africa between 1699 and 1800. Among the most successful of these textiles were bafts or, in French, guineés bleues. Baft was originally made in southeastern India, in the neighborhood of Madras and Pondicherry, the two main English and French trading points in old India. This heavy cloth was dyed a dark, almost indigo, blue. It became a favorite of the Muslim traders on the river Sénégal who, indeed, would sometimes downright insist on it.

East Indian cloths all had, of course, their special traders: among them in London, Peregrine Cust, of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa in 1757, and John Sargent, member of a circle of trading partners which included the protean Richard Oswald (though he also traded extensively in the Baltic and Germany for linen). Sargent found his original opening through the well-connected Huguenot émigrés, the Aufrère family. He had his equivalents in Lisbon and Nantes, and even in Bremen and Copenhagen.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, as has been shown, manufacturers in Manchester and Rouen tried to copy the Indian products. But English and French dyeing, even at Rouen, was at first inferior to that of the Indians, and could not achieve the bright colors of the latter. In the end, however, Mancunian manufacturers, in particular, showed themselves very clever with cotton checks (“Guinea cloths”), a local imitation of an Indian cotton which enjoyed a greater success in Africa every year. In Lancashire, in the 1750s, the largest of the early manufacturers (William and Samuel Rawlinson, Samuel Taylor) did specially well in this line of business. After 1760, coarse annabasses, made in Manchester, became specially sought after on the West African coast. Many loads of this fabric were bought by the Portuguese and the French for use by their captains. Such European cloths often kept their Indian names (“nicanee” or “cashtoe”), or a variant of them, even if they were made in Lancashire. Rouen had a good line also in Simaoises as well as indiennes, which stocked ships at Le Havre or Honfleur as well as at Rouen itself.

New England, too, produced coarse cottons, though that commodity was never so successful in the slave trade as rum.

•  •  •

After cloth, metals played the most important part in the European slave traffic in Africa.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, copper and brass objects were welcome in Africa in every shape and type: particularly brass bowls, but also chamber pots, cauldrons, jugs, or mere sheets of copper. West Africans had some knowledge of metalworking, and many of the objects were melted down by the natives. Thus the bracelets, manillas, often made in south Germany especially for the trade, bought by Portuguese or their Genoese representatives in Antwerp, and used as anklets, were often exchanged in Africa for slaves and, like some cloths, they were also sometimes used as a currency in the neighborhood of Whydah, on the Slave Coast between the river Volta and Lagos, and also in the delta of the eastern Niger. As early as the mid-sixteenth century, German metal traders were established at Lisbon, so that the Portuguese could buy direct from them, rather than have to buy at Antwerp.

Copper was the chief metal attraction for West Africa till about 1520. Thereafter, an age of brass lasted till about 1630, when iron began to establish itself, as Northern Europeans, in touch with the Swedish iron foundries, embarked on the slave trade. But brass remained popular: brass pots, kettles, and pans, made in Birmingham, Liverpool (the Holywell works), and North Staffordshire (the Cheadle Company), were still being used until well after 1700. Other brass objects, such as wire made by Baptist Mills of Bristol, “Guinea rods,” also had their day.

In the eighteenth century, iron bars (usually nine inches long) became not just an article of trade but a trading medium too, at least in the Gulf of Guinea (in Congo and Angola they never enjoyed the same appeal as they did in the north). For a time, one such iron bar in Guinea was reckoned as equal to four copper ones. In 1682, the English Royal African Company was exporting to Africa about ten thousand iron bars a year. Most of these came from Sweden, the rest from Germany. In 1685, all but six of thirty-five ships dispatched to Africa by the RAC carried iron bars as part of their cargoes. The people of the Gambia had a particular interest in these cargoes: a quarter to a half of the RAC’s exports to the territory were of that commodity, though few went to Angola in the company’s day. In 1733, at the height of the slave trade, an English ship from Bristol to Bonny stocked up with £1,226 worth of goods to buy 250 Negroes at Bonny, of which iron was the most expensive item. Much of this was transformed in Africa for use in agriculture: as hoes, for example.

The demand for these bars naturally meant profits for those who carried them from Scandinavia to the slaving ports. Some of these merchants themselves became interested in the slave trade in consequence; one such was Anthony Tourney (Tournai), who enjoyed a most fruitful association with the London slave merchant and banker Humphrey Morice. The same occurred in the case of George Aufrère, the Huguenot trader who made his first fortune selling East Indian cloths to London merchants. Tourney and Aufrère later invested in slave ships.

These imports of iron did not have much effect on African production, for the interior empires had learned the art of smelting, not long after the Europeans had done so. These products, therefore, did not destroy an African native tradition of metallurgy. But nails from Spain, iron from Sweden, copper from Hamburg, Ostend, or London made the mineral dimension of the slave trade an international undertaking in its own right.

Gold played a modest part in the slave trade. Yet Brazilian gold—in dust or bars—was carried by Brazilian traders to the Bight of Benin from the late seventeenth century onwards. They exchanged it for slaves. They had no legal right to do this, so it was a contraband trade, even if it was tolerated. These traders even exchanged gold for slaves with the English at Cape Coast, thus performing the unusual feat of carrying gold to the Gold Coast. Some of the slaves bought with Brazilian gold were taken to Brazil to mine that very commodity in Minas Gerais. At the end of the eighteenth century, other Brazilians, from the colony’s northern cotton-growing regions, also took gold to Angola.

A few coins from either Europe or the Americas made their way to Africa. The Mandingos particularly liked Portuguese silver coins, or Spanish copper coins called patacas, which they made into bracelets or necklaces. Then the French Sénégal Company carried pieces-of-eight to Bissau, and the Royal African Company took guinea coins to the river Gambia. Dutch twenty-eight-stuiver pieces, as well as Spanish dollars (thalers), were used on a small scale as a medium of exchange on the Gold Coast in about 1700. But paper money and credit notes were never acceptable in Africa: Captain William Snelgrave, in Dahomey in the 1720s, reported that the agents there “did not like a bit of paper for their slaves, because the writing might vanish from it, or else the notes might be lost, and then they should lose their payment.”6

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shells, especially cowries (commonly known as “bouges,” from the Portuguese búzios) from the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean but also conch shells, were to be specially reckoned with in the slave trade—above all, the standard cowrie, Cypraea moneta. Cowries (the word derives from the Hindi kauri) had been adopted as a common, though not a single, currency throughout much of the Indian subcontinent by the tenth century A.D., and began to be carried across the Sahara to West Africa in the eleventh, when they were in use in markets in the valley of the Niger. Cowries were to be found in Venice. In the fourteenth century, there are several references to cowries in use as currency in the Mali empire: one of them, in 1352, by the astonishing traveler Ibn Battuta, who, in 1344, had even been to the Maldive Islands, where he had married four wives. Cowries were already in Arguin when Ca’da Mosto arrived. At the end of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese penetrated the Indian Ocean, and were themselves taking the shells from the Maldives by 1520. They even had a small fort there in 1519. The Dutch reached the Maldives in 1602, the English in 1658.

In the early sixteenth century, slaves were sometimes sold for cowries alone. The standard price for a male slave destined for São Tomé in the river Forcados in 1520, for example, was six thousand cowries and though, thereafter, traders demanded many other things, cowries always played a part in the trade in that region—sometimes a third, sometimes even a half. Often prices of slaves were reckoned in terms of cowries, in the 1770s perhaps 160,000 cowries per slave.

In the eighteenth century, while these shells were still being used as currency in India, they had the same role in much of West Africa, especially at Whydah, the biggest importer of cowries in the eighteenth century. Between 1700 and 1800, over twenty-five million pounds of cowries seem to have been imported into West Africa by European traders. The peak year was probably 1722, when over 700,000 pounds of cowries were taken to West Africa by English and Dutch captains alone. The RAC found that cowries were essential for trading for slaves in certain places, particularly at Whydah and in the Bight of Benin. African dealers might insist that a quarter, and sometimes as much as a half, of the cost of slaves was paid in this way.

Cowries in West Africa were often strung in forties, which were known as “tockies” (from the Portuguese toque). Five tockies made a galinha, a chicken, and 125 tockies made a cabess (from cabeça, a head). In the mid-seventeenth as in the mid-eighteenth century, one cabess, or five thousand cowries, seems to have equaled in value one iron bar.

Cowries had many virtues as money. They made possible a genuinely international currency, which circulated in the markets of large and small polities, while a single shell had the virtue of having a very low value indeed (the least valuable coin in Britain, the farthing, was equivalent to between twenty-five and thirty-two cowries in the delta of the Niger about 1780). Cowries are attractive to look at and to handle, they are hard to break, and they neither fade nor wear. They are impossible to counterfeit, as King Gezo would tell the explorer Richard Burton, hard to hoard, and can be put to no other use. The only disadvantage to cowries as a unit of account was that they were cumbersome to transport; all the same, the camels, the donkeys, and the slaves of West Africa became accustomed to carrying them hundreds of miles over the centuries.

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After cloth, metals, and shells, weapons of various kinds, including swords, were probably the most important goods in the trade, though not before the middle of the seventeenth century: the Portuguese (and the Brazilians) were forbidden by law to export them. The Portuguese had done their best to avoid the exchange of any such arms for any African product (except for horses in the fifteenth centuryIV), and officials had been posted in the harbor of Lisbon to check against infringements. This rule was in keeping with one of the strictest rules of medieval commerce, which was not to sell weapons to any heathen or infidel. Early in the eighteenth century, in 1718, a new Portuguese royal decree repeated the prohibition on the export of arms “because these people are pagan.” Yet the Afro-Portuguese lançados liked to have good German swords to accompany their antiquated taste in dress, and some of these—cutlasses from Söllingen, near Düsseldorf, for instance—made their way to Africa. (Tradition had it that the art of making swords reached Söllingen from Damascus.) By the late sixteenth century, handguns were reaching West Africa along the caravan routes from the Maghreb. One could obtain not only muskets but Turkish musketeers in Bornu, in what is now northern Nigeria, by the 1570s, and the great Moroccan army successfully sent south in 1591 to conquer the gold-bearing territories of the central valley of the Niger also included musketeers.

The Portuguese maintained their prohibition until the end of their participation in the slave traffic. They also banned the export of paper to Africa: for they realized that the pen could be mightier than the cutlass (who in their senses wanted Africans who could write?). But the arrival in West Africa of the Dutch, and even more of the English, altered matters. So did the fact that the then new flintlock musket was both a more effective and a more easily transportable weapon than the arquebus.

From 1650 onwards, West Africans developed a taste for, and a habit of using, muskets. The “Angola gun,” a long-barreled flintlock musket, dominated the market between Cabo Negro and Benguela. Short French guns with iron ramrods, “decent sham Dane guns with wooden ramrods,” and cheap “Bonny guns” were all to be found in eighteenth-century African palaces. Willem Bosman wrote, about 1700: “For some time, we have been selling many weapons. We are obliged to do this in order to remain at the same level as the foreigners and interlopers [that is, presumably, the English and the French], but I would prefer that this commerce had never started here and that, in the future, it would not be carried on.”7 It was too late. By 1780, many African monarchies looked on muskets as necessary for self-defense, knowing that they could only be obtained by trading slaves.

In the eighteenth century, the cargo of the Dutch Middelburgische Kamerse Compagnie was usually 14 percent gunpowder and 9 percent guns per slave. Perhaps six to seven thousand guns were imported into Luanda alone every year in the 1780s, but many more were exchanged for slaves on the Loango coast. London and Birmingham gunmakers both contributed substantially. Lord Shelburne, then secretary to Pitt the elder, even thought in 1765 that 150,000 guns had been sent to Africa from Birmingham alone, thus enriching such businesses as the Quaker firm of Farmer and Galton in Birmingham, and Thomas Falkner and John Parr in Liverpool, not to speak of Richardson and Co, gunpowder makers at Hounslow, and Samuel Banner of Birmingham, who made swords as well as firearms. The total number of guns exported from Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century approached three hundred thousand a year. A Liverpool merchant with the appropriate name of Henry Hardware declared, in 1756, that gunpowder and arms were a “necessary part” of the cargoes of ships trading to Africa. It was often said then that a slave had the value of one Birmingham gun, just as, in the fifteenth century, a horse had bought a dozen slaves. But three guns per slave was a more normal equivalence; and in some places it was as high as five or six. The fact was that the price of slaves trebled between 1680 and 1720, while that of guns fell, so that several large well-armed states were able to develop along the Gold and Slave coasts: Ashanti and Dahomey above all.

Of course, the Africans had preferences, and it would appear that, among the guns offered by English traders, “tower guns” were much the favorite, followed by round muskets, Danish guns, and “Bonny muskets.” Further, the Bonny River area was probably the territory most anxious for guns in exchange for slaves: the Vili traders in Loango were also very interested, and it seems possible that as many as fifty thousand guns arrived every year in those ports in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, to be dispersed throughout Central Africa.

No doubt these guns were often employed to protect agriculture, as decoration, and for trade, but their use in enabling the Africans who obtained them to gain more slaves was also considerable.

Many of the guns were inferior: King Tegbesu of Dahomey once complained that a consignment which he had bought from the English burst whenever they were put to use, and hurt his soldiers; and he made a similar complaint about French guns. After a visit to the Farmer and Galton factory in Birmingham in the 1760s, Lord Shelburne made the considerate comment, “What is shocking to humanity is that above half of them, from the manner they are finished in, are sure to burst in the first hand that fires them.”8

Gunpowder was also popular: “an article on which there is the greatest gains of any in the trade,” reported the captain of a Liverpool ship in 1765. In the 1770s and 1780s, the quantity of gunpowder imported to Africa from Britain exceeded a million pounds annually, and in 1790 it would exceed two million.

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Alcohol was also a great attraction for the slave trade, though, as happens in “Western culture,” it was also used to promote good bargains. West Africans had their own palm wine. Some peoples made wine from honey, or a kind of beer from millet. But palm wine became “sour so that it cannot be drunk after ten or twelve days,” Jean Barbot wrote, and, after 1440, most Africans, especially those in the Gambia region, came to prefer Portuguese wine, of which muscatel—sold in pipas, two hogsheads each and carrying five hundred liters—was the chief attraction of the sixteenth century. Large casks of Madeira and port were also features of early slaving journeys. “The Wolofs are great drunkards,” Valentim Fernandes noted in 1510, “and derive great pleasure from our wine.”9Wine continued to be provided by the Portuguese and, when the Spaniards re-entered the slave trade in the late eighteenth century, barrels of wine figured largely on the lists of the Cádiz Company, to be exchanged for slaves in Africa. The slave merchants of La Rochelle, Bordeaux, and Nantes always sent wine to Africa as part of their cargoes, La Rochelle being then a great producer, and known as the “city of Bacchus.”

But by the seventeenth century, the distilling process, that great invention of Catalan Benedictines, came into its own. Spirits were especially sought after on long voyages. French “brandies” played a great part, being often carried on Dutch and English ships. Bordeaux and La Rochelle were especially well placed to send wonderfully strong eaux-de-vie. Brandy was specially made, in Porto, for African sale. Barbot recalled that three “anchors” of brandy would buy a young male slave. The Brazilians made themselves popular, too, in Africa, with the sale of gerebita—a cane brandy, made from the foam skimmed off the second boiling of cane juice which, being 50 or 60 proof, seemed superior to all other liquors. Alcohol constituted a fifth of Portuguese cargoes at the end of the eighteenth century; and each pipa of this Brazilian spirit might buy ten slaves. This liquor, the product of a hundred or more small stills in Rio or its surroundings, was Brazil’s largest export to Angola. The records of the Middelburgische Kamerse Compagnie in the eighteenth century show that alcohol constituted over 10 percent of the cargoes for slaves.

On the African side, we hear of many rulers such as the king of Barsally (Gambia), of whom it was said, “It is to that insatiable thirst of his after brandy that his subjects’ freedoms and families are in so precarious a situation: for [being intoxicated] he very often goes, with some of his troops, by a town in the daytime, and returns in the night, and sets fire to three parts of it, and sets guards to the fourth to seize the people as they run out from the fire; he ties their arms behind them, and marches them to the place where he sells them, which is either Joar or Cohone [both were markets on the river].”10

In the late seventeenth century, Anglo-Saxon rum began to replace brandy as a slave cargo, at least on English and North American ships. Rum was cheaper than brandy and was held to be less destructive to the liver. This era began when English interlopers, principally from Bristol, began to carry the new cargo direct from Barbados. Jean Barbot wrote that, on his return to Cape Coast on the Gold Coast in 1679, he found “a great alteration: the French brandy, whereof I had always had a good quantity abroad, being much less demanded, by reason that a great quantity of spirits and rum had been bought on that coast . . . which obliged them all to sell cheap.”11 Frederick Philipse of New York stocked his ship Margaret with sixteen casks of rum, among other things, in 1698. In 1721, the RAC’s factor at Cape Coast told his masters in London that rum had become the “chief barter,” even for gold. In 1765, two refineries were established in Liverpool specifically to supply slave ships with rum. There were also by then distilleries in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Once a direct slave trade began from North America to Africa, these last and other, distillers began to see rum as one of their most important products. In 1770, just before the American Revolution, rum represented over four-fifths of New England’s exports. About eleven million gallons of Rhode Island rum were exchanged for slaves in Africa between 1709 and 1807, with about 800,000 gallons being the annual average marketed in the last few years before 1807. Each slave ship might carry fifty to a hundred hogsheads. A specially strong “Guinea rum” was distilled in Newport for the Africa market. The rum trade on the coast of West Africa was by then a “virtual monopoly of New England.”12 In 1755, Caleb Godfrey, a slave captain from Newport, Rhode Island, bought four men, three women, three girls, and one boy for 799 gallons of rum, two barrels of beef, and one barrel of pork, together with some smaller items; and, in 1767, Captain William Taylor, acting for Richard Brew of Cape Coast, bought male slaves at 130 gallons each, women at 110, and young girls at eighty. By 1773, the price was higher: 210 to 220 gallons per slave was paid by the captain of Aaron Lopez’s Cleopatra.

When the American Revolution interrupted the slave trade, the shortage of rum on the west coast of Africa caused as much heartache among the European factors and governors as among the African dealers. Governor Richard Miles of Cape Coast had to make do with Caribbean rum for some years, but it was not the same thing. Richard Brew was equally distraught. The Africans with whom Rhode Island captains had traded, especially along the Gold and Windward coasts, had also become addicted to North American rum, a fact which gave captains from Rhode Island a definite advantage when the traffic recovered in the 1780s.

Rum was also used to pay African workers; in 1767, Captain William Pinnegar paid canoemen who took the slaves to their ship one and a half gallons each for their services.

Gin, cider, and beer also played their part in the slave traffic. Bristol merchants, for example, had for a time specialized in trading gin for slaves in the eighteenth century; the captain of the Bance Island, leaving Charleston for the river Sierra Leone in 1760, carried cider and “Vidonia” (Canary Island) wine. Beer and cider, indeed, may have been traded more in the slave trade than the records suggest, especially in ships from Bristol.

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Tobacco was another product with a long life in the slave business. The main producer of the tobacco which the Africans liked had been Bahia in the sixteenth century: “Bahia had tobacco, and wanted slaves; the coast of Mina had slaves and wanted tobacco”—“in rolls, not in leaf,” wrote Captain Dampier, in 1699. From 1644, this trade was authorized by Portuguese royal decree to be direct: a commerce which escaped the control of Lisbon. The governor of Bahia in 1779, the marquis of Valença, said, “The truth is that the tobacco of Brazil is as necessary for the trade in slaves as those same slaves are for the maintenance of Portuguese America.”13 This gave the Brazilians a near monopoly of the Portuguese trade with West Africa in the eighteenth century.

The reason for the permission was that this tobacco was not even of second-best quality, but of a poor grade, third-class, as it appeared to the Portuguese; they called it “soca.” This tobacco’s charm was accidental: it had been treated with molasses, to prevent it from crumbling, and the Africans found it to their taste.

The export was among the most long-standing in the history of the Americas: it began in the late sixteenth century, and was still popular in 1800. Many Northern European captains bought this tobacco from Brazilian ships offshore to add to their own cargoes. French captains from La Rochelle or Nantes might even stop off at Lisbon to buy supplies of the tobacco for their own trading, though in theory the harbormaster in Lisbon was supposed to refuse entry to them.

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Even in the rum-laden vessels from North America, the gerebita-stocked ships from Brazil, and the textile-heavy vessels from Liverpool, there were always other items in a typical slave cargo: for example, handkerchiefs, codfish, pots and kettles, silk hats, and shaving bowls. Traders in Bristol, Rhode Island, would customarily obtain these and other things from general merchants in Boston, such as Samuel Parkman. These miscellaneous items—such as beads from Venice (or Dutch copies), silver bells, pewter, pretty bits of glass, and bracelets—were much in demand in Africa. The ships of the Cádiz Company often carried porcelain made in Seville in their cargoes to Africa in the 1770s: for example, “3,200 docenas de loza de Sevilla” (that is 3,200 sets of china) were carried in theSan Rafael, one of the first slave ships to leave Cádiz after the end of the asientos, in 1766, under Captain Juan Antonio Zabaleta. In 1757, the slave ship from Nantes Jeune Reine carried twelve large rosaries, forty-eight chaplets, and 108 reliquaries.

Beads were probably the most important of these trivia. Yellow and green glass beads were desired by the Sapes in the sixteenth century, and so were red carnelians by the people of Calabar in the seventeenth. Daniel and Claude Jamineau—Huguenots in London in the eighteenth century, the most successful dealers in beads—perhaps did best out of this business. One slave merchant reported receiving a prime Negro in return for thirteen beads of coral, half a string of amber beads, twenty-eight silver bells, and three pairs of bracelets. In a good year in the late seventeenth century, about three thousand pounds’ worth of beads and glass would be carried by the RAC: bought in Amsterdam, and made in Venice. The Dutch soon began to make beads themselves, in more colors, sizes, and qualities than those from Venice, some loose, some threaded, white, large and small, crystal, garnet, some amber or coral, and speckled white. Beads made in Venice were, however, still being sent by the Portuguese to Angola in the late eighteenth century. Different parts of the African coast, of course, had different tastes: the rulers of the river Gambia wanted amber beads; in Whydah and the Niger Delta, small Venetian beads were required.

Some beads had always been known, and even made, in Africa. For example, the aggry bead of hard glass had apparently been made, from an early date, at Ife in the territory of the Yoruba.

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In the earliest days of the Portuguese slave trade with West Africa, Pacheco Pereira spoke of horses as if they had been the main item of cargo. The French traveler Lacourbe mentioned Arab horses being sold for twenty-five slaves each at the end of the seventeenth century. Barbot thought that horses sold for twelve to fourteen slaves; and the official Pruneau de Pommegorge, at the end of the eighteenth century, claimed to have seen an African buy a horse for a hundred slaves and a hundred oxen. At that time, horses were still often almost a currency, and a historian of Islamic Africa wrote that slaves and horses were the gifts most favored by Muslim kings in the interior.

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Nonslave transactions, of course, accounted for much of the income of traders to Africa: two-fifths in the case of the RAC in the late seventeenth century: redwood from the banks of the rivers Sierra Leone and Sherbro; ivory, wax, hides, gum; and gold turned into guineas by the mint. These shipments were usually carried out by a direct trade to Africa and back. But in the late eighteenth century, slaves dominated all the European nations’ West African commerce. One English trader settled on the Gold Coast, Richard Brew, explained (from his fortress, Brew Hall) in 1771: “Formerly, owners of ships used to send out double cargoes of goods, one for slaves, one for gold. . . . How strangely things are reversed now. . . . We scarce see a ship go off without her complement of slaves. . . .”14 Brew spoke, of course, as a self-confident trader of Anglo-Saxon stock at a time when Britain and North America still happily constituted a single and powerful Atlantic polity.

IA measure of eight and one-third imperial gallons.

IIA cabess was five thousand cowries.

IIIThey brought not only cloth but a new vein of cotton from the Americas, Gossypium barbadense. African cloth was made from this on a large scale on the upper valley of the river Sénégal.

IVExchange of slaves for horses reappeared in the eighteenth century, according to the books of Nicholas Brown of Providence. Thus, in 1765, his firm exchanged forty horses in Surinam for rum, sugar, molasses, and “one negrow garl.”

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