“Friends who meet occasionally remain better friends than if they are neighbors—on account of the nature of the human heart.”
King Caramansa to Diogo da Azambuja, builder of Elmina, 1482
THE ANCHORAGES where slaves were obtained in Africa over the centuries extended from opposite the Canary Islands, all the way down the west coast of Africa, then round the Cape of Good Hope, to include Mozambique and Madagascar. These harbors all had eras of aggrandizement and of decline but, from the beginning of the trade to the Americas, in the sixteenth century, to the end of it, in the nineteenth, slaves from most regions could always be found. For example, in a list given in the will of Hernán Cortés in Mexico in 1547, slaves from both Mozambique and Senegambia were present. The same were among those at work on the steam-powered sugar mill, Alava, belonging to Julián Zulueta in Cuba in 1870.
To a great extent, the Atlantic slave trade was an affair of rivers: those vast, marvelously beautiful waterways, which often rose in the very heart of the continent, and which fascinated travelers from Ca’da Mosto in the 1450s to Livingstone four hundred years later, were the means of transport by canoe of millions of black captives to the Atlantic, at the sight of which the slaves were, of course, usually as surprised as they were fearful.
The northernmost zone of Africa used as a slave harbor was the stretch of five hundred or so miles facing the Canary Islands between Agadir and Cape Bojador, which the Treaty of Alcaçovas of 1479 between the Spaniards and the Portuguese had allocated for commerce and fishing to the former. Here the Spanish colonists on the Canary Islands carried out numerous raiding expeditions in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, as well as some negotiated purchases of slaves; and from there, several thousand Berber slaves were taken, either to work thereafter on the Canary Island plantations or to be shipped to Spain herself. But the Spanish fort near Cape Juby, the nearest point to the Canary Islands, had been overrun in the 1520s by the Berbers and, by the late eighteenth century, the ancient traffic which it had assisted was scarcely a memory.
The first zone of intensive trading for slaves was well to the south of this, at Arguin, in the bay beyond Capo Blanco. It was from here that Portugal first took slaves, mostly Azanaghi, in the 1440s. The Portuguese Crown built ten years later a polygonal fortress above a two-hundred-foot cliff and, in the 1560s, it was still profitable to Portugal. Between 1441 and 1505, anything between twenty-five and forty thousand slaves were carried from there to Portugal, many of them being first exchanged two hundred miles inland, at the oasis of Wadan, on the westernmost caravan route from sub-Saharan Africa to Morocco. The Portuguese, as it were, diverted these slaves from their regular route northwards.
The Spaniards took over Arguin when, in 1580, they merged their empire with that of Portugal, only to lose the trading post in 1638 to the French, who demilitarized it, for the caravan route now ran much farther to the east than Wadan, and the place had ceased to be the golden market which it had seemed in the days of Prince Henry the Navigator. In the late seventeenth century, the least important of European slave traders, the Brandenburgers, seized Arguin and established a garrison of twenty to serve as an intermediate trading post on the way to their headquarters at Princes Town, on the Gold Coast. When the German interest waned, the Dutch bought Arguin but, in 1721, they too lost it to the French, with whom it unprofitably remained. Such vicissitudes, with no consideration of the local people, in what is now Mauritania, were common among European settlements in West Africa.
The French until about 1720 concentrated on expanding their trade, in ivory and gum as well as slaves, well to the south of Arguin, along the Sénégal. That river had seemed for a long time to be a West African Nile, because of the way the waters of the river rose, as a result of the heavy rains in the interior between June and October. The current appeared to carry the river a long way out to sea. The French trading port was protected by a large, mud-built, badly designed fortress, Saint-Louis, built on an island of that name at the mouth of the river. Around that edifice lay a cemetery, a hospital and, of course, a church, as well as a few brick houses for the small white or mulatto population, and also numerous huts in which Africans lived. There were about 1780 six hundred French officials and soldiers and a few European-born residents, as well as an undefined number of mulattoes: especially mulatas, “les signares” (that is, senhoras), descendants of Portuguese settlers of the old days, whose combination of good looks and commercial enterprise made Saint-Louis an attractive place to the visitor. Here the French governor did all he could to ensure the effectiveness of the trade in slaves as in that of gum, which his countrymen obtained from the acacia forests along the north side of the river, and which was required as a dye in the French calico-printing industry. He issued austere regulations: for example, a provision stipulating that no brandy be issued to those who did not attend evening, as well as morning, prayer. The charm of this region for trading slaves was not only that it faced the Atlantic, but that it was also connected, by good waterways and savanna country, to more ancient caravan routes to the Maghreb than could be easily tapped at Arguin. There were also both artificially constructed and natural salt pans. The Bambuk gold fields were accessible by water, three hundred miles inland. The tropical forest did not begin till about five hundred miles to the south, and so the valley of the Sénégal was well north of the tsetse-fly zone. Thus cattle could be bred there, and meat dried, for use on Atlantic journeys. At one time in the early seventeenth century, the cattle imported did so well in this region that the export of hides brought in more money than slaves did. The Portuguese, it may be remembered, had looked on the river Sénégal as the dividing line between the Moors and the blacks and, as early as 1506, the German printer and traveler who took the name Valentim Fernandes noted that, though “one exchanges here very little gold,” there are “plenty of black slaves.”1 The statement could have been repeated at the end of the eighteenth century.
The first slaves sold here were said to be Wolofs (Jolofs), the people who dominated the territory. But, as in the case of most names in Atlantic Africa, many who were called “Wolof” in America would originally have come from the far interior, from places well beyond the head of navigation on the Sénégal. The Wolof kingdom itself had probably been created in the fourteenth century, and it had a nobility which was Muslim, with a capital between the rivers Sénégal and Gambia. The Wolofs for a long time dominated the first of these rivers and its banks, and their tributaries included a few monarchies on the coast (Walo, Cayor, Baol, Sine, and Salum), as well as the more numerous Serers, their kinsmen, to the south. The Portuguese made an unsuccessful attempt to place a Christianized Wolof, Bermoi, on the throne of his ancestors, but already in the sixteenth century the power of that kingdom was in decline; power, such as it was, had passed to the subordinate princelings. Later, a number of rebels from the Songhai empire on the Niger, the Mande and Fulani, made their way towards the coast and established themselves in the hills of Futa Toro, just to the south of the Sénégal where previously the Wolofs had been all-powerful. Many of the slaves traded in the middle of the sixteenth century were originally captured by these people, whose monarchy came to be thought of as a new empire. By 1600, this “empire of the Grand Foul,” as the English liked to refer to it, seems to have extended over the whole of the upper Sénégal, including the gold fields of Bambuk.
Other Fulani, known as the Mane, carried out similar advances, but from the southeast, establishing themselves in the sixteenth century in numerous little kingdoms along the coast which had previously, and immemorially, been ruled by monarchs from the places concerned rather than by interlopers.
These political changes took place without overt European influence; rebels from the Songhai empire would probably have sought power by the use of force and prosperity through the slave trade whether or no there had been buyers of Africans for the markets in the Americas.
The river Sénégal was difficult to ascend before the days of steam because of the current and a downstream-flowing wind. The most reliable way of traveling upstream was by cordelling, pulling the ships by tow from the shore or by kedging, taking an anchor ahead in a canoe and pulling the ship up by windlass. Usually this work was done by African laborers, the so-called laptots, the word being a Gallicized form of “Wolof” but coming to mean any African who worked with Europeans.
Like most European forts, Saint-Louis changed hands often, being captured by the English in 1693, then regained at the subsequent peace by France. The English captured it again during the Seven Years’ War, but lost it once more to the French in 1779. The English, when they were formally in control, left much trade on the Sénégal in the hands of Afro-French boatmen. Several ports on the river, such as Podor, a hundred miles inland, had, from the early eighteenth century, belonged to French privileged companies, such as Law’s Compagnie des Indes, which established what was intended to be a monopoly there—not just for slaves (the Compagnie des Indes ceased slaving after 1748) but also for gum. To serve these interests, the French had an islet at Saint-Joseph, a mud-built fort on the upper river which could hold 250 slaves at any one time in its captiverie. This was a curb to the slave trade, for it set a limit for buying slaves during the dry season: to enlarge the prison would have been expensive; and to hold slaves without a prison was inconceivable. Slaves arriving in the “high season” might, however, be shipped directly downriver to Saint-Louis, whose cellars could hold a thousand slaves. Dr. Carl Bernard Wadström, chief director of the assay office in Sweden, who visited Africa in the 1780s to “make discoveries in botany, mineralogy, and other departments of science,” thought that at least that number of slaves was shipped annually down the Sénégal. Several French independent traders had by then set themselves up in Saint-Louis on a permanent basis. Typical was Paul Benis, an illiterate sailor who learned Wolof and was a prosperous merchant by the mid-1780s. The Nantes-based firm of Aubrey de la Fosse had a permanent manager in Saint-Louis, responsible for exporting three hundred slaves each year.
The interior of this region, the Senegambia, was relatively stable throughout most of the era of the slave trade. Most people spoke the Fulbe language. English witnesses to the Privy Council’s court of inquiry in London in 1788-89 described the absolute governments of this zone as being largely under the influence of the Moorish merchants inhabiting the desert on the north side of the river Sénégal. In the late eighteenth century, though, the old stability seemed to be breaking up, and there was frequent combat between the ancient coastal monarchies and the Muslims, the latter seeking to expand, or consolidate, their power, as a means of avoiding their own enslavement, though in no way opposing the enslavement of infidels.
Few Senegambians saw Europe, or Christianity, as constituting a political threat between 1440 and 1780: especially in the first part of the eighteenth century, the external danger was from the Moroccans, with their powerful slave army and, after 1750, the Bambara, a black Muslim people on the middle Niger. Islam had been encroaching for centuries since, before the Portuguese had arrived, Senegambia had been a frontier region—not as Spain had been before 1492, since there were Muslim rulers who ruled traditional peoples. Enclaves of powerful and rich Muslim merchants still lived in the center of cities attached to ancient deities.
Crops from the new American continent, such as peanuts, tobacco, manioc and, above all, maize, had been grown here since the sixteenth century, but the irregular rainfall had prevented them from being cultivated in any but a piecemeal fashion. Various kinds of millet, therefore, remained the staple food; cotton was grown, too, and cattle, sheep, and goats were plentiful.
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The trader in slaves sailing south along the West African coast would, a hundred miles south of the estuary of the Sénégal, and before reaching the river Gambia, come upon a peninsula of high land rising gradually to two conical hills known as the Paps (like the Paps of Jura). This was Cape Verde, after which, to the south, the coast of Africa begins to turn slowly to the southeast, the observation of which caused the Portuguese at first to think that their long-desired circumnavigation of the continent would be easier than it turned out. The place was green enough in the rainy season, but otherwise yellow and dry. In the early days of the traffic, this territory, on which Dakar was built in the nineteenth century, was a big source of slaves for the Portuguese, and for some Spanish smugglers also.
In the archipelago off Cape Verde, the main island, Santiago, was for hundreds of years a depot for slaves. There were also large natural deposits of salt (on the island of Sal), as well as orchilla, a lichen, for dyes. In the early sixteenth century, cane, indigo, and cotton were grown, and cattle bred. The islands had greatly benefited from the fact that, in the early days, the coast of the mainland opposite had been looked on by the Portuguese Crown as a dependency of the archipelago. In 1582, the combined populations of the two most important islands, Santiago and Fogo, comprised over 1,600 Europeans, 400 freed slaves, and nearly 14,000 slaves. But the islands declined in the seventeenth century, as did all this region, principally because the Islamic affiliations of the coastal peoples made slaves from there distrusted by both Spanish and Portuguese potential buyers. Nor were those berberiscos, or slaves, of “the Levante” very dark, and Spanish planters preferred their slaves pitch-black. Berberiscos’ introduction into the Spanish empire was repeatedly prohibited for religious reasons.
Still, there were in the eighteenth century many years of renewed success for the Atlantic trade from the Cape Verde Islands, particularly after the creation of the two Portuguese monopoly companies, founded on the recommendation of Prime Minister Pombal; even in the 1780s, after the collapse of those enterprises, slaves exported each year to Brazil may have amounted to about 2,200, all of them probably originally from far up the river Sénégal.
Uninhibited friendships between Portuguese and blacks from the earliest days had resulted in a mulatto population on the Cape Verde Islands, though there remained families who considered themselves white (few visitors shared that opinion). The families of most of the mulattoes, morgados, had long before broken free of direct Portuguese control, even if formally they remained Catholics, and under the political direction of the enfeebled (unpaid) Portuguese governor, who was in titular control of all the Portuguese possessions in northern West Africa. But that relative independence did not lead to economic success. In the early seventeenth century, Praia, the main town on Santiago, was described by its own governor as the “charnel house and dung heap” of the Portuguese empire; while in 1804, a North American trader would report that he found “nothing but beggars from the Governor down to the lowest Negro.”2 Spanish trading here for slaves as well as for local dyes was continuous, even though successive Portuguese decrees forbade it. Those Spanish illegal traders were popular because they had better goods to offer than did the Portuguese.
Just to the south of Cape Verde itself was a bay which Ca’da Mosto had looked on as beautiful, probably because, in his day, the palm trees came down almost to the beach. Here lay Gorée, a long island with two forts, Fort Saint-Michel and Fort Vermandois (later Saint-François), built on a gloomy basalt excrescence; in the eighteenth century, it was an entrepàt as well as a center of supplies so important that it gave its name to the main quay in Liverpool’s new harbor, and to a poor parish in Bristol, Rhode Island, for a time one of the most prosperous United States slave ports. Gorée had been much prized by European captains from the seventeenth century onwards, for there they could find water from good wells, as well as food for the slaves, not to speak of an interpreter and information about the state of the markets, from European or mulatto traders living in fine houses, surrounded by mulata “signares,” pretty black girls. Dr. Wadström said that, in 1788, one of these mulattoes told him that the slaves of Gorée held in captiveriesbelow these fine houses numbered nearly twelve hundred, but the Swede thought, “I have reason to believe that it was not so many.”3 Among the permanent residents, there were eccentrics: for example, the chaplain in the 1780s, Father Demanet who, under the cover of founding a sisterhood of the Sacré Coeur, had at his disposal the prettiest mulattoes of the region.
Sheltered by the curve of the northern coast of Cape Verde above it, Gorée was easy to approach; there were no difficulties at the bar, the climate was pleasant, and the rainy season short. The sea nearby abounded in fish. Its history was similar to that of Arguin. Thus it was first occupied by the Portuguese. The Dutch seized it in 1617, and built a fort. The Portuguese took it back, after a siege, only to lose it again to the Dutch, who refortified it in 1647. The English captured it in the first Anglo-Dutch war during the reign of Charles II, the Dutch won it back, and it was then taken by Marshal d’Estrées and a French expedition. After this, France held Gorée, except for a period after 1693 when the English captured it, and for a few years during the Seven Years’ War, when the same occurred. But Britain returned it to France in 1763.
The French made Gorée into the most spacious of all the West African European establishments after Elmina on the Gold Coast. They had room to build the zigzag “lines of fortification” recommended by great fortress architects in Europe, such as Vauban. Gorée was the first slave harbor of West Africa to use a real currency as opposed to iron bars or cowries: in this case, the silver dollar, or the Dutch twenty-eight-stuiver piece. The mercantile house of David Gradis et fils of Bordeaux was well established at Gorée, but so were others from the same city.
The large river Gambia was barely a hundred miles south of Gorée. By 1780 it had enjoyed for many generations a most varied character. It was lined, like most of those nearby, by mangroves, at least to the limit of the tides. It had a much smaller alluvial plain than the Sénégal but, all the same, was tidal for at least 150 miles upriver, as far as the Barkunda Falls; so the salt had a bad effect on agriculture on the floodplain of the lower river. The river had for a long time been fancied as likely to lead to an African El Dorado because, at the market town of Cantor, two hundred miles inland, Mandingo merchants would exchange gold found farther inland still, at Bambuk; but the early promise disappointed. After 1586, no Portuguese ship seems to have sailed up to Cantor, the sale of gold being thereafter in the capable hands of Moorish middlemen, who would gauge whether it was worthwhile selling to Europeans on the coast, or to merchants from the Maghreb.
The lower part of the river was in 1780 largely in the hands of Afro-Portuguese settlers, lançados, as they had been called in the fifteenth century, some of them deriving from the Cape Verde Islands. In the eighteenth century, these adventurers still managed several towns on the Gambia, particularly Tankula and Sika, which served as the headquarters of a far-reaching trade, in slaves above all. The farthest place inland where they were established was Cantor. Jean Barbot described dining lavishly but primitively here with one of these traders, a Senhora Catarina, in 1680. The 1730s constituted a peak in their trade. Then the central part of the river began to be controlled by Mandingo merchants, who had impressed the early Portuguese explorers with their intelligence and their energy; while the upper river was dominated by traveling Muslim scholar-merchants, known as “marybuckes” (marabouts).
The low-standing, previously uninhabited Saint Andrew’s Island at the mouth of the Gambia was, in 1651, bought from the local Ñomi chief by Baltic Germans sent by James, duke of Courland. These representatives of the ancient Hanseatic League thought that possession of this place would give them control over the river, and so enable them to levy tolls on all those, European and African alike, who used the waterway. A fort was built out of local sandstone, a Lutheran pastor appointed, and cannon on the island were placed so as to command both channels to the north and south. The plan, as indicated earlier,I was to sell slaves to the duke’s colony in Tobago, but the scheme did not prosper.
The Dutch bought out the duke of Courland in 1658, and the Baltic governor left for Jamaica, “with his goods and slaves,” but the island was seized in 1661 by the English, who renamed it Fort James, after the duke of York, the future James II, then lord high admiral. Thereafter, the mouth of the river remained under the influence of Britain, though the French three times captured the island, devastated it, and then abandoned it, lacking the will to occupy it permanently. A Welsh pirate captured the island in 1715 and traded extensively; afterwards the RAC strengthened the fort considerably.
Fort James was lost by the British to the French in 1779. They did nothing with it and, even at the coming of peace in 1783, left it unoccupied. So the English resumed their control, and a governor was appointed by the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa (subordinate to the governor of Cape Coast). The English had founded two factories a considerable way up the river, at Joar and Cattajar; the French, determined to keep a foothold on this waterway, had one at the Mandingo town of Albreda, begun in 1681 on the estuary. It was a constant source of annoyance to the British, for it took a lot of the trade of the river.
The whole of the region roughly known as Senegambia, which includes the modern Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, as well as Gambia and Sénégal, may have exported about sixty thousand slaves in the course of the eighteenth century, carried in about 175 ships, so averaging about 217 slaves per vessel and six hundred a year. This was probably a little less than the exports of the late sixteenth century.
Next in the slaving journey from north to south down the west coast of Africa came a series of rivers, the Casamance, the Cacheu, and the Gebo, much used by the Portuguese from the fifteenth century onwards. At almost every estuary there was a trading center for slaves, sometimes in direct contact with the Cape Verde Islands, sometimes acting as a clearing house for the bigger places, such as those on the two rivers, Cacheu and Gebo, both estuaries being guarded from the incursions of foreigners on the ocean by the offshore Bissagos Islands. This region remained Portuguese throughout the era of the Atlantic slave trade, though many Spanish ships came down here to buy slaves illegally. The French also were trading slaves quite successfully here by the late seventeenth century. There were two crumbling forts, praças, in the 1780s: one, built in 1591 at Cacheu, on the river of that name, was originally established by the lançados, and its defense in the eighteenth century seemed merely to consist of a wooden palisade, garrisoned by ragamuffins; the second, on the estuary at Bissau, on the mouth of the modern river Corubal, founded in 1587, had been formidably restored in 1641, and refortified by the Maranhão Company in 1766 at the cost of many lives and of continuing enmity from the local Pepel people. Cacheu in its time “bustled as the center of the Hispano-Portuguese slave trade,” and had a population of about five hundred Europeans and a thousand blacks in various degrees of dependence. There were a few dependent garrisons(presidios)elsewhere, mostly staffed by Cape Verdians, convicts from Portugal, or lançados. Cacheu was, for a time in the seventeenth century, also a major boat-building place, since the local cabopa tree yielded planks said to resist shipworm; and even the despised mangrove had a fiber which could be used for caulking. When Barbot visited this river in 1680, he found that it was healthier than the Gambia, and that there were about four hundred huts or houses, mostly made of “clapboards in the Portuguese style,” as well as four Catholic churches.
When the Portuguese started trading slaves from the river Cacheu, in the fifteenth century, the mixture of peoples on the river (Balanta, Pepel, Djolas, Casangas, Banhuns)—some Muslim, some not—made the area a slave traders’ paradise, for wars were frequent and could easily be stimulated. Slaves were still being traded in the late eighteenth century, as they would be in the mid-nineteenth.
In contrast to Cacheu, which always remained Portuguese, Bissau fell more and more under the influence of the French in the eighteenth century: but, in 1755, the new Portuguese company formed for the development of northern Brazil, the Company of Grão Pará and Maranhão, began to export slaves on a large scale. The company was well endowed and could afford to devote much effort to the construction. This enabled Bissau to enjoy a bout of prosperity, which continued even when the monopoly company, having carried twenty-eight thousand slaves out of the two rivers in a little over twenty years, lost its license in 1778.
Offshore, the Bissagos Islands had always been a good source for slaves, since the military-minded indigenous people there had long experience in raiding the mainland, twenty-four men using seventy-foot canoes (almadias) hewn from silk-cotton trees. After a while, however, the shore peoples whom these islanders had been wont to seize, such as the Beafadas or the Pepel, became themselves skilled slave traders. Indeed, the Beafadas gained such a reputation for slaving that they were fancifully accused by their neighbors of introducing the idea into the world.
By the eighteenth century, the Bissagos Islands were dominated by mulattoes or octoroons, and they customarily retained there a substantial store of slaves, always ready for sale when a slave ship should come. Since the European demand at that time was overwhelmingly for men, and since the peoples on the islands raided one another indiscriminately, the islands had a large female majority, almost as if here at last were the famous islands of the Amazons so much sought by the early Spanish conquistadors. Much of the actual trading on these islands was done by women.
The two rivers Pongas (Pongo) and Núñez—the “rivers of the south,” between Bissau and what became Sierra Leone, in what is now the state of Guinea—were also reliable slaving harbors from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries; in the latter era, they may even have been responsible for a tenth of the total African exports of slaves, the best trading year apparently being 1760, at the time of the consolidation of the theocratic Muslim state of Futa Jallon, in the mountains inland, which sent thousands of refugees fleeing to the coast. But, then, the zone had always been a major slaving territory. On this river there was once a rare example of an African ruler seeking to prevent or at least to resist the slave trade; but the alliance of a few villages formed by this individual—Tomba, a Baga—failed, and he was himself swept into slavery.II
In the eighteenth century, several European companies or individuals owned islands at the mouth of one or another of these rivers. For example, in 1754, Miles Barber of London bought one of the Los Islands (Idolos), close to the mainland (off what is now Conakry), planted rice, and built a trading post, with “deux captiveries,” on the east coast. The water was good, and the fish abundant. Barber had another eleven establishments on the west coast of Africa, and probably himself was selling about six thousand slaves a year to the New World in the 1780s, four thousand from the Los Islands, as well as beeswax, ivory, and some dye-wood. His establishment was sacked by Americans during the War of Independence but, immediately after the peace, his company started selling slaves again, a French captain, Rousseau, being the biggest buyer, on behalf of the Sénégal Company. Three thousand slaves were packed off from here to the French West Indies annually in the 1780s. In the late eighteenth century, when ships from North America began to come often to Africa, Barber’s establishment was one of their favorite ports of call.
Only a short way south of the Los Islands lay the river Bereira, where a most remarkable woman, Betsy Heard, had established herself. She was the daughter of a Liverpool-born entrepreneur who had come to the Los Islands in the mid-eighteenth century, and an African (the daughter of a slave) and, after a conventional English education near Liverpool, Betsy returned to the town of Bereira where she remained the unofficial queen of the river till the end of the century. Her success as a dealer in slaves was due to the Islamic jihad in Futa Jallon. Bereira itself was seized by an Islamic people, the Morians, who sought to force the population to convert to Islam. This did not affect Betsy Heard’s commercial success—after all, Islam never shrank from business—and, in the 1790s, she was known as one of the most successful traders. Next to her, to the south, was the river Scarcies, where a Mande-speaking people, the Susu, who had fled from the upper Niger in the late Middle Ages, had set up a series of trading stations principally concerned with the salt trade to the Niger. But they had slaving interests also.
Another example of a private exploitation of an island in this region was Bence Island, called after a squire Bence of the late seventeenth century, one of several islands in the estuary of the river Sierra Leone, which had been an English post for several generations. Most of these islands were for many years infested by pirates. In the 1670s, though, Bence Island was established as the local headquarters of the RAC. Its buildings were destroyed in 1728 by Africans, led by a Luso-Senegambian, and the site was then maintained for a few years by slavers from London. One of these, George Fryer, sold the island in 1748 to the London Scottish syndicate of Sir Alexander Grant, Augustus and John Boyd, father and son, and Richard Oswald, all of them, as we have seen, rising, internationally active merchants from Scotland who had become established in London—alongside John Mill and John Sargent, both of London; Sargent was one of London’s largest buyers of East Indian goods and, therefore, one of the largest providers of cargoes to the slave traders.
The fortification of Bence Island was a square enclosure, with all the guns facing the sea, but the English traders relied for security on a “good understanding with the natives.” Grant and Oswald gave the island a luxurious central building with “a very cool and convenient gallery,” even establishing nearby a golf course, served by African caddies dressed in kilts especially woven in Glasgow, on which waiting captains could play an unusual version of their national game. About thirty or forty white clerks, and their assistants, mostly Scotch and some of them relations of the owners, managed Bence Island in its heyday, under the direction of another Scot, James Aird. The place was easily captured by the French in 1779, who reduced it to “a heap of ruins.” It was returned at the Peace of Paris (Richard Oswald was a British negotiator in Paris, but he seemed to be uninterested by then). After Oswald’s death, in 1784, his nephews, Alexander and John Anderson of Philpot Lane, London, ran the island till the early nineteenth century, selling slaves on a large scale at least till 1800, Danish buyers figuring prominently among the clients in the last days.
Bence Island was a “general rendezvous” of slaving from the 1760s onwards. The captives were bought from African kings with no difficulty, most of them being obtained some miles up the river Sierra Leone, and held for a time in “outfactories” established on the Banana Islands, on the Los Islands, and near the Sherbro River. In these places European or mulatto middlemen were often found: not only descendants of Portuguese lançados but English versions of them. There was, for instance, James Cleveland, who had settled on the Banana Islands, to the south of Sierra Leone, and Harrison and Matthew who, like Miles Barber, were to be found on the Los Islands. Cleveland ruled ruthlessly in his little kingdom in the late eighteenth century, with many Africans terrified of being seized by him in compensation for some unpaid debts and then sold as slaves.
These middlemen would assemble slaves beforehand and so could offer captains the benefit of being able to buy slaves quickly. That in turn would reduce the time that they had to spend on the African coast. French merchants from Honfleur, Le Havre, and Rotterdam frequented Bence Island, but the main clients were the proprietors who sent their own ships from London to pick up four hundred or so slaves, and set off for North America, Grenada, Saint Christopher or Jamaica, where several of them had plantations. Florida was another market after the English gained the place in 1763.
There was once a ferocious rebellion here: “Armed only with the irons and chains of those who were so confined, the slaves audaciously attacked the lock-keeper, at the moment he made his entré to return them to their dungeon after a few hours of basking in the sun. But this bringing on themselves the close fire of the musketry . . . which they probably neither saw nor contemplated . . . may have contained their only wish, a relief from the misery by the hand of death. . . .”4
A fort was also built on the nearby but more swampy York Island. The region was from an early time full of mulattoes of English ancestry. A note to the Royal African Company in 1684 reported that there “every man hath his whore”; and the Prussian Otto von der Grüben noted prudishly that most officers, including the governor, had “concubines,” who gave them children.5
The dense forest of the Guinea coastland began near what is now Conakry. Here the first landmark to the south was the estuary of the river Sierra Leone (so named by the Portuguese, apparently because of the lionlike mountains behind) which, despite treacherous rocks at the mouth, afforded the best harbor on this largely surf-bound coast. It had, therefore, been one of the main ports of call for ships bound for the southern Guinea coast, and even for India, from the early sixteenth century. In consequence, it had become also a headquarters of lançados. In canoes they would search the nearby creeks and rivers for slaves, and have them all available in the estuary of the Sierra Leone. Sometimes the urgent demands of the trade entailed long journeys into the interior. A headland to the south of the estuary known as Cape Tagrin marked where John Hawkins had bought his slaves in 1564. The main African peoples here were the Bulom, the Temne, and the Limba on the coast, and inland the Susu, the Fula (Fulani, Fulbe, Peul), and the Loko. Each of these peoples was independent, and for all of them rice was by the eighteenth century the staple crop. They provided a little gold and a good deal of ivory to Europeans. Here, too, the RAC had had a trading post till it was overrun in 1728 by men belonging to the powerful mulatto trader José Lopes de Moura, allegedly the grandson of a Mane ruler and the dominant figure in the region of Sierra Leone in the eighteenth century. Afterwards, no permanent European trading post was established. When the cities of Futa Jallon, where the river Sierra Leone rises, were violently converted to Islam, several of the coastal peoples adapted, and Muslim traders established themselves in most of the ports. Anyone who owed them anything and did not pay was seized and sold as a slave. Thus, in 1751, partly as a result, Captain Nye reported to the RAC that there was a “prodigious trade” in slaves in the locality, especially at George Island.
To the south lay the river Sherbro, whose banks were swampy and thus hard to travel up; it was scarcely surprising that there should have been many small monarchies, Sherbro (or Bulom) people near the coast, Mende inland. On the river Sherbro, the English began to establish themselves as early as the 1620s, though Wood and Company, the first to be interested, were concerned not with slaves, but with the export of hard red camwood for making cabinets. In the eighteenth century, there were already many half-African, half-English families; and, by 1700, slaves were extensively traded at the mouth of the river, just short of Cabo Monte. The earliest English settlers had built a small fort, a stone house inside an earthwork, but that was in ruins by 1726. They were then being helped by useful mulatto intermediaries, the Caulker family, descendants of Thomas Corker of Falmouth, the RAC’s last factor on the coast, who had married a lady from the locally famous Ya Kumba family, Senhora Doll, the “duchess of Sherbro” to the slave captains whom she entertained. She and her descendants established a small standing army of free blacks with whom they exercised control over a large tract of land on the riverside; they held slaves for long periods in camps until they could make an effective sale. Here, too, was that “Black Liverpool” (the second place so named—the other being to the north, near the river Pongas), where John Newton once refused to buy a woman slave because she was “long breasted.” In the mid-eighteenth century, Nics (Nicholas) Owen, from Ireland, set himself up on the banks of the Sherbro River as an intermediary, trading slaves from a large boat in an attempt to revive his family’s ruined fortunes. Later, Henry Tucker, another formidable mulatto entrepreneur, a descendant of a John Tucker who worked for the Gambia Adventurers in the 1600s, with his seven wives, his retainers, his silver, his riches, and his plantation, on which he grew food to sell to slave captains, dominated the region. Later still, on one of the Plantain Islands, at the mouth of the Sherbro River, the villainous Mrs. Clow, “P.I.,” the African wife of an Englishman, severely ill-treated John Newton while her husband was away buying slaves.
The British government in 1785 thought of relieving their country’s overcrowded prisons by sending convicts to Sierra Leone. The prisoners were saved from this fate by Edmund Burke, who spoke violently against sending the men concerned to what he assumed would be certain death in West Africa. The supposedly more salubrious site of Botany Bay in Australia was accordingly selected as an alternative.
The river south of Sierra Leone was the Gallinas, which was not much used for trading slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but by the 1780s was already the center of operations of several famous Portuguese traders. There were several towns established on the banks of the river, and the only commerce seems to have been trading slaves, held in barracoons, in each of which some five or six hundred slaves could be assembled, till their sale to the Europeans.
Farther south again, at Cabo Monte (Cape Mount), a Dutch fort had been built in the early seventeenth century in order to protect some experimental sugar plantations established there. But the local Africans destroyed this settlement, and neither from there nor from the next-door Junko were there slaves to speak of; ships stopped there only for indispensable supplies. The trade could, however, be taken up again between Junko and Sestre (Cestos), the center there being the tiny port of Sanguin. Sestre was a very old slave market: the Portuguese in the 1480s had bought slaves there for two shaving bowls a head, a price which by 1500 had increased to five.
This zone, as far as Cape Palmas, was known as the Pepper or, occasionally, the Grain Coast, so named since peppercorn, or paradise grain, malaguetta, was grown there. That product had been much sought after in the fifteenth century but, by 1780 interest in it had long since evaporated. A few slaves could usually be obtained in this stretch of land, chiefly by kidnapping, for the peoples there were reluctant to trade, and attacked Europeans. The population in these densely forested coasts was anyway small. Another impediment to trading, of every nature, was an absence of harbors. The coast was surf-bound, and a strong easterly current made it hard to land. All this territory was still a favorite place for French pepper traders in the sixteenth century, before they began to trade slaves.
The next important line of shore was the so-called Ivory Coast, between Cape Palmas and Cape Three Points. It received the name, which it retains in the twentieth century, because of the quantity of elephants’ tusks obtainable there in the sixteenth. Cape Palmas, where the coast of Africa turns eastwards till it reaches the Bight of Biafra, was the territory of the Kroomen, known to be good linguists and expert sailors. European captains often hired them for boat work or as interpreters. There were several lagoons near the town known to the French as Cap Lahou (earlier, Cap de la Hou and, after 1787, Grand Lahou, to distinguish it from Half Lahou and Petit Lahou) which were a promising source of slaves during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The trade in ivory was considered more important, for it was held to be “the best in the world.”
The local people, the Avikam, sold numerous slaves, ranging from individuals who were already slaves inside Avikam society, to others who came from a long distance away in the hinterland, whom they themselves had bought with salt or European goods. The Avikam obtained, by theft or purchase, as many female slaves as they could, in order to boost births, so as in turn to be able to sell the children. This was the only zone in Africa where such a policy was coherently pursued. The region of the Ivory Coast produced about 3,500 slaves a year in the 1770s, the largest embarkments being from Drouin, Saint-André, and Cavailly.
The Dutch fort at Axim was about thirty miles short of Cape Three Points. Here the Dutch maintained cotton plantations—and they also did so at Shama, a little farther on. For a time they even had sugar plantations, at Butre, from whose product, briefly, they made rum.
The Gold Coast, the modern Ghana, lay between Cape Three Points and the river Volta. The coast, which ran gently east-northeast in its general direction, was, as far as the modern city of Accra, hilly, with rocky knolls near the shore. Farther inland, there were higher mountains, which could often be seen from out at sea. In the eighteenth century, there were along the Gold Coast a hundred European trading posts and fortresses, of different sizes and pretensions, the most important being those of the Dutch. This was perhaps because there was in this zone an almost complete absence of dense forest, which only began again to the east of the Volta, near Allada. Throughout most of the era of the slave trade there were about a dozen small kingdoms here, with the capitals a little way inland. These monarchies remained masters of the territory into which the Europeans did not dare to penetrate far. The kings, however, had made arrangements so that, by the late eighteenth century, much of the coast had been divided among the English, the Dutch, and the Danes. The Portuguese had by then lost all their interests here, and the French never succeeded in establishing themselves, though they tried to, in the west, at Assini. The slaves exported were the product of the many small wars between the coastal states, probably as a rule not the consequence of conflicts undertaken specially to obtain them.
This remarkable line of European forts had mostly been built of mud and brick, the latter material brought out as ship’s ballast in great quantities. Only the Portuguese brought out stone—for Elmina, in 1481. Most of these forts were obtained from the African local rulers on perpetual leases, in payment of an annual rent, even though some were bought by, or given to, the Europeans; and, in a few instances, the Europeans had merely imposed themselves. The reluctance of the African ruler Caramança, near what became Elmina, to make a contract with the king of Portugal is well-known; others probably shared his views, even if those were not recalled by a great Portuguese chronicler such as Barros.III The companies concerned would seek a monopoly of the local commerce and, in return, guarantee to defend the African town against attack. The arrangements often irritated the Africans, but they accepted them as the price of being able to trade and receive the European goods which they coveted. Occasionally, as in the case of a threatened attack by an internal empire, such as the Ashanti, that guarantee counted for something. The Europeans’ possession of these places did not mean that they were the masters of the country. Africans controlled the communications of the garrisons with the surrounding country, and they alone knew the roads through the tropical forests to the northern markets, which the Europeans never risked because of the threat of sleeping sickness, which was so easily contracted in the jungle.
In these forts, a melancholy if brutal social life, characterized by excessive alcohol, bell-ringing for periods of commerce and of guard, ignorance of local conditions, slave labor, and the fear of death, was carried on. Palm oil and palm wine soothed many anxieties, as did rum, brandy, and gin. Of course, there were happy times: thus, when the first Dutch governor of Elmina went home in 1645, he gave a party to say good-bye in the garden of the castle, and invited the prominent local Africans, as well as some ships’ captains and his own staff. They “were entertained with ten casks and some bottles of wine, a cask of brandy and three cows . . . and, by the evening, were merry and each went off to his house in great satisfaction.” There were also prostitutes: every village from the Ivory Coast to Allada had “three or four whores,” noted the Dutch geographer Olfert Dapper.6
Till the late seventeenth century, few slaves were shipped from the Gold Coast, for the European traders there were concerned with gold and ivory. The slave trade of Elmina continued to indicate an import of captives, not an export, till 1700. Between about 1480 and 1550, over thirty thousand slaves were imported in Portuguese ships, chiefly coming from São Tomé or from one of the five “slave rivers” of the Bight of Benin. Some of these were put to work in the rivers of the forests behind Elmina, to look for gold, and others were treated by their African masters as just another item of merchandise, and sold to the ever-hungry northern slave markets. Some such slaves may even have reached the Mediterranean, having begun their slave life in São Tomé under the auspices of Portugal.
But by 1700, that particular African slave trade was in decline. By 1740, slaves on the Gold Coast intended for the Americas had replaced both gold and ivory as the most important item of export.
The biggest fort here was still Elmina, which the Dutch had, of course, captured from the Portuguese in 1637. It was the African headquarters of the Dutch West India Company, and there lived the company’s African director, surrounded by a staff of about four hundred civil servants, soldiers, sailors, and craftsmen, mostly eating salted food, suffering from malaria or the “penitential worm,” and served by about three hundred “castle slaves.” The region of Elmina, unlike the upper Guinea coast, had in Portuguese days been relatively free of those lançados, the half-caste intermediaries who penetrated the interior: “The Mina negresses pregnant by white men,” the best historian of Portuguese race relations wrote, “seem to have indulged in abortion or infanticide; and mulattoes were much less numerous than in Upper Guinea.”7 Yet there was by 1700 a town at Elmina of about a thousand Africans, living in the shadow of the castle.
The original designs for the castle, by Diogo da Azambuja in the fifteenth century, had long ago been modified by Portuguese, as well as Dutch, accretions. Yet Elmina was, according to Jean Barbot, “justly famous for beauty and strength, having no equal in all the coasts of Guinea. It is built square, with very high walls of a dark brown stone, so very firm that it may be said to be cannon-proof.”8 In the late seventeenth century, a hundred white soldiers, many of them Germans, served there, alongside a hundred black ones. The great cistern beneath the castle, which Azambuja had built, still supplied water to all trading captains who needed it. Elmina was, however, no longer such a great entrepôt as it had been in the sixteenth century, when so many merchants had used to gather there in order to buy the new things which the Portuguese had brought in their fine ships: including slaves from the island of São Tomé. Neither the Portuguese nor the Dutch had been able to employ the castle, overpowering though it was, as a means of dominating the neighborhood: the power of the governor scarcely extended beyond the city. From the 1660s onwards, as has been mentioned, Brazilian captains, who carried the much-sought-after molasses-dipped tobacco direct from Bahia to their own favored coast of Dahomey and Whydah, were required by the treaty to leave 10 percent of their cargo, including slaves, with the Dutch at Elmina.
In the hinterland behind Elmina lay the kingdom of Ashanti, which had come into being at the end of the seventeenth century, created around a marketplace, Kumasi, 120 miles inland, ideally placed between the north-going inland trade routes and the coast. The Ashanti, like the Fanti on the coast, were descended from a people named the Akan. For a long time, the Dutch had treated with, and assisted, the Ashanti’s previous suzerains, the Denkyera. Then, about 1701, they saw that the military advantage now lay with the Ashanti who, in their capital of Kumasi, had adapted themselves to the use of guns; and the Dutch began to court them, sending an emissary to their monarch, the Asantehene, that same year. A Dutch representative remained in Ashanti for most of the eighteenth century; and an equivalent Ashanti stationed himself at Elmina, being the broker for all local trade, for which he received a regular income.
In the eighteenth century, the Ashanti kings were providing a substantial proportion of the European slave exports from Elmina, certainly over a thousand slaves a year in the 1770s. The Dutch at Elmina were still the closest European friends of the Asantehene, and one of the latter even sent fourteen of his children to the Netherlands to be educated. The Ashanti, as well as the Dutch, were keen to keep the roads open through the jungle from their capital to Elmina and Axim (the second-most-important Dutch fort) on the coast, because there were many gold-bearing reefs on the way; and the “great road” to Elmina was the most important line of land communication in West Africa. Along that road there also traveled slaves and slave traders, as well as the Ashanti collector of thekostgeld, which the Dutch had agreed to pay to one or another local potentate from as early as 1642, and to the Asantehene after 1744.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the most effective traders in these territories were the tapoeijers, or Afro-Dutch mulattoes. Officials had been allowed by the Dutch West India Company to trade on their own account from the mid-century, and gradually came to use tapoeijers to find slaves for them. After 1792, tapoeijers would be allowed to trade on their own account, and two of them, Jacob Ruhle and Jan Niezer, were, in a short time, the richest and most powerful men on the coast, the latter becoming the recognized agent of the Ashanti in Elmina. (Niezer’s father was Johann Michael Niezer, of Würzburg, who came out to the Gold Coast as a surgeon to the Dutch West India Company. The boy Niezer worked with a well-known merchant of Vlissingen, Looyssen, who exchanged manufactures with him in return for slaves, and subsequently started himself selling Africans to the Americas: his first ship took a cargo of 125 to Demerara in 1793.) Jan Niezer and his wife, Aba, a Ga, lived in a grand house which he named Harmonie.
The biggest English fort was that at Cabo Corso (“short cape,” corrupted as Cape Coast), founded by the Swedes under Henrick Carloff in 1655. This was the best landing place on the whole coast, for nowhere else could ships reach so close to land. After changing hands often, belonging for short periods to both the Dutch and the Danes, it was finally captured in 1664 by the English, who enlarged it. The new fortification consisted of outworks, platforms, and bastions; with apartments for the governor-in-chief, the director-general, the factors, clerks, and mechanics, as well as the soldiers. There were magazines, warehouses, storehouses, granaries, guard rooms, and two large water tanks, or cisterns, built of English brick and local mortar. “Slaveholds” were established to confine a thousand to fifteen hundred captives: “The keeping of the slaves thus underground is a good security against any insurrection,” Jean Barbot wrote.9 There were also vaults for rum, not to speak of workshops for smiths, armorers, and carpenters. The fort was guarded by seventy-six cannon in the late eighteenth century and there was, in the armory, a substantial quantity of small arms, soldiers’ coats, blunderbusses, buccaneer guns, pistols, cartridge cases, swords, and cutlasses. The castle had gardens capable of producing plantains, bananas, pineapples, potatoes, yams, maize, cauliflowers, and cabbages, and it also had ponds of fresh water. There were attractive walks, planted with orange trees, limes, and coconut palms. There was, of course, a chapel.
Yet the English seemed for many years the poor relations among the Europeans: they had too few men, their forts were shabby, and they had too few goods. The government’s subsidy, paid to the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa after 1750 to maintain the English forts, was also too small. European visitors to Elmina could not fail to notice the grandeur in which the Dutch governor lived, in comparison with life in the English headquarters.
The RAC employed a chief factor, of whom the most intelligent was Sir Dalby Thomas, who had wished to establish a real colony at Cape Coast; and the most interesting was the engaging Nicholas Buckeridge, who became the lover of the corpulent queen of nearby Winneba. After 1750, the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa named Cape Coast’s commander the “governor” and a succession of experienced men followed one another in control: Thomas Melvill being the first, David Mill the richest, and Richard Miles the strongest. At the end of the century, the governor was the curiously named General Morgue, whose correspondence about the slave trade with the Graftons of Salem fills many pages in the letterbooks of that firm.
The English also built a large new fort in the 1750s at Anamabo, twenty miles to the east of Cape Coast. Here—uniquely, as it happens—was a specifically designed cellar prison for slaves waiting to be carried overseas, which, for all its gloomy atmosphere, did have the merit of maintaining a constant temperature.
The main Danish fort in the late eighteenth century was Christiansborg, in Accra, with a garrison of about thirty-five officers, some of them Germans. The Danes had bought the site in 1661 from the paramount local king for the equivalent in goods of a hundred ounces of gold; and nine subordinate trading posts to the east depended on it. The architect was Christian Cornelissøn, who designed as fine a castle there as was to be seen in all European Africa. But “there was a most vile harbour” for landing, and ships had to anchor a long way offshore to the east. Even there, the anchor had every day to be raised because the bottom of the sea was strewn with sharp rocks. For a time in the late seventeenth century, this fortress had been in Portuguese hands but, in the next generation, the place was firmly Danish. Accra had the name in that era of being one of the best places to slave, for the small local wars were continuous, so that many prisoners were available.
The governors of all these European forts, English as well as Dutch, Danish as well as Brandenburger, traded slaves privately (and illegally): “Governor Melvill to his death,” it was reported, “and the other officers of the committee, during his command, carried on the Negroe trade, and sent them from Africa to America for their own accounts, without the least reserve or restraint; also . . . Governor Senior, and the officers under him, did the same.”10 Richard Brew, an Irishman, became governor of the English fort at Anamabo in 1761, when he already had a slave ship at sea, the Brew, fitted out in Liverpool: he would eventually set up as a private trader in a spacious house near Accra which he named Brew Hall (“Castle Brew”), and provided it with mahogany panels, chandeliers, and an organ. His friendship, based on a deep appreciation of the merits of Newport rum, was so close with the Vernons of that city that they envisaged taking over Anamabo as a North American trading station. Richard Miles, when governor of another fort, at Tantumquerry, was in close touch with the French dealers. In six years, he bought and dispatched to the French colonies at least three thousand slaves. He later became governor of Cape Coast, where he had seven children by his “wench” but, in the 1790s, leaving those descendants on the Coast of Africa, he established himself as one of the most important slave merchants of the city of London.
These forts depended on supplies from home for even simple needs: recall, for example, agent Bradley’s request in 1679 from Cape Coast for “Timber Baulks, Planks, Deales, Sparrs, all sorts of nayles, locks, Crow[bar]s, Shovells, Pitch, Tarr, and Plaister of Parris, Rigging for shippes . . . sheathing board, Twine, some small anchors, Pick Axes, and workmen, [such as] bricklayers, smiths, armourers, carpenters, and chirurgeons to be sent to other places and a mate for this; Borax for soldering . . . 30 or 40 sheets of good lead . . . two pairs of bellows for the smith and hides to mend them, four dozen of good sheepskins for sponges, and staves for ditto, four or five dozen of sayle needles, 1,000 of ten inch tiles . . . quills’ ink, penknives, two quire paper books, and other and good writing papers, wax and wafers [as well as] parchment skins for drums heads. . . .”11
One of the difficulties for captains when trading in these territories for slaves and other cargoes during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was that they did not always know whether their home countries were at war with one another. But even when they were not, the French and the English were always quarreling: thus, in 1737, the French Captain Cordier on the Vénus, of Bordeaux, began to trade at Anamabo, and stayed there twenty-one days, despite the bitter opposition of twelve English captains present. Then two coast-guard ships of the English arrived, and the English commander took “his launch to board the Vénus to oblige it to leave, saying that that port was not for them, that his countrymen had paid large fees to the King of Anamabo to trade there, and that the French had paid no such taxes. . . . Captain Cordier was forced to raise anchor and leave the harbour. . . .”12
Given the European investment of men and money on the Gold Coast in the eighteenth century, it is surprising that there should not have been more serious efforts to try and encourage the development of agriculture. If plantations could only have been organized to grow sugar, coffee, rice, and cotton, it might have been possible to concentrate slaves to work there, rather than carry them across the ocean by such extraordinary efforts. Thus Sir Dalby Thomas made the imaginative suggestion that cotton, pepper, and mineral plantations might be founded, in 1705; his Dutch colleague Willem de la Palma went further and sent to Surinam for “twelve experienced blacks to teach the slaves here the method of the cultivation of sugar cane.”13 But these puny efforts were unsuccessful: no sooner did the slaves set to work than they escaped. Barbed wire, that fine invention of the mid-nineteenth century, which would have prevented such flights, had not yet been devised.
ISee page 223.
IIFor Tomba’s future history, see pages 394 and 425.
IIIAccording to Barros, Caramansa asked the Portuguese to leave and simply to go on trading as they had always done, for “friends who meet occasionally remain better friends than if they are neighbours—on account of the nature of the human heart.”