Modern history


The Blackest Sort with Short Curled Hair

“[Slaves] of the blackest sort with short curled hair and none of the tawny sort with straight hair.”

Instruction to English captains trading with Madagascar as to what the Spanish buyers wanted

THE PATTERN of European trading in Africa was early set by the Portuguese, before the end of the fifteenth century. Captains sailing down the coast of West Africa would expect to stop at numerous ports, where they would go ashore with their interpreter (perhaps brought from Lisbon or the Cape Verde Islands) and, observed by a notary, bargain with the local ruler for the slaves whom he would be offering. From early on, the Portuguese would often have the benefit of being able to use the services of thelançados (ortangos-mãos), expatriates who would often gather slaves together before the ships arrived. This was done on a regular basis at Arguin and in São Tomé and, afterwards, on a far larger scale, in Angola.

Still, there were many variations to this classic pattern of negotiations. West Africa was not a single nation, and the idea of it even as a continent seems inadequate.

Also from early on, different Europeans had set up their regular establishments in Africa. The Dutch, the English, and then the French had their trading places, especially in the region of the rivers Sénégal and Gambia and on the Gold Coast. Those forward-looking peoples were, as we have seen, followed by the Danes, the Swedes, and the Brandenburgers. Yet the purchase of many slaves, perhaps most, continued to be negotiated between a captain on a ship and an African trader in an estuary.

Most of the slaves bought by Europeans over the centuries were sold by kings, nobles, or their agents; but there were always small traders, selling slaves in twos or threes. The negotiation would often be conducted on the monarch’s behalf by a special official—for example, the mafouk, as he was known in Loango. Many African kings required a tax of, say, 120 iron bars before giving permission for the ship to start slaving. In the 1730s, the king of Barra, “a truculent monarch of the Mandingo people,” demanded a salute from all who entered and left his river; the same was required by the maloango in Loango. The king of Allada would insist that the first slaves bought were slaves he himself owned; thereafter his colleagues would expect to have priority. The ceremony of entering negotiations for purchase was always, and everywhere, complex, even if the captain of the slave ship had been to the same place before, and had previously experienced, say, the dropping of a little salt water into his eye, or the taking of it into his mouth and spitting it out—which gesture had, in Sierra Leone, to be answered in the same way, or else no trade would follow. In Angola the style of purchase was different from that in “Guinea.” In the former, the mafouk and some “courtiers” would usually come on board the slaver to arrange matters, drink a little eau de vie, receive a present—a dache,I in the form of a cloak, some silk, a barrel of eau de vie, or perhaps some handkerchiefs and sheets. James Barbot, buying 648 slaves in the river Calabar in 1699 as part-owner and supercargo of the Sun of Africa, recalled giving the king a hat, a firelock, and nine strings of beads. To other courtiers he gave hats, fishhooks, and textiles.

There were many other variations in the details of the traffic. Thus, in the early days of the trade in Loango, business was conducted in two stages. First, the Portuguese would exchange their goods, their cloths or their brandy, their trinkets or their beads, for palm cloth—sometimes the best “painted cloths,” either dyed or with colored strands woven into it, sometimes second-quality songa, or even cheap cloth, obtained from the peoples of the forested north of the Congo. The exchanges would be effected bypombeiros.These cloths, used as clothing as well as currency, would then be exchanged for slaves.

Each of the European peoples had their eccentricities, too: Willem Bosman reported, of his fellow countrymen the Dutch, that some of their traders seemed “utterly ignorant of the manners of the people [and] don’t know how to treat them with that decency which they require.” Yet he also wrote: “The first business of one of our factors [of the Dutch East India Company] when he comes to Fida [Whydah] is to satisfy the customs of the King and the great men, which amounts to about 100 pounds in Guinea value. . . . After which, we have free license to trade, which is published throughout the land by the crier. But yet before we can deal with any person, we are obliged to buy the King’s whole stock of slaves at a set price . . . commonly one third, or one fourth higher than ordinary. After which, we have free license to deal with all his subjects of what rank soever.”1

Thomas Phillips, commander of the Hannibal, of London, described how, having traded all along the Gold Coast, he was eventually received in 1693 at Whydah: “As soon as the King understood of our landing, he sent two of his . . . noblemen to compliment us at our factory where we designed to continue that night and pay our devoirs to His Majesty next day . . . whereupon, he sent two more of his grandees to invite us there that night, saying that he waited for us and that all former captains used to attend him the first night . . . whereupon we took our hammocks, and Mr Pierson [the factor], myself, Captain Clay [commander of the vessel East-India Merchant], our surgeons, pursers, and about twelve men, armed, for our guard, were carried to the King’s town which contains about fifty houses. . . .”2

Phillips assured the king of Whydah that the Royal Africa Company of England had much respect for him, for his civility, and his fair and just dealings with their captains; and that, notwithstanding there were many other places that begged their custom, they had rejected all of them out of good will to him, and therefore sent him and Captain Clay to trade with him and to supply his country with what he needed. The king replied “that the African Company was [obviously] a very good brave man, that he loved him, that we should be fairly dealt with and not imposed on. . . . After examining us about our cargo, what sort of goods we had, and what quantity of slaves we wanted etc., we took our leaves and return’d to the factory, having promised to come in the morning to make our palavera [agreement] . . . about prices.”

They attended the king with samples of their goods, and made their agreement about prices, though with much difficulty, for the king demanded very high ones. At that point, they had warehouses, a kitchen, and lodgings assigned to them, but none of their rooms had doors till they made them themselves, and put on locks and keys: “Then the bellII was ordered to go about to give notice to all people to bring their slaves to the trunk.”III

Captains Clay and Phillips agreed to go to the trunk in turns to buy the slaves in order to avoid the quarrels between Europeans which were usually used by the Africans to raise their prices. “When we were at the trunk, the King’s slaves . . . were the first offered to sale . . . though they were generally the worst slaves . . . and we paid more for them than any others, which we could not remedy, it being one of His Majesty’s prerogatives.” For every slave the “nobles” sold them, publicly, they were obliged to pay part of the goods they received for him or her to the king, “as toll or custom, especially the bouges [cowries], of which he would take a small dishful out of each measure; to avoid that, they would privately send for us to [go to] their houses at night and dispose of two or three slaves at a time and we, as privately, would send them the goods agreed . . . for them; but this they did not much practice for fear of offending the King should he come to know of it. . . . Sometimes after he had sold one of his wives or subjects he would relent, and desire us to exchange for another. . . .”3

A little later, Captain William Snelgrave wrote of arriving in Abomey, the capital of Dahomey, in 1727: “On our coming into the court . . . we were desired to stay a little till the presents were carried into the house that His Majesty [that is, Agaja] might view them. Soon after, we were introduced into a small court, at the further end of which the King was sitting crosslegged on a carpet of silk spread on the ground. He was richly dress’d and had but a few attendants. When we reached him, His Majesty enquired, in a very kind manner, how we did; ordering that we should be placed near him; and, accordingly, fine mats were spread on the ground for us to sit on. The sitting in that posture was not very easy to us, yet we put a good face on the matter, understanding by the linguist [the interpreter] that it was their custom.

“As soon as we were placed,” Snelgrave went on, “the King ordered the interpreter to ask me what I had to desire of him. To which I answered that, as my business was to trade, so I relied on His Majesty’s goodness, to give me a good dispatch and fill my ship with Negroes.”

A certain Zunglar, who had been the king’s agent at Whydah, on the coast, before his conquest of that port, then said that “His Majesty, being resolved to encourage Trade, though he was a conqueror . . . would not impose a greater Custom [duty] than used to be paid to the King of Whydah.” Snelgrave answered that “as His Majesty was a far greater Prince, so I hoped he would not take so much. . . .” The King replied that “as I was the first English captain [whom] he had seen, he would treat me as a young Wife or Bride who must be denied nothing at first.” (Subsequently, Agaja caused much trouble to English traders, killing Testesole, the new governor of the English fort at Whydah, for helping the enemies of the Dahomeyans.)4

Sometimes, courtiers in these monarchies knew foreign languages; one or two of them had been to France or England. (A certain Cupidon was found by the captain of the Dirigente in 1750 to have spent some years at Saint-Malo.)

In addition, many were artful negotiators: a Dutch West India Company director writing to Holland said, “One has to be fair to the negroes and say that, as merchants in whatever branch, they are very cunning; one generally notices how one merchant tries to do as much damage to the other as possible.” The Africans knew more of the Europeans than the Europeans knew of them; thus Thomas Phillips, of the Hannibal, reported that his opposite numbers “know our Troy weights as well as ourselves”; and, “the Blacks of the Gold Coast,” wrote Jean Barbot, “having traded with the Europeans since the fourteenth century [sic] are very well skilled in the nature of all European wares and merchandise vended there. . . . They examine everything with as much prudence and ability as any European can do.”5

Ships in the eighteenth century would frequently stop at numerous places on the West African coast. A somewhat extreme example of this was the voyage in 1738 of the French vessel the Affriquain of Nantes, of 140 tons, belonging to Charles Trochon. She reached the Banana Islands, off the river Sierra Leone, on November 21 of that year, and obtained twenty-one men and two women. Soon after, the slaves revolted, the captain, Nicolas Fouré, was killed, along with one sailor, and many other members of the ship’s company were wounded. A new captain, Pierre Bourau, took over, nine slaves were killed, and two were so badly wounded that they died soon after. Bourau then made a phenomenal number of stops, almost as if he were conducting a river bus. Thus, on December 11, the Affriquain was at Cape Saint Ann, and reached the river Gallinas on December 14. She stayed at Cabo Monte (Cape Mount) from December 16 to 21, sailed to “the little cape” there the 21st and, on the 24th, went to Petites Mesurades (Mesurado), in what is today Liberia. On the 26th, the Affriquain moved on to Grand Saint Paul, the 29th to the Grandes Mesurades, where she remained till January 6, 1739. Then she set off for the rivers Petite Jonque, Grande Jonque, and Petit Bassam, and was at the river Grand Bassam by the 8th. On the 9th, she reached Grand Cories and, on the 10th, the river Sestre; here she remained till the 16th, when she moved on to Petit Sestre. On January 17, the Affriquain moved to Sanguin; on the 18th, to Bafo, to Tasse, and to Sinaux. On the 21st, she had reached Sestre-Crous; on the 23rd, Crous-Sestre. On the 26th, the ship was at Grand Sestre and, on the 29th, at Cape Palmas, where the coast of Africa turns east, at the beginning of the Ivory Coast. She then spent some days off the estuary of the river Canaille. On February 4, the Affriquain was at Tabo, the next day at Drouin, and then Saint-André. On February 8, she was at Cap Lahou; on the 10th, she continued to Jacques-Lahou, Petit Bassam and Grand Bassam (the site of the modern Abidjan, capital of the Côte d’Ivoire). On February 11, the vessel went to Issiny (Assini), where the French had once tried unsuccessfully to establish a trading post; on the 13th, to Cap d’Apollonis, the beginning of the Gold Coast. On the 14th, she was at Pamplune; on the 25th, at Axim, the first Dutch fort; on the 16th, at Dixcove (“Dick’s Cove”), the first English fort; on the 19th, at Fort Botro; and on the 20th, at Takoradi, the modern port of the Gold Coast. On the 22nd, she went to Shama and, on March 1, she was at the Dutch headquarters at Elmina, where she stayed six days before moving on to Cape Coast, the British command post. On the 7th, she lay outside Anamabo. By that time, Captain Bourau had bought 340 Africans, and lost one member of his crew by desertion. The Affriquain then sailed for Saint-Domingue, touching at the island of O Principe on the way.6

After the middle of the eighteenth century, such journeys became unusual; European purchases of slaves were more often made in little boats detached from the main slave ship, capable of going up the rivers, where they would set up a stall and a depot for slaves. “When the adventurer arrives upon the coast with a suitable cargo,” John Matthews of the British navy said in 1787, “he despatches his [small] boats, properly equipped, to the different rivers. On their arrival at the place of trade, they immediately apply to the head man in the town, inform him of their business, and request his protection; desiring that he will either be himself their landlord, or appoint a suitable person, who becomes security for the person and goods of the stranger, and also for the recovery of all money lent, provided it is done with his knowledge and approbation.

“This business finished, and proper presents made (for nothing is done without), [the captains] proceed to trade either by lending their goods to the natives who carry them up into the country, or by waiting till trade is brought to them. The former is the most expeditious way, when they fall into good hands; but the latter is always the safest.”7

Quite often, too, by the 1770s, a slave ship would take all its slaves from the same source. The time spent on the coast shortened, and hence there were fewer deaths among the crews. The Dutch in the early eighteenth century might require 228 days for trading, the French 154 days. But, by the 1790s, English slavers would average only 114 days. On the other hand, the Portuguese liked to collect the slaves whom they obtained on islands in rivers—from barracoons, such as those at Luanda and Benguela, or from entrepôts such as São Tomé, where they might be employed in agriculture before being shipped to Brazil. Sometimes, as with the English in Gambia and certain French companies, such as Michel et Grou, or Rollet du Challet, in Sénégal, or Walsh, off Loango, ships were kept as floating depots, and maintained as prisons until the merchants came. This enabled the quick departure of slavers. For most vessels at this time, two to four months’ trading was rapid and happy, four to six normal; over six implied a difficult voyage.

The first three months of the year, January through March, were the calmest for sailing down the West African coast, or crossing the Atlantic; the last three, October through December, were the worst, because of the fierce heat and the thick fogs, which were so frequent “that it is not possible to see from one end of the ship to the other.” Most slavers tried to visit the coast of Africa in the dry, moderately healthy season—say, March to June—so as to have slaves ready for the sugar harvests which, in the Caribbean, usually began in December. There were other considerations: yams, the inland Africans’ customary subsistence, were not fit to be taken from the ground before July. Different times of the year suited different zones—and different slavers. The best months in the river Calabar seemed to be May and June, because of continual rains, which the traders found more acceptable than fog. But some people—including Captain Phillips of the Hannibal, in 1694—thought that the summer was considered “the most malignant season by the blacks themselves who, while the rain lasts, will hardly be prevailed upon to stir out of their huts. . . .”8

The prisons or barracoons, the “trunks,” in which slaves were kept waiting for purchase, varied between the harsh and the atrocious. For example, in the English headquarters at Cape Coast, “in the area of this quadrangle . . . are large Vaults, with an iron grate at the surface to let in light and air upon these poor wretches, the slaves, who are chained and confined there till a demand comes. . . .” John Atkins, the surgeon of 1721, recalled how, at Bence Island, Sierra Leone, “slaves are placed in lodges near the owner’s house for air, cleanliness and Customers better viewing them. I had every day the curiosity of observing their behaviour which, with most of them, was very dejected. Once, on looking over some of old Cracker’s [Caulker’s] slaves, I could not help taking notice of one fellow among the rest, of a tall, strong make, and bold, stern aspect. As he imagined, we were viewing them with a design to buy, he seemed to disdain his fellow slaves for their readiness to be examined and, as it were, scorned looking at us, refusing to rise or stretch out his limbs, as the master commanded; which got him an unmerciful whipping from Cracker’s own hand, with a cutting manatea strip [a whip made from the hide of a manatee], and had certainly killed him but for the loss he himself must sustain by it; all of which the negro bore with magnanimity, shrinking very little, and shedding a tear or two, which he endeavoured to hide as tho’ ashamed. All the Company grew curious at his courage and wanted to know of Cracker how he came by him; who told us that this same fellow, called Captain Tomba, was a leader in some country villages that opposed them and their trade, at the River Núñez; killing our friends there, and firing their cottages. The sufferers this way, by the help of my men, says Cracker, surprised and bound him in the night about a month ago, he having killed two in his defence before they could secure him; and from thence he was brought thither and made my property.”9

Both sides would try and cheat each other. The Africans would often mix brass into the gold dust when selling metal. Ill slaves might be painted, and great trouble was taken to conceal infirmities of any kind in the captive. The Europeans, for their part, often watered the brandy, the wine, even the rum: King Tegbesu of Dahomey used to keep beside him a pot of watered brandy which he had been constrained to buy from Europeans and would offer it to any European trader who complained that his subjects robbed; he would say that, if watering were discontinued, theft would vanish from Dahomey. Gunpowder was also often fraudulently weighed by such simple techniques as adding a false head to the keg; linen and cotton cloths were often opened and two or three yards, according to the length of the piece, cut off from out of the middle, where the fraud might not be noticed until the cloth was unfolded; a piece of wood might be placed inside to make up the weight.

There were often disputes. For example, in March 1719, the RAC’s agent, William Brainie, in charge of Fort Commenda, on the Gold Coast, described how an African trader with whom he had often dealt, John Cabess, came in “bawling and saying that [the traders who had arrived in the castle] . . . were fools, and he . . . did not deign to trade, for, having seen two slaves and asked the price of them, they had told him six ounces [an ounce of gold was worth about four pounds sterling] each and that he had offered them four ounces, and told them it was the highest price we could give for which he believed he could get them or a little more. I answered John to all this that I did not take it well in him that he should offer to bargain for anything . . . without my knowledge, yet, however, seeing he had offer’d four ounces for the slaves (tho’ it was the utmost farthing the company allowed for the very best), I, to save his credit among the tradesmen, would give so much, provided the slaves were good, whereupon they were sent for but, when they came, [I] found two old fellows not worth £4 each, which made me very angry with John, and gave me suspicion that he designed to put the other money into his own pocket, for which I checked him and told the traders [that] the slaves were not worth buying. However I bid them privately return to me after John was gone, having something to talk to them of. They accordingly did [so] and then, upon enquiry, I found they had agreed with John Cabess for ten pees [pieces] each slave, whereby he designed to put Six pees in his own pocket. . . .” Similar arguments continued for centuries.10

On all European voyages, the ship’s surgeon usually played an essential part in the selection of the slaves. Indeed, his was the decisive voice in advising captains whether or not to buy. Much the same procedure was followed, whatever the nationality of the purchaser. As in most matters affecting the slave trade, the pioneers in this examination, the so-called palmeo, were the Portuguese. This included a measurement of the slaves to see if they reached the ideal of, say, seven palms high (about five feet, seven inches). If they did, and were the right age and were also in good health, they could be considered “a piece of Indies” in themselves, and not a fraction of that. John Atkins in 1721 commented, as did many others, that the slaves were “examined by us in like manner as our brother traders do beasts in Smithfield.” Another English witness testified “how our surgeon examined them well in all kinds to see that they were sound in wind and limb, making them jump, stretch out their arms swiftly, looking in their mouths to judge of their age. . . . Our greatest care of all is to buy none that are pox’d, lest they should infect the rest. . . . Therefore our surgeon is forc’d to examine the privities of both men and women with the nicest scrutiny, which is a great slavery [sic]. . . . When we had selected from the rest such as we liked, we agreed in what goods to pay for them. . . .” In the early nineteenth century, Captain Richard Willing employed a mulatto overseer “who could tell an unsound slave at a glance. He handled the naked blacks from head to foot, squeezing their joints and muscles, twisting their arms and legs, and examining teeth, eyes, and chest, and pinching breasts and groins without mercy. The slaves stood in couples, stark naked, and were made to jump, cry out, lie down, and roll, and hold their breath for a long time.”11 French captains behaved similarly. Their surgeons would examine the potential slave minutely. They, too, made use of the notional term pièce d’Inde for the perfect “nègre,” and he was paid for in full. Women slaves had to have their breasts “debout: Il faut choisir les nègres, surtout point de vieux peaux ridées, testicules pendants et . . . graissés, tondus et rasés. . . .” The lack of a tooth rendered a slave defective.12

The Portuguese also began the practice, in Arguin in the 1440s, of the carimbo, the branding of a slave with a hot iron, leaving a mark in red on the shoulder, the breast, or the upper arm, so that it was evident that he or she was the property of the king of Portugal, or some other master, and that a proper duty had been paid. This procedure survived from the Middle Ages—indeed, from antiquity: the Romans used to brand their slaves but, when Constantine the Great ruled that slaves condemned to work in mines or fight in the arena were to be marked on the hands or legs, not the face, many slaveowners substituted bronze collars for branding.

Each European nation during the slaving centuries had its special procedures. Thus slaves landed at São Tomé were branded with a cross on the right arm in the early sixteenth century; but, later, this design was changed to a “G,” the marca de Guiné. Slaves exported from Luanda were often branded not once but twice, for they had to receive the mark of the Luso-Brazilian merchants who owned them as well as the royal arms—on the right breast—to signify their relation to the Crown. Sometimes, baptism led to the further branding of a cross over the royal design. Slaves of the Royal African Company were marked, with a burning iron upon the right breast, “DY,” duke of York, after the chairman of the company. In the late eighteenth century, a “G” would indicate that the slave concerned had been marked by the Compañía Gaditana, the Cádiz company concerned to import slaves into Havana in the late 1760s. Captain Thomas Phillips, an interloper, described how “we mark’d the slaves [whom] we had bought on the breast or shoulder with a hot iron, having the ship’s name on it, the place being before anointed with a little palm oil, which caused but little pain, the mark being usually well in four or five days.”13 The South Sea Company later branded its slaves with the distinctive mark of the port in the Spanish empire to which they were being shipped—Cartagena, Caracas, Veracruz, and so on—this new brand being made of gold or silver: preferably the latter, because “it made a sharper scar.” That enterprise’s Court of Directors in London in 1725 specified that the slaves should be marked on the “left shoulder, heating the mark red hot and rubbing the part first with a little palm or other oil and taking off the mark pretty quick, and rubbing the place again with oil.”14 Willem Bosman reported of his Dutch colleagues and himself, “We take all possible care that they are not burned too hard, especially the women, who are more tender than the men.” A Dutch instruction of the late eighteenth century, to the Middelburgische Kamerse Compagnie, was more specific: it insisted that, “as you purchase slaves, you must mark them at the upper right arm with the silver mark CCN . . . the area of marking must first be rubbed with candle wax or oil; . . . the marker should only be as hot as when applied to paper the paper gets hot. . . .” The French had a similar technique: “After discussion, the captain inscribes on a slate the merchandise for exchange, a specific officer delivers, while the bought African waits in a prison before being attached to a ring and taken to the canoe which will carry him to the ship. The surgeon stamps the slave on the right shoulder with an iron which gives him the mark of the shippers and the ship—it will never come off (if the slave is of second rank, he is stamped on the right thigh).”15 In the eighteenth century, sometimes the initials of the shipper were marked, “une pipe sous le téton gauche.”

A German surgeon who traveled with the Brandenburg Company’s slave ship the Friedrich Wilhelm in 1693 gave one of the most vivid descriptions. He discussed carrying out his duties in Whydah: “As soon as a sufficient number of the unfortunate victims were assembled,” wrote Dr. Oettinger, who was from Swabia, “they were examined by me. The healthy and strong ones were bought, while the magrones [the word was from the Portuguese magro, “weak”]—those who had fingers or teeth missing, or were disabled—were rejected. The slaves who had been bought then had to kneel down, twenty or thirty at a time; their right shoulder was smeared with palm oil and branded with an iron which bore the initials CABC [Churfürstlich-Afrikanisch-Brandenburgische-Compagnie]. . . . Some of these poor people obeyed their leaders without a will of their own or any resistance. . . . Others on the other hand howled and danced. There were . . . many women who filled the air with heartrending cries which could hardly be drowned by the drums, and cut me to the quick.”16 Pieter de Marees in 1600 reported that the Africans also branded their slaves.

By the eighteenth century, the Portuguese forbade the embarkment of any slave who had not been baptized. That had not always been so: most of the slaves taken to Portugal in the fifteenth century were not christened. That did not hinder some slaves from being received into the church afterwards, a consummation which in turn did not prevent their remaining slaves—even if the enslavement of a Christian had been condemned by Pope Pius II.IV But King Manuel the Fortunate, in the early sixteenth century, ordered all masters in Portugal to baptize their slaves, on pain of losing them—unless the slaves themselves did not want it (as was the case with the small number of Muslim slaves, mostly by then brought from West Africa). All slave children in Portugal were to be christened, whatever happened. King Manuel made it possible for black slaves in Portugal to be able to receive the sacrament from the hands of the priest of the Nossa Senhora da Conceição, a church in Lisbon destroyed in the earthquake of 1755. Captains of ships could baptize slaves about to die on board their ships. This procedure was regularized by Pope Leo X, at the beginning of his pontificate, in a bull of August 1513, Eximiae Devotionis;V he also asked for a font to be built in Nossa Senhora da Conceição for the baptism of slaves.

In the early seventeenth century, it became customary for slaves in Africa to be baptized before their departure from Africa. This requirement was first laid down by King Philip III of Spain (II of Portugal) in 1607 and confirmed in 1619. The slaves had, as a rule, received no instruction whatever before this ceremony, and many, perhaps most, of them had had no previous indication that there was such a thing as a Christian God. So the christening was perfunctory. In Luanda, the captives would be taken to one of the six churches, or assembled in the main square. An official catechist, a slave, say, who spoke Kimbundu, the language of Luanda, would address the slaves on the nature of their Christian transformation. Then a priest would pass among the bewildered ranks, giving to each one a Christian name, which had earlier been written on a piece of paper. He would also sprinkle salt on the tongues of the slaves, and follow that with holy water. Finally, he might say, through an interpreter: “Consider that you are now children of Christ. You are going to set off for Portuguese territory, where you will learn matters of the Faith. Never think any more of your place of origin. Do not eat dogs, nor rats, nor horses. Be content.”17

Portuguese governments tried to make these ceremonies less rudimentary, for it was against canon law to baptize adults who had not been properly instructed. It was laid down that the blacks should receive an initiation into Christianity on the boats during the crossing. (The same King Philip who had laid down that slaves should be baptized decreed that Portuguese slave ships should carry priests to attend to the spiritual needs of the slaves.) But the lack of priests prevented the fulfillment of this pious rule and, even when priests were available, their commitment to the cause seems to have been lukewarm.

Baptisms of slaves bound for Brazil were carried out, before sailing, in Angola and the Congo but those from “Mina”—that is, the Gold and Slave coasts—were often not baptized till they reached Brazil.

•  •  •

Slaves were drawn not only from all parts of Africa but from all classes within the different peoples, including the highest: a queen in Cabinda created a legend in Rio de Janeiro as the slave “Teresa the Queen”; she had been caught in adultery and sold by her husband. When she arrived in Rio, she still wore the gold-plated copper bands on her arms and legs which proclaimed her royal status, and her companions showed her respect. She refused to work, and behaved imperiously, until whipped into submission as if she had been a commoner. The mother of King Gezo of Dahomey, who had been a slave before she had been a queen, was sold into slavery, also in Brazil, by her stepson, Gezo’s predecessor. When her own son Gezo came to the throne, he instituted an abortive search for her.

Different colonists had different preferences as to where they would like their slaves to come from. For example, whereas Virginian planters seem not to have been interested in ethnic origins (an attitude which bore some relation to the role of natural increase in the growth of the Virginian slave population), South Carolinians preferred slaves from Madagascar or Senegambia (mostly Malinke or Bambara in the eighteenth century), because these knew about the cultivation of rice. Similarly, some Spanish buyers preferred Angolans, because the work which was going to be required of them, such as copper mining (for instance, in the royal mines at Prado in Cuba), was something of which they had experience in Africa. Senegambians were prized because they were good at languages; many were bilingual, in Wolof and Mandingo, before they reached the Americas. Because of these skills, Wolofs were often used as interpreters on slave ships, lending a distinct Wolof character to the “emerging pidgin.” These Senegambians were the preferred slaves of the Spaniards in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, because they seemed intelligent, hardworking, and even enthusiastic, never losing an opportunity to dance and sing. The French in the eighteenth century thought them “the best slaves also.”18

Physical characteristics played a major part in these considerations. Thus South Carolinian planters were prejudiced against short slaves. Barbadian planters made clear to the RAC in 1704 that they preferred “young and full breasted women.” Some French seem to have specially prized the Congolese, because they were “magnificent blacks,” in the words of Captain Louis de Grandpré, “robust, indifferent to fatigue . . . sweet and tranquil, born to serve. . . . They appeared content with their lot. If they had tobacco and bananas, they made no complaint.”19 When the South Sea Company of London assumed the responsibility for serving the Spanish market in the early eighteenth century, the company’s agents were made aware that the buyers wanted slaves “of the blackest sort, with short curled hair and none of the tawny sort with straight hair,” according to an instruction to the captains trading with Madagascar.20 The same prejudice in favor of jet-black slaves existed in Brazil, where the most highly prized were said by an English visitor to have been those who were “blackest in colour, and are born near the Equator.” Thomas Butcher, the South Sea Company’s agent in Caracas in the 1720s, reported a demand from the powerful cacao growers there for slaves “of the finest deepest black (Congo and Angola slaves being best liked here)” but “without cuts in their faces, nor filed teeth, the men to be well grown of a middle stature, not too tall nor too short . . . the women to be of a good stature . . . without any long breasts hanging down.” The prejudices against slaves with “a yellow cast” continued throughout the South Sea Company’s interest in the matter.21 The planter Caldeira Brant in Brazil insisted in 1819 that slaves from Mozambique were “the devil,” but he bought them all the same, because of their fine color.Moçambiques seem to have divided Brazilian buyers: some desired them, because they were “equally intelligent and more pacific than ‘Minas,’ faithful and trustworthy, they bring a high price.”22 But others disliked them, because of the scars which they had on their faces.

There were other preoccupations, more political than aesthetic or economic. In the eighteenth century, slaves from the Gold Coast seem to have been the most popular amongst all the buyers in the Americas: “The negroes most in demand at Barbados,” wrote Captain Thomas Phillips of the Hannibal, in 1694, “are the Gold Coast or, as they call them, Cormantines, which [sic] will yield £3 or £4 more a head than the Whidaws . . . or . . . Papa [papaw, Popo] negroes.” Christopher Codrington, from the hauteur of his fine plantations of Antigua, agreed: Cormantines “are not only the best and most faithful of our slaves, but are all really born heroes.”23, VI John Atkins, in the 1720s, also reported that slaves from the Gold Coast were “accounted best,” whereas a slave from Whydah was “more subject to small pox and sore eyes”; which last comment was echoed by Thomas Phillips, who considered those slaves “the worst and most washy of any,” and also “not as black as others,” while “an Angolan negro is a Proverb for worthlessness.”24 Henry Laurens of Charleston, though specifying that, in a good slave cargo, there “must not be a ‘callabar’ among them,” agreed that “Gold Coast or Gambia are best, next to them the Windward Coast are preferred to Angola’s”: that is, slaves from the rivers Calabar were thought rebellious, whereas those of the Gold Coast were considered the most capable of responsibility. The Dutch agreed: their colonists always disliked “Calabarries” as too prone to run away, or as being “crazy and retarded,” or “unwilling to work and [liable] to die more easily” and also to be “cowardly.”25 Like Laurens, Codrington, and the others, they preferred slaves from the Gold Coast and the Slave Coast. French colonists in the Caribbean, who disliked Bantu slaves from Central Africa, also preferred those from Guinea: “The Negroes from the Gold Coast, Popa, and Whydah . . . are the most valuable for the laborious cultivation of the sugar-cane.” They had a characteristically intellectual reason for this preference: these Africans “are born in a part of Africa which is very barren. . . . On that account, when they take the hoe in hand, they are obliged to go and cultivate the land for their subsistence. They also live hardly; so that, when they are carried to our plantations, as they have become used to hard labour from their infancy, they become a strong, robust people and can live upon the sort of food the planters allow them . . . : bread made from Indian corn, and fish, such as herrings and pilchards sent from Britain, and dried fish from North America, being such food as they lived upon in their own country. . . . On the other hand, the Gambia, Calabar, Bonny, and Angola Negroes are brought from those parts of Africa which are extremely fertile, where everything grows almost spontaneously. . . . On that account, the men never work but live an indolent life and are in general of a lazy disposition and tender constitution.”26

The predilection for Gold Coast slaves was not universal: in the late eighteenth century, in Barbados and other English islands of the eastern Caribbean, slaves from the Gold Coast were looked on as “prone to revolt”; William Pitt, speaking in the House of Commons in favor of the abolition of the slave trade, in a debate in 1792, quoted from the historian of Jamaica, Edward Long, in arguing that, because of their rebellious nature, a tax amounting to a prohibition should be imposed on Cormantine Africans. Much the same disposition to rebel was assumed by the Portuguese to exist among slaves from the Bissagos Islands. Spanish colonists, who usually had recourse to shippers rather than their own merchants, had the view, in the earliest years, that the clever Wolofs(gelofes, they called them) were rebellious and dangerous.

The French preference for slaves from the Gold Coast was tempered by their belief that they were subject to “une mélancolie noire” which led them to suicide, for they were convinced that, after their death, they would return to their own country. Jamaican colonists, on the other hand, had, like most people, a basically favorable view of the Akan (Gold Coast) peoples, but a hostile one of the Ibo and those from the Niger Delta (“Bight slaves” or “Calabars”).

The slaves least prized were undoubtedly the Angolans, though more of them were traded than any other people. In the 1750s, Henry Laurens looked on them as “an extream bad sort of slave.” Much earlier, the Dutch in New Netherlands—that is, New York—considered Angolan slave women to be “thievish, lazy and useless trash.” Dutch traders were also contemptuous about slaves from the Bight of Benin; slaves from there seemed “very obstinate when they are sold to white men but, once they are on board and out of sight of land, they become very dejected and in too poor health for the voyage.”27

Brazilians always had their own views, but their views changed. Thus, to begin with, they actually preferred slaves from Angola to those from “Mina,” because the former were more tractable and easier to teach, and because there were more of them and, therefore, they fitted in better with their comrades who had already arrived. They had a shorter distance to travel from Angola than their confrères from Guinea, and so survived the passage from Africa better. But by the eighteenth century, Brazilians came much to prefer “Minas” to Angolans, whom they began to consider inappropriate for working in mines or on plantations, and whom they thought good only as domestics. They thought slaves purchased at Allada or Whydah the best for sugar plantations, because they were stronger—even if they were often sullen, “not so black and fine to look at as the North Guinea and Gold Coast blacks,” and “most apt to revolt aboard ships.” Slaves from between Cape Verde and Sierra Leone were considered in Brazil as lazy but “clean and vivacious, especially the women, for which reason the Portuguese buy them and use them as domestic slaves.”

One thing in particular probably saved the Europeans from more revolts: the Muslim Hausas, from what is now the north of Nigeria, were difficult to obtain, for they were the preferred slaves of the Maghreb, the men for their intelligence and the women for their neatness, meticulousness, good looks, and cheerfulness. When, in the nineteenth century, many Hausas were imported into Brazil, the incidence of slave revolts greatly increased.VII

All these preferences, often arrived at so lightly, were expressed in prices: Gold Coast slaves were sold in the 1740s for £50 each in Jamaica currency, as opposed to slaves from Angola, Bonny, and Calabar, who might not raise as much as £30.

Prices for slaves in Africa of course varied over the centuries. In the 1550s, the average price per slave was the equivalent of about £10; it rose to £14 by 1600, and fell back to £5 in the 1670s. But the price had risen again, to £25, in the 1730s, then to £30 to £50 in the 1760s; here the figure remained till the Napoleonic Wars when, as a result of events which will be amply explored in succeeding chapters, the price fell back to £15 (in the mid-nineteenth century, the average price was down to about £10, where it had been four centuries before). These prices were low in terms of other goods: even in the eighteenth century, the cost of a slave was only about four times the value of his subsistence for a year. But, as will be later suggested, the rise in prices of slaves, at the end of the eighteenth century, damaged the trade considerably.

African slaves were not the only ones available in the obvious harbors. In consequence of Portugal’s and Holland’s international activities, Malays were sometimes to be come upon in Guinea. Thus we hear, for example, of slaves for sale at Accra “of a tawny complexion, with long black hair. They all go clad with long Trowsers and jackets . . . and can write and read . . . are now and then exposed for sale at the European forts.”28 They had been imported by the Dutch from the Orient. The implication of this passage describing them (in William Smith’s Journey to Guinea) is that they were much prized.

Whatever the preferences of buyers, they were often not satisfied. On many plantations in the New World, the labor force still came from a dozen peoples. One of the best-documented estates at the end of the seventeenth century is Remire, in the French colony of Cayenne, where there were, between 1688 and 1690, twenty-eight slaves from Allada (on the Slave Coast), three from the Gold Coast, six from the Calabar rivers, eleven from near the river Congo, and nine from near the Sénégal.

Throughout the slave trade, women and children were less sought after than men in the prime of life. This was a contrast with the Arab trade in West African slaves across the Sahara, in which women were most important—as in some African slave markets (Benin in the sixteenth century, Senegambia in the late seventeenth), where women, because of their part in agriculture, as in bearing children, fetched a price double that of men.

In Portugal the reverse was often true. A decree in Lisbon of 1618 sought to ban female slaves absolutely, as well as males less than sixteen years old. Two men to one woman was the proportion which the Royal African Company customarily sought. In the Dutch trade between 1675 and 1795, 18,000 women slaves seem to have been carried, compared with 34,000 men. The explanation is that planters preferred slaves whom they could work hard and then discard, or leave to die, without the trouble of having to rear their families. Most sugar plantations from the beginning to the end of the slave era were undertakings which, it was supposed, needed a constant annual replenishment to maintain the labor force.VIII

The same judgment applies to slave children: only 6 percent of slaves shipped from Luanda between 1734 and 1769 were children, only 3 percent of those shipped from Benguela, and only 8 to 13 percent of those shipped overall by the Dutch West India Company. Probably a figure of 10 percent would be a generous estimate for all the slave centuries. In the late eighteenth century, more children were shipped to both North and South America, because of an increase in the demand for children as servants; and it later came to be thought that children, like women, were more efficient than men in cotton fields, in Demerara, for example.

Thomas Tobin, a Liverpool slave captain of the 1790s, describes rejecting some slaves on the grounds that they were too young. Sir Robert Inglis, member of Parliament for Oxford University, an old-fashioned Tory, asked the then elderly Tobin, presumably with irony, before the Hutt Committee in the 1840s, “Notwithstanding all the advantages of the Middle Passage, with decks five feet four, and a surgeon on board, you have no reason to believe that any negro ever went voluntarily from the coast of Africa to the West Indies?” Tobin replied, “ . . . there was no objection on the part of the females and the boys; the stout, able men, might appear not to wish to go; but, if they were not taken by the captain of the ship, they knew they would not be at liberty, because they would come down for 100 miles or 200 miles, and they would . . . still be slaves. Besides, they could not know of the advantages . . . until they had been some time on board; and then they became reconciled.” Tobin said that he recalled that he “had known the young ones get hold of you by the knees and beg you to take them to your country.”29

An important part in all these negotiations for slaves was played by interpreters: “these linguists [who] are natives and freemen of the Country, whom we hire on account of their speaking good English, during the time we remain trading on the coast; and they are likewise brokers between us and the black merchants. . . .”30 “Linguists” were often taken on board the ship and were in many ways more important than the sailors. Thus, Captain Joseph Harrison, on the Rainbow, belonging to Thomas Rumbold and Co. of Liverpool, found an excellent free African as linguist whom he named Dick. It later happened that a sailor named Richard Kirby (also called Dick) reported the African Dick to be “no better than a slave,” and recommended that he be sold as such in Barbados. Thereupon Dick the interpreter grew sulky. The captain found out what had transpired, and that Kirby was the culprit. Dick the linguist demanded satisfaction, but Captain Harrison said that he had no power to beat any white person; instead, though, fearing an insurrection of slaves, he desired Dick to take his own satisfaction. This he did: three- or four-and-twenty lashes. Kirby died soon after, and Harrison was not punished, since it turned out that the dead man had had a lethargic disorder, a flux or a dropsy.31

Sometimes, during the shipment, the traders were attacked. For example, in 1730, unknown blacks assaulted Adrien Vanvoorn’s 150-ton ship Phénix from Nantes, while the captain, Laville Pichard, was negotiating the purchase of slaves, and set it on fire off Queta, at the mouth of the river Volta. The consequence, as on most other such occasions, was that numerous slaves died.IX Usually, everyone came off badly from such affairs. The snowX Perfect (Captain William Potter of Liverpool, bound for Charleston, South Carolina) was, in 1758, “cut off by negroes, in the river Gambia, and every man on board was murdered. . . .” Similarly, the Côte d’Or, a 200-ton vessel belonging to Rafael Mendez of Bordeaux, was stranded on a sandbank near Bonny in 1768. Over a hundred rafts approached, each with thirty to sixty blacks on board, most of them carrying sabers, knives, or rifles. These men boarded the ship and stole everything in sight. Only the appearance of two English ships saved the crew, who were taken to São Tomé.

The RAC had many disasters in the early eighteenth century. For example, in 1703, Africans seized the company’s fort at Sekondi, on the Gold Coast, and beheaded the chief agent. The same year, an agent of the RAC, in Anamabo, was held prisoner for eighteen days, until he bought his freedom with “good words and a great deal of money.” In 1704, three agents of the same company were stripped naked and held prisoner on the Senegambian coast. In 1717, Captain David Francis reported, “My boats and people are seized at almost every port I send them.”32

Then there was a famous massacre at Calabar in 1767, which had a different conclusion (and which was mentioned by William Wilberforce in his first speech in the House of Commons proposing the abolition of the traffic). The captains of five Liverpool ships, and one each from Bristol and London, lay in the Old Calabar River. A dispute was under way at that time between the rulers of Old and New Calabar. The English captains offered themselves as mediators, and suggested that the inhabitants of the old city should come aboard one of their ships. Nine canoes left Old Calabar, led by Amboe Robin John, a leader of that city, each canoe carrying nearly thirty men. When these craft approached the English vessels, the English captains fired and seized the canoes, arresting three leaders while, onshore, the warriors of New Calabar came out from behind the bushes and fell on those who were trying to swim to safety. Amboe Robin John was forced into a canoe and had his head cut off; his brothers were sold in the West Indies.33

Once or twice slaves ready for embarkment also rebelled. Thus, in 1727, at Christiansborg, the Danish castle on the Gold Coast, a group of slaves seized the slave overseer and killed him. They escaped, but half were caught. The ringleaders were broken on the wheel and then beheaded. A harsh response followed a sale of Ashanti slaves in Elmina in 1767. These six captives had been personal servants of a recently dead director-general of the Dutch West India Company, and they would have been freed if the Asantahene had paid some debts which he owed the company. But he did not, and the Dutch decided to sell the men concerned to traders: “We put their feet in shackles,” the report goes on, “and, on the day that they were to be sold, the slave dungeons were thoroughly searched for knives and weapons, but apparently not enough. . . . The result . . . was that, when the company slaves were ordered into the yard to take hold of each, they [the personal slaves] retreated and, in a savage and inhuman manner, cut their own throats and, when they did not succeed the first time, they repeated the thrusts three or four times, the one who had used a knife giving it a comrade who was not provided with one. One negro even cut the throat of his wife and then his own. . . . The yard of the noble company’s chief castle was thus turned into a bloodbath. . . . The remaining Ashanti who were unharmed were brought up to the hall, sold in public, and then taken on board of a waiting English ship.”34

Many more slaves died during the often long time of waiting for shipment than did so in such rebellions or protests. Sometimes, the time spent waiting to be shipped was as long as five months—perhaps longer than the voyage to the Americas. Thus, in 1790, Captain William Blake bought for James Rogers and Co. of Bristol (England) 939 slaves, of whom 203 died, “of natural causes,” while still on the West African coast.

The embarkment of the slaves was a complicated affair. Captain Thomas Phillips recalled in 1694 that, at Whydah, “when we had purchased to the number of fifty or sixty, we would send them aboard, there being a cappasheir [an official], entitled ‘the captain of the slaves,’ whose care it was to secure them to the waterside, and see them all off; and if, in carrying to the marine, any were lost, he was bound to make them good to us, the ‘captain of the trunk’ being oblig’d to do the like. . . . These are two officers appointed by the King [of Whydah] for this purpose, to each of which every ship pays the value of a slave in what goods they liked best for their trouble. . . .” There was, likewise, a “captain of the sand,” appointed “to take care of the merchandise [whom] we have come ashore to trade with, [so] that the negroes do not plunder them, we being forced to leave goods a whole night on the sea-shore for want of porters to bring them up; but notwithstanding his care and authority, we often came by the loss. . . .”35

Willem Bosman reported that, to save extra charges by the sellers, he would send his slaves to the ships at the first opportunity, “before which their masters strip them of all that they have on their backs, so that they come aboard stark naked, as well women as men; in which condition they are obliged to continue, if the master of the ship is not so charitable . . . as to bestow something to cover their nakedness. . . .”36

“When our slaves,” wrote, again, Captain Thomas Phillips, “were come to the seaside, our canoes were ready to carry them off to the long-boat . . . if the sea permitted, and she convey’d them aboard ship, where the men were all put in irons, two and two shackled together, to prevent their mutiny or swimming ashore. The negroes are so wilful and loth to leave their own country, that they have often leap’d out of canoes, boat and ship, into the sea, and kept underwater till they were drowned, to avoid being taken up and saved . . . they having a more dreadful apprehension of Barbados than we have of hell though, in reality [this was a very frequent comment], they live much better there than in their own country; but home is home etc. . . .”37

Some slave captains found that there were a few slaves, usually from “a far inland country, who very innocently persuade one another that we buy them only to fatten and afterwards eat them as a delicacy.”

Captain Snelgrave tried to come face to face with these anxieties: he said, “When we purchase grown people, I acquaint them by the interpreter, ‘That now they are become my property.’ I think fit to let them know what they may [have been] . . . bought for, that they may be easy in their minds: for these poor people are generally under terrible apprehensions upon being bought by white men, many being afraid that we design to eat them; which, I have been told, is a story much credited by the inland Negroes.

“So, after informing them that they are bought to till the ground in our country, with several other matters, I then acquaint them, how they are to behave themselves on board towards the white men; that, if anyone abuses them, they are to complain to the linguist, who is to inform me of it, and I will do them justice; but, if they make a disturbance, or offer to strike a white man, they must expect to be severely punished. . . . When we purchase the negroes, we couple the sturdy men together with irons; but we suffer the women and children to go freely about; and, soon after we have sailed from the coast, we undo all the men’s irons.”38

At the end of the eighteenth century, an interesting account of slaves leaving home was given by the slave captain Joseph Hawkins of South Carolina. He had been trading in one of the great rivers which constitute the delta of the Niger. He set off for the sea, and “the slaves were out on board [deck] and necessarily in irons brought for the purpose. This measure occasioned one of the most affecting scenes that I had ever witnessed: their hopes, with my assurances, had buoyed them up on the road; but a change from cordage to iron fetters rent their hopes and fears together; their wailings were torturing beyond what words can express; but delay at this stage would have been fatal. . . . We were passing through a narrow part of the river, two of them found means to jump overboard, a sailor, who was in a small boat astern, seized one of them by the arms and, the end of the rope being thrown to him, the slave was taken on board, though not without some difficulty.

“The others who had been at the oars, seeing their fellows, one of them seized, and the other struck on the head with a pole, set up a scream which was echoed by the rest below; those that were loose made an effort to throw two of the sailors overboard; the rest, except the one on the boat and at the helm, being asleep; the noise had now aroused them, and the scream impressed on them some degree of terror. They seized on the guns and bayonets of those that lay ready, and rushed upon the slaves, five of whom from below had got loose, and were endeavouring to set the rest free, while those we had to deal with above were threatening to sacrifice us to their despair. . . . We at length overpowered them; only one having escaped and one being killed, the rest were immediately bound in double irons and [we] took care from thence till our arrival at the ship not to suffer any of them to take the air without being made fast. Five of the sailors were considerably but not dangerously hurt. . . . We reached the ship in five days [where we found that] the officers had all provided themselves with three or four wives each. . . .”39

Slave women sometimes benefited from the fact that the crew were unable to maintain themselves without women. Thus Captain Yves Armés of the Jeannette from Nantes in 1741 found an English ship off West Africa where “la coutume entre eux [est] d’avoir chacun leur femme.” Some captains tried to restrain this. Thus Captain Newton, the future clergyman, recalled, “In the afternoon, while we were off the deck, William Cooney seduced a woman slave down into the room and lay with her brutelike, in view of the whole quarter deck, for which I put him in irons.”40 But now the darkest time in the life of the slave and also of the sailor was about to begin.

IThe origin of this word, still used in West Africa, may be doação, the Portuguese for “gift”; medase, Akan for “thank you”; or dachem, a Portuguese corruption of datjin, a small Chinese gold weight.

IIA hollow piece of iron in the shape of a sugar loaf, the cavity of which could contain about fifty pounds of cowries; a man carried this about, and beat it with a stick, making a small dead sound.

IIIAn underground dungeon, usually damp, with nothing in the way of beds, not even wooden boards, without water, and rarely cleaned. Since slaves were often chained, they often had to lie in their own excrement.

IVSee page 72.

VThis bull was a product of the Fifth Lateran Council.

VICodrington, a high-minded planter, had two plantations on Antigua, named “College” and “Society” respectively, of which the first was called after All Souls’ in Oxford, the second after the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, to which he left both plantations, to be used to finance a college on the island.

VIISee chapter 30.

VIIIThe one exception to these procedures was in the Bonny River where, uniquely in West Africa, only a little under half the slaves exported were women.

IXStill, the vessel crossed the Atlantic with 326 blacks, of whom 182 died en route, or during the sale at Martinique.

XA snow was a small sailing vessel resembling a brig, with a main- and a foremast, as well as a small third mast just behind the mainmast.

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