Modern history

The Slave Trade: A Reflection

THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE took the shape that it did in consequence of the survival of slavery in the Mediterranean world during the Middle Ages. Black slaves had been carried to all the principalities in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean for hundreds of years, beginning in ancient Egypt. Those slaves in antiquity derived principally from Ethiopia, with the consequence that, as late as the fifteenth century, black slaves were often known as “Ethiops,” whencesoever they really derived. The expansion of Muslim power in West Africa during the Middle Ages made possible an expansion of a trade in black slaves northwards across the Sahara from West Africa: the traveler Ibn Battutah recorded meeting them at almost every stage of his journey there in the fourteenth century; and he left with six hundred women slaves. Black Africans worked as servants, soldiers, and in fields in the Arab Mediterranean. Throughout modern history, blacks were especially sought after as eunuchs in the Muslim world, for use both as civil servants and in harems: the wellknown picture by the painter Levnî in Istanbul entitled The Chief Black Eunuch Conducts the Young Prince to the Circumcision Ceremony is dated c. 1720-32; but it could have represented a scene at any time between 1000 A.D.and 1900.

Some black slaves reached Muslim Spain and Portugal from Africa in the late Middle Ages, and some went to the Christian territories: indeed, the religious brotherhood still known as “Los Negritos” was founded in Seville in the late fourteenth century by a benign archbishop.II Not long afterwards, the Portuguese began first to kidnap, and then to barter for, slaves as they made their way down the west coast of Africa in the second half of the fifteenth century. They were looking for gold but, finding little of it, made do with men and women. These slaves were brought back to Lisbon and sold either there or in Spain or Italy; the Lisbon Florentine Bartolommeo Marchionni, a renaissance man in every sense of the word, became the first modern European slave merchant on the grand scale.

King Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragon and the King-Emperor Charles V did not realize that they were initiating a great change when, in the early sixteenth century, they gave permission, first for two hundred, then for four thousand, slaves to be carried to the New World. Yet they were nonetheless the pioneers of the slave trade as we know it: when the admirable North American novelist Louis Auchincloss caused his character Winthrop Ward, in the story “The Beauty of the Lilies,” to ask himself, walking down to his office in Wall Street in 1857, why had “the first blithering idiot to bring a black man in irons to the New World not been hanged?” he was unwittingly referring to those monarchs.

The reason why the Atlantic slave trade lasted so long is that, in the Americas, the Africans proved to be admirable workers, strong enough to survive the heat and hard work on sugar, coffee, or cotton plantations or in mines, in building fortresses or merely acting as servants; and, at the same time, they were good-natured and usually docile. Many black slaves had experience of agriculture and cattle. Both indigenous Indians and Europeans seemed feeble compared with them. That was why European slaves, of whom there had been some in Spain, especially from Greece or the Balkans, in the fifteenth century, were never tried out in the Americas. African Muslim slaves were more difficult to control for, as the Brazilians found in the 1830s in particular, some of them were at least as cultivated as their masters, and were capable of mounting formidable rebellions.

This large labor force would not have been available to the Europeans in the Americas without the cooperation of African kings, merchants, and noblemen. Those African leaders were, as a rule, neither bullied nor threatened into making these sales (for sales they were, even if the bills were settled in textiles, guns, brandy, cowrie shells, beads, horses, and so on). When, in 1842, the sultan of Morocco told the British consul that he thought that “the traffic in slaves is a matter on which all sects and nations have agreed from the time of the sons of Adam,” he could have been speaking for all African rulers; or indeed all European ones fifty years before. There were few instances of Africans’ opposing the nature of the traffic desired by the Europeans.

Some slaves were stolen by Europeans—“panyared,” as the English word was—and some, as occurred often in Angola, were the victims of military campaigns mounted specifically by Portuguese proconsuls in order to capture slaves. But most slaves carried from Africa between 1440 and 1870 were procured as a result of the Africans’ interest in selling their neighbors, usually distant but sometimes close, and, more rarely, their own people. “Man-stealing” accounted for the majority of slaves taken to the New World, and it was usually the responsibility of Africans. Voltaire’s sharp comment that, while it was difficult to defend the conduct of Europeans in the slave trade, that of Africans in bartering each other was even more reprehensible, deserves to be better remembered. But then there was no sense of Africa: a Dahomeyan did not feel that he had anything in common even with an Oyo.

The slave trade was a disgraceful business even if considered in relation to the other brutalities of the time: the ill-treatment of workers generally in Europe (as well as of sailors and of soldiers), and the harsh way in which indentured English laborers, for example, or their French (the engagés) and other European equivalents were looked after. The traveler William Baikie was right when he pointed out, after a journey to Africa in the 1850s, “There is no captain who has carried slaves who has not been, either directly or indirectly, guilty of murder, [for] a certain number of deaths are always allowed for.” For captains, read also merchants; for, though some of those traders were quite insulated from knowing what the slave trade was, and looked upon it as just one more business, a high proportion of them had once been captains or mates in the traffic and, in their calm houses in Liverpool or Nantes, could easily imagine the crowding, the smell, the savagery, and the fears normal on every voyage which they financed.

The consequence for the Americas was remarkable. In the first three and a quarter centuries of European activity in the Americas, between 1492 and 1820, five times as many Africans went to the New World as did white Europeans; and, even in the next fifty years, until 1870, probably as many blacks were taken to Brazil and Cuba as there were white men arriving in the continent. Most of the great enterprises of the first four hundred years of colonization owed much to African slaves: sugar in Brazil and later the Caribbean; rice and indigo in South Carolina and Virginia; gold in Brazil and, to a lesser extent, silver in Mexico; cotton in the Guianas and later in North America; cocoa in what is now Venezuela; and, above all, in clearing of land ready for agriculture. The only great American enterprise which did not use black labor extensively was the silver mining at Potosí in Peru, and that was only because they were at too high an altitude for Africans to be able to work there with their usual energy. The servants of the Americas between Buenos Aires and Maryland were for four centuries usually black slaves.

Henri Wallon, the moralistic French nineteenth-century historian of slavery in antiquity, argued that the discovery of the Americas was an accidental development which led to retrogression in Europe: the settlement of America offered, he said, to a small group of selfish merchants and planters the chance to upset, through the development of large-scale slavery, the course of progress. But slavery had continued throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, and it was not only merchants, but kings and noblemen who inspired much of the early slave trading. Yet there is a sense in which Wallon was right: most of northern Europe had said good-bye to slavery by the early twelfth century. Most countries there which allowed themselves to become implicated in the slave trade to the Americas had some hesitations first. Richard Jobson in England, Bredero in the Netherlands, Mercado and Albornoz in Spain, Fernão de Oliveira in Portugal, not to speak of King Louis XIII in France were exponents of a different attitude at the end of the sixteenth century or at the beginning of the seventeenth. The reason why these humane doubts or even open hostility had no effect is surely to be accounted for by the memory of antiquity which dominated culture and education for the next three centuries. If Athens had slaves with which to build the Parthenon, and Rome to maintain the aqueducts, why should modern Europe hesitate to have slaves to build its new world in America? Busbecq’s regret should be remembered.III

The effect of this traffic on Europe was considerable. The slave trade should not be seen as the main, much less the sole, inspiration of any particular development in industry or manufacture in Europe or North America. The memory of Dr. Eric Williams may haunt the modern study of the Atlantic slave trade, but his shocking argument that the capital which the trade made possible financed the industrial revolution now appears no more than a brilliant jeu d’esprit. After all, the slave-trading entrepreneurs of Lisbon and Rio, or Seville and Cádiz, did not finance innovations in manufacture. Yet those who became rich as a result of trading slaves often did put their profits to interesting uses: Marchionni, for instance, invested in Portuguese journeys of discovery, as did Prince Henry the Navigator; John Ashton of Liverpool, helped to finance the Sankey Brook Canal, between his own city and Manchester; René Montaudoin was a pioneer of cotton manufacture in Nantes, and so was James de Wolf in Bristol, Rhode Island. Such investments aside, the slave trade had a great effect on shipbuilding, on marine insurance, on the rope industry, on ships’ carpenters in all interested ports, as also on textile manufacture (such as linen in Rouen), the production of guns in Birmingham and Amsterdam, and iron bars in Sweden, of brandy in France and rum in Newport, not to speak of beads from Venice and Holland, and on the sugar refineries near important European and North American ports.

The effect of this emigration on Africa is extraordinarily difficult to estimate, for it is unclear what the population of Africa was at any stage before 1850. Still, most of the millions of slaves shipped from Africa were not members of an established slave population, but ordinary farmers or members of their families, suddenly deprived of their liberty by fellow Africans in response to what a modern economist might call “growing external demand.” Professor W. M. Macmillan, in Africa Emergent, argued that Africa was, for many centuries, underpopulated. He attributed the continent’s backwardness to the “lack of human resources” adequate to tame an inhospitable environment. Then Dr. Dike, most eminent of a new generation of African historians in the 1960s, insisted that, whatever might be the position in Central Africa, that could not be true of Iboland, in what is now southeastern Nigeria, where land hunger has been the most important “conditioning factor” in history.

The truth is that, though a drop in population may have been caused by the sustained trade in slaves, a fertile population would have added as many as, or more than, it lost in the slave trade as a result of normal reproduction. Most statistics suggest that females, after all, constituted only a third of the slaves transported, even if most of them probably were of childbearing age. A fast-growing population might even have found relief from the inevitable pressure on resources through the export of some of its members. If, as seems possible, the population of West Africa in the early eighteenth century was about twenty-five million, enjoying a rate of growth of, say, seventeen per thousand, the effect of the export slave trade (say, 0.2 percent of the population a year) would merely have been to check the growth in population, since the rate of slave exports and that of natural increase would have been more or less the same. The introduction of those two wonderful crops, maize and manioc, also did something to compensate Africa for whatever loss it suffered in population by being implicated in the Atlantic slave trade.

There were some obvious political effects. One was to strengthen those monarchies or other entities which collaborated with the Europeans, above all, naturally, the coastal kings; and the riches obtained from the sale of slaves enabled some rulers to extend their political, as well as their commercial, activities into the interior. The growth of the slave trade clearly helped some states, such as Dahomey, to expand and consolidate themselves. But Benin avoided the trade and also matured as a state. The slave trade must have encouraged African monarchies not just to go to war (they had always done that) but to capture more prisoners than before, and to substitute capture for killing in battle. Dispersed coastal communities often experienced, as a result of the slave trade, territorial growth, political centralization, and commercial specialization. That may have been a consequence of European traders’ desire to gather an entire cargo from a single port. Thus the city of New Calabar vigorously developed its own version of monarchy. By 1750, the Efik had excluded all other Africans from contacts with the Europeans, and their political leader (Duke Ephraim, of Duke Town, in the nineteenth century) had political control over all the local slave trade, dominating his city without being formally a ruler, much as the Medici had done in Florence. But Calabar was a tiny city-state considered against the powerful internal empires, even if it was important in the coastal slave trade; and those empires, from the Songhai to the Oyo, not forgetting the Vili in Loango or the Congo and the various monarchies in what is now Angola, seem to have risen and declined without being decisively affected by the Atlantic commerce.

The effects on the African economy, apart from the matter of population, were also diverse. One was to stimulate the idea of a currency: thus cowries became a general trading currency in the Niger Delta, displacing old iron currencies there, while European-made iron bars, copper rods, and brass manillas also played a part. Yet cowries were increasing in circulation in “Guinea” before the doom-laden Portuguese caravels first drew inshore.

One effect on coastal African agriculture was to stimulate the growth of rice, yams, and later manioc and maize, and even the development of cattle, to provide the slave ships or the slave prisons—the “captiveries,” as the French customarily described them—with at least a modicum of food while the captives were awaiting embarkment. The success of slaving as a commercial proposition also implied that many older business—such as the trade in palm oil, gum, cattle, kola nuts, even ivory—diminished. Only gold remained an effective competitor to the slave trade. But all those other things survived, especially the first, to be revived in the nineteenth century.

The entrepreneurial spirit of Africa must have been stimulated by the Atlantic slave trade. Most European captains came to realize that their negotiating partners knew as much about European practices as the Europeans knew of them. The era of the trade also saw a great expansion of fairs, and an expansion too of the overall level of trade, in which the traffic in slaves formed only a part. Africans involved in the trade, however, benefited greatly. Some of that wealth was creatively used locally. The prosperity of the entrepôts stimulated employment; and the trade necessitated large numbers of porters, canoemen, and guards at every port along the West African coast.

It is also interesting to speculate on the effects of the imports deriving from the sale of slaves. The slave-trading peoples chose carefully the goods which they exchanged for slaves, and so slave ships had often to be floating general stores, for a European trader would look foolish if he arrived off Loango, say, with a supply of brandy when a previous ship had sold all that the ruler or the merchants concerned needed at that time.

As has been repeatedly noticed, the item most commonly exchanged for slaves was cloth. The import of woolens and cottons did not inspire a tailoring industry, because most Africans liked to wear those European goods untailored, wrapping the cloths round them. But local spinning, weaving, and dyeing did not as a rule suffer. The production of African woolen cloth even appears to have expanded in many places. Despite the apparent abundance of imports, foreign cloth remained rare enough in the hinterland of, say, southeastern Nigeria not to compete with traditional local products either in price or quality.

The most interesting aspect of the slave trade is that, during the five hundred years of constant contact between the Africans and the Europeans, the former did not develop further in imitation of the latter. The reluctance of Africans to Europeanize themselves can be presented as a weakness. But it is more likely to be explained by some innate strength of the African personality which, however close the political or commercial relation with the foreigner, remains impervious to external influence.

•  •  •

Some priests or monks from the sixteenth century onwards were always critical of the revival of slavery in Europe and there was also some unease among Protestants. The saintly conduct of Fray Pedro Claver on the quays of Cartagena de Indias deserves more extended recognition. But his and other denunciations were voices crying in the wilderness and, once countries such as England had begun to trade Africans, there was little effective opposition until the late eighteenth century. The abolition movement which arose then was the consequence, first, of the diffusion of ideas made possible by the pamphlet and the book operating in conditions free of censorship, as was possible in Britain and North America, and to a lesser extent in France; and second, the conversion to abolition of one Protestant sect, the Quakers, who had participated in the trade, and so knew exactly what it was they were against. It must be doubtful whether abolition would have carried the day when it did had it not been for the Quaker movement’s capacity for organizing first their members and then others.

The determined efforts of philanthropists, in France, North America, and Britain, and later in Spain, Brazil, and elsewhere, working through the press, parliaments, and diplomacy, at all events eventually achieved the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and of slavery in the Americas, so paving the way for the beginning at least of the abolition of slavery and the traffic in Africa. Experience of what occurred between 1808 and 1860 suggests that the end of the slave trade came not because, as the French historian Claude Meillassoux put it, “slavery as a means of production hindered agrarian and industrial growth,” but because of the work of individuals, with writers such as Montesquieu playing an essential part. Thomas Clarkson and Wilberforce in England, Benezet and Moses Brown in the United States, and Benjamin Constant and other friends and relations of Madame de Staël in France, were the heroes. The effectiveness of Louis Philippe’s first government, in particular of the Minister of the Navy, Count Argout, showed that a determined leader could do much. Antillón, who first spoke against the slave trade in Spain in 1802 and who may have been murdered for repeating his views in Cádiz in 1811, should not be forgotten. Other Spanish abolitionists such as Labra and Vizcarrando should have their places in the Pantheon. Nelson Mandela, during his visit to the British Parliament in 1995, recalled the name of Wilberforce. He might have mentioned others, not to speak of the British West Africa Squadron. In Brazil, Dom Pedro’s opposition to the slave trade was continuous and the role of several statesmen there (culminating in Soares de Souza) should be remembered in Angola.

No French, North American, or Spanish abolitionist would have accepted the famous judgment of the nineteenth-century Irish historian Lecky when he remarked: “The unweary, unostentatious and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.” British arrogance and aggressive pleasure in intervening in the commerce of other countries made the British navy’s conduct hard to forgive, as Richard Cobden, John Bright, and even Gladstone pointed out. All the same, the British led the way to abolition, in a way which surely compensates for the high-handedness.

•  •  •

Any historian of the slave trade is conscious of a large gap in his information. The slave himself is a silent participant in the account. One may pick the slave out of a seventeenth-century engraving of Benin, let us say, in one of the many handsome illustrations to the famous travelogue of Jean Barbot. One learns a little of a few slaves in the reports of Eustache de Fosse in the fifteenth century or de Marees in the sixteenth; the sieur de la Courbe Barbot, or Bosman in the seventeenth, or, let us say, Alexander Falconbridge or Captain Landolphe, among innumerable memoirs, in the eighteenth. Pío Baroja, a great Spanish writer, has vividly depicted the life of nineteenth-century slave captains in fiction. In the nineteenth century, there are the splendid designs of Rugendas, some of them reproduced in the book. He may find a few direct testimonies of slaves from the late eighteenth or the nineteenth century. Some of these are mentioned in appendix 1. The best of these is probably the memorable work of Equiano, several times cited. But how pitifully small is the material! Nor has the historian any means of knowing whether those few spokesmen speak for the captives whose fate he has followed as best he can over five centuries. For the slave remains an unknown warrior invoked by moralists on both sides of the Atlantic, recalled now in museums in onetime slave ports from Liverpool to Elmina, but all the same unspeaking, and therefore remote and elusive. Like slaves in antiquity, African slaves suffered but the character of their distress may be more easily conveyed by novelists such as Mérimée than chronicled by a historian. Perhaps, though, the dignity, patience, and gaiety of the African in the New World is the best of all memorials.


II The brotherhood seems now to be entirely white, but it was black until the eighteenth century.

III See page 113.

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