|Unit 6 – ORIGINS AND DESTINATIONS OF ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
Unit Question: How did migration create systems of power and dominance?
INTERVIEWS IN JAMAICA, 1793
Bryan Edwards, a British-born settler and pro-slavery activist in Jamaica, wrote The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies.. In this excerpt, he summarizes his interviews with Jamaican slaves, in which he asked how they became enslaved. After speaking twice with each of 25 persons, he concluded that fifteen were born into slavery in Africa, five were kidnapped, and five were taken prisoner in wars.
”Under such contradictory information, it occurred to me, during my residence in Jamaica, to examine many of the Negroes themselves. I mean Negroes newly arrived from Africa; for from those who have resided any length of time in the West Indies, it is difficult to obtain, even to enquiries of an indifferent nature, such answers as carry with them conviction of their truth. It is seldom, for instance, that any Guiney Negro will acknowledge that he was in a state of slavery in his native country.
Observing the respect and preheminence allowed to wealth and consequence among the Whites, and the privileges which attach to freedom in the West Indies, among those of his own colour who are born or rendered free, he is tempted, whether justly or not, to assert his claim to some degree of consideration from his past, if not from his present condition; and it is a natural and excusable propensity. Conceiving therefore that the truth might be best obtained from Negroes recently imported, I enquired of many young people, from different parts of Africa, concerning the circumstances of their captivity and sale, and, having reduced their information to writing, I interrogated many of them again on the same subject, after an interval of several months. If the same account precisely was given by the same people a second time, I commonly considered it as grounded in truth.
On other occasions, I have examined brothers and sisters apart. If their information agreed in minute particulars, I could have no reason to suspect them of falsehood. Of five-and-twenty young persons of both sexes whom I thus interrogated, fifteen frankly declared that they were born to slavery, and were either sold to pay the debts, or bartered away to supply the wants of their owners. Five were secretly kidnapped in the interior country, and sold to black merchants, who conveyed them from an immense distance to the sea-coast, and sold them to the ship-masters that brought them to Jamaica.
The other five appeared to have fallen victims in some of those petty wars which it is probable rapacity and revenge reciprocally instigate throughout the whole continent of Africa. On such occasions, the young and the able are carried into captivity by the victors, and the aged and infirm commonly murdered on the spot. By these means, and the commutation of death into slavery for crimes real and pretended, are the nations of Europe supplied; and it cannot surely be a question, amongst a humane and enlightened people, concerning the unlawfulness of a traffic thus supported. To attempt its defence in all cases, were to offer an insult to the common sense of mankind, and an outrage on the best feelings of our nature. Yet a good mind may honestly derive some degree of consolation in considering that all such of the wretched victims as were slaves in Africa, are, by being sold to the Whites, removed to a situation infinitely more desirable, even in its worst state, than that of the best and most favoured slaves in their native country. It is, on all hands, admitted that the condition of those poor people, under their own governments, is the most deplorable that we can conceive a human creature to be subject to.
They have no security for property, nor protection for their persons; they exist at the will and caprice of a master, who is not amenable to any law for his ill treatment of them, and who may slaughter them at his pleasure. He has in truth but very little interest in their preservation, having no means of employing them in profitable labour, and when provisions are scarce, he has even a strong inducement to destroy them.
LETTER FROM AMERICAN SLAVE TRADER, 1853
This letter, written by A. J. McElveen of coastal South Carolina, shows how businesslike the sale and trade of humans in the nineteenth century was. Here, McElveen writes to Mr. Z. B. Oakes, a slave broker, who will negotiate the final sale of slaves sent to him. The original letter is held in the Oakes Collection in the Boston Public Library.
A. J. McElveen to Z. B. Oakes
Sumterville, S.C., 10 July 1853.
I Send you one Boy which I hope will please you well. I think he is as near no 1 as Boys Get. The price I think is rather high. I hope he will pay a tolerable profit it is the best that can be done Boy wilson Bought of Mr Semore I paid Seven hundred & Seventy five Dollars. I hope you will be able to Get $900 for him. I refused a Girl 20 years of age at $700 yesterday I offred $675 for her I think it Enough. if you think Best to take her at $700 I can Still Get her She is very Badley whipt but good teeth the whipping has bin done long Since She is tolerably likely. the Prices up here is tall they ask from $950 to $1000 for fellows and Eight for girls Generally. this Boy wilson I weighd him his weigt is 100 lbs By the Scales this Evening. I will try and have Some more next week do not let me here from you I leave here thursday for below I will return next week.
FRENCH SLAVE TRADE IN THE INDIAN OCEAN
In this excerpt from Slaves, Spices & Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Empire into the World Economy, 17701873 (Ohio UP, 1987), Abdul Sheriff explains how the “traditional” Arab domination of the East African slave trade grew with capitalism’s rise. The demand for slave labor in the Americas and on the French plantations of the Indian Ocean (Mauritius and Réunion) supported slave markets well into the late nineteenth century.
“The northern slave trade which had developed within the pre-capitalist modes of production in south-western Asia had a fairly limited potential for expansion beyond the dimensions attained during the eighteenth century. Communities of people of African origin are scattered along the non-African parts of the littoral of the western Indian Ocean, but they do not constitute substantial national minorities in any of the countries of this coast as they so conspicuously do in the Americas.
On the other hand, from the 1770s eastern Africa was drawn into the vortex of the genesis of capitalism, and experienced what Marx has described as ‘the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production’. The development of sugar plantations in the French Mascarene islands of Ile de France (Mauritius) and Bourbon (Réunion) was an extension of similar developments in the West Indies which fed into the infamous Atlantic triangular trade. These developments sapped the vitality of East Africa’s trade with the north, initially sharpening the contradiction between the northern and the French slave trade. The northern slave trade could not ultimately withstand the tide of nascent capitalism, and the Arab merchant class therefore had to accept the new compradorial role being assigned to them in the new global capitalist system.
French demand for slaves was modest in the first decades after the 1730s and was largely met by Madagascar, and intermittently by Mozambique and the East African coast. It was not until the 1770s that the supply from the African coast reached significant proportions. However, with the decreasing profitability of the West African slave trade a tremendous demand for slaves was added in the 1770s and 1780s for the American market as well. That market became even more attractive as the small Mascarene islands became ‘so well stocked with blacks’ by the mid-1770s. An annual average of about 3,000 slaves was then being traded by the French from Mozambique.
The rapidly rising French demand for slaves began to cause a major dislocation of the Arab trade along the East African coast. Previously, during the middle of the eighteenth century, Omani demand for slaves had been responsible for the penetration of Swahili traders of Mombasa and Pate into the ports of southern Tanzania, and they even encroached on the Portuguese sphere along the northern coast of Mozambique. By the mid-1770s this northward flow of slaves had been partly reversed. It was stated that Swahili traders were taking slaves to the south ‘when they do not have to sell to the Arabs’.”
THE MASSACRE ON THE ZONG
In this excerpt, U.S.-based historian Robert Allison describes the 1781 drownings of 132 slaves on the English slave ship Zong. When the slaves became ill on the voyage, the captain threw them overboard so that he could collect insurance money, which he would not have been able to collect had the slaves died of disease. But Olaudah Equiano, a leader of the antislavery movement, discovered the truth and called on a British abolitionist to help prosecute the captain.
”Equiano helped break the story of the massacre on the slave ship Zong, which had left São Tomé (off West Africa) in September 1781 with 440 slaves. Two months later, when the Zong reached the Caribbean, 60 slaves and 7 crew were dead. Disease had ravaged the human cargo, and many of the surviving slaves were dying. The captain, thinking of his Liverpool owners and their dwindling profits, knew he could not sell even the remaining healthy slaves.
The captain made a business decision. Insurance would not pay for sick slaves or slaves killed by illness, but it would pay for slaves who drowned. He ordered 54 Africans chained together and thrown overboard. The next day, he ordered 42 more drowned, and 36 on the third day. Having covered all evidence of illness, the captain sold the rest of the cargo and sailed for England. When he arrived in Liverpool, the Zong’s owners filed an insurance claim for 132 drowned slaves.
The claim might have gone through quietly, but Equiano learned the true story. Perhaps a crew member told him: even men on slave ships had some conscience. Equiano quickly alerted Granville Sharp, the British abolitionist who had brought the Somerset case twelve years earlier. Sharp was horrified, but he knew the limits of British justice. The Zong’s captain and owners would never be charged as murderers. At best, the owners could be stopped from collecting insurance on slaves their company had murdered. But even this did not happen. Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who ten years earlier had declared James Somerset free once he set foot on British soil, ruled that the Zong’s owners were entitled to collect insurance on the 132 slaves their captain had murdered. British courts did not protect John Annis and did not punish the murderers of 132 men and women. As Equiano would write of earthly courts, he saw “no help in them, nor by the law.” The Zong massacre was a horrifying example of what happens when men and women are treated as property, and the British court’s failure to do justice showed Equiano that laws made by men could not prevent the evils done by men.”
REVOLT ABOARD A SLAVE SHIP, 1854
This passage is from Captain Canot; or, Twenty Years of an African Slaver (New York, 1854), written by Baltimore journalist Brantz Mayer and Captain Theodore Canot. Beginning in 1826, Canot spent twenty-five years in the Atlantic slave trade, even though it had been declared illegal by the U.S. and most European countries. In this passage, Canot describes an 1831 slave revolt aboard the ship Estrella, which was traveling from Ayadah (Ouidah, in Benin) to Puerto Rico.
”We had been at sea about three weeks. . . . Suddenly, however, one fair afternoon, a squall broke forth from an almost cloudless sky; and as the boatswain’s whistle piped all hands to take in sail, a simultaneous rush was made by the confined slaves, . . . and amid the confusion of the rising gale, they knocked down the guard and poured upon deck. The sentry at the fore-hatch seized the cook’s axe, and sweeping it round him like a scythe, kept at bay the band that sought to emerge from below him. Meantime, the women in the cabin were not idle. Seconding the males, they rose in a body, and the helmsman was forced to stab several with his knife before he could drive them below again.
About forty stalwart devils, yelling and grinning with all the savage ferocity of their wilderness, were now on deck, armed with staves of broken water-casks, or billets of wood, found in the hold.7nbsp;. . . Four of the hands were disabled by clubs, while the rest defended themselves and the wounded as well as they could with handspikes, or whatever could suddenly be clutched. . . .
. . . I saw that, between the squall with its flying sails, and the revolt with its raving blacks, we should soon be in desperate plight, unless I gave the order to shoot. Accordingly, I told my comrades to aim low and fire at once.
Our carabines had been purposely loaded with buck-shot, to suit such an occasion so that the first two discharges brought several of the rebels to their knees. Still, the unharmed neither fled nor ceased brandishing their weapons. Two more discharges drove them forward amongst the mass of my crew, who had retreated towards the bowsprit; but, being reinforced by the boatswain and carpenter, we took command of the hatches so effectually, that a dozen additional discharges among the ebony legs, drove the refractory to their quarters below.
It was time; for sails, ropes, tacks, sheets, and blocks, were flapping, dashing, and rolling about the masts and decks, threatening us with imminent danger from the squall. In a short time, every thing was made snug, the vessel put on our course, and attention paid to the mutineers, who had begun to fight among themselves in the hold!
I perceived at once, by the infuriate sounds proceeding from below, that it would not answer to venture in their midst by descending through the hatches. Accordingly, we discharged the women from their quarters under a guard on deck, and sent several resolute and well-armed hands to remove a couple of boards from the bulk-head, that separated the cabin from the hold. When this was accomplished, a party entered, on hands and knees, through the aperture, and began to press the mutineers forward towards the bulk-head of the forecastle. Still, the rebels were hot for fight to the last, and boldly defended themselves with their staves against our weapons.
By this time, our lamed cook had rekindled his fires, and the water was once more boiling. The hatches were kept open but guarded, and all who did not fight were suffered to come singly on deck, where they were tied. As only about sixty remained below engaged in conflict, or defying my party of sappers and miners, I ordered a number of auger-holes to be bored in the deck, as the scoundrels were forced forward near the forecastle, when a few buckets of boiling water, rained on them through the fresh apertures, brought the majority to submission. Still, however, two of the most savage held out against water as well as fire. I strove as long as possible to save their lives, but their resistance was so prolonged and perilous, that we were obliged to disarm them for ever by a couple of pistol shots.
So ended the sad revolt of “La Estrella,” in which two of my men were seriously wounded. . . . One woman and three men [slaves] perished of blows received in the conflict; but none were deliberately slain except the two men, who resisted unto death.
I could never account for this mutiny, especially as the blacks from Ayudah and its neighborhood are distinguished for their humble manners and docility.”
SLAVE TRADE TO ASIA
This excerpt is from an article by Joseph E. Harris, a historian at Howard University in Washington D.C. The article, which is about the African diaspora, is included in The General History of Africa (Paris, 1992) and describes the movement of slaves from Africa into West Asia, India, and the Indian Ocean, focusing on the pivotal role the Arabian peninsula played in the trade.
”Most slaves imported into Asia were children, with girls constituting the largest numbers. From the East African ports, slaves were normally taken to the Arabian Red Sea port of al-Mukha (Mocha), from which many were either marched or reshipped to al-Hudaydeh (Hodeida), Djidda, Mecca and other entrepôts in Arabia. Others were reshipped to Persian Gulf ports such as al-Sharikah (Sharjah), Sur Muscar, Bandar Abbas, Bandar-e Lengeh, Bahrein, Bushahr (Bushire), Kuwait and Basra. Indian ports usually received shipments from al-Mukha or the Persian Gulf, although some allotments came directly from East Africa. The Indian ports included Bombay, Goa, Surat, Karikal, Pondicherry, Calcutta, and various places in Kutch, Gujarat, and the coast of south-east Asia and China, and on several islands in the Indian Ocean.
In Arabia, Oman held the key position in the naval and commercial strategy of the Middle East and thus spearheaded Arab involvement in the slave trade. Its capital, Muscat, commanded the approach to the Persian Gulf, through which large numbers of African slaves were transported. Omani Arabs captured the East African ports of Kilwa and Zanzibar in 1784 and 1785 respectively, and from that time claimed sovereignty over several towns on that coast. After the Sultan of Oman had gained control of Zanzibar and parts of the East African coast in the late eighteenth century, demand increased for slaves to harvest Arab-owned clove and coconut plantations in the region. . . .
Africans were settled on many Indian Ocean islands. The Dutch collected slaves in East Africa and Madagascar and took them to Indonesia; the French and the British settled East Africans as slaves on the Mascarene Islands of Bourbon (Réunion) and Mauritius. Indeed, one observer records that from 1670 to 1810 about 160,000 slaves were imported into the Mascarenes from Madagascar, the East African coast, West Africa and India. Bourbon’s slave population was estimated in 1808 at 53,726, mostly from Madagascar and Mozambique. The African settlements of the Mascarene Islands were enlarged with the expansion of the slave trade in the nineteenth century. But even before then, there had emerged a community of Creoles whose influence would be exerted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It has also been observed that some Africans reached the Malay states with merchants and with Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca.
There were far more African slaves in South Asia than other parts of Asia. This may have resulted from its longer and more profitable trade with Africa due to strong Muslim control over the prosperous western coast of India and the settlement of Indians in East Africa. In any case, African slaves are prominent in India at least by the thirteenth century. Queen Raziya, sovereign of the Delhi Sultanate, for example, became attracted to a Habshi (African) slave named Djalalud-ud-din Yakut whom she appointed as royal stable-master. Another African, Malik Sarvar, was a slave of Sultan Muhammad in Delhi and became deputy sultan in 1389.
The second half of the fifteenth century witnessed the assertion of an African presence in another part of northern India, Bengal. Africans had migrated there from the coastal region of Calcutta, the area of Dacca, and several inland regions. The ruler of Bengal, Rukn-ud-din-Barbak (145974), used to promote loyal Africans to responsible military and administrative posts. There were thus several Africans of high rank among the king’s estimated 8,000 African slave-soldiers.”
THAI WAR SLAVES
Andrew Turton, a British social anthropologist, published this excerpt in African and Asian Systems of Slavery (University of California Press, 1980). It discusses slavery in nineteenth-century Thailand, a time when all slaves were gaining the right to freedom by purchase. In earlier years, slavery was a permanent condition imposed on them after being acquired by war and by purchase after raids. “Temple slaves,” for example, had served for centuries in Buddhist monasteries.
”Little distinction was made between captured ‘soldiers’ or ‘civilians’: ‘the Siamese equally carry off the peasantry of the open country of both sexes.’ Strictly speaking, such captives were only non-Siamese (Mon, Khmer, Burmese, Vietnamese, Malay) though they included people from other Thai states (Sha, Lao, Lannathai, etc.), and there were possible abuses, as when the army might gather in Siamese war refugees. This human booty was immediately the property of the king, or prince of a tributary state. Rewards (rank, money, slaves, etc.) might be given for the capture of prisoners, sometimes according to the rank of the prisoner. Most captives remained in the possession of the king as royal slaves (that luang). A proportion might be given to nobles according to the rank of the recipient. Gifts of slaves might also be made to a political superior and between princes. War slaves were thus a form of currency in political transactions.
The numbers of such slaves would fluctuate considerably according to political and military circumstances. It is possible that slavery by capture in war was the earliest form of slavery and that at times, perhaps for long periods, war slaves predominated among all kinds of slaves. By 1805, and following losses in the war against the Burmese and the rise in debt slavery, they had declined in relative importance, though the campaigns against Vientiane in the 1820s showed that their numbers could increase spectacularly. Bowring estimated that during the reign of Rama III (18241851) there were 46,000 war slaves including 20,000 Lao, probably mostly from Vientiane.
War slaves might be used for any private or public work, as could other slaves. Some were donated as temple slaves. Others ‘were frequently employed in performing the most contemptible of tasks, cutting grass for the royal elephants and in agricultural production and public works: ‘At the Siamese capital [Bangkok in 1821] we daily saw great numbers of these unfortunate persons [war captives] employed in sowing, ditching and other severe labour.’ . . . An important use of war slaves was in military service (army and navy) for the king, as members of royal bodyguards and on campaigns.”
TESTIMONY OF A FUGITIVE SLAVE, 1748
This passage describes the testimony of Louis, a fifteenth-year-old slave who lived for a year and a half in a French Guiana maroon community before being captured in 1748 when the French colonial government vowed to destroy all maroons and sent troops in search of them. Rewards were offered for their capture, dead or alive. The excerpt describes how Louis and his family fled from their master and formed a new life in a maroon village.
”Interrogation of the Negro, Louis
Declaration and explanation drawn up by M. Le Tenneur, criminal lieutenant of Cayenne, about the interrogation of Louis, Negro slave belonging to M. Gourgues l’Ainé, who is about fifteen years of age and was brought to Cayenne by the detachment of Monsieur de Préfontaine on the twenty-sixth of the present month of October, 1748, from the maroon village above Tonnégrande to the west of Cayenne, after having had the aforesaid Louis swear to tell the truth in return for a promise of leniency.
He declared and admitted that he has been a maroon for about eighteen moons with Rémy, his father, and other Negroes belong to his above-mentioned master; that Rémy, having displeased the said M. Gourgues and having been whipped by him, had planned this marronage, having first gotten a supply of food together without absenting himself from work; and that he left two days later with the said Louis his son, Claude, Louis Augé, and Paul, his brother, in a small fishing canoe belonging to M. Sébastien Gourgues; that they passed in front of Roura and from there, with the tide, near Brugeon’s land into the forest of Cavalay; that they did not stop in any houses along the way, since they had brought cassava and bananas for the trip; that the said Paul and Louis Augé decided to return to their masters and went back to Compté in the same small fishing canoe; . . .
That no whites ever entered the village, nor any Negroes other than the ones who are recruited by the said André, Augustin, and Sébastien during their periodic trips outside, and who promise never to betray them nor run away, under penalty of being hunted down and killed. They are brought to the village in the same manner as was the witness Louis and his companions, by way of numerous detours and without going on any real paths, so that once they are there, they cannot find their way back; and if they escaped, it would be by pure chance, and after several days’ journey during which they would risk dying of hunger, since the area does not appear to contain any houses nor to be inhabited by any Indians, at least as far as Louis was able to tell.
Whenever new maroons arrive, food is furnished them by the other members, until they have cleared a space for a garden and their crops are ready to be eaten.
That whenever land has to be cleared, everyone works together, and that once a large area has been burned, everyone is allotted a plot according to the needs of his family to plant and maintain.
That the wild pigs that they kill frequently are divided among them, as is other large game, even fish that they drug when there are large numbers of them; and that the only fish in their rivers are patayayes, yaya blancs, oeils rouges, Brobro, and occasional coulans; and that there are few deer but all sorts of other game, and many jaguars, which they catch in traps and which they leave in the forest without skinning them, since, having no way of exporting the skins, they have no use for them.
That there is no road nor path whatsoever leading to Couroux or any other place, and that they are guided only by the path of the sun and by the rivers whose courses are known to André and other maroon leaders. . . .
That this summer they have cleared three gardens at about a league’s distance from the old ones, and that the said Augustin has a house there where he spends most of his time; that in the same new gardens there are three large sheds, which the detachment did not discover; that these three gardens, along with the houses and sheds, are still in existence; that these gardens are located on flat land and are almost completely filled with manioc, millet, rice, sweet potatoes, yams, sugar cane, bananas, and other crops, and a lot of cotton, since it rained a great deal during the summer.
That the women spin cotton when the weather is bad and work in the fields in good weather.
That Couachy, Augustin, and Bayou weave cotton cloth, which serves to make skirts for the women and loincloths for the men; that this cotton material is woven piece by piece and then assembled and decorated with Siamese cotton thread.
That they have no special sign of recognition (password) for when they return from reconnaissance missions and other expeditions; that they have neither killed nor caused the death of any person, nor do they place any watchmen or scouts near their village; that the only news they receive of the outside is furnished by their leaders when they go on their sorties, usually near Tonnégrande.”
SLAVERY AND SUGAR PRODUCTION
This excerpt from Slavery in the Circuit of Sugar, by Dale W. Tomich, describes how the demand for sugar affected the European economy and how it formed and shaped slavery in Subsaharan Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil, and Jamaica.
”From the end of the fifteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, sugar played a preeminent role in the expansion of the European world economy. After gold, it was the most sought-after commodity in the New World. In those tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas without vast deposits of gold and silver, sugar became the surrogate for precious metals. Even when the extractive industries declined, it continued as the source of colonial wealth and the focal point of imperial rivalries, naval wars, and mercantilist politics. The decline of the Spanish and Portuguese empires and the ascendance of and competition between Holland, Britain, and France cannot be fully comprehended without reference to sugar. Within the shifting patterns of trade and political power, the epicenter of world sugar production shifted from São Tomé and the Atlantic islands to Brazil, and then to the Caribbean.
By the eighteenth century, sugar was far and away the main crop cultivated in the Caribbean colonies. The “sugar islands,” as they came to be known, dominated world production for more than two hundred years and were at the center of competition among the European colonial powers. In the course of this long historical process, sugar production was continually reorganized, the scale of operations increased, and techniques improved. Of all the exotic spices that stimulated European overseas expansion, sugar was the most thoroughly transformed from a luxury item to an article of mass consumption through the systematic organization of production and exploitation of labor. Both because of its precocious social and technical organization and because of its role in incorporating new regions of the globe and their populations into the growing European world economy, the sugar plantation was a pioneer institution of capitalist development.
Throughout this entire period, sugar production was virtually synonymous with slavery—more specifically, African slavery. The cultivation and manufacture of sugar and slave labor were closely linked at least as early as the eleventh century in the Levant. The two marched in tandem slowly westward across the Mediterranean and pushed out into the Atlantic. With the foundation of the sugar industry in São Tomé in the early sixteenth century, a new dimension was added to this scheme. Sub-Saharan African became virtually the exclusive source for the recruitment of slave labor for the expanding European economy.
As sugar migrated to Brazil and the Caribbean, the social relations of slavery not only transformed Africans into commodities to be bought and sold but provided the means through which they were forcibly concentrated as the mass of cheap, coerced labor required for the large-scale commercial production of sugar in the New World. While not by any means universal, nowhere was the identification of slave labor with the sugar plantation so nearly exclusive as in the Caribbean colonies of France and Britain from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries.
According to Philip Curtin’s estimate, of the nine-and-one-half-million Africans transported to the Americas during the entire history of the slave trade, more than three million were destined for the French and British Caribbean during this period, and of these, the great majority were destined for the sugar estates. (Richard Sheridan estimates that 84 percent of the slave population of Jamaica during the 1770s was directly or indirectly engaged in the production of sugar.) The sugar plantation worked by African slaves and their descendants created the wealth and prosperity of the West Indies, yet left an enduring legacy of poverty, exploitation, inequality, and dependence. The contours of Caribbean economic life, class structure, race relations, cultural patterns, and political organization were shaped within the matrix of sugar and slavery.”
ENSLAVEMENT OF WOMEN IN AFRICA
This excerpt, from Slavery and African Life by Patrick Manning (Cambridge, 1990), notes changes in population, economy, and values brought to African life by slave trade. In particular, the author argues that the loss of many males to trans-Atlantic slavery left West African societies with more women than men, and therefore caused changes in patterns of marriage and work.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, slave exports had reached the level where further expansion was more difficult to achieve and brought significant social changes in its wake. . . .
The most dramatic evidence of the pressure of the slave trade on the Western Coast of Africa was the increase in slave prices. With increased European demand and European competition for markets, prices of African slaves were bound to go up. But average slave prices in the 1730s were roughly four times higher than they had been in the 1690s, an increase which far exceeded any growth in demand. . . . The main reasons for this remarkable price increase, therefore, lay on the African rather than the European side. Those reasons included, first, the scarcity of potential slaves as African populations began to decline; second, a related scarcity of potential slaves as people learned to defend themselves against enslavement more effectively; third, the growth of the African demand for female slaves, which drew them off the export market; fourth, the increase in fees, tools, and administrative costs imposed on the slave trade by officials; and fifth, the growing margin of profit retained by the expanding class of slave merchants. . . .
In those cases where enslavement was by warfare, this was a time of major population movement. In the Bight of Benin, people fled to hilltops, to marshes, across rivers, and for long distances to escape the fighting. Further west, and inland from Asante, the great market and manufacturing center of Begho declined in this period to a small village, its population having been carried off or having otherwise escaped. This development led not only to the physical displacement of African populations, but to the accentuation of ideological differences. For the captors, those monarchies who succeeded in profiting and expanding at the expense of their neighbors, the dominant values came to be centered on hierarchy, centralization, and the glorification of wealth. For the source populations, on the other hand, a contrasting ideology developed, in which the values of self-sufficiency, an egalitarian opposition to authority, and a willingness to live without great accumulations of wealth were dominant.
As the African demand for female slaves rose, and as the intensity of the export trade grew, the ratio of men to women on the Western Coast declined steadily. This sexual disproportion was concentrated in the slave societies (that is, the captors and their domestic slaves), where it led to major social changes. First, the shortage of men pushed women into taking up new areas of work. In areas where women had traditionally participated in agriculture, their role expanded to that of near total domination of agricultural labor: such was the case in Central Africa, and to a lesser degree in the Bight of Biafra and the Gold Coast. An exception to this rule may be noted for the Aja peoples of the Bight of Benin. There women traditionally did less agricultural labor than men, and the shortage of men pushed women more into commerce than into cultivation. . . .
While polygyny became a status within the reach of most African men, the wealthy and powerful partook of its benefits to the fullest: the very nature of the slave trade was such as to encourage the establishment of large harems by monarchs and merchants alike. The result was not only to reflect and actually increase the power of these big men, it served to demean and diminish women in general and the institution of marriage in particular.”