Key points slavery in Africa before the Atlantic trade

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  • Slavery in Africa before the Atlantic trade

The trans-Saharan slave trade

  • The origins of European maritime trade with west Africa

The aims of Portuguese initiatives

Early Portuguese trade on the west African coast

Origins of European-controlled plantation slavery

Origins and development of the trans-Atlantic trade in slaves

  • The nature of the slave trade

The question of scale

The African dimension

Impact of the slave trade

The trans-Atlantic trade

Plantations in the Americas and their demand for slave labour

  • Profit from the slave trade: the European dimension

The ‘triangular trade’

Slavery and the origins of racism

Slavery in Africa before the Atlantic trade

  • Slavery has a very long history in Europe and Asia

  • And in Africa: from Nubia to Ancient Egypt; from north east Africa to Persian Gulf; across the Sahara to Roman north Africa

The trans-Saharan slave trade

  • Slave labour in Saharan salt mines since ancient times

  • Expansion of trans-Saharan trade with the Muslim penetration of north Africa and growth of Ghana

  • North African Muslim merchants sought non-Muslims to enslave: hence demand for sub-Saharan Africans

  • Scale: 8th-19th centuries: 5 million Africans transported across Sahara to be sold into slavery

  • Same period, north-east Africa to western Asia: 2½ million

  • Internal African slavery: mostly war captives: incorporated or ransomed back

  • From 11th century, new factor: sale of captives

  • Islamic rulers on southern fringes of Sahara conducted raids specifically to obtain captives.

  • Trans-Saharan trade continued into twentieth century, but never on scale of trans-Atlantic trade

The origins of European maritime trade with west Africa

The aims of Portuguese initiatives

  • Long-term objective: to reach India and bypass Muslim-controlled trade of western Asia

  • Immediate objective: by-pass Muslim north Africa to reach west African gold

  • This would provide wealth to fund exploration to India for trade in luxuries

Early Portuguese trade on the west African coast

  • 1470s: Portuguese ships reached coast south of Akan goldfields

  • Built Elmina fort to protect from rival Europeans

  • Traded European goods for gold

  • Brought slaves from Benin to exchange for Akan gold

  • Early 1500s added goods from Indian Ocean trade: cowrie shells, Indian luxury cloth

  • Cowries became regular west African trading currency

  • Half Akan’s gold diverted away from Songhay and south to Europeans at coast

Origins of European-controlled plantation slavery

  • 1480s: Portuguese occupied uninhabited Príncipe and São Tomé

  • Developed sugar plantations with African slave labour

  • Similar sugar plantations on Mediterranean islands: laboured by Slavs from southern Russia (hence, ‘slave’)

  • Early 16th century: São Tomé largest producer of sugar for European market

  • Provided the model for plantation slavery in Americas and Caribbean

Origins and development of the trans-Atlantic trade in slaves

  • Captives bought from local chiefdoms

  • 15th – early 16th centuries: Senegambia captives to southern Spain and Portugal; Niger Delta and Congo to São Tomé

  • From 1492: Americas and Caribbean: European colonisers decimated local population

  • By end of 16th century 90% of Caribbeans wiped out

  • European forced labour did not survive tropical conditions

  • Africans: some immunity to tropical disease; experience in metal-working, mining and agriculture; plantation system already proved on São Tomé

  • 1532: beginning of trans-Atlantic trade: numbers small at first

  • 1630: Dutch, then English and French: rapid expansion of human traffic

  • 1630s – 1830s: largest forced transportation of captive peoples in human history

The nature of the slave trade

The question of scale

  • Historians dispute the scale and methods of measuring it [see ADDITIONAL DEBATE for Chapter 12, p.181]

  • Statistically, in 300 years: 10 million landed alive and sold into slavery

  • With 2 million dying on the voyage: at least 12 million taken out of Africa

  • 17th century average: 20 000 a year

  • 18th century: 50 000 – 100 000 a year

  • 19th century decline in numbers, ending in 1870s and 80s

  • With huge amount unrecorded, some argue numbers could be double the above

The African dimension

  • Huge regional variation in trade from African coastline:

  • Senegal 16th century

  • Angola, exceptionally, 16th – 19th century

  • Mid 17th century: Dutch, French, English, Danes: ‘Slave Coast’ (western Nigeria)

  • 18th century: most ports from Senegal to southern Angola

  • Most European forts: ‘Gold Coast’ of modern Ghana

  • 19th century: mostly ‘Slave Coast’ and Angola

  • Europeans not usually active in capturing victims (Angolan exception)

  • Even in Angola, direct intervention failed, but warfare deliberately stirred-up

  • Generally Europeans confined to coast, paying local rulers for permission to stay

  • Local African rulers provided captives; specialist African and Afro-European traders conveyed them to coast, where purchased by Europeans

  • War captives, previously incorporated, now sold out of Africa, with no return

  • Wars not usually fought just for captives

  • Rise and fall of states produced captives as a by-product:

  • Benin: 15th century expansion – captives for sale to Portuguese; 16th-17th century stability – no captives for sale; 18th century decline – renewed sale of captives

  • 16th century: Mane colonisation of Sierra Leone highlands – local captives for sale

  • 18th century rise of Futa Jalon – captives for sale on coast of Guinea

  • 17th – 18th centuries: expansion of Oyo, Dahomey, Asante – rise in export of captives

  • Rulers rarely sold from own society (except criminals and outcasts)

  • Small village-based societies often victims of power neighbours, some disappearing altogether

  • European presence at coast provided the stimulus for the trade, especially in 18th century when guns became their major trading item: they made warfare profitable

Impact of the slave trade

  • General increase in warfare

  • Loss of productive labour for raided societies

  • Loss of incorporated labour or source of ransom for the captors

  • Sold for goods worth a fraction of a life’s production

  • Demographic loss of mostly young population (14-35)

  • Walter Rodney: slave trade = source of modern European industrial wealth and African poverty and underdevelopment: African became easy victim of 19th century colonisation and 20th century neo-colonialism

The trans-Atlantic trade

  • Callous disregard for human life

  • Terrible degradation, suffering and shortened life

  • People treated as property and traded like domestic livestock

  • Marched in chains to coast: locked in cages or dungeons awaiting shipment

  • Stripped naked for examination during coastal sales

  • Packed onto shallow ‘decks’ on specially adapted ships: appalling conditions

  • 15-30% died during voyage

  • Despite ‘losses’, trade still profitable for shipping merchants and plantation owners

Plantations in the Americas and their demand for slave labour

  • Brazil: sugar and coffee; Caribbean: sugar; southern north America: tobacco and cotton

  • Largest number of slaves to Caribbean: constant expansion of plantations and high death rate – underfeeding and overwork: one-third died in first 3 years, few survived 10 years

  • Cheaper to import fresh slaves from Africa than allow them to rear their own children

  • Jamaica: three-quarters of a million slaves imported over 200 years, but population only one-third of a million in 1834 (emancipation)

  • Productive wealth of ‘New World’ built on African labour – those who profited most: European merchants

Profit from the slave trade: the European dimension

The ‘triangular trade’

  • Three-stage trade, with profit at each stage

  • Stage One: cheap manufactured goods from Europe to west Africa (18th century: substandard guns specially manufactured for ‘Africa trade’ in British city of Birmingham)

  • 1780s increasing European competition enabled African traders to demand higher prices for slaves – European merchants began to question trade’s continued profitability

  • Stage Two: slaves sold for several times their cost in Africa

  • Directly bartered or money from cash sales used to buy plantation crops

  • Stage Three: Return to Europe with plantation crops and a profit realised on each stage of the voyage

  • Profits from this trade account for rising wealth of port cities: Bristol and Liverpool (Britain); Bordeaux and Nantes (France); Amsterdam (Holland)

Slavery and the origins of racism

  • Roots of racism: deep and complex

  • European enslavement of Africans definitely part of this

  • For 300 years Europeans viewed Africans primarily as slaves

  • They claimed the slave trade ‘rescued’ them from ‘barbarity’

  • Africans thus viewed as ‘inferior’

  • Thus later colonisation claimed to be spreading ‘civilisation’

© Kevin Shillington, 2012

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