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African Slavery and other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave-Trade

  • Walter Rodney

It has come to be widely accepted that slavery prevailed on the African continent before the arrival of the Europeans, and this indigenous slavery is said to have facilitated the rise and progress of the Atlantic slave-trade. According to P. D. Rinchon, ‘from the earliest days of the trade, the majority of the Negroes were living in a state of servitude, and the native chiefs did not have far to seek for the human merchandise’. Daniel Mannix, in one of the most recent accounts of the Atlantic slave-trade, contends that ‘many of the Negroes transported to America had been slaves in Africa, born to captivity. Slavery in Africa was an ancient and widespread institution, but it was especially prevalent in the Sudan.’ In the opinion of J. D. Fage, ‘the presence of a slave class among the coastal peoples meant that there was already a class of human beings who could be sold to Europeans if there was an incentive to do so… So the coastal merchants began by selling the domestic slaves in their own tribes.’ The main purpose of this brief study is to test these generalizations with evidence taken from the Upper Guinea Coast—the region between the Gambia and Cape Mount.

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1 Rinchon, D., La traite et l'esclavage des Congolais par les Européens (Brussels, 1929), 169.

2 Mannix, D. in collaboration with Cowley, M., Black Cargoes, a History of the Atlantic Slave Trade (London, 1963), 43 (44, 45 are also relevant).

3 Fage, J. D., Introduction to the History of West Africa (London, 1959), 78.

4 See below, p. 436.

5 McCulloch, M., Peoples of Sierra Leone, Ethnographic Survey of Africa, ed. Forde, D. (London, 1964), z8, 29, 68.

6 Rattray, R. S., Ashanti (London, 1923), 4043, 222, 230.

7 E.g. Elkins, Stanley, Slavery, a Problem in American Institutional and Social Life (New York, 1963), 96 and Davidson, Basil, Black Mother (London, 1961), 40. (For a discussion of African ‘slavery’ and ‘serfdom’, see the section on pp. 33–40.)

8 Fyfe, Christopher, A History of Sierra Leone (London, 1962): see index under ‘slave trade, internal’.

9 de Sanderval, Alonso, Natureleza… de Todos Etiopes (Seville, 1623).

10 Biblioteca de la Real Academia de la Historia (Madrid)– ‘Papeles de Jesuitas’, tomo 185, no. 1346, report of Barreira, P. Baltezar, Sierra Leone, 1606.

11 Monod, Th., Mota, A.Texeira da and Mauny, R. (eds.), Description de la côte occidentale d'Afrique (Sénégal au Cap de Monte, Archipels) par Valentim Fernandes (1506–1510) (Bissau 1951), 82. (To be cited subsequently as ‘Valentim Fernandes’.)

12 Fernandes, Valentim, op. cit. 88;de Almada, Alvares, ‘Tratado Breve dos Rios de Guiné’ (1594), in Brasio, P. Antonio, Monumenta missionaria africana, Africa ocidental (1570–1600), and series, vol. III (Lisbon, 1964), 323, 324, 333; and Alvares, Manual, ‘Ethiopia Menor, o descripçao geografica da Provincia de Serra Leoa’ (1616), MS. of the Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa.

13 Fernandes, Valentim, op. cit. 10.

14 de Almada, Alvares, ‘Rios de Guiné’, 234, 235.

15 Ibid. 344, 345, 347; and Peres, Damiao (ed), Duas descriçoes seiscentistas da Guiné de Francisco de Lemos Coelho (Lisbon, 1953), 5961, from the description written ifl 1669. (To be cited subsequently as ‘Lemos Coelho’.)

16 Park, Mungo, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa in the Years 1795, 1796 and 1797 (London, 1799), 297, 298.

17 de Anguiano, P. Mateo, Misiones capuchinas en Africa, ed. de Carrocera, P. Buenaventura, II (Madrid, 1950), 136–missionary report of 1686 on the Atlantic slave-trade as pursued on the Upper Guinea Coast. Cabo or Gabu was a Mandinga province extending between the Gambia and the Corubal. The ruler was called Farim or ‘governor’, because he was ostensibly a representative of the emperor of Mali.

18 de Almada, Alvares, ‘Rios de Guiné’, 275.

19 Wadstrom, C. B., An Essay on Colonisation (London, 1795), part 2, pp. 113117. A ‘bar’ originally signified an iron bar about 9 inches long. It came to be a unit of currency in the trade of the Upper Guinea Coast with a very imprecise and fluctuating value. Wadstrom estimated it at about 3S. (p. 56).

20 Wadstrom, C. B., op. cit. part 2, p. 117.

21 Cultru, P., Premier voyage de Sieur de la Courbe, fait à la Coste d'Afrique en 1685 (Paris, 1913), 252.

22 Mathews, John, A Voyage to the River Sierra Leone (London, 1788).

23 Laing, A. G., Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries (London, 1825), 221.

24 Marty, P., ‘Islam in French Guinea’ (trans.) in Sierra Leone Studies no. XIX (old series, 1936), 49–129.

25 Tauxier, L., Moeurs et histoire des Peuhls (Paris, 1937), 9. He renders the word rimaibe as ‘agricultural serfs’. The singular is dimadio.

26 Canot, Captain, The Adventures of an African Slaver (London, 1928), 128, 129. (This account was actually written in 1854 by one Brantz Meyer to whom Canot related his experiences.)

27 Public Record Office, London (to be cited below as P.R.O.), T 70/1465: diary of agent Charles, Walter, 1728. This mentions ‘Cayoba, a castle slave who had been made such from a sale slave’.

28 P.R.O. T 70/51: instructions to agent Freeman, 4 August 1702.

29 P.R.O. T 70/51: instructions to agent Freeman, I December 1702.

30 P.R.O. T 70/60: instructions from the directors, 5 October 1723.

31 P.R.O. T 70/1465: diary of agent Walter Charles.

32 Arquivo historico ultramarino, Lisbon (to be cited below as A.H. U.), Guiné, caixa II, no. 230, minute of the Conselho Ultramarino, 30 October 1694.

33 de Almada, Alvares, ‘Rios de Giné’, 326, and de Santiago, Fr. Francisco, ‘Chronica da Provincia Franciscana de Nossa Senhora da Soledade’ (MS.), extracts in Dias, A. J., ‘Cren’, Portugal em Africa, II, no. 9 (1945), 159–69.

34 Fyfe, Christopher, op. cit. 270.

35 P.R.O. T 70/53: instructions to agent Plunkett, 9 February 1721. (He was sent a new branding iron.)

36 P.R.O. T 70/16: letter from agent Edmund Pierce, February 1682.

37 P.R.O. T 70/361: Bence Island accounts, 1682.

38 A.H. U., Cabo Verde, caixa VI: Bishop of Cape Verde to the Conselho Ultramarino, 27 July 1694.

39 Wadstrom, C.B., op. cit. part 2, pp. 84, 85, 87.

40 Ibid. part 2, p. 117.

41 British Museum, Add, MS. 12131: papers relating to Sierra Leone, 1792–96, journals by Mr Gray and Mr Watt, 1795.

42 Canot, Captain, op. cit. 168, 169.

43 Crooks, J. J., in his A History of the Colony of Sierra Leone (Dublin, 1903), holds to the view of African slavery being ancient, but he makes no connexion with the Atlantic slave-trade.

44 See, for example, McKitrick, Eric (ed.), Slavery Defended: the Views of the Old South (New Jersey, 1963).

45 Obviously, the early records of the Portuguese in Benin and the Congo could be of vital importance here. Basil Davidson cited Pacheco Pereira to the effect that there were wars in Benin providing captives for the Europeans, and added that ‘these wars provided slaves for domestic use, much as in medieval Europe’. This is a reasonable presumption, but it is nevertheless an interpolation and not the evidence of Pacheco Pereira (Old Africa Rediscovered, 124, and Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, ed. Mauny, 134). For the Congo (121, 122) Davidson cites a secondary work: Ihle, A., Das alte Kōnigreich Kongo (1929).

46 Besides, Mungo Park was heavily influenced by the West Indian slave-owner Bryan Edwards; and it was one of the pro-slavery arguments that, if the majority of Africans were already slaves in Africa, then it would be no improvement in their lot to end the Atlantic slave-trade and American slavery. For a discussion of the extent to which Park was influenced by Edwards, see the introduction by Murray, John to the publication of Park's second Niger journey, The Journal of a Mission to Africa in the Year 1805.

47 Fernandes, Valentim, op. cit. 92, 96.

48 See, for example, the report of three Spanish Capuchin missionaries on the conduct of the Atlantic slave-trade on the Upper Guinea Coast in the latter part of the seventeenth century in Mateo de Anguiano, P., Misiones capuchinas en Africa, II, 132–46 (written in 1686).

49 McCulloch, M., op. cit. 24, 25.

50 Mauny, Raymond (ed.), Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, par Duarte Pacheco Pereira (vers 1506–1508) (Bissau, 1956), 134, 126.

51 de Almada, Alvares, op. cit. 301.

52 Jobson, Richard, The Golden Trade (London, 1933), 108, 109. The ‘slaves’ in the Gambia were owned by the Muslim imams.

53 See above, p. 434.

54 Oliver, R. and Fage, J. D., A Short History of Africa (London, 1962), 172.

55 Udo, R. K., ‘The migrant tenant farmer of eastern Nigeria’, in Africa, XXXIV, no. 4 (10, 1964), 333. There is a reference to the regime of household service in southern Nigeria in Black Mother, 39.

56 Duffy, James, Portugal in Africa (London, 1962), 61, 62, 69.

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