The first four editions of the Rough Guide to West Africa don't have a lot to say about slavery. I'm not sure why. Maybe when we first wrote the book it seemed too obvious or well known a subject to be able – or to need – to add any more. But there's a great deal of documented history, showing how the slave trade had a momentum of its own that swept up the slave-acquirers, the slave-sellers, and the slave-buyers. It's a fascinating and of course disturbing, complex, contradictory story. Anyway, when editing the recently updated Ghana chapter, I decided to add a separate account of slavery in Ghana. Here's the draft of what will apppear in the next edition.
The Gold Coast Slave Trade
The earliest Portuguese traders on the coast were seeking to outflank Europe’s traditional suppliers of gold from the region, the trans-Saharan caravans. There was also a ready supply of human captives available for trade. Although by the middle of the sixteenth century, the market for slaves was waning in Europe, it was booming in Portugal’s new island colonies off the African Coast – the Cape Verdes and São Tomé – and in Brazil, which by 1600 was a major slave importer. The pace of colonization in the Caribbean and the Americas soon became so fast, and the demand for slaves to work the plantations so great, that Dutch and English, together with a few French, Danish, Swedish and even Prussian traders, soon came to fulfill a trans-Atlantic demand that the Portuguese alone were unable to meet. The Gold Coast slave trade was one segment, perhaps a tenth, of an African trade that also featured Senegambia, Sierra Leone, the “Windward Coast” (present-day Liberia), the “Slave Coast” (present day Porto Novo to Lagos), the Niger Delta and Cameroons, the Congo and Angola.
In 1700, the population of what is now Ghana is estimated to have been about one million. During the course of the eighteenth century, the numbers of slaves from the Gold Coast forts sold into the Middle Passage (the central leg of the Europe–Africa–Americas–Europe trading triangle), rose from around 2,000 a year to perhaps 10,000, with up to two out of three being men and boys aged between 8 and 20. The majority of Gold Coast slaves were deported to the Caribbean, where they worked for the rest of their lives on British, Dutch, French or Spanish sugar plantations. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, there were relatively few slaves in the North American colonies. But by 1750, Charleston and other ports were starting to buy African slaves from Caribbean traders. By the end of the eighteenth century, the USA was importing slaves directly, to work the cotton and tobacco fields supplying European factories.
It is estimated that for every 100 slaves who survived the crossing, 50 to 100 died, perishing during capture, while on the overland trek to the coast, while awaiting shipment in the dungeons, or at sea. The impact of removing so many of the fittest and most able young people – perhaps averaging ten percent each year from affected communities – was devastating, akin to a pandemic: every family suffered direct consequences as husbands, brothers and sons, as well as wives, sisters and daughters, were captured or disappeared. The population in the Gold Coast, which had been increasing by forty percent each century, hardly changed for more than 100 years. The best available estimate is that around a million slaves were transported from the Gold Coast to the Americas between 1600 and the mid-nineteenth century, when the (by then illegal) trade finally dried up.
Some slaves were convicts, others were kidnapped deliberately, but the majority of slaves were taken from communities destroyed in wars or ruined in the aftermath of conflict – for example during famines when families often pawned children who they were unable to care for to richer communities. The period of the Asante empire’s greatest military expansion, 1699–1800, coincided with a period of rapid growth in the American colonies and the start of the industrial revolution in around 1770 (and the same period saw the deportation of an estimated 700,000 slaves). During this time, the Asante enslaved hundreds of thousands of enemy combatants, refugees and civilians – especially from truculent vassal states in the Northern, Upper West and Upper East Regions of present-day Ghana, as well as from further afield in present-day Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina and Togo – and sold them to Fante middlemen who passed them on to the fort-based traders, receiving payment largely in firearms, in a spiraling cycle of aggressive expansionism. The few dozen Fante-speaking Europeans based on the coast virtually never engaged directly in slave capture, only rarely venturing inland and remaining in the forts to manage their import-export businesses.
How much the slave trade drove the Asante military machine, and how much it was driven by it, is hard to say, but the trade itself was certainly driven as much by the African demand for European goods – cloth, liquor, metal tools, straight cash and especially firearms and gunpowder – as by the insatiable demand from the Americas for slaves and by the unquenchable appetite of the European cash economies for sugar and cotton.
Down on the coast, captives were canoed through the surf, then herded onto slave ships anchored offshore, where they sometimes waited months for them to fill. Or they spent long periods in overcrowded dungeons and holding pens in the forts – or “factories” as the early English traders called them – run mostly by British or Dutch chartered trading companies, with a mixture of paid and enslaved local labour. Once embarked on the Middle Passage, a voyage of five to seven weeks, conditions for slave deportees were grim and terrifying. On their backs, bent forwards, or paired together to save space, they were shackled in irons, in claustrophobic confinement, for hours on end. Captains concerned for their cargo’s health – or for reduced losses – brought the slaves onto the main deck during the day, but in rough weather they were confined between decks for days at a time. In Britain, the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788 stipulated a space allowance of 6ft by 1ft 4in (1.8m by 0.4m) for each adult man. But such legal niceties carried little weight and paled in relation to the reality: washing was rarely possible; excrement accumulated in the waste tubs; disease spread rapidly; bodies were disposed of overboard; and punishment beatings and forced feeding were not uncommon.
Although there was undoubtedly public consternation about the slave trade, the business peaked at a time when the legal rights of Europeans themselves were embryonic in comparison with today: in Britain, transportation to Australia (effectively as slave labour) was a routine punishment and burning at the stake still practised. From the 1760s, reformists lobbied for a ban, but it was the slave revolt on Haiti (1792–1804) that triggered moves toward an end to the trade. The trading nations, partly sensitized by French revolution and the newly independent United States of America, partly terrified of what the future might bring if more slave revolts should occur, steadily turned against the trade. The first Europeans to outlaw the slave trade were the Danish, in 1804, followed by the British in 1807. Other trading nations followed suit, but it wasn’t until the British abolition of the institution of slavery itself, in 1833, that the trade began to decline rapidly, to be replaced by a burgeoning trade in ivory, hides and, later in the nineteenth century, palm oil for the soap and chemical industries. In the Gold Coast, palm oil was produced mostly on Asante and Fante palm plantations – worked partly with slave labour.
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