Prior to the British and New England transatlantic slave trade which brought Africans to the America’s for labor, human bondage was a well-established institution in Africa. Though seen as a scramble for African colonies by European nations, the 1884-85 Berlin Conference also looked for an end to the slaving operations of Zanzibari/Swahili strongman Tippu Tip.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Africa’s Long Heritage of Human Bondage
Nigerian history along the coast, like that of Sierra Leone and the Gambia, begins with the Portuguese. A Portuguese ship reached the Bight of Benin in 1472. Traders of other countries, including the British in particular, then began to reach this wild, forlorn, fragrant coast — they sought “pepper, Elephant’s teeth, oyl of palm, cloth made of cotton wool very curiously woven, and cloth made of the barke of palme trees.”
Soon came traffic much more lucrative, that in human beings. Indeed slavery dominates Nigerian history for almost three hundred years, with all its bizarre and burning horrors. We have already touched on slavery in East Africa; on the West Coast its history was different.
First: the origin of the Atlantic trade was the discovery of America and the consequent development of sugar plantations in the West Indies. When the American aborigines were killed off (by English, French and Spanish settlers), as they were promptly, a labor force had to be found somewhere, and slaves from Africa were a marvelously cheap (as valued by African tribes) and convenient device to this end. The trade brought fantastic profits.
In the Cameroons in the early days the purchase of a slave from African tribes was “two measures of Spanish wine” and he could be sold for a thousand ducats, the profit being 5,000 percent. As late as 1786, a slave could be bought from African tribes in Nigeria for 2 pounds and sold in America for 65 pounds. In that period, 100,000 slaves or more were shipped across the Atlantic each year.
Second: Aside from the British and Portuguese there were slave traders of several other nationalities, but Britain got a monopoly of the business by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1712.
Third: Africans were as much involved in the overseas slave traffic as the Europeans since the latter did not dare as rule penetrate inland from the sea — the interior was too dangerous.
Instead, they bought slaves from warlike African tribes — the Ashanti on the Gold Coast for instance — who seized and collected other Africans and marched them to the coast. As much barbarity accompanied these raids on Africans by Africans as accompanied the actual voyage across the ocean.
Fourth: Africans also sought and captured slaves for themselves. In Northern Nigeria for example, slavery was almost universal until most recent times; slavery did not become illegal in Nigeria till 1901, and a few domestic slaves are still alive who have never been emancipated. A case can be made for slavery and the slave trade. It is that tribal wars took place in the African interior without cessation, and that it was better for a man to be taken prisoner and made a domestic slave or even sold into slavery, than to be killed and perhaps eaten.
On a slave raid the object was to get the prisoner alive and with luck, he might survive the trip to America or Arabia. On balance, the slave trade (despite its inferno-like horrors) may have saved more lives than it cost. In any case it is the origin of a great many healthy, useful and progressive Negro communities in the Western world.
(Inside Africa, John Gunther, Harper & Brothers, 1955, excerpts)