African Reactions To The Abolition Of The Slave Trade In Africa in Nineteenth Century – S. Daget
Between 1787 and 1807, In the period immediately abolition by the West, more than a million Africans were transported to the Americas. To this figure must be added about 15 per cent who died during the Atlantic passage, and an unknown number of deaths caused by the journey to the coast and during local slave-producing operations by African ‘fishers of men’.
Abolition certainly did not immediately disrupt the vitality of the export market on the coast. Indecisiveness by the abolitionists left Portugal and Brazil to carry on the illicit trade south of the Equator at their leisure, and exportation was sometimes as high as in the eighteenth century. Though seriously combated after 1842, the trade did not die out on the Loango Coast until the end of the century.
North of the Equator, extension of the abolition order to the European settlements brought about the closure of traditional trading centres in Senegambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Gold Coast. But the political authority of the settlements was weak, and abolition was not really effective beyond their boundaries. Sometimes Western slave-traders continued to operate in the vicinity. Gradually they disappeared, the production and distribution of exportable manpower was in the hands of Africans.
On the borders of Sierra Leone the configuration was an advantage to busy English, Spanish and mulatto-owned slave factories at Rio Nunez and Rio Pongos in the north-west and on the Gallinas river in the southeast. The production areas, though sometimes 400-500 km distant, were mostly near the coast. Transactions were personal between local chiefs, caravaneers, brokers and agents. In Dahomey, on the other hand, the slave trade was one of the mainstays of the ruling house, which delegated the running of it to its chief vassals.
In 1818 King Gezo, who was in debt to the Brazilian mulatto Francisco Felix Da Souza, appointed Da Souza as chacha, a ‘white-man’s chief who acted as an economic adviser and administrator of the Whydah trade. This office survived the death of the first chacha in 1849 and was inherited by Da Souza’s son. It was management on a grand scale: the chachas kept a stock of Western goods, offset bookkeeping debits and credits, prepared cargoes in advance to facilitate speedy loading, collected taxes, checked the movements of white foreigners, and provided entertainment for their customers.
This economic apparatus was capable of being adapted to other types of produce. Produce for the slave trade, which was in the hands of the chiefs, was secured by annual military expeditions, not always victorious, against the neighboring countries, principally the Yoruba. It also came from the Central Sudan – whence captives were distributed, moreover, to the north and to Egypt – by caravans, which split up their loads at the border: the blacks earmarked for export, who were strong, were kept aside and incorporated in the ordinary porterage teams.
Further east, from Badagry to the borders of the kingdom of Benin, prolonged strife among the Yoruba people glutted the Whydah market. Local rulers and the black and white slave-traders of the lagoons supplied the heavy demand from the Portuguese and Brazilians, who made the best part of their fortune out of it before turning their hands to other kinds of trade.
East of Cape Formosa, among the rivers of the Niger delta from the Nun to Old Calabar, the slave trade was still run by the remarkable machinery that came into play in the last third of the eighteenth century, though this was already being applied to other types of trade that were carried on simultaneously. Local priests and dignitaries, the Arochukwu oracle, the ‘Canoe Houses’ and the Ekpe society, ran a market which accounted for half the slave trade north of the Equator: about 200 000 individuals.
Produce came in from Sokoto, Benue, Nupe, north-western Cameroon and the inner delta area, procured by the traditional methods: warring, kidnapping, in settlement of debts, payment of protection tribute, community purges, straightforward purchase on the market, and straightforward gift. It was taken via chains of dealers, or the usual supply channels, to the distribution points. There again, transactions were governed by well-tried procedures. The price per slave had been fixed in advance in the local money of account, the copper bar, equivalent to a specific quantity of goods – the same as in earlier periods.
In 1825 and 1829 men and women were worth 67 bars, and the price went down as low as 45 or 50. In terms of the value of the landed cargo, the price per slave was 33 Spanish dollars, of which 8-10 per cent went to the distributors by way of commission. At Duke Town, Duke Ephraim’s city in Old Calabar, the heads of other more or less rival houses, Egbo Eyo, Tom Honesty and Ogan Henshaw, helped to make up cargoes with slaves or foodstuffs. Forty thousand yams cost 2000 bars, the price of forty slaves. Around 1830 the biggest share of the trade was reputedly carried on at Bonny. Estimates of the volume of the slave trade during the sixty years of the abolitionist period can only be in terms of orders of magnitude.
From 1807 to 1867, between Senegal and Mozambique, 4000 European and American ships carried out perhaps 5000 slaving expeditions, representing a displacement of 1000 000 metric tonnes. Goods to the value of roughly sixty million piastres or dollars were bartered for a total of 1 900000 Africans actually put on board at the export points. Of these, most probably 80 per cent were loaded south of the Equator.
Between the beginning of the century and the 1880s, the trans-Saharan trade and the Arab trade exported 1 200 000 and 800 000 black Africans respectively, individuals who had been captured in the vast belt stretching from the Bambara country in the west to southern Mozambique. Cliometricians, sociologists and historians agree that the slave trade was a complete catastrophe for Africa. Their learned observation endorses the popular view. But the proposition needs explanation.
Humanitarianism is a Western ideology, and it is unlikely to have found any place in the minds of African distributors of the time – with very rare exceptions. But this does not mean that they were constitutionally incapable of giving up the trade, as Western supporters of slavery maintained. The continuance of the supply of exportable manpower from Africa can be logically explained in economic terms. That the distributors were black and the exporters white is irrelevant: it was a paying proposition, profitable to both trading partners, whose sole object was to make money. That was the situation at the grass roots. The continuance of the supply is to be explained in terms of the efficient working of an integrated system: and what Africans were resisting was the disruption of this system.
For one thing, it would have ruined the established business of the distributors, who had no other prospects, to say nothing of the chain of repercussions it would have set off on the social and political structure, both locally and further afield. In other words, so long as the barter system between the hinterland and the coast, and the coast’s foreign trade, had no clear alternative to the slave trade, opposition by African slave-traders to its suppression was dictated strictly by the imperative needs to avoid commercial chaos.
The supposed complicity of the African distributors was no more than a reflex reaction to the immediate economic situation. This also explains the fall in the selling price of exportable manpower: it was the market’s defense against growing pressure from the forces of suppression. The latter thus helped to contribute to an unsatisfactory situation. This argument needs to be modified when the exportation of Africans to the north or east is considered. While the economic interests of the slave hunters and distributors are self evident in this case too, it is hard to see what kind of economic compensation accrued to the countries that were plundered.
Certain individuals with strong personalities were able to consolidate their power, men like Tippu Tip, for instance, or Rabeh. But any benefits that may have been conferred on the regions under their control still have to be identified by specialists.
Sierra Leone and Liberia
One cliometrician has indicated that suppression saved 657000 people from slavery in America. Another specialist considers this figure to be far too high and has reduced it to 40000 for the period from 1821 to 1843. Estimates of the number of slave ships captured by the anti-slavery squadrons are not much more precise. It may reasonably be put at somewhere between 1000 and 1200 men-of-war, about a quarter of the probable total of the number of expeditions carried out in the illegal trade.
The courts of the British Vice-Admiralty, the French courts, the American squadrons and, above all, the Mixed Commissions (which, having served their purpose, were disbanded between 1867 and 1870) freed about 160000 Africans. Being known to all as slaves, i.e. chattels, their freeing did not happen of its own accord: it required a decision by the naval or colonial authorities, or by the commissions, to relieve them of their slave status. Several thousand freed slaves, severed from their roots, led a precarious and threatened existence in the very heart of the Brazilian and Cuban slave plantations, posing the problem of their social and economic integration. A few hundred acquired a dubious status in the French settlements in Guyana, Senegal and Gabon. Others acquired a genuine political existence, as in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
At Freetown, the 94 329 men, women and children registered on the books of the Liberated African Department provided the first original, positive indications as to how the various questions arising in connection with the suppression of the slave trade could be answered. In 1808 the British Crown took over Sierra Leone, with the object of partly redeeming the failure of the philanthropic settlement founded twenty years earlier on the three principles of the anti-slavery movement, Christianity, civilization and trade. In three waves of voluntary settlement, 2089 former slaves and fugitives from England, Nova Scotia and Jamaica had colonized the north-east of the peninsula. These foreigners got on badly with their African neighbors. The French, in addition, ravaged their plantations. Some of the settlers intrigued for personal power. The climate and the unhealthy surroundings took a heavy toll of the settlers. Worst of all, the Company entrusted with the administration declared itself unable to keep its promises in regard to landownership rights.
By 1802 the pioneer stock had been reduced to 1406. The colony was saved by the humanitarian, abolitionist function which was given to it in 1808. By 1811 the population had risen to 4000. After twenty years of official existence as a colony there were 21 000 Africans living in the mountain villages and at Freetown. By 1850 the town had 16950 inhabitants and the interior nearly 40000. There were eighty-nine whites. By that time new arrivals were finding themselves among the third generation of free citizens of a largely self-governing state. The first generation had coped with the problems of creating a viable new society from scratch. Between 1816 and 1823 the impetus came from the Governor, Sir Charles MacCarthy, an administrator and builder with the soul of a missionary.
The continual growth of the population, and its eagerness to put down roots, made improvement of the amenities imperative. As the seat of the colonial government and the naval Vice-Admiralty, the victualling base for the naval patrol, and the official liberation centre for the Mixed Commissions, Freetown and the interior could count on a more or less regular injection of subsidies. MacCarthy improved the early villages and built new ones, where new arrivals were adopted and settled down among brothers. Vague European notions of model communities contrasted with African values, ways of life and traditional activities. Land and property in the town appreciated in value, and craft industries and trade opened the way to personal prosperity.
Around 1828 enterprising individuals secured the entrĂ©e to the coast’s new type of economy. In 1831 the colony was opened to foreign trade. The standard of British governors and the level of British subsidies fell. The Sierra Leoneans were to take charge of their own affairs, subject to remaining within the colonial framework. Throughout this teething period Western influence, including that of the missionaries, was crucial. The British upper and ruling classes financed the churches and the smaller denominations, whose personnel had had no training whatsoever in anti-slavery or missionary work. Sierra Leone became their training ground. In addition to spreading Christianity and civilization the missions had to fight the slave trade, especially at Rio Pongos. But local slave-traders suspected these people of spying for the colonial government: they set fire to buildings of the Church Missionary Society who abandoned the field. In the colony itself, where political authority was conscious of its humanitarian mission, the missionaries were not unconscious of politics. MacCarthy put them in charge of the villages of freed slaves.
In the civil administration, despite acute personal and doctrinal rivalries, the co-operation of powerful personalities with the government achieved sound long-term results. Schools were opened, and scores of different ethnic groups rubbed shoulders in them, through the intermediary of English, from which a national language developed. Though religious syncretism was not achieved, at any rate Christianity, traditional African religions and Islam co-existed at close quarters. The second generation solved the problems of growth. Liberated Africans began to occupy high positions, first in competition with and then alongside the old founding stock. Initially there was neither perfect harmony nor complete integration between the two groups: the earlier inhabitants tried to maintain a class distinction.
During the peak twenty years of slave-trade suppression, the situation was further complicated by the arrival of 2000 people a year. Despite gaps caused by mortality, not all of them could be assimilated. Some of them were recruited into the British army. One in every ten emigrated to the Gambia under compulsion. An official emigration scheme to the West Indies was set up, in theory offering freedom of decision and guaranteeing repatriation. But the planned nature of the scheme was too reminiscent of the horrors of the past. The liberated Africans preferred the hardships of the bush or the security of the traditional villages. On the other hand, with the help of the missionaries several thousand returned to their original areas, mainly the Yoruba country, where they told of their experiences and the skills they had acquired.
From the economic point of view, a spectacular ‘boom’ could not be expected. By 1827, however, an embryonic development process had started. The main emphasis was laid, at first, on the production of food, and especially of rice, but efforts were also directed towards the cultivation of export crops and the exploitation of local natural resources: in the first category there were sugar, ginger and indigo, and in the second there were coffee and exotic timber. An indigenous variety of coffee had been discovered in the early days of the settlement and was cultivated systematically.
In 1835, this was beginning to provide an economic argument for allocating more funds for putting an end to the peripheral Rio Nunez or Gallinas slave trade: in just eighteen months, a trading house in London had received almost 65 000 kg of coffee, which confirmed the need to protect the people engaged in growing and marketing the crop. Sierra Leonean companies established for the purpose of exporting timber, especially a variety of teak, were beginning to prosper. Here again, the main interest lay in the creation of a reliable economic substitute for the slave trade: in 1824 fifty Western ships loaded 200000 dollars’ worth of timber in the Sierra Leone estuary. Favourable conditions combined to create a certain amount of wealth (it can hardly be described as capital) within the colony. Its ships began to ply the waters along the West African coast as far as the Bight of Biafra. Foreign ships were thenceforth able to put in safely to ports in the estuary for the purpose of the legitimate trade so earnestly desired by the abolitionists.
However, the significance of this ‘take-off’ should not be exaggerated: it simply showed that the experiment was viable, with a minimum of administrative support from the European metropolis. All things considered, the British government’s action in 1853 in making the Sierra Leoneans subjects of the Crown represented implicit recognition of the fact that a heterogeneous medley of cultures had been welded together into a viable Creole society. A ‘civilized’ nation had been created not according to some Utopian European model but by the strength of its own genius. The part that was obviously played by the British antislavery movement left intact the character of an African solution. The experience of Liberia was only slightly different.
In law, the settlement established by the American Colonization Society at Cape Mesurado in 1821 was a piece of private enterprise. The federal government of the USA had no hand in it; but it did set up a temporary office there without any governmental functions, whose staff became members of the society. It handed over to the settlement the Africans freed by the naval patrol, thus helping to populate the country. The creation of Liberia was the result of philanthropic and civilizing aspirations, but also of a desire to mitigate the expansion of the black population in the USA, which was regarded as dangerous.
A mere handful of settlers defended their settlement against opposition from the local chiefs. The latter disputed that they had given up either their lands or their sovereignty, and also the black foreigners’ aim of cutting down the main overseas commercial activity carried on in the area, namely the slave trade. The Reverend Jehudi Ashmun stood up to this opposition with 450 settlers, 200 of whom were liberated Africans. This defensive action proved the saving of the settlement; and in 1824 it was given the name of Liberia, with Monrovia as its main centre. A political charter was drawn up in the USA and administered by the local governor according to his own interpretation of it. When ships arrived, whether American or not, Ashmun set them to trading legally in ivory, timber, skins and oil in return for traditional Western goods. This trade is said to have begun to show a profit in 1826, but this is doubtful. By 1830, in addition to 260 liberated Africans, the settlement comprised 1160 settlers, mostly slaves from the Southern plantations manumitted by their owners for propaganda or pioneering reasons. There were few free-born American blacks: they were to arrive later. The Colonization Society’s American policy was ambivalent: to Northerners it stressed the evangelical advantages of repatriation, while to Southerners it held out the glowing prospect that in getting rid of blacks they were purifying their own society.
The factors that made for the success of Liberia were of three kinds. In the first place, other colonization societies grew out of the original one and founded three more settlements, at Bassa Cove, Sinoe and Cape Palmas: the last, named Maryland, being incorporated in the country’s territory only in 1856. There was self-government in the sense that the American societies were subordinated to the settlements and not the other way round. The inhabitants showed courage in an environment that was hostile both ecologically and politically. The land was not very fertile, and had been worked by archaic methods. There was no business and no capital, and free men’s labour was expensive. But there were engineers who knew how to build in concrete. The settlements on the coast drove out the slavetraders and stopped the trade. The aim of philanthropists and colonizers was achieved.
The second factor was the personal qualities of the people in charge. Their background was Anglican and English-speaking; they were well fitted for the life they had chosen, but they were realists; and they planted the seeds of a new nation. The constitution that Thomas Buchanan brought from the USA in 1839 was remodelled to suit the specific case of Liberia. John B. Russwurm, the Governor of Maryland from 1836 to 1851, brought into being a land which racialism could not reach. J.J. Roberts, Governor of Liberia from 1841 and then President from 1847 to 1856, showed himself to be a statesman. The scene was set for de facto independence. It was a challenge by the British to the country’s legal existence that led to de jure independence. British seamen and traders contested the attributes of sovereignty assumed by Monrovia, such as control of trade, taxation and a national flag. The dispute had arisen on the economic plane, but the reply came at international diplomatic level when the USA enlightened Britain about the nature of its relationship with the settlements: Liberia was not an American colony, although it had US support. It was Governor Roberts who persuaded the settlers to overcome their pusillanimity and demonstrate their political maturity. By a simple but peremptory declaration of independence, Liberia was enrolled among the sovereign powers on 26 July 1847, and the first African republic was born. Under the constitution establishing the legislature, executive and judiciary, nationality was open only to citizens of black race.
Around 1860, 6000 of them were manumitted slaves, 5700 were slaves freed by the American naval patrol, 4500 had been born free in the USA, and 1000 had purchased their freedom. The republic had still to assert its authority on its own soil, fight the French system of ‘free enlistment’, defend its frontiers and enlarge its territory. All that was still in the future. As regards the period we are considering, it cannot be said that Liberia was as well developed economically as Sierra Leone. The French naval officer, Edouard Bouet-Willaumez, who was in command of the anti-slavetrade squadron, sailed along the Liberian coast on several occasions. He was struck by the poverty of the inhabitants. This economic appraisal contrasted with the qualitative appraisal made during the same period by the American Horatio Bridge, according to whom Liberia deserved to be known as the ‘black man’s paradise’. Each of these views is coloured, however, by the personality of the individual who expressed it: they are the views of white men imbued with the spreading of colonialist mentality.
In terms of historical significance, it would probably be irrational and certainly anachronistic to present the experiments made in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the nineteenth century as precursors of the independence movements of the twentieth century. But the birth of the idea that new African nations could be created on a coast ravaged by 250 years of unbridled slave-trading and the materialization of that idea, were prodigious events in themselves. While it pointed the way ahead, the experience of Sierra Leone and Liberia fell short of satisfying the new generations of abolitionists.
The anti-slavery movement was divided as to the methods and priorities to be adopted for the purpose of dismantling American slavery and the African slave trade. The failure of a philanthropic settlement on the Niger, sponsored by T. F. Buxton in 1841, brought criticism of the lack of success of abolition and a denunciation of the total failure of suppression. However, these rearguard critics were fighting an uphill battle, for despite official reluctance, the idea of colonization societies was gaining ground in private circles. Above all, the coast north of the Equator was wide open to innovations.


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