THE SLAVE TRADE
(Close this window to return to the main contents)
One of the aims of the Dutch Government, when it established the West India Company in 1621, was to obtain a share in the African slave trade which was largely controlled by the Portuguese. At that time Portugal was united with Spain, with whom the Dutch were at war. Therefore, the Dutch also attacked the Portuguese and seized many of their slave trading posts in West Africa.
With the expansion of plantations in the Americas, and the increasing market for slaves, other European countries, including England and France, also established trading companies to supply slaves to their colonies.
It is estimated that the English transported 1,900,000 slaves to their colonies in the Caribbean from 1651 to 1807 when they finally abolished the slave trade. The French, whose trade lasted between 1664 and 1830, shipped about 1,650,000 to their colonies. In roughly the same period, the Dutch took 900,000 to the Guianas and the West Indies. Of course, these figures do not include those who died on the sea voyage and those who were killed by slave hunters in the gathering process in Africa.
The European slave trading companies and also independent slave traders carried out their slave collecting in western Africa in the areas of Senegal, Gambia, the Gold Coast, the Niger delta, and even as far south as the Congo River and Angola. The captains of slave ships traded directly with African chiefs or through "factors" who were European agents in charge of slave collecting centres. At these centres, the slaves were kept in enclosed areas known as baracoons.
All over western Africa, domestic slavery existed within various tribes. Actually, the lowest caste within these tribes were born and lived as slaves and performed the task as servants in households. Merchants who also owned slaves used them for carrying heavy loads through the forest and savannah.
"Prisoners of war" captured during inter-tribal warfare and raids were generally sold to European slave traders. In many cases, groups of African "slave catchers" were employed by the factors to raid villages and capture the residents who became part of the growing slave collection in the baracoons.
Many slaves were obtained very far inland where they were collected in a "coffle" and marched to the coast. Two slaves were chained together around the leg and groups of four were secured by a rope. At times, a Y-shaped stick was fastened with the fork round the neck of the slave walking in front and the stem resting on the neck of the slave walking behind. Free Africans employed by the slave catchers guarded the coffle.
On arrival on the coast, after many days of travel, the slaves were penned up in the baracoon, where they were prepared for sale. They were washed and their bodies were shaved and oiled to give them a good appearance. The European buyer who arrived in his slave trading ship would examine each slave before he agreed upon a price. The African slave dealers often demanded payment in cowrie shells, their own currency, and certain European goods which included iron bars, brass basins, and good quality cloth. In the 1690s, a slave was bought for goods equivalent to about 4 English pounds. About a hundred years later, as some records show, a British slave trader paid for each male slave 96 yards of cloth, 52 handkerchiefs, 1 large brass pan, 2 muskets, 25 kegs of gunpowder, 100 flints, 2 bags of shot, 20 knives, 4 iron pots, 4 hats, 4 caps, 4 cutlasses, 6 bunches of beads ans 14 gallons of brandy.
The Middle Passage
From the baracoons, the slaves, chained in groups, were transported in small boats to the slave ships which was anchored either midstream of a large river or off shore in the Atlantic. The slaves were terribly afraid of what faced them. Some thought that the white sailors were cannibals and they also believed that going to another land far away was like going to hell. Because of the dreadful fear of their future they faced away from their homeland, they occasionally rebelled but were repressed with force. Some of them, rather than face the journey across the unknown Atlantic, jumped overboard from the slave ships and were drowned.
The slave ship travelled for about three months along the coast of west Africa stopping at slave collecting stations along the way to purchase additional slaves. Finally, the ship, with its full cargo of slaves packed closely together in the hold, turned west and sailed away towards the American continent.
Each slave ship was constructed to transport large numbers of slaves. A typical ship's hold was 5 feet 8 inches deep and this was packed with slaves lying flat on the floor. On the walls, shelves 6 feet wide were built and upon these slaves were made to lie down close to each other. In this way, a ship was built to transport about 450 slaves, but it was not unusual for 600 to be packed in it.
The trip to the Caribbean region, known as the Middle Passage, took from five to eight weeks. The slaves were fed on deck and occasionally some managed to leap overboard. While there was a steady loss of life through suicide, most of the deaths were caused by disease brought about by the unhealthy situation in the ship's hold. Small pox, eye diseases and dysentery were common and these also affected the ship's crew. It is estimated that about 10 percent of slaves perished on the Middle Passage.