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How Aware Were Africans of Slavery and the Slave Trade In General?

Robert Bluestein, Special to Historyreview and Quora


Robert Bluestein takes questions from Students and From Quora and History Review. This is part of my Historical Research and Development Project designed to make the exchange of information free for all.

The answer is, well, it depends. Since many of the tribes along the Atlantic and Gold Coast, (Gabon, Senegal, Ghana, Benin, Togo, Burkina, Nigeria) had little in the way of a written language, historians have to look at migration to see if the peoples were fully aware of it. And since few, if any slaves ever returned to Africa to tell their story, it was up to the people on the ships and occasional chaplains to give them a clue as to what lay ahead for them.

European economies were greatly stimulated by the slave trade as well as the accumulation of resources. The conditions were more severe than history can even write about. I have tried to explain what this must have been like aboard a slave ship and words fail to do it justice. All five of your senses would be assaulted within five miles of the arrival of the slave ships. Worse still, almost half of them were dead or dying when the ships arrived.

Initially, letters from slaves who were taught to read and write in the States revealed their fears of the Europeans. They had always fought to a conclusion right there in the jungle. They would battle, win-or-lose, make a treaty, and repeat. Of course that is a gross oversimplification but my point is to say that conquering them in the jungle was one thing, but chaining them up and pulling them on ships was something very different to their cultures. Consequently, they they would be eaten alive. You can imagine what went through their minds. Entire social structures were disrupted and once the ship left, their troubles were far from over. Local tribesmen continued to hunt down others and enslaved them until the next ship came.

In America, most of these ships were headed to three ports of call. The first, and the largest, was NOT in the south. It was in Newport Rhode Island. The second largest port was NOT in the south either - It was in Boston. Richmond Virginia was, for a time, the largest slave port in the south. Boston however was known for having the largest auctions, and yet as strange as it seems, they had the highest number of ‘Freed Blacks’’ of any city in the Americas.

The Yoruba were numerous among the area and were the fiercest of warriors.

They had been exposed to Islam and their society was well organized compared to many of the others. But something caused them to push inland, toward the desert winds of the Sahara. We don’t know what it was, but we see migrations happening in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Perhaps they were the pursued; perhaps they were the ones pursuing.

Some tribes decided to cooperate with the slave traders and actually were paid to go and hunt other tribesmen. The Efek people of Cross Rivers were mercenaries. When I was in Nigeria, I picked up a High School text book and even in Nigeria, they make an honest self-assessment.

‘’ Where did the supply of slaves come from? First the Portuguese themselves kidnapped some Africans. But the bulk of the supply came from the Nigerians. These Nigerian middlemen moved to the interior where they captured other Nigerians who belonged to other communities. Many Nigerian began to depend totally on the slave trade and neglected every other business and occupation. The result was that when the trade was abolished by the English in 1807, these Nigerians began to protest. As years went bu the trade collapsed and Nigerians lost their source of income and became impoverished. ‘’

In Ghana, politician and educator Samuel Fuseini has acknowledged that the Asante ancestors accumulated their great wealth by abducting , capturing, and kidnapping Africans and selling them as slaves.

Likewise, Ghanian diplomat Kofi Awoonor has written: ‘’I believe their is a great psychic shadow over Africa, and it has much to do with our guilt and denial of our role in the slave trade. We too are blameworthy in what is essentially one the most heinous crimes in human history.’’

Roger Gnoan M’bala, a Civil Rights campaigner from the Ivory Coast, summed it succinctly, ‘’…Tribe stalked tribe, and eventuallymore than 20 million Africans would be kidnapped in their own homeland.’’

The Africans living in Western Africa became aware enough to begin to resist, and this is where the Europeans began to arm the tribes that they were doing business with. It disrupted a number of tribes and created a huge imbalance. Although it is impossible to know for sure, some tribes seemed to have dissipated or disappeared altogether. Still, the image of Africans chained, yoked, and shackled by their African captors weeks before ever laying eyes on European slave traders.

In a world where Survival of the Fittest applies to humans, the quality of slaves being sent to the Americas began to wane. This is why European vessels began to sail around the Cape of Good Hope and bring slaves over from Kenya and Uganda.

The ‘’invasion’’ of Europeans into sub-Saharan Africa resulted in a rush to make a single point of communication so that the tribes could work together. While it worked on a smaller scale, the tribes were just too often at war with another and economically tied to the Europeans that it perpetuated misery for over a hundred and fifty years.

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References: Johnson et al., Africans in America, 2–3; Howard French ‘’On Slavery, Africans Say the Guilt Is Theirs Too.’’ NYTimes, 12–94

ibid..: Drescher abd Engerman, Historical Guide to New World Slavery, p.34–35

Loren King, ‘’A disturbing Look at he Betrayals of Slaves.’’ Boston Globe, 9–2001

Darlene Clark Hine, Willaim C Hine, The African American Odyssey, 2nd Ed., volume one (Upper Saddle River NJ, Prentice Hall, 37–49

Michael Omolewa, Central History of Nigeria (Lagos, Nigeria: Longman Group, 1991) 96–113. (Central Press of Nigeria)

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