The Organisation of the Slave Trade on the African Coast
“The next day he took me on board a French brig; but the Captain did not chuse to buy me: he said I was too small; so the merchant, took me home with him again. The partner, whom I have spoken of as my enemy, was very angry to see me return, and again purposed putting an end to my life; for he represented to the other, that I should bring them into troubles and difficulties, and that I was so little that no person would buy me.The merchant’s resolution began to waver, and I was indeed afraid that I should be put to death: but however he said he would try me once more.A few days after a Dutch ship came into the harbour, and they carried me on board, in hopes that the Captain would purchase me.–As they went, I heard them agree, that, if they could not sell me then, they would throw me overboard.–I was in extreme agonies when I heard this; and as soon as ever I saw the Dutch Captain, I ran to him, and put my arms round him, and said, “father, save me.” (for I knew that if he did not buy me, I should be treated very ill, or, possibly, murdered) And though he did not understand my language, yet it pleased the ALMIGHTY to influence him in my behalf, and he bought me for two yards of check, which is of more value there, than in England.”
He knew specifically what Africans slave-traders at Old Calabar (in present-day Nigeria) wanted. Frequently, trading involved putting together a selection of different items, which also required careful thought. Ottobah Cugoano described being sold for, “a gun, a piece of cloth, and some lead”. Knowledge of how to trade came from experience in negotiations and the development of long-term social and economic relationships.Slave trade, print maker: Theodoor Koning after design by: Charles Joseph Dominique Eisen. Public domainSlave traders therefore had to know exactly what kind of goods were in demand in the African ports they intended to visit. Why did Africans want goods for slaves? First, it is important to understand that before 1900, African economies were not monetised; goods were exchanged through barter. The most popular item in all African regions were colourful textiles, which slave traders predominantly obtained from Asian manufacturers. Guns and gunpower and different kinds of liquor (rum, brandy or gin) were other goods in high demand, although not everywhere to the same degree. Slave ships furthermore carried varying assortments of smaller goods to Africa, including knives, iron bars, cowrie shells, glass beads, tobacco, unwrought metal and metallic objects, copperware, earthenware and glasswork. But within these broad categories, there were always regionally specific variations in shape, colour, texture and quantity. Any ship captain who did not know what his African trading partners wanted risked heavy losses on his slaving venture.When slave ships left their home ports for the African coast, they were practically floating warehouses, filled with expensive goods sourced from all corners of the world. Textiles mainly came from Asia, although some were manufactured in European countries. Denmark produced trade guns for the European slave trade, while Sweden and Belgium contributed iron. Cowrie shells came exclusively from the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and were carried to Europe by British and Dutch East India Company ships to be loaded on vessels destined to West Africa. Portuguese slave traders supplied African consumers with Brazilian tobacco, gold dust and rum (aguardente). Rhode Island slave traders carried American rum, while British, French and Dutch slavers usually bought their alcohol stocks from local distillers. When these goods reached Africa, coastal brokers forwarded them to their slave suppliers further inland. In this way, the slave trade was an immensely complex business that involved manufacturers, middlemen, enslavers and consumers in at least five different continents.“The kind we want must be in colours mostly red, on blue ground with red & blue stripes as they are for Old Callabarre & you must well know the patterns”.
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History of Slavery in the British Caribbean
- Ottobah Cugoano (1787), Narrative of the Enslavement of Ottobah Cugoano, a Native of Africa; Published by Himself, in the Year 1787.
History of Slavery in the British Caribbean
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