Slavery was common and normal in West Africa as it was in all the early empires of history. Slavery was the end product of those that were captured in pre-colonial wars of conquest and expansion. Slavery was also the punishment for committing crime and misdemeanour and non-payment of debts. People in these situation had their status reduced to slavery. They were classified as domestic slaves, thereby seen as members ofhis master’s family. In this case, slaves could own property and be protected against injustice. In fact, where a slave behaved well by offering good service to his master, he could be declared a freeman at the will of his master.
Slave trade existed in West Africa long before the coming of the Europeans. For so many centuries, North African merchants had taken slaves from Western Sudan to North Africa and the Orient.
The clear-cut departure from slavery to slave trade was when the Europeans came to West Africa to purchase slaves for labour on the plantation of the West Indies and America. All the European nations began to compete for the trade and offered a variety of goods in exchange- firearms, alcohol and fabrics of all kinds.
The first European to take Africa into slave trade was Goncalves, a Portuguese explorer. In 1441, he returned to Portugal with parties of about ten slaves in order to confirm to Prince Henry that they have sailed to West African Coast. Prince Henry converted them to Christians and trained them as evangelists to be sent back home for evangelism.
The export of slaves from West African sub-region to the New World was inaugurated at Circa in 1518. This was in response to the establishment of agricultural plantations in the newly discovered America, West Indies and Canada. Between 1492 and 1577, slaves were first taken to Europe for transportation to the New World. The enslavement of West Africans by the Europeans began in the 15th century and the development in the slave trade began in the 16th century.
Equally, there were the establishment of many large plantations and opening up of mines in America. These mines and plantations required cheap labour on a very large scale from West Africa to the New World. This means, as the plantations and the mines increased, the high demand for slave labour also increased.
Priest Las Casas preached humanity which dictated that exploitation of the Red Indians must stop. The plight of the Indians under Spanish forced labour aroused his pity and sympathy. Thus, Las Casas suggested the importation of African slaves from the coast of West Africa into the New World. The Africans were robust and much more stronger than the Indians. The Africans were more suitable for the kind of labour needed on the plantation and in the mines in the New World. The Africans lived in a climate similar to that of the West Indies.
Another reason for the high demand of cheap black labour was high rate of death recorded among the Red Indians. This was due to diseases introduced by the Europeans. Survivors among them could not bear the strains of working in the plantation farms.
Organisation of the slave trade
The Atlantic slave trade involved Europe, Africa and America. The transportation of Africans to the New World was mainly from West Africa. The Europeans were the Financiers of the trade while some West Africans assisted in its organisation. Attractive goods were brought in from Europe in exchange for slaves who were carried away to the New World. The trade in human beings was highly organised with the European government granting licences to many chartered companies like the Dutch West Indian Company, and the Royal African Company which operated from Britain.
The Royal African Company, sponsored by the English, was thought to have carried about 125,000 slaves between 1672 and 1711 from locations on the West African coast to the sugar plantations in the West Indies. The companies had the sole objective of making as much profit as possible in slave trade. It was this aim of profit making that attracted the African middlemen and Europeans. To facilitate effective trade in slaves, the slave merchants engaged European ship builders to quickly develop and build special ships for slave trading. This resulted in building of barracons where slaves were heavily loaded like sardines for a long and dangerous journey to the New World.
Most of the slaves were gotten from the hinterland and then marched to the coast. On getting to the coast, a lot of them arrived there in a weak state of health, having trekked hundreds of miles. To worsen this situation, they were kept in large baracons for exportation to the New World. While travelling to the New World, they were packed like fish and were not fed adequately. The result of these was death of most of these captives.
Barter was another common way of trading in slaves between the Europeans and West Africans, especially Nigeria. Goods and manufactured products from the European World such as linen, woolen cloth, iron bars, copper bracelets or manillas, glass beads, coral and firearms were exchanged. In return, the Europeans obtained from the Africans slaves, ivory, palm oil, pepper and cotton cloth. Slaves were also acquired under the trust system, sometimes as payment for debts owed to wealthy creditors.
Methods of procuring the captives
At the beginning of slave trade, one of the ways of obtaining it was through. kidnapping. This was carried out and encouraged by the Europeans who carried away some coastal people. The Europeans went as far as cooperating with the powerful coastal chiefs and were made to carry out the kidnapping of their hinterland neighbours. This made the West African religious leaders and political ruling class to be local agents of the European slave dealers. It needs to be pointed out that this method of producing captives could not cope with the demand of the European slave dealers.
Religious institutions also served as a source of providing slaves to the Europeans. These included those found guilty of witchcraft and other capital offences. Some found to perpetrate criminal activities were equally sold into slavery.
In a bid to benefit from economic activities of the Europeans, people sold their relatives in order to generate income or pay debts.
Warfare and raids were another major method of acquiring slaves. Warfare between West African communities produced captives in large numbers. The European firearms which was exchanged for slaves was a key instrument and weapon used in the warfare and raids.
It must be pointed out that most of the African captives were in their prime, that is, at production ages of 15 and 35years. Captives in their productive ages attracted more price as against the aged and weak ones who had little economic value.
Impact of trans-atlantic slave trade
Trans-Atlantic slave trade had far-reaching consequences on the people of West Africa and the European nations. Some historians saw slave trade as beneficial to West Africa while others observed that it was harmful to the West African sub-region.
J.D Fage, one of the proponents of the view that the Atlantic slave trade was beneficial to West Africans argued that the trade provided trading opportunities for West Africans. He argued further that in spite of whatever negative impact it might have had, it was better for the West Africans to have participated in the trade than to remain unproductive.
Secondly, he said that slave trade brought about the introduction of new crops like maize, cassava, etc. and fruits like guava and citrus fruits into West African region. These crops provided a huge source of revenue which helped West African rulers to administer their various empires and kingdoms and Kingdoms like Dahomey, Benin, Ashante, Oyo benefited a lot from the trade.
Another beneficial effect of the trade was that the revenue derived from the trade assisted the Kingdoms of Dahomey, Benin, Ashante and Oyo to develop. Thus, the growth and development of these kingdoms have been attributed to the role they played in the slave trade. These kingdoms reached their peak during the Atlantic slave trade.
The trade also led to the introduction of European goods to West Africa, and Nigeria in particular. The Europeans brought their own articles of trade in exchange for Nigeria’s products. European goods included guns, umbrellas, alcoholic drinks, mirror, exotic materials and the likes.
On the negative side, the Atlantic slave trade led to depopulation of West African sub-region. It was roughly estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 slaves were transported from West Africa to the New World during the 300years of the slave trade. This factor of depopulation also affected the development of local industries because those enslaved were in their prime and in these industries. Also, a lot of these captives perished at various stages between the raids and wars in the interior and the passage across the Atlantic.
The trade encouraged communal and intercommunal clashes between the Nigerian states on the coast and in the hinterlands. Mention must be made of Lagos and Badagry, Calabar and Okrika battles. These clashes produced a lot of war prisoners which boosted the market of slaves destined for the New World.
The Atlantic slave trade also led to the growth of a new order among the Ijaw. Their population increased from a few hundreds to about four to five thousand inhabitants in each village. Also, complex society developed as a result of the increasing wealth and social status of the slave dealers and middlemen. Financial standing and economic influence soon became more important in the society than age and family history on the social and political hierarchy. It must also be stated that the position of Amanyanabo changed from a ritual leader to become the head of the community, holding political and economic power because of his position as a leading trader in the community and would therefore be the richest man in the land. The most important thing is that the office of the Amanyanabo became hereditary, a clear-cut change from the old order.
Another by-product of the transAtlantic slave trade was the exportation of Nigerian culture to West Indies and America.
Nigerians who were shipped to the New World went with their own customs and religion. The Igbo exported little of their culture to the New World; the Yoruba equally exhibited their cultural touch in Brazil, Cuba and Trinidad. In the countries mentioned, there were relative freedom for the slaves to practise their religion and other important aspects of their culture and traditions. In Brazil, evidence of Yoruba religion as practised in Western Nigeria was found. Most of the people of Calabar, Efik and Ibibio communities who were shipped to Cuba still hold strictly to their native customs and practices as done in Nigeria.
The Atlantic slave trade had adverse effects on West Africa. It retarded the process of economic development in West Africa and it contributed in large scale to the economic dependency of West Africa on Europe and America.
Abolition of trans-Atlantic slave trade
Towards the end of the 18″ century, precisely at the last quarter of the 18th Century, moves towards abolition of Atlantic slave trade were made. The members of the public openly criticised the inhuman trade in Great Britain and America. The antislavery squad, who were the proponents of the ideology of human rights observed that slavery and slave trade was not equal with concept of freedom in natural justice. Also, people of the naturalist religious group joined the train for the abolition of slavery and slave trade. They saw it as a contradiction of the Biblical injunction of loving one’s neighbour as oneself. The role of the abolitionists like Graville Sharpe, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce were also of note in the move for abolition of slave trade. However, all these groups initially met a stiff opposition from those with vested interest.
Mention must be made of a popular judgment of Lord Mansfield, the Chief Judge of England in 1772 on the Somerset case. His historic judgment stated that; “as soon as any slave sets his foot on English ground, he becomes free”.
Also, the move towards the abolition of slave trade took place at a period when the industrial revolution was making its impact. It was a period when there was a gradual replacement of slave labour with machines and also the emergence of a new wealthy class that was based on industry rather than plantation. It was also a period when the industrial capitalism of the 19th century replaced the commercial capitalism of the 18th century.
The wealthy industrialists felt that it would be in their own best interest to have raw materials to feed their industries from Africa. Thus, they felt that the Africans should be left in their continent in order to provide the necessary raw materials and market for the finished products from Europe. Dike, K.O. argued that West African labour should not be wasted on the exploitation of the West Indians and Americans but be directed toward the production of agricultural inputs. This made the members of the industrial class to support the abolition, and also forced the policy makers to listen and obey the humanitarians. This idea equally made Britain the first to be industrialised to make move towards abolition.
Atlantic slave trade ceased completely in Europe after the European countries had abolished slavery in their overseas territories- Denmark abolished the slave trade in 1803, Britain in 1807, United States of America in 1808, Sweden in 1813, Holland in 1814 and France in 1815. Britain paid Spain a sum of £400,000 for loss of trade and they abolished it in 1820 and Portugal also abolished the trade in 1842.
Why it was difficult to immediately stop slave trade
The Atlantic slave trade was difficult to put an end to immediately after the abolition law was passed in Britain. There were both internal and external obstacles against its suppression.
Slave trade was a major source of livelihood in those centuries. The people at the hinterland, African middlemen and the Europeans derived a great deal of wealth from it. Also, empires and kingdoms equally made mark in the slave trade in that it assisted the growth and development of these kingdoms – Oyo Kingdom, Benin Empire, and coastal regions of Nigeria. It must also be stated that African chiefs and coastal people also made large profit. All these key players in Atlantic slave trade were reluctant to stop their roles in the trade.
In some communities, possession of a large number of slaves was seen as prestige. Thus, they were in favour of its continuation despite the abolition of the trade.
In the Islamic World, their Islamic tradition allowed the non-Muslims to be enslaved. Thus, the attention of the North African slave traders were turned to the coastal towns and interior of West Africa. The trade was still carried on across the Sahara until the end of the 19th century by the Arab traders.
On the part of the Europeans, the Atlantic slave trade formed a key economic prosperity. They had invested so much in the trade and thus saw the abolition as a waste of resources. Also, it would reduce the British naval power. Her ships which had been constructed for the Atlantic slave trade would be rendered unserviceable and thus useless for other functions.
In Great Britain, the plantation owners were very influential in the parliament and thus stood firmly against its abolition. However, Atlantic slave trade stopped when the European Countries had abolished slavery in their overseas territories.
The development of legitimate trade
The beginning of the 19th century was a period when the trade in legitimate products developed. This means that the abolition of slave trade in 1807 led to the development of legitimate trade. The British Naval Squadron played a key role in the suppression of the trade in slaves. It was a series of wars against the trade that forced some of the Niger Delta middlemen to turn to the new trade: trade in palm oil.
The Delta region of Benin, Warri and Bonny became the chief source of supply of palm oil. Palm oil was needed for lubricating the newly invented machines and soap making. As at 1834, the Delta region had increased her palm oil production and exportation from 4.3 million kilogrammes in 1827 to 12.7 million kilogrammes in 1837. It must be pointed out that Bonny was the Chief supplier of palm oil.
The Industrial Revolution greatly improved the state of industrialization in Europe which created a high-level demand for lubricant which was manufactured from palm oil. This demand for palm oil necessitated the need for labour. Thus, despite the abolition of slave trade, it was still going on in the Delta region where it was only needed for the production of palm oil.
This period witnessed various developments, especially on an efficient exchange system whereby all the commodities were valued. A number of currencies were imported which were used in part or full for exchange purposes. Mention must be made of credit system which included comey and Trust system. Comey was a kind of duty which was paid by the various ships before they were allowed to do business. Comey afforded the visitors the opportunity to trade freely without molestation. The trust system arose as a result of the problem of capital and the need to provide incentives for the hinterland producers of palm oil. This trust system involved the European traders giving goods in trust to the coastal traders who continued to give some of these valuable goods to the hinterland producers in order to ensure adequate supply of palm oil, ivory or timber. According to Professor K.O. Dike, goods could be trusted by the British traders for a period of six months to two years. It must be emphasised that the trust system was a West African innovation which varied in detail and implementation from one part of the region to another.
The development of legitimate trade in palm oil encouraged the penetration and possession of land in Nigeria. Some of the African chiefs who equally participated in the trade resisted British trading activities in the interior. They resisted the British attempt to colonise their lands. These chiefs were King Jaja of Opobo, Nana Olomu of Itsekiri land and King Pepple of Bonny. These chiefs clashed with the British who insisted on seizing their lands for political and economic purposes.