Historical Notes: A trade ordained by God himself

THERE IS a darkness at the heart of the history of the Atlantic slave trade which has yet to be fully explored. Whilst predominantly white European and American scholars sift the mountain of evidence detailing the European exploitation of sub-Saharan Africa, the key role played by Africans themselves as traders has manifestly failed to register in the popular consciousness.

Yet a trade it was. Blinded by the emotional issues, it is too easily forgotten that this trade was a long series of even-handed, regulated commercial transactions between the European buyers and the African sellers, who were no motley bunch of kidnappers and crimps but the rulers of the West African coastal states from Cape Verde south to Angola.

These rulers and their officials not only held absolute sway along the coast, but had been involved in the slave trade long before the first Europeans appeared off their shores in the 15th century. The Africans controlled the trade routes from the continent's interior, possessed well- disciplined maritime forces fully capable of defending their home waters, dictated the terms by which Africa engaged in the Atlantic slave trade, and determined the very extent and nature of the European response.

No slave trade captain or merchant was left in any doubt of their power. It was the African political and economic elite who sanctioned the construction of the European trade forts, and they who devised a system to facilitate trading - interpreters, canoemen, porters, headmen, and a host of petty officials ranging from the "captain of the sand" (who guarded the trade goods) to the "captain of the trunk" (whose responsibility was the slave- pen), and the "captain of the slaves" (who marshalled the slaves for boarding). This mechanism was adapted from a sophisticated system of slave gathering, slave marketing and slave delivery that existed long before any European contact.

With the slave trade, as with any other business, the African rulers and their mercantile elite zealously protected their own interests. They imposed customs and taxes, sought to extend their influence, made pacts with states more powerful than themselves, and played off one European nation against another. In 1678 a senior official of England's Royal African Company observed that a colleague, once ashore in Africa, was "absolutely under the command of the king . . . and liable for the least displeasure to lose all the goods he has in his possession, with danger also to his life." This situation changed little over the ensuing years.

Vast wealth flowed into the coffers of the African elite, far eclipsing the profits of any European slave trader. For example, in 1750 King Tegbesu of Dahomey was reliably estimated to have earned pounds 250,000 from the trade in that year alone, five times the annual income of England's richest duke.

Little wonder therefore that the British decision in 1807 to prohibit the slave trade sent a shock wave down the West African coast. Most telling of all was the remark made by the ruler of Bonny (now southern Nigeria) to Hugh Crow, a Liverpool slave trade captain of the time. "This trade must go on," asserted the African, "that is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself."

So deeply ingrained was the institution of slavery and the practice of slave trading in West and Central African society, that it took a further eight decades before the transatlantic trade in slaves was all but eliminated. Despite this, the African involvement as voluntary partners in the slave trade remains a veiled perspective. In the popular imagination Africa persists as the passive victim and Europe the perpetrator of this most hideous of trades. But in reality both bear the burden of responsibility and guilt.

Nigel Tattersfield is the author of `The Forgotten Trade' (Pimlico, pounds 12.50)

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?