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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)