Land of the Golden Trade - John Lang

The Slave Trade

There comes now to be mentioned a subject which it is not easy to treat with absolute impartiality—the Slave Trade. One is carried away by horror, the blood chills, the flesh creeps, as we read of the ghastly atrocities that were enacted in West African waters and on the Guinea Coast. As is well said by Mr. Lucas, in vol. iii. of his admirable Historical Geography: "The details are so revolting, the inevitable accompaniments of the traffic were so horrible, that any sober estimate of its causes and effects may appear at the present time as an attempt to condone the wickedness of white men, and to explain away the sufferings which for so many years they inflicted on a lower and a coloured race. Yet, in good truth, the Slave trade, in its origin and in its development, was due to natural, to economic causes." That is most true; and it is also what we have ever a tendency, almost a desire, indeed, to forget.

In the first place, white men did not originate slavery in West Africa; the loathly plant flourished in that fruitful soil long prior to the advent there of Europeans. The natural outcome of war amongst savage races is slavery, that or indiscriminate slaughter. Kill your enemy, "extirpate the vipers,"—unless they can be of more use as slaves,—is the savage's creed.

Human life in West Africa was cheap, and the black man well accustomed to see blood flow on slender excuse,—the death of a chief and the consequent necessity of sending victims to bear him company, the whim of a king, the ill-will of some local wizard. Just as any stick is good enough to beat a dead dog with, so was any excuse sufficient to justify the shedding of blood. Slavery and bloodshed were the normal conditions of life. Prisoners captured in war, and offenders against the laws of the land or the will of the king, were alike condemned either to death or to life-long bondage. No man was safe.

When the white man first arrived on the Guinea Coast he was not actuated by any special desire to make slaves; indeed the first few negroes who were taken to Portugal were taken more as rare and curious specimens of mankind than for any other reason. But the explorers found on all the coast south of Senegal slavery ready to their hand, and when early in the Sixteenth Century the Portuguese began to colonise Brazil, and when, more especially, there arose in the Spanish West Indian islands the necessity of finding a labour supply to take the place of the physically weak races native to those lands, (races for whose extinction Spanish cruelty was responsible), what more natural than that Spain and Portugal should utilise that which lay ready to their hand? But though the Portuguese from a very early date abused the Slave Trade, raiding villages by night and carrying off the inhabitants, even so they did not from the outset, except in rare instances, kidnap the black man. Prompted by cupidity, driven sometimes no doubt by famine, (when parents for a handful of corn parted with their children), it was the negroes themselves who first brought their fellow blacks to the Portuguese for sale,—though it would seem that the Portuguese were extremely apt pupils. Cadamosto mentions that even in his time (1454-1460) seven to eight hundred negro slaves were imported into Portugal from Africa.

Here, then, on the one hand were a climate and a country where Europeans could live and thrive, where life was pleasant, under certain circumstances ideal, but where no adequate supply of labour existed; on the other, a country and a climate such that permanent settlement, the making of a home, was to white races an impossibility, but where an unlimited supply of robust labour, ("the most magnificent mass of labour material in the world," Miss Mary Kingsley calls it), was to be had for comparatively little beyond the cost of transport.

It was as inevitable as the rising of the sun that those who, for the lack of labour, saw fortune and home slipping from their grasp, should stretch out a hand to West Africa and help themselves to what lay there ready to be taken up. The negro was a pawn on the great chess-board of world development. Without him the West Indian islands must have remained what they were in the days of Columbus, a tropical paradise of no particular use to the outside world. Can we wonder if those old-time settlers regarded him as having been directly meant by a far-seeing Providence to fulfil the very purpose for which he was now being used? Save our Puritan forefathers, none probably of the many nations concerned from time to time in the Slave Trade felt necessity to soothe their consciences by quoting that Scriptural curse on the children of Ham: "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren."

We must either go forward or go back; in this case there could be no going back, such a land must be developed. So the exploiting of the black man was inevitable.

The same conditions which applied to the West Indies applied equally to Brazil, the one country that Portugal ever really colonised. To colonise it, labour must be obtained; the white man, in the nature of things, could not in that climate, and in the then state of sanitary knowledge, develop the land or cultivate that crop which best suited it—sugar. Here too the black man was needed; and he was taken. Nor, though in our present-day eyes it is grievous, can we blame Spain and Portugal that in their share of world-development they took up the weapon that lay readiest to their grasp. In no other way could the work be done. There was no such thing as "free" labour; in Africa the free man did not work, his slaves or his womenkind worked for him. If ground were not cleared and tilled by slaves, it remained jungle or bush. The early European colonists, therefore, had no choice but between stagnation and development of the land by slave labour.

So began the hideous over-sea traffic in human beings, a traffic carried on under conditions which to us of the Twentieth Century are beyond all possibility of conception or understanding. Bad at its best from the beginning, as men's minds became corrupted and their feelings blunted by familiarity with its vileness, the utter lack of humanity with which the trade was carried on became rapidly more and more marked, till it left on the history of the world a stain foul and for all time ineradicable.

Nor did the evil die with the death of the Slave Trade. Dregs of that poisoned cauldron still simmer in the complex race problems which the traffic has bequeathed to certain quarters of the globe, problems that have yet to be solved, and the solution of which may be attained only through much tribulation, and perchance through shedding of blood. You cannot upset the balance of nature without paying the cost; Nature never forgives, never writes off bad debts.

In the beginning, as we have seen, it was the Portuguese alone who carried slaves over-seas, and from very early times the numbers carried seem to have been considerable. Thomas Turner, a contemporary of Andrew Battell, and, like him, once for some years a prisoner of the Portuguese, reported to the Rev. Mr. Purchas that "it was supposed eight and twenty thousand slaves (a number almost incredible, yet such as the Portugals told him) were yearly shipped from Angola and Congo to the Haven of Loando. He named to me a rich Portugal in Brazil which had ten thousand of his own working in his Ingenios" (sugar mills).

In the early days of the traffic, the English would have none of it, except, as has been already related, casually as in the case of Sir John Hawkins. But certainly by the beginning of the Seventeenth Century there were not wanting many of our countrymen who touched the pitch which already had defiled the hands of Hawkins. Peter van den Broeck, a Dutchman, writing in 1606, relates how, whilst his ship was watering at Goree, an English boat arrived from Juvale and drove a bargain with him under the following circumstances. They knew, said the boat's crew, where lay a vessel richly laden with goods and slaves, the crew mostly down with fever. It would be no hard task to take that ship, and if the Dutch "would grant them the Black Slaves of either sex as part of the Booty," they (the Englishmen) were willing to act as guides to the cove where she lay at anchor. The bargain was struck, the vessel taken. She was a Lubecker of two hundred and forty tons, loaded with Sugar from S. Thomas, Elephants' Teeth, Cottons, a quantity of Rials of Eight, some Chains of Gold, and ninety Slaves of either sex. She had on board four Portuguese and eleven Lubeckers sick. The Master was dead, and she was bound for Lisbon." One does not admire that English boat's crew who played jackal to the Dutch lion, and one would without sorrow have read that the Dutchmen repudiated their bargain and seized the entire cargo; but we learn that the slaves were duly handed over to the English, who no doubt made a handsome profit out of them in Brazil or in one of the Spanish West Indian islands.

No doubt from this time onward the English increasingly dealt in slaves, and when our West Indian and American colonies, following the example of the Spaniards, saw the necessity of importing African labour, it did not suit them to depend for their supply on Dutch ships. Thus, whereas prior to 1672 Dutch over-sea traffic in slaves was ten times that of England, in 1768 of ninety-seven thousand negroes imported into our American and West Indian colonies, British shipping carried sixty thousand and French twenty-three thousand, leaving only fourteen thousand to divide between the Dutch and Portuguese, and other nations.

In 1665 a Petition of the Royal African Company to the King concludes with the words: "If the Company cannot continue to supply the American Plantations with negro servants . . . the Plantations will either be useless or must take their slaves from the Dutch, which will utterly divert English shipping from those parts." In 1663 one of the objects of the Royal African Company was stated to be "For the supply of the Plantations with negro servants "; and the Company was "to grant licenses to all His Majesty's subjects to fetch negroes on payment of £3 per ton on the tonnage of their ships, but binding them not to touch at certain points; also to make offers to Governors to furnish them annually with as many negroes as they will contract for at £17 per head at Barbadoes, £18 at Antigua, and £19 at Jamaica, with reduction of £1 per head at each place to any one contracting for a whole ship load and paying one fourth of the price in advance with security for the remainder." The Company in this year "Humbly represent that the trade of Africa is so necessary to England that the very being of the Plantations depends upon the supply of negro servants for their works."

We were now fully committed to the trade, and not alone to supply our own necessities, for in 1665 the Company had a contract with the Spaniards to supply three thousand five hundred negroes annually, "that will bring into the kingdom £86,000 in Spanish silver per annum."

In accounting for this rapid fall from grace on the part of our ancestors, (a fall from that lofty pinnacle indicated by the words of Jobson to Buckor Sano at Barraconda), down to the debased standpoint which weighs Spanish silver in the balance against human suffering and misery, one must not forget that Slavery was a condition with which from the dawn of this world's history men's minds had been familiar. Of the ancient Eastern races, none were without their slaves, mostly captives taken in war. Hebrew law allowed them to the Jews, not alone in the case of prisoners of war but even of men of their own race, poverty-stricken debtors who had sold themselves in discharge of their debts. Greeks and Romans had them,—did not Odysseus himself narrowly escape the fate of a prisoner of war! The Celts in Britain were in numbers enslaved by the Anglo-Saxons, and from Bristol the Christian Anglo-Saxons carried on with the Continent a regular traffic in Irish slaves. In later days, serfdom in Europe was practically slavery, and in England serfdom was not dead in the days of Elizabeth; indeed even towards the end of the Eighteenth Century colliers and salters were virtually slaves, bound by law to perpetual bondage, to perpetual burrowing underground, nor were their sons at liberty to seek employment elsewhere than in the mines with which by birth they were connected.

Europeans of all nations were captured and made slaves by the Barbary pirates, who raided even to the shores of Ireland; in English and Scottish churches as late as the Eighteenth Century collections were wont to be made for the purpose of ransoming Christian slaves from the hands of the Corsairs. What, too, but slavery was the life of those poor wretches—innocent often of all crime—sent by law, or sold sometimes, to His Majesty's Plantations; and what but slavery in its worst form was the fate of those fifteen hundred luckless Scottish prisoners taken at Worcester fight in September 1651, who were granted to the Guinea Merchants "to be transported to Guinea to work in the mines there?"

Men's minds were indeed familiar with the abominable thing, and if this over-sea bondage was comparatively a new phase in its history, at least it did not seem a great step downward from one to the other. The horrors and appalling miseries incurred in the sea-borne traffic were known but to the few; the majority no doubt did not realise to what they were tacitly giving approval. Still, the stay-at-home inhabitants of England cannot have been altogether ignorant. In 1764 negro slaves were far from uncommon in London; indeed there were believed to be thousands in that city at this date; and as late as 1771 "black boys" were advertised for sale in English papers. Lord Mansfield's famous decision that a slave was free as soon as his foot touched English soil was not given till 1772.

It is true there were then many otherwise good and kindly-minded people who defended Slavery as an institution. Boswell, for instance, in his Life of Johnson  says: "To abolish a status which in all ages God has sanctioned and man has continued would not only be robbery to an innumerable class of our fellow-subjects, but it would be extreme cruelty to the African savages, a portion of whom it saves from massacre, and introduces to a much happier life." Doubtless many good folk took their stand behind Scriptural authority. There is not wanting wealth of texts which may be held to justify Slavery, Leviticus xxv. 44, 45, 46, for example. "Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever."

As regards the Slave Trade there is at least this much, little though it is, to be said in England's favour. If the trade was to go on,—and no human power in the beginning could by any possible means have put a stop to it,—the poor creatures were on the whole less infamously treated on our ships than on those of any other nation; we showed, on the average, less inhumanity.

But bad was the best at all times. When Britain abandoned the trade and when the traffic was made contraband, the state of affairs became incredibly revolting. Prosper Mérimée tells a tale of a French Slave-ship, the date of which is laid somewhat later than that of the battle of Trafalgar. To most readers of the present day, the scenes therein described can hardly fail to appear as gross exaggerations; but we shall see presently, as we go farther into the gruesome history of the Trade, that, far from being exaggeration, M. Merimee has in reality told not more than half the truth.

"Ledoux" was a sailor who had lost a hand at Trafalgar, and who consequently had been discharged from the French Navy. Entering the merchant service, in time he became master of a small privateer, and when the Peace put an end also to this method of earning a livelihood, he entered the service of the Slave Traders, the "merchants in ebony" as they were called. It is not proposed here to re-tell M. Mérimée's story; it is alluded to merely in order that a translation of his description of a Slaver's 'tween decks may be quoted. "What brought him most credit among the slave merchants," proceeds the tale, "was the building, that he personally superintended, of a brig destined for the trade, a smart sailor, narrow of beam, long like a ship of war, and able nevertheless to accommodate a very large number of negroes . . . It was his idea that the 'tween decks, narrow and cramped as they were, should be only three feet four inches in height. He maintained that this space allowed slaves of reasonable height to be comfortably seated; and what need have they of getting up?

'When they get to the Colonies,' said Ledoux, 'they will be only too long on their feet.'

The negroes, arranged in two parallel lines, with their backs against the vessel's sides, left an empty space between their feet, used in all other ships for moving about. Ledoux thought of putting other negroes in this space, lying at right angles to the others. In this way his ship held ten more slaves than any other of the same tonnage. It would have been possible to squeeze in still more, but one must have some humanity, and leave a negro at least a space of five feet long and two broad in which to disport himself during a voyage of six weeks and more.

'For after all,' said Ledoux to his owner, to justify this liberal allowance, 'the niggers are men like the whites.' "

It seems scarcely credible that human beings, (or live stock of any kind, for that matter), should be sent a voyage even of a couple of days' duration—let alone six weeks and more—cooped up in a space no higher than three feet four inches. Yet, as we shall learn on undoubted authority, this space, in which now we would not confine a cargo of monkeys, this wild beasts' den, was by the insertion of another deck, or shelf, on not a few slave-ships reduced to incredibly small dimensions, sometimes to as little as eighteen inches in height, in order that another tier, or layer, of slaves might be carried.

The miserable creatures used to be brought up on deck daily in batches if the weather were fine, and forced to take exercise, to dance to the tune of the whip, in fact, if need be; for owing to one cause or another,—exhaustion from long confinement in a vitiated atmosphere, depression of spirits, sea-sickness, from which the negroes suffered even more than do Europeans,—it was no easy task to keep them on their feet whilst on deck. If the weather were not fine, then there was no exercise; and no fresh air, for the hatches necessarily were kept on and the air ports were closed if a heavy sea ran. In either case they died fast, in crowds if the weather were dirty; the dead, indeed, those who succumbed early, were the more fortunate.

A vivid and terrible picture of a Spanish Slaver is given in his Notices of Brazil  by Dr. Walsh, who was returning from Brazil to England in May 1829 on a British ship of war which overhauled the Spaniard. When boarded, says Dr. Walsh, "we found her full of slaves; she had taken on board five hundred and sixty-two, and had been out seventeen days, during which she lost fifty-five. The slaves were all enclosed under grated hatch-ways between decks. The space was so low that they sat between each other's legs, and stowed so close together that there was no possibility of their lying down, or at all changing their position by night or day. As they belonged to, and were shipped on account of different individuals, they were all branded like sheep, with the owners' marks of different forms. These were impressed under their breasts or on their arms; and as the mate informed me with perfect indifference, 'burnt with the red hot iron.' . . . The poor beings were all turned up together. They came swarming up like bees from the aperture of a hive, till the whole deck was covered to suffocation from stem to stern. On looking into the places where they had been crammed, there were found some children next the sides of the ship. The little creatures seemed indifferent as to life or death, and when they were carried on deck many of them could not stand. Some water was brought; it was then that the extent of their sufferings was exposed in a fearful manner. They all rushed like maniacs towards it. No entreaties, or threats, or blows could restrain them; they shrieked and struggled and fought with one another for a drop of the precious liquid, as if they grew rabid at the sight of it. There is nothing which slaves during the middle passage suffer from so much, as want of water. It is sometimes usual to take out casks filled with sea water as ballast, and when the slaves are received on board, to start the casks, and refill them with fresh. On one occasion a ship from Bahia neglected to change the contents of the casks, and on the mid-passage found to their horror that they were filled with nothing but salt water. All the slaves on board perished!  We could judge of the extent of their sufferings from the sight we now saw. When the poor creatures were ordered down again, several of them came and pressed their heads against our knees with looks of the greatest anguish, at the prospect of returning to the horrid place of suffering below. It was not surprising that they had lost fifty-five in the space of seventeen days. Indeed many of the survivors were seen lying about the decks in the last stage of emaciation, and in a state of filth and misery not to be looked at. While expressing my horror at what I saw, and exclaiming against the state of this vessel, I was informed by my friends who had passed so long a time on the coast of Africa that this was one of the best they had seen. The height sometimes between decks was only eighteen inches; so that the unfortunate beings could not turn round, or even on their sides, the elevation being less than the breadth of their shoulders; and here they are usually chained to the decks by the neck and legs."

This ship was reluctantly allowed to proceed on her way. Red tape, or some legal flaw, one supposes forbade that her master and crew should be promptly hanged from their own yard-arms. In what unenviable position was the Captain of a British ship of war, impotent to succour those tortured human beings! "It was dark when we separated," continues Dr. Walsh, "and the last parting sounds we heard from the unhallowed ship were the cries and shrieks of the slaves suffering under some bodily infliction."