The nascent British Empire came relatively late to the wide scale adoption of slavery as a source of private and national wealth but when it started it did not restrain itself.
The trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves began in 1517 when the first Africans were shipped to Spain’s American colonies. The trade lasted until the threshold of the Twentieth century. By then an estimated 11 million Africans had been sold by their fellow Africans and transported by Europeans and white Americans in the stinking holds of slave ships to be marketed in dozens of American and West Indies ports.
Though the Spanish and Portuguese were the first to make slaving financially profitable, the French, Swedes, Brandenburgers and Dutch all used and traded slaves. But it was the English who became the most accomplished and, as a result, the most prosperous in this most lucrative of trades.
In 1562, the English merchant captain John Hawkins, wishing to test the Iberian countries’ monopoly in central and south America, picked up a few slaves with ivory, gold and spices on the coast of West Africa and sailed to Spanish-owned Hispaniola and sold his human goods. After that the English did not rush into wide scale slaving until England had acquired territories in the Caribbean in the first half of the 17th century when it became necessary to have slaves to work in the plantations the English set up there.
So it was in 1663 that King Charles II chartered the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading to Africa and celebrated his accomplishment with the release of a coin which was named the guinea to warn off rival European trading companies from the West African coastal area from which England would obtain its new items of trade - humans to be sold to work as slaves in the Americas. The king’s Adventurers were required to deliver at least 3000 slaves a year to the new sugar islands of the Caribbean.
It was a profitable 3 stage business - English ships carried manufactured goods from Europe to the Guinea coast where the greedy and acquisitive local African rulers accepted them in exchange for human slaves, the slaves were then shipped to the Caribbean and sold to the planters there and sugar was bought and transported to Europe to be sold for a large profit there. It was a win-win situation for everyone apart from the unfortunate Africans who were doomed either to die at sea or live a life of despair as a slave in the Caribbean, far from home.
Shipping slaves was expensive, time-consuming and dangerous but it was necessary for the traders and plantation owners as the local Caribbean Indians whom they had attempted to force into labour usually died as a result.
The Adventurers established a chain of fortified trading posts along the Guinea coast copying the pattern established by the Portuguese and expanded on by the Dutch who were England’s main rivals at sea at that time. The Dutch did not roll over and let the the English get on with it, instead they seized all but one of the English forts in 1672 and the Royal Adventurers Company lost £120000 and collapsed as a result.
A second business, the Royal African Company, was established in 1672 and built new forts from which to trade with the African rulers and in which to gather their victims and eventually the Company’s employees controlled the slave coast all the way from Senegal to Angola.
While the rules of the slave trade were laid down in London it was the local African rulers who called the tune - they found the sale of their local people was neither new to them nor shocking. Africans had sold slaves abroad along with goods such as ivory, ebony and ostrich feathers as early as 300 BC and were carrying out a thriving trade with Arabs seven centuries before the first Europeans had arrived on their shores. To the African rulers, internal slavery was a normality and prisoners taken during local wars were made vassals and there were slave markets in many African towns. There was no moral or religious impediment to the sale of slaves. The Europeans took advantage of this and taught Africans to sell other Africans. The Africans found this to be advantageous as ownership brought with it obligations to feed and to provide shelter and protection and these liabilities ceased to exist if the Europeans would pay to take the slaves off their hands.
Local west African rulers also found other advantages from dealing with the Europeans - they wanted to have stockaded trading posts on their territories not just to boost their prestige but also as a valuable source of revenue - they exacted heavy port duties and valued ‘royal salutes’ from slaving captains. They also supplied the caboceers - overseers - who rounded up the human cargoes and set the price per slave and would not allow any of the victims to be loaded on board the Europeans’ slave ships until the trade-goods were safely in their hands.
|British naval officers at the court of the King of Dahomey|
To remain on good terms with the African rulers, the European traders took a low profile and made themselves inconspicuous and behaved obsequiously towards the local kings and remained cooped up in the trading posts. Ironically these repugnant but pitiable men rarely lived longer than two or three years once they began living on the Guinea Coast.
It was usually necessary for the African rulers to wage war on local rivals to ensure that they had enough captives to adequately supply the slave traders or alternatively they would resort to kidnapping isolated individuals. A report from Francis Moore who worked around The Gambia river described how the King of Barsally would send to the fort for supplies of rum and brandy which he paid for by attacking neighbouring enemy towns, seizing the people and selling them. At the beginning slaves were those who were prisoners of war but later the rulers began to sell their criminals to the Europeans and as time went by local people were sold for lesser and lesser crimes - one was sold for stealing a pipe, another for accidentally killing a man while shooting at a leopard but along him with were sold his mother, three brothers and three sisters. Royal wives were sold if caught in adultery so monarchs began to marry scores of girls, leave them ‘unhusbanded’ and waited for them to give in to their natural urges.
Once the caboceers had gathered together enough victims they were chained together and forced to shuffle painfully through the jungles till they reached the trading posts. Many died from dysentery en route or alternatively committed suicide by eating earth. In the forts the slaves were polished with palm oil to make their skin look healthy and then paraded before the ships’ captains and probed by the ships’ surgeons. All the slaves were then branded.
Slave ships were small and the European captains might cram in between 200 to 700 victims with each slave being allowed a space 16 to 18 inches in width (the width of a coffin). The men were hobbled by manacles. Many captains believed that the more slaves who were packed into the ship at the start of the journey the more there would be still alive when they arrived in the Caribbean. The British Parliament agreed with this view until 1788 when it specified a kinder ratio of five slaves for every 3 tons of carrying capacity. At sea slaves were taken up on deck twice per day and exercised by sailors swinging cat-o’-nine-tails. During these periods the crew swabbed out the filthy slave-deck - it was said that you could smell a slaver five miles down wind. Contagious disease often swept through the ships and killed many unfortunate slaves. It was common practice to throw a sick slave overboard to save the rest. Captain Luke Collingwood of the ship Zong once jettisoned 132 sick slaves and claimed their values from the ship’s insurers. It is said that for every human slave landed in the Caribbean another had died on the journey from the moment of his or her capture.
Once they had arrived in The Caribbean the slaves may have been consigned to a single planter in advance or otherwise marketed on the spot. In the days prior to arrival they would have been fattened up and on land they were paraded like prize cattle, their sores disguised with rust or gunpowder and their anuses plugged with oakum to disguise any evidence of dysentery. The best specimens were usually sold on the ship with a flat price fixed for men, women and children and buyers scrambling on to the ship to grab hold of the prime specimens. At the end of the 18th century prime slaves were sold for about £60 per year (a good annual income in England then would have been £30). The remaining slaves, called the Refuse, whose weaknesses could not be easily hidden, were sold ‘by candle’ whereby bidding went on during the time in which a candle burned down by an inch but sales prices for these individuals rarely exceeded a couple of pounds. Some went unsold and doctors often bought them for a few shillings, treated their physical problems and then sold them on at a profit. Those who were in the worst physical condition and remained without a buyer were left on the waterfront to die.
New slaves underwent a brutal period of training. About a third died from diseases they had brought from Africa. All slaves were subject to flogging and torture. They worked from sunrise to sunset planting and cutting the sugar cane as well as milling, boiling and distilling it. They were given a half hour midday break to enable them to eat. Men and women were housed separately but slave marriages did occur though the marriages were not legally recognised and slave owners could, and often did, sell husband and wife separately. Most slave owners saw little profit in breeding slaves and generally an entire new generation had to be imported every twenty years. In 1640 Barbados was home to a few hundred slaves, in 1645 there were 6000, 20000 in 1650 and 80000 in 1700.
The plantation owners lived in a constant state of fear that their slaves would fight them, and they frequently did, and punishments for doing so were savage.
|Slave insurrection, Battle of Rabot, Saint Lucia 1795-1995|
In England the merchants of Bristol, London and Liverpool grew wealthy on the slave trade and their home cities flourished from the wealth brought to them by these merchants and where they were able to act as great philanthropists and to enhance their cities. Later, the citizens of Bristol and London and elsewhere, turning a blind eye to the horrible misery of the West Indies slavery, raised statues to these benefactors whose wealth had flowed out of the suffering of those brought without their consent from west Africa.
One such historical character was Edward Colston, a name probably little known to most people outside of Bristol until a statue raised to commemorate his philanthropy to the city during later Victorian times was recently demolished and dumped in the river Avon by incensed demonstrators associating themselves with the current Black Lives Matter movement. His generosity to Bristol was extraordinary and it is not surprising that he was for centuries celebrated by the city but the present realisation that all people should be treated equally in our society has lead to the downfall of his reputation (and his statue). His wealth was entirely founded on the slave trade and current events lead us to re-examine our attitudes to this aspect of history and the place of men like him who lived in a society when many people held beliefs and values which are actually quite awful to us now.
|Statue of slave-owner Edward Colston before its removal, Bristol.|
But it’s important to tell the story and there are stamps from around The Commonwealth which illustrate it. It’s interesting to think too of how different the present-day Caribbean and West Africa would be if history had not taken the course it did and fortune-seeking Europeans had not bought humans from acquisitive African rulers. History is what it is and can not be changed but it can be put in context and lessons learnt from it. Stamp collectors - we happy few - may be more aware of what has happened in the course of the history of the world than most other people. Even in in the 2020s stamps remain a potentially important educational source to learn about matters which are not otherwise mentioned.