THE TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE

A Christian Response by David Pott

In 1562, Sir John Hawkins sailed from Plymouth to West Africa. His flagship was The Jesus of Lubeck and it was on this voyage that slaves were first taken by Englishmen to the New World. Sir John Hawkins is known as one of the heroes of the Spanish Armada, but not so many know about this more dubious claim to fame. What an irony that the first English vessel to take slaves should be called by the name of Him who came "to release the captives" and that Hawkins personal standard was a bound African woman! On another slaving voyage, Hawkins captured a Portuguese slave ship and renamed it The Grace of God before he continued his business.1

It is important for Christians today to face up to the issue of the slave trade and especially the misrepresentation of the gospel which was passed on to so many through it.

The facts of the trade are that between 11 and 15 million Africans were transported to the Americas between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. All the West European nations were involved as well as New England which later became the USA. Up to 3 million slaves perished on the infamous Middle Passage and many more died in the ³seasoning ³ period of the first few months on the plantations. The biggest loss of life created by the trade was however in Africa itself. The Portuguese and the Spanish did not trade guns for slaves, but when the Dutch and the English entered the trade, they traded in guns. In his book ³Black Ivory² historian James Walvin writes:

"The export of arms to Africa was a massive business. By the eighteenth century, Europeans imported between 283,000 and 394,000 guns each year into West Africa. In 1802 the value of weapons shipped to Africa was £145,661."2

A report to Parliament in 1788 found that Birmingham had over 4,000 gunmakers, with 100,000 guns a year going to slave traders. Although Quakers were later leaders in the cause of abolition, one of the leading gun manufacturers in Birmingham was the Quaker firm of Farmer and Galton. It is known that that firm also sent a ship, the Perseverence, to the West Indies with 527 slaves on board.3

Any African tribe that on grounds of conscience did not agree to trade in slaves for guns was immediately vulnerable. Inevitably warfare spread throughout the region. The traders themselves knew all about this. The Dutch merchants of the early eighteenth century reported that the Gold Coast (now Ghana) was changing into a slave coast where the natives were no longer searching for gold, but were making war on each other to obtain slaves for the European traders. Later in the same century Bullfinch Lambe, a representative of the Royal Africa Company, stood by and watched an inter-tribal battle at the end of which he observed 8,000 captives being counted among the dead bodies where "if it had rained blood, it could not have lain thicker on the ground."4 In similar vein, another representative of the RAC, Joseph Pearson commented in 1712 about an anticipated battle in the Cape Coast, "after which 'tis hoped the trade will flourish."5 We will never know how many were slaughtered in those wars.

It is sobering to reflect that arms trading in our own time may have had its roots in the slave trade. This comment from a Dutch official writing home in 1700 has a curiously modern ring about it: "Perhaps you will wonder how it happens that the Negroes get supplies of firearms? The reason is simply that we sell them incredible quantities, so handing them a knife with which to cut our throats.But we are forced to do this. For if we Dutch refused to sell guns, then the blacks would still get them from the English or the Danes or the Germans........ Besides, guns and gunpowder are the easiest goods to sell here, and without them we should do a poor trade."6

One of the effects of the trade was to especially impoverish the West African interior. Prior to the advent of the Transatlantic trade, wealth was more evenly distributed and some kingdoms, such as Mali were on a par with states in Europe. The Transatlantic trade meant that kingdoms like Ashanti and Dahomey, which were closer to the coastal slave forts, became relatively wealthy. Walvin rightly describes the European trading presence as "a corrosive commercial and human virus, spreading its malignancy deep into the interior; it prompted African states and communities to enslave,kidnap or wage war on neighbours and enemies."6 The legacy of that situation is still with us today. While no West African nation is wealthy, what wealth there is is largely close to the coast and inland nations, like Mali and Burkina Faso, are the poorest in the world.

Many people state quite correctly that slavery was common in Africa before the transatlantic trade began. However the transportation of millions to a different continent was a new phenomenon which caused deep psychic trauma. Olaudah Equiano was a former slave who wrote a vivid description of his experiences and he was not alone in expressing this opinion:

"...if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with the meanest slave in my own country." 7

Equiano was completely unhinged by his first encounter with Europeans - the different skin colour, strange language and long hair. As they handled him roughly to see if he was healthy and stuffed him into the stinking holds, he thought they were some kind of evil spirits. This dreadful experience, and many of like kind which followed, are still deeply embedded in the consciousness of slave descendants today.

Further evidence of the extent of psychological damage was that of "dirt eating" , also known as mal d'estomac or cachexia africana.8 The craving to eat dirt was a frequent occurrence throughout the Caribbean islands even amongst children. One deterrent was clamping an iron mask over the slave's head. It is significant that this illness disappeared as soon as slavery was abolished.

If some Muslims today still feel resentment at what happened in the Crusades, it is not surprising that anger is still felt by some Africans of the Diaspora today. That anger is not only felt against white people, but also against West Africans whose ancestors traded in slaves.

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"Le sous-développement et la pauvreté qui affectent la majorité des pays d'Afrique et des Antilles, ainsi que les ghettos dans lesquels beaucoup de Noirs vivent aux Etats-Unis et ailleurs, ne sont pas, en général, le résultat de la paresse, de l'incompétence ou de la corruption du peuple africain ou de ses gouvernants. Ils sont, pour une très grande part, les conséquences de l'une des entreprises criminelles les plus massives et les plus terribles de l'histoire humaine, c'est-à-dire le commerce transatlantique d'esclaves et l'institution de l'esclavage. "

Lord Gifford QC à la Chambre des Lords, le 14 mars 1996


© L'expedition Lifeline 2003