African Slave Ships Research Article from The Way People Live

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After about a month or two of sailing, the African shore appeared. As the ship headed down the windward coast toward the Gulf of Guinea, it passed by several slave trading ports. These were the towns Anamabu, Accra, and Ouidah, through which captives such as Ottobah Cugoano, a young Fantee boy who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, passed as they became the ship's human cargo.

It was on their way to the slave forts, sometimes called slave castles—where slaves were imprisoned until loaded onto slavers— that captives like Cugoano first witnessed the brutality that would soon become a daily occurrence for them aboard a slave ship. In his memoirs, published in 1789, many years after he was captured, Cugoano recalled,

My guide and kidnapper told me that he had to go to the castle with some company that were going there... to get some goods.... The horrors I soon saw and felt, cannot be well described; I saw many of my miserable countrymen chained two and two, some handcuffed, and some with their hands tied behind. When we arrived at the castle, I saw [my kidnapper] take a gun, a piece of cloth, and some lead [to trade] for me, and then he told me that he must now leave me there, and went off. This made me cry bitterly.

The last glimpses these slaves had of Africa were the prisons and slave ports. Cugoano described the wrenching experience:

I was soon conducted to a prison, for three days, where I heard the groans and cries of many, and saw some of my fellowcaptives. But when a vessel arrived to conduct us away to the ship, there was nothing to be heard but the rattling of chains, smacking of whips, and the groans and cries of our fellow-men. Some [refused to get up and board the ship, even] when they were lashed and beat in the most horrible manner.

Cugoano was taken aboard a slaver that remained on the African coast for several days. The ship stopped at Cape Coast Castle to transfer its human cargo to another ship and finally set sail across the Atlantic. "And when we found ourselves at last taken away," lamented Cugoano, "death was more preferable than life."

Breaking Trade

Before they bought Africans to stock their ships, European traders participated in a ritual called breaking trade. The procedures for breaking trade varied, depending upon the customs, tastes, and needs of each region along the slave coast. However, there was one constant: Regardless of where traders landed, all ships needed a license to buy slaves. To obtain a license, the slave ship captain paid a fee to a local king or chief. The fee might include purchasing a specified number of the chief's own slaves or giving the local chief gifts.

The slave ship cast anchor about a mile outside the town, and the captain rowed ashore with two or three crew members. Slave ship surgeon Alexander Falconbridge described how

sometimes fifteen [ships], English and French... meet here [on the coast of Nigeria near Bonny] together. Soon they cast anchor, the captains go on shore to make known their arrival.... They likewise invite the kings of Bonny to come on board, to whom... they usually make presents which generally consist of pieces of cloth, cotton, chintz, silk, handkerchiefs and... sometimes brandy, wine or beer.

Slave traders tried to comply with the demands of their suppliers to avoid any complications that might delay trading. By the mid-eighteenth century, permission to trade might cost as much as £400, slightly under two thousand dollars in today's currency. Once the license was obtained, gun shots might be fired to announce the beginning of trading. Reports Falconbridge, "After the kings have been on board and have received the usual presents, permission is granted by them for trafficking with any of the black traders. When the royal guests return from the ships they are saluted by the guns."

Building the "House" on Deck

While the captain negotiated with traders on shore, the crew started preparing the ship for slave trading by building a "house" on board. Slavers used the house as a pen for the physical examination and branding of the newly purchased captives.

First, they unbent the sails, which meant they untied them. Then, the seamen struck the yards and topmasts—in other words, the crew hauled them down. After that, the seaman lashed yards and other wooden poles from mast to mast to form a ridgepole, the horizontal beam running along the top point of the roof. Inside the house, the crew used a pine board to build a wall with a door.

A wall segregated the male and female captives, and sometimes slaves were kept in the house as a way to prevent them from jumping overboard. For added security, small openings in the thatched walls allowed the crew to keep a small cannon or gun pointed at the slaves at all times. A trap door in the roof of the house permitted the crew to lower food down to the captives.

However, the house offered little protection from the brutal weather. The mat roofing leaked during rainstorms, and rather than providing shelter from the glaring sun, the house was extremely hot and the close air unhealthy. In addition, the smoke from the green mango-wood fires, which were necessary to heat the branding irons, stung the sailors' eyes and was even known to cause blindness.

Some seamen considered making the house the most terrible experience of the journey. To cut down the mangrove branches, reeds, and bamboo shoots for the walls and roof, sailors waded waist deep in swamp mud. The men, who were often ill and feverish, did this work in the intense tropical heat, as mosquitoes swarmed about and poisonous snakes slithered beside them.

Agents and Middlemen

Although some captains sailed up and down the coast, traveling from trading post to trading post and buying slaves along the way, many others employed men called agents to obtain slaves for them. Agents were Europeans who lived in Africa and worked for slave trading companies. Their job was to buy slaves directly from African slave traders and have cargoes ready for loading. Another name for agent was factor, and the holding pens where they kept their slaves were called factories.

Nicholas Owen, one of the few European factors to leave a diary, described his life trading slaves on the African coast. He represented a typical white trader who came to the Guinea coast to recover a family fortune lost through gambling, bad investments, and drink. He was not successful, and the riches he hoped to gain trading slaves never materialized. The hot, fever-ridden climate of Africa weakened his health, and he died at thirtythree years of age in 1759 from a tropical disease. However, the journal he left behind is valuable because it describes the life of an African factor, including the failure many traders experienced trying to trade slaves.

As historian Thomas Howard points out, "Nowhere in his journal does [Owen] express repugnance of the trade or show any concern for the inhumanity shown the slaves." Rather, Howard explains that Owen's journal entries often focus on his physical hardships and inability to make money by trading slaves. In one entry, Owen writes

In this place I find several ugly things... such as long worms and frogs; the latter make such horrid noises in the night that it breaks my sleep. Last night I found one of these worms eight or nine inches long under my bed, which was the occasion of my not sleeping until 11 or 12 a clock.... I live here, but not with so much strength as I was want in Europe or any cold climate; my bones seem weaker and in hot weather I am [feverish]. What most troubles me is the musquetos [mosquitoes] at night, and in the day large flies [take] their places.... The bite of one of these flies is so penetrating that your shirt will hardly keep it out.

Typical of European agents, Owen set up his business on Sherbro Island at the mouth of the Sherbro River, a major trading site in Sierra Leone, Africa. Europeans often purchased slaves by setting up stalls and slave depots along such rivers, and when slave traffic was slow on the coast, the agent employed Africans to travel inland to trade for slaves. Slaver John Barbot described the practice: "If there happens to be no stock of slaves... the factor must trust the blacks with his goods, to the value of one hundred and fifty, or two hundred pounds [English currency]; which goods they carry up into the inland country, to buy slaves at all markets, for about six hundred miles up the country, where they are kept like cattle in Europe."

In addition, the mulatto offspring of European traders and African women played an active role in procuring slaves. They worked as middlemen. Historian Edward Reynolds explains that, in certain areas such as the Gold Coast, mulatto children grew up in slave ports directly connected to slave fortresses. Under the influence of a slave trading environment, they often served as interpreters for African chieftains selling slaves or worked for European agents. Sometimes they, too, became slave traders and sold directly to European slavers.

Capturing Africans: Prisoners of War

There were two ways African chieftains and slave traders obtained the captives they sold to European slavers. The first and most common method according to some historians, was by taking prisoners of war. Captain John Barbot, who bought slaves in Senegambia at the beginning of the 1800s, wrote in his memoirs that "those sold... are for the most part prisoners of war, taken either in flight, or pursuit, or in the incursions they make into their enemies' territories."

Some slave traders viewed the slave trade as provoking war among African tribes. Spurred by greed and the promise of increasing its wealth and supply of firearms, one tribe might make war on another. Some experts and eyewitnesses believe that the sole reason for waging war was to sell the defeated tribe to European slave traders. Captain John Newton, for example, a repentant slave ship captain, directly blamed the slave trade for increased tribal warfare during the eighteenth century. As he noted, "I verily believe, that the far greater part of the wars, in Africa, would cease, if the Europeans would cease to tempt them, by offering goods for slaves."

Newton was not alone in connecting warfare among African tribes with the supplying of slaves to European slave traders. In 1724 a slave ship surgeon aboard a slaver who found himself waiting in Africa for weeks, made the following journal entry on December 29: "No trade today, though many traders came on board; They informed us, that the people are gone to war within land, and will bring prisoners enough in two or three days; in hope of which we stay." The following day his entry reads, "No trade yet, but our traders came on board today and informed us the people had burnt four towns of their enemies, so that tomorrow we expect slaves."

Capturing Africans: Kidnapping

Another way slaves were obtained was through kidnapping, also called panyarring. Anyone found alone in an isolated place risked the possibility of being kidnapped. Children were especially in danger of being abducted. Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were two kidnapped Africans who left vivid descriptions of their abductions. Equiano and his sister were seized from their home, and the kidnappers carried them to a nearby wood before they were able to cry for help. Once hidden in the wood, "they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could, til night came on."

Cugoano, too, said he was

snatched... with about eighteen or twenty more boys and girls, as we were playing in the field.... Several great ruffians came upon us suddenly, and said we had committed a fault against their lord, and we must go and answer for it ourselves before him. Some of us attempted, in vain, to run away, but pistols and cutlasses were soon introduced, threatening, that if we offered to stir, we should all lie dead on the spot.

Whether kidnapped in a straightforward manner like Equiano or concealed in pretense as in the case of Cugoano, the result was the same. All captives were taken to coastal towns and boarded onto slave ships, where they were sold, enslaved, and transported to the New World.

Buying Slaves and Holding Captives

Regardless of how they were obtained, slaves were brought from inland areas to the coast and were chained together to prevent their escape. Francis Moore, an English agent who worked along the Gambia River, described the method of transport: "Their way of bringing them is tying them by the neck with leather thongs, at about a yard distance from each other, thirty or forty in a string, having generally a bundle of corn or elephants' teeth upon each of their heads."

Upon reaching the coast, captives were herded into fortresslike structures, where they were kept until sold. Once sold, they were branded with the name or mark of their owner and were then returned to the fortress until the European slave trader was ready to sail for the Americas.

Conditions in these forts were horrible. Slaves were given very little to eat. They were crowded into small areas, and often there was no place to go to the bathroom. The smell was terrible, and people who showed any resistance were beaten.

In his memoirs, published in 1705, Captain Willem Bosman describes the way his slave ship crew bought captives:

When the slaves which are brought from the inland countries come to Widah [a slave port on Africa's west coast] they are put in prison together, when we [bargain] concerning buying them, they are all brought out together in a large plain, where by our surgeons, they are thoroughly examined... naked both men and women, without the least distinction or modesty. Those which are approved as good are set on one side; in the meanwhile a burning iron, with the arm or name of the company, lies in the fire, with which ours are marked on the breast.... They are returned to their prisons, where, from that time forward, they are kept at our charge, and cost us two pence a day each slave, which serves to subsist them like criminals on bread and water.

Transporting Slaves to Slave Ships

The Europeans hired African canoemen from the Gold Coast to ferry slaves and goods to and from the ship, and mariners openly admired the canoemen's skill. As Captain Nathaniel Uring wrote in 1701 during a slaving voyage to Loango,

We saw the Sea break so high, that we began to be afraid to venture and were inclined to return, but the Canow [canoe] People encouraged and assured us there was no Danger. The Canow was large, and had Eight Men to paddle her.... When we came near the Breakers they laid still and watched for a Smooth, and then push'd Forward with all their Force, paddling the Canow forward or backward as they saw Occasion, often lying between the Breakers, which was very terrible to see, roaring both before and behind us; when they saw a fair Opportunity they paddled with all their Might toward the Shore and got safe thither.

Yet despite this admiration, many Europeans treated the canoemen with condescension and brutality. Historian W. Jeffrey Bolster reports that, "in 1695, Edward Barter hired a crew of canoemen to ferry corn through the surf. Their canoe overturned, and Barter later beat one of the men 'because he would not help to carry the corn to the croome [a town or village].'" The man's response to Barter's treatment reveals the basic difference between European and African perception. As Barter remembered, "He told me he came to paddle not to carry corn at all." Europeans often described these boatmen as rascally, impudent, or vagabonds. Africans, on the other hand, saw themselves as individuals who made trade agreements on their own terms.

There were, however, some Europeans who recognized the necessity of keeping a good relationship with the canoemen. With his ship anchored a mile and a half off shore, tossed continually by heavy swells, Captain Thomas Phillips was well aware of the risks each time he went ashore. "We venture drowning every time," wrote Phillips, "the canoos [canoes] frequently over-setting, but the canoomen are such excellent divers and swimmers that they preserve the lives of those they have any kindness for.... Therefore 'tis very prudent for all commanders to be kind and obliging to them, their lives lying in their hands."


Once on board, the slaves were taken into the house the seamen had built on deck. There, a surgeon examined them to make sure they were strong and healthy. Slave captain Theodore Canot later described the detail of the inspection and how discovery of a physical flaw might lower the price of the slave: "A careful manipulation of the chief muscles, joints, armpits and groins was made, to assure soundness. The mouth, too, was inspected, and if a tooth was missing, it was noted as a defect liable to deduction. Eyes, voice, lungs, fingers, and toes were not forgotten."

If the surgeon found any defect during his examination, the captain rejected the slave. The master of an unsellable captive frequently beat the slave and sometimes, in certain slave trading posts, such as New Calabar, killed them. Generally, though, these people, known as Wawa, meaning "left ones," worked as household slaves for European traders or Africans.


As the ship filled with slaves, the crew had to make room for its new human cargo. Using simple pulleys and their own strength, seamen hoisted barrels of goods for trading out of the hold and onto the deck. The captain presented the merchandise, and the African slave traders examined the goods as closely as the Europeans examined the slaves.

In addition to trade goods, slave ships carried merchandise that certain Africans considered money. For example, when trading on the eastern Niger delta, captains supplied brass bracelets, called manillas, which the people of that area used as currency. In Ouidah, Europeans bought slaves with cowrie shells from the Maldive Islands off the coast of India, and in Senegambia, they used iron bars.

The Length of Time in Africa

Once slavers bought Africans with the currency most valued in that region, the captives were kept either on the ship or in the slave fort until the ship was ready to sail. If the captives remained on the ship while the captain continued to buy Africans to fill his order for slaves, often they were allowed to remain on deck in the open air. The slave deck below was so foul and suffocating, especially in the heat of the tropical climate, that people forced to lie there often grew very sick or died.

Slave ship captains quickly realized that the longer they took to "slave a ship," the greater the risk of losing slaves and crew members to disease or mutiny. Partly to protect their investment and keep the slaves alive, captains allowed women and children to remain above deck and sometimes men, as long as they were heavily chained.

However, for crew members, allowing slaves on deck brought its own dangers. They feared slaves would rebel, escape, or drown themselves rather than suffer the tortures of European slavery. As a precaution, especially if any escape attempts were made, the ship's officers ordered slaves below deck, even if it meant several deaths.

Like many aspects of slave trading, the amount of time needed to fill a ship varied among regions along the coast. Trading in Sierra Leone might take four to nine months; trading along the Gold Coast could take from six to ten months. In general, however, by 1788 loading a cargo of 450 slaves took from three weeks to three months.

Leaving Africa

As soon as a ship stocked its slave deck with captives, the captain readied it to leave the African Coast. Captain Phillips describes preparing for departure, especially exchanging the necessary formalities between the slave trader (in Phillips's case the king of Ouidah) and the captain:

Having bought my complement of 700 slaves, 480 men and 220 women, and finish'd all my business at Whidaw [Ouidah] I took my leave of the old king and his cappasheirs [his principal attendants], and parted, with many affectionate expressions on both sides, being forced to promise him that I would return again the next year, with several things he desired me to bring from England.

Emptied of European trading items and packed with Africans, the ship was ready to leave. Crew members dismantled the house on deck, hoisted the masts, tied the rigging, and unfurled the sails. Their course set, the seamen headed back across the Atlantic Ocean for the second leg of the Triangle of Trade, known as the Middle Passage.

Venture Smith

In 1798 Venture Smith published his memoir A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa by Resident about Sixty Years in the United States of America, a portion of which has been excerpted in Afro-American History: Primary Sources, edited by Thomas R. Frazier. Smith had purchased freedom for himself as well as his wife and children and lived in East Haddam, Connecticut. Even though he was enslaved and taken from Africa when he was six years old, Smith's memoir gives an accurate and vital description of his capture and reveals how the trade relied on war among tribes to supply slaves.

"The army of the enemy was large, I should suppose consisting of about six thousand men. Their leader was called Baukurre.... The enemy had remarkable success in destroying the country wherever they went. For as far as they had penetrated, they laid the habitations waste and captured the people. The distance they had now brought me was about four hundred miles. On the march [to the sea] the prisoners were treated with clemency, on account of their being submissive and humble. Having come to the next tribe, the enemy laid siege and immediately took men, women, [and] children. ... They then went on to the next district which was contiguous to [touching] the sea, called in Africa, Anamaboo. The inhabitants ... attacked and took [the] enemy [army] and [their] prisoners.... [Thus] I was then taken a second time. All of us were then put into the castle, and kept for market. On a certain time, I and other prisoners were put on board a canoe, under our master, and rowed away to a vessel belonging to Rhode Island, commanded by Captain Collingwood, and the mate Thomas Mumford. While we were going to the vessel, our master told us all to appear to the best possible advantage for sale. I was bought on board by one Robertson Mumford, steward of said vessel, for four gallons of rum, and a piece of calico, and called 'Venture,' on account of his having purchased me with his own private venture."

Fevers on the African Coast

In his memoir, published in London in 1807, James F. Stanfield describes his experiences as a crew member of a slave ship anchored along the Guinea coast. The following passage, excerpted from Black Voyage, edited by Thomas Howard, recounts the agonizing deaths that European slavers suffered when tropical fevers swept through their ships.

"At the commencement of our trade, I went up to the [holding pens where slaves were kept], where I continued about eight months. In the course of this time most of the crew fell [to] the sacrifices of this horrid traffick and its inseparable cruelties. One evening only was I on board during this period. ... The chief mate lay dying, calling out for that comfort and assistance he had so often denied to others. He was glad to lay hold of me to bring him a little refreshment—no one else would take the smallest notices of his cries. The doctor was in the same condition, and making the same complaint. The second mate was lying on his back on the medicine-chest, his head hanging down over one end of it, his hair sweeping the deck and clotted with the filth that was collected there, and in this unnoticed situation he died soon after I came on board.... On the [deck at the stern] the appearance was still more shocking—the remainder of the ship's crew stretched in the last stage of their sickness, without comfort, without refreshment, without attendance. There they lay, straining their weak voices with the most lamentable cries for a little water, and not a soul to afford them the smallest relief. And while all this horror and disease were preying on the lives of the poor seamen, the business of purchasing... was transacting with as little interruption, and as much unconcern as if no such people had ever been on board."

The African King as Trader

In 1820, thirteen years after England's abolition of the slave trade, Osei Bonsu, king of Africa's Ashanti empire, which covered the Gold Coast and spread deep into Africa, explained his method of capturing Africans to sell to European traders. In an interview with British representative Joseph Dupuis, excerpted from David Northrup's The Atlantic Slave Trade, Bonsue remarks on the relationship between war and slaves.

"I cannot make war to catch slaves in the bush, like a thief. My ancestors never did so. But if I fight a king and kill him when he is insolent, then certainly I must have his gold, and his slaves, and the people are mine too.... I hear the old men say, that before I conquered Fantee and killed the Braffoes and the kings... white men came in great ships, and fought and killed many people; and then they took the gold and slaves to the white country.... When I fought Gaman, I did not make war for slaves, but because Dinkera (the king) sent me an arrogant message and killed my people, and refused to pay me gold as his father did."

Africans Retaliate Against European Slavers

Sometimes Africans avenged the capture of friends and family members by kidnapping slave ship crew members and bartering for the release of their loved ones in exchange for their European hostages. As part of his testimony before the House of Commons in 1791, slaver Richard Story described his experience with one such incident of retaliation while traveling in Africa. That testimony was reproduced in The Atlantic Slave Trade, edited by David Northrup.

"I once... in 1768... was going as a passenger from Lagoo on the Gold Coast to the river Gabon, in one of the trading vessels belonging to the Coast. On the second day... two canoes with about twelve or fourteen men came on board with two men bound, which they wanted to sell. When the agreement was made... the master of the boat, myself and another White man were all seized—the master's and the other man's throats were both cut immediately.... After they had got the major part of the goods out of the boat, they then... stripped me naked, put me in a canoe, and took me on shore to their town.... The reason they gave me of doing this was, that a ship from Liverpool... had taken sometime before a canoe full of their townsmen, and carried them away."

"The Very Best Kind of Slaves"

When slave traders went looking for captives, they set out to find slaves that would sell quickly in the New World. "Let your purchase be of the very best kind of Slaves black and smooth free from blemishes," wrote Charlestonbased slave trader Henry Laurens to a colleague about to sail to Africa. His correspondence has been excerpted from Elizabeth Donnan's Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America. "Young and wellgrown —the more Men the better... none sell better than Gambia Slaves."

Males were in greater demand than females. Buyers wanted young slaves— none older than age twenty-five for men and twenty for women. "If you touch any [slaves] below this description," Laurens advised one African trader, "let a very real bargain only tempt you."

According to Laurens, the size of the slave, for example, mattered greatly to the slave buyer of South Carolina. If Africans were too short or too tall, plantation owners would not buy them, and he advised slavers in Africa to let the needs and tastes of the slave buyer in America guide them when filling the slave holds of their ships.

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African Slave Ships from Lucent. ©2002-2006 by Lucent Books, an imprint of The Gale Group. All rights reserved.
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