countries established distinct national trades. The European port cities most
involved in this growth industry were
London in England;
Amsterdam in Holland; Lisbon, the Portuguese capital; and
Nantes, located on the western French coast.
On the African side most captives were traded from only a few ports:
Luanda (Angola), Whydah (Bight of Benin), Bonny (
Bight of Biafra); and the adjacent "castles" at
Winneba on the Gold Coast accounted for at least a third of
the Africans transported to the Americas. Other major ports included Old
Calabar (Bight of Biafra), Benguela (Southern Angola),
Cabinda (north of the Congo River), and
Lagos in the Bight of Benin. These nine ports accounted for
at least half of all the Africans deported to the Americas.
The European countries attempted, though not successfully, to regulate
the trade by chartering various national companies established under royal
decree or parliamentary order. But these efforts to create monopolies, such as
England's Royal African Company (RAC), were soon undermined by private merchant
companies and pirates who opened up new markets in the Bight of Biafra and the
northern Angola coast, and challenged the RAC on the Gold Coast and in the
Each of the nations and their slave ports experimented with innovative
marketing and trading techniques. Sometimes this competition required the
maintenance of trading depots and forts - the slave "castles" or
factories - as was the case in the Gold Coast and the Bight
of Benin, as well as in lesser ports along the
Upper Guinea Coast, Senegambia, and Angola.
The trade was propelled by credit flowing outward from Europe and used
by merchants to purchase men, women, and children in West Africa. They advanced
goods on credit in lieu of payment in captives. The wares sent to Africa in
exchange for captives included those that could be used as money:
cowry shells, strips of cloth (often imported from India),
iron bars, copper bracelets (
manillas), silver coins, and gold. These goods also had
value as commodities: cloth could be turned into clothing, iron into hoes and
other tools. Consumer goods included textiles, alcohol, and jewelry. Their
importation supplemented but did not replace the local production of these
items. Alcohol was regarded as a luxury, except in Muslim communities, where it
Military goods, principally firearms, were also exchanged for captives.
They were instrumental in the eighteenth-century Gold Coast wars that enslaved
multitudes and led to the Asante people's political ascendancy in the region.
With the exception of the Gold Coast wars, guns played little role at first in
local conflicts, due in part to the difficulty of keeping powder dry in
tropical regions. For example, the rise of Oyo, which became the dominant
slaving power in the interior of the Bight of Benin, was mostly effected by the
use of cavalry.
Merchants experimented with various trading methods. In some places,
such as Old
Calabar and the minor ports of the Upper Guinea Coast,
individuals who were often the relatives of local merchants and officials were
accepted by ship captains as collateral for credit. These individuals were
human pawns who could be enslaved if debts were not paid.
In Angola and Senegambia, European merchants married or otherwise
cohabited with local women, and these women sometimes amassed considerable
fortunes as agents and merchants in their own right. Their mixed offspring
became an intermediate class of merchants along the coast, but especially
concentrated along the Upper Guinea Coast as far as Senegambia, and in Luanda,
Benguela, and their commercial outposts in the interior of Angola.
The trade was a high-risk enterprise. The commodity was people; they
could escape, be murdered, commit suicide, or fall victim to epidemics or
natural disasters. Local traders could disappear with their payment and never
produce the captives stipulated in the contract. Since the slave trade went
across political and cultural frontiers, there was little recourse to courts
and governments in the event of commercial dishonesty. No international court
or judicial system existed to handle the extraordinary violations of human
rights that defined every aspect of the slave trade.
The slave trade was driven by both demand and greed. The customers in
the Americas who could afford it desperately needed labor and did not care how
it was obtained. Traders could benefit immensely from theft, plunder,
kidnapping, ransoming, and the sale of human beings as commodities. These
slavers took advantage of African political troubles, religious differences,
legal technicalities, economic crises, and outright callousness to exploit