Thursday, 14 June 2007

A Pictorial Account of the African Slave Trade - Part 1

When Alex Haley’s “Roots” first hit the bookstores in1976, it caught the world, or rather the western world by storm. It was subsequently made into a hugely popular TV miniseries. I could still remember impatiently waiting for the next episode to be aired every week. It was a reverting story of an African, Kunta Kinte, who was captured from his native land in Gambia and sold into slavery in America. It traces the life of the central character Kunta Kinte up to Haley himself, purportedly Kinte’s great great great grandson.


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Who were these slave traders? The Arab world was already firmly entrenched in the trade hundreds of years before the European traders stepped into the scene. The demand for workers to work in agriculture and mines and as servants in the successive Islamic empires had made the trade hugely lucrative. Arab slave traders would often organize raiding expeditions to capture slaves, preferably female as their market preferred female slaves. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavetrade). By the 9th century, slaves were also used as soldiers in the Islamic countries of that time. The Sultan of Morocco was recorded to have an army of 250,000 black slaves. (Bernard Lewis: Race and Slavery in the Middle East.)

When the Portuguese first sailed down the coast of West Africa in the 1430s in search of gold, they found that there was gold to be made by selling slaves to Muslim merchants. Trading posts were established along the coast to trade in slaves as well as produce or minerals required by the Portuguese.

The colonization of the Americas and the Caribbean islands in the 18th century had created an insatiable appetite for workers to work in plantations and mines in the Americas and the Caribbean islands. More European countries came to West Africa for a slice of the pie.

By the 18th century, Britain alone accounted for trading and transportation of 2.5 million slaves.

The pictures below trace the journey of slaves from the time they were captured to the time they arrived at their host countries.


1. Capture, confinement and transportation of slaves.



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“Gang Of Captives met at Mbame’s on their way to Tette”, July 1861. The men were held together by “forked logs” while the children and women were chained or tied by ropes to their captors armed with guns.


The illustration showing Arab slavers attacking a village in East Africa, in the 1870s to capture slaves.

An African merchant selling slaves to a European. Slavers were not confined to theEuropeans and the Arabs. Africans themselves also actively participated in the trade, especially when tribal enmities existed.

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A slave immobilized by the forked log waiting to be brought to the trading post.



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A fortified trading post where slaves are kept before the arrival of the trading ships.


A slave trader carrying out the inspection of slaves to determine their state of health. It was recorded that in some cases, slaves who were found to be unfit physically or had physical deformities were disposed of by the Arab traders.



The branding of woman slaves. Prior to boarding the slave ship, the head of every male and female were shaven, and then marked with a hot pipe, presumably to indicate who their owners were.


Captured Africans in Congo being brought from the interior in a canoe to be sold as slaves, 1880s.


Slaves being brought to the beach to be transported in canoes to the ship.


They are packed like sardines on the slave ship “Wildfire”, 1860.

Men, women and children confined below the deck with European guards carrying a motionless slave in.

A slave ship, Brazil, 1830s. Knowing that sickly slaves could not be sold, the slave captain had these slaves thrown alive into the sea to avoid paying import duties on them when they landed.


Slaves “unloaded” at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619


James Walvin in his book, "The Slave Trade" contains vivid personal accounts of how some of the Africans were abducted from their homes:

Ottobah Cugoano, Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of Africa (1787)

I was early snatched away from my native country, with about eighteen or twenty more boys and girls, as we were playing in a field. We lived but a few days' journey from the coast where we were kidnapped, and consigned to Grenada. 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. (1) We were soon led out of the way which we knew, and towards evening, as we came in sight of a town. I was soon conducted to a prison, for three days, where I heard the groans and cries of many, and saw some of my fellow-captives. But when a vessel arrived to conduct us away to the ship, it was a most horrible scene; there was nothing to be heard but the rattling of chains, smacking of whips, and the groans and cries of our fellow-men. Some would not stir from the ground, when they were lashed and beat in the most horrible manner.


John Brown aged 87, interviewed as part of the Federal Writers Project in 1937.

Most of the time there was more than three hundred slaves on the plantation. The oldest ones come right from Africa. My grandmother was one of them. A savage in Africa - a slave in America. Mammy told it to me. Over there all the natives dressed naked and lived on fruits and nuts. Never see many white men. One day a big ship stopped off the shore and the natives hid in the brush along the beach. Grandmother was there. The ship men sent a little boat to the shore and scattered bright things and trinkets on the beach. The natives were curious. Grandmother said everybody made a rush for them things soon as the boat left. The trinkets was fewer than the peoples. Next day the white folks scatter some more. There was another scramble. The natives was feeling less scared, and the next day some of them walked up the gangplank to get things off the plank and off the deck. The deck was covered with things like they'd found on the beach. Two-three hundred natives on the ship when they feel it move. They rush to the side but the plank was gone. Just dropped in the water when the ship moved away.

Folks on the beach started to crying and shouting. The ones on the boat was wild with fear. Grandmother was one of them who got fooled, and she say the last thing seen of that place was the natives running up and down the beach waving their arms and shouting like they was mad. The boat men come up from below where they had been hiding and drive the slaves down in the bottom and keep them quiet with the whips and clubs. The slaves was landed at Charleston. The town folks was mighty mad because the blacks was driven through the streets without any clothes, and drove off the boat men after the slaves was sold on the market. Most of that load was sold to the Brown plantation in Alabama. Grandmother was one of the bunch.

For those of you whose geographical knowledge has atrophied, a map of the Caribbean islands and the north coast of South America will refresh your memory. Surinam lies adjacent to Guyana.



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Continue in Part 2

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