June 13th, 2023
Life in Africa and the trade of enslaved people along the African coast are rarely mentioned in the autobiographies of former slaves. These accounts raise problems of interpretation due to the context of their writing, and must be confronted with historical data. They do, however, have a unique value: they do give voice to the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.
In the autobiographies of former slaves published in England and the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, those that include the first part of their lives in Africa are unfortunately a minority. We have counted around twenty. These accounts raise major problems of interpretation, as they most often result from a collaboration between an African voice and a collector-editor-publisher, in an active participation strategy towards the abolitionist movement, including a risk of distortion through conversion to Christianity, a process intimately linked to emancipation.
They need to be confronted with the analysis of interdisciplinary academic research, which crosses data from African orality and the accounts of outside travellers. However, they are endowed with a unique value: these are the voices of the victims of the trade of enslaved people, the privileged way not to limit the study of African agency to that of their persecutors. These few testimonies prevent the millions of others’ expressions of suffering from being shrouded in total silence.
The autobiographical narratives help to clarify the social environment in Africa in which these authors evolved. Membership of the elite dominates (12 out of 14 known cases). It is portrayed through the economic power, measured in terms of the large number of enslaved peoples and the power to hire out the labor of many freemen, and participation in political power as king or head of a lineage that included the council of Elders. Poverty is only mentioned twice. J. Jea, from Old Calabar (present-day Nigeria), seized in war at the age of two/three in the 1770s, recalls his “poor but industrious” parents. O. Wooma, who had lost his father at the age of eight, was taken in by his older brother, who pawned him off to borrow two goats. All of which seems to highlight the influence of initial education in the writing of autobiographies, as a form of social capital.
A few stories illustrate the impact of trade on the formation of couples. Baquaqua’s father, born in the late 1820s in Zooggou (Djougou, north of present-day Benin), a trading post dependent on the Borgou kingdom, belonged to the non-native, Dendi-speaking Wangara merchant network. Gewe, the future C. Mulgrave, born in Luanda in Portuguese Angola in the 1820s, describes her father as a Mbundu chief working for a Portuguese trader, and her mother as a “mulattress” from a “prominent family”. Polygamy appears to be a widely accepted custom, a significant sign of social power. The most frequent situation tends to fluctuate between two and three wives.
Social ties are organized in concentric circles, placing kinship at the center, in which the close family forms part of the wider lineage, reinforced by friendships, a sense of belonging to the neighborhood, to “congregations”, to the community formed by villages and towns, whether closed or open, marketplaces linked by networks, but in some cases country capitals or pilgrimage centers.
These stories illustrate their insertion into a traditional slave society. The origins of slavery are well known: war, abduction, judicial penalties (theft and adultery), seizure for debt (Wooma). The work of the council of elders shows a swift, mainly restorative justice. The captives’ itineraries to the Atlantic Ocean, punctuated by changing hands, illustrate the behavior of different masters. O. Equiano, of Igbo origin in the Niger delta, born around 1745, shows himself surprise at his successful family integration, leading him to a certain oblivion of his servile status and even to the hope of adoption. However, reversibility is unpredictable and complete, either by a sudden accident or by an inexplicable arbitrary decision.
Three of the identifiable religious cultures refer to Muslim references. S. Diallo, son of a Fulani marabout from Fuuta Tooro on the middle Senegal, was involved in the Atlantic trade across the Gambia in the 1730s; M. Baquaqua belongs to a very practising religious family from northern Benin; and U. Gronniosaw, originally from Borno (northeast of the present Nigerian territory), received a Muslim education, but his parents seem unable to answer his questions, which raises the problem of the inconsistency of an arranged narrative.
Most references are made to traditional animist religions, based on the worships of numerous deities and ancestors, and the frequent use of fetishes and sacrifices.
Belinda, born in the early 1710s, was seized in a sacred wood on the Gold Coast (Ghana), while accompanying her parents. J. Wright, of Yoruba (western Nigeria) origin, identifies two public deities in his community, according to gender, with their processions of priests and servants, and the thousands of private deities honored in each family home. Divination is a common practice, taking the form of auguries for war or business, even among Muslims (Baquaqua), but also to cure diseases.
Wright explores burial rituals, differentiating between the practices of his people and those of his aggressor. The accumulation of precious goods in the tombs, mainly textiles of great price, refers to the flagship product of the Atlantic trade, arousing their pillaging for commercial purposes. In one of the stages of its transfer, the king’s death is followed by the sacrifice of all the royal slaves, raising fears of a levy among the traders.
Collective identification in terms of ethnicity, translated as “nation”, refers to linguistic and customary differences. In his Yoruba dictionary, S. Crowther, a captive freed by the Royal Navy in Sierra Leone in the late 1820s and later a member of the Anglican Church Missionary Society, illustrates the awareness of differences. The question of language is essential for displaced victims. At the same time, Equiano shows a fluidity of proximity and some real ruptures.
Lost wars were the main reason why a population would fall into the export trade. These were local wars, often among the same “nation”, surprising an unprepared people, for Broteer Furro (later Venture Smith) in the first third of the 18th century, or initially seen as being distant (Wright). J. Joseph’s father, Chief Ashante, of the powerful inland empire of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in the 18th and 19th centuries, did engage in fighting, but was defeated. L. Asa-Asa of Sierra Leone, liberated by the Royal Navy in the 1820s, was captured by the Adinyé, who destroyed his village three times. All those who could took shelter in the woods. Tallen, later renamed Dimmock Charlton, born around 1800 and originally from the present Guinea, was the victim of a Mandingo raid.
L. Asa-Asa counts the Adinyé by the thousands. Broteer, a captive incorporated in the army descending towards the Gold Coast, reports 6,000 men. Weapons were many and varied. Broteer describes a technique used to smoke people out of houses built into the ground, how the defenders responded with a shower of poison-tipped arrows, and how an antidote was immediately applied to the wound. The walled towns, protected by high walls, a deep moat and a thorn hedge, resisted for as long as the population remained spared from famine. The city of Wright resisted for seven months. Defeat meant pillage, systematic burning and the execution of very young children and the elderly
Kidnappings mainly affected isolated children, driven by their games outside the village – a wood for O. Cugoano (around 1760, in the Fante country, now Ghana), a beach near Luanda for Gewe, a riverside for C. Spear, kidnapped with four other children by “white” sailors in 1779, perhaps in the Rivières du Sud (now Guinea)? -or left in the village while the adults worked in the fields (Equiano).
M. Baquaqua fell into a trap set by rivals or in revenge for his previous role in the service of the local chief. A. Diallo (Job, Salomon’s son), dealing with the English on the Gambia, was sold by his rivals. Sibell, born in the first half of the 18th century in the up-to-now unidentified country of Makedunru, was abducted by her brother-in-law, with whom she lived, her sister having the rank of second wife. A broken pipe, whether accidental or in revenge, was enough to justify that Wooma, still then under pledge, should become property of his brother’s creditor, and its sale a year later.
Gronniosaw’s account is so exceptional that it seems hardly believable. He describes a journey of his own making from Bornou, southeast of Lake Chad, to the Gold Coast, on the invitation of an African merchant from the coast, which might be in line with the requirement for trust in trade networks. Upon arrival in the harbor city, he was at first greeted as the king’s son, then harshly accused of being a spy and condemned to death, even though he stayed on as the merchant’s guest. Mercifully pardoned by the king, his persecutor, he is finally handed over to the Atlantic slave trade.
Depending on the seizure location, the route to the coast varies in length, duration and difficulty. It may be on regular roads with welcome “cabins”, or off-road. The geography is varied, alternating between mountains and farmlands, from savannah to forests. Nights in the woods are a constant cause for anxiety: you need to protect yourself from wild animals with campfires. In the countries bordered by rivers, you quickly switch to dugout canoes. During stopovers in the villages, the captives must be separated for close night-time surveillance, as it is feared that they will escape.
The treatment is correct, without brutality, but they have to carry their own food. L. Asa-Asa recalls a sick neighbor being killed on the road. Some are sold several times: six for Asa-Asa and Wooma, seven for Equiano. During his transit through the illegal slave trade, Wright moves from the house of the warlord who received him as booty to a first domestic market, then a second, before arriving by pirogue at Ikko, the place of contact with the Portuguese, i.e. three sales on African soil. The final journey was made by night, for embarkation at dawn, but this did not prevent the Royal Navy from boarding the ship off the coast, facilitating its release in Freetown.
On the coast, Cugoano speaks of a factorerie (“harbor city”) with captives sent to the fields or to the sea for portage. Broteer was thrown into the jails of the Anomabu fort, the main trading site on the Gold Coast in the 18th century. Sibell describes it as a “big house that needs to be filled”.
The expression of trauma underlines the marked impact of kinship as the matrix of social issues: the pain of separation, the hope of redeeming oneself, substitution through adoption. In a gradual degradation, the coastal stage is the most terrible, with its plunge into the unknown: the whites, the sea, the trading ship and the fear of cannibalism. Sibell and Wright describe the African port city as “cruel”, and Cugoano forgets the name of the “infernal fort”. A few stories raise the question of African responsibility. Asa-Asa, who has no wish to leave England and return home for fear of being recaptured, blames the elites.
Online publication of many stories by former enslaved people: North American Slave Narratives, Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina. To be consulted here: HERE
About the author
Guy Saupin is a professor emeritus of modern history at the University of Nantes since 2015. He is a specialist in European port cities and relations between Africans and Europeans in the Atlantic world in the modern era. His latest book is entitled: L’émergence des villes-havres africaines atlantiques au temps du commerce des esclaves, vers 1470-vers 1870, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2023
Equiano, Olaudah, Ma véridique histoire par Olaudah Equiano, Africain, esclave en Amérique, homme libre, traduit de l’anglais, présenté et annoté par Régine Mfounou-Arthur, Paris, Mercure de France, Éditions L’Harmattan, 2021 (2008).
Carretta, Vincent (éd.), Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Blacks Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century, Lexington, The University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
Sollors, Werner (éd.), Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself; Authorative Text, Contexts, Criticism, New York, Norton & Company, 2001.
Konadu, Kwasi, Transatlantic Africa, 1440-1888, New York, Oxford University Press, 2015.