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An overview of the transatlantic trade in Africans and its abolition
published: Sunday | April 1, 2007

Verene Shepherd & Ahmed Reid, Contributors

The trade in enslaved Africans formed the backbone of British industry and commerce for centuries until its legal abolition in 1807. This trade, which supplied the British-colonised Caribbean with two to four million of the conservatively estimated 15 million enslaved African people forcefully taken from Africa and shipped across the Middle Passage between the 15th and the 19th century, was a profitable trade for British ports, British industry and society, merchants and some African individuals and states that supplied captives for the trade.

Over 2,000,000 Africans, or 10 per cent of the total shipped, lost their lives in the Atlantic crossing, and maybe another four million died as a direct result of capture and enslavement within Africa.

Enslavement itself took its toll on the enslaved population. This means that millions of those who survived the Middle Passage died young, in a short time, in the Americas. Many historians now accept the calculation that about 30 per cent of survivors of the Middle Passage died within the first two years of arrival in the Americas.

Origins and Structure of the Trade

A brief look at the origins of those captured for sale in Jamaica shows that the island relied on a wide spread of source areas to meet its labour needs during the 18th century.

The island imported enslaved Africans from the Senegambia region down to West-Central Africa, a coastal distance of over 5,000 miles. In spite of this extensive supply source, discernible patterns emerge.

The West-Central African region supplied the greatest number of Africans to the Americas, 44.2 per cent of Africans came from West-Central Africa. see Table 1. However, in Jamaica's case, the majority came from the Gold Coast and the Bight of Biafra.

Throughout the early part of the 18th century, the shipment of Gold Coast Africans to Jamaica rose sharply compared to the other regions but declined somewhat after 1776.

This decline is a reflection of a nine per cent decline in exports from the region in general between 1751-1775 and 1776-1800. In fact, one can observe the dramatic decline in exports from the Gold Coast region from 1776 onwards, which was a reflection of British abolition in 1807.

During the course of the trade, 40 per cent of all Gold Coast Africans shipped to the Americas went to Jamaica. Within the Gold Coast region itself, the principal ports of embarkation were the Cape Coast and Anomabu, which together accounted for 85 per cent of the Africans that were shipped from the Gold Coast to the Americas.

Between 1726 and 1750, the Bight of Biafra emerged as a major supplier of enslaved labour to the island. This continued until the trade was abolished in 1807. However, it was not until 1776 that the Bight of Biafra replaced the Gold Coast as the leading supplier of enslaved Africans to Jamaica.

skewed structure

Table 1 also reveals a fluctuation in the number of Africans exported from Senegambia, Sierra Leone and the Windward Coast. However, of the larger trading regions, the Bight of Biafra and West-Central Africa were the only regions which experienced an increase in exports during the 75-year period between 1726 and 1800.

Hence, in the 25 years after 1776, when the Gold Coast was replaced by both the Bight of Biafra and the Bight of Benin as the leading suppliers of enslaved labour, the Bight of Biafra emerged as the second-leading region in exports to the Americas. By 1801, approximately 50 per cent of Jamaica's enslaved labourers came from the Biafran region.

The principal ports of embarkation in the Bight of Biafra were Bonny and Old Calabar. Together, these ports accounted for roughly 82 per cent of the Africans shipped to the Americas, but Bonny was in the lead, supplying 55 per cent of the Africans leaving the Bight of Biafra for the Americas.

The structure of the transatlantic trade was heavily skewed by gender. More males were traded than females. Throughout the course of the trade there was a preference among planters for men. Table 2 shows the ratios of males and children shipped from the exporting regions of Africa. Men made up 57.5-68.5 per cent of those embarked from Africa, while children accounted for between 13.2-31.6 per cent. So, men and children together accounted for over 80 per cent of the Africans forcefully shipped to the Americas. In regions like West-Central Africa, men and children accounted for 91.5 per cent of the trade.

The imbalance between males and females is evident in most of the regions involved in the trade. Marginally, the only region which seemed to have had a relatively high ratio offemales to males was the Bight of Biafra, but even here, 75 per cent of enslaved labourers were men and children. Jamaica imported more females towards the end of the 18th century and this trend continued until the abolition of the trade in 1807.

The debates in Jamaica's House of Assembly towards the end of the 18th century suggest that the importation of women at this time was a strategic move by planters to encourage and promote reproduction within the enslaved population.

The thinking at the time was that having more women while simul-taneously ameliorating the conditions of the population would facilitate natural growth within the island's enslaved population.

Opposition to the TRADE

The captives themselves, as well as their families in Africa, always opposed the transatlantic trade. Indeed, from the moment of capture in Africa, through to the march to the holding cells on the African coast, transportation via the Middle Passage and enslavement in the Caribbean, enslaved Africans struggled to end the transatlantic trade and the slave systems. Resistance occurred on the ships.

In 1752 for instance, the Marlborough, a Bristol ship, carried 400 Africans from the Gold Coast. After a few days, 28 of the enslaved men found themselves on deck and seized guns and killed all but eight of the 35 crew members. This was but one incident among many.

According to S.I. Martin, many protests took place mainly while ships were off the African coast or preparing to dock at the ports in the Americas. It was also noted that an insurrection occurred on every eight to 10 journeys, but was usually harshly suppressed by whippings, mutilation and even forced cannibalism of co-conspirators.

The struggle continued on arrival in the Caribbean with marronage (running away to live in the woods), day-to-day acts of sabotage, and spontaneous and organised wars of resistance.

The enslaved in the Caribbean did not separate out the abolition of the trade from the abolition of the slave system itself.

They knew that slavery relied on the transatlantic trade in Africans (TTA) for most of the period and that the transatlantic trade would not end until slavery itself was abolished. So, their activism embraced the two activities.

The war led by Chief Takyi in St. Mary in 1760 was the most significant 18th-century war of liberation in Jamaica. Many more wars would be waged in Jamaica in the late 18th and 19th centuries as those enslaved struggled to end a crime against humanity.

It was only by the mid-18th century that the TTA began to come under serious and sustained criticism and close scrutiny by non-Africans. The anti-slavery movement in Europe developed as a broad-based alliance of religious sects, politicians, radical philosophers and intellectuals, industrialists, workers' organisations and women's groups. Religious groups such as the Baptists, Methodists, Moravians and Quakers spoke out against the evils of slavery in general and were key members in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, formed in 1787 by Granville Sharp and his friend Thomas Clarkson.

Influential figures such as Thomas Fowell Buxton, George Fox, John Wesley, Joseph Sturge, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Woods, James Phillips, Joseph Hooper, John Barton, Richard Phillips, George Harrison, and Samuel Hoare also gave their support to the campaign through the society. The group resolved that the trade was unjust and should end.

Zachary Macaulay was another person who was interested in the abolition of the TTA. He was a member of the anti-TTA group known as the Clapham Sect and had personal knowledge of slavery, having been a bookkeeper in Jamaica. Others like John Wesley influenced public opinion through written works. In 1774, Wesley published the book Thoughts on Slavery which opposed the TTA and slavery. He was committed to wiping out the TTA, which he thought was "a scandal not only to Christianity but humanity".

Women Activists

Even though the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, set up in 1783, was an exclusively male organisation, an women were excluded from the leadership of the society, approximately 10 per cent of the financial supporters of the organisation were women.

In addition, Mary Birkett, Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft, and a considerable body of working and middle-class women in Britain were involved in the campaign from the very early stages. These women spoke out against the TTA, boycotted produce grown by the enslaved and wrote anti-TTA tracts to raise public awareness about the various vicissitudes of slavery.

Black Activists

Blacks in Europe were also strongly committed to abolishing the TTA and restoring the freedom and dignity of Africans. A number of Africans worked alongside white British abolitionists.

Ignatius Sancho went to England in 1731, at the age of two. Believed to be the first African to vote in Britain, he was a free man and popular shopkeeper. Sancho became the first African prose writer to have his work published in England. He was a vocal opponent of the commercial trafficking of Africans. This was evident through his numerous letters of correspondence with other Britons.

In 1804, the House of Commons finally passed the Slave Trade Abolition Bill, but it was thrown out by the Upper House, the House of Lords. In 1805, British Prime Minister, William Pitt, secured an order-in-council indicating that as of 1806, certain Crown colonies - Berbice, Demerara, Essequibo and Trinidad - would no longer be allowed to import Africans (especially to start new plantations).

With the death of William Pitt in 1806, the new Prime Minister, Lord Grenville, formed a Whig administration, which was strongly opposed to the trade. In January 1806, Charles Fox, Pitt's successor, moved a resolution for the immediate and total abolition of the trade but no bill was passed in that year.

The Slave Trade Abolition Bill

The Slave Trade Abolition Bill was eventually passed in the British House of Lords by 41 votes to 20 on March 25, 1807. In the House of Commons, it had been carried by 114 to 15. It became law in May 1807 to be effected by January 1, 1808, except where ships had already been cleared to trade in Africans.

Such ships would be allowed to operate until March 1808. This explains why the Kitty Amelia sailed from Liverpool in July 1807 to capture Africans for sale in Jamaica, arriving in Kingston Harbour on January 25, 1808.

There were other post-1807 voyages to Jamaica. Between January and March 1808, a total of 3,535 enslaved Africans arrived in the island. From this total, 3,374 arrived in Kingston, while 161 were transported to Montego Bay. This was in keeping with the overall trend during the 18th century where Kingston, the island's leading port, accounted for the majority of imports.

It is also interesting to note the mortality rate for the period. Of the 4,116 Africans transported, only 3,535 arrived, revealing a mortality rate of 581 or 14 per cent. This confirms the cruel and ghoulish nature of the Middle Passage, even after the enactment of the bill declaring full abolition in 1807.

Freedom delayed

The passing of the 1806 Order-in-Council and the 1807 Abolition Act, did not result in the total abolition of the trade in human beings from Africa. English enslavers evaded the law by sailing under various flags of countries that still upheld the TTA, such as France, Portugal and Spain.

If slavers were in danger of being captured by the British navy, captains often reduced the fines they had to pay by ordering the human cargo to be thrown into the sea. In 1811, penalties were increased to curb these illegal activities.

A slave trader could have been sentenced to deportation for 14 years or to hard labour for a maximum of four years and a minimum of three years. In 1824, an act was passed that imposed a death sentence to those engaged in the TTA.

Anti-slavery wars in the Caribbean, the declining economic importance of the Caribbean to Britain and the intensification of the humanitarian and political opposition to slavery would eventually lead to the passing of legislation by the British parliament in 1833 to begin to abolish slavery, with 'full free' to come in 1838.

But 1838 was still a long way off. In this regard, 1807 still represented 'freedom delayed'.

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