The Slave-Trade

Sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar, on the left hand for some distance is the fertile country of Morocco watered by streams descending from the Atlas range. Then comes a sandy shore, on which breaks a savage surf; and when that is passed, a new scene comes to view. The ocean is discoloured; a peculiar smell is detected in the air; trees appear as if standing in the water; and small black specks, the canoes of fishermen, are observed passing to and fro.

The first region, Senegambia, still partakes of the desert character. With the exception of the palm and the gigantic Adansonia, the trees are for the most part stunted in appearance. The country is open, and is clothed with grass, where antelopes start up from their forms like hares. Here and there are clumps of trees, and long avenues mark the water courses, which are often dry, for there are only three months' rain. The interior abounds with gum-trees, especially on the borders of the desert. The people are Mohammedans, fight on horseback, and dwell in towns fortified with walls and hedges of the cactus. In this country the French are masters, and have laid the foundations of a military empire; an Algeria on a smaller scale.

But as we pass towards the south, the true character of the coast appears. A mountain wall runs parallel with the sea, and numberless rivers leap down the hill slopes, and flow towards the Atlantic through forest covered and alluvial lands, which they themselves have formed. These rivers are tidal, and as soon as the salt water begins to mingle with the fresh, their banks are lined with mangrove shrubberies, forming an intricate bower-work of stems, which may be seen at low water encrusted with oysters, thus said by sailors to grow on trees. The mountain range is sometimes visible as a blue outline in the distance; or the hills, which are shaped like an elephant's back, draw near the shore: or rugged spurs jut down with their rocks of torn and tilted granite to the sea. The shore is sculptured into curves; and all along the coast runs a narrow line of beach, sometimes dazzling white, sometimes orange yellow, and sometimes a deep cinnamon red.

This character of coast extends from Sierra Leone to the Volta, and includes the Ivory Coast, the Pepper Coast, and the Gold Coast. Then the country again flattens; the mountain range retires and gives place to a gigantic swamp, through which the Niger debouches by many mouths into the Bight of Benin, where, according to the old sailor adage, "few come out, though many go in." It is indeed the unhealthiest region of an unhealthy coast. A network of creeks and lagoons unite the various branches of the Niger, and the marshes are filled with groves of palm-oil trees, whose yellow bunches are as good as gold. But in the old day the famous red oil was only used as food, and the sinister name of the Slave Coast indicates the commodity which it then produced.

Again the hills approach the coast, and now they tower up as mountains. The Peak of Cameroons is situated on the Line; it is nearly as high as the Peak of Teneriffe; the flowers of Abyssinia adorn its upper sides, and on its lofty summit the smoke of the volcano steals mist-like across a sheet of snow.

A little lower down, the primeval forest of the Gorilla Country resembles that of the opposite Brazil; but is less gorgeous in its vegetation, less abundant in its life.

Farther yet to the south, and a brighter land appears. We now enter the Portuguese province of Angola. The land, far into the interior, is covered with farm-houses and coffee plantations, and smiling fields of maize. San Paolo de Loanda is still a great city, though the colony has decayed; though the convents have fallen into ruin, though oxen are stalled in the college of the Jesuits. Below Angola, to the Cape of Good Hope, is a waterless beach of sand. The west coast of Africa begins with a desert inhabited by Moors; it ends with a desert inhabited by Hottentots.



In the eighteenth century, a trifling trade was done in ivory and gold; but these were only accessories; the Guinea trade signified the trade in slaves. At first the Europeans kidnapped the negroes whom they met on the beach, or who came off to the ships in their canoes; but the "treacherous natives" made reprisals; the practice was, therefore, given up, and the trade was conducted upon equitable principles. It was found that honesty was the best policy, and that it was cheaper to buy men than to steal them. Besides the settlements which were made by Europeans, there were many native ports upon the Slave Coast, and of these Whydah, the seaport of Dahomey, was the most important. When a slave vessel entered the roads, it fired a gun, the people crowded down to the beach, the ship's boat landed through an ugly surf, and the skipper made his way to a large tree in the vicinity of the landing-place, where the governor of the town received him in state, and regaled him with trade-gin, by no means the most agreeable of all compounds. The capital was situated at a distance of sixty miles, and the captain would be carried there in a hammock, taking with him some handsome silks and other presents for the king. This monarch lived by hunting his neighbours and by selling them to Europeans. There was a regular war-season, and he went out once a year, sometimes in one direction, sometimes in another. Kings in Africa have frequently a bodyguard of women.

A certain king of Dahomey had developed this institution into female regiments. These women are nominally the king's wives; they are in reality old maids -- the only specimens of the class upon the continent of Africa; they are excellent soldiers -- hardy, savage, and courageous. In the siege of Abbeokuta, the other day, an Amazon climbed up the wall; her right arm was cut clean off, and as she fell back she pistolled a man with her left. When the king returned from his annual campaign, he sent to all the white men at Whydah, who received the special title of the "king's friends," and invited them up to witness his "customs" and to purchase his slaves, In the first place, the king murdered a number of his captives to send to his father as tokens of regard; and the traders were mortified to see good flesh and blood being wasted on religion. However, slaves were always in abundance. They were also obtained from the settlements upon the coast. The Portuguese Angola could alone be dignified with the name of colony. The Dutch, English, and French settlements were merely fortified factories, half castle, half shop, in which the agents lived, and in which the dry goods, rum, tobacco, trade powder and muskets, were stored. There were native traders, who received a quantity of such goods on trust, and travelled into the interior till they came to a War-town. They then ordered so many slaves; and laid down the goods. The chief ordered out the militia, made a night march, attacked a village just before the dawn, killed those who resisted, carried off the rest in irons manufactured at Birmingham, and handed them over to the trader; who drove them down to the coast. They were then warehoused in the fort dungeons, or in buildings called "barracoons" prepared for their reception; and as soon as a vessel was ready they were marked and shipped. On board they were packed on the lower deck like herrings in a cask. The cargo supposed that it also resembled herrings, in being exported as an article of food.

The slaves believed that all white men were cannibals; that the red caps of the trade were dyed in negro blood, and that the white soap was made of negro brains. So they often refused to eat; upon which their mouths were forced open with an instrument known in surgery as speculum oris, and used in cases of lock-jaw; and by means of this ingenious contrivance they breakfasted and dined against their will. Exercise also being conducive to health, they were ordered to jump up and down in their fetters; and if they declined to do so, the application of the cat had the desired effect, and made them exercise not only their limbs, but also their lungs, and so promoted the circulation of the blood and the digestion of the horse-beans on which they were fed. Yet such was the obstinacy of these savage creatures, that many of them sulked themselves to death; and sometimes, when indulged with an airing on deck, the ungrateful wretches would jump overboard, and, as they sank, waved their hands in triumph at having made their escape. On reaching the West Indies they were put into regular schools of labour, and gradually broken in; and they then enjoyed the advantage of dwelling in a Christian land. But their temporal happiness was not increased. If a lady put her cook into the oven because the pie was overdone; if a planter soused a slave in the boiling sugar; if the runaway was hunted with bloodhounds, and then flogged to pieces and hung alive in chains; if the poor old worn-out slave was turned adrift to die, the West Indian laws did not interfere. The slave of a planter was "his money" it was only when a man killed another person's slave that he was punished; and then only by a fine. It may be said, without exaggeration, that dogs and horses now receive more protection in the British dominions than negroes received in the last century.

Previous Next