The slave trade Vs cheap labour.

1562 – First English slaving expedition by Sir John Hawkins

1672 – Royal Africa Company granted charter to carry Africans to the Americas.

1791 – Slave rebellion on the island of St Domingue (later Haiti).

1804 – Slave rebellion on the island of St Domingue successful and the first independent black state outside Africa – Haiti – is established.

1833 – Death of William Wilberforce.

William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833)

William Wilberforce was the main figurehead in Parliament for the Abolitionist campaign. He was born in Kingston-upon-Hull into a wealthy family of wool merchants and represented the town as MP. He was recruited by Thomas Clarkson, who recognised that, in order to get Parliament to change the law, the anti-slavery cause needed a brilliant advocate inside Parliament itself. Wilberforce was very well suited for this role. He was a great orator, wealthy, well connected, known for his integrity and was particularly keen to improve society, especially from 1785 after his conversion to evangelical Christianity.

He made his first speech in Parliament against slavery in 1789 and made a great impression. However, a mixture of external events (including the slave rebellion in Haiti in 1791 which hardened public attitudes) and poor tactics prevented his abolition bill being passed in the House of Commons in 1791. A similar bill proposed in April 1792 was passed by MPs only after it was amended and conceded to a ‘gradual’ abolition of the slave trade.

During the period of 1792-1805 when England was at war with France, support for the abolitionist campaign collapsed. Wilberforce, therefore, pursued other issues of reform but retained his belief that one day slavery would be abolished. In 1807, after a long, emotional debate, the Abolition Act was finally passed.

In 1807, the British government passed an Act of Parliament abolishing the slave trade throughout the British Empire. Slavery itself would persist in the British colonies until its final abolition in 1838. However, abolitionists would continue campaigning against the international trade of slaves after this date.

The slave trade refers to the transatlantic trading patterns which were established as early as the mid-17th century. Trading ships would set sail from Europe with a cargo of manufactured goods to the west coast of Africa. There, these goods would be traded, over weeks and months, for captured people provided by African traders. European traders found it easier to do business with African intermediaries who raided settlements far away from the African coast and brought those young and healthy enough to the coast to be sold into slavery.

Once full, the European trader’s ship would depart for the Americas or the Caribbean on the notorious ‘Middle Passage’. During this voyage, the slaves would be kept in the ship’s hold, crammed close together with little or no space to move. Conditions were squalid and many people did not survive the voyage. On the final leg of the transatlantic route, European ships returned home with cargoes of sugar, rum, tobacco and other ‘luxury’ items. It has been estimated that, by the 1790s, 480,000 people were enslaved in the British Colonies.

The majority of those sold into slavery were destined to work on plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas, where huge areas of the American continent had been colonized by European countries. These plantations produced products such as sugar or tobacco, meant for consumption back in Europe.

Those who supported the slave trade argued that it made important contributions to the country’s economy and to the rise of consumerism in Britain. Despite this, towards the end of the eighteenth century, people began to campaign against slavery. However, since trading was so profitable for those involved, the ‘Abolitionists’ (those who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade) were fiercely opposed by a pro-slavery West Indian lobby. Those who still supported slavery used persuasive arguments, or ‘propaganda’, to indicate the necessity of the slave trade though the abolitionists also used propaganda to further their cause.

The role of many slaves themselves in bringing slavery to an end is often overlooked. Resistance among slaves in the Caribbean was not uncommon. Indeed, slaves in the French colony of St Domingue seized control of the island and it was eventually declared to be the republic of Haiti. Figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, by adding their eye witness accounts to abolitionist literature, also made a major contribution to the abolition campaign.


Portuguese adventurers who sailed southeast along the Gulf of Guinea in 1472 landed on the coast of what became Nigeria. Others followed. They found people of varying cultures. Some lived in towns ruled by kings with nobility and courtiers, very much like the medieval societies they left behind them. More than a century earlier Benin exchanged ambassadors with Portugal. But not all African societies were as developed. Some enjoyed village existence in primeval forests remote from outside influences.

The first African slaves landed in the Portugese port of Lagos in 1442. The old slave market now serves as an art gallery.

Economics was the driving force

From the outset, relations between Europe and Africa were economic. Portuguese merchants traded with Nigerians from trading posts they set up along the coast. They exchanged items like brass and copper bracelets for such products as pepper, cloth, beads and slaves – all part of an existing internal Nigerian trade. Domestic slavery was common in Nigeria and well before European slave buyers arrived, there was trading in humans. Black slaves were captured or bought by Arabs and exported across the Saharan desert to the Mediterranean and Near East.

In 1492, the Spaniard Christopher Columbus discovered for Europe a ‘New World’. The find proved disastrous not only for the ‘discovered’ people but also for Africans. It marked the beginning of a triangular trade between Africa, Europe and the New World. European slave ships, mainly British and French, took people from Africa to the New World. They were initially taken to the West Indies to supplement local Indians decimated by the Spanish Conquistadors. The slave trade grew from a trickle to a flood, particularly from the seventeenth century onwards.

Portugal’s monopoly in the obnoxious trade was broken in the sixteenth century when England followed by France and other European nations entered the trade. The English led in the business of transporting young Africans from their homeland to work in mines and till lands in the Americas.

Most slaves sold by Nigerians

At the initial stage of the trade parties of Europeans captured Nigerians in raids on communities in the coastal areas. But this soon gave way to buying slaves from Nigerian rulers and traders. The vast majority of slaves taken out of Nigeria were sold by Nigerian rulers, traders and a military aristocracy who all grew wealthy from the business. Most slaves were acquired through wars or by kidnapping. ” Olaudah Equiano, an ex-slave, described in his memoirs published in 1789 how African rulers carried out raids to capture slaves. “When a trader wants slaves, he applies to a chief for them, and tempts him with his wares. It is not extraordinary, if on this occasion he yields to the temptation with as little firmness, and accepts the price of his fellow creature’s liberty with as little reluctance, as the enlightened merchant. Accordingly, he falls upon his neighbours, and a desperate battle ensues…if he prevails, and takes prisoners, he gratifies his avarice by selling them.”

A profitable trade

European slave buyers made the greater profit from the despicable trade, but their Nigerian partners also prospered. Many grew strong and fat on profits made from selling their brethren. Tinubu square, commercial centre of today’s Lagos and home to Nigeria’s Central Bank, is named after a major nineteenth century slave trader. Madam Tinubu was born in Egbaland and rose from rags to riches by trading in slaves , salt and tobacco in Badagry. She later became one of Nigeria’s pioneering nationalists.

Nigeria’s rulers, traders and military aristocracy protected their interest in the slave trade. They discouraged Europeans from leaving the coastal areas to venture into the interior of the continent. European trading companies realised the benefit of dealing with Nigerian suppliers and not unnecessarily antagonising them. The companies could not have mustered the resources it would have taken to directly capture the tens of millions of people shipped out of Africa. It was far more sensible and safer to give Africans guns to fight the many wars that yielded captives for the trade. The slave trading network stretched deep into the Africa’s interior. Slave trading firms were aware of their dependency on African suppliers. The Royal African Company, for instance, instructed its agents on the West coast “if any differences happen, to endeavour an amicable accommodation rather than use force.” They were “to endeavour to live in all friendship with them” and “to hold frequent palavers with the Kings and the Great Men of the Country, and keep up a good correspondent with them, ingratiating yourself by such prudent methods” as may be deemed appropriate.

Nigerians faced with a new world

Contact with Europe opened new images of the world for the Nigerian elite and presented them with products of a civilization which as the centuries passed became more technologically differentiated from their own. The slave trade whetted their appetite for the products of a changing world. Sadly it was not only tinpot rulers who were mesmerized by the glitters of western artifacts.

European traders saw the advantages of helping Nigerian kings and chiefs realise their desire to acquire western culture, if not for themselves then for their children. Hugh Crow, who commanded the last British slave ship to leave a British port, wrote “It has always been the practice of merchants and commanders of ships to Africa, to encourage the natives to send their children to England as it not only conciliates their friendship, and softens their manner, but adds greatly to the security of the traders.” With their children in Europe, African chiefs were likely to be more accommodating, knowing full well their offspring could be held as ransom.

African traders resist abolition of obnoxious trade

When Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 it not only had to contend with opposition from white slavers but also from Nigerian rulers who had become accustomed to wealth gained from selling slaves or from taxes collected on slaves passed through their domain. Nigerian slave-trading classes were greatly distressed by the news that legislators sitting in parliament in London had decided to end their source of livelihood. But for as long as there was demand from the Americas for slaves, the lucrative business continued.

The slave trade business continued in many parts of Africa for many decades after the British abolished it. For as long as there was demand for slave labour in the Americas, the supply was available. The British set up a naval blockade to stop ships carrying slaves from West Africa, but it was not very effective in suppressing the trade. Thousands of slave ships were detained during the decades the blockade was in operation. One Lieutenant Patrick Forbes, a British naval officer, estimated in 1849 that during a period of 26 years 103,000 slaves were emancipated by the warships of the naval blockade while ships carrying 1,795,000 slaves managed to slip past the blockage and land their cargo in the Americas.

British efforts to suppress the trade made it even more profitable because the price of slaves rose in the Americas. The numerous wars that plagued Yorubaland for half a century following the fall of the Oyo empire was largely driven by demand for slaves. Reverend Samuel Johnson wrote of the subjugation of neighbouring Yoruba kingdoms by Ibadan war-chiefs in the 1850s: “Slave-raiding now became a trade to many who would get rich speedily.” It took the intervention of British colonialism to impose peace in Yorubaland in 1893. Slave trading for export ended in Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa after slavery ended in the Spanish colonies of Brazil and Cuba in 1880. A consequence of the ending of the slave trade was the expansion of domestic slavery as Nigerian businessmen replaced trade in human chattel with increased export of primary commodities. Labour was needed to cultivate the new source of wealth for the Nigerian elites.

Abolition of the Slave Trade

In 1807 the Houses of Parliament in London enacted legislation prohibiting British subjects from participating in the slave trade. Indirectly, this legislation was one of the reasons for the collapse of Oyo. Britain withdrew from the slave trade while it was the major transporter of slaves to the Americas.

Between them, the French and the British had purchased a majority of the slaves sold from the ports of Oyo. The commercial uncertainty that followed the disappearance of the major purchasers of slaves unsettled the economy of Oyo. Ironically, the political troubles in Oyo came to a head after 1817, when the transatlantic market for slaves once again boomed. Rather than supplying slaves from other areas, however, Oyo itself became the source of slaves.

British legislation forbade ships under British registry to engage in the slave trade, but the restriction was applied generally to all flags and was intended to shut down all traffic in slaves coming out of West African ports. Other countries more or less hesitantly followed the British lead. The United States, for example, also prohibited the slave trade in 1807 (Denmark actually was the first country to declare the trade illegal in 1792).

The Royal Navy maintained a prevention squadron to blockade the coast, and a permanent station was established at the Spanish colony of Fernando Po, off the Nigerian coast, with responsibility for patrolling the West African coast. Slaves rescued at sea were usually taken to Sierra Leone, where they were released. Apprehended slave runners were tried by naval courts and were liable to capital punishment if found guilty.

Still, a lively slave trade to the Americas continued into the 1860s. The demands of Cuba and Brazil were met by a flood of captives taken in wars among the Yoruba and shipped from Lagos, while the Aro continued to supply the delta ports with slave exports through the 1830s. Despite the British blockade, almost 1 million slaves were exported from Nigeria in the nineteenth century. The risk involved in running the British blockade obviously made profits all the greater on delivery.

The campaign to eradicate the slave trade and substitute for it trade in other commodities increasingly resulted in British intervention in the internal affairs of the Nigerian region during the nineteenth century and ultimately led to the decision to assume jurisdiction over the coastal area. Suppression of the slave trade and issues related to slavery remained at the forefront of British dealings with local states and societies for the rest of the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth century.

Lagos, where the British concentrated activities after 1851, had been founded as a colony of Benin in about 1700. A long dynastic struggle, which became entwined with the struggle against the slave trade, resulted in the overthrow of the reigning oba and the renunciation of a treaty with Britain to curtail the slave trade. Britain was determined to halt the traffic in slaves fed by the Yoruba wars, and responded to this frustration by annexing the port of Lagos in 1861. Thereafter, Britain gradually extended its control along the coast. British intervention became more insistent in the 1870s and 1880s as a result of pressure from missionaries and liberated slaves returning from Sierra Leone. There was also the necessity of protecting commerce disrupted by the fighting. The method of dealing with these problems was to dictate treaties that inevitably led to further annexations.

Whites assert racial superiority

It was during the slave trade and slavery that white people affirmed their superiority over blacks. It is not difficult to understand why white traders who bought black people for price of adulterated brandy and packed them onto slave ships like cattle could consider themselves to be superior. Though most were illiterate, crude and drunken, white slave traders were free men herding flocks of human cattle. As the centuries passed Europeans became more and more scornful of black people. By the nineteenth century various theories of black inferiority were developed and used to justify the colonisation of Africa. During the slave trade Africans came to believe themselves to be inferior. They lost confidence in themselves, their culture and their ability to development.

Nigeria’s underdevelopment was not inevitable

Would Africans have suffered the same genocide had they tried to end the slave trade? Unlikely. It is doubtful that the human cost of resistance would have been greater than the many Nigerians killed in slave producing wars as well as those eaten by sharks after being jettisoned during the Atlantic crossings. We cannot know for certain. It seems more likely that Europe would have had to look elsewhere for cheap labour. It was one thing for European nations to use military might to protect their coastal trading posts and subdue disgruntled local chiefs, it would have been an entirely different matter for them to penetrate the interior of the continent and fight the hundreds of war that fed the slave trade.

The cost of such ventures would have made the price of slaves unattractive to the plantation owners in the Americas. They would have made more use of the native population and also turned more to Europe for labour. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries large numbers of poor whites were shipped to the ‘New World’, most involuntarily, to work on plantations, mines and as servants. Some poor whites kidnapped on European streets were sold in the West Indies much in the same way as Africans were. Indentured servants, convicts and deportees from Europe were often treated not much better than black slaves. But as the transatlantic slave trade boomed, the number of whites in forced labour decreased. It was because of the relative cheapness of African slave labour, and therefore the plantation owners’ preference for them, that the trade in white labour ended. This gave rise to what Afro-American writer William DuBois described as the replacement of “a caste of condition by a caste of race.” Had the costs of black slaves been much dearer, Europe might have become a major source of unfree labour.



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