Dr William "Para" Riviere
Dr William "Para" Riviere

The ancestors of black-skinned Dominicans arose from this material and spiritual African heritage. Unlike the Kalinago they did not come willingly but were forcibly brought in chains and shackles. Captured in the Western regions of the Continent they were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to provide labour as slaves on plantations owned by white European planters.

Europe's engagement in slave trafficking from Africa began as an extension of normal trade and commerce with the Continent in goods and services. Portugal stood in the forefront. By the middle of the 15th century its nationals had made contact with the West coast of Africa. And, by the end of the century, Vasco da Gama would travel along the Continent's East coast on his way to finding a sea route from Portugal to the linen, gold and spice riches of the Indian sub-continent. These private efforts were legitimized and, thus, encouraged by the agency of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1493 its Pope, Alexander Borgia, issued a historic Papal Pull which drew an imaginary line from North to South on a map of the world, passing 370 leagues to the West of the Cape Verde Islands. All territory to the West of that line, the Pope awarded to Spain; and territory to the East was reserved for Portugal. In 1494 the Papal Bull was modified and, three years later, the dispositions allocated in the modified version were agreed by both nations in the Treaty of Tordesillas.

At the outset the Portuguese took control of strategic places on the East coast of the Continent. Such places included Kilwa (1502), the off-coast islands of Pemba and Zanzibar (1503), Safala (1505), Mombasa (1505) and Mozambique (1507). The intention was not to colonize these places but to use them places as supply bases to foster Portuguese trade with the sub-continent. And, to protect this trade, Portugal set up fortresses in those locations. But command over them would be undermined by increasing commercial competition from the British and Dutch. Then, one by one, its East African outposts rose up against Portuguese control. In 1699, it was driven out of both Kilwa and Pemba, as a result of which Portuguese "rule" over East African would effectively come to an end. Its "rule" had lasted two hundred years.

As to establishment of commercial links with West Africa, Portugal also led the way. In the first half of the 17th century the nation's merchants and traders controlled the major part of the trade in a network which spanned India, the Far East, Africa, and Central and South America. The initial transaction involved the purchase of cotton cloth in India. The cloth, together with goods manufactured and used in Europe, was taken to the Continent of Africa and exchanged for able-bodied human beings. Following the decimation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the traded Africans would be transported across the Atlantic Ocean and worked as slaves, first, in the gold mines of Central and South America and, then, on agricultural staple plantations in European colonies in the West Indies and North America. A part of the gold found its way to the East, as payment for spices and fine linens produced there.

For both Portugal and Spain the highest priority was gold. Not only was gold a precious metal, but it had come to be of signal importance as a medium of exchange in the growing capitalist economies of Europe. More so, the demand for it in Europe greatly exceeded its supply. In the early days of European trading with Africa, no more than a very limited amount of gold was found there, in parts of West Africa and some Eastern regions. Needless to say, these discoveries did not satisfy the commercial objectives of either Portugal or its European competitors.

From Trading to Slave-Trading

A dissatisfied Europe turned its attention to human trafficking, instead. The taking of captives for work on slave-based plantations in the Caribbean and North America assumed primacy on the agenda of European commerce with Africa. By far the greater majority originated in states along the Continent's West Coast.

Less known is that slave-trading also took place in the East and South-East coastal regions now known as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Northern Mozambique and Madagascar. That element of the traffic has gone down in history as the "Arab Slave Trade." Swahili-Arabs would take Africans and sell them to Arabs and Europeans for forced labour in plantation agriculture. At its peak in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the victims worked on plantations, mainly of Mauritius, Re-Union and the Seychelles, and to the clove-growing fields of the off-shore island of Zanzibar. Sudan, too, was engaged in slave-trading. But, by comparison with its transAtlantic counterpart, the scale of the East African traffic was small. It represented a bi-product of a massive trade in ivory, and lacked a logic of its own.

Portugal's monopoly of the transatlantic slave traffic was challenged, first, by the Spaniards and, then, by the Dutch. But, by the middle of the 17th century, following colonization and settlement of West Indian islands the English quickly took control. Captive Africans were transported to these islands to provide labour particularly on sugar, and coffee plantations established by white planters. The French followed suit.

The trade represented the second leg of a three-leg "triangular trade". On the first leg, English and French manufacturers sold goods to shippers in big Atlantic ports like Liverpool in England and Nantes in France; the most favoured goods were metal ware, woolen stuffs, cheap cottons and, notably, guns and gunpowder. These items were taken to the West Coast of Africa and exchanged for captives. The captives were taken across the Atlantic Ocean and auctioned in slave markets. That was the second leg of the triangular trade. With the money realized at slave auctions, the captains then bought cargoes of slave-grown tropical products. These, they carried back to England and France where a third profit, the biggest of all, came from sale of these highly valued agricultural products.

The overwhelming majority of African slaves originated in the geographical space between modern Ghana and the Cameroons, the coastline of which became known as the "Slave Coast". They were also uprooted from the West African hinterland kingdoms of Benin, Dahomey and Ike, from Igbo States along the Delta of the River Niger and, further, from the Congo and Angola. While it is difficult to ascertain tribal origins, since identity was recorded according to the port of embarkation, available data suggest that the dominant linguistic groupings of Africans shipped to the English-speaking islands were Yoruba, Hausa, Ibo, Akan, Fanti and Ashanti. Contemporary Dutch writer, Van Lier, wrote: "we found the Peul, in the hinterland of Guree; the Koniaka, Gola, Limba, Temme and Sokko in the Sierra Leone and Cape Mount; the Wassa, Wanway, Ashanti, Fanti, Alanta, Dahomey, Akim and Chamba, in the region extending from Cape La Hoe to Acra; the Yoruba, in Nigeria; the Ibo, on the Calabar Coast; and the Abo and Pembo, the Loango and Angola Negroes further south".


In the very early period, the judicial system in some States was looked to as an enabler of enslavement in the New World. One researcher put it like this: "Though the sale of criminals as punishment was not new in Africa, with the beginning of the slave trade this practice became grossly abused. Many kings formed the habit of punishing any and every offence by selling the accused. Again, as some historians have pointed out, subversive plots against the local government became surprisingly common in sea-coast towns off which the slavers dropped anchor. The King almost always discovered a number of dangerous conspirators, and they naturally had to be sold. To eliminate all possible danger, the king also sold the conspirators' wives, their children and their brothers'.

But criminals rapidly yielded to captives taken in well organized raids. These raids were conducted largely in coastal or river-bank settlements and in areas which were unprotected against such an eventuality. Igboland was a favoured hunting ground. As to its suitability Boahen wrote: "Igboland was an obvious target from Igbo, Ijo, Ibibio and Efik slave-raiders and traders because it had a dense population and was politically divided into many small states and therefore lacked the strong control Government needed for defence."

Much of the data on slave-raiding is contained in accounts written by former captives of their personal experiences. Ajayi was one such person. The circumstances in which he and his compatriots were seized is telling: "The morning on which my town, Ocho-gu, shared the same fate which many others had experienced, was fair and delightful; most of the inhabitants were engaged in their respective occupations. We were preparing breakfast without any apprehension; when, about 9 o'clock A.M; a rumor was spread in the town, that the enemies had approached with the intention of hostility.

The element of surprise was crucial. It threw the town's residents off guard and denied them any opportunity for organized resistance. Ajayi explained: "It was not long after when they had almost surrounded the town, to prevent escape of the inhabitants; the town being rudely fortified with a wooden fence, about four miles in circumference, containing about 12,000 inhabitants; which would produce 3,000 fighting men. The inhabitants not being prepared; some not being at home; those who were, having about six gates to defend, as well as many weak places about the fence to guard against, and, to say in a few words, the men being surprised, and therefore confounded-the enemies entered the town after about three or four hours resistance." Such unpreparedness threw the inhabitants of Ocho-gu into a state of panic, confusion and helplessness. It is worth quotation at length: "…Women, some with three, four or six children clinging to their arms, with the infants on their backs, and much baggage as they could carry on their heads, running as fast as they could through prickly shrubs, which, hooking their blies and other load drew them down from the heads of the bearers. While they found it impossible to go along with their loads they endeavoured only to save themselves and their children … While they were endeavouring to disentangle themselves from the ropy shrubs, they were overtaken and caught by the enemies with a noose of rope thrown over the neck of every individual, to be led in the manner of goats tied together, under the drove of one man. In many cases a family was violently divided between three or four enemies, who each led his away, to see one another no more".

Ajayi was himself taken captive together with his mother, two sisters, one of whom was ten months old, and a cousin. The last he saw of the rest of his family was his father, "when he came from the fight to give us the signal to flee." And the last view he had of Ocho-gu was its destruction by fire.

It was not unusual for captives to be traded from hand to hand before arrival at their point of embarkation. Ajayi shared that experience. The first stop out of Ocho-gu was a town about twenty miles distant, called Isehi. There, a deal was struck between the Chief of the captors and a house-owner in the town, to barter the Africans for a horse. The horse was taken on a two-month trial basis. But, upon its failure to meet the expectations of the Chief, Ajayi was taken to the town of Dah'dah. There, he was re-united with his mother and infant sister. They then travelled "a few days" to a market-town called Ijahi, where he was sold to an Eyo-speaking woman. From Ijahi, "after many halts", the captives reached the town of Toko, where Ajayi spent three months before he was sold to "new owners." He then set out for Ijebu country but, shortly after reaching Ik-ke-ku Yere, another town, he was "bartered for tobacco, rum, and other articles".

Evidently, Ik-ke-ku Yere was the starting point of the last leg of the long journey to the coast. Some time was spent there, before setting out for another town, still within Ijebu country. There, Ajayi remained "alone" for a period of two months and, from there, he was taken after a few days walk to "a slave-market on the coast on the bank of a large river," called Ikoso. Before sunset on the day of arrival there, he was again bartered for tobacco. And in the night he was taken by canoe along with seven other captives to Lagos, where he spent "more than three months" before embarking on a Portuguese slaver bound for the New World. This unusual delay had to do with the fact that in 1808, that is to say almost 30 years before Ajayi's ordeal, slave trading to British territories had been abolished. And, in these circumstances the British, to make this effective, had set up its own system of searching slave ships on the high seas, depriving them of human cargo and settling them as freedmen in Sierra Leone.

By 1650, except for Portuguese slaver-traders, raids on settlements, villages and towns would lose currency as a major mode of supplying Africans for enslavement in the New World. As new players took to the field, and slave-trading emerged as a leading commercial venture, alternative modes of supply emerged. It became possible to obtain slaves in grand business transactions conducted between African slave merchants operating in the interior and European buyers on the Coast; in this, African Kings and Chieftains functioned as middlemen. These Kings and Chieftains adopted the habit of either appointing local, that is to say, African agents to deal with the Europeans or delegating the right to trade to specific individuals, at a price. A golden rule was to as much as possible confine Europeans to the coast and not let them engage in the on-the-ground process of slave recruitment. That was the preserve of Africans themselves. Captives would give way to prisoners-of-war supplied by way of tribal warfare fomented by guns ad gunpowder readily supplied by European traders.

Copyright © William Riviere, January 2018