A Short History of the Slave Trade in Nigeria

A public service as a response to Nigeria's removal of history from its school curriculum

A 19th century painting of slaves in Dutch Brazil. By Dirk Valkenburg. Via Wiki Commons.

Henry Okelue suggested that today’s History Lesson be about Nigeria’s security agencies. Problem is, there’s paucity of verifiable information, so, we’ll go ahead with what was mapped out for today, which is about slavery, it’s effects on us, up until this day. And before some people chop my head off, it is not possible, in any way, to compress five centuries of history into a few paragraphs. The idea behind this is so that those who are interested will pick it up. Like I stated earlier, I committed to doing this once a week as a response to Nigeria’s removal of history from its school curriculum.

Unknown to us, most Africans, especially West Africans are suffering from what is called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. PTSS as a theory says centuries of slavery followed by systemic oppression, have made what normally would simply be survival strategies into daily habit.

Before we go on, we must set the records straight: Slavery, was not an invention of the West. It predates all written records. On the African continent itself, slavery predated the arrival of Europeans by centuries, and it sill continues until this day. However, until first, the Trans-Saharan slave trade, then the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the exchange of humans was “benign”.

Africa as a continent, bled from slavery for 14 centuries: ten to the Arab World, and another four to the Western World. The Arab slave trade started in the 8th century AD very likely because Islam prohibits Muslims from enslaving each other. Despite this prohibition, human labour was needed for certain tasks, so the Arabs had to forage into the African hinterlands to get slaves. To start with, they stayed on the East coast of Africa, close to the Rift Valley, but as they traded, they spread their religion. This meant that the former slaving areas went out of the picture for slavery, so eventually, they reached West Africa. Time went by and West Africans became wise to the prohibition of slavery by Islam, and started to convert to Islam. This meant that it is safe to assume that Arab enslavement of Africans may have eventually ended.

One thing the Arabs and the West had in common was the use of religion, Islam and Christianity, to justify trading in people. In giving this similarity, we must then state that fundamental difference between the Saharan trade and the Atlantic trade was the racism involved. While the Arabs’ slaves could adopt Islam and their kids at least would not be slaves, in Europe/America it was different. For example, the king of the Kongo, Nzinga Mbemba became a Christian about 1491 hoping it would stop Portugal from taking his people. That did not work as many letters he wrote to the king of Portugal were ignored. Some of his own kids were even sold into slavery. Another difference was the needs of the slavers. The Arabs mainly wanted domestic servants, soldiers, eunuchs for their harems. The Europeans on the other hand were industrial in their demands. They wanted their slaves for one thing: to make money. Before we move on, it must be pointed out that Arabs did try to enslave Africans for production, but it was a disaster. Riots in Baghdad from 869 to 883 AD ended the idea.

Now, the balance of global power shifted sometime in the 15th century, as Muslim power waned, and Western Europe took the reins. Shortly after that, the New World, with all its resources was discovered, with great environment for growing sugar and cotton. The demand for sugar was growing at the time, but growing it, and cotton are very labour intensive and a workforce was needed. But the native Americans were not good for two reasons – first, they had no immunity to European diseases, then they could not cope with intensive labour.

In 1517, a Catholic Bishop, Bartolome de las Casas, wrote and suggested the use of slaves from Africa, because according to him, Africans were stronger, less likely to rebel, and most importantly, shared the same diseases as Europeans, so were unlikely to fall sick and die. Bishop de las Casas’s suggestion was well received, so off some people went to get them some slaves, and of course they saw some Delta youths willing to sell them a consignment. Soon other European countries began to get involved in the Americas and as a result face the same issues the Portuguese faced. They all took the solution that the Portuguese had taken, go get us some African slaves. And they always found ready sellers.

The part about Africans being willing to enslave their fellow Africans is crucial because then, Europeans couldn’t go deep inland. Little things such as the mosquito made sure that Europeans never strayed far from the shore, so they needed collaborators. This role of our people in kidnapping, degrading, and then enslaving their own fellow people stays with us till today.

As Masters of the Universe then, it was only natural that Britain came to dominate the slave trade for the next 300 years. So, how exactly, did the British move the slave trade from something done by rabble renegades, to a major economic activity?

Much of the blame for the growth of the slave trade into a major industry is attributed to a Briton named John Hawkins (pictured above). Hawkins “modernised” the rabble the Portuguese started, cleaned it up, and made it a “respectable” business. He started what was called “the triangular trade”. Ships would sail from Britain with guns, mirrors and alcohol; these ships would go to the area known as the Slave Coast, today’s Niger Delta, and would anchor off the coast; the crew would row ashore, where they’d be met by natives who’d take their weapons and drinks in exchange for slaves; the slavers would then take this unfortunate slave cargo on a truly memorable trip across the Atlantic, to the New World where, the slaves would be exchanged for sugar, cotton and cash. These goods would go back to Europe for a great profit. Given the demand for alcohol and weapons in Africa, slaves in the Americas, produce in Europe, this was truly profitable.

At first, the people who were given to the slavers were victims of wars, or raids, or in a few pathetic cases, efulefu. But as the demand for slave labour increased, that demand fuelled wars and more raids specifically to satisfy the commerce. Of course, the demand for more slave labour, was fuelled by the demand for more (and cheaper) sugar and cotton in Europe.

So let’s now skip forward a few centuries, and a young Brit called Wilberforce led an anti slave trade movement, with success. We must note that when the British legislated to ban the slave trade, the French, Spanish Portuguese and Americans were not thrilled. But then, Britain was the supreme naval power, so her word was law. The ban held. I must also point out the African role. When the Brits banned the slave trade in 1807, the Ashante King wrote to the King of England to ask why he would do such a thing. Not only the Ashante King, the Oba of Benin, and the Arochukwu Confederacy kicked against the ban. As did Spain and Portugal. But as stated earlier, Britain’s word, much like the United States today, was law, so the ban held, the trade went underground. There were some high profile attempts to flout Britain’s ban of the slave trade, such a 1840’s Amistad Affair, but most failed.

Britain’s ban on the trade was not altruistic. Britain did not need slaves any more. Britain is the first industrialised country in the world, and it’s no coincidence that their ban came after the industrial revolution started. Again, the Brits came back and colonised us, with almost equally devastating consequences. They are here again as NGOs and companies.

What we will now look at is just HOW, the slave trade affects us today. So my fellow Africans, just how does it affect us?

The immediate, and most cited effect of the slave trade is that it robbed us of millions of our best and brightest. While I’m not sure of that, those who captured them were probably stronger, it definitely robbed us of a lot of human capital. The most important thing that the slave trade robbed us off is trust. A lot of our mistrust today is historical. Half a millennium old!

This lack of trust was evident in that when the Europeans decided to colonise, we could not, and did not, stand together. An Nri man circa 1800 would not have sold another Nri man into slavery, but he’d have sold an Ezza man with no second thought. The fabric of trading in goods (and probably services) which existed before slave trade had been gone for centuries. Nri and Ezza are within a day’s walk from one another, but that ancient trust was long gone. And this pattern repeated itself all over the place.

In summary, what slavery did to us as a people, was to establish, and entrench, the African collaborator with Europe. As long as the Europeans could not get into the hinterland they sold their guns, mirrors, alcohol, basically low end products to the willing African collaborator, who went further afield to go and get people. This pattern was worse in the Niger Delta. One of the reasons that Igbo people are mistrusted till this day is because of the actions of the Aro Confederacy in trading.

Now, and for the sake of balance, it must be pointed out that Africans themselves did resist slavery. Problem is by the time we began to resist it was already too late. The Lloyd’s list shows that between 1689 and 1807, 17% of all slave ships were damaged by slaves aided by local populations.

Slavery in Africa changed because of the Atlantic Slave Trade as the justification for enslaving people became more flimsy. Some of our ancestors sold their neighbours’ children into slavery. Some others, simply turned on their neighbours themselves. The Aro, Edo and Ashante are perhaps, the best examples of peoples who turned their neighbours into virtual slave depots. The mistrust engendered, Efik mistrust of Igbo (Aro), Esan mistrust of Edo, Ewe mistrust of Asante are still there today.

Meanwhile, there was a lull for about half a century, before Europe came back as colonisers, but the trust was already gone. In that intervening period, new power structures had formed here. The Bini Empire for example was in decline, refugees had fled the Sokoto Jihad, former slaves such as Samuel Ajayi Crowther had returned to Africa with education.

When Europe returned to colonise Africa, things had changed. Modern medicine made it possible for them to penetrate inland. When Europe returned to colonise, they again found willing collaborators in Africans, but under different rules this time. These collaborators ensured that other Africans kept working for Europe to be happy, in exchange, their kids went to Oxford.

Cheta Nwanze tweets @Chxta

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