MIDDLE PASSAGES, MIDDLEMEN
Europe, Africa, America, and the Slave Trade
In hisGenerall Historie of Virginia, published in 1624, Captain John Smith documented the difficult early years of settling the Virginia colony at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, an achievement generally taken to be one of the seminal moments in American history. Tucked almost inauspiciously among Smith's long descriptions of Indian wars and friendships, physical hardships and the eventual successes that defined this southern version of what the Puritans would later call an "errand in the wilderness," was the following brief passage quoted from a letter from John Rolfe. "About the last of August ," Rolfe wrote, "came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars."
The passage John Smith quoted with merely a passing glance would prove to be a momentous development. Momentous not because these were the very first Africans in North America; they weren't. Others had come almost a century before, with the Spanish conquistadores exploring the Southwest. There were probably some accompanying the expedition of Ponce de León to Florida, and certainly some among the aborted attempt to establish an early settlement in the Carolinas in the sixteenth century. In fact, these were not even the first Africans in Virginia; a muster roll for March 1619 shows that there were already about thirty-two African slaves in the colony when that Dutch warship Rolfe mentioned laid anchor. Nonetheless, arriving scarcely twelve years after Jamestown itself was founded, these Africans were clearly the pioneers among those Ira Berlin has called the founding or "charter" generation of African Americans and certainly the first to receive written acknowledgment of their presence by one of the colony's founding fathers. Indeed, it was anacknowledgment not simply of their presence but of the character of that presence and of its provenance. Twenty Negroes ... from a Dutch man-of-war ...sold.
And it is their provenance--vague and emblematic though it may be--that catches our attention here. Embedded in Smith's cryptic notation are the complex and multilayered beginnings of the history of African Americans on the North American continent. Now, less than a decade away from marking the fourth century of that presence, we are struck by the fact that for more than half that time (two and a half centuries), the great majority of black Americans were slaves. How and why that came to be is the first question that must be answered in beginning a history of those four centuries. How is it,whyis it, that when that Dutch warship laid anchor in Jamestown's harbor, Africans were in the hold and Europeans were on the deck? Why is it that the Africans were the ones in the position to besold. It is a simple question; the answer, however, is very complex and far-ranging.
Of course, it may not seem so, or certainly it hasn't seemed so in the past to many historians and non-historians. Africans were the slaves and Europeans the captors because Africans were an inferior people, fit for or vulnerable to enslavement by a superior force. Others, anxious to redeem the reputation, or at least the moral superiority, of the Africans, turn that interpretation on its head: Africans were actually culturally superior to Europeans, but the Europeans were so thoroughly evil and rapacious that they subdued and enslaved the Africans. Despite their apparent opposition, both answers embrace a racial premise--virtue or evil, superiority or inferiority are racial properties. Such answers effectively foreclose further examination, for by their logic, biology or culture or morality is determinative and historical narratives emerge out of the innate qualities of peoples rather than out of the give-and-take, the contingencies, the larger social forces that condition or shape the possibility for one historical outcome rather than another.
Given the latter, more contingent, view of historical process, one must seek answers to this question--why Africans in the hold and Europeans on deck--in the complex unfolding of a long history of European and African contact that predated that landing at Jamestown by almost two centuries. What we must ask is, what social forces and historical developments brought this conjuncture to pass? Racial interpretations to the contrary, the more we learn of that earlier history, of Europe and of Africa, the less obvious it is that Africans werenecessarily, and certainly not always, the social or political inferiors in that encounter. But, more important, we stand to gain from this approach some tentative insight into not only the forces that put those twenty Africans into the hold of that Dutch ship, but also who they were, or at least what the broad collection of Africans at that time and place were likely to be.
Although much of their history is likely to remain enigmatic, we can be fairly certain that the twenty Africans on that Dutch man-of-war were at the apex of a triangle formed by Europe, Africa, and America. At that moment in particular, three European powers--England, the Netherlands, and Spain, struggling for supremacy in Europe--were pushing the boundaries of their conflict into Africa and the Americas. There is strong, though not conclusive, evidence that the twenty Africans landed at Jamestown were part of a cargo of slaves on a Portuguese ship, theSão João Bautista, that left São Paulo de Luanda--then the Portuguese stronghold in what would become Angola--bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico. It is "extremely likely" that theSão João Bautistawas the ship attacked in Caribbean waters by an English warship, theTreasurer, and a Dutch privateer. Although 1619 was the tenth year of a twelve-year truce, this attack appears to have been part of an ongoing civil war between the Dutch and the Spanish, the then-dominant European power that had occupied the Netherlands for several decades. For their part, the English, seeking to defend their still-fragile Protestant state against Spanish Catholicism, had formed a temporary alliance with the Dutch.
The forces propelling this particular narrative, then, were European social and political conflicts into whose vortex these African men and women became almost incidentally drawn. The Dutch ship was not a slave trader, but a ship of war bent on disrupting Spanish shipping and weakening the Iberian empire, of which Portugal was then a reluctant junior partner. It just happened that the prize carried by theSão João Bautistaon this day was slaves rather than the preferred silver or gold. At Jamestown, an English frontier outpost only recently discovering a growing need for servile labor, these captives were promptly exchanged for "victualle," that is, food and provisions.
But there is necessarily another side to this triangle: the supplier for this momentous exchange at Jamestown. Although we know little for certain about the twenty Africans who landed at Jamestown, we do knowthat unlike most of the African slaves and servants they found there, these people had come directly from Africa, rather than via the interregional trade with the Caribbean. Moreover, scholars have made a fairly educated guess that they were probably captives seized in Portuguese-sponsored warfare in central Africa during the years 1618 to 1620. Luis Mendes de Vasconçelos, newly appointed governor of the Portuguese enclave at Luanda and veteran of the Spanish campaign against the Dutch rebellion in Flanders, forged an alliance with an African warring band called the Imbangalas, or Jagas, to attack the kingdom of Ndongo (site of modern-day Angola). Ndongo was particularly vulnerable at this point because of a palace coup and succession crisis. No doubt Vasconçelos also sought revenge for a humiliating defeat that the Portuguese had suffered at the hands of the Ndongo in 1589, just thirty years earlier. The more immediate motivation for him and his Imbangala allies, however, was slaves. As in other African wars of that era, the line between military campaign and slave raiding was fine. Certainly one outcome of this war was that thousands of slaves were crammed into the port of Luanda awaiting shipment to the Americas--so many that the chances are considerable that theSão João Bautista's cargo was drawn from this provenance.
Those twenty Africans did not end up in the hold of that man-of-war, then, because they came from an inferior people--whether one defines that inferiority in cultural or racial terms--but because they were the losers, the pawns in a multinational struggle in which ruling elites of Africa, Europe, and the Americas competed for resources and power. In other words, their fateful subjugation arose out of very ordinary historical processes and developments, shaped by social, economic, and political forces. Indeed, more fortunate and opportunistic Africans participated in that slave trade--in its earliest years at least--more nearly as equal partners than as victims. It is true that, from a long-term perspective, they made a bad bargain, for in time the slave trade would render them, as a people, vulnerable to European penetration and overrule. Meanwhile, some European states would grow stronger as a result of that trade and the slave systems in the Americas it supported. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Africans would indeed be "inferior" to Europeans in the economic and military power at their disposal and, in some ways, in their material culture. By the end of the nineteenth century the African continent would be carved up and colonized by European imperialists. But oneshould not fall into the anachronistic fallacy of reading the later relationship back into the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. In 1619--and for at least a half century thereafter--the relationship between Africa and Europe was far more complex.
Out of those complex interactions--commercial, technological, social, and political--that characterized European-African relations in these earlier centuries, there developed new worlds, new experiences, and often entirely new peoples. Although in some ways many of the Africans who landed in North America were in the back channels rather than in the vanguard of these developments, they, too, were its legatees and they followed a course of cultural and social development first pioneered by a generation of African Americans whom Ira Berlin has called "Atlantic creoles." The development of American slavery and its eventual racialization must be understood against this complex historical backdrop. That history begins with another question haunting that moment in Jamestown harbor: What brought Europeans to the western coast of Africa in the first place?
If one takes the question at its most literal level--why were Europeans launching explorations of Africa and the Americas and not the other way around?--the answers are fairly straightforward and relate to physical geography and technological innovation. Although Europeans had extensive experience with sea travel, navigating the South Atlantic had long posed major problems, because well-defined systems of currents and winds limited the possible voyages that could be safely undertaken. The Canary Current, running north to south, sped ships down the West African coast but blocked their return. Arab sailors may have found ways to negotiate these currents, but if so, they left no enduring legacy, except possibly the geographical knowledge that eventually made its way to Portuguese mariners. Obviously the same current that so long held Europeans at bay had to have been an equally forbidding obstacle preventing Africans from sailing north, assuming they wanted to try.
Meanwhile, southern Europeans gained experience navigating two inland seas--the Mediterranean and, by the late thirteenth century, the Baltic--from which technical and geographical skills accumulated that enabled them eventually to master the open seas of the Atlantic. TheMediterranean-Baltic connection shifted long-distance trade from primarily luxury goods to bulk commerce, especially grain, preparing the way for the movement of sugar, tobacco, and slaves that would later propel the Atlantic trade. As the volume of trade along this axis grew, fortuitous geographical discoveries became almost inevitable. Thus, in 1312, a Genoese sailor, Lanzaroto Malocello, accidentallyrediscovered the Canary Islands. Just sixty miles off Africa's northeast coast, the Canaries would become a principal way station for voyages from Europe to the Americas and from Africa to Europe.
Though a necessary part of the story, these material and technical factors are ultimately inadequate to fully explain these developments. Some African groups also had very skilled boatmen; in fact, their skills at navigating inland waterways were put to effective use by slaveholders in the Americas. An equatorial current runs from Senegambia, on the west coast of Africa, to the Caribbean; indeed, it would later become an important route in the slave trade. Thus it was, technically, as plausible for Africans to sail west toward the Americas as for the Iberians. One scholar, Ivan van Sertima, has offered a controversial interpretation of archeological evidence from Central America to argue that Africans did in fact make such a journey long before Columbus. Even if some Africans made the journey, however, obviously they never established a continuing relationship or contact there; consequently, they did not--in this way at least--shape the history of the Atlantic world that unfolded.
West African waterways were full of falls and land blockages that prevented navigation by oceangoing vessels, but they were accessible to smaller craft with head porterage at critical junctures--which sustained a thriving Africaninlandcommerce along a riverine system that would later be integrally linked to the Atlantic slave trade, especially along the Central African coast. Faced on one side with such formidable barriers in navigating the South Atlantic, and on the other with ample opportunities for trade along coastal and inland rivers, Africans concentrated on the latter. In this choice, they resembled the Chinese sailors during the Ming dynasty who undertook seven voyages into the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433, led by the eunuch-admiral Cheng Ho. The Chinese flotilla made contact with Ceylon, Calcutta, the Persian Gulf, and Mogadishu in East Africa, but despite possessing the technological skills for further exploration and discovery, they simply showed the flag and sailed home--never to return. Like the Africans, perhaps, they, too, werecontent--or compelled--to apply their skills and knowledge to other tasks, developing commercial and cultural contacts closer to home.
The crux of the issue, then, is what was the social, cultural, economic, or political impetus behind the European push to solve the daunting technical problems, to make the necessary investments, to take the physical and financial risks? And here, too, we need to pause to make certain we do not fall into a typical anachronism that so often bedevils such analyses. What do we mean when we say "Europe"? In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when these voyages unfolded, not only was there not a single cultural entity called "a European," but neither were there the nation-states we typically conjure up in our minds when we speak oftheSpanish,theFrench, ortheDutch. When theGenoeseadmiral Columbus made his first landfall in the Caribbean, Italy was a bunch of warring city-states. The formation of the Dutch republic was still almost a hundred years in the future, and Spain--having only recently freed itself from centuries of Muslim rule--still confronted the problem of integrating its several provinces with a then-dominant Castile. For much of the slave trade era, Portugal went through alternating periods of independence from and absorption into the Spanish realm. England and France occasionally turned from civil wars at home to fight each other over territorial and dynastic claims. But even more important, our current vision of a state system, one that can command and direct resources from a centralized government, does not conform to the political formations we find it convenient to call "nations" in this earlier period. It would be more accurate to say that the causal arrow points the other way: that the development of the transatlantic slave trade was among the proximate causes, rather than the effect, of these powerful, modern nation-state systems' formations. Perhaps "Europe" was born of this expansionist project.
Much more important to this question of why European exploration--or, more accurately, why certain polities within Europe undertook exploration--were social transformations within key sectors that created new socioeconomic and political entities capable of and motivated to engage in innovation. The innovation in this instance was not just technical, but social, political, and economic. Not only did wind power have to be harnessed to move boats where one directed, but so did human effort, capital, and will. No one nation or group was responsible for this innovation; no one group held all the keys or talents. Instead the torch of changemoved from one to another, leapfrogging over time and space--first the Portuguese, then the Spanish, then the Dutch, who landed those twenty Africans at Jamestown. Each of these had their moment of world dominance and then faded back into relative obscurity. Eventually, at the height of the slave trade in the eighteenth century, the lesser of the Northern European powers, the English and the French, would spill blood in a series of protracted conflicts that raged across Europe, America, and sometimes Asia to gain the upper hand--a fight the British eventually won.
Drawing adventurers and investors from across Europe to Iberian ports, the initial explorations were strikingly multinational, in any event. Indeed, it was nations from the Mediterranean world, which nurtured those multinational spaces, that took the lead in developing the Atlantic trade and modern slavery during its first two centuries. Their world, evoked in such vivid detail by Fernand Braudel, was a crossroads of cultural as well as economic traffic from Europe, China, India, and Africa. Across its eastern borders flowed the silks and spices that would motivate expeditions throughout most of the early modern era in search of a sea route to their sources in India and China. On its southwestern shores lay the northern gateways to an ancient trans-Saharan trade that drew from West Africa the bulk of Europe's gold well into the sixteenth century.
"Charlemagne, without Mahomet, would be inconceivable" was medieval historian Henri Pirenne's pithy summary of the process by which the European subcontinent was transformed politically and culturally through its engagement with the peoples, cultures, and trade goods of the Eastern world. His remark underscores the fact that the Mediterranean was not simply a crossroad of trade, but also the contested terrain of two militant and expansionist religious systems, Catholicism and Islam. Crucial to their engagement and Europe's transformation were the Christian Crusades, which by mobilizing Europe's diverse cultures and polities in a common cause, gave substance to a nascent cross-national identity, notably the idea of belonging to "Christendom." This arguably was the beginning of the concept of Europe and the West.
The Church, moreover, could mobilize not only military forces to battle Islam, but also work forces to build great cathedrals and monasteries, whose massive ruins remind us even today of the tremendous power of religion at a time when modern state systems were barely in their infancy. Nurtured by the Crusades, a cross-national Christian identity would continueto be proselytized, at home and abroad, through the international religious orders (Benedictine, Cistercian, and, later, the Dominicans and Franciscans) that were one of the First Crusade's institutional legacies. Orders such as the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller remained quasi-military in their organization and raisons d'être, and were incorporated into various expeditionary projects later, including many in northern and western Africa. The subsequent projects of exploration were inspired and enabled by these modes of thought and social infrastructures; they would provide both motivation and means.
Thus, Portuguese efforts to solve the problem of navigating the West African coast were motivated by religious injunctions to defend the Church against Islam as well as by materialist desires for greater access to the Far Eastern luxury trade. In the near term, gold and slaves attracted adventurers to sail and capitalists to invest. In the long term, the search for a sea path to the East added a strategic objective that could and did join the interests of the merchant and political classes. As always, however, religious enthusiasm lent material self-interest an aura of divine approval, bringing with it the transnational power and influence of the Church, which could be crucial in protecting and holding whatever gains such expeditions might bring. The crusading mission often took form, for example, with the idea that the Islamic world could be outflanked by establishing contact with a legendary African Christian kingdom led by a fabled chief named Prester John. Portuguese diplomatic missions to Christian Ethiopia in the early sixteenth century suggest a possible source for this myth and something of its enduring power.
Of all the European powers, Portugal was especially well situated to pursue these twin objectives--certainly better situated than her Iberian neighbor. For although Spain was moved by similar material and religious forces, and would in fact assume the lead in Atlantic exploration and colonization by the sixteenth century, Portugal was better positioned to undertake the earlier expeditions into West African waters. Both countries had similar geographical advantages: ports that were close to the Atlantic currents and to Africa, and that were convenient stops on the Mediterranean-Baltic trade route. But having recaptured its territory from Muslim invaders in 1253--almost two and a half centuries before Spain achieved the same feat--Portugal was the first to seize upon these advantages. Perhaps even more important, it was enjoying a period of peace inthe early fifteenth century while most of the other future seagoing powers in Europe were busy cutting one anothers' throats in various dynastic and religious conflicts. Perhaps one of the "peace dividends" Portugal reaped was its relatively greater capacity to consolidate its emerging nation-state well in advance of other European powers. This is not to say that fifteenth-century Portugal was yet a nation in the modern sense, but as Braudel aptly puts it, "all things considered, it was already halfway there." It was one of the earliest state systems able to command the surpluses that would support exploration, settlement, and exploitation. In the years following their respectiveReconquista, both Spain and Portugal evolved monarchies that succeeded in taming the powers of their nobility; but owing its victory in this dynastic struggle to bourgeois classes, Portugal's ruling House of Aviz strongly favored the commercial-entrepreneurial sector over the landed aristocracy, thus giving an early boost to its explorations.
Although the money and initiative behind fifteenth-century explorations came largely from private sources, the backing of strong unified state systems was not irrelevant to the success of these undertakings, because only states could sustain and consolidate such ventures in the long run. Private initiatives and investments were reassured by the mobilization of military and naval resources and the deploying of the diplomatic connections necessary to protect one's discoveries, at court or at the Vatican. Such general policies and state actions characterize the efforts of Prince Henry, the third son of João I.
The moniker "Navigator" given to Prince Henry by an enthusiastic British historian is at best an overstatement; he had no special talents at navigation and ventured out to sea rarely and for very short distances. Descended from the English Plantagenets on his mother's side, Henry was named for his maternal uncle, the English duke of Lancaster. Not being in the immediate line of succession to the throne, he deployed the independent household and income his father allotted him to make his mark and fortune in seagoing enterprises. Although the notion that Henry set up a special maritime school at Cape Sagres turns out to be a myth, he did gather about him a consort of merchants and sea captains whom he cajoled to undertake risky naval expeditions, and he brokered the finances to pay for them. The idea, moreover, that Henry's efforts enabled major technological developments is also considerably overstated. The replacement of the square-rigged with the triangular lateen sail--which gave moremaneuverability when sailing into the wind--was probably the only significant new development directly relevant to navigating the African coast. For the most part, Portuguese seamen simply gained the confidence and skills to push ahead as they leapfrogged from one port to another along the coast and among the Atlantic Islands. And here Henry's role was perhaps crucial, as he supplied the exhortations and brokered the means to forge ahead.
In that latter role, it was important that Henry was "Prince Henry," even if his initiatives were often private and any profitable returns they generated flowed into his personal coffers. In 1415, at about the same time as his English cousin Henry V was urging his "brave few" on to victory at Agincourt, Prince Henry persuaded his father to mount a naval expedition to capture Ceuta, a Muslim stronghold on the North African coast across from Gibraltar that would give Portugal an African foothold from which to launch future expeditions. Five years later, at his father's request, the Pope made Henry head of a Christian military order modeled on the Knights Templar, a resource that could be applied in future swashbuckling ventures. Henry mobilized efforts to pacify and exploit the Atlantic Islands, the Canaries and Madeira, both of which became important sites for slave-based plantation cultivation. For Henry, the religious mission to convert pagans usually meant enslaving them.
Indeed, slavery was an early and persistent feature of the heroic expeditions undertaken under Henry's auspices. In 1444, Captain Lançarote da Ilha, tax collector and member of Henry's household, undertook the first slaving expedition. In a tragicomic scene, after landing on the Mauritanian coast, Lançarote managed to drag 240 slaves--many of whom were light-skinned Tuareg--onto his boats and bring them back to the slave market in Lagos. Watching the auction from astride his horse, Henry made certain that 46 of the best slaves were set aside as his share. Lançarote was knighted on the spot for his troubles.
Forhistroubles, the Pope granted Henry his blessing in 1455, authorizing him to conquer and convert sub-Saharan Africa. As many as twenty thousand slaves were probably imported during Henry's lifetime, a small number compared to what was to come. With four thousand or more being brought in each year overland via the ancient caravan trade route across the Sahara, African slaves soon became a common sight on the streets of Lisbon and other Portuguese cities.
As one parses Prince Henry's role in stimulating and encouraging the Atlantic explorations and the slave trade, however, it becomes clear that he stood at the nexus of broader social and historical developments. In the long history of slavery, it was fractional, often marginal groups within and between nations--including African nations--that made the critical moves to push and unfold this phenomenal development in world history. It is axiomatic, as Philip Curtin aptly put it some years ago, that "long-distance trade requiredsomeoneto go abroad and become a foreigner." The omnipresence of such people--truly "middlemen," dislocated in time and space--provided essential resources for the crucial operations and innovations of the slave trade. The remarkable character of these and similar merchant cohorts is captured by Fernand Braudel's eloquent descriptors: adaptable, versatile, and "weightless." The last adjective especially conveys a sense of how social marginality--the ability to thrive in liminal spaces--actually enabled the odious innovations that would make the Atlantic slave trade possible. Living in enclaves in foreign lands, forging new social and economic ties, procreating offspring who emblematized new cultural-political linkages, such men pushed the boundaries of physical exploration, provided the capital for risky ventures, created intersecting communities that formed the nodes of a system of global infrastructure that, in the absence of modern financial systems, ensured that a deal was indeed a deal. The Mediterranean city-states produced the first exemplars of the breed and a model for others found later in trading entrepôts along the West African coast and in the slaving emporiums of the western Atlantic.
The earliest of these merchant cohorts emerged in the fifteenth century among traders from the Italian city-state Genoa. Genoese traders were a ubiquitous presence in the western Mediterranean: not only in Seville and Lagos, from which they managed the trade to Northern Europe, but in Ceuta, where they greeted Prince Henry's invaders--having probably provided material support to both the defenders and the attackers. Their presence in the western Mediterranean was the result of their being closed out of the lucrative Eastern trade. Facing east across the Adriatic, Venice already possessed geographical advantages in the Eastern trade that its political and diplomatic skills turned to economic dominance. Between 1353 and 1433, Genoa fought and lost three wars to Venice, and with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1475, it was practically shut out of Eastern markets. Thus Genoa was forced to look west, exploitingexisting markets and developing new ones. Genoese were the first Italian traders in the Northern European markets, beating the Venetians by almost fifty years. They were at the intersection of the exchange of Sicilian grain for West African gold brought by caravan across the Sahara. Winning trade concessions from royal houses in Spain and Portugal, the Genoese colonies were the most prominent among the merchant settlements established in Seville and Lisbon. Indeed, the Genoese were foremost among the Italian merchants who pioneered the protected, segregated enclaves of foreign traders throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Either as private investors or through loans to the state, they financed an undetermined but significant share of the cost of the earliest Portuguese explorations of the Atlantic Islands and West Africa. It is clear that they were major investors in the settling and cultivation of the Canaries, Madeira, and São Tomé, all crucial staging grounds for initial explorations of the West African coast and voyages to the Americas. Genoese traders provided initiative, capital, and techniques (milling and irrigation) for the introduction of sugar cultivation into the Azores and Madeira. Indeed, Genoese merchants in Seville would continue to be major financiers of American trade ventures until the mid-sixteenth century.
Middlemen need not be, or remain, marginal, however. Genoese and other Italian merchants established marriage alliances with Portuguese families and became landed aristocrats. The Lomellini, moneylenders to the Portuguese nobility and the Crown, were exemplary of the transformation from marginal status to elite. The first of the clan, Bartolomeo, appear in Lisbon in 1424, along with other Genoese compatriots, supplying Sicilian and Castilian corn to the African fortified city of Ceuta. From there the family trading network spread as far as Nantes, in France, and to London. Other Lomellini established themselves in the Madeira sugar trade, and by the late fifteenth century they controlled the trade of wines, sugar, honey, and preserves to Flanders, Genoa, Venice, and even India. Through intermarriage with the Portuguese, the Lomellini became part of the landed aristocracy, and by the sixteenth century they had gained official recognition as nationals. Many of the fifteenth-century voyages along the West African coast and the exploitation of the Atlantic Islands that proved crucial to early slaving expeditions were funded by the Lomellini. Moreover, their activities illustrate the fact that these trading ventures faced two directions, toward the bulk trade in the Baltic Sea andtoward the trans-Saharan trade in gold and precious stones from western Africa.
Aided by such middlemen, the Portuguese made slow but steady progress down the West African coast. Prince Henry's campaign in 1415 to capture Ceuta had provided a port of entry into Africa and shifted attention decisively southward. By 1434, after Henry's persistent urging, Gil Eannes had rounded Cape Bojador, the westernmost promontory on the Saharan coast. Thereafter, exploration of the Atlantic Islands mitigated the anxiety about the possibility of making a return voyage from Africa, since it was now clear that one had only to sail west and pick up winds and currents that eventually would bring one home. After an initial foray onto the Mauritanian coast by Lançarote da Ilha, the Portuguese made contact with Senegambia, the Gold Coast, and the Niger Delta. By 1483, twenty-three years after Henry's death, brief contact was made with the Kongo of West Central Africa, leaving only the voyage around the Horn of Africa to open the way to the Indian Ocean. In 1482, to consolidate their position on the West African coast, the Portuguese built a fortress near the mouth of the Volta River, São Jorge da Mina, known later as simply Elmina ("the mine"), a name reflecting Portugal's initial goal of gaining access to the mineral wealth of the Gold Coast. One of Africa's most legendary and earliest slave factories, Elmina was designed not only to keep African traders a safe distance away but also, with its cannons all pointed out to sea, to ward off European competitors, an aim replicated by numerous fortifications built along the West African coast thereafter. By 1493, they had established themselves on the island of São Tomé, just off the Gold Coast, at first as an entrepôt for the coastal trade and later as a sugar plantation. From there, during the early years of the trade, reversing the usual pattern, they actually supplied slave laborers to African miners in exchange for gold.
Over time Portuguese exploration and settlement evolved from state-supported but essentially private commercial ventures to expeditions, in the last decades of the fifteenth century, that involved more direct state sponsorship and management, especially once the trade in slaves had become a central part of American and European economies and institutional life. Thus when Bartolemeu Dias and Vasco da Gama set sail to circumnavigate the world in 1487 and 1498, respectively, their missions reflected broader geopolitical and commercial goals than even PrinceHenry had managed. However, the mixture of state sponsorship and private commercial initiative that Henry had perfected would long endure as a model for all such enterprises, as reflected later in the joint-stock companies of the English and the French, the Royal African Company and La Compagnie des Indes Occidentales, respectively.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, then, the Portuguese--propelled equally by the quest for gold and slaves; for a shorter, safer trade route to the wealth of the Indies; and for contact with the fabled Prester John--had virtually mapped the main areas of the West African coast that would feed the subsequent Atlantic slave trade. The Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain, mediated by the Pope, consigned Africa, and thus the slave trade, to those two nations. Subsequently, though Spain succeeded in creating an American empire in the sixteenth century, it was dependent on Portugal to supply it with African slave labor. No other European power was prepared to compete with either of them at that time.
In much the same way Europeans were not yet "Europeans," Africans in the fifteenth century were not yet "Africans." In fact, to some extent, both of those more global identities would be forged in part from the dialectic of their relations with each other. Altogether Portugal's trade and political influence in West Africa ranged along a 26,000-kilometer coastline (16,100 miles) that would eventually embrace the principal slave-producing regions of the Atlantic trade, a space that encompassed a cultural and demographic array even greater than Europe's. The Africans spoke fifty different languages, worshipped an incalculable number of gods, traced their family lineages through fathers or mothers or both, and withal comprised a diverse array of ethnicities and social systems. Some lived under centralized hierarchical states similar to the monarchies Europeans were familiar with. Others--about one quarter, by one estimate--lived in small decentralized societies governed by systems bearing some similarity to the local democracies Puritans would inaugurate in New England towns some two centuries later. Certainly the Europeans and Americans most intimately engaged with African labor recognized the differences among them. American planters, for example, were well aware that the Igbo wereof a different character than the Akan, or that Akan and Senegambians possessed different skills and training, even if such observations were often grounded in racist and highly suspect assumptions. The cultural, economic, and political backgrounds of Africans transported to the Americas varied tremendously, therefore, as did the historical experience out of which their travail took shape.
Nonetheless, Africans from different ethnic groups often shared a common cultural template, especially those living near the regional contact zones created by intense trading relationships. The African peoples of the Niger Delta, for example, were perforce either multilingual or had to create a lingua franca to facilitate the communications necessary to trade with one another. Living at such crossroads of human contact fostered both difference and affinity; indeed, their cultures as well as their languages were likely to have been dialectically related, like two sides of the same coin.
After years of lively, sometimes bitter debate, historians now generally agree on the broad aggregate numbers and overall patterns of the Atlantic slave trade, including the captives' ethnic origins. Although pinpointing the ethnic origins of the slaves carried to particular American locations remains difficult and contentious, it is much less relevant if one doesnotassume that African identities could be transferred to the Americas whole cloth and thereafter remain unchanged. On the contrary, if one understands that Africans were vulnerable to ordinary social-historical processes much like other people, and thus not immune to the political and social transformations those processes wrought, then it is likely that cultural change had already begun before the slaves even left the African continent. Part of a trade spanning four centuries, Africans were very much at the vortex of internally and externally driven historical transformations from the time they encountered Europeans on their western coasts--and, for some, even before.
In any event, we can determine geographical origins much more precisely than ethnic origins, and without conflating the two, one can depict the different historical conjunctures that produced slaves for American plantations, if not their specific ethnicities. Historian Michael Gomez suggests that six cultural-geopolitical regions--Senegambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Biafra, and West Central Africa--were the principal venues for North American slaves,and these seem useful for our purposes. Gomez defines the Senegambia region as the area bracketed by the Senegal River in the north and the Casamance in the south, its principal ethnicities being Wolof and Mande, both heirs of the ancient kingdoms that bestride the trans-Saharan trade and home to Muslim centers of learning and religion. The "Sierra Leone" region embraces the modern country of that name plus Liberia and the Ivory Coast. "Gold Coast" roughly conforms to the area of contemporary Ghana; and the Bight of Benin corresponds with contemporary Benin and western Nigeria. The Bight of Biafra encompasses eastern Nigeria and much of the Niger Delta, while West Central Africa refers to the area encompassed by the contemporary Congo and parts of Angola. Very few slaves from Africa's southeastern coast landed in North America.
Data drawn from extant shipping records provide useful estimates of the relative proportions of slaves drawn from the principal regions that Gomez identifies. These estimates conform with others indicating that the Bight of Biafra, Senegambia, and West Central Africa were the principal sources for slaves who landed in North America, altogether supplying more than 60 percent of the whole. The Gold Coast and Sierra Leone supplied a little more than 20 percent, and Benin and the Windward Coast less than 10 percent. Not only were Biafra and West Central Africa among the principal suppliers of slaves to North America--roughly 43 percent according to these shipping records but closer to half by some estimates--they also frame the diverse patterns of European-African trading relations and the ethnic and cultural roots of North American slaves. Moreover, in contrast with most other areas, the flow of slaves from Biafra and Central Africa was fairly constant over the peak trading years of the eighteenth century, when most North American slaves arrived. In some ways, then, these two zones of African-European contact might serve as useful counterpoints for our inquiry, for together they embraced the opposite poles of the slave trade experience and thus bracket its diverse and complex history.
"I was born, in the year 1745, situated in a charming vale, named Essaka," wrote Olaudah Equiano. These words begin one of the more remarkable personal accounts of the experience of African enslavement that has come down to us. Written in the late eighteenth century, it tells the story of an Igbo kidnapped by African slave dealers from his village somewhere in what is now southeastern Nigeria. Six months after his capture, Equiano finally reached Calabar, from whence he embarked on a ship for the Americas. Though written for the benefit of the early campaigns for the abolition of the slave trade, with many of its narrative details proving difficult to confirm, Equiano's story, by turns harrowing and heroic, stands nonetheless as one of the compelling documents of the passage from freedom to slavery in the peak years of the slave trade.
Nearly a century earlier, in 1643, Garcia II, ruler of the kingdom of the Kongo, sent three envoys to Recife to meet with Johan Maurits, the Dutch governor of northern Brazil. One of them, identified later as most likely Dom Miguel de Castro, had his portrait painted by Albert Eckhout, which, by way of the Dutch, eventually passed into a collection in the National Museum of Denmark, where it now hangs. For the occasion, the Kongolese envoy donned clothing he had received as gifts from Maurits; gifts of clothing appearing to have been a standard diplomatic practice at the time. For this portrait, therefore, he wore a black velvet coat trimmed in gold and silver and a plumed, beaver felt hat with a gold and silver band; he carried a silver-plated saber. Dom Miguel's portrait carries no hint of the condescension and obeisance such gifts and "dressing up" might have suggested in the Atlantic world Equiano inhabited a hundred years later. Rather, he looks out at us with the self-confident bearing of one venturing into a world not entirely unfamiliar or threatening. In fact, he was but one of a veritable ambassadorial corps dispatched over the preceding century by successive Kongolese kings to various European powers, including the Vatican.
The experiences of these two men mark the outer boundaries of the three-and-a-half-century Atlantic slave trade. On the one hand is the youthful Equiano, ripped from his village and family and propelled on a harrowing journey into slavery somewhere in the Americas; on the other, the confident Kongolese envoy negotiating as an equal with the Dutch governor, possibly over some aspect of that very same trade that would ensnare Equiano a century later. Between the two lie worlds of time and space that shaped European-African relations in radically different ways. This Africa was not the seemingly homogenous space and timeless pool of later imaginings into which Europeans dipped their lines fishing for human gold. Rather, time and place matter very much in tracing the history of that trade and how it reshaped the fates of three continents and the destinies of Africans in the Americas.
Portuguese explorers had reached the Kongo in 1483, almost a decade before the mission to find a water route to Asia took Columbus in the opposite direction. Diogo Cão had set out with something similar in mind, but like Lançarote had done fifty years earlier, he settled for seizing hostages for display in Portugal. But a measure of how much had changed in the intervening years was when he returned with those captives two years later, having heard from them of the wealth and power of the mani Kongo (king) and hoping perhaps to impress him with the wonders and power of the new world beyond the sea. Thus Cão bore presents (fabric, clothes, ornaments, instruments, horses) and people (priests, stonemasons, carpenters, and women to instruct the Kongolese in housekeeping Portuguese-style).
Even before Cão's party reached the capital, they received a warm welcome in one of the outer provinces. An impressive spectacle unfolded before them: dancers of ankimbacult, naked to the waist and painted white, with palm cloth wrapped around their waists and feathers in their hair, performed their ritual movements. A regional leader and his son were baptized, and old fetishes were burned. The welcome was repeated at the capital, where Nzinga a Nkuwu, the current mani Kongo, and members of his court were baptized, and where he took the name of the king of Portugal, João, and his courtiers the names of members of the Portuguese royal household.
None of this should be interpreted as acts of obeisance or submission, however. Rather, as historian Anne Hilton suggests, for the natives, these gestures were meant to deflect and master this outside power--like some form of sympathetic magic perhaps. Kongolese cosmology divided the world in twain, that of the living and that of the dead, and much of the people's ritual attention was devoted to mediating that divide. Since the ocean represented one physical manifestation of this abstract principle, the Portuguese, having breached it, arrived wrapped in an aura of death--as suggested by the name the Kongolese gave to Portugal,Mwene Puto, the Land of the Dead.
The Kongolese rulers undoubtedly deduced nonspiritual reasons to treat their visitors with diplomacy rather than hostility, notwithstanding the latter's association with death. The Portuguese were obviously a formidable people and possibly useful allies, with their sailing ships and gunsand trade goods. One of the mani Kongo's first acts was to dispatch his personal ambassador to João I bearing gifts to reciprocate those he had received. Meanwhile, the European masons set about immediately building a church.
The rapid, perhaps even precipitous, conversion of the ruling group to Catholicism probably reflected their view that the newcomers' spiritual-ritual powers had something to do with their manifest earthly powers. Such conversions were more calculating than fearful, however. Richard White's masterful dissection of the very similar relations between French missionaries and Algonquins of the North American Great Lakes region in the seventeenth century is suggestive of how such relationships might unfold. Much like the French-Canadian missionaries, the Portuguese met their African hosts on what White calls a cultural "middle ground"--that is, a political and social space where each party needs or wants something from the other but neither has the power to completely subdue the other. What follows, argues White, is "a process of mutual creation" in which differences are negotiated as each attempts, in their fashion, to understand the world in the other's terms, or at least just enough to achieve their ends. When the differences become too great, however, each party is just as likely to translate the stranger's actions according to their own cultural rules and move on. Such "creative misunderstanding"--most notably in religious beliefs--sometimes allows both sides to move past irreconcilable differences. On the middle ground, one lives in "a realm of constant invention," White suggests, which ultimately becomes a new "convention."
White's idea provides a supple framework for thinking about not only the making of African American peoples in the New World, but also the nature of their roots in the Old. He reminds us of an obvious fact too often forgotten: "roots" are either living, growing things or they are simply dead. Or, as the anthropologist James Clifford has written, an identity should be thought of not "as [a] boundary to be maintained but as a nexus of relations and transactions [to be] actively engaged." Perhaps nowhere are these ideas more useful than in trying to humanize the experience of Africans in the era of the slave trade, especially since their experience is so often depicted as frozen and static--mere stick figures of another's imagining. The image becomes more dynamic if we think of Africans moving through a kind ofculturalMiddle Passage, first in Africa, then in America, prologue and sequel to the physical Middle Passage. Each ofthese passages was brutal in its own way, but each was also a moment of profound creativity. In each instance the boundary of new contact was not simply with Europeans, but with other Africans--who often were strangers, too. Each of these passages moved Africans into a new world where physical and psychological survival often hinged precisely on their ability to turn spontaneous inventions into new conventions.
From this perspective we might better understand why and how the Kongolese conversion to Catholicism was neither insincere nor merely expedient. The African historian John Thornton has demonstrated persuasively both the institutional depth and the sincerity of their conversions. By all accounts, the Kongolese acceptance of Catholicism was a syncretic process. As often happens in such conversion experiences, there were familiar elements in the new religion, making it comprehensible even if revolutionary. Many of those elements centered on the key doctrines of death and resurrection, facilitating the melding of the two conceptual orders. As in contact situations elsewhere, the new converts merged Catholic saints with indigenous deities.
The Portuguese may well have thought of this mission much like many others before it, the bringing of a heathen people under the earthly and spiritual suzerainty of the Catholic Church, but this was not Mexico or Peru, where Spanish missionaries arrived in the wake of conquerors. If they sometimes forgot that they came as invited guests and stayed only at the sufferance of their hosts, the Kongolese rulers did not hesitate to remind them of this by expelling those who offended them.
To be sure, this embrace of Catholicism, whether for diplomatic or spiritual reasons, was not unanimously approved by all members of the African ruling group. There was disaffection with this new cult; some thought it witchcraft. The missionaries' insistence that the mani Kongo abandon all but one of his wives lent credence to the doubters, since this suggestion threatened to incite a political crisis. By tradition, political balance was maintained among the central lineage groups constituting the kingdom by naming a successor from precisely the offspring of this group of secondary wives. Such conflict was not unfamiliar to European royalty of that era; their royal households often had to negotiate conflicts between the peculiar sexual morality dictated by the Church in Rome and the political-biological requirements for keeping a given lineage in power--England's King Henry VIII being one of the more spectacular failures atreaching such an accommodation. In the Kongo, the matter was more skillfully finessed: the king simply married the first wife and, following European practice, called the others his concubines.
As is often the case on the middle ground of early cultural contact situations, the tensions prompted by European contact and cultural influence were not always about Europeans as such. Afonso, as the mani Kongo's son by his principal wife, looked favorably upon the Christians' novel insistence on monogamy and primogeniture, since otherwise he would not have been in the traditional line of succession. In the conflict precipitated by his seizure of the throne after João's death in 1506, therefore, his alliance with the Portuguese was instrumental in both a cultural and political-military sense. Prefiguring the Christian justifications for conquest and colonization of three centuries later, Afonso chose to represent this particular succession crisis as a struggle between Christians (his allies) and heathens (his opponents).
From the last decade of the fifteenth century and well into the mid-seventeenth, this transatlantic relation held both promise and peril, exhibiting synergies and schisms in the relations between the Portuguese and the Kongolese. Relations were initially between sovereign states, as reflected in the exchange of ambassadors, the Kongolese requests for "foreign aid," and the education of the Kongolese elite. In 1526, when Afonso concluded that the Portuguese had supplied a surplus of priests but not enough master teachers of grammar, he demanded more of the latter. In other cases, children were sent to be educated in Europe, with a number of them becoming fluent in European languages and ordained as priests to assume leadership positions in the indigenous church. Manuel Robrerdo, a Luso-African Kongolese trained by the Jesuits and ordained in 1637, was a prominent example of this phenomenon. The remarkable Robrerdo, who entered the Capuchin Order in 1653, became fluent in Latin and several other European languages and produced a grammar for his native tongue, Kikongo. Since the Church had designated the Kongo an Episcopal see in 1596, many similarly talented Africans rose in the Church hierarchy.
This moment of European contact was simultaneous with Kongolese imperial expansion, and Kongo's alliance with Christian Portugal often ensured victory in secular struggles within the kingdom and against enemies without. Occupying approximately 80,000 square miles of territory, the Kongo kingdom was only a medium-size African state (fifteenth-centurySonghay was estimated at between 300,000 and 600,000 square miles, by contrast), but considerably larger than Portugal (90,000 square kilometers) and only slightly smaller than England (150,000 square kilometers). Indeed, his initial monopoly on access to European products enabled Afonso to draw many neighboring groups into tribute relations, creating thereby "a greater Kongo" far larger than the late-fifteenth-century entity he had inherited.
A trading relation that had begun with the export of copper and ivory soon turned insistently to human beings, however, and the growing Portuguese demand for slaves thereafter became a source of political instability as well as political strength. Initially slaves had been drawn from groups such as the Tio, deep in the interior, beyond the treacherous falls that cut the Zaire River, but the growing demand soon drew more and more from inhabitants of the kingdom itself. As in most African societies, misfortune might reduce members of one's own group to slavery, but normally one's own people were not sold abroad. There were even different words to mark the status distinction among slaves acquired by different means and subject to different treatment. Among the Bonbangi in Central Africa, slaves were all those deprived of the protection of kinspeople, but their traders distinguished those liable to sale to outsiders,montamba, from those who were not,montonge. Similar distinctions were found among other groups.
While it may be, as John Thornton argues, that increased warfare was only coincidental with the increased slave trading rather than causally related to it, there can be little doubt that that trade was in one way or another deeply implicated in the internal power struggles and the general political-military effects of the Portuguese connection. In Africa, slave raiding and war were but two sides of the same coin. As such, it can be very difficult to untangle cause from effect in gauging the impact of the slave trade, or to neatly separate the general impact of economic and social intercourse with Europeans from the effects of slave trading in particular. Some broader societal transformations appear to have been spurred by the demands of the trade, while other changes intensified and expanded that trade. Whichever direction the causal arrow points, however, slave trading and societal change seem to have been interdependent.
Alliance with the Portuguese gave the Kongolese a military edge at certain moments in their ongoing expansionist project. When the Jagas invaded Kongo in 1568--probably in an effort to break its monopoly over the slave trade--Portuguese guns and soldiers aided in repelling the invaders. In the aftermath of that victory, the ruling elite gained strength and independence from the traditional lineage groups that hitherto had been their social and economic base. Victory brought augmented trade revenue, which the Kongolese invested in slaves, who were used as soldiers and cultivators. Thus, as in Europe, a process began by which the monarchy became increasingly independent of the aristocracy and the traditional lineages that underpinned them.
Other transformative processes were subtler, and ranged far beyond those affecting the elite sector. As trade increased in volume and value, for example, former fishing villages became trading posts and traders wrested power from traditional chiefs. With developments in river transportcame vastly improved communications, as fleets of large canoes, manned by sixty to seventy paddlers, doubled the speed of personal transport and quadrupled the range of royal messengers. There was also a greater reliance on communicating those messages in written text, which was enabled by the expanded literacy made possible, in turn, by missionary schools and the efforts to build an indigenous clergy. Written text favored rule by precedents rather than oral traditions; thus Christianity focused and legitimized central authority. As an inevitable corollary of this growing political inequality, the gap between rich and poor widened. The people ending up on slave ships were, almost by definition, likely to be the losers of such struggles: the poor, the vulnerable, the unlucky who found themselves on the short end of either wars or internal power struggles within their own societies.
As in any relations between sovereign states, tensions and intrigue developed between the Kongolese and their Portuguese allies. For example, Garcia II (who ruled the Kongo from 1641 until 1661) sought to make an alliance with Dutch newcomers in Luanda against the Portuguese, with whom relations had cooled as they switched their attention to Angola and threatened Kongolese sovereignty. Indeed, it may have been that the three envoys sent to Brazil were on some such related mission. Be that as it may, the strategem failed when the Dutch and Portuguese made peace in 1641. Thus Garcia II turned to the Pope, with whom the Kongo also maintained diplomatic relations, seeking to use the Vatican as a counterweight to the Portuguese Crown. Spanish and Italian Capuchin missionaries were invited to come to the Kongo in an effort to gain greater independence from Portuguese missionaries. But, of course, two could play that game: as Africans often set one European nation against another, Europeans encouraged what were essentially proxy wars among African nations to gain trade advantages.
By the seventeenth century, European conflicts--as that between Protestant Netherlands and Catholic Spain--gripped West Central Africa in their bloody embrace. As noted earlier, it was one such conflict that likely produced the twenty Africans landed at Jamestown in 1619. And, indeed, the political history of the Kongo for most of the seventeenth century played out within a triangle of intrigue between the Portuguese, the Dutch, and various African allies and enemies. From long experience, the Kongolese rulers were usually able to turn these intrigues either in theirfavor or at least to a stalemate, until two events undermined and weakened the rulers' internal coherence and hegemony. First, in 1648, a Portuguese attack, ironically initiated from Brazil under the leadership of a New World colonist, Salvador de Sá, defeated the Dutch decisively at Luanda and limited their field for maneuver in west central Africa more generally, thus depriving the mani Kongo of a counterweight to the Portuguese. Although the Kongo itself was not overrun, the Brazilians intensified the slave trade and made repeated incursions over the border. Second, in 1665, came the climactic Battle of Mbwila, where a formidable Kongolese army was defeated decisively by a Portuguese-led army of Angolans and Jagas. Although this victory was again not followed up by invasion of the kingdom proper, the royal household was so weakened as to be vulnerable to internal factionalism and soon fragmented in a quarter century of civil wars. Many of the African slaves landed in the Americas during this period could trace their misfortune to that internecine warfare.
The years of almost constant civil wars took their toll. By the first decade of the eighteenth century, various efforts had been made to secure a permanent peace and reunite the Kongo. These efforts eventually succeeded in 1709, when the Kongolese king Pedro IV was able, through a combination of skillful peace negotiations and military success over his rivals, to forge a new Kongo. In the process, he also had to contend with a different kind of threat from a remarkable indigenous religious movement, "the Antonians," led by an equally remarkable woman, Dona Beatrice Kimpa Vita. Originally descended from a noble household, Dona Beatrice was a local priestess who claimed to be possessed by Saint Anthony's spirit. She prophesied the establishment of a new royal household that would reunite the Kongo and bring an end to the civil wars. The prophecy was appealing to the Kongolese country folk, who had suffered greatly from the constant warfare and the threat of transatlantic enslavement it entailed; so they flocked to her side. Though neither anticlerical nor wholly opposed to the Kongolese ruling class, Dona Beatrice and her followers, the Antonians, articulated ideas, religious practices, and conventions that departed from standard Catholic doctrine, while depicting a political future that threatened the ambitions of particular leaders and claimants. It was a potent mix of religious enthusiasm and political salvation that in another era might have produced a proto-nationalist movement. However, the seed of its demise lay in its success: its sudden surge to power attractedsome powerful enemies. Eventually, Dona Beatrice threw her support to a rival of Pedro's, which brought war rather than peace. She was captured and burned at the stake as a heretic.
One could read this episode, and other internal disputes, as a purely indigenous and self-contained event in Kongolese history. And yet, the internal antinomies of the Antonian movement are striking. Beatrice burned the Christian cross as a fetish and questioned the limits of the authority of the Pope. Her obvious purpose, however, was not to topple Christianity but restate it in Kongolese terms, as when she reinterpreted the birth of Christ as a Kongolese event that took place on Kongolese territory. Most notably, it was in the moral habiliment of a Catholic saint that she cloaked her own authority, and in her prophesy, it was the Christian God that authorized a new political order for the Kongo. Her story, then, was emblematic of how even indigenous fights were now thoroughly saturated with meanings and signs accrued from a now-two-centuries-old contact with Europeans.
Not just war and intrigue, then, but broader changes in the political-economic terrain changed the Africans' world. One of the principal motivations for reunifying and pacifying the Kongo, for example, was to establish the basis for a steadier and thus more profitable exploitation of slaves transshipped across its borders and channeled through its ports. Other African states along the West African coast would face similar political problems in calibrating their dealings with the European powers and with one another. Many of them also began, like the mani Kongos, bargaining as equals, but ended prostrate before European powers or, at best, as junior partners in a trade relation they could no longer control.
Although the overall pattern described for the Kongo-Angola coast--contact, transformation, and declension--may hold in some sense for every African people ensnared by the slave trade, the world of the eighteenth-century Igbo was very different from that of the seventeenth-century Kongolese. The people American planters knew as "Ibos" were drawn from the densely populated region formed by the Niger Delta and its hinterland. It was a world bounded by the Benin River on the west and the Cross River in the east, with its southern boundary formed by the Niger Delta, which extends about 270 miles along the Atlantic coast and thrusts 120 milesinland. Here the Niger River stretches watery fingers to the southern Atlantic. Together with four other major rivers--the Benin, the Brass, the Bonny, and the Cross--all interlaced with creeks and lagoons, it forms a vast and complex network of navigable waterways. The area has been dubbed "the Venice of West Africa," and it is claimed that in earlier times a canoe could maneuver from one end to the other and never go into the open sea. As in Venice, the inhabitants were a trading people, and the vast and vibrant trade networks they constructed formed the template for extraordinarily complex interethnic social and political relations, a dense human crossroads.
This area had been settled, just decades before European contact, by successive waves of migrants from the eastern interior, some set in motion by population pressures, others attempting to slip the control of the empire of Benin, whose eastern boundary lay at the Bonny River while its western edge abutted contemporary Lagos. Later, the prospect of trading with the Portuguese drew yet more migrants, until this became one of the most densely populated regions in Africa and a shifting terrain of human traffic and fusion.
Like all such migrations perhaps, these engendered conflict between groups who regarded themselves as ethnically distinct--Igbo, Ibibio, Efik, and many smaller groups. Little wonder, then, that the youthful Olaudah Equiano was awestruck by the strange appearances and cultural habits of the many people he encountered as he was moved to the coast. Though productive of conflict and differentiation, however, these migrations also encouraged co-residence and intermarriage, a sharp reminder of the problem of retrospectively imposing static categories of identity on a people in the midst of rapid social transformation. Here, a socially and often physically mixed population emerged, especially in the urban trading communities of the delta city-states, but this in turn may have opened a cultural gap between these city-dwellers and those remaining in rural villages. As a mark of this sense of differentiation, inland Igbo referred to inhabitants of the delta city-states as "the saltwater people," a phrase that would echo on the other side of the Atlantic ironically as a term of derision Creole slaves hurled at African newcomers. But, in fact, this constant east-to-west movement, this ubiquitous ethnic transformation, formed a common template of lived experience. In many cases those African newcomers to the Americas may well have emerged from a kind of African melting pot that prefigured the very world they would later inhabit.
Unlike the Kongolese, or for that matter many of their neighbors to the west and north, these peoples inhabited highly decentralized and diverse social formations, politically as well as culturally. In contrast with the powerful monarchy evolving in seventeenth-century Kongo, for example, Equiano describes a form of governance centered on the local village, where respected elders and men with "titles," that is, honors recognizing their achievements, had political and judicial authority. He recalled that his own village, Essaka--which was probably located east of the Niger River in the Onitsha region of modern Nigeria, an area of hilly terrain and savannah grasslands--had only a loose, tributary relationship with the empire of Benin. An oft-quoted Igbo popular proverb goes,"Igbo enwegheze"(the Igbo have [or make] no king). This is, in fact, an overgeneralization, since some Igbo groups did have kingship, especially those claiming direct descent from Benin, where monarchy was a highly developed mode of governance. That caveat notwithstanding, even in the most centralized traditional polities, an Igbo's identity centered on his or her local village. Like Equiano, most Igbo became aware of themselves as part of a broader, "imagined" ethnicity only when away from home.
Decentralized should not be read as disorganized, however. These societies fostered dense networks of associations and institutions that mediated practically every aspect of social interaction. The most important of these were the formal age cohorts into which boys and girls were inducted at puberty and the secret societies that adults joined, some of which resembled professional guilds, much like thecompagnonnagesformed by French artisans during roughly the same period. Moreover, Equiano's nostalgic recollections of a blissfully isolated and provincial childhood should be credited only so far. In his own account one finds telltale signs of links to the burgeoning trade activity in the Niger Delta, which clearly had already connected his village to the larger Atlantic world. For example, his fond memories of Igbo cooking included not only the traditional savory stews flavored with pepper and spices but also a New World legume: corn. Despite his preadolescent ignorance of the world beyond his village, the Atlantic trading network soon brought his village, like many others, within the grasp of the slave trade.
In many ways, decentralized societies such as Equiano's village were better able to resist the slave trade than were peoples subject to the large-scale, hierarchically ordered kingdoms and empires found elsewhere in West and West Central Africa--at least initially. There were, of course, small-scale inter-village wars that produced slaves in decentralized societies, but these were much less important in the delta than in places such as the Kongo, where large centralized states were bent on conquest. The small populations of scattered villages were simply less inviting to large-scale military attack. Villagers also developed a number of effective counters to slave raiding. The Balanta of Central Africa built fortified hamlets, while the Diola lived in widely dispersed settlements. Others built walled compounds with a single entryway and no windows opening to the exterior. When threatened by slave traders, the Kabe of northern Togo retreated to mountainous terrain and developed more intensive cultivationmethods to compensate for the poor soil. As in Equiano's case, violent enslavement for any of these groups was more likely to come at the hands of kidnappers than soldiers.
Given that a significant portion of the estimated ten million or more slaves landed in the Americas were from decentralized communities, however, it seems unlikely that random kidnapping could account for more than a small minority of them. It is not too much of an exaggeration, perhaps, to say that in decentralized societies such as those found in the Niger Delta, the other side of slave trading was not war or kidnapping but trade. Or, to put the matter more precisely, both kidnapping and war were part of larger, more complex political and social developments that engendered novel social formations within African communities. It is very likely that Equiano's fate, like that of so many other African youth, was sealed miles away by one such novelty: the Aro cult.
The Aro cult phenomenon demonstrates not only the modes of operation through which the slave trade could penetrate decentralized communities, but also how the slave trade prompted changes in traditional systems of governance and social values more generally. The Aro transformed a subsistence agricultural community into the hub of a long-distance trading network, with slave trading becoming its central component and its raison d'être. In the process they perfected a supra-village organization that effectively provided a substitute for large-scale political organization. Strategically located west of the Cross River between the coast and the interior of the hinterland northeast of Old Calabar, the Aro eventually developed a network of 150 colonies throughout Igbo and Ibibio areas.
According to traditional accounts, their power was consolidated and sustained through manipulation of the Aro Chuku Oracle, a powerful deity the Aro had appropriated from the Ibibio. In fact, various local traditions seem to agree that the Aro Chukwu somehow emerged from the successful resolution of tensions between the Igbo and Ibibio, two West African ethnic groups with a history of both cooperation and conflict. According to one oral tradition, sometime in the seventeenth century, the Akpa, led by Akuma, intervened in a conflict between the Igbo and Ibibio. The Akpa were already a trading people and had acquired a limited number of firearms, which were not abundant in this area until the nineteenth century, and this apparently gave them advantages in their bid to mediate.
African historian Kenneth Dike has proposed an intriguing hypothesis that the subsequent Aro cult was spurred by migration into a malarial environment,which we now know stimulates adaptive traits that in turn can lead to outbreaks of sickle cell anemia. The mysterious deaths of otherwise healthy children that would inevitably follow may well have produced social tensions and encouraged an increased use of oracles and diviners--all providing the social basis for the development of the Aro cult.
The Aro cult is credited with controlling much of the slave trade from at least the mid-eighteenth century onward. Indeed, the Aro were so focused on trade that they actually imported food from neighboring groups. They committed their youth to a long trading apprenticeship, and sons or trusted members of a trading household were often sent out to establish new settlements, a practice reminiscent of some Europeans' use of familial and religious connections to facilitate trade. From these strategic outposts, they became the sole middlemen dominating the movement of goods from the hinterland to the coast. Emblematic of the Aro's intermediary status, such trading settlements were typically located at the crossing of rivers and the intersections of roads.
Long-distance trade was dangerous, and Aro traders flourished because they developed a variety of techniques to make it safe. Traveling in convoys, a privilege for which one paid a fee, the traders' caravans could include as many as thirty to forty merchants, who along with their apprentices and porters would add up to several hundred people. They also hired mercenaries to protect the convoys, built up a transport network, and sponsored or controlled the location of trade fairs, all of which gave them influence over a vast area not under their direct political control. Moreover, they were very skilled in diplomacy as well as war, and sought to make alliances with potential competitors. Advantageous marriages were contracted with families of leading traders in other towns to cement relationships of mutual interest. Traditional blood covenants, such as that of the Igbanu, which originally applied only to kin, were adapted to create fictive kin ties between merchants. They incorporated foreigners and slaves into their communities through formal adoptions. Thus many Africans were already familiar with multiethnic, heterogeneous societies even before being thrust into slave ships and onto American plantations.
Through their commercial and clientage linkages, the Aro mobilized agents within decentralized societies to act on their behalf and against the normal tendencies of those societies. The Aro traders gathered slaves not through wars or raids, but by means that were, on the surface at least, nominally consensual. Normally they did not themselves engage in kidnappingor slave raiding, but rather introduced systems of exchange whose incentives and penalties prompted others to do the dirty work for them. For those within their orbit, a system of taxation encouraged households not otherwise committed to slaving to participate, because each household was obligated to pay taxes or fines in the form of slaves, by some accounts as many as four slaves per person. By such means, the Aro system stimulated independent, small-scale raiding and exchanges.
This thriving market for slaves came to mediate otherwise unrelated tensions in decentralized West African societies, which probably accounts for its reach beyond even the specific activities of groups such as the Aro. Polygeneous societies, for example, in which prestige and social and political power rested with the male heads of household left many young men frustrated and impatient under the control of their elders, a problem exacerbated by an inheritance system that favored older siblings. Kidnapping and selling slaves provided quick access to the cloth, guns, or wherewithal to buy cattle or similar "capital" goods that would enable these young men to marry and establish a household. Indeed, one scholar argues that "generational conflict was probably the most important force opening [such] societies to the action of the market." There was no other way in these societies to prosper and secure the dependents and titles that provided security in old age. A scenario such as this may well account for the raiders--two men and a woman working alone--who captured Equiano. After his capture, Equiano was not transported via a larger trading party or sold at a fair, as were many other slaves similarly abducted. Rather, he was sold by these apparently independent operators and then passed along from hand to hand, until he was drawn inexorably to the sea.
The Aro were not alone in corrupting extant indigenous political and social institutions to generate ever more slaves for sale. As Walter Rodney argued many years ago, the desire of elite classes to gain advantage from the subjugation of those less powerful was as compelling a motivation among Africans as among the Europeans they encountered on their shores. Throughout West Africa in this period of heightened social tension, new laws were made and old laws reinterpreted to the advantage of the ruling groups. As with the Aro, in a number of West African societies, enslavement became the punishment meted out for a host of social infractions, such as adultery and theft, that had previously been punished by the restitution of goods or by fines. Prisoners, heretofore held until ransomed by their kinsmen, were now sold as slaves.
In numerous instances, groups threatened by slave raids were drawn reluctantly into the trade themselves. What began as a form of self-protection was often soon sustained by greed for profit. Thus some West Africans, such as the king of Bonny, made common cause with American slave masters in opposing the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. The former's intransigence throughout the nineteenth century would help foster the myth of the "dark continent," a place where Africans enslaved their kinspeople. This myth was fashioned, of course, in the very nations that had been these African slave traders' avid partners for four and a half centuries.
The willing participation of some Africans in the slave trade, combined with the fact that the institution was indigenous to Africa, would later become a key argument in the defense of North American slavery. Indeed, even in the early twentieth century, a prominent white southern historian continued to argue that bondage on New World plantations was in fact a rescue from barbarism, a gift of civilization. Such transparently specious and self-serving justifications need not distract us here, but it is necessary to reckon with the very real impact that indigenous African slavery may have had on the development of the Atlantic slave trade, if for no other reason than its importance for understanding the impact the trade had on Africa as a whole.
Slavery appears in Equiano's account as a common social institution. Though defensive, Equiano's distinction between the slavery he knew at home and what he encountered in America, with respect to status and treatment, is generally correct, even if his overly benign portrait of the former is not. In no society are slaves the true equals of non-slaves, regardless of how well they are treated or whatever opportunities for social advancement are open to them. As Orlando Patterson's exhaustive survey of slave systems demonstrates, even when slaves were vested with impressive social or political authority--and slaves in Africa and Asia often were so invested--they were still marked as socially degraded by whatever measures their particular society reckoned human worth. In Africa, as elsewhere, therefore, slaves were a socially subordinated and "dishonored" people.
In traditional African societies, however, slavery was motivated by broader social purposes than simply satisfying labor needs, and this shaped the nature of the slave experience. In contrast with Europeans, who built security and power hierarchies on the possession of land, Africans found their security in gathering around them people whose fates or needs were somehow tied to their own, either through kinship or dependency. Giventhe fearful threats of natural hazards and the social and structural limitations on amassing adequate wealth or even food surpluses, Africans relied on human ties and obligations, on kin and dependents, for security. These were societies for which kinship was the principal idiom through which social relations were sorted out and understood. It is revealing, then, that slaves were sometimes literally adopted. Kenneth Dike's description of the initiation of a slave into an Aro household suggests the social meanings that could attach to the institution more generally.
His hair was shaven off, his nails clipped, and he was given a ritual bath at the sacred stone. The initiate jumped up and down seven times and was knocked on his head by the head of the household. The head,nna ulo, then chanted a ritual address to the god of the household, informing it and the ancestors of the increase in the family members. Subsequently, the initiate was given a new name and a ritual meal by the new mother, often one of the wives of the household head.
Thus separated from home and all those who could protect them, slaves tended to become the loyal subjects of their new households, which offered them protection and often real potential for social and material advancement. As in many other slave systems, the bond relation could shade off into something more like patron and client than master and slave, and was couched in the language and idiom of kinship. Cloaking the inherent brutality of bondage in the language of kinship is something that even slaveholders in the nineteenth-century American South would well understand, however. And, as with other indigenous institutions, the slave trade eventually corroded the more benign features of African slavery as well. At roughly the same moment that Equiano was experiencing relatively gentle treatment in the household of one of his African owners, American-style slave plantations were being founded in the kingdom of Dahomey, a slave-trading empire that had itself been spawned by the growing Atlantic demand for slaves.
Whatever effects slavery may have wrought on African societies as a whole, it clearly had a demonstrable impact on the creation of new social entities and phenomena, which have clear parallels with and links to similardevelopments in Europe. If a long-distance trade requires, as Philip Curtin put it, "someone to go abroad" to act as a middleman, long-distance slave trading seems to have been peculiarly dependent on complexly elaborated and novel social arrangements, at the center of which stood a new type of middleman. As we have seen, the middlemen who facilitated long-distance trade often occupied an anomalous social position within the European societies in which they resided. Although the wealthiest might merge into the local nobility, such as the Lomellini in Portugal, more often they formed physically and culturally separate enclaves within the host society, as with most other Italians in Spain or Portugal. Indeed, such enclaves were often legally defined and protected.
The Europeans who manned the ports and slave "factories" of the West African coast formed separate enclaves as well. Some mated with African women, producing children who formed yet a different kind of middling group from their fathers, and whose national and social position was even more anomalous. As aliens within traditional African societies--much as Jews and New Christians were in Europe, for example--such people tended to follow in their fathers' footsteps and become traders themselves. Much like the Aro, they devoted themselves exclusively to trade, and thus became good at it, often trumping both European and African competitors with their maneuvers and single-mindedness.
Mixed-race communities were formed largely through concubinage, though sometimes through legal marriage, especially among the French and Portuguese. European communities also appear to have instituted the practice of fostering African children. Historian Walter Rodney describes rituals associated with this practice that are strongly reminiscent of how Kenneth Dike depicted the initiation of a slave into an Aro household. "Permission was obtained from the father or paternal uncle, the child was baptized (or at least given a saint's name), and upon passing into the home of its adopted parents the child automatically became 'Christian', 'white', and 'Portuguese.'"
Boubacar Barry argues that intra-European wars during the late eighteenth century actually reduced the number of resident European traders, thus opening the way for Euro-Africans to emerge as dominant actors. On the Upper Guinea Coast these traders forged links with indigenous trade networks, forming "a trading diaspora" from Saint-Louis and Gorée, and Fort Saint James down to the southern rivers. Describing a similar group on the Upper Guinea coast as "a comprador class," Rodney suggests thatby straddling two worlds, they felt constrained by the traditions and rules of neither.
In a somewhat less judgmental analysis one might simply note that, as in similar cases, the cultural middle ground that formed owed more to syncretism than to a complete assimilation to European norms. Although flaunting the outward signs of Europeanization--swords, muskets, and dress--these communities more often spoke a Creolized version of Portuguese or French and adopted a syncretized form of Catholicism. To the Portuguese they werefilhos da terra(sons of the soil), but they were not only sons. One of the most powerful of them was Senhora Bibiana Vaz, the widow of a Portuguese captain, who had been one of the richest men on the coast in the late seventeenth century. The widow Vaz probably inherited her two-mast sailing vessel from her husband, along with other boats, but the key sources of her power were her extended mulatto family and her kinship ties with African clans among the Papel and Banhun, all of which gave her unusual muscle in bending competitors to her will. Claiming a similar power base in the first half of the eighteenth century was another dominant figure, Senhor José Lopez de Moura, who was reputedly the grandson of a Mane emperor. By no means, therefore, should these people be imagined as occupying some cultural and social no-man's-land. Rather, it was their multiple connectedness, their familiarity with two worlds--in a word, their hybridity--that gave them power in the Atlantic ports and Creole communities that the slave trade had fostered and depended upon.
Although mulatto traders were conspicuous, attracting the bulk of the attention of both their contemporaries and historians, they were but one species of a broader social type.Culturalintermixture actually produced a much larger and even more powerful community than biological. Other Africans found it advantageous to adopt European religion, dress, language, and housing. Indeed, traditional Africans appear not to have made much distinction between those who were culturally white and the phenotypically white. Both were regarded as "a people apart." Behavior rather than ancestry appears to have marked the dividing line between indigenes and European communities. Language, dress, and religion were the principal markers that identified individuals and communities as having a different social purpose, if not a different racial heritage, from indigenous Africans. Thus some Africans extended the Portuguese termgrumetes, which designated the foot soldiers of the slave trader's retinue, toallAfricans closely associated with the Portuguese in religion or cultural behavior. A striking example of the type was an eighteenth-century African native, Captain Francisco Correia, who commanded a trading vessel and had traveled to Lisbon and Santiago. Literate and propertied, he spoke good Portuguese and wore European clothing. Africans considered him "white" and "Portuguese."
Among some English traders, the relations with interior chiefs appear to have been mediated by debts rather than kinship. Somewhat reminiscent of the Aro, these traders extended credit to inland chiefs and then demanded payment in slaves. Henry Tucker and James Cleveland, eighteenth-century traders in what would become Sierra Leone, were prominent examples of this technique. But even the less avaricious of these merchant princes, such as John Kabes in Komenda and John Konny, relied upon the manipulation of differences among Europeans as well as those among Africans to sustain their influence over the trade. Kabes, who acted as a kind of cultural and economic broker, was respected and feared; opposition to him could and did lead to dismissal (as in the case of one English colonial agent), and the Dutch once tried to assassinate him.
In some sense, then, capturing and selling slaves to Europeans may be regarded as an extension of a preexisting set of social relations and institutions, but it also reflected the growing power of European partners to turn the trading relation to their own needs and ends over time. Either way, it soon created the social basis for its own perpetuation. Supplies of African slaves were available to meet European demand because procedures of capture, enslavement, and sale were already well established, but the modes by which slaves were supplied were no less vulnerable to contingent historical developments than were the markets generating the demand for them. Neither the powerful state system of the Kongolese nor the crafty evasions of the decentralized Igbo could long deflect the ever-swelling appetites, for profits and staples, of their voracious European and American contemporaries.
"It is not possible to accomplish anything in Brazil without slaves," declared Prince Johan Maurits of Nassau, the Dutch governor in Recife,Brazil, in the late 1630s. Writing during the initial, abortive effort at Dutch colonization, Governor Maurits expressed what would soon be taken as a truism in both the temperate and tropical zones of the New World. The forced labor of indigenous people had been crucial to sustaining Spain's foothold in the Americas from the beginning, and King Ferdinand authorized the transport of African slaves from the Iberian Peninsula and the Atlantic Islands to the Caribbean in 1510, just seventeen years after Columbus's first landfall. Eight years later, Charles V approved imports directly from Africa, establishing in the process a precedent and method of operation--the asiento, or royal license--that would endure for almost three centuries.
Although these decisions would in time prove fateful, the first century of European settlement did not witness a dramatic infusion of African slave laborers. A century after Columbus sighted Hispaniola, there were still fewer than 40,000 African slaves in the Americas, a distinct minority among the 118,000 Europeans and the 192,000 people of mixed European, African, or Native American origin, and certainly a far cry from the millions who would eventually re-people the Western Hemisphere, devastating Africa in the process. For the bulk of their labor needs, the Spanish conquerors still relied on the more than eight million native peoples within their dominion. A half century later this demographic profile underwent a radical change, one causally linked to social and political transformations in both Africa and Europe and crucial to the formation of a new Atlantic world.
During the first fifty years of the seventeenth century, Spain licensed the import of three times as many Africans as during the entire previous century, and Portugal's Brazilian settlements brought in about two hundred thousand more. By mid-century, Father António Vieira would echo Governor Maurits's observations on the necessity of slave labor, but he drew the lines of causation much more starkly: "without Negroes there is no Pernambuco, and without Angola there are no Negroes." The growth of sugar cultivation in the Americas set this change in motion, but even that was dependent on a series of linked events there and in Europe. As long as the Habsburg dynasty of Spain dominated both Europe and America, as it did until the late sixteenth century, the pace of American economic development in general and slavery in particular, outside Santo Domingo, was sluggish. With its Habsburg rulers determined to consolidate and hold onto their European empire, Spain's efforts to exploit America's bounty were focused on extracting and transporting the windfall of gold and silver discovered in its central highlands. Although some African labor was used for this purpose, Spain relied mostly on the mainland native populations.
Historian Robin Blackburn has characterized this first century of slavery in the Americas, and the crucial transitions slavery underwent during the century that followed, as reflecting a movement from a baroque to a modern age. Ill defined--or perhaps just impossible to define with precision because it is invoked to label multiple domains of consciousness and temporality--the wordbaroquehas roots in both a Portuguese adjective describing a misshapen pearl and an Italian term for an obstacle in schematic logic. In the fine arts, it generally refers to the sensibilities and aesthetic tastes current in much of Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For social historians, it can evoke the ways people of that era sought to adjust to and account for a world they often perceived to be radically disordered and incoherent. Perhaps the most useful definitions take its disorder, irregularity, and even its ostensible "chaos" as the very essence of baroque sensibility. The baroque was a style of living rather than merely an aesthetic form, argues the esteemed Spanish historian José Antonio Maravall, in which one sought psychic control of a world turned upside down by accommodating to its very contradictoriness, its astonishing instability, its vital dynamism. In short, one made virtues of the very qualities later critics would see as illegitimate departures from accepted rules of balance and proportion, or simply as bizarre and exotic.
Although religious conflicts may have formed the baroque template, secular and political lifeworlds also resonated to its themes, which are most commonly recognized in the architectural traditions of Europe's absolutist monarchs (such as Versailles) and in the musical genius of Scarlatti, Handel, and Bach. The most striking examples of the period's baroque architecture were found in north-central Brazil, however. The sense of grandeur, sensuousness, vitality, and tension generally associated with the baroque temperament found ready inspiration in the Americas. Contemporaneous with the disorders and reaction unleashed after Luther tacked his theses on a Wittenberg church door, Europeans' certitude about a divinely ordered and contained universe were being profoundly challenged by the "marvelous possessions" in the Americas, where a sense of infinitude, diversity, and complexity was inescapable. The new peoples discoveredthere, and the new mixtures of peoples that arose in the course of settlement, inspired fascination and wonder. American Indians were transported thousands of miles to perform elaborate pageants in royal courts, as were the Tupinambá, whom French colonists brought to Rouen in 1550 to entertain Henri II and Catherine de Médicis. Meanwhile, the New World progeny of mestizos and mulattos were sketched, painted, and rendered in word pictures for popular consumption. Numerically dominant among the non-indigenous population, mixed-blood peoples challenged conventional ways of ordering and managing social relations, giving rise to many interstitial spaces within the European-dominated social order. Similarly, the world of ordinary laborers was rendered seemingly chaotic as a mixed labor force--European, African, and Native American; free, slave, and something in between--emerged to dredge wealth from the plantations and mines of the New World. The more "modern" slave societies of later centuries would be governed by very different social and political ideals, would attempt (though often unsuccessfully) to establish a more sharply delineated racial order, and most important, would initiate a rationalization of productive processes that drove the slave trade to heretofore unimaginable heights. It was in the Americas, then, that the baroque world of the Kongolese envoy Dom Miguel de Castro was transformed into the modern world of Olaudah Equiano.
The radical refashioning of America--and with it, Africa--was contingent on equally radical changes in Europe. Specifically, the global hegemony of Spain, the epitome of the baroque cultural aesthetic, had to be broken. Many Europeans were not especially enthusiastic about permanently settling the world "beyond the line," their term for the American wilderness. Indeed, from a much smaller population, Portugal sent more emigrants across the seas than Spain. The Spanish conquered and managed a breathtaking expanse of the Caribbean and South America through their skillful manipulation of the cross and the sword, neither of which relied on numerical superiority. Moreover, Spain relied on Portugal to supply the African slaves necessary to exploit some parts of its vast territory. Indeed, before 1620, Portugal supplied the bulk of all slaves brought to the Americas. When the rapid acceleration of the slave trade took place, however, Portugal's monopoly quickly began to slip, and Northern European powers replaced it as the main carriers of slaves to the Americas. Meanwhile, Spain, too, would soon face aggressive challenges from competingEuropean powers, eventually diminishing its preeminence in American trade and development, all of which opened the way for new economic and social innovations that would transform the Atlantic world and alter the course of human history.
Leading the attack on Spain's hegemony were the people of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, who fought an eighty-year war to free themselves from Spanish rule. Their rebellion was dictated by religious and economic motives more than incipient nationalism, and these led them to fashion a society relatively tolerant of religious and cultural differences. Amsterdam became a magnet both for political thinkers, such as Descartes and Locke, and for religious minorities of all kinds--Calvinists from Belgium, Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, Puritans from England, and after 1685, French Huguenots. With this diversity came talented innovators who stoked Dutch enterprise and enlivened its cultural life. The veritable "Golden Age" that followed rivaled that of their Spanish antagonists in its breadth and depth, though theirs was as decidedly bourgeois as Spain's tended toward the aristocratic.
As with many bourgeois societies, piety and profit formed an odd but potent amalgam, one soon reflected in the evolving Dutch role in the slave trade. In 1596, on the eve of the Netherlands' Golden Age, Pieter van der Haagen, a Rotterdam ship captain, brought 130 Africans to Middleburg, the capital of Zeeland. In contrast to the reception he might have expected in any other port in the then known world, van der Haagen's moral right to hold or sell such cargo was sharply challenged. After a heated debate about the morality of slavery--perhaps prefiguring antislavery rhetoric two centuries later--the city fathers decreed slave trading to be immoral and forced the captives' release.
Aside from their moral proclivities, the Dutch often appear simply not to have recognized the economic value of slaves. In 1606, for example, Captain Pieter van den Broecke seized a ship with ninety slaves, but seeing no economic value in them, he sold them to an English captain for mere "victuals," just as the famous "dutch man of warre" sold its twenty Africans at Jamestown thirteen years later. Indeed, the principal instrument of Dutch economic and political intervention in the Americas, the Dutch West India Company (De West-Indische Compagnie, or WIC), initially refused to participate in the slave trade, having consulted religious authorities on its moral justification and found none.
It seems unlikely that the religious authorities consulted were from the Dutch Calvinist majority, however, since its clergymen were inclined to cite the curse of Ham as ample biblical justification for African enslavement. Aggressively bourgeois but grounded in an equally militant Protestant, anti-Spanish oligarchy, the WIC sought to wrap its program in high moral claims; but these, in turn, reflected a complex mixture of attitudes about blacks, slavery, and conspicuous consumption. Thus, upon closer inspection, its refusal to participate in slave trading seems much more like the early Kongolese opposition than a precursor to nineteenth-century abolitionism--an opposition premised on strategic or local considerations, or simply their moral ambivalence about slavery.
In any event, the geopolitical competition in which Holland was engaged soon turned opposition or ambivalence toward slave trading into an avid embrace. Indeed, the WIC was modeled on the East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC), which had engaged in slave trading since its founding in 1602. Like the VOC, the WIC was a private, commercial corporation invested with quasi-state powers, including war-making powers. Setting out to achieve in the Atlantic what the VOC had done in the Pacific, the WIC launched a global assault on the Spanish and Portuguese commercial and colonial system. In 1628 their fleet captured the entire Spanish silver fleet, which reportedly led Genoese bankers to cut off credit to the Spanish Crown. Central to this maritime guerrilla warfare was the policy of seizing Spanish slave cargoes, amounting to some 2,336 slaves between 1623 and 1637. These seizures seemed motivated by the determination to pillage Spanish commerce rather than plunder its goods, however. As late as 1626, a WIC captain, having seized a Spanish slave ship, let it go without confiscating the 600 slaves on board.
Once the company's mission shifted from maritime warfare to colonization, so did its attitude toward slavery. In 1629, the WIC launched seventy-seven ships to attack the Portuguese colony in Brazil; by 1630 it had managed to seize a portion of the northeastern region, Pernambuco. Now in possession of a colony whose development--if not survival, as Johan Maurits pointed out--depended on slavery, the WIC did not bother to consult theologians further about the morality of slave trading. They dispatched traders to Angola and began a series of incursions into Portugal's African entrepôts, a competition that fostered proxy wars among African nations from Benin to Angola. Forty years later, Spain granted theWIC its asiento, the exclusive right to supply its colonies' slaves. Although the WIC would fold in 1673, the Dutch would hold this trading monopoly until 1730. Thus a company and a people who had explicitly repudiated slavery ended up enmeshed in the slave trade as their principal business.
For much of the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth, however, Dutch involvement in the slave trade could not be grounded in either American colonial possessions or African outposts. In 1645, Portuguese planters joined together with free blacks and Native Americans, who made up a quarter of their strength, rose up in revolt, and drove the Dutch out of their last strongholds in Brazil nine years later. Meanwhile, Portugal, now independent of Spain, regained most of its commercial outposts in Africa and the Pacific.
The significance of the Netherlands' role in the development of the slave trade, therefore, lies in neither its brief hold on Brazil nor its African incursions. Indeed, one authority argues that the Dutch were actually not very good at either colonization or slave trading, and that both the Brazilian sugar trade and the slave trade receded under Dutch stewardship. In contrast to their hesitant and brief tenure as slave traders, however, the Dutch had long been integral to the commercial activities linked to that trade. Brazil had provided a direct source of American dyestuffs for the Dutch textile industry, and long before its conquests in Brazil, the Netherlands had provided capital investment, shipping, and a market for Brazil's slave-grown sugar. By 1622, Holland's twenty-nine sugar refineries (up from three in 1598) were providing the main European market with sugar, and Dutch shipyards were constructing fifteen ships annually for the Brazil trade alone. It was not, then, principally as owners or even traders of Africans that the Dutch drove the Atlantic system dramatically forward. Rather, their crucial contributions lay first in breaking Spain's hegemony in the Atlantic and thereafter in indirectly promoting French and British colonial development in the Caribbean. Even as many of its leading citizens pondered the morality of engaging in slave trading, therefore, the Netherlands helped mediate the political and economic transformations that made the vast expansion of that trade and of the Atlantic system possible.
After years of desultory growth, sugar cultivation finally took off in Brazil in the last decades of the sixteenth century. Brazilian planters separated cane growing from milling, promoted innovations in grinding mechanisms, and benefited from fertile soil to boost production. In some cases,they also enjoyed shorter times and safer sailing to and from their sources of slaves in Africa. All of which enabled seventeenth-century Brazilian sugar planters to outstrip their more established competitors in the Atlantic and Mediterranean islands. A magnet for new investors, northeast Brazil soon acquired a multiethnic mercantile class that mirrored its multiethnic work force.
The system of production that Brazilian planters perfected Dutch interlopers transmitted to other auspicious sites for sugar production. Dutch refugees from Pernambuco scattered throughout the Caribbean, carrying with them Brazilian sugar technology and the capacity to finance and organize the movement of that produce to European markets. The several hundred Sephardim in Brazil and the Netherlands, most of them originally from Portugal, were key participants in these developments, and their role in this process further illustrates the complex forces shaping and pushing forward the Atlantic system, and with it the slave trade. Unfortunately, honest discussion of that role has been complicated in recent years by debates over the extent of Jewish involvement in the slave trade. One side of that debate, eager to score political points against contemporary Jews by casting them as historical villains, argues for their substantial "responsibility" for the slave trade. The other side responds reasonably enough that the small number of Jews involved cannot possibly support such extravagant claims. Moreover, among that small number the principal participants were "New Christians," whom some might arguably exclude from the count as no longer really Jewish.
This debate, if one might call it that, has proved to be more a distraction from than a useful way of understanding the complex dynamics in the development of the slave trade. Certainly focusing on the small numbers of Jews involved in the slave trade is misleading and vacuous. At the same time, the focus on the quantitative aspect of their role rather than its nature is also misdirected and even somewhat disingenuous. It is certainly arguable that although numerically small, Jewish converts to Christianity played important roles in promoting the slave trade, and that the ambiguities of their social position as converts likely enabled their role. More often than not the Iberian Jew's forced conversion to Christianity, especially in Portugal, was pragmatic and strategic; certainly many of the New Christians who immigrated to the Netherlands did not sever their cultural and institutional ties to Judaism or, even more germane, to thepowerful Sephardic network that facilitated commercial relations between Portugal and Holland even during times of war. As close studies of this group have shown, many of these men clearly identified themselves as Jews, building synagogues and supporting similar cultural institutions in their new homeland. This was a wealthy and successful community, several members of whom would become shareholders of the WIC, but their most important contribution to Atlantic slavery was not as traders but as investors and sometimes settlers and planters, first in Brazil and then in the Caribbean. As such, the transformation of the New World economy, and thus of the slave trade, cannot be told without reference to their role.
Including these New Christians in our assessment of slavery's development does not substantially inflate Jewish numerical involvement in the slave trade, therefore, but excluding them does distract attention from developments that are historically compelling. The Dutch Sephardic community occupied a social and economic position strikingly similar to that of the earlier Genoese enclaves in Seville and Lagos, and not unlike some of the African Creole communities along the West African coast. They were all men, and sometimes women, occupying interstitial positions in the social order. They were crucial intermediaries, the middlemen, and one might say the midwives who facilitated the birth of new social mores and practices. Their networks and strategies illuminate the means by which the Atlantic slave trade emerged not as a continuation of Old World patterns, but as part of the social and commercial innovations of modernity. Throughout its long history, outsider-insider figures--African as well as European--freed of traditional constraints and thus strategically positioned to support political and commercial innovation, enabled the radical transformations that propelled the slave trade to new heights. These "middlemen" shaped "the Middle Passage," in the broadest sense of that term, through which African slaves, often themselves already Creolized, passed from Old World to New.
Both Dom Miguel de Castro and Olaudah Equiano were formed in this moral-material nexus, but the worlds they inhabited would probably have been mutually incomprehensible. We have no reliable measures of the American sugar crop for the year de Castro set sail for Brazil, but we know it had to have been minuscule compared with the annual marketable product a century later, when Caribbean plantations rushed to satisfy a growing European sweet tooth. The American sugar crop had reached80,000 tons by 1720. The year Equiano was packed into the hold of a slave ship, annual output stood at 206,964 tons. In little over a century, practically every major European nation had come into possession of colonies engaged in growing sugar--all with slave labor. England, a laggard in the slave trade in the early seventeenth century, was the clear leader by the end of the eighteenth. Importing 175 million tons of sugar each year, England was both the principal carrier of slaves to the New World and the primary consumer of the Americas' premier slave crop, sugar. Sugar fueled its growing proletarian work force and supplied fancy confections and desserts to their "betters," all adding up to roughly twenty-three pounds per person per year (six times the consumption of England's nearest competitor, the French). By 1763, having defeated in succession the Dutch, the Spanish, and the French, Britain was poised to become the new dominant world power.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the fates of Africa and African America were more than ever linked to the destiny of Europe. The seventeenth-century world of Dom Miguel de Castro may have briefly offered the promise of a more positive destiny arising from that link, one of roughly equal exchanges of knowledge, goods, and people that might have enriched both. Olaudah Equiano's voyage framed a very different European-African encounter, a world of unequal exchanges that blighted the hopes of whole peoples. Notwithstanding that fateful outcome, Equiano's story does not end in the hold of that slaver en route for Virginia. Desperate as his plight might have been, his voyage was not an ending but a beginning.
Copyright © 2010 by Thomas C. Holt