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slave trade eye witness account




Slave Trade:


the African Connection, ca 1788


The labor-intensive agriculture of the New World demanded a large workforce. Crops such as sugar cane, tobacco and cotton required an unlimited and inexpensive supply of strong backs to assure timely production for the European market. Slaves from Africa offered the solution. The slave trade between Western Africa and the America’s reached its peak in the mid-18th century when it is estimated that over 80,000 Africans annually crossed the Atlantic to spend the rest of their lives in chains. Of those who survived the voyage, the final destination of approximately 40% was the Caribbean Islands. Thirty-eight percent ended up in Brazil, 17% in Spanish America and 6% in the United States.


Young boys wait to be loaded
aboard a slave ship

It was a lucrative business. A slave purchased on the African coast for the equivalent of 14 English pounds in bartered goods in 1760 could sell for 45 pounds in the American market.

A slave’s journey to a life of servitude often began in the interior of Africa with his or her capture as a prize of war, as tribute given by a weak tribal state to a more powerful one, or by outright kidnapping by local traders. European slave traders rarely ventured beyond Africa’s coastal regions. The African interior was riddled with disease, the natives were often hostile and the land uncharted. The Europeans preferred to stay in the coastal region and have the natives bring the slaves to them.

“Most of the Negroes shipped off from the coast of Africa are kidnapped.”

Dr. Alexander Falconbridge served as the surgeon aboard a number of slave ships that plied their trade between the West African coast and the Caribbean in the late 1700s. He described his experiences in a popular book published in 1788. He became active in the Anti-Slavery Society and was appointed Governor of a colony established for freed slaves on the coast of modern-day Sierra Leone. His service was brief as he died in 1788 shortly after his appointment. We join his story as he describes the process through which the native African looses his freedom:


“There is great reason to believe, that most of the Negroes shipped off from the coast of Africa, are kidnapped. But the extreme care taken by the black traders to prevent the Europeans from gaining any intelligence of their modes of proceeding; the great distance inland from whence the Negroes are brought; and our ignorance of their language (with which, very frequently, the black traders themselves are equally unacquainted), prevent our obtaining such information on this head as we could wish. I have, however, by means of occasional inquiries, made through interpreters, procured some intelligence relative to the point. . . . From these I shall select the following striking instances: While I was in employ on board one of the slave ships, a Negro informed me that being one evening invited to drink with some of the black traders, upon his going away, they attempted to seize him. As he was very active, he evaded their design, and got out of their hands. He was, however, prevented from effecting his escape by a large dog, which laid hold of him, and compelled him to submit. These creatures are kept by many of the traders for that purpose; and being trained to the inhuman sport, they appear to be much pleased with it.

I was likewise told by a Negro woman that as she was on her return home, one evening, from some neighbors, to whom she had been making a visit by invitation, she was kidnapped; and, notwithstanding she was big with child, sold for a slave. This transaction happened a considerable way up the country, and she had passed through the hands of several purchasers before she reached the ship.


A man and his son, according to their own information, were seized by professed kidnappers, while they were planting yams, and sold for slaves. This likewise happened in the interior parts of the country, and after pass­ing through several hands, they were purchased for the ship to which I belonged. It frequently happens that those who kidnap others are themselves, in their turns, seized and sold.

. . . During my stay on the coast of Africa, I was an eye-witness of the following transaction: a black trader invited a Negro, who resided a lit­tle way up the country, to come and see him. After the entertainment was over, the trader proposed to his guest, to treat him with a sight of one of the ships lying in the river. The unsuspicious countryman read­ily consented, and accompanied the trader in a canoe to the side of the ship, which he viewed with pleasure and astonishment. While he was thus employed, some black traders on board, who appeared to be in the secret, leaped into the canoe, seized the unfortunate man, and dragging him into the ship, immediately sold him.

The preparations made at Bonny by the black traders, upon set­ting out for the fairs which are held up the country, are very consider­able. From twenty to thirty canoes, capable of containing thirty or forty Negroes each, are assembled for this purpose; and such goods put on board them as they expect will be wanted for the purchase of the number of slaves they intend to buy.

When their loading is com­pleted, they commence their voyage, with colors flying, and music playing; and in about ten or eleven days, they generally return to Bonny with full cargoes. As soon as the canoes arrive at the trader’s landing place, the purchased Negroes are cleaned, and oiled with palm-oil; and on the following day they are exposed for sale to the captains.

A device used to control
unruly slaves

When the Negroes, whom the black traders have to dispose of, are shown to the European purchasers, they first examine them rela­tive to their age. They then minutely inspect their persons, and inquire into the state of their health, if they are afflicted with any infirmity, or are deformed, or have bad eyes or teeth; if they are lame, or weak in their joints, or distorted in the back, or of a slender make, or are narrow in the chest; in short, if they have been, or are afflicted in any manner, so as to render them incapable of much labor; if any of the foregoing defects are discovered in them, they are rejected. But if approved of, they are generally taken on board the ship the same evening. The purchaser has liberty to return on the following morning, but not afterwards, such as upon re-examination are found exceptionable.

The traders frequently beat those Negroes which are objected to by the captains, and use them with great severity. It matters not whether they are refused on account of age, illness, deformity, or for any other reason. At New Calabar, in particular . . . the traders, when any of their Negroes have been objected to, have dropped their canoes under the stern of the vessel, and instantly be headed them, in sight of the captain.

As soon as the wretched Africans, purchased at the fairs, fall into the hands of the black traders, they experience an earnest of those dreadful sufferings which they are doomed in future to undergo. . . . They are brought from the places where they are pur­chased to Bonny, etc. in canoes; at the bottom of which they lie, hav­ing their hands tied with a kind of willow twigs, and a strict watch is kept over them. Their usage in other respects, during the time of the passage, which generally lasts several days, is equally cruel. Their allowance of food is so scanty, that it is barely sufficient to support nature. They are, besides, much exposed to the violent rains which frequently fall here, being covered only with mats that afford but a slight defense; and as there is usually water at the bottom of the canoes, from their leaking, they are scarcely ever dry.”

   This eyewitness account appears in Falconbridge, Alexander, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (1788); Curtin, Phillip D. Atlantic Slave Trade (1969); Matheson, William Law, Great Britain and the Slave Trade, 1839-1865 (1967).

How To Cite This Article:
“Slave Trade: the African Connection, ca 1788” EyeWitness to History, (2007).





Congo Kinshasa – Kabila Tells UN to Withdraw Troops



Congolese President Joseph Kabila has called on UN peacekeepers to leave his country, lambasting two decades of inaction. Speaking at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Kabila vowed to “oppose any interference in the electoral process under way” stating that his government would cover the full cost.

“Despite the enormous challenges that still lay on our path, I reaffirm the irreversible character of holding the elections planned for the end of this year,” President Kabila told the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.

The vote for a new president has been delayed for two years, but Kabila insists polls will go ahead as planned on 23 December.

“Everything will be implemented in order to guarantee the peaceful and credible character of these polls.”

Yet the combination of insecurity and a deadly Ebola outbreak, makes the prospects of an election in DRC–a country four times the size of France–increasingly unlikely.

An attack on the town of Beni, in the east of the country on Saturday, left at least 21 people dead and prompted aid workers to suspend efforts to contain the Ebola virus in the area.

“The state has the duty to protect civilians,” says Johnson Ishara, president of the youth parliament in North Kivu, the epicenter of the latest Ebola outbreak.

“When they [civilians] are killed, it means that somebody has not done their job. It may be the army, a minister, or the President of the Republic. Whoever it is, we want things to change,” he told RFI.

For Kabila, the flare-up of violence is further proof that the UN peacekeeping mission, known as Monusco, has failed.

‘Tired of burying our dead’

“Twenty years after the deployment of UN forces in my country and due to the largely mixed operational results, my government reiterates its demand for the effective withdrawal of this multilateral force,” he told the UN.

“Congo finds Monusco underachieving and I can understand that,” Kris Berwouts, author of Congo’s Violent Peace: Conflict and Struggle since the Great African War, told RFI.

“But I still believe that Monusco always had and still has a dissuasive impact, that the fact of being there has had a decreasing impact on the intensity of the conflict.”

Not everyone agrees.

“Can we still call it a peacekeeping mission when people are killed in the cruelest of manners? Of course not!” says Ishara.

“After 19 years, I think that UN peacekeepers should be ashamed of themselves. In Beni, there are people who don’t even know the meaning of the word peace.”

Monusco was unavailable for comment at time of publishing.

The UN troops were sent to Congo in 1999, in the midst of a civil war that killed more than 3.3 million people. Nearly twenty years on, insecurity remains rife.

“We are tired. We are tired of burying our brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers, every day,” comments Ishara, who’s also the spokesperson of an NGO called the New Civil Society.

Along with other civil groups, he’s been demonstrating since Monday against the attacks on civilians, as part of a five-day “ghost town” protest.

On Wednesday, shops remained shut and no taxis were running.

In the eye of the storm

The insecurity caused by armed opposition groups, led the World Health Organization to warn of a “perfect storm” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that could cause the Ebola outbreak to spin out of control.

Storm or not, “Congo is dedicated to having the elections and wants to organize them in an environment as controlled as possible,” comments author Berwouts.

Little, however, is under control. There are 80,000 polling stations dotted across the country, with each one allocated five electoral assessors. With less than three months to go till the elections, none of the assessors have been trained, complain civil groups.

“We fear that the electoral commission will end up delaying the elections because of this challenge,” Jonas Thiombala, a member of le Comité laïc de coordination (CLC), a secular pressure group, told RFI.

Add to that, there’s controversy surrounding the delivery of the voting machines that are meant to arrive next month. The government has ruled out any help or interference from foreign actors, raising fears of a vote manipulation.

“In the last elections of 2011, there were also a lot of delays in the process,” says Berwouts. “In the last months, things accelerated and that was due to heavy investment by Monusco and mainly South Africa.”

This time, relations with both actors are strained. “Many people are concerned that we are going into an election which might not have the democratic quality which is needed,” warns Berwouts.

At the UN, Kabila lauded his achievements, saying his country was no longer a failed state, and he wants the world to give Congo the benefit of the doubt. Holding elections on time and ensuring they’re fair, may give him the credit he’s after.

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