On the shore of the Bay of Arguin, on the west coast of Africa, a group of villagers were staring excitedly across the water at the strange and wonderful things which had just appeared there. Were they huge fish, or “swimming houses”, or perhaps great sea birds with white wings, which had just dropped on the surface of the sea to take a rest?
They were soon to learn. Next morning the villages along the coast were attacked and 235 men, women and children were captured. The strange things with big white wings were Portuguese ships with white sails. The year was 1444, and the incident was the first large expedition to arrive on the West African coast to hunt for African slaves.
The first Europeans to explore the coast of Africa, the Portuguese were not in search of slaves at all. They wanted gold, spices and a new sea-route to India. At first Africa was no more than a place to take on food and water and repair their ships.
Then the sea-captains began to trade with the Fanti and other tribes along the Guinea Coast. In exchange for cloth, salt and ornaments, the tribes gave the foreigners the gold they had. As they had only a small supply of it, the valuable metal was soon finished. When it was gone, the Portuguese took the only other thing that was of value to them namely what they called “black ivory” or in other words, African slaves.
For several years the trade was limited. The slaves were sold mainly to rich Portuguese noblemen to work as servants. Their life was usually comfortable enough and they were treated kindly but the discovery of America in 1492 changed everything.
The Spaniards and Portuguese set up colonies in South America. Later, the English, French and Dutch arrived and set up new homes in North America. Here they easily obtained great open spaces of rich soil to be cultivated. For this plenty of cheap labor was needed.
Peasants and poor people from Europe went to the colonies as servants and farm-workers, but they were too few. They were also not used to work all day long in the burning heat.
A new source of labor had to be found, and it was found among the Africans of the Guinea Coast. They were sent by ship to the sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations in the colonies established in the New World by the Spaniards, the English and other European nations.
On the Guinea Coast the Portuguese had built forts where goods could be stored awaiting shipment. As the slave trade grew into a big business, other countries joined in English, French and Dutch traders also built their own forts along the Guinea Coast, where they placed their agents who bought the slaves.
The agents themselves had nothing to do with the capture of the slaves. They merely made agreements with the coastal tribes, like the Fanti and Yoruba tribes to supply a certain number of slaves a year. The coastal tribes, in turn, made agreements with the tribes of the interior, like the Ashanti and Dahomey tribes, supplying them with cloth, salt and firearms in return for slaves.
Dahomey became one of the greatest war-loving tribal states in West Africa, as the people were fond of making war against the other tribes around in order to capture as many prisoners of war as possible to be sold as slaves.
Sometimes, as the demand for slaves grew greater and greater, troops of warriors were sent from the coast to the heavily populated forest areas between the Senegal and Congo Rivers to attack peaceful tribes.
At the coast the prisoners were put inside the forts to await shipment. One of the largest and most notorious forts, called Cape Coast Castle, had underground prisons for as many as 1,500 slaves before they were sent abroad. On board ship, the Africans were packed so tightly in a special room that they could hardly move. There they stayed, chained together until they reached their destination, or died.
Their condition in the ships that carrying slave were so horrible that many of them died before reaching the first stop-over harbor in the West Indies. But for England, Holland and France, the slave trade brought great profit, developing their merchant shipping and providing a market for their industrial goods and capital for new investments.
For the new countries of North and South America the slaves provided a source of labor, without which they would have found it difficult to open up new territories and develop their wealth.
For the Africans the slave trade was a disaster. Up to the time that Britain formally prohibited the trade in 1807, about ten to fifteen million Africans had been shipped across the Atlantic. In 1834, the British Government prohibited slavery altogether in the British colonies, and the Civil War in the United States resulted in the final suppression of slavery in that country.
The slave route from Africa to America was indeed a road to misery, and the commerce in human lives was one of the tragedies of history. The effects of it are still to be seen in the form or racial tension and sentiment in North America.