Scared or Greedy
Those Africans who participated in the Atlantic slave trade did so under many different influences and motivations. The reasons to partake in the slave trade differed from the particular class, culture, and geographic region of the African traders. Because the African continent is such a large and diverse area one can see how varied these prerogatives may be.Yet, it is a historical fact that African traders contributed to the Atlantic slave trade, at the very least, for their own protection from European firepower, and at the worst-?for personal power and purely economic gains. Yet, it is not a question of either-or between the aforementioned reasons for involvement in the slave trade-?but where most African traders fell concerning the two levels of engagement.
Although the research backing this paper is limited to only three resources and the first five weeks of a Development of Modern Africa class, one must argue that mostAfrican traders captured and sold fellow Africans to the Europeans for personal power and a share of the profits from the lucrative slave trade. Before determining the angle held by African traders, it is pertinent to address related background information before the Atlantic slave trade, to give the argument context. Long before millions of slaves were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to work the plantations of the United States, sub Sahara African traders enslaved between five and seven thousand other Africans annually, and sold them to Northern Africans and Arabs in what was now as the Trans-Sahara slave trade (Gilbert/Reynolds 186-7).Also, African elite owned slaves as luxury items with no significant economic dependence on their labor (Gilbert/Reynolds 142). However, according to historian John Thornton, the acquisition of slaves in Africa during the 9th century, was to account for the scarce labor and the abundant land capable of harboring vital crops; if only planted (Gilbert/Reynolds 143). So even before Africans saw the potential threat of European firearms (or any firearms), they participated in selling other Africans as property.It is also important to note that once Europeans made contact with sub Sahara Africans, their relationship remained on peaceful terms before the Atlantic Slave trade; so no violent coercion from Europeans influenced African traders to sell slaves (Gilbert/Reynolds 151).
The prospect that African traders sold fellow Africans may seem like a heinous occurrence but the contemporary pan-African viewpoint was not shared by Africans during that time period. “… There was as yet little or no idea obeying African. Rather, inhabitants of Africa identified themselves in arms of local, ethnic, political, or religious groups and saw themselves as more or less distinct from ‘other’ African populations-?just as European ethnic and national groups were more than capable of defining themselves as distinct from other white or European populations” (Gilbert/Reynolds 184). Yet there is still considerable evidence that European firepower instilled fear and perpetuated some unwilling African participation in the slave trade.
European trading castles on the Gold Coast were heavily armed and fortified, suggesting their use as an intimidating factor to ensure the involvement of African traders in the slave trade (Gilbert/Reynolds 184). Some historians are convinced of this explanation; among them, accomplished professor and scholar of African history, Lansing Saba. Saba argues that regional African rulers had to comply with gun-toting, slave hungry, Europeans because Africans could not face the onslaught of advanced Western weaponry (Saba 8-9). This would be a more substantial argument fifth African people hadn’t been able to prove it wrong.In one particular case, the Ga people overtook a Portuguese castle at Sacra in 1578 (Gilbert/Reynolds 185). If anything, Europeans were Wary of traveling into the African mainland because the African people held an innate advantage over the visiting traders-?their immunity to local diseases. Many Europeans brave enough to venture into Africa died of malaria and yellow fever (Gilbert/Reynolds 185).
So if most of the Africans, who took part in the slave trade, did so on their own accord, what prompted them to do so? Well, the slave trade industry an extremely profitable business.Many slave traders were able to name their price when bargaining with European buyers. Slaves were traded for a variety of things including: cowries, textiles, rum, and guns (Gilbert/Reynolds 187). African elites not only made trades based on economic gain, trades could also be used politically. For example, the Boas of Benign typically stayed out of the slave trade unless they held captive prisoners or enemies Of whom they wanted to dispose of permanently (Gilbert/Reynolds 188). In The Two Princes of Calabash, a similar situation takes place.Little Ephraim Robin John and Anaconda Robin Robin John worked as slave traders in Calabash.
They were attacked and made slaves because of the harsh competition they created between a rival slave trading town (Sparks 21 The trading with Europeans brought many valuable items to Africa but one of these foreign imports may have changed previous African trader’s minds concerning the slave trade. The African traders often gained firearms from the European buyers. Guns in the hands of Africans on a continent where everyone still used spears meant immense power.Those who didn’t have guns feared those who did. Some Africans realized the only way to have security would be to own a gun of their own; to do this, they had to bargain for guns with people (Gilbert/Reynolds 189). It has been well established that the incentives surrounding most African traders who took part in the slave business did so out their own personal interest. Yet were these traders aware of the unimaginable suffering that awaited their human goods? Further, if they had been aware, did they abandon their lifestyle for more ethical ways of self sustained?Saba writes, “Unlike the investors, the insurers, the shipbuilders, the dealers, and especially the mariners from abroad, the local African providers had little knowledge of the whole Atlantic system” (8).
This may true, yet there is an abundance of evidence supporting the fact that African slave traders were very aware of the conditions endured during the middle passage. The better question is, why would this information change the minds of the traders who voluntarily took part in a legitimate and common business venture at the time? It would not. A prime example can be found in The Two Princes of Calabash.Sparks writes how Little Ephraim and Anaconda John finally reach their homeland of Calabash after experiencing seven years as slaves abroad, only for Little Ephraim to continue his previous lifestyle as a slave trader because of the business’s economic importance to Old Town (133-34). Other former slaves escaped or were set free to broadcast their dark experiences to the world with similar results. Overall, according to the sources which helped form this paper, it can be concluded that most African traders who took part in the Atlantic slave trade did so knowing the effects of their actions and for their own personal greed.