Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Britain, Slavery, and Anti-Slavery

 From History Reclaimed:

From time of Muhammad in the 600s onward, slavery was practised throughout the Islamic world. In the 8th and 9th centuries the Vikings supplied slave markets in Arab Spain and Egypt with slaves from eastern Europe and the British Isles. In the 1600s corsairs or pirates from the Barbary Coast of north Africa raided English merchant ships, and even Cornish villages, for slaves. One estimate has it that raiders from Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli alone enslaved between 1-1.25m Europeans from the beginning of the 16th century to the middle of the 18th century.[i]

Meanwhile, Africans had been busy enslaving other Africans for centuries, mostly by capturing them in war or raids, sometimes taking them in lieu of debt. Often slaves were destined for profitable export, first to Roman markets and then to Arab ones. But they also had their local uses, which included supplying victims for human sacrifices. The practice of human sacrifice in west Africa was attested as early as the 10th century by Ibn Hawqal,[ii] and by Europeans four hundred years later. Human sacrifices—as distinct from the judicial execution of criminals—served a variety of purposes: sometimes to appease the gods, but more often to supply a deceased master with servants in the afterlife, to make a conspicuous display of extravagant wealth, and to intimidate onlookers. Although wives, favourites, women, and foreigners were also liable to serve as victims, slaves—usually war captives—were the main source. Commonly, their fate, especially at funerals, was to be buried alive. One report in 1797 has it that between 1,400 and 1,500 people were sacrificed at royal funerals in Asante.[iii]

Slavery and the slave-trade, then, were alive and well in Africa long before Europeans arrived to develop the export market. The Portuguese were the first to seek slaves from West Africa in the 1440s, to make up for a labour-shortage in Portugal and to man sugar plantations on their Atlantic island possessions, not least Madeira. Between 1525 and 1866 the Portuguese Empire is reckoned to have shipped 5,841,468 slaves out of Africa, amounting to 46.7 per cent of the grand total of African slave exports of 12,508,381. After the Portuguese came the English—or, from 1707, the British—with 3,259,443 slaves exported or 26.1 per cent of the total, mostly between 1660 and 1807.[iv] The exporting was primarily done by merchants operating under the charter of the Royal African Company, which granted not only a monopoly, but the right (and obligation) to establish forts and ‘factories’ (trading posts), maintain troops, and exercise martial law on the west African coast.[v] In fact, the Company was never able to secure its monopoly against interlopers, and in 1698 it was formally withdrawn.[vi]

The conditions under which slaves were transported across the Atlantic were infamously dreadful, with the human cargo packed like sardines below decks, initially shackled, starved of daily fresh air and sunlight for all but an hour or two, malnourished, dehydrated, and prey to disease for a voyage lasting up to six weeks. According to one estimate, of the African slaves shipped by British traders in 1672-87 a full 23 per cent were ‘lost in transit’.[vii] It seems that conditions improved later, since, according to another estimate, over the much longer period 1662-1807 only 13.2 per cent died before they reached the shores of the Americas.[viii] However, even if this does represent an ‘improvement’, it still amounts to the loss of about 450,000 souls. (Read more.)

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