Before entering fully into the tale of the Middle Passage, it may be well to make some mention of the shore trade, between capture and shipment of the unhappy slaves.
When the over-sea trade was fully established, it necessarily gave enormous impulse to local abuses. Petty prince now warred on petty prince in order that he might get slaves for sale to the white man. Did a chief high in power desire to provide a marriage portion for his daughter, there were districts to be despoiled and inhabitants to be carried off. Had any villager a hated rival, to stun him with a blow on the head and dispose of him to the dealers was easy; were parents like to perish of famine, there was food to be got for the price paid by the white man for their children; were a man urged by cupidity, did he, in short, for any reason desire to obtain money, there was the Slave-Dealer at his hand ready to supply funds—for a consideration, the consideration being in every instance what was called "black ivory "; and the Dealer did not concern himself with the source of supply. Had a villager become possessed of property sufficient to make him an object of envy to some neighbouring petty chief; did he chance to have a large family; then almost assuredly his house would be raided some dark night, his property burned, or, if portable, carried off, he himself murdered, and his children, fastened together by the neck with forked sticks, driven hurriedly down to the coast to be sold as slaves. No one was safe; nowhere was security. Village raided village, neighbour warred on neighbour, and the Dealer preyed on all. In no part of Africa, in fact, was safety.
Bruce, who travelled in Abyssinia in 1770, and Mungo Park, who made for himself so great a name through his explorations in West Africa late in the Eighteenth and early in the Nineteenth Centuries, both comment on the terrible prevalence of "village breaking." Settlements were attacked during the night, and at the very beginning of the attack were generally set on fire. Then as the bewildered, panic-stricken inhabitants rushed from the fiercely blazing huts, most of the grown-up men, and all the old of both sexes, were knocked on the head, the women and the children taken down to the coast for sale. The frequency of the practice in West Africa seems to have depended greatly on the number of ships which happened to be on the coast.
No doubt this method of obtaining slaves was in existence long prior to the establishment of an over-sea traffic, but equally without doubt the over-sea trade to a hideous extent intensified the evil. And for every native who was thus enslaved one must reckon that at least two were killed. A well-authenticated instance corroborative of this is mentioned by Mr. T. Fowell Buxton on the authority of a report to the Board of Directors of the American Colonial Society from their agent at Liberia. A local "King," it seems, had arranged with a French Slaver to provide him on a certain date with a cargo of young slaves, and on his part the Slaver had advanced goods on credit to the value of the cargo. Date of delivery arrived, and the "King" had not collected any slaves. "Looking around on the peaceable tribes about him for his victims, he singled out the Queahs, a small agricultural and trading people of most inoffensive character. His warriors were skilfully distributed to the different hamlets, and making a simultaneous assault on the sleeping occupants in the dead of the night, accomplished, without difficulty or resistance, in one hour, the annihilation of the whole tribe;—every adult, man and woman, was murdered, every hut fired! Very young children, generally, shared the fate of their parents; the boys and girls alone were reserved to pay the Frenchman."
In very truth, the Slave Trade, as Mr. Lander notes in his journal, had "produced the most baleful effects, causing anarchy, injustice, and oppression to reign in Africa, and exciting nation to rise against nation, and man against man; it has covered the face of the country with desolation. All these evils, and many others, has slavery accomplished; in return for which the Europeans, for whose benefit, and by whose connivance and encouragement it has flourished so extensively, have given to the heartless natives ardent spirits, tawdry silk dresses, and paltry necklaces of beads."
Of the numbers who were killed in the various "wars" caused by these slave-hunting expeditions, it is impossible to form any estimate, but Bosman mentions one hundred thousand as having been the victims of two such wars, and Villault (1668) says that in one raid over sixty thousand perished. Truly, with the Prophet Isaiah may one say: "This is a people robbed and spoiled; . . . they are for a prey, and none delivereth."
As to the treatment of the unfortunate creatures after capture, there can be no doubt that it was in the last degree inhuman. Mungo Park tells how he fell in with a caravan consisting of about fifty slaves en route to the coast. "They were tied together by their necks, with thongs of bullock's hide twisted like a rope, seven slaves upon a thong, and a man with a musket between every seven. Many of the slaves were ill conditioned, and a great number of them women." Methods of lashing them together, however, differed. Dr. Holroyd mentions that "a wooden stake, six or seven feet long, and forked at one extremity, was attached to the neck of one by means of a cross bar retained in its position by stripes of bull's hide; to the other end of the stake an iron ring was fastened which encircled the throat of another of these poor harmless creatures."
Elsewhere, Park says that during detention prior to the start of the caravan for the coast, "the slaves are commonly secured by putting the right leg of one and the left leg of another into the same pair of fetters. By supporting the fetters with a string, they can walk, though very slowly. Every four slaves are likewise fastened together by the neck with a strong pair of twisted thongs; and in the night an additional pair of fetters is put on their hands, and sometimes a light iron chain passed round their necks. Such of them as evince marks of discontent are secured in a different manner; a thick billet of wood is cut about three feet long, and a smooth notch being made upon one side of it, the ankle of the slave is bolted to the smooth part by means of a strong iron staple, one prong of which passes on each side of the ankle."
On the march, when, as happened frequently, the crack of the whip or the sting of the lash proved a stimulant insufficient to enable some poor exhausted slave to keep up with the caravan, according to Park "the general cry of the coffle [caravan] was 'kang-tegi' (cut her throat)"; and there ended the troubles of the poor over-driven creature.
Cruelly ill-used, insufficiently fed, marching during endless burning days under scorching sun on meagre supply of water, is it to be wondered at that men and women in numbers sank exhausted, far beyond the power of whips to rouse, and so perished?
But if it were dreadful for adults, what of the children? Major Gray mentions that of one detachment of slaves which he met, "the women and children (all nearly naked and carrying heavy loads) were tied together by the neck, and hurried along over a rough stony path that cut their feet in a dreadful manner. There were a great number of children, who from their tender years were unable to walk, and were carried, some on the prisoners' backs, and others on horseback behind the captors, who, to prevent their falling off, tied them to the back part of the saddle with a rope made from the bark of the baobull, which was so hard and rough that it cut the back and sides of the poor little innocent babes, so as to draw the blood. This, however, was only a secondary state of the sufferings endured by those children, when compared to the dreadfully blistered and chafed state of their seats, from constant jolting on the bare back of a horse, seldom going slower than a trot, or smart amble, and not unfrequently driven at full speed for a few yards, and pulling up short."
Mr. Lyon, another explorer, tells us that "Children are thrown with the baggage on the camels if unable to walk, but if five or six years of age, the poor little creatures are obliged to trot on all day, even should no stop be made for fourteen or fifteen hours, as I have sometimes witnessed." "The daily allowance of food," continues Mr. Lyon, "is a quart of dates in the morning, and half a pint of flour made into bazeen, at night. Some masters never allow their slaves to drink after a meal, except at a watering place . . . None of the owners ever moved without their whips, which were in constant use. Drinking too much water, bringing too little wood, or falling asleep before the cooking was finished, were considered nearly capital crimes; and it was in vain for these poor creatures to plead the excuse of being tired,—nothing could avert the application of the whip . . . No slave dares to be ill or unable to walk; but when the poor sufferer dies, the master suspects there must have been something wrong inside, and regrets not having liberally applied the usual remedy of burning the belly with a red hot iron."
It is no matter for wonder that an estimate, made in the early part of the Nineteenth Century, of the average number of those who thus died on the journey from the interior to the coast, puts the figures as high as five-twelfths of the whole.
And what of the condition of affairs after the cruel journey to the coast was ended, and before the horrors of the "middle passage" began? Disease, insufficient food, close confinement, the fetid and poisonous atmosphere bred of prisons, these were the lot of the unfortunates who reached the sea. It is ill work to picture the result in such circumstances of an outbreak of smallpox or of dysentery, two maladies to which the unhappy creatures were peculiarly liable. The marvel is that so many survived to be still farther tortured on ship-board. Lander mentions that at Badagry, in the Bight of Benin, he saw four hundred slaves "fastened by the neck in pairs, only one-fourth of a yard of chain being allowed for each," driven and pulled down to the beach and there packed into an 80 ton schooner. Four hundred human beings crammed into the 'tween decks of so small a craft, to undergo a voyage of six or seven weeks in the tropics!
Says Lander farther: "Badagry being a general mart for the sale of slaves to European merchants, it not unfrequently happens that the market is either stocked with human beings, or no buyers are to be found; in which case the maintenance of the unhappy slaves devolves solely on the Government. The King then causes an examination to be made, when the sickly, as well as the old and infirm, are carefully selected and chained by themselves in one of the factories (five of which, containing upwards of one thousand slaves of both sexes, were at Badagry during my residence there); and next day the majority of these poor wretches are pinioned and conveyed to the banks of the river, where having arrived, a weight of some sort is appended to their necks, and being rowed in canoes to the middle of the stream, they are flung into the water and left to perish by the pitiless Badagrians. Slaves, who for other reasons are rejected by the merchants, undergo the same punishment, or are left to endure more lively torture at the sacrifices, by which means hundreds of human beings are annually destroyed." "I have seen," writes the captain of a West African merchant vessel—"I have seen the most piteous entreaties made by the poor rejected creatures to the captain to take them, for they knew that to be returned on shore was only to encounter a worse fate."
For cold-blooded atrocity it must be hard to match this King of Badagry. But another instance is given where the King of Loango having no market for a large number of slaves taken by him in a raid, (and who had been forced by their captors to carry to the coast the store of ivory which till now had been their own), "had them taken to the side of a hill a little beyond the town, and coolly knocked on the head." In savage cruelty this can only be equalled by the methods of a King of Ashantee as revealed by him to a Mr. Dupuis, who about the year 1820 was British Consul at Kumasi. "My fetishe made me strong, like my ancestors," said the King to Mr. Dupuis, "and I killed Dinkera, and took his gold, and brought more than twenty thousand slaves to Kumasi. Some of these people being bad men, I washed my stool in their blood for the fetishe. But then some were good people, and these I sold or gave to my captains; many, moreover, died, because this country does not grow too much corn, like Sarem, and what can I do? Unless I kill or sell them, they will grow strong and kill my people. Now you must tell my master" (the King of England) "that these slaves can work for him, and if he wants ten thousand he can have them." The difference between "good people" and "bad people" one may conclude was with this monarch not so much a question of moral worth as of intrinsic value.
Chains and the locks and bars of a prison, however, were not of themselves sufficient to deter the poor wretches from attempting to escape from their devilish captors. Captain Thomas Phillips, who, in command of the ship Hannibal, of 450 tons and 36 guns, visited the Gold Coast in 1693, mentions other means that were employed.
Though a man more humane than most of his fellows at that time, Phillips yet dealt in slaves, at least to the extent of taking a cargo of them to Barbadoes. To prevent their running away after he had bought them, he says he was advised "to cut off the arms and legs of some to terrify the rest (as other captains had done)." But Phillips refused to make any use of a remedy so drastic; he could not think, he said, "of treating with such Barbarity, poor Creatures, who being equally the Work of God's Hands, are, no doubt, as dear to Him as the Whites. Neither could he imagine why they should be despised for their Colour, which they have from Nature; or that White is intrinsically a better Hue than Black." He observes that "all Sorts of People are prone to judge favourably in their own Case; and that the Blacks, in Contempt of the Colour, say the Devil is White, and so paint him." Doubtless the blacks had abundant excuse for painting Satan white!
"The Negros," says Phillips, "are so loath to leave their own Country, that they have often leaped out of the Canoa, Boat and Ship, into the Sea, and kept under Water till they are drowned, to avoid being taken up and saved by the Boats which pursued them: Having a more dreadful Apprehension of Barbadoes than they have of Hell; though in reality they live much better there than in their own Country."
Whilst the ship was still at Whydah, Phillips had twelve negroes who "wilfully drowned themselves"; several others persistently refused food, and so starved themselves to death, "for it is their Belief that when they die they return to their own Country and Friends again."
To prevent the slaves from attempting to escape from his ship, Captain Shurley, the master of an English vessel which sailed in company with the Hannibal, "used to make his Negroes take the Fatish that they would not swim ashore and run away, and then would let them out of irons. His Potion was a Cup of English Beer with a little Aloes: which operated upon their Faith as much as if it had been made by the best Fatishes in Guinea." On the Guinea Coast, we are told, when the natives "make any solemn Promise or Oath, they take about six spoonfuls" of some concoction "mixed with some Powders of divers Colours which the Fatishman puts into it. This Potion is to kill them the Minute they break the Oath, and which they firmly believe."
We do not hear if Captain Shurley's Fetish was effective, but at least it was more humane than clapping the poor wretches in irons below hatches. "For my part," says Phillips, "I put more Dependance upon my Shackles than any Fatish I could give them."
Sharks are very plentiful along the coast, and at Whydah Phillips saw several slaves eaten by those monsters, "of which a prodigious number kept about the ship . . . and the Author had been told would follow her hence to Barbadoes for the dead Negros thrown over on the Way." Phillips says they "saw some every day, but could not affirm they were always the same."
As a general rule, the trade in slaves was conducted from certain places on the coast where the poor creatures hopelessly pined in what were called "barracoons," there in misery of mind and torment of body awaiting shipment or death. "Ju Ju town (Bonny River) contains about twelve barracoons; they are built to contain from three hundred to seven hundred slaves each. I have seen from fifteen hundred to two thousand slaves at a time, belonging to the several vessels then in the river," wrote the master of a merchant ship about the year 1825. Many of these prisons were erected on sites which from a sanitary point of view were simply hotbeds of disease. Anything was good enough for a slave; whether he lived or died was no great matter,—there were plenty more to take his place if he did happen to die. When Phillips, accompanied by Captain Shurley of the East India Merchant, went ashore at Whydah to purchase their complement of slaves—seven hundred for the Hannibal, and six hundred and fifty for Shurley's vessel—the building in which they stowed the slaves pending shipment is described as standing in the marshes and "very unwholesome . . . it is a most unpleasant place to live in, by reason of the neighbouring swamps, whence proceed noisome Stinks, and vast Swarms of Mosquitos." The ships lay here nine weeks, so that for that space of time some of the unhappy creatures must have been confined either in this horrible prison, or under hatches on board ship, before ever setting out on their six weeks' voyage to the West Indies. It is dreadful to contemplate those fifteen weeks of helpless agony and despair.
Besides filling up from those depots of human misery, there were also other ways in which a ship might pick up cargo; as she stood along the coast, here and there odds and ends would fall to her. Phillips mentions that when the Hannibal was on the Alampo coast "a Canoa came off with three Women and four Children to sell: but they asked very dear for them, though they were not worth buying, for they were mere Skeletons, and so weak, being Hunger-starved, that they could not stand. The Master of the Canoa promised two or three hundred slaves if he would come ashore and stay two or three Days; but judging of the rest by the sample that he brought, and being loth to trust People where they did not use to trade, and had no Factory, they declined it . . . The Natives here are reckoned the worst and most washy of any brought to the West Indies, where they yield the least Price; but he knew not why, for they seemed to him as well limbed and lusty as any other Negros . . . The Golden Coast, (or, as they call them,) Kormantin Negros, are most in demand at Barbados, which will yield three or four pounds a head more than the Whydah or (as they are called) Papa Negros; but these are preferred before the Angola, as they are before the Alampo, which are accounted worst of all."
But wherever they were got, and wherever detained, their lot was misery, and the transfer from barracoon to ship as the transfer from frying-pan to fire.
If the ghosts of those who have died in sin in very truth haunt the spot where their wicked deeds have been committed, what a mob of the Damned, what a multitude of evil spirits of white men, must in an agony of remorse go to and fro upon the Gold Coast of West Africa! How many million years of Purgatory may suffice to purge of all the wickedness that has been there perpetrated?
And surely the ghost of Captain Oiseau of the brig Le Louis will be not the least of those who now suffer torment. In 1824 this vile wretch on completing his cargo forced the whole of his slaves down between decks, a space not three feet in height, and closed the hatches on them for the night. With the passing of the night passed away the lives of fifty of those poor creatures. "Pitch the overboard!" was Oiseau's only comment, as he hastened ashore to get fifty more. Nothing must interfere with his having a full cargo at the start.