Louisiana Slave Trade
The slaves imported in Louisiana were mostly shipped from the harbors of three major regions of the coast of Africa: Senegambia, the Bight of Benin, and West-Central Africa. The majority of the slave force came from Senegambia throughout the Colonial period.
Senegambia is part of the tropical zone, wide open to the Atlantic Ocean, between the Sahara desert and the tropical forests of Guinea. The Senegal and the Gambia are the main rivers through which people from the interior, like the Bambara and the Mandingo, were sold as slaves. The Gambia River is the main route of penetration into the hinterland and divides the region in two parts: Northern Senegambia and Southern Senegambia. Northern Senegambia was the site of many political constructions based on hierarchical societies. Millet was the principal food crop and Islam became the principal religion without erasing the traditional practices. The main ethnic groups are the Wolof, the Fulbe, the Sereer, and the Moors. Up to 1742, the trade of Senegal was a monopoly of the French Company of the West Indies which had its headquarters in Saint-Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River. Gorée Island was the principal entrepôt where both merchandise and slaves were stored before being shipped away. The trade of the Gambia River was under the control of the British who constantly competed with the French. The Bambara and the Mandingo were among the most frequent ethnicities on Louisiana plantations. They contributed very deep cultural influences to the culture of Louisiana including masking, which eventually led to the resilient tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans. The Wolof, the Moors, and the Fulbe were respectively designated as Senegal, Nard, and Poullard. Nard is the Wolof name for Moors. The Fulbe of Fuuta Tooro call themselves Haal Pulaar (Pulaar speakers). Senegal and Poullard have been retained as family names in Southwest Louisiana. The Bouki and Lapin folktales of Louisiana originated from Senegambia. These tales also survived in Haiti (Bouki and Ti Malice), in Florida, and the Bahamas (Bouky and Rabby). Bouki is the Wolof name for the hyena. His name came with the enslaved Africans and one can still recognize him under the disguise of a wild coyote, along with Bugs Bunny, the Warner Bros’ rendition of Compère Lapin aka Brer Rabbit.
Political unrest and natural contingencies such as drought pushed many people toward Southern Senegambia. This region comprised the area reaching from the Gambia River in the north, down to the forest of Guinea in the south. All along the coastal side, from Casamance to Sierra Leone, a myriad of streams colonized by thick mangrove swamps pour into the Atlantic Ocean. This region, called “Rivières du Sud” (Southern Rivers) by French sailors or Rios de Guinea by the Spanish and the Portuguese, became a refuge for people such as the Jola, Balanta, Baňun, Manjak, Mankaň, Papel, Baga, Nalu, Landuman, Susu, Temne, Kisi, Toma, etc. Through the centuries, they established egalitarian societies where life was centered on villages. Rice was and still is their principal staple crop. Moving eastward from the coast, the mangrove swamps transitioned into vegetation coverage composed of a mixture of savanna-like grasses and rainforest. In this area, Fulbe and Mandingo migrants created respectively the kingdoms of Fuuta Jalon and Kaabu, which became strong slaving powers. Southern Senegambia contributed 10% of the total volume of the trans-Atlantic slave trade with the birth and the backing of the theocratic state of Fuuta Jalon, where Islam provided an ideological justification for the enslavement of “pagans.” The Fulbe of Fuuta Jalon were also the victims of this chaotic situation. The most famous among them was Abdul Rahman Barry, a son of Ibrahima Sori, king of Fuuta Jallon. In 1788, he was captured during warfare against the neighbouring Mandingo kingdom of Kaabu and sold to the coast. He was then taken to the Caribbean island of Dominica and from there to New Orleans where he was sold to Thomas Foster, a planter established in Natchez, Mississipi. He spent forty years in bondage in this city where he was referred to as Prince. The captives sold from the Southern Rivers played a very important role in the development of rice cultivation in the US South, notably South Carolina and Louisiana. In its instructions for Sr. Herpin, Captain of L’Aurore, the first slave ship sent to Louisiana from the African coast (July 4, 1718), the French Company of the West Indies included the obligation to acquire rice and slaves who knew how to cultivate it, somewhere, between Cape Mount and Cape Mesurade. Senegambia provided the majority of the slaves imported into the Americas from the 15th century through the 17th century. This region still exported large numbers of slaves during the 18th and the 19th centuries, but never on the same scale as other regions of Africa such as the Bight of Benin or Central Africa.