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Louisiana Slave Trade

Why Africans?

For four hundred years, Africans were snatched from their homes and deported into the Americas where they were put to work in mines and plantations. Their sweat and blood served as a bedstone to the tremendous wealth still enjoyed in Europe and the Americas. The discovery of the New World boosted the European economy and marked the starting point of what one can call the “African nightmare.” The exploitation of the new land required millions of skilled laborers capable of standing the tropical climate which encompasses the vast region from the US South down to Brazil. The enslavement of Indians rapidly proved to be inefficient because the native population was hard to control and it was profoundly affected by the diseases brought from the Old world. The solution to the need of labor was the forced transportation to the colonies of poverty-stricken people, euphemistically called “indentured servants” or “engagés” in French. Europeans could not obviously count on their own “proletarians” who did not have the suited skills especially when tropical agriculture was concerned. The final solution came from Africa where Europeans discovered a potential slave market at the time of their arrival in the middle of the fifteenth century.

As a result of the slave trade, five times as many Africans arrived in the Americas than Europeans. Slaves were needed on plantations and in mining. The majority was shipped to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Spanish Empire. According to the figures published by Hugh Thomas, around 13 million Africans were deported among whom 11 million arrived alive in the Americas. Less than 5% traveled to the Northern American States formally held by the British. Senegambia, the Slave Coast (Bight of Benin), and the Bight of Biafra exported each approximately 15.4% of the total of the slaves. Central Africa, where the slave trade lasted longer, contributed approximately for 29%. One million people (7.7%) were taken from South East (Mozambique & Madagascar). The principal carriers were the Portuguese and their Brazilian colony (42.3%), followed by the British (23.6%), the Spanish and their Cuban colony (14.5), the French and their West Indian colony (11.4%), and the Dutch (4.5). Other smaller carriers including the Danes and the Americans share the rest of the trade.

Trans-Atlantic Slave Exports by Region

Slaves were only a byproduct of the African market before the European colonization of the Americas.

The Portuguese, who came first, were primarily interested in the gold which was hitherto brought to Europe by the trans-Saharan trade handled by the Arabo-Berbers. Their goal was also to connect directly with the Asian market of silk and spices from which Europe was barred with the rise of the Ottoman Empire which controlled the Eastern Mediterranean sea.The Portuguese were soon followed by the Dutch, the Danes, the French, the English, the Brandburgers (Germans), the Spaniards and other nations who completed the “encirclement” of Africa which led later to its effective colonization. The Portuguese first saw the coast of Senegambia in 1444. By the end of the century they had already set the curve to Asia when they discovered the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. This was also the time when Christopher Columbus made the “discovery” which changed the course of history. So far slaves were being transported in small numbers to Portugal, Spain, as well as the Atlantic islands. Most of them were kidnapped on the coast of Northern Senegambia, notably in Wolof and Berber villages, and put to work on the Iberian islands where the Moors had previously developed rice and sugar cane plantations, using African and European slaves. When the Reconquista expelled the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula in the second half of the 15th century, the demand for skilled laborers rose sharply. This demand then peaked with the colonization of the Americas. Africa could not satisfy it since the slave market was too narrow. People were being enslaved in this continent through warfare and put to work for reparations if their kins failed to liberate them through exchange of prisoners or buying them out. Others were enslaved to pay their debts or for committing crimes such as adultery or murder. In the Sahel and Savannah lands north of the equator, the captives (called jaam sayor by the Wolof) supplemented the trans-Saharan trade which lasted many centuries before and after the arrival of the Europeans. But the crossing of the Saharan desert, exclusively handled with camel caravans, prevented the transportation of large numbers of slaves.

The exploitation of a pre-existing slave market in Africa was far from being able to implement the huge market of the Americas which required millions of laborers. Since slaves were obtained mainly through wars, the only reliable solution to this problem was to generate permanent warfare between and within nations. From Senegal to Angola and Mozambique, African rulers were methodically played against each other by the European companies: the French Company of the West Indies, the British Royal African Company, and the Dutch India Company among others. The European businessmen also soon understood that war was not enough by itself. Putting the African elites in the middle of an enslaving business would prove to be more efficient. Addiction to European commodities was the bait used in their strategy in which alcohol and firearms played a key role. Wine and hard liquor were used in negotiations in order to obtain the best terms of trade and ultimately became basic items of the same trade. Firearms were highly demanded in the process of empire building. They turned the traditionally peaceful successions into civil wars in which the European companies supported the candidates whom they later used as indispensable allies for the slave trade. In time of peace, farmers were kidnapped in their fields by mercenaries, usually royal slaves (jaami Buur in Wolof), linked to local elites and armed by European companies. Villages were raided at night, just before daybreak, when bodies were totally numbed by the last hours of sleep. Dwellings were set on fire to increase confusion. Elderly people, and sometime children, were exterminated and their bodies left to rot under the sun, becoming prey to vultures and hyenas. The strong ones were caught, shackled, and walked to the coast, carrying trade goods such as elephant tusks on their heads. Many died of exhaustion on their way to the coast or from starvation while awaiting slave ships. Many others died during the middle passage or shortly after their arrival. To this very day, Wolof griots still sing this song of sorrow which clearly depicts the reign of tyranny during slavery times.

Nga bay sab gerté
Dugub ji ne gaňň
Buur teg ci loxo
Ne la jël naa ko !

Ngèèn tëdd ba guddi
Buur tëgg ndëndam
Ni jog lèèn !
Fii ku fi fanaan di jaam

You grow your peanuts
And plenty millet
The king sets a hand on everything
And says it is not yours anymore!

In the deepest of your sleep
The king beats his drum
And says wake up!
You are not free anymore