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Louisiana Slave Trade

The Slave Coast and the Bight of Biafra

Between the estuary of the Volta River and the kingdom of Benin, the famous Slave Coast became in the 18th century the most active zone of the slave trade. Beginning from the 1670s, the Bight of Benin underwent a rapid expansion of trade in slaves, which continued until the end of the slave trade in the nineteenth century. In the beginning of the 18th century, Agaja, ruler of the continental kingdom of Dahomey, undertook a set of conquests toward the ocean in order to have a direct hold on the Atlantic trade. Instead of the various animals as the chameleon, the lion or the fish, which his predecessors and successors had chosen as symbols of royalty, this atypical king had a ship as his emblem. Ouidah, the great sanctuary of voodoo, became the main outlet of the slave trade which has left some visible traces still visible today on the organization of the space, notably in Ganvié, a village where people had learned to live on the water in dwellings built on stilts. The Fon, also called Aja, were the builders of the kingdom of Dahomey. The Yoruba built the rival kingdom of Oyo and their dominions reached to the north the territory of the Hawsa. The Fon, the Yoruba also called Nago, and the Hawsa were among the most frequent ethnicities on Louisiana plantations.

The Bight of Biafra, centered on the Niger Delta and the Cross River, became a significant exporter of slaves from the 1700s and dominated the Trans-Atlantic slave trade along with neighboring Bight of Benin until the mid-nineteenth century. A great numbers of slaves from this part of Africa were sold into North America. In Louisiana, slaves from this coast were listed as Edo, Ibo, Ibibio, and Calabar. They were also among the most frequent ethnicities listed on official documents. In Southwest Louisiana, “Ibo” has survived as a family name and transcribed “Ebow.”

From the Bight of Benin came the fundamentals of Vodun. Vodun is a corpus of rituals meant for the well-being of the community on Earth. It also involves divination which determines the proper sacrifices to the deities. “Vodun” means “spirit” in the language of the Fon and is equivalent to “orisha” of the Yoruba. Each vodun is a delegatee (hypostasis) of the power of the Universal Supreme God. The most important among them is Legba, the protector of the family, the holder of the key to the gate separating the humans’ world and the world of the deities, and the Messenger and Spokesperson of all the other deities before the Supreme God. Legba is the Christ of Vodun. Vodun has been retained in Louisiana as Voodoo and wrongly described by outsiders as mere witchcraft. In Louisiana Voodoo Papa Legba is assimilated to St. Peter.

Vodun is dominated by women The practitioners, both male and females, are called Vodun-si (wives of the Vodun). The male members wear women’s clothes. The queens of Louisiana Voodoo can also be related to the queens of Ndëpp, the equivalent of Vodun among the Lebu of Senegambia. The Lebu form several communities of fishermen and farmers along the coast where they resisted slavery and welcomed refugees from all over Senegambia. Their traditional cult is the exclusive domain of women. The traditional pantheon in Senegambia is overwhelmingly dominated by female deities: Maam Kumba Bang (St. Louis), Maam Kumba Lamba (Rufisque), Maam Kumba Castel (Goree), Maama Jombo, etc. Among the Yoruba, Yemoja is the deity of the ocean, the essence of motherhood, and a fierce protector of children. This deity is present all over the West-Atlantic world as Yemanja. Maama Jombo, also called Maama Choori, is the deity of fecundity and the protector of mothers and their children among the rice growers of Casamance (Senegal) and Guinea Bissau. Maama Jombo, was retained as Mumbo Jumbo in Louisiana and also became synonymous of witchcraft like Voodoo.