West Africa and The Atlantic Slave Trade

I’ve alluded to this before, but remarkably, as Brits, we don’t really learn too much about the British Empire and our colonial history, while any mentions of the Slave Trade are framed around its abolition – indeed you may be amused to learn that we’re pretty much taught that slavery was abolished by the British, William Wilberforce specifically, that we were the first colonial power to do it, that we did it unilaterally, and once we abolished it the world was a much happier place. One of the very reasons for wanting to go backpacking around West Africa was to learn more about this whole dark period of history, especially given my background – and not just because I’m a tall hairy white man.

Liverpool's waterfront, as seen from the River Mersey.
Liverpool’s waterfront, as seen from the River Mersey. Remember, all of this World Heritage site was funded by the profits of the Atlantic Slave Trade, YMMV on how important that is to know.

As you may know, I’m originally from Liverpool – a city which was once one of the largest in the British Empire, and whose centre is defined by a number of stunning pieces of architecture – indeed the waterfront itself is a World Heritage Site because of its unique vista. Of course all this was built as a result of the proceeds of the trade. There are also streets, squares, and statues all referencing this period – indeed the main road along the waterfront behind the Cunard Building is called ‘Goree’ after the island of the coast of what is now Senegal which served as a minor slave trading post in colonial times.

The first thing I need to do though is clarify what the Slave Trade was. While similar slave-trading routes existed all around the world, and had done for millennia (because if there’s one thing we humans excel at, it’s dominating other humans), here I’m concentrating purely on the Atlantic Slave Trade that developed during colonial times (because out of the humans that dominate, white middle-class males tend to do it most frequently. People like me, yes).

The Atlantic Slave Trade – a brief overview

Map of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
The Atlantic Slave Trade (as made in Microsoft Paint from a base provided by OpenStreetMap.

In very simplistic terms, the Atlantic Slave Trade developed into a roughly triangular passage across the North and Mid Atlantic Oceans:
* Ships would depart Europe with manufactured goods, textiles, and guns.
* Europeans would trade these goods in West Africa for minerals (especially gold – indeed two of the colonies later created took on the names of Gold Coast and Ivory Coast), and, of course, slaves.
* These slaves would then be transported across the Atlantic to the “New World”, not just what is now Southern USA but also the Caribbean islands and especially Brazil.
* Slaves would be worked as labourers in order to produce raw materials like cotton and sugar.
* These raw materials would then be shipped back to Europe to make finished products like textiles.

There are two important factors to note about this industry.
Firstly, European involvement in West Africa was mostly purely economic – make as much money as possible (I read a statistic that stated the Return On Investment of a typical plantation was around 6%, higher than many other contemporaneous industries and roughly on par with the current long-term housing market, while at the height of the Industrial Revolution, 5% of the entire British economy was funded by West African plantations, mainly sugar. This is presumably why the English still drink tea with sugar) – with a side of ‘if we do this, our European rivals can’t’. Indeed several small wars took place between European colonisers to attempt to get the best strangleholds in the region (Cape Coast, one of the largest slave trade ports, was firmly British but had been Dutch, whilst Goree regularly changed hands between the British and the French). Morality and ethics weren’t really considered by the slave traders themselves – humans were merely a cargo and treated as such.

Secondly, the Europeans merely hacked into a trade that already existed. African kingdoms had been at war with each other for centuries, and very often battles and conquests resulted in the capture of slaves. When the Europeans turned up with guns, it was a very easy trading conversation to have; the Europeans sold guns in return for slaves – using the guns the African Kingdoms fought bloodier wars and obtained more slaves.

There is a small plaque in the Cape Coast complex from the African Kingdoms that apologies and atones for their role in the Slave Trade. Which is more than most European states have done, to be honest.

Plaque at Cape Coast Castle, decrying the role African Empires played in the Slave Trade. It reads: 'In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this.'
Plaque at Cape Coast Castle, decrying the role African Empires played in the Slave Trade.

A couple of the trading posts and important locations in the part of West Africa I visited are now museums or dedicated reminders of the Slave Trade.

Cape Coast, Ghana

The main centre for the Slave Trade in what was then the Gold Coast was the town of Cape Coast.

Overview of Cape Coast, Ghana, including one of the forts (possibly Fort William) and a panoramic view of the town itself.
The town of Cape Coast, as taken from halfway up one of the hills.

On the seafront is the old castle – one of several fortifications built originally by the Dutch but which were soon taken over by the British – another two smaller forts (Fort William and Fort Victoria) lie a little more inland, on the hillsides overlooking the harbour, and as they provided a clearer view out to sea, served as early-warning indicators of invading Europeans, desperate to get their hands on the local trade.

Fort William, on the hillside.
Fort William, on the hillside.

While designed as a defensive citadel, the castle also as a residential and administrative block for Europeans; while reasonably austere by their standards it was still far and away more comfortable than most of the other accommodation around; the only main problem faced by Europeans was the dreaded Malaria. It was, of course, very different, for many of the Africans who came here.

Cape Coast Castle, Ghana. This view is of the upper battlements, overlooking the sea. To the right are the cannons and cannonballs used to defend the castle from invaders.
The battlements of Cape Coast Castle, Ghana.

During the height of the Slave Trade, the lower levels of the castle were used as a ‘prison’, a ‘holding point’ for kidnapped Africans while transportation ships were lined up ready to take them. Parts of the complex are now open as a museum into Slavery and the conditions of those involuntarily destined for the New World.

The entrance to one of the cells below Cape Coast Castle, Ghana. It was about the same size as an ordinary jail cell, but held far more people. Far. More. People.
A cell door below the castle at Cape Coast.

The cells held people in often cramped and squalid conditions, far beyond their intended capacity. In addition, sanitary facilities were pretty much non-existent – some of the holding bays would only be cleaned once a batch of slaves had been loaded onto ships, in preparation for or a new consignment, but it could take upwards of two months for a ship to become ready to sail. Without a toilet, and with food just being literally thrown in once or twice a day, you maybe shouldn’t imagine how fetid the rooms were once they’d been cleaned.

The 'Door Of No Return' at Cape Coast Castle – a huge portal, much higher than head height and several people wide, that separated the castle dungeons from the seafront.
The “Door of No Return” at Cape Coast Castle.

As the castle was built next to the shoreline, a large portal was built to allow easy access to the sea. This was known at the time as the ‘door of no return’, and it was through here that future slaves were driven onto small boats and sailed out to the big transporter vessels offshore; the principle being of course ‘once you go through, you will never come back’. These days outside is a small local fishing fleet, and the outside of the portal is the ‘door of return’ – a few years back, the remains of two former slaves were flown back to Ghana from the Caribbean, sailed to Cape Coast, and brought back through the door into the museum, in a kind of ’homecoming/remembrance’ commemoration.

Outside the Door of No Return, at Cape Coast. Nowadays it's a harbour full of fishing vessels but obviously back then it would have been an empty beach with just the boat taking people to the slave trader ship offshore.
What lies behind The “Door of No Return” at Cape Coast Castle; very different now to how it would have been then.

Ouidah, Benin

An even more sobering route of memorials can be found two countries to the east, in the small town of Ouidah on the coast of Benin.

Ouidah was, at one point, one of the main transportation points for kidnapped Africans across the French colonies – a series of ‘slave routes’ existed from as far north as what is now Mali, where they were force-marched through local towns and villages, partly as a way to impose the knowledge on the local people, and partly to simply increase the number of slaves being traded.

Statue in the main square of Ouidah – it's of a typical local, and the inscription below is in French but basically says 'underneath this tree is where slaves destined for the Americas were bought'.
Statue in Ouidah. The inscription basically says ‘underneath this tree is where slaves destined for the Americas were bought’.

The main square in Ouidah was used as a marketplace, and it was here that people were physically bought and sold – where the cargo-and-logistics companies and ship owners would make the deals with the local chieftains and colonial slave-traders, There is a statue in the now much quieter square to commemorate this, at the start of what is known as the ‘Route Des Esclaves’, a 4km road that the newly-bought slaves would be marched down to the sea.

The 'tree of forgetfulness' along the 'Route Des Esclaves' in Ouidah. I'm not quite sure what it is – a dragon or snake smoking a pipe is my best guess – but it stands at the spot where future slaves were forced to walk around one of the trees in the background, to confuse and to ram home just how subservient they were.
Statue on the ‘Route des Esclaves’ where the tree stood that slaves were forced to walk around in a kind of ‘depersonalisation’ ceremony.

Part of the way along the route is a symbolic ‘tree’, known as the ‘tree of forgetfulness’. It is said that the captured Africans were forced to walk around it multiple times (9 for males, 7 for females), so they would become dizzy and disoriented – in a sense ‘forgetting’ who they were for a bit and making it much easier for the tradespeople and slave-owners to ‘re-program’ them to being more compliant and less individual.

While it maybe didn’t do anything in and of itself, as a symbol (‘we are in charge of you now, we can get you to do anything we want’), it must have been quite powerful and humiliating.

The archway signifying the 'Point Of No Return' at the beach in Ouidah, Benin. It's a symbol – it wasn't here when the Slave Trade was in operation.
The archway signifying the ‘Point Of No Return’ at the beach in Ouidah, Benin.

Like as at Cape Coast, Ouidah also had a ‘Point Of No Return’. In Ouidah’s case though, this is a symbolic one – in memory of those lost, a huge arch has been constructed on the beach at the end of the ‘Route Des Esclaves’, approximately where people would have passed by before being loaded onto ships. The arch was designed by Beninois architect Fortuné Bandeira, and is decorated with symbols of both the slaves themselves and of aspects of their cultures.

Porto-Novo, Benin

On somewhat of a tangent is a museum in Porto-Novo, known as the ‘Da Silva’ museum. In principle it is a ‘celebration’ of the links between Benin and Brazil that came about as a result of the slave trade. The outside is, shall we say, ‘tastefully decorated’ with friezes that depict some of the more gruesome activities that took place during the collection and transportation of Africans as slaves – think torture porn rather than anything resembling consensual BDSM. The inside, however, is designed more to show that the links formed between the old homelands and the New World that remained strong long after the trade was abolished. While Brazil seems like an unusual country to have links to, given that Benin was French and Brazil was Portuguese, for some reason it seems that many of the slaves transported from Benin were sold to plantation owners in South America.

One of the many friezes adorning the wall of the Da Silva museum in Porto Novo. It's one of the milder ones – it shows a group of kneeling captives, with colonial westerners standing behind with guns. On the right is someone kneeling naked on the ground, hands tied behind them, feet tied together, a noose around their neck, being whipped.
One of the many friezes adorning the wall of the Da Silva museum in Porto Novo. It’s one of the milder ones.

In practice, the museum felt like the bizarre collection of a hoarder who wanted every random object he could find that had any connection to either Benin or Brazil. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme, reason, nor pattern to the exhibits or its structure, nor was much of it strictly, for want of a better word, ‘relevant’. As an example, one of the more promoted exhibits was what purported to be Benin’s first photocopier. Another room, continuing the theme, had walls displaying photocopies of pretty much every African leader that had ever existed. There were also cars owned by ex-Beninese leaders, but by that point I was just patently confused.

There was also a language barrier. By this point I’d come to accept that museums in Africa don’t let you wander about on your own; a guide is included in the price and compulsory. My French isn’t that good, but up to now I’ve been able to understand the gist of what’s been said – the people’s accents here have been much clearer than in France, and I think they speak slower too. However, the guide in this museum spoke with a heavy accent and her words were very hard to make out. She was also speaking in English…


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The Slave Trade, as seen from West Africa.

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One thought on “West Africa and The Atlantic Slave Trade

  1. Such a horrific part of history. It never ceases to amaze me what humans are capable of.

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