It has been established that the demand for slaves during the Transatlantic slave trade was fuelled by the availability of a supply chain which involved African rulers and tradesmen who made a fortune out of selling people.
Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to North America, the Caribbean and South America, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Only about 10.7 million survived the dreadful journey under bondage in slave ships.
The slave trade contributed to the expansion of the most powerful West African kingdoms such as Mali and Ghana, as the business became one of the main sources of foreign exchange for many years.
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In a 2010 article published in the New York Times, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. said: “Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese.”
Britain banned the slave trade in 1807 and the United States later abolished it in 1865. Brazil was the last to ban it in the Caribbean in 1888 marking the end of the barbarism inflicted on men, women and children of colour and their descendants.
There were recorded protests by West African chiefs and traders after the abolition of slave trade. According to Nigerian author Tunde Obadina: “When Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, it not only had to contend with opposition from white slavers but also from African rulers who had become accustomed to wealth gained from selling slaves or from taxes collected on slaves passed through their domain.
“African slave-trading classes were greatly distressed by the news that legislators sitting in Parliament in London had decided to end their source of livelihood. But for as long as there was demand from the Americas for slaves, the lucrative business continued,” he added.
There were dozens of known African slave traders who had sold thousands of people to European slave merchants. In West Africa, the traders were known as caboceers and they lived on the coast. They were usually appointed by the African rulers to deal directly with the European slave merchants.
The website Portcities Bristol – created to document the role of the English city of Bristol in the transatlantic slave trade – reports: “Many, such as the caboceer from the Fante people, John Currantee, or the leader from the Efik people Ephraim Robin John (known to the European traders as King George) were well-known as canny and ruthless dealers.”
“They were able to communicate in a number of European and African languages. The African slave traders were skilled in using to their advantage the rivalries between the French, the English and the Dutch to get the best prices for their slaves. Often they demanded (and received) ‘gifts’ or ‘custom fees’, known in some quarters as ‘dashee’, from the Europeans,” it adds.
Most of these traders continued selling slaves despite the ban while others used the slaves to work on plantations in Africa.
We highlight some of the notorious African slave traders who played active roles in the transatlantic slave trade.