IN HIS memoirs, published in England in 1789, Olaudah Equiano told how, as a child in what is now Nigeria, he was stolen into slavery:
| ||One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, seized us and, without giving us time to cry out, stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the wood. Here they tied our hands and continued to carry us as far as they could.||
Equiano, separated from his sister, was sold to an African chief, who sold him on to a trader, who took him to the coast and sold him in turn to an English slave ship. When he was taken aboard, and saw its wild, long-haired, red-faced crew, and a large cauldron on the deck, he fainted, thinking these savages were about to eat him. No such luck: he was on the way to the West Indies.
Between the mid-15th century and the late 19th, 12m Africans, about a third of them women, made that voyage. Whites had found a new world, and needed blacks to exploit it. Seizedby other blacks, not whitesforce-marched to the coast carrying ivory or copper, then inspected like animals, sold and crammed into ships, they made the 30-40-day voyage chained and forced to lie in their own ordure and vomit. Then taken out, inspected again and resold, they were branded and forced to dig in mines, clear land, plant and harvest sugar. Much of this while Europe enjoyed the Enlightenment.
British, French, Spanish and Portuguese were all guilty. Yet not alone. In Africa, slavery was accepted as the norm in most societies. Before Europeans arrived, and long after, millions of Africans were marched north across the desert by Arab traders. Most had been taken in war. The guns given in exchange helped wars to multiply and grow larger. Prisoners who might earlier have been absorbed into the victors army or workforce, or killed, were now fed to European and American ships seeking human cargo, from Gambia round to Mozambique. Other Africans were sold as slaves because they owed a debt; some even by their own families. Some, like Equiano, were simply grabbed; though only in the early years by Europeans, because that upset relations with the African coastal kings, who wanted to keep control of the trade.
Though brutally mistreated, slaves were not cheap. In 1753 a slave on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) cost £16 (say, £1,000 or $1,650 in todays money); in the West Indies he would fetch £35. In the 19th century that margin widened. The price was mostly paid in goods, cloth, liquor, iron bars, guns and swords. The slave ships owners and those of sugar and cotton estates made fortunes. They invested in land and grand houses, some Britons in the industrial revolution. But Africas slaving kings and entrepreneurs seem to have squandered their profits. They left no great political or commercial empires.
Though a few African kings and European traders refused to join in the slave trade, Europe took 300 years to reject it. Medieval Christianity and Islam both forbade the enslavement of their own adherents, but saw nothing against enslaving unbelievers; indeed thought it might bring them salvation. Christians also saw black people as descendants of Ham, and therefore eternally cursed. Later, the slavers, sea captains and ship-owners alike, believed Africans would be better off as slaves in America than in Africa; in Brazil rebellious slaves could be sent back as a punishment. Some Africans, like young Equiano, thought the Europeans were cannibals who bought people to eat them.
Gradually in the 18th century an anti-slavery lobby built up in Europe, notably in Britain, the superpower of the seas. In 1772 Lord Mansfield, a judge, ruled that a runaway slave there could not be forced back by his master to the West Indies. The ruling was interpreted (questionably, but this was the effect) as confirming that there could be no slavery in Britain. In America, it created fears that Britain might try to abolish slavery in its colonies. The desire to maintain slavery was not the least motive for the American war of independence, in which some blacks fought on the British side. In 1807 Britain banned the slave trade, and began using its navy to stop it. But slavery itself did not end in the British Caribbean until 1838, in the United States (in practice) 1865, in Spanish-owned Cuba 1886, in Brazil 1888. The memory of slavery and its lasting social effects sour race relations in Europe and America to this day.
In Africa slavery lingers on in pockets; it was officially abolished in Mauritania only in 1980. Yet, except in areas like that, bordering the Sahara, where blacks were traditionally enslaved by lighter-skinned desert peoples, slavery and the slave trade left no social stratification, and they figure little in popular consciousness today.