A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

David Eltis (Emory University), 2007

African Agency and Resistance

If demand for slave-grown produce, social identity, and the Atlantic environment were three key factors shaping the traffic, the agency of Africans comprised a fourth major influence, but one which has received less attention from historians. The merchants who traded slaves on the coast to European ship captains – for example the Vili traders north of the Congo, the Efik in the Bight of Biafra - and behind them the groups that supplied the slaves, such as the Kingdom of Dahomey, the Aro network, and further south, the Imbangala, all had strict conceptions of what made an individual eligible for enslavement. Among such criteria were constructions of gender, definitions of criminal behavior, and conventions for dealing with prisoners of war. The make up of slaves purchased on the Atlantic coast thus reflected whom Africans were prepared to sell as much as whom Euro-American plantation owners wanted to buy. But the victims of the slave trade also had a major impact on the trade. Probably about one in ten slaving voyages experienced major rebellions, of which the attempts to control increased the costs of a slave voyage to the point where far fewer slaves entered the traffic than would have been the case without resistance. In addition, vessels from some regions on the coast appear to have been more prone to experience slave uprisings than those from other regions. The rebellion-prone areas were precisely those regions, broadly comprising Upper Guinea (Senegambia, Sierra Leone, and the Windward Coast) which had the least participation in the slave trade. The strong inference is that European slave traders avoided this part of the African coast except in those years when demand for slaves, and their prices, were particularly high.

The Enslavement of Africans Early Slaving Voyages
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