Slave Trade

Listed among the “key decisions” of the African Union’s latest Assembly was a request that the AU Commission “work with well-organised and well-meaning initiatives to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Transatlantic Slave Trade in 2019”.

Member states were “urged…to consider immigration, economic, cultural and social policies that allow Africans descended from the victims and survivors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to reconnect and re-engage with their brethren in the African continent.”

Perhaps more will come of this than of the AU’s previous attempts at outreach to the African diaspora. Perhaps.  Whatever happened to the Sixth Region? What less-than-optimal past experience is implied by the words “well-organised and well-meaning”? What will stop it being repeated?  And does this 400th anniversary thing really work outside the US, to which, if it applies at all, it applies uniquely?

If one had to pick a date to mark the start of the shipment of African slaves across the Atlantic, a more inclusive candidate would be January 22, 1510. That was the day Spain’s King Ferdinand first authorised sending African and other chattels over “the green sea of darkness” (as medieval Arabs described it) to work his mines in Hispaniola, the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Technically, the first slaves to cross went the other way. These were the 30 Caribs Columbus took home with him and sold in 1496. Some ended up in Queen Isabella’s galleys.

Now it is true that towards the end of August 1619, a Dutch/English privateer, the White Lion, anchored off the mouth of the James River in what is now the state of Virginia and traded, in the words of John Rolfe, widower of Pocohontas, “20 or odd Negroes” for provisions.

By that stage, there were already some 500 000 African slaves toiling in Spain’s and Portugal’s American annexations south of the Rio Grande. The “20 or odd” were the first persons of African descent, free or unfree, recorded in then English America, though Sir Francis Drake may have landed others in 1586, and still others were part of a Spanish expedition further down the coast in 1526. The latter group rebelled, putting paid to their owners’ hopes of establishing a settlement.

We know quite a bit about the “20 or odd”. They were part of a cargo of 350 shipped from Luanda aboard a Portuguese frigate, the Sao Joao Bautista, bound for Vera Cruz in modern day Mexico. The White Lion and another raider, Treasurer, intercepted the slaver off the Yucatan hoping to find gold. The pirates had to make do with what slaves they could carry.

Their booty had Christian names. The Portuguese insisted on baptising their human cattle before loading it for shipment. What had brought these 350 to market and the font? From contemporary records and eyewitness accounts, a couple of plausible scenarios present themselves.

The central west African, and thoroughly indigenous, big man at the time, King Alvaro III, aka Mbiki a Mpanzu, of the Kongo, was at odds with various uncles. These disputes are known to have given rise to prisoners both military and political who needed to be disposed of. Selling them for export made more economic sense that killing them and violated no norms.

Then there was Mendes de Vasoncelos, Portuguese governor of Angola (then little more than a coastal enclave) who dreamed of extending Lisbon’s sway right across to its foothold to the east, Mozambique. This he could not accomplish with his own forces.  So he enlisted the eager-for-pillage Imbangala, a spectacularly vicious gang of freebooters next to whom Joseph Kony and Lord’s Resistance Army look like choirboys. The Imbangala harvested more slaves for Portugal than the slavers could handle at the time the Sao Joao Bautista took on its cargo.

Politicise history as you will.

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