Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Noble's Story of Enslavement

The year is 1626, and I write this account of my enslavement from Bahia, Brazil. My story of enslavement is in reality a story of trade--trade that took me from a position of nobility, to an invited guest to Portugal, to a slave trader, and eventually to a person of bondage. I was born in the capital city of the Kingdom of Kongo, Sao Salvador, nearly 40 years ago. My father was a member of the royal court and his father before him an advisor to king Alfonso. We enjoyed relative prosperity in our status, and enslavement was never on my mind. As a child I encountered slavery on a daily basis. The city of Sao Salvador is surrounded by large agricultural plantations, in order to cut down on the transportation costs of agricultural goods from distant rural villages. These plantations use the labor of enslaved men, but it is a type of enslavement that differs from that sought by the Portuguese. It is the Kongo tradition to only enslave foreigners who have been captured in war. Even then these slaves are often allowed to run their self-sufficient households and can assimilate into the villages where they work and live. These foreign-captured slaves would be sold to the Portuguese, and they eventually began to be given as payment replacing other forms of currency.

The use of slaves as commodity led to an increase in the value of the Kongo slave market. Still I felt safe from this changing world of slave trade. I even found profit in it myself. At 18, I was sent to Portugal as a noble emissary and was taught much about Portuguese language and culture. Twelve slaves were sent with me to cover the cost of my visit. When I returned to Kongo, I returned to the Kongo-Portuguese war and the assent of Pedro II to the crown.  My close relations to Portugal brought me distrustful scrutiny, and I was sent from Sao Salvador to the southern countryside to regulate the collection of taxes in this area. This move left me with little room for political and economic growth.  It was here, in this remote location, where I was introduced to the lucrative aspects of the slave trade. I began collaborating with illicit Portuguese traders who worked outside of the legal Kongo slave market. I sold war captives and undesirables in my area into bondage. As the need for slaves grew and Kongo’s expansion and warring decreased, many nobles like myself began to push the line of who could be enslaved. I oversaw the sale of men and women who would’ve formerly been protected as freemen into bondage. While I am not proud of this, it is what I felt was necessary, as the Portuguese traders would have kidnapped people in this area anyways.

In the end, even I could not escape the clutches of the slave trade. The conflict between the Portuguese and Kongo rule maintained and in 1622 the Portuguese governor of Angola, João Correia de Sousa, invaded southern Kongo, claiming that many runaway slaves from the Angola market were hiding in this region. I, along with a few other nobles, and many freemen were captured and taken to the Angolan slave-shipping town of Luanda. My wife, my children, and the life I had made for myself were now only a distant reality. I knew what lay ahead of me. I had seen the process firsthand when I went to Portugal and the slaves who accompanied me were tied below in the cramped bottom deck of the vessel. When I was sent to the south, I had facilitated this process countless times, never going onboard the ship, but knowing very well of its destination. Here I was in a holding center waiting to board a ship which would be stopping in Maderia, at several points along the gold coast to Soyo, and finally to Luanda before taking off across the never-ending sea to Brazil. In a way the slave trade had come full circle--the trader becoming the enslaved. My story is an ironic testament to the destructive nature of the trade, and I am the prime example of how the institute of slavery leaves no one unscathed.

Heywood, Linda M. "Slavery and its transformation in the kingdom of Kongo: 1491–1800." The Journal of African History 50, no. 01 (2009): 1-22.

Nunn, Nathan. The long-term effects of Africa's slave trades. No. w13367. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2007.

Thornton, J.K., 1983. The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641-1718 (p. 29). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed your blog post this week. I thought that the inclusion of a Kongo royal supporting the trade, then later being enslaved himself, showed how quickly the slave trade impacted the social norms and status of people. I think that you expressed well his feeling of disdain for the process but sense of need to be a part of it to protect his people. I thought you also did a very good job on expressing how slavery had a vastly different form between the two groups and the cultural impact this had on both sides. You did an excellent job on this post.