Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Slavery in The Kingdom of Kongo 

The slave trade was important for maintaining The Kingdom of Kongo’s relationship with the Portuguese. The king would trade slaves, typically foreigners captured in war, as commodity exports in exchange for European goods but also as a means to maintain diplomatic ties. Towards the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade the kings of The Kingdom of Kongo respected and observed the difference regarding enslavement for foreign-born captives and native born citizens who were protected from bondage. The distinction separating these two groups would become blurred as the slave trade progressed due to internal Kongo political conflicts, which were often influenced by the Portuguese insatiable need for labor.

In the early 16th century King Afonso set up slave trade with Portugal through secure markets where the Portuguese could buy foreign captives as slaves, allowing the king to maintain local customs of the kinds of people who could be enslaved. However the Portuguese traders went outside of these markets, preferring to trade with coastal communities. King Afonso wrote to the king of Portugal decrying this Portuguese practice stating that the Portuguese traders who were acting outside of the proper channels were capturing those who were not considered slaves by Kongo standards, even some noblemen. He complained of coastal vassals scheming with the Portuguese to gain wealth and power that would subsequently upset the centralization of Kongo rule. King Afonso’s successor Diogo I faced similar issues with the Portuguese who had taken to sailing upriver to the Malebo Pool to purchase slaves from BaTeke tradesmen, breaking the Portuguese Kongo contract, which restricted the Portuguese to buying the slaves offered by King Diogo. While slavery became an increasingly large form of foreign exchange, the rulers of Kongo monitored the trade closely, paying particular attention and care to protecting freeborn Kongo citizens.

In 1623 King Pedro II wrote to Philip of Spain that the governor of Angola, João Correia de Sousa, had invaded Kongo and enslaved many nobles and free people who were sent to Brazil. King Philip sent an inquiry to the governor of Brazil, and while most had already been taken to different regions, some of the illegally enslaved were found and returned to Kongo. Through the sixteenth and start of the seventeenth century the vigilance of the Kongo rulers mostly protected free Kongo from entering the slave trade. However, while the freemen were protected the amount of slaves being used as export commodities only rose.

Father Filipe Franco spoke of the Portuguese insatiability for slaves from Kongo “in a place of gold or silver or other things that serve as money in other places, the trade and money are pieces [slaves] which are not gold nor cloth but creatures.’  Similarly acknowledging the moral dilemma of slavery, in 1643 Kongo King Garcia II would write “in our simplicity we gave place to that from which grows all the evils of our country.” The issue with using slaves as the means for all types of payments, as the Kingdom of Kongo had done, was that the demand to use slaves as money was high, and owning slaves became very lucrative. Moving into the seventeenth century, as Kongo stopped expanding its territory and enslaving war criminals, many nobles began pushing the line of who could be enslaved, placing formerly protected freemen into bondage. Freemen became increasingly enslaved and by the height of the transatlantic slave trade it was not just foreign born captives who were being taken from Kongo to the new world.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Database

The capturing of slaves in Kongo was only one aspect of the transatlantic slave trade. The next step in the commodification of slaves occurred aboard slave ships along the middle passage. Historian John Rediker describes the slave ship as “crucial to the making of modern capitalism” and also as “an instrument of terror.” Upwards of 12 million people were transported across the Atlantic in the slave trade. By using the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database we can look at the quantification of human greed, horror, and fear. In her article “'She must go overboard & shall go overboard': diseased bodies and the spectacle of murder at sea” Sowande’ Mustakeem uses the slave ship experience of an anonymous female slave to explore the psychological and physical realities of the transatlantic slave trade. Using the experience aboard one ship to examine the general makeup and attitudes of slaves and sailors on ships throughout the slave trade is interesting to me. I thought looking into individual ships through the voyage database would be a good point of entrance to the Transatlantic slave database. 

I began with the story I mentioned in the section above in which King Pedro II wrote to King Philip in 1623 claiming that the governor of Angola, João Correia de Sousa, had invaded Kongo and enslaved many nobles and free people who were then sent to Brazil. As tensions rose between the Portuguese and the people of Kongo, so did tensions between Kongo rulers and the governors of the Portuguese colony of Angola located to the south of the Kingdom of Kongo. In 1622 Portuguese governor João Correia de Sousa invaded southern Kongo and into the Kasanze region, which was said to have been used as a refuge for slaves escaping the Portuguese Angolan deportation city of Luanda. Here in this region, the governor captured Kongo people, many freemen and some nobles, and these Kongo people were enslaved and sent to Brazil around 1623.

I was interested in seeing if I could find a ship on the voyage database that fit the criteria of this story. In the database I selected Luanda as the principal place of slave purchase and Brazil as the principal place of slave landing. I also made the time frame from 1622 to 1625. A voyage appeared following this criteria from 1624. This is a year later than King Pedro II's 1623 letter to Spain, but perhaps he was writing that letter as the ship sailed through the Atlantic reaching its principal landing point of Bahia, Brazil in early 1624. Or perhaps this is a completely different voyage. From the database what we can tell is that this ship departed from the slave purchasing city of Luanda and was temporarily detained by the Dutch before reaching Bahia in 1624.

From the database we also know that of the 284 slaves who embarked 245 disembarked. We don’t know what happened to the 39 people who didn’t make it to shore. Maybe like Mustakeem’s anonymous female slave, they died of disease. Maybe they were led to suicide like those in Equiano’s account of his journey. Maybe some were thrown to the sharks as Rediker explains. Maybe this is the ship described by King Pedro II, and once it arrived in Brazil, some of the noblemen and free Kongo people were tracked down and returned home. What we can assume, whether this is the ship from King Pedro II's account or not, is that most of the 245 people who got off of this ship in Brazil did not return home and were forced to reconcile with the reality of their new life and surroundings—forced to endure unimaginable hardships and to create new forms of existence away from their original societies.

Equiano, O., 1798. The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano

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.

Mustakeem, Sowande. "“She must go overboard & shall go overboard”: Diseased bodies and the spectacle of murder at sea." Atlantic Studies 8, no. 3 (2011): 301-316.

Rediker, Marcus. "History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade." Atlantic Studies 5, no. 2 (2008): 285-297.

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

 "The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database Has Information on Almost 36,000 Slaving Voyages." Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Accessed March 05, 2016. http://www.slavevoyages.org/. 

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