Empire of Liberty: A Vile Trade

“People aren’t cargo mate”

~ Captain Jackson Hawke, 1826


Excerpt from Emmanuel Uchendu’s “The African Realm: A History”, University of Liberia Press, 1980.

The Atlantic slave trade peaked in the 18th century with at least 60,000 slaves exported out of Africa per year in the mid-late 1700’s. By this point, the slave trade dominated trading routes and shipping centers on three of Africa’s four coastlines. Archaeological evidence has found cowrie shell monies, finished metals, firearms and textiles in remote inland locations far away from the main slave-centers, an indicator that the pervasive spread of even indirect trading had penetrated most of West Africa, the Sahel and the hinterlands of East Africa. Foreign records state that Africa developed “an unquenchable thirst for foreign imports” and, as we have seen in previous chapters, with few good trade materials in their own right, these regional statelets and city-states continued to be more than willing to trade the one commodity they did have: slaves. Lacking the well-documented records of the oceanic and coastal trades, historians have debated what the impact of slavery was on inland Africa for decades. While a thorough analysis of those many interpretations goes beyond the scope of this book, we can certainly say the impact, in whatever form it took, was, and continues to be, tremendous.

Statistically, the odds of any one African being captured were low even at the peak of the trade. Records from the ports of Portuguese West Africa indicate that six people per 1,000 of the population were taken each year. It is more likely that the reader of this book will be involved in a deadly car accident this year than an 18th century African would be taken as a slave. Yet the aggregate numbers are staggering. Computer models demonstrate that while some 11 million slaves crossed the Atlantic between 1700 and 1850, the total number of captured slaves was actually 25 million, with millions staying in slavery in Africa or dying within a year of capture (including the millions who perished during the Atlantic crossing). These models also show that Africa between the Sahara and the Limpopo River experienced zero population growth between 1750 and 1850, an astonishing revelation. And of course, there are no statistics that correlate to fear, and that pervasive terror transformed certain parts of society in the various slave-gathering regions. The insular Dogon people of the Sahel began living in the Bandiagara Escarpment around this time, the rocky terrain and cliff dwellings providing an additional layer of security against slave expeditions that plagued the lowlands. When the British explorer Mungo Park encountered a contingent of slaves being led to the coast he recorded the following:

“They would not believe me, and one of them putting his hand upon the ground, said with great simplicity ‘have you really got such ground as this to set your feet upon?’ [They believed] that the whites purchased the negros for the purpose of devouring them, or of selling them to others that they may be devoured hereafter, [which] naturally makes the slaves contemplate a journey towards the coast with great terror.”

A freed slave, Olaudah Equiano, provided the following account in his famous autobiography:

“Generally when the grown people in the neighborhood were gone far in the fields to labour, the children assembled together in some of the neighbor’s premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up in a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us; for they sometimes took these opportunities of our parents’ absence to attack and carry off as many as they could seize…But alas! ere long it was my fate to be thus attacked, and to be carried off, when none of the grown people were nigh. One day, when all out 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, and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us.”

Equiano was eleven when he was captured. Soon after that passage, he would be separated from his sister whom he never saw again. The son of an Igbo famer near the Niger River delta, domestic slavery had long been a component of Igbo society and commercial slavery was well incorporated into the customs of the people. Indeed, the common phrase “sold down the river” does not lie in the fear that slaves in Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Tennessee would be sold down the Mississippi or Tennessee Rivers to the harsh plantations of Alabama, Georgia or further into the Caribbean as the phrase is so often attributed to. Instead, the phrase’s origins lie in the territory of the Igbo when criminal appellants who lost their last appeal before Igbo judges risked being “sold down the Niger River” to the slave-traders on the coast as part of their punishment. It made sense. These societies wanted foreign imports and the best currency they had was people; why not send the traders the dregs of society? Francis Moore, a slave trader operating near the Gambia River in the 1730’s recorded:

“Since this Slave-Trade has been us’d, all Punishments are chang’d into Slavery; there being an Advantage on such Condemnations, they strain for Crimes very hard, in order to get the Benefit of selling the Criminal. Not only murder, Theft and Adultery, are punish’d by selling the Criminal for a Slave, but every trifling Crime is punish’d in the same manner.”

To get a sense of the impact of the trade in terms of dispersing peoples and populations, especially towards the coast, we can examine U.S. census records from the mid-19th century. In 1850, over 200 different languages were identified amongst the population of Monrovia [1]. Nearly 120 languages were spoken in the Mascarene Islands in 1810, an amazing fact given that the slave trade in Isle de France was far removed from the nexus points of the Atlantic trade [2]. Across the Atlantic, the creole languages of the Caribbean were heavily influenced by loan words and root-words from languages across Africa.

While the slave trade is easily the most transformative event in Africa’s history, and certainly during this period of history, it was not the only event. The Portuguese brought maize and cassava to Africa from the Americas that, over time, amounted to nothing less than an agricultural revolution. Firearms presented another revolution to African society in their own right. The first firearms traded in Africa were the ancient matchlock rifles that 15th century Portuguese brought with them. Papal interdiction prevented further trade but by the 18th century, a robust trade in firearms had developed between Africa and Europe (assisted as firearm technology became sturdier). The weapons sold in Africa were hardly reliable. A 1759 accounting of weapons in Luanda demonstrated that only 200 out of an available 4,000 firearms met military standards of reliability. Records seem to indicate that fear, not accuracy, made the weapons so useful in the various slave raids and wars of the era. Surely, a surprise attack on an unsuspecting agricultural village that had never seen a firearm before would induce panic and increase the chance of capturing slaves. In a way, accuracy hardly mattered considering the goal was to take people alive. Moreover, other records show that firearms were a hugely popular trade item in Africa. One paper reported:

“The import of firearms into West Africa in any significant numbers began at much the same time as the large-scale export of slaves and there is an obvious connection between the two.”

So many firearms were imported that a noticeable price crash occurred over a short period of time. In 1682, a gun merchant could sell two firearms for one slave. By 1718, that number rose to 24-32 guns per slave. British records show that somewhere between 280,000 to 400,000 firearms were sold each year in West Africa from 1750 to 1800. The best estimates put the total number of firearms sold to African merchants during the era of the slave trade at 20-23 million [3].

All of this trade brought small-scale European colonization to Africa’s shores. Beginning with the Portuguese colonization of Cape Verde, São Tomé, and Príncipe, more and more European merchants came to West Africa intent on setting up coastal forts through which they could conduct trade and exploration. Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, almost every European power of note joined in this flurry of outpost building. Initial attempts by Portugal to maintain a monopoly on West Africa floundered and soon a variety of “West Africa Companies” began cruising the Gulf of Guinea and establishing forts. The Dutch West India Company began operating in the 1620’s, primarily out of Elmina Castle, which they seized from the Portuguese in a 1637 battle. The Dutch would dominate trade in the region for over a century but the importance of the African posts declined as Dutch trade interests around the world declined. The Dutch West India Company dissolved in the 1790’s and much of the former Dutch Empire was ceded to Britain after the War of the Second Coalition as part of De Deifstal. The Swedish Africa Company established seven forts and two factories from 1650 to 1663 before the Danish took them forcing the Swedes to declare bankruptcy in 1674. Of the smaller powers, Denmark would hold on the longest, ceding its interests to Britain at the conclusion of the War of the Fifth Coalition. Interestingly, enterprising Dutchmen, keen on bypassing the Dutch West India Company’s monopoly, founded both the Danish and Swedish companies. Even Prussia got in on the act when in 1682 the Great Elector, Frederick William, formed the Brandenburg Africa Company. The small endeavor established two forts that remained in Brandenburger/Prussian hands until the Dutch purchased them in 1721. However, the most surprising endeavor of all surely belongs to the Polish-Lithuanian fief of Courland. In 1651, Courland established several forts at the mouth of the Gambia River, which lasted until 1661 when they were ceded to the English. The forts operated in conjunction with the on-again, off-again, Courlander effort to settle the Caribbean island of Tobago throughout the 17th century.

By the start of the 19th century, the three principal powers operating in the region were the British, French and Portuguese. Britain had long been involved in the region but it’s possession of outposts increased markedly when it received the Dutch Gold Coast as part of the 1800 Treaty of London. The Treaty of Brussels marked the end of the War of the Fifth Coalition as well as the end of the Danish Gold Coast that Britain also received. In less than a decade, Britain went from possessing a negligible share of the West African outposts to a near monopoly. Second to Britain stood the oldest European power in the region: Portugal. Master of the offshore islands, its own slices of Guinea, a reliable ally in the Kongo and the Angolan Coast, little Portugal was no pushover in this arena. From these numerous holdings, Portuguese ships bought African slaves in droves for export to Brazil. Of all the varied destinations of the slaves through the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade, Brazil would take in the largest amount of slaves. France, despite the heavy colonial losses during the First and Second Coalitionary Wars, managed to hold on to its West Africa possessions, albeit just barely. France’s colonial efforts begin with the 1659 establishment of Saint-Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River. In 1677, the French captured the valuable island of Gorée from the Dutch, which defended the excellent port at the end of the Cap-Vert Peninsula. It was on Gorée that the French built the infamous House of the Slaves that became a lasting monument to the horrors of slavery. French activity also ranged across the Gold Coast but the only permanent French presence in the region was at Assinie, which lasted less than 20 years. Despite the constant wars, France retained its interests in the Senegal region even after the War of the Last Coalition. We should note that a fourth power, Spain also operated in the region. Dating to the 1778 Treaty of El Pardo between Spain and Portugal, the Spanish controlled a small slice of Guinea (though it was administered from Buenos Aires) which they used as a safe port and a secure source of slaves. The Partition of Spain saw Spanish Guinea transferred to the Aragonese Republic for trade and administrative purposes. Aragonese Guinea found itself as an economic focal point of the numerous conflicts that enveloped the former Spanish Empire following the partition.

Of course, European powers were not the only organized entities operating in the region. African tribes and statelets inhabited West Africa for millennia and, as noted above, these polities expanded and took territory no different than any other political entity. Often, powerful empires would emerge that even the intermingling Europeans were keen to respect. The Wolof Empire was the dominant power in the Senegal area from the 14th to the 16th centuries with a remaining Wolof Kingdom persisting into the 19th century. The Oyo Empire began in the early 17th century and became the dominant coastal power around the Gold Coast until the start of the empire’s decline in the mid-18th century. To the west of the Oyo stood the Ashanti Empire that is arguably the most well studied of the West African empires from this 18th to 19th century era. Inland, several other empires spread from the forests of the coastal hills to the more arid Sahel. The Ségou Empire spread across the upper Niger River while the Kong Kingdom inhabited the hills to the west. To the east, the great Bornu Empire remained on the southwest shore of Lake Chad, a remnant of its former self, increasingly under pressure from the Sennar Sultanate and Wadai Sultanate, both based further east. Religious warfare by Islamists was common in this age as well. Several Fula States sprung up around the region thanks to a shared ideology of jihad, and favorable external conditions for conquest [4]. The 1804 Fulani War, arguably the most prominent of these jihads, lasted until 1808 and resulted in the creation of the powerful Sokoto Caliphate. Remnants of old empires and other important regional kingdoms such as the Dagbon, Sine, Saloum, Benin, Nri, Cayor, and Baol were also remained scattered about. Contrary to mainstream portrayal, West Africa was highly organized and full of political entities. This is a remarkable feat when one considers the disruption of the slave trade and European coastal influence, continual religious warfare along the Sahel, and an unfavorable environment for widespread agriculture.

As we know, European respect for these political entities only extended as far as their interests were suited. Europeans made war, built fortifications, and purchased slaves with disregard for the slave’s political status. As we have seen above, European traders dumped horses and firearms into Africa with little regard for existing power balances. The African polities, given their organizational, geographic and technical barriers, had little recourse. Even the eventual abolition of the slave trade was largely a political question played out in London, Paris and Washington rather than the Slave Coast itself.


Excerpt from Dr. Kristina Hulth’s “A History of Slavery”, University of Uppsala Press, 2018.

Within the British Empire, the earliest known protest against slavery came in 1688 when a congregation of German and Dutch Quakers living in Germantown, Pennsylvania issued a Petition Against Slavery. Over the decades, a crude coalition of pastors, religious minorities, prominent women and stakeholders emerged to oppose slavery as a whole, but especially the inhuman trade scheme itself. A group of Evangelical Protestants created the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787 specifically the lobby Parliament to abolish the trade, enforce its abolition and establish free zones in West Africa where native blacks could live without fear of capture. Notable amongst the initial membership was Granville Sharp, one of the attorneys on the infamous Somerset’s Case.


Excerpt from James Willis’ “50 Cases That Changed The World”, Random House Publishing, 2018.

Somerset’s Case regarded James Somerset, a slave brought to England from Virginia who had run away, been caught, and sued for his freedom, In Somerset v. Stewart, a landmark 1772 judgement from the Court of the King’s Bench, Lord William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, determined that chattel slavery was unsupported by the common law in England and Wales. Yet the case was decided in such a way that slavery could (theoretically) continue in the rest of the empire. The crux of Mansfield’s decision was based on “positive” statute rather than the common law:

“The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

The common law of England and Wales made no mention of slavery therefore, due to its “odious” nature it could not be supported there. Mansfield would claim that his ruling was meant to be narrow, limited to preventing a slave from forcibly being removed from England against his will. Mansfield’s reasoning was predicated on centuries old determinations that a master could not forcibly remove his villein [a feudal tenant entirely subject to a lord]. Yet, the judgement established radical precedent that seemed to go against several earlier 18th century decisions. Those cases determined that slaves were items of property (“like stock on a farm”) who were not emancipated by becoming Christian or by entering into England, that possession of a slave could be recovered by the legal action of trover, and that their master might lawfully compel them to leave England with him [5]. Regardless, Mansfield’s judgement stood and even expanded. In 1778, the case of Knight v. Wedderburn concluded that slavery had no existence in Scottish common law. The twin cases excited abolitionists who expected sweeping legal judgements throughout the empire that could end the practice. Several slaves filed a series of freedom suits in 1773 and 1774 in Massachusetts based on Mansfield’s ruling. The colony’s General Court supported these suits but the Royal Governors vetoed the decisions, likely in an attempt to quash fears in slave-holding colonies that contributed to the call for independence. Indeed, the royal charters of the various colonies required their laws not be contrary to the laws of England. Practicality interfered in the form of the American Revolution. Even then, several northern states abolished or ruled against the maintenance of slavery. The 1783 freedom suit of Quock Walker in Massachusetts led to a similar determination that slavery was irreconcilable with the new state constitution and thus prohibited; an obvious legal mirror to Somerset. Conversely, the southern and Caribbean states were clear to incorporate pro-slavery statutes and provisions into their new body of laws.

It was clear by the 1780’s that Somerset’s Case had a wide impact on slave-holding, and abolitionist, society.


Excerpt from Dr. Kristina Hulth’s “A History of Slavery”, University of Uppsala Press, 2018.

Sharp’s work on Somerset’s Case and its crucial ruling sparked a renewed wave of abolitionist vigor. A grassroots campaign to gradually abolish slavery swept parts of society and in 1791 William Wilberforce, an MP from Yorkshire, introduced the first bill to abolish the slave trade which was defeated.

Around this time, Sharp was working closely with other stakeholders to relocate several hundred poor blacks from London “back to Africa”. Around 1790, London harbored nearly 40,000 free blacks, mostly loyalist refugees from the American Revolution [6], the vast majority of whom were either un-, or under-, employed. Sharp helped to pioneer the St. George’s Bay Company, which took several hundred free blacks (and about 100 whites) and placed them on the coast of West Africa. This troubled colony collapsed after two years, ravaged by disease and local warfare, but provided crucial lessons to its successor: the Sierra Leone Company.

Established several years after the St. George’s Bay experiment, nearly 3,000 free blacks migrated to the new colony and established Freetown [7]. The colony experienced many of the same challenges as the earlier attempt but found sustainability where St. George’s Bay failed. Freetown immediately became an eclectic colony due to its demographics and quasi-philanthropic/quasi-economic purpose. Buildings in the colony took on a distinctive look that mirrored the stately plantations of port avenues of the American Caribbean and southern mainland, an obvious consequence given the fact that these slaves came from those locales. Roughly 300 of the migrants, all slaves captured and sold to labor in the Americas before shockingly finding themselves back in Africa, immediately left the colony in an attempt to return to their homes. No records exist if any of the departees found success in their journeys. Raids and the risk of re-enslavement remained prevalent. Yet, the population was surprisingly egalitarian and democratic, even for a European colony. The settlers devised a system of representation, routinely held free elections, and even allowed women to participate in the process. Once the colony was largely established and self-sustaining, questions about its long-term make up began to rise to the fore. None of the colonists actually owned their land freehold, which created tensions between the settlers and the Company (sparking several small revolts put down by mercenary troops hired by the crown). Demographics always plagued the colony as a hierarchy developed. At the top of the pyramid were the initial colonists, below them were any subsequent colonists and free blacks that made their way to Sierra Leone and at the bottom lie the native Africans who didn’t much care for the newcomers. Everything was exacerbated in the early 1810’s thanks to two non-African events: the British abolition of the slave trade and the War of the Fourth Coalition.

Back in Britain, the push to eradicate the slave trade took longer, sidetracked thanks to the Napoleonic Wars and the proposed cost of enforcement. There were also geopolitical concerns. From roughly 1798 until 1806, the British were more or less on the same side (allies is not the right word) of France and the United States in the wider conflicts of the age. With Napoleon clearly in an alliance with the United States and the Consul clearly courting Portugal (who benefited greatly from the Partition of Spain even if they did nothing) the British were keen to leave the controversial issue for those two massive slave-importers alone for the time being. That was until the Holy Roman Revolution finally drew the line in the sand between the various powers at which point abolishing the trade became a strategic maneuver. On July 9, 1809 the Slave Trade Act of 1809 became law. The Royal Navy immediately began enforcement efforts and fined merchants who participated in the trade, though enforcement would lag in the 1810’s due to the ramped up war efforts and naval losses.

As part of the coming war effort, Britain immediately began pressuring its allies to abolish the trade. It achieved success quickly with Sweden and the German states but their outposts were long since lost and their engagement in the trade minimal. If Britain wanted to truly ban the trade, it needed to put pressure on Portugal, Denmark, France and the United States. During the War of the Fourth Coalition three of those powers became enemies of Britain while the other, possessed an empire whose wealth was dependent on slaves flowing from Africa to Brazil. In the end, while Britain set the trend to end the slave trade, its actions only directly resulted in the trade’s abolition in Denmark (largely thanks to the British capture of the Danish Gold Coast during the War of the Fifth Coalition). True enforcement took many years to establish and slave smuggling and piracy flourished along the West African coast throughout the 1810’s and 1820’s. It would not be until the 1830’s when multiple countries dispatched a significant number of patrol ships to the region that smuggling finally decreased.

France would only end the trade in 1827 after the Napoleonic Wars when Napoleon II consented to the wholesale abolition of slavery and the trade throughout his territories. This was an easy concession from him towards the French Parliament as part of the liberal reforms of his reign and thanks largely to the fact that by the late 1820’s France had virtually no remaining slave economies in its territories.

Portugal would outlaw the trade in 1836 after nearly a decade of slow winding down following greater enforcement by the Royal Navy and the 1830 Brazilian Revolution that put a barrier between Brazil and the Portuguese African colonies. Slavery would exist in both locales for decades longer.

For the United States, the battle over the slave trade would dominate interstate politics up until the Civil War. Economics and geopolitics combined to assure the trade’s survival well after the European abolitions, even after the U.S. formally abolished slave imports in 1842. The westward expansion of slavery in North America as the United States expanded guaranteed that slave traders would have thriving markets in ports like Mobile, New Orleans and Galveston even as slave agriculture waned in long-time slave bastions like Maryland and Virginia (thanks more to poor soils than any political activity). The nature of Caribbean slavery meant that the lifespan of a newly purchased slave could be only a few months, thus forcing sugar plantation owners to constantly acquire new slaves. As the United States acquired the Caribbean economies over the course of its first decades, this naturally meant that it forced out European powers thus allowing those powers to abolish slavery and the slave trade with minimal economic consequence. Any abolition of either by the United States would upend the economies and societies of dozens of states. Geopolitically, Constitutional guarantees of free interstate commerce also undermined any potential abolition of the slave trade. From the moment the United States annexed the Mascarene Islands, the slave states had a reliable source of slaves to import which no international treaty could prevent. This also undermined international enforcement since European warships could do nothing to a U.S. flagged merchant transporting slaves from the Mascarenes to the Americas. Further U.S. acquisitions in Africa only exacerbated the problem, an issue only rectified after the Civil War and the constitutional outlawing of slavery and slave trading.

This is not to say the U.S. did nothing regarding slavery in the first half of the 19th century. Many northern states abolished slavery in the years after the American Revolution. Liberal and abolitionist movements vehemently opposed slavery and the slave trade even before the revolution. American expansion into Africa placed it into direct contact with the exportation side of slavery for the first time. American adventurism in North Africa placed it in direct contact with white slavery, an issue that dynamically changed slave politics. As we will see in the next chapter, these internal slave politics and the controversial expansion of the United States into Africa would have profound consequences that ultimately led to the First World War.

————— Author’s Notes ——————

[1]: Obviously, the U.S. never conducted a census in Monrovia in our timeline. This number is based on a similar survey conducted in Sierra Leone by the British in 1850.

[2]: This number is based on a pure estimate by myself. Take it with a grain of salt.

[3]: I have increased this number from our timeline’s 18-20M estimates due to the fact that the slave trade continues for longer in this timeline.

[4]: Named for the predominantly Muslim Fula peoples who inhabit West Africa and the Sahel.

[5]: Trover being a common-law action to recover the value of personal property that has been wrongfully disposed of by another person.

[6]: In our timeline, this number is closer to 15000; I have increased it due to the larger scope of the American Revolutionary War.

[7]: Again, this is another larger number from our timeline.

Source Materials

Blumrosen, Alfred. Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution. Sourcebooks, 2005.

Fyfe, Christopher. Our Children Free and Happy: Letters from Black Settlers in Africa in the 1790s. Edinburgh University Press, 1992.

Reader, John. Africa: A Biolgraphy of the Continent. Vintage Books, 1997.

Sheppard, John. Granville Sharp: Father of the Anti-Slavery Movement in Britain. London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, 2007.

“Sierra Leone’s struggle for progress”. The Economist. 11 December 2008.

“Slave Trade Abolition Bill”. Hansard. 10 February 1807.

Usherwood, Stephen. The Black Must Be Discharged – The Abolitionists’ Debt to Lord Mansfield. History Today Volume: 31 Issue: 3. 1981.

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