The resistance of enslaved Africans during the Transatlantic Slave Trade has often been grossly underreported and underestimated. Africans began to fight against the slave trade as soon as it began. It is equally important to realize that there were African natives who operated as conspirators as well as collaborators, but their level of participation is often overstated. There are numerous, yet infrequently publicized accounts of African resistance and attempts to defend themselves.
The first maritime pilots arrived in Mauritania around 1441 and later Senegal in 1444. They systematically began abducting their victims but were met with opposition, hostility, and retaliation. Equally important they began to buy people while continuing the abductions as well. It should be noted the early, rare African rulers that initially collaborated with the foreigners were doing so to rid themselves of troublemakers and captured enemies of rival tribes.
Chattel Slavery Vs Indentured Servitude
It is important to have an understanding of the differences in chattel slavery, indentured servitude and the capturing of a war-time enemy. The natives that were in collaboration with the European colonizers had a very different understanding of servitude than their foreign counterparts. Once they learned the truth, many of them banned the practice and began actively fighting against it.
In the seventeenth century, Queen NZinga Mbandi (1583-1663) of the Ndongo people of modern-day Angola engaged in armed conflict for the better part of a century against the Portuguese. The Kingdoms of Benin and Dahomey banned the slave trade in 1708 and attacked European fortresses. Unfortunately, the successor to the Dahomey King did not share his view and began collaborating and profiting from the trade. In the eighteenth century, Futa Toro in the Senegal River Basin, and later the nineteenth century Futa Jallon (present-day Guinea), banned the trading of human beings and subsequently wrote a letter to British slave traders. The letter contained the threat of death to anyone caught engaging in the slave trade in his country.
Armed conflict was not always the most effective approach. Many ordinary Africans took precautions to protect themselves. Strategies devised to indefinitely protect people from the slave traders were desperately needed. Earthen walls approximately twelve feet high were constructed to help thwart, and hopefully prevent abductions. Rivers were diverted to restrict access to villages by maritime means. They built fortresses and deep ditches were dug to act as barriers, they planted thorny bushes as a natural impediment. Whole communities were relocated to more defensible terrain such as caves, tunnel complexes, hilltops, and marshes. Surprisingly, some built homes on the edges of lakes as a natural obstacle. These innovations afforded limited maneuver areas to invaders and provided additional reaction time for the Africans to employ defensive measures.
Work teams were established for protection, paths leading to villages were overgrown by vegetation. Small groups of armed lookouts were strategically placed. Walled villages were designed and built as mazes to disorient invaders. Houses were built with alternate escape options. More importantly, anyone approaching the villages was immediately challenged, and in extreme cases, killed to discourage others from venturing to close. Families who were fortunate enough to locate captive family members, quickly collected their assets to offer in turn for their release, in some cases another person was substituted to obtain the release of the loved ones. For example, a father may have substituted himself for his son.
With the expansion of the slave trade, resistance to it grew as well. In response, the slave traders began relocating whenever possible to European barracoons on islands such as Gor’ee (Senegal), James (Gambia), and Bunce Island (Sierra Leone). This made an escape and attack difficult. In addition to challenging small boats and the locals, the crews of ships were always ordered to remain on full alert. The locals were viewed as hostile and extreme threats and had to be repulsed immediately. Their heavily fortified garrisons and barracoons were testaments to their trepidation and mistrust.
In the eighteenth century, Saint Joseph on the Senegal River would be attacked, and the trafficking of slaves would be completely suspended for six years. In Sierra Leone, the quarters of the slave trader John Ormand was attacked. On the river Gambia, several slave ships were attacked, and their crews executed. Revolts on Goree Island resulted in the Governor’s death. Slave ship revolts, however difficult to organize, were in fact numerous. There are approximately 420 documented revolts, however, this does not represent the number in its entirety. It is estimated that upwards of 100,000 Africans were lost in uprisings during the middle passage. I personally believe that this number is much larger still.
Transatlantic Slave Act
The abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Act was entered into statute on March 25, 1807. The act made it illegal to engage in the slave trade throughout the British colonies. However, trafficking between the Caribbean Islands continued until 1811. The last recorded slave ship to arrive in the United States of America was The Clotilda in 1925, a full 62 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and a 118 years after Transatlantic Slave Trade Act in 1807.
“Until the Lion learns to write, the story will always favor the hunter”- African Proverb
The Lion has learned to Write; Bo Ajala