Africans who played an active role in the Transatlantic slave trade

Salaga Slave Market in the Northern Region of Ghana

It has been established that the demand for slaves during the Transatlantic slave trade was fuelled by the availability of a supply chain which involved African rulers and tradesmen who made a fortune out of selling people.

Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to North America, the Caribbean and South America, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Only about 10.7 million survived the dreadful journey under bondage in slave ships.

The slave trade contributed to the expansion of the most powerful West African kingdoms such as Mali and Ghana, as the business became one of the main sources of foreign exchange for many years.

In a 2010 article published in the New York Times, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. said: “Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese.”

Britain banned the slave trade in 1807 and the United States later abolished it in 1865. Brazil was the last to ban it in the Caribbean in 1888 marking the end of the barbarism inflicted on men, women and children of colour and their descendants.

There were recorded protests by West African chiefs and traders after the abolition of slave trade. According to Nigerian author Tunde Obadina: “When Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, it not only had to contend with opposition from white slavers but also from African rulers who had become accustomed to wealth gained from selling slaves or from taxes collected on slaves passed through their domain.

“African slave-trading classes were greatly distressed by the news that legislators sitting in Parliament in London had decided to end their source of livelihood. But for as long as there was demand from the Americas for slaves, the lucrative business continued,” he added.

There were dozens of known African slave traders who had sold thousands of people to European slave merchants. In West Africa, the traders were known as caboceers and they lived on the coast. They were usually appointed by the African rulers to deal directly with the European slave merchants.

The website Portcities Bristol – created to document the role of the English city of Bristol in the transatlantic slave trade – reports: “Many, such as the caboceer from the Fante people, John Currantee, or the leader from the Efik people Ephraim Robin John (known to the European traders as King George) were well-known as canny and ruthless dealers.”

“They were able to communicate in a number of European and African languages. The African slave traders were skilled in using to their advantage the rivalries between the French, the English and the Dutch to get the best prices for their slaves. Often they demanded (and received) ‘gifts’ or ‘custom fees’, known in some quarters as ‘dashee’, from the Europeans,” it adds.

Most of these traders continued selling slaves despite the ban while others used the slaves to work on plantations in Africa.

We highlight some of the notorious African slave traders who played active roles in the transatlantic slave trade.

Tippu Tip on the front page of a British newspaper

Tippu Tip (1832-1905)

He was a Swahili-Zanzibari slave trader, businessman and governor who worked for many sultans of Zanzibar. Tippu Tip traded in slaves for Zanzibar’s clove plantations.

He led many trading expeditions into Central Africa by constructing profitable trading posts that reached deep into the region. By 1895, he had acquired “seven ‘shambas’ [plantations] and 10,000 slaves.

He met and helped several famous western explorers of the African continent, including David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley. He claimed the Eastern Congo for himself and for the Sultan of Zanzibar; and was later made governor of the Stanley Falls District in the Congo Free State.

Rabih’s head is a battlefield trophy after the fighting on 22 April 1900

Rabih az-Zubayr (1842-1900)

He was a Sudanese warlord and slave trader who established a powerful empire east of Lake Chad, in today’s Chad. He worked as the right-hand man of the Sudanese slaveholder Sebehr Rahma. He conquered empires and was killed by the French after he slaughtered their emissaries.

He was a Sudanese warlord and slave trader who established a powerful empire east of Lake Chad, in today’s Chad. He worked as the right-hand man of the Sudanese slaveholder Sebehr Rahma. He conquered empires and was killed by the French after he slaughtered their emissaries.

Al-Zubayr Rahma Mansur

Al-Zubayr Rahma Mansur

He was a slave trader in the late 19th century and later became a Sudanese governor. He was at odds with the British Governor General Charles Gordon and was referred to as “the richest and worst”, a “Slaver King” “who [had] chained lions as part of his escort” by England.

General Gordon who was sent to Sudan to suppress the slave trade was opposed by Al-Zubayr.

Muhammad bin Khalfan bin Khamis al-Barwani alias Rumaliza

Muhammad bin Khalfan bin Khamis al-Barwani alias Rumaliza

Named Muhammad bin Khalfan bin Khamis al-Barwani, Rumaliza was a Swahili[a] slave and ivory trader in East Africa in the last part of the nineteenth century. With the help of Tippu Tip he became Sultan of Ujiji. At one time he dominated the trade of Tanganyika.

Stories associated Rumaliza and his parties with the kidnapping of women, cutting off men’s genitals (to be captured and sold as eunuch slaves), cutting off legs, arms and hands, piercing of noses and ears, burning villages and killings. Belgian forces under Francis Dhanis launched a campaign against slave dealers in 1892, and Rumaliza was targeted until he fled.

William Ansah Sessarakoo

William Ansah Sessarakoo (1736–1770)

He was a prominent 18th-century Ghanaian, best known for his wrongful enslavement in the West Indies and diplomatic mission to England. He was both prominent among the Fante people and influential among Europeans concerned with the transatlantic slave trade.

His father was John Correntee, chief caboceer and head of the Annamaboe (present day Anomabo) government who was a slave trader and an important ally for any trader in the city. His father sent him to England to gain an education and be his eyes and ears in Europe.

The ship captain entrusted with Ansah’s transport sold him into slavery in Barbados before reaching England. He was discovered in Barbados years later by a free Fante trader who alerted John Corrente. Corrente petitioned the British to free his son. The Royal African Company, the English company operating the slave trade freed him and transported him to England.

He was received as a prince in England and gained the respect of London’s high society. It is noted that he watched a live performance of a play depicting a wrongly enslaved African prince. He fled the theatre in tears to the surprise of the audience. The play likely reminded Ansah of himself.

He returned to Annamaboe and took up work as a writer at Cape Coast Castle. He later worked as a slave trader.

Signares

Signare

Signare was the name for the Mulatto French-African women of the island of Gorée in French Senegal during the 18th and 19th centuries. These women of colour managed to gain some individual assets, status, and power in the hierarchies of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Notable signares included Victoria Albis, Hélène Aussenac, Anna Colas Pépin, Anne Pépin, Mary de Saint Jean and Crispina Peres.

Francisco Félix de Souza

Francisco Félix de Sousa (1754 – 1849)

Francisco Félix de Souza was a major slave trader and merchant who traded in palm oil, gold and slaves. The Afro-Brazilian migrated from Brazil to what is now the African republic of Benin. He has been called, “the greatest slave trader”.

De Sousa continued to market slaves after the trade was abolished in most jurisdictions. He was apparently so trusted by the locals in Dahomey that he was awarded the status of a chieftain.

His early years in Africa are well documented in a long article (in Portuguese) by Alberto Costa e Silva entitled “The Early Years of Francisco Féliz de Souza on the Slave Coast”.

Although a Catholic, he practised the Vodun religion, which is consistent with his Afro-Brazilian background, and even had his own family shrine. He was buried in Dahomey.

Madam Efunroye Tinubu

Efunroye Tinubu (1810 – 1887)

She was a politically significant figure in Nigerian history because of her role as a powerful female aristocrat and slave trader in pre-colonial and colonial Nigeria. She was a major figure in Lagos during the reigns of Obas Adele, Oluwole, Akitoye and Dosunmu.

In December 1851 and under the pretext of abolishing slavery, the British bombarded Lagos, dislodged Kosoko from the throne, and installed a more amenable Akitoye as Oba of Lagos. Though Akitoye signed a treaty with Britain outlawing the slave trade, Tinubu subverted the 1852 treaty and secretly traded slaves for guns with Brazilians and Portuguese traders.

Bibiana Vaz (1630 – 1694)

Bibiana Vaz de França was a prominent seventeenth-century slave-trader in Cacheu, Guinea-Bissau. She married the richest man in Guinea and in 1687, she was arrested and taken to São Tiago (today as Santiago), where she was held as a prisoner.

Portuguese authorities, unable to confiscate her property, granted her a pardon in exchange for an indemnity and a promise that she would construct a fort in Bolor on the Cacheu River. She never constructed the fort.

Niara Bely (1790 – 1879)

Also known as Elizabeth Bailey Gomez, she was a Luso-African queen who became a prominent businesswoman in nineteenth-century Guinea. She was active in the slave trade in Farenya, Guinea.

She studied in Liverpool where she adopted the name Elizabeth.

Okoro Idozuka

He was a 19th-century leader and warrior in the Arondizuogu area of what is now Nigeria. He was a senior advisor to the founder of Ndiakunwanta Uno Arondizuogu village and also a leader in his own right, expanding Arondizuogu’s boundaries. He was a wealthy slave trader like Izuogu Mgbokpo.

Okoroji Oti

He was a local chief in Ujari, one of the nineteen villages in Arochukwu, Abia State, Nigeria. He was reputable for being a slave merchant who built the Okoroji House Museum, a historic house museum. Oral history has it that four hundred people were sacrificed to Ibini Ukpabi after his death as the head of the oracle.

Oshodi Tapa monument in Lagos

Oshodi Tapa (1800 – 1868)

He was Oba Kosoko’s war captain and one of the most powerful chiefs in the Oba of Lagos’ court. He is reported to have been a slave from the Nupe Kingdom at Bida. Accounts note that when he was a little boy about to be loaded onto a Portuguese ship bound for the Americas, he escaped and sought refuge in Oba Osinlokun’s palace.

He and another slave (Dada Antonio) were sent by Oba Osilokun to Brazil to learn Portuguese, acquire the necessary commercial and cultural knowledge to conduct trade on behalf of the Oba and to collect duties from Portuguese slave traders. After serving Osilokun, Oshodi Tapa became a key adviser and military chief of Oba Kosoko.

He successfully transitioned from human trafficking to expanding into producing palm oil, cotton, and ivory using slave labour.

Antera Duke

He was an 18th-century African slave dealer and Efik chief from Calabar in eastern Nigeria (now in Cross River State). His diary, written in Nigerian Pidgin English, was discovered in Scotland and published. This diary records his interactions with British merchants to whom he sold slaves; he writes about wearing “white man trousers” and entertaining the merchants he traded with.

Emmanuel Gomez, senior

Emmanuel Gomez was a Luso-African from Bissau who founded a Luso-African dynasty in Bakia, Guinea in the eighteenth century. He was the father of Emmanuel Gomez, junior and Niara Bely.

Ghezo

He was King of Dahomey, in present-day Benin, from 1818 until 1858. Ghezo replaced his brother Adandozan (who ruled from 1797 to 1818) as king through a coup with the assistance of the Brazilian slave trader Francisco Félix de Sousa.

He suffered a British blockade of the ports of Dahomey in order to stop the Atlantic slave trade. He also dealt with significant domestic dissent and pressure from the British to end the slave trade.

Betsy Heard (1759 – 1812)

She was a Euro‐African slave trader and merchant whose father was an entrepreneur who had travelled from Liverpool, England, to the Los Islands, off the coast of what is now Guinea, in the mid-1700s. Her mother was African.

Heard’s father sent her to England to study and she later returned to West Africa and set up a trading post on the Bereira River. She inherited her father’s slave-trading factory and connections, and by 1794, established a monopoly on the slave trade in the area. She owned the main wharf in Bereira, several trading ships, and a warehouse until her retirement.

Group photo of Seriki Williams Abass and his council members

Seriki Williams Abass

He was a renowned slave merchant during the 19th century and a former paramount ruler of Badagry.

Born Ifaremilekun Fagbemi in Joga-Orile, a town in Ilaro, Ogun State, Abass was captured as a slave by a Dahomean slave merchant called Abassa during one of the Dahomey–Egba clashes. He was later sold to a certain Brazilian slave dealer called Williams who took Abass to Brazil as a domestic servant and taught him how to read and write in Dutch, English, Spanish and Portuguese languages.

He returned to Nigeria on the condition of working with Mr Williams as a slave trade business partner. He first settled at Ofin, Isale-Eko in the Colony of Lagos before he relocated to Badagry in the 1830s.

He succeeded in his slave-trade business while in Badagry and soon became the first person in the Egbado division of Badagry to own a lorry, the “Seriki Ford” he bought in 1919 to ply the Abeokuta–Aiyetoro Road. His wealth brought him respect and made him hold various top political and organizational positions.

This article was first published by Ismail Akwei on face2faceafrica.com

Published by Ismail Akwei

Ismail Akwei is an international journalist, digital media and communications professional, editor, writer, arts, culture and tourism advocate, human rights activist, pan-Africanist, tech enthusiast and history buff. He has worked with multinational media companies across Africa and has over a decade’s experience in journalism.

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