Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 50: What’s behind the legend of the mixed-race slave trader Joel A. Rogers called “Mongo John”?
The trans-Atlantic slave trade, as the historian David Eltis writes, “was the largest long-distance coerced movement of people in history and, prior to the mid-19th century, formed the major demographic well-spring for the re-peopling of the Americas following the collapse of the Amerindian population.” In fact, we now know, thanks to Eltis’ Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, that some 12.5 million Africans were captured, traded and shipped to the New World between 1501 and 1867. But what most of us don’t know is how all of these Africans were captured, moved to the coast of West and Central Africa, traded and then boarded on ships destined for the New World.
A Diabolical System
No family wants to find skeletons in its closet, and no people wants to discover lives being bought and sold, especially by their own, in the past. This is especially true for people of African descent regarding the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a system of capture and trade in black human beings that was, we might say, diabolically ingenious, involving African elites, European merchants and even a class of prosperous mulatto slave traders. There’s more than enough blame and guilt to be shared by all parties.
First, slaves were captured in wars that African leaders waged for a variety of reasons, some specifically for the purpose of generating bodies to be sold to market for the New World slave trade. As the historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood state, a significant number of the slaves shipped across the Atlantic began their horrific journey as by-products of capture in these wars.
Others were captured illicitly “by African bandits and gangs who operated in hard-to-control areas, forests and so on, and hit as people were going to market or sailing on the rivers,” as Thornton and Heywood wrote in an email.
Still others were enslaved by judicial means. Overall, some 90 percent of all of the Africans destined for the nightmare of slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean began their journeys in one of these three ways, and, Thornton and Heywood estimate, one-third of the Africans were captured by other Africans.
The African elites brought their victims to the coast and sold them to slave traders who operated through a variety of trading places, as David Eltis explained to me by email. Some were sold at “factories,” the residence of a European or African trading agent or agents (or factors) of a slaving company, established in strategic locations along the African coast. Some were sold at coastal forts, in Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. “South of the latter (Guinea-Bissau) to the Gold Coast (Ghana), there was a large number of small, but fortified, trading posts.” Then from Ghana east to the Togo boundary today there were about 40 castles of varying size.
Further east, from Little Popo in Dahomey [Benin] to Lagos, Nigeria, “the flow of slaves was controlled by African polities, and the Europeans had agents and storehouses under the protection of an African ruler,” Eltis continued. “From the Niger Delta to Northern Angola, there were no permanent European posts at all, so each slave ship would negotiate with the African polity, and Europeans would not have had a permanent land-based presence, though the Congo River had a lot of European-controlled barracoons [enclosures to hold the enslaved] in the last 25 years of the trade.” The exception to all of this was Luanda, in Angola. It was “the biggest trading site of all, which was Portuguese-controlled, as was Mozambique island,” where there would be warehouses and holding yards.
If African elites controlled the capture of the slaves in the interior, who controlled these factories and trading places along the coasts? Europeans, right? Here’s where things get interesting. Surprisingly, some of the largest traders in slaves were actually “mulattos,” the offspring of European traders and the daughters of African rulers. They were connected to both the European merchants and the African elites by marriage, clientage and trade alliances.