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European contact and slavery (15th century)

Portuguese ships began visiting regularly in the late 15th century, and for a while they maintained a fort on the north shore of the Freetown estuary. The estuary is one of the few good harbours on West Africa’s surf-pounded “Windward Shore” (Liberia to Senegal), and also has a good watering spot; it soon became a favourite destination of European mariners. Some of the Portuguese stayed permanently, trading and intermarrying with the local people.

When Europeans first arrived at Sierra Leone, slavery among the African peoples of the area was rare. Historian Walter Rodney has searched the reports of the early Portuguese travelers to the area and found mention in them of only one, quite particular, kind of slavery among the Africans. Rodney says that the Portuguese reports generally were detailed and thorough, especially concerning trade, and that it is unlikely, if slavery had been an important local institution, that the reports would have been so silent about it. The one particular type of slavery that they did mention was this:

a person in trouble in one kingdom could go to another and place himself under the protection of its king, whereupon he became a “slave” of that king, obliged to provide free labour and liable for sale.(Such a person would likely have retained some rights and had some opportunity to rise in status as time passed.)

If the Africans were not much interested in acquiring slaves, the Portuguese—as well as the Dutch, French, and English who arrived later—certainly were. Initially their method was to cruise the coast, conducting quick kidnapping raids when opportunities presented themselves. Soon, however, they found local actors willing to partner with them in these vicious but profitable affairs: some chiefs were willing to part with a few of the less desirable members of their tribes for a price; others went into the war business—a bevy of battle captives could be sold for a fortune in European rum, cloth, beads, copper, or muskets.

This early slaving was essentially an export business. The use of slaves as labourers by the local Africans appears to have developed only later. It may first have occurred under coastal chiefs in the late 18th century:

The slave owners were originally white and foreigners, but the late eighteenth century saw the emergence of powerful slave-trading chiefs, who were said to own large numbers of ‘domestic slaves’.”

For example in the late 18th century, chief William Cleveland had a large “slave town” on the mainland opposite the Banana Islands, whose inhabitants “were employed in cultivating extensive rice fields, described as being some of the largest in Africa at the time….” The existence of an indigenous slave town was recorded by an English traveler in 1823. Known in the Fula language as a rounde, it was connected with the Sulima Susu’s capital city, Falaba; its inhabitants worked at farming.

Rodney has postulated two means by which slaving for export could have caused a local practise of using slaves for labour to develop:

a) Not all war captives offered for sale would have been bought by the Portuguese; e.g., weak or sick looking individuals would not be bought. Their captors would therefore have had to find something else to do with them. Rodney believes that executing them was rare and that usually they would have been used for local labour.
b) There is a time lag between the time a slave is captured and the time he or she is bought. Thus there would often have been a pool of slaves awaiting sale; and while they waited they would have been put to work.

There are possible additional reasons for the adoption of slavery by the locals to meet their labour requirements:

  1. The Europeans provided an example for imitation.
  2. Once slaving in any form is taken up it may smash a moral barrier to exploitation, and make its adoption in other forms seem a relatively minor matter.
  3. Export slaving entailed the construction of a coercive apparatus which could have been subsequently turned to other ends, such as policing a captive labour force.
  4. The sale of local produce, e.g. palm kernels, to Europeans opened up a new sphere of economic activity; in particular it created an increased demand for agricultural labour; slavery was a way of mobilising an agricultural work force.

This local African slavery was much less harsh and brutal than the slavery practiced by Europeans on, for example, the plantations of the United States, West Indies, and Brazil. The local slavery has been described, for example, by anthropologist M. McCulloch:

[S]laves were housed close to the fresh tracts of land they cleared for their masters. They were considered part of the household of their owner, and enjoyed limited rights. It was not customary to sell them except for a serious offense, such as adultery with the wife of a freeman. Small plots of land were given to them for their own use, and they might retain the proceeds of crops they grew on these plots; by this means it was possible for a slave to become the owner of another slave. Sometimes a slave married into the household of his master and rose to a position of trust; there is an instance of a slave taking charge of a chiefdom during the minority of the heir. Descendants of slaves were often practically indistinguishable from freemen.

Slaves were sometimes sent on errands outside the kingdoms of their masters and returned voluntarily. Speaking specifically of the era around 1700, Fyfe relates that, “Slaves not taken in war were usually criminals. In coastal areas, at least, it was rare for anyone to be sold without being charged with a crime.”

Voluntary dependence reminiscent of that described in the early Portuguese documents mentioned at the beginning of this section was still present in the 19th century. It was called pawning; Abraham describes a typical variety:

A freeman heavily in debt, and facing the threat of the punishment of being sold, would approach a wealthier man or chief with a plea to pay of his debts ‘while I sit on your lap’. Or he could give a son or some other dependent of his ‘to be for you’, the wealthy man or chief. This in effect meant that the person so pawned was automatically reduced to a position of dependence, and if he was never redeemed, he or his children eventually became part of the master’s extended family. By this time, the children were practically indistinguishable from the real children of the master, since they grew up regarding one another as brothers.

Some observers consider the term “slave” to be more misleading than informative in describing the local practice. Abraham says that in most cases, “subject, servant, client, serf, pawn, dependent, or retainer” would be more accurate. Domestic slavery was abolished in Sierra Leone in 1928. McCulloch reports that at that time, amongst Sierra Leone’s largest present-day ethnolinguistic group, the Mende, who then had about 560,000 people, about 15 per cent of the population (i.e. 84,000) were domestic slaves. He also says that “Singulary little change followed the 1928 decree; a fair number of slaves returned to their original homes, but the great majority remained in the villages in which their former masters had placed them or their parents.”

Export slavery remained a major business in Sierra Leone from the late 15th century to the mid 19th century. According to Fyfe, “it was estimated in 1789 that 74,000 slaves were exported annually from West Africa, about 38,000 by British firms.” In 1788 a European apologist for the slave trade estimated the annual total exported from between the Rio Nunez (110 km north of Sierra Leone) and the Sherbro as 3,000. The transatlantic slave trade was banned by the British in 1807, but illegal slave trading continued for several decades after that.

(Image:-The Banana Islands are a group of islands that lie off the coast south west of the Freetown Peninsula in the Western Area Sierra Leone.)

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