After about 400 years of slavery which dealt in human merchandise shipped to the New World as the Americas were then called, a group of American and European abolitionists met and agreed to treaties discontinuing the illegitimate sale of man by man in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Commercial slavery depleted the ‘Nigerian’ human capital in those days. In Bonny Island on the left bank of Bonny River, wholesale slave markets were in place in the 18th and early 19th centuries. No fewer than 320,000 slaves were shipped from its natural harbours. 16,000 of the estimated 20,000 annual sales of humankind were of the Igbo tribe. Another 50,000 or more were on record to have been shipped from Calabar. Thus, a total of over 370,000 mostly Igbos sold during the periods 1786-1800. These slaves were captured mostly by slave raiders and as booties during internecine conflicts. They were sold during slave trade fairs every six weeks in different villages close to the interior creeks and rivers were Bonny dealers navigate their ways through to purchase them for resale to European slave merchant whose vessels couldn’t venture inland due to the sizes of their drafts. There were about 30% of the slaves who originated from non-Igbo tribes like the Quas and Ibibios and some Brass people known by the White men as ‘Allakoos’.
On the Southwestern Bight of Benin coast of Badagry and in Porto Novo, now in Benin Republic, west of Nigeria; similar, if not more, numbers of human cargo was shipped, mostly from Yoruba territories. The slaves were made available in the same circumstances as those sold off the Bight of Biafra. Sokoto Caliphate was reputed to have held over two million slaves in the early- and mid-19th century.
Portuguese seafarers were the pioneers of both legitimate and illegitimate trades in West Africa in the fourth decade of the 15th century. The trade relations then were legitimately economic as the merchandise consisted of beads, pepper and other spices; cloth and a little later, slaves.
The first sets of European slave traders were said to have begun by capturing Africans from coastal areas and thereafter resorted to buying them off local slave raiders and traders. Duarte Pachecho, a Portuguese adventurer was said to have written after a visit to Benin Empire in the early 16th century, that the kingdom was ‘’ constantly at war with its neighbours and takes many captives, whom we buy at twelve or fifteen brass bracelets (manillas) each, or for copper bracelets which they prize more’’.
In his memoirs published in the year 1789, an ex-slave in the diaspora, Olaudah Equaino described African slave raiding thus: ‘’When a trader wants slaves, he applies to a chief for them, and tempts him with his wares. It is not extraordinary, if on this occasion, he yields to the temptations with as little fairness, and accepts the prize of his fellow creature’s liberty with as little reluctance as the enlightened merchant. Accordingly, he falls upon his neighbours and a desperate battle ensues…if he prevails, and takes prisoners, he gratifies his avarice by selling them.’’
Born around 1745 in an area under the overlordship of the then Benin Empire, Olaudah Equaino was kidnapped along with his sister at the age of ten by slave raiders. After enduring servitude in America, the West Indies and England, he was able to save some money and fortunately, buy off his freedom as it was the norm in those slavery days, in 1756 at the age of twenty-one.
Tunde Obadina in an article titled, Slave Trade: A root of contemporary African Crisis, asserted that while Europeans built empires, investing their profits in laying foundations for powerful economic empires, Africans were drunk on gin and other liquor exchanged for their brothers and sisters in the inhuman acts of slave-trading. According to Obadina, even though some African writers in attempting to absolve African slave raiders of culpability in the ignoble acts placed the blame on the doorsteps of the European merchants, it did nothing to obliterate the fact that African ‘slavers’ were complicit and acted out of their own volitions and self-aggrandizement. ‘’They took advantage of the opportunities provided by the Europe to consume the products of its civilization.’’ He argues that ‘’Africa’s contemporary history would have been different had its rulers and traders demanded capital goods for use in building the economies rather than trinkets and booze.’’
Obadina maintained that ‘’It was during slave trade and slavery that white people affirmed their racial superiority over blacks.’’ They bought lack people in exchange for ‘’adulterated brandy and inferior pieces of metal sometimes, packed them into ships like herds of cattle and as the centuries passed, more and more black people were scorned by Europeans and began developing theories of black inferiority with which they used to colonize Africa and the Black world.
It was not all doom for the earliest sojourners from the territories that make up Nigeria today. The first Nigerian on record to arrive the coasts of North America was a male language assistant from the old Benin Empire. He was named Mathieu da Costa by Portuguese explorers to Canada. The explorers’ – Pierre Dugua, the Sieur de Monts; and Samuel de Champlain in the early 17th century employed the services of Da Costa as a grumete, as the Portuguese called an interpreter, translator and facilitator of communication between different races and nationalities.
Mathieu da Costa
The Benin Empire had 200 years earlier, played hosts to Portuguese and Dutch explorers seeking legitimate trade opportunities, with diplomatic missions established by Benin in the 16th Century. It was no surprise then that Da Costa, with ‘an uncanny ability and proficiency’ in acquiring languages, accompanied one of the trading ships back to Portugal.
His language skills assisted in bridging the gap between cultures in the Western world as the French, English, Dutch and Portuguese sought his services like an efficient veteran mercenary.
In Canada, there are monuments, postage stamps, literary contests and plaques made in honour of Da Costa. Especially at the Port-Royal National Historic Site in Port Royal, Annapolis County, Nova Scotia.
[Carlos Taveira. Mateus Da Costa e os trilhos de Megumaagee English: Matthew da Costa and the Trails of Megumaagee (in Portuguese) (2006 ed.). Texto. p. 317. ISBN 972-47-3145-6.
Robert W. Strayer, Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources, Bedford/St. Martin’s: 2012, pp. 695-696
Johnston, A. J. B. (2012). “Mathieu Da Costa and Early Canada: Possibilities and Probabilities*”. Northern Blue Publishing. Retrieved 3 March 2012.]
Although Nigeria was made up of kingdoms, city-states and largely acephalous enclaves in precolonial times, only four were of imperial statuses. The Benin Empire in today’s Niger Delta, the Oyo Empire In today’s South Western Nigeria, the Sokoto Caliphate in the North West extending to parts of today’s North East and Cameroun’s North West; and the Kanem-Bornu Empire in today’s North East, extending to parts of Southwestern Chad and Northern Cameroon were classified by historians as ‘empires’.
However, many Nigerian peoples had no centralized monarchical states. Most of the decentralized leadership systems were prevalent in the Igbo-speaking areas and the north-central parts of Nigeria, with exception of those influenced by the kingdoms of Benin and Igala. Obis ruled Asaba, Aboh, Issele-Uku, Onitsha and others which traced their monarchies to Benin.
THE ABOLITION OF SLAVE TRADE
Distraught with the ignoble acts of excruciating servitude by man of man, a group of Europeans and Americans organized themselves into international pressure groups.
Known as the Abolitionists in the late 18th- and early 19th Centuries, its members in America advocated for an outright ban on slavery and racial discrimination in any form. While some argued for a moderate, gradual ending of slavery; others, especially those imploded in religious fervor, helped spread the abolitionist ideas. Church and politics in America began to spread the gospel of ‘End Slavery’ in the 1830s and was contributory to the regional animosity between the North and South of Northern America culminating in the Civil War. The abolitionists’ movement was started by English and American Quakers who frowned at the morality of trade in human beings for labour and the inhumanity of man to man.
Earlier in 1772 in Sommersett vs Stewart, a fugitive slave was set free by a court in England, ruling that slavery was non-existent in English Common Law and as such, it was prohibited. That case was known as Sommersett’s Case.
The landmark judgement by Lord Mansfield in 1772 pivoted the British Abolitionist movement even though its ambiguity showed as forms of slavery continued elsewhere in the British Empire.
.James Oglethorpe, Granville Sharp and Hannah More pursued the End Slavery cause vigorously. Later in 1785, after Oglethorpe’s death, Sharp and More joined a British Politician and Philanthropist, William Wilberforce to form the Clapham Sect – a group of Church of England human rights activists or social crusaders, whose goals revolved around ending slavery, liberating slaves and reforming the penal system. The group founded the Church Missionary Society and the Free Bible Society.
The same epoch saw the advent of the industrial revolution in Great Britain and Europe. Machines replaced man and manual labour in with important advancements in mechanized textile production. Some historians believe the slave trade was ended to provide more ‘humane’ conditions for international trade legitimate trade in overflowing and excess goods produced by machines. The abolition of slavery was enforced especially by the British Crown with Royal Naval vessels ‘arresting’ defaulting cargo vessels and setting the captives free.
However, the captives were glad for the new prohibition of trade in slaves by an international coalition. The freed slaves enthusiastically welcomed a new lease of life after nightmarish experiences. French Freed Slaves were centered mostly in Libreville, Gabon, British freed captives in Freetown Sierra Leone and the American free had their ships berthing in Liberia.
Some colonies continued to indulge in slavery despite the efforts of the Abolitionists. More legislation was put in place especially in the United States to give fillip to the anti-slavery efforts.
THE BIBLE AND THE PLOUGH: THE ADVENT OF MISSIONARY ACTIVITIES, WESTERN EDUCATION AND WESTERN CIVILIZATION IN PRECOLONIAL NIGERIA
The Church Missionary Society joined the campaign against slavery and savagery by evangelism – preaching the gospel – and convincing the natives to abandon their fetish, savage approaches to religiosity by embracing Christianity and subsequently, Western education. Traders traveled with the missionaries, introducing legitimate trade in commodities instead of people.
Language became a problem. The freed slaves who were bilingual assisted the Church of England in educating the natives in both English Language and Christianity. A Yoruba freed slave, Bishop Ajayi Crowther was largely instrumental to the success of education and missionary activities in the Southern half of Nigeria. In partnership with an Igbo freed slave, the CMS- commissioned Ajayi Crowther translated the Bible into Igbo language after his successful translation of the Holy Book into Yoruba some years earlier. He was assisted for Igbo Language translation and evangelism, by an Igbo freed slave nicknamed Simon Jonas. Dr Kenneth Dike, the first Nigerian Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan recounted historical records of the early days of missionary activities to end crude and savage lifestyles of various peoples of precolonial Nigeria in the early 1800s:
Origins of the Niger Mission
The foundations of the Niger Mission were laid in this expedition of 1841. Its leaders were commissioned by the British Government to negotiate with important local chiefs treaties for the abolition of the slave trade and “to substitute instead thereof, a friendly commercial intercourse between Her Majesty’s subjects and the natives of Africa.” But the British Government was not concerned with trade alone. In the instructions to the leaders of the expedition the Government enjoined them to tell the rulers of Africa “that the Queen and the people of England profess the Christian religion; and that by this religion they are commanded to assist in promoting goodwill, peace, and brotherly love, among all nations and men; and that in endeavouring to commence a further intercourse with the African nations, Her Majesty’s Government are actuated and guided by these (Christian) principles.” In this and in subsequent Niger expeditions missionary, commercial and governmental activities were closely linked. Four thousand pounds was subscribed in England for the establishment of a model farm at the confluence of the Niger and the Benue, a practical demonstration of Buxton’s unity of “Bible and Plough”.
The outcome of this, in some ways, unfortunate expedition is more or less well known. The three vessels, the Wilberforce, the Albert, and the Sudan, entered the Niger in August 1841. Within a few weeks the dreaded malaria fever began to take heavy toll: of the 162 white men who entered the river, 54 died of malaria before the surviving ship, the Albert, reached Fernando Po in October of the same year. As a contemporary writer put it, the Albert “like a plague-ship filled with its dead and dying” returned to the coast under the direction of John Beecroft. The 1841 expedition became a byword for hopeless failure.
Without doubt its fate ended Buxton’s public career and hastened his death. When the hopes of great commercial gains were not realized, many who had formerly given their support lost their enthusiasm for the development of trade with the Niger basin. The Humanitarians, called by their opponents the “devils of Exeter Hall,” were subjected to heavy attacks by literary critics and commercial publicists.
But as always in history during times of failure and reaction there are men who see beyond the happenings of the present to the possibilities of the future. These men clung tenaciously to Buxton’s idea and in missionary circles one such man was the Rev. Henry Venn, who became Honorary Secretary of the C.M.S. from 1841 till 1872. His period of office coincided with the foundation of the Niger Mission. His faith in the African, and particularly in Samuel Crowther, was unlimited. It is doubtful whether Crowther could have achieved the greatness he did in the Niger Mission without Venn’s unflinching support.
But to return to the expedition. It was not, in the end, the hopeless failure that contemporaries judged it to be. True, the high mortality obscured its achievements, but those achievements were nonetheless real. To take a few examples. During the ascent of the Niger, treaties for the abolition of the slave trade were negotiated with the rulers of Aboh and Iddah, who also granted permission for the entry of missionaries. The interview with Obi Ossai of Aboh conducted by the Rev. Schon demonstrates the warm reception accorded the Christian message by some of the Ibo rulers.
On arrival at the King’s house the missionaries explained the purpose of the visit and the message of the Gospel. At the end they presented Obi Essai with two Bibles, one in English and the other in Arabic. King Obi could neither read nor write but the missionaries were accompained by one Simon Jonas, an Ibo ex-slave from Sierra Leone who acted as interpreter. This gentleman read the Sermon on the Mount to the King. According to the journal of Schon and Crowther. “Obi was uncommonly taken with this. That a white man could read and write was a matter of course; but that a black man–an Ibo man–should know these wonderful things…was more than he could ever have anticipated.” It was indeed at Obi’s insistence that Simon Jonas was left behind at Aboh where he remained to preach the Gospel and expound the mysteries of the written word, while the rest of the expedition proceeded to Iddah.
Unfortunately the missionary activities of the members of the 1841 expedition and the treaties concluded between them and the communities on the banks of the Niger lapsed, since the promises and obligations were not honoured by Britain. After its failure no British mission was sent to the Niger valley for another thirteen years.