Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the Asian markets for enslaved and scorned African laborers were connected more closely with and even propelled city-states such as Zanzibar and Pemba into the slaving world of East Africa and Asia. Certainly, the Swahili city-states were well integrated in the trade network and politics of the Indian Ocean world and their markets. These markets drew slavers from Brazil, French merchants from Mauritius, Arab merchants from Oman and Hadramawt, Indian merchants from the Kathiawar peninsula and the Konkan coastal region, and Swahili merchants into a consortium that exploited gold, ivory, and human captives.
Charles Ball (1781? – 1840s?) was born on a tobacco plantation in Maryland, eventually purchasing his legal freedom and serving as a naval officer in the war of 1812. Ball spent much of his live laboring and being sold and resold—and captured and re-enslaved—on plantations in South Carolina and Georgia, before resigning himself to Pennsylvania to escape recapture. While in South Carolina, Charles witnessed and participated in a funerary ritual brought from Africa. Since almost all enslaved Africans took death and funerary rites seriously, dedicating funds toward and undertaking such rites as community affairs, the funerary ritual Charles observed has therefore wider significance for understanding the continuity and transformation of African cultures in the Americas.
Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua (1830? – 1860s?), originally from the village of Djougou in present-day Benin, was captured and exported to the Brazilian state of Pernambuco in the first half of the nineteenth century. “Slave narratives” about bonded life in colonial Brazil are indeed rare, and thus Mahommah’s account takes on added significance. Ultimately, he was able to travel from Brazil to New York, Haiti, and finally Canada, where he related his account less than a decade after he was exported from his homeland.
Carl Christian Reindorf produced the first general history of the Gold Coast peoples written by an African and using a judicious selection of published and oral sources from “more than two hundred persons of both sexes.” Carl Christian Reindorf (ca. 1834 – 1917) was a Basel Mission pastor and historian. His use of oral history to write African history in the late nineteenth century was unprecedented, as well as his methodology for combining oral sources with available documentary sources.
Toward the end of the seventeenth century, marabout Nasir al-Din launched a religious movement against transatlantic slaving but for the Islamization of the Senegal valley. French colonial official Louis Chambonneau, stationed at the French outpost of St. Louis at the mouth of the Senegal river, was an eyewitness whose reporting of the events to his superiors remains one of the best first-hand accounts Nasir al-Din’s movement. Nasir al-Din was born in the southern Sahara to an elite family of the Traza Moors (so-called “Berbers”). Chambonneau referred to the movement as Toubenan (from the Wolof tuub, “conversion”). Chambonneau and many after him agreed the success of the Toubenan religious movement, though Nasir al-Din was killed, was due to the negative effects wrought by transatlantic slaving.
Known as Siddis or Habshis in India, Africans have lived in South Asia for some two millennia. Over time, they played crucial roles in the politics, economies, religions, cultures, and arts of the region, especially in western parts of India. Though a large number came to the region as captive persons through Arab slavers across the Indian Ocean, numerous Siddis ascended to positions of power and authority in the military and government of various India rulers, and some even became rulers themselves between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two such persons were famed Siddi ruler Malik Ambar, who ruled Ahmednagar until his death in 1626, and his son Fateh Khan, who became governor of Janjira and its fort in 1655. Janjira was important for trade and Muslim pilgrims traveling to Mecca. Its importance is also supported by the failure of European naval powers to capture it and conquer the Siddis of Janjira, who continued to rule the fort.
An African Muslim from Bornu who would later convert to orthodox Christianity in Czarist Russia, and renamed Nicholas Said, Mohammed Ali ben Said spent much of his captivity in Africa, not the Americas. In a significant proportion of his account, Mohammed focused on the encounters between Islam and indigenous spiritualities in Bornu as well as the wider Sudanic region of Africa. In the selection below, Mohammed provides his own view of the Sudan before Islam and the destruction left in the wake of its encounter with indigenous cultures.
Olaudah Equiano (1745 – 1797) was born around 1745 in what is now southeastern Nigeria. About age eleven, Equiano was kidnapped and exchanged to slavers trafficking human cargo for the Caribbean market. In 1766, Equiano purchased his freedom and settled in England the next year. In 1789, Equiano published his two-volume autobiography. In this selection, Equiano, from his “slender observation” as a child, centered his recollections on his natal village, the arts and technologies of society, and the general structure and working of that village. From this perspective, he offers some insights into the local meaning of “slaves” and “slavery” and does so in comparative perspectives.
Amilcar Cabral (1924 – 1973) was an anti-colonial thinker and freedom fighter, and leader of the PAIGC that fought for the liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. After studying agronomy in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, Amilcar Cabral founded the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde or PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) in 1956. As Secretary-General of the PAIGC, Cabral and his comrades liberated much of the Guinean countryside and distinguished himself among the bevy of African freedom fighters as both theorist and tactician.
The rise and expansion of Dahomey since the mid-seventeenth century coheres with the rise of transatlantic slaving and the extensive availability of firearms. On several occasions, however, the Yoruba-controlled Oyo state would reinforce its hegemony over Dahomey’s foreign affairs throughout the eighteenth century.
The Company of Royal Adventurers of England trading with Africa was incorporated by a royal charter in January 1663. It was reconstituted by a new charter almost a decade later as the Royal African Company of England, which held a monopoly on trade to Atlantic Africa. The company’s headquarters in Africa was at Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana).
After the international ban on transatlantic slaving, Cuba was second only to Brazil in the thousands of Africans illegally brought to its ports in the abolitionist period, during which Dr. Richard Robert Madden (1798 – 1886), physician, writer, and abolitionist, spent a year in colonial Cuba. In the selection, Madden examines the subject of Cuban slavery, at a time when Cuban beet sugar was cheaper to produce and thus created a greater demand for enslaved African labor.
German botanist and colonial administrator Paul Erdmann Isert (ca. 1756 – 89) arrived in November 1783 at a time when the Danish forts at Ada, Keta, and at Teshi were being built on the Gold Coast. Isert stayed on the Gold Coast for three years, leaving in October 1786 by way of a slave ship bound eventually for Copenhagen. After two days at sea, the Gold Coast captives onboard revolted.
The invasion of “Angola” brought Njinga Mbande (ca. 1583 – December 17, 1663), ruler of the kingdom of Ndongo and Matamba, into the political picture. Born around 1582 in the Kingdom of Ndongo, Njinga was the eldest child of the kingdom’s ruler, Mbandi Ngola—“Ngola” became the source of the territory called “Angola.”
This selection is a facsimile reproduction of the garbled Flemish translation of Balthasar Springer's Latin account of Francisco de Almeida’s expedition to the Portuguese colony of India in 1505, with an English translation by Mr and Mrs. Barwick interleaved. Springer traveled with Almeida in 1505. Springer was a German merchant and an agent of the Welser and Fugger trading company who had close ties with Portuguese monarchy. Springer’s account of the voyage was published in 1508.
The excerpt below chronicles his observations of the three belief systems that shaped African history, namely indigenous African spiritualities, Islam and Christianity, as they played out on Africa’s Gold Coast
Abū ʿUbayd ʿAbd Allâh ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Bakrī (1040-1094 CE) was a Muslim scholar born in Spain, but spent much of his life in Cordova, a principal city in Andalusia, then under the control of Islamic Iberia. A noted theologian and geographer, al-Bakrī’s account of north and west Africa is based on documentary sources, such as Muhammad bin Yusuf al-Warraq’s now lost work, and travelers and merchants who traveled to the Sahara and the Sudanic region, stretching from northwestern to northeastern Africa.
Zheng He (Cheng Ho) was a Muslim admiral originally named Ma Ho (the Chinese version of Muhammad). He made seven diplomatic voyages to East Africa as far as Malindi (near Mombasa) between 1405 and 1433. His expeditions followed long established Arab-Chinese trade routes—as evidenced by Sung dynasty porcelains and copper coins excavated at Swahili burial sites.
The Indian Ocean world was the center of an early global economy and Africa was a key player in it. Africa’s place in the vast Indian Ocean trading network stretched from northeast Africa, along the Swahili coast and its offshore islands, and flowed into present-day Mozambique. There are no precise dates for its beginnings, but eyewitnesses observed this network some 2,000 years ago may have been latecomers. Be that as it may, this much is known with more certainty.
Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi (ca. 1465-1550s) was born in the city of Granada (Islamic Spain). After he and many Muslims were forcibly expelled from Spain in 1492, he and his family resettled in North Africa, where he studied and traveled extensively, including a visit to Timbuktu.