A comparative history of commercial transition in three West African slave trading economies, 1630 to 1860

Dalrymple-Smith, Angus


The nineteenth century ‘commercial transition’ from export economies based on slaves to ones dominated by commodities like palm oil has been a central theme in West African history. However, most studies have tended to focus on the impact of the change and assumed that its causes were largely a result of the British decision to abolish their transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and subsequently persuading or forcing other nations to do the same. This thesis makes two principal contributions to this debate. Firstly, it reviews new evidence which shows that the commercial transition in West Africa’s most important slave exporting regions, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Biafra and the Bight of Benin, can be predicted by the patterns of trade established in previous centuries. It then presents a model of analysis which sets out which interrelated factors shaped their export economies and ultimately determined how they responded to the changing political and economic environment of the Atlantic world from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. This study offers an important comparative, long term quantitative perspective on the transition from slave exports to so-called ‘legitimate commerce’.

Chapter 1 shows that the speed and timing of the nineteenth century commercial transition differed considerably across the case study regions. Along the Gold Coast there was a sudden, and effectively total end to transatlantic slave trading after 1807. In the Bight of Biafra slave exports gradually declined until largely ceasing in the 1830s. Lastly in the Bight of Benin export slavery continued until the 1850s. The chapter argues that earlier studies have tended to ignore long term trends and also lack a comparative approach, as many are focused on individual regions. It then suggests a new model of analysis and dismisses two factors as irrelevant; the British slave trade patrol and changing demands for, or changing supply of, African slaves. The chapter argues that regional variations can be explained by five key factors: 1) the nature and duration of long-term trade relations; 2) the identity of the principal European trade partner; 3) certain aspects of the ecology of the different regions; 4) the regional political contexts; and 5) the development of institutions that either encouraged or discouraged elite participation in non-slave exports.

Chapter 2 provides a broad overview of each case study region’s patterns of trade from the fifteenth to the eighteenth Centuries based on secondary and primary qualitative sources. It then reviews quantitative evidence of commodity trading patterns from the earlier eighteenth century from British and Dutch commodity traders and slaving vessels that bought commodities. It argues that the expansion of slavery in the Bight of Biafra did not crowd out other forms of commerce. On the Gold Coast the early eighteenth century saw continued engagement in commodity exports while the slave trade expanded. However, by the 1780s, both slave and commodity exports seem to have begun to decline. In the Dahomean-controlled area of the Bight of Benin, there is no evidence of slavery crowding out other forms of commerce, as captives were always the only item of trade with the Atlantic world.

Chapter 3 investigates the extent to which the 18th century intensification of the trans-Atlantic slave trade boosted commercial agriculture in the coastal areas of West Africa and in particular in the case study regions. It explores the provisioning strategies of 187 British, French, Dutch and Danish slave voyages conducted between 1681 and 1807, and calls for a major downward adjustment of available estimates of the slave trade induced demand impulse. It shows that during the 18th century, an increasing share of the foodstuffs required to feed African slaves were taken on board in Europe instead of West Africa. However, there was considerable variation in provisioning strategies among slave trading nations and across main regions of slave embarkation. The Bight of Benin never significantly engaged in provisioning trade. Traders along the Gold Coast provided relatively large quantities of food to slaving vessels, but in the Bight of Biafra, British demand stimulated a considerable trade in foodstuffs. The chapter explains these trends and variation in terms of the relative (seasonal) security of European versus African food supplies, the falling relative costs of European provisions and the increasing risks in the late 18th century trade, putting a premium on faster embarkation times.

Chapter 4 uses a newly constructed dataset on the quantities and prices of African commodities on the coast and in British markets over the long eighteenth century and provides new insights into the changing nature of Britain’s non-slave trade. It improves on previous work by Johnson et al. (1990) and finds that earlier estimates of the volume and value of commodity trade have been underestimates and fail to account for regional changes in output. The data suggests that from the 1770s the focus of Britain’s commodity trade shifted from Senegambia to the Bight of Biafra and that in the later eighteenth century non-slave goods were primarily purchased by slave ships, not specialist bi-lateral traders. The chapter argues that these changes were motivated by a number of factors; conflicts between Atlantic powers, the prices of British trade goods and African imports, increasing levels of risk faced by British slave merchants and the fact that traders in the Bight of Biafra were both willing and able to supply desirable commodities.

Part 1 establishes that the Gold Coast had a far long history of commodity trading and seemed to have been moving away from the slave trade at the end of the eighteenth century. The region of the Bight of Benin controlled by Dahomey always focused exclusively on slaves. The Bight of Biafra had a considerable non-slave export economy that was growing at the end of the eighteenth century. Part 2 of the thesis applies the model of analysis to the case study regions.

Chapter 5 argues that that for the Gold Coast and more particularly the Asante empire British abolition policies and the slave forts can explain the timing of the end of transatlantic slavery but not why it ended. Following the model of analysis, the chapter shows that the presence of gold determined both long term political development and the nature of the region’s trade relationship with the Atlantic. In addition, gold became essential as a means of marking status and wealth at all levels of society and for domestic exchange. This meant that slaves were always essential for the production of gold, meaning that there was an important competing domestic market for coerced labour. Over the eighteenth-century gold became scarcer leading to slaves being pulled out of the Atlantic market to focus on production. In addition, well-developed trade relations with the interior and a rise in demand from the Islamic states in the Sokoto caliphate led to an expansion of kola exports which demanded yet more labour. Most importantly, the chapter argues that both households and elite groups could profit more from commodity than slave exports which explains the rapid move away from the transatlantic slavery and towards the production of commodities.

In Chapter 6 it is argued that in the Bight of Biafra, the slave and commodity trades were not only compatible but complementary. The region’s riverine transport networks, long established coastal-interior trade relations and suitability for the growing of yams, palm oil and tropical hardwoods meant that the provisioning and commodity trades could function alongside slave exports. The relatively late opening of central Igboland to the Atlantic slave markets meant that the region did not see the influx of wealth in the seventeenth century that spurred the development of states in the other case study areas. Instead the region followed a different institutional path which saw the development small political entities linked together through the Aro trade network. Elites in the interior and at the coast were reliant on trade for both power and status, but not specifically the slave trade. As a result, abolition was not a serious economic shock as commodities and slaves had always been traded side by side. As in Gold Coast both commoners and elites benefited from commodity trading. Atlantic goods allowed many more people to purchase goods to improve their standards of living, while elites benefitted from the less volatile commodity trade. Furthermore, the British state also perhaps unintentionally supported the development of the palm oil trade through its customs policies. Eventually, this led to palm oil crowding out slave exports through greater demands for domestic labour.

Chapter 7 investigates why the region of the Bight of Benin controlled by Dahomey only ever exported slaves. It shows that this region possessed no gold and had less favourable geography for commodity exports than the Bight of Biafra. The early expansion of export slavery in the seventeenth century spurred the development of states and elites who were entirely dependent on slave exports to maintain their wealth and power. It led to the development of a militaristic culture and institutions based on large scale slave raiding that were highly effective as a means of controlling and harnessing elite violence, generating wealth and defending the state from powerful external threats and economic competition. The demands of the army and elites took much of the kingdom’s potential labour away from households. In addition, constant warfare led to a serious demographic decline across the region further reducing the amount of available labour. The chapter argues that it was never in the interests of elites to switch to an alternative economic system and there was, until the 1850s, always sufficient external demand. In the end abolition efforts were a necessary condition to ending the slave trade.

Chapter 8 concludes with a summary of the main contributions of thesis; the importance of long term patterns of trade in determining nineteenth century commercial transition and a modified model of analysis to explain the diverging trajectories of the different case study regions. It also argues that the impact of Britain’s abolition campaign should be reassessed. In the Gold Coast and the Bight of Biafra it was not an important factor in ending transatlantic slavery, while in the Bight of Benin it was. The chapter ends with suggestions for future research.