Atlantic World- HIST-106-07
30, November 2018
Revision: The Convoluted Actions of African Merchants
In Quobna Ottobah Cugoano: Thoughts and Sentiments, the reader receives a first-hand account of Cugoano’s experiences as a slave and his journey toward freedom. When Cugoano was a child, he and several others were kidnapped by African merchants. After several weeks in captivity, Cugoano was taken to a trading post. There, he saw "many of my miserable countrymen chained two and two, some handcuffed,"[footnoteRef:1] and several “white faced people”.[footnoteRef:2] It can be challenging to understand the actions of the men who abducted and sold Cugoano. How could one steal children from their families and trade them into a life of slavery? What were the motives behind these actions? The actions of the men who captured and sold Cugoano can be elucidated by the fact that many Africans recognized that they could obtain desirable goods by selling slaves to Europeans and that many Africans accepted slavery as a cultural institution. [1: “Quobna Ottobah Cugoano: Thoughts and Sentiments” in Potkay, Adam, et al.Black Atlantic Writers of the Eighteenth Century: Living the New Exodus in England and the Americas. St Martin’s Press,1995. 134.] [2: . “Quobna Ottobah Cugoano: Thoughts and Sentiments” in Potkay, Adam, et al.Black Atlantic Writers of the Eighteenth Century: Living the New Exodus in England and the Americas. St Martin’s Press,1995.134.]
To understand the motive behind capturing and selling Cugoano and others like him, one must understand the benefit that African merchants received in exchange for selling captives. During the late 18th century, the plantation system in the Americas was expanding and the need for slave labor was rapidly increasing. In order to satisfy the growing demand, Europeans seeking slave labor looked to Africa, where captive men and women were the least inexpensive and most readily available. When Europeans began to establish contact and communication with Africa, they brought along with them a new array of goods such as apparel and firearms. Contrary to popular belief, African consumers were by no means gullible. They realized that Europeans would cater to their desires and supply a new variety of staple and luxury goods in order to obtain slaves. As a result, African consumers became “highly selective, even finicky in their preferences”.[footnoteRef:3] For example, there was a large market for apparels that Africans of both genders and could wrap themselves in. There was also a demand for “certain items, such as expensive silks and brocades, that were intended for the political elite”.[footnoteRef:4]Another good that was in popular demand was firearms—mostly due to the constant warfare between rival African nations. A few European countries such as Portugal tried to restrict the sale of firearms to Africa, but other Europeans were “eager to serve the African demand for hunting and milit...