Defensive Strategies

When the first navigators reached the coast of Mauritania in 1441 and Senegal in 1444, they organized systematic abductions, and met with hostility and reprisals. Although they continued kidnapping, they also started to buy people. But that policy also met with opposition. Explorer Alvise Ca’Damosto, who was attacked by 150 men on the River Gambia in 1454, wrote than when he tried to talk to them,

they replied that they had had news of our coming and of our trade with the negroes of Senega [Senegal River], who, if they sought our friendship could not but be bad men, for they firmly believed that we Christians ate human flesh, and that we only bought negroes to eat them; that for their part they did not want our friendship on any terms, but sought to slaughter us all, and to make a gift of our possessions to their lord.

But armed struggle was neither the only nor always the best strategy. Long-term approaches were also needed to protect people from the slave trade. Earthworks were built to thwart small-scale raids and kidnappings; some rivers were diverted so that they would not bring ships near settlements. Africans surrounded their main towns by thick walls, twelve feet high; they built ramparts and fortresses with deep ditches and planted venomous and thorny trees and bushes all around.

Communities deserted their vulnerable settings to relocate in hard-to-find, easy-to-defend places such as hills, mountains, underground tunnels, marshes, caves, forests, or behind high sand dunes. Some hamlets regrouped to defend themselves more easily. In southern Benin, people built small towns on stilts at the edge or in the middle of lakes. This innovation gave them a clear view of approaching raiders and allowed them enough time to take the appropriate measures.

Africans established work teams for protection, left the paths to their villages overgrown, stationed armed groups at vulnerable points, and covered their roofs with noisy leaves to detect would-be kidnappers. They used their habitat as a safeguard by reconfiguring the layout, size, and architecture of their houses, villages, and capital cities. They built their towns in mazes to confuse and disorient attackers. Houses were connected one with another; they abutted forests and the sea to make escape easier. Some communities adopted the most brutal tactics: they indiscriminately killed anyone who ventured close to their territory so as to discourage any incursion.

Some leaders actively worked against the transatlantic slave trade. One of the most famous was Abdel Kader Kane, the Muslim leader of the Futa Toro region in northern Senegal. Kane had succeeded in peopling his kingdom by retaking by force his people who had been kidnapped and by forbidding slave caravans from passing through his territory. After the French took three children from Futa, Kane sent a letter to the governor:

We are warning you that all those who will come to our land to trade [in slaves] will be killed and massacred if you do not send our children back. Would not somebody who was very hungry abstain from eating if he had to eat something cooked with his blood? We absolutely do not want you to buy Muslims under any circumstances. I repeat that if your intention is to always buy Muslims you should stay home and not come to our country anymore. Because all those who will come can be assured that they will lose their life.

On a personal level, families who could locate a captive on the coast gathered resources to obtain his or her release, even if it meant substituting another person for their loved one. Some relatives were even able to trace the whereabouts of kin deported to the Americas and tried - sometimes successfully - to buy their freedom.