Armed Struggle in Africa and in the Middle Passage

As the slave trade expanded, resistance to it grew as well, and the need for shackles, guns, ropes, chains, iron balls, and whips tells an eloquent story of continuous and violent struggle from the hinterland to the high seas. As one slave trader remarked:

For the security and safekeeping of the slaves on board or on shore in the African barracoons, chains, leg irons, handcuffs, and strong houses are used. I would remark that this also is one of the forcible necessities resorted to for the preservation of the order, and as recourse against the dangerous consequences of this traffic.

Wherever possible, such as in Saint-Louis and Gorée (Senegal), James (Gambia), and Bance (Sierra Leone), the Europeans' barracoons were located on islands, which made escapes and attacks more difficult. In some areas, as soon as local people approached the boats,

the crew is ordered to take up arms, the cannons are aimed, and the fuses are lighted . . . One must, without any hesitation, shoot at them and not spare them. The loss of the vessel and the life of the crew are at stake.

The heavily fortified forts and barracoons attest to the Europeans' distrust and apprehension. They had to protect themselves, as Jean-Baptiste Durand of the Compagnie du Sénégal explained, "from the foreign vessels and from the Negroes living in the country."

These precautions notwithstanding, in the eighteenth century, Fort Saint-Joseph on the Senegal River was attacked and all commerce was interrupted for six years. Several conspiracies and actual revolts by captives erupted on Gorée Island and resulted in the death of the governor and several soldiers. In addition, the crews of quite a few slave ships were killed on the River Gambia; in Sierra Leone, people sacked the captives' quarters of the infamous trader John Ormond. Similar incidents occurred in other parts of the African coast. Written records document how Africans on shore attacked more than a hundred ships.

Some Western slavers maintained occult centers in their barracoons, staffed by men they paid to "work on" the captives, sometimes with medicinal plants. The objective was to kill any spirit of rebellion, to "tame" the detainees, and make them accept their fate. The existence of these centers shows the extent of the precautions taken by slavers to prevent rebellions on land and during the Middle Passage: shackles and guns controlled the body, while the spirit was broken.

But revolts on slave ships, although extremely difficult to organize and conduct, were numerous. About 420 revolts have been documented in slavers' papers, and they do not represent the totality. It is estimated that 100,000 Africans died in uprisings on the coast or during the Middle Passage. The fear of revolts resulted in additional costs for the slavers: larger crews, heavy weapons, and barricades. About 18 percent of the costs of the Middle Passage were incurred due to measures to thwart uprisings, and the captives who rose up saved, according to estimates, one million Africans from deportation by driving up the slavers' expenses.