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HE recent successful operations on the Niger, undertaken avowedly to crush the two slaveraiding Mahomedan Emirs of Nupé and Ilorin, and the proclamations of Sir George Goldie, by which in the territory south of the Middle Niger and on the banks of the Lower Niger the status of slavery has been abolished, have once more brought before the public the vital question of the suppression of the slave-trade in Africa. The trade, as carried on in different parts of Africa, varies considerably, and the methods of checking it in one part are consequently not altogether ap_ plicable to another. Still, throughout the slave-zone the main features of the trade are the same; it is carried on almost entirely by Mahomedans, be they called Arabs or Fulahs, for the purpose of supplying a demand, which, in spite of all our endeavours, appears to increase rather than to diminish. This demand is either external or internal. With regard to the former, every effort is being made by our East African Squadron to stop the export of slaves, yet Turkey, Persia, and other Mahomedan countries are still, by some means or other, well supplied with Africans. We may, however, consider that virtually the external trade is on the wane, and the matter of slavery and the slave—trade is confined to Africa itself.

Sir John Kirk, than whom no Englishman knows more about Africa, thus summed up the situation, at the Geographical Congress of 1895:—

Tropical Africa has, in the history of the world, been a lost continent, owing to the misrule which has pervaded it. From time immemorial the Africans have been carried off as slaves, to be used in developing the resources of other countries; for slavery is no new thing, and the traffic is one of the earliest historical facts of which we have any record. The over-sea export has now been practically suppressed, and it remains for the European nations to eradicate the internal slave trade, and the misrule and barbarities exercised by the dominant tribes, and to teach the African to labour for the de velopment of his own, as he has hitherto worked for that of other countries. The task has now been transferred to the interior of the continent itself, and it has devolved upon those nations who have taken part in its territorial division. Upon them must fall the initial cost of this magnificent enterprise; nor is it to be disguised that the task in its earlier stages will be costly both in men and means, though the ultimate gain will, I firmly believe, be more than commensurate with the initial expense.

Maps of Africa from nineteenth-century editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica Left: Sketchmap of Africa from the 1894 supplement. Right: Equitorial Africa from the 1892 edition. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

That portion of the country now under discussion is the Central and Western Soudan (known also by the more modern names of Nigeria and Hausaland) comprising those Mahomedan States of the great Fulah Empire which stretch from Sokoto to Lake Chad, and which lie to the north of the Middle Niger and Benué rivers, Probably in no part of Africa does slavery exist to a greater extent than here, and we have it on the authority of recent travellers that at Kano, the principal Hausa town, the slaves number four-fifths of the population. In every town of any size there is a public slave-market, and to supply these markets gives occupation to almost every male Mahomedan; moreover, the greater portion of the annual tribute payable by the smaller States to their suzerains consists of slaves. What becomes of all these slaves is a question worth considering, as, before [190/191] affairs, it is necessary to know why there should be such an extraordinary demand for human beings.

A few slave-caravans cross the Sahara to the north, where a ready sale is obtained for the survivors of the gangs at the Mediterranean ports; but, with this exception, no slaves leave the country, though this fact does not lessen in any measure the evils of the trade. The supply cannot keep up with the demand, raid as the Mahomedans will, and each year increases the amount of slave-raiding. Mr. Robinson, who furnishes the most recent information on the subject, says that during his residence in Kano he had frequent opportunities of witnessing the return of the Mahomedans from their raids, and on one occasion he saw no less than a thousand slaves brought in by a single party. Yet Kano is no worse than other States; everywhere are pagan freemen becoming scarce, and the price of a slave, and consequently the incentive to raid, grows greater year by year.

The Horrors of Slave-Trading and Lives Lost on the Way to Slave Markets

The horrors of slave-raiding are familiar to everyone; it is therefore needless to dwell on them further than to remind the reader that it is not the mere status of slavery that is so repugnant to our feelings as the terrible loss of life which attends the capture of the miserable human beings, and the subsequent deaths from starvation and thirst, resulting from the long marches before the slaves are finally disposed of. Glancing at the map of this particular region, we see that Adamawa lies seven hundred miles, as the crow flies, to the south-east of Sokoto. Now the annual tribute required by the Sultan of Sokoto from the Emir of Adamawa is stated to be ten thousand slaves. These unfortunate beings may possibly have been captured on the eastern outskirts of Adamawa, and therefore, before reaching Yola, have passed through the terrors of a march of several weeks; but no sooner have they recovered from this than they are drafted off to proceed by land to the Fulah capital. Of these gangs it is no exaggeration to say that not one half of them survive to reach their destination. Strange as it may read, the presence of the Royal Niger Company in the country indirectly increases this mortality; for the fact of the Benué and Niger rivers being under its supervision necessitates the conveyance of the slaves by inland routes at a dis tance from water, and the rivers can no longer be used as a highway for the carriage of this species of com modity. In reality, were the Niger Company’s steamers to carry passengers from one place to another, making no enquiries and not discountenancing the slave-trade, the saving of life would be enormous; but, of course, such an idea could not for a moment be entertained. Something, however, might be done by the Company’s steamers in the matter of carrying passengers which would indirectly affect the slaves and the slave-trade very considerably; but to this I will refer presently.

The subject may be conveniently discussed under the heads of demand and supply. As to the demand, we have seen that a certain proportion of the captured pagans are exported to the north, and that a still larger number pass as tribute from the minor States to Sokoto, but the total of these two drains on the supply is a mere drop in the ocean of slavery. The bulk consists principally of two classes, domestic slaves, and saleable beasts of burden. The former become the household servants, labourers, concubines, and harem attendants of their Mahomedan masters, while the latter are employed by the merchants [191/192] or the transport of their goods, an additional advantage being that, as the merchant sells his wares, he can readily dispose also of the slave who carried them, and thus save himself the expense of keeping him longer than necessary. So likewise a traveller, journeying from place to place, takes with him a number of slaves to defray the expenses of his journey, selling them as required to pay his bills. Thus the slave of the Soudan is an actual currency, and, in fault of a better, a fairly convenient and portable one.

With regard to domestic slavery: when once the slaves have settled down in their new homes, there is nothing very irksome in their exist ence, and this has often been put forward as a reason for non~interference. It is impossible, however, for anyone who knows how they arrive at this state of comparative ease, to forget what they have undergone to attain to it; and should any of my readers require further enlightenment, I would refer them to Sir H. H. Johnston’s HISTORY or A SLAVE, a realistic little book full of minute details. Pure domestic slavery as it exists in certain parts of pagan West Africa, where slave-raiding on its own account is unknown, and where the slaves are either born in servitude or captives of war, is a condition of things which it is perhaps difficult to interfere with all at once; and this, I may say, is a very different affair from the domestic slavery in Mahomedan countries. On the West Coast,—the Niger Coast Protectorate, for instance, where among the pagans domestic slavery is in full force—the servitude is of a very light description; and it is no uncommon thing for a slave, by good behaviour, to acquire land and wealth, and even rise to the position of chief or king. Ja Ja of Opobo, Waribo and Oko Jumbo of Bonny, Yellow Duke of Old Calabar, and William Kia of Brass may be mentioned as men who have risen from servitude to be chiefs of the people. In the Mahomedan countries nearly all the domestic slaves are products of raiding; there is consequently no bond of union among them, since they probably come from different tribes, not even speaking the same language, and they have little in common with each other or with their masters. What their condition is depends entirely on their owners; but as a rule, so long as they are well behaved, their life is not altogether a burden; in fact with thrift they are able in the course of time to purchase their freedom. To the Mahomedan these domestic slaves mean wealth, not the mere value of the slave, but the value of his labour; for, in a country where land can be had for practically nothing, the only requisite for making it pay is labour to cultivate it; therefore the more slaves a man possesses, the larger his estates and the greater his importance. As he grows rich, his harem increases correspondingly, and female slaves and eunuchs are required in greater numbers.

Comparing domestic slavery in modern Africa with that of ancient Rome, one is struck by the remarkable similarity in the two systems. The Mahomedan householder is not unlike the time-honoured pater familias; within his compound he reigns almost supreme, death being the only restriction on his powers of punishment. The slave is allowed his peculium, the enjoyment of his savings, with power to buy his freedom. Male slaves are also sometimes manumitted; and females are given in marriage to other slaves of the household, when a certain amount of liberty is permitted to the couple. The children of slaves are themselves slaves, and the property of the owner [192/193] slaves of different masters, the first child belongs to the mother’s master, the second to the father’s, and so on alternately ; and these children can be sold as slaves. Again a slave has no rights of citizenship; he can neither sue nor be sued in a court of law; he has no redress for grievances, and in fact is a mere chattel, to be sold or bought at will.

Such is the demand, the supply to meet which comes principally from the pagan tribes who are the aborigines of the country, while the remainder are the children of slaves. Slavery, however, does not conduce to much increase of the population; the laws of nature and the mode of living are against it, and probably this source does not account for more than one per cent. of the slaves. The process of slavemaking adopted by the Fulahs varies according to the nature of the tribe against which their operations are directed. In the case of weak tribes, known to be incapable of much resistance, the method is that of the razzia [raid] pure and simple, when whole villages are surrounded and the inhabitants of both sexes and of all ages are carried off. But where the pagan tribes are too powerful to make raiding in this fashion profitable, recourse is had to the meanest devices, by which the unfortunate people are waylaid and kidnapped, or enticed away from their homes. A certain trade is also done by open purchase from the larger pagan tribes, who in some instances will sell to the Mahomedans members of smaller tribes whom they have captured in war, as well as individuals of their own tribe whom they wish to get rid of. This form of trade, however, is less common than it is under the Arabs in East Africa.

In the present state of West Central Africa, without railways or good roads, to put an end to slave raiding by force of arms is an absolute impossibility. No force that England could spare to put into the country would be sufficiently strong to cope with the raiders in all directions: and to crush them in one part merely means driving them to some other hunting-ground a little further afield. The whole solution, however, lies in a nutshell; once do away with the demand for slaves, and the supply will at once cease, as indeed happened in the case of the over-sea slave-trade of the West Coast when slavery became illegal in America and other parts. It must be remembered that although Europe has divided Africa into what are called spheres of influence, she has at present absolutely no jurisdiction over the majority of the Mahomedan States in these spheres; and the most that can be done by way of compulsion is to stop the subsidies paid to the rulers for the right of trading in their territories, a proceeding which would of course put an end to all commercial enterprise and consequently the reason for the presence of Europe in Africa. We are discussing only the countries of the Central and Western Soudan, where slave-raiding exists in its worst form, but where (since there is little or no outside traffic in slaves) it would probably be easier to suppress it than on the East Coast, whence there is still a smuggled export of pagan Africans. The internal or local demand for slaves could be diminished in two ways; I do not say that the demand would altogether disappear, but it would probably decrease to such an extent that it would hardly be worth the Mahomedans’ while to attempt to make a living entirely by systematic raiding. The two simplest ways to meet the difficulty (as advocated by many distinguished Anglo-Africans) are the introduction of a money [193/194]

currency and the construction of roads and railways. The first is perhaps the least diflicult. and when once money is in free circulation, the necessity for half the slaves now employed would end; tribute would be paid in money, and the merchant would no longer require to transport enormous loads of cotton and other goods from place to place for barter. The transport of a certain amount of merchandise would still go on, but, with good roads, and with railways and steamers to carry the goods, very few carrier slaves would be necessary. Railways unfortunately take time to construct, but in the meanwhile something might be done by the Royal Niger Company, which has the command of the great waterway which runs from one end of the country to the other. If the company’s steamers on the Middle Niger and the Benué were to carry passengers and freight from one port to another at reasonable rates, there is little doubt that the natives would gladly avail themselves of this method of transport; but so far nothing has been attempted in this direction. The people are great travellers, and there is every reason to believe that a passenger line of steamers on these rivers would in a very short time be a paying concern. The Niger, in point of riverside population, does not compare unfavourany with the larger rivers of Asia, on which there is always found a line (and generally a rival line) of passenger steamers. Take, for example, the Canton river, the Irrawadi, the Indus, or the Tigris; on each of these rivers there has been for many years an excellent service of steamers, patron ised equally by the Chinese, Burmans, natives of India, or Arabs, who live on the respective river-banks. But apart from the Niger—Benué line being a remunerative one, the fact still remains that, by this means, an indirect blow would be dealt to slavery; and if the British Govern ment or the great body of African philanthropists, saw their way to subsidizing such a line until it was firmly established, the good that would result could not fail to fully repay their efforts. In commending this to the Royal Niger Company, I would point out that for many years to come it is improbable that a railway will pass through the country in which they trade; but that when a railway is constructed (as it inevitably will be within the next quarter of a century) throughout the length of what for want of a better name we may call Hausaland, that is to say, from Sokoto to Lake Chad, it will in the natural course of events connect with the railway which is even now being laid from Lagos to Ilorin and the Middle Niger, with the result that the whole of the trade of these rich provinces will pass into the hands of the colony of Lagos to the impoverishment of the Niger Com pany. The Company, therefore, would do well to attract the transport of Mahomedan merchandise to the river before it has been diverted elsewhere.

Slaves as Currency and the Need to Create Another Medium of Exchange

I have, I fear, wandered somewhat from my subject, though my object in putting forward the establishment of passenger trafiic on the Niger and Benué was to show how it might affect the number of slaves required to be kept by the Mahomedan traders. To return to the question of currency: the slave in these parts, is, as I have said, an actual currency, equivalent in English money to from £10 for a young girl to £1 for a middle-aged man, and as negotiable in any public market as a bank-note in England. To oust this form of currency and introduce a new one would be to sap the foundations of the present slave system of the Mahomedan merchants, who are quite astute enough to [194/195] introduction of money into their transactions. In fact they are already fully aware of its advantages, since the few silver coins which have at different times found their way into these regions are readily bought at a price far exceeding their European value. These coins are almost entirely the old Maria Theresa dollars, which originally found their way to Bornu in the days when a very considerable trade in ostrich-feathers was married on between the merchants of Bornu and Tripoli. Since that time, the same coin has been taken to the country by several European travellers, and the identical dollar (with the date 1780) is still struck in Austria for export to Central Africa. Now here is a form of money ready to hand, and one which, being known to the people, it might be the best to use at first. The matter, however, of the particular coin to be used is immaterial, the great point being the importance of flooding the country with money, and the medium for bringing this about is primarily the Royal Niger Company. English money is used freely in all our West Coast colonies, and even in the Niger Coast Protectorate, which came into existence some years after the Niger Company obtained its charter; but in the Company’s territories money, as a legal tender, is unknown.

The question of initiating a new system of trade in a country is, I am fully aware, not to be dealt with lightly; in fact, it requires to be very carefully thought out, as so many side issues are involved. In attempting, therefore, the introduction of a money currency into these regions, it would be necessary to consider whether it would be acceptable to the natives, or whether they would reject it. The European traders need not be considered at present; they might lose a little at first, but would soon recover what they had lost by the rapid increase in trade. To discuss the question from the native point of view, we must examine the present method of carrying on business in this portion of the Soudan. The system is not actual barter, though it is not far removed from it, the difference being that there is an intermediate stage, by which the native merchants estimate the value of articles that they wish to sell or buy. This medium for bargaining is the cowrie (about two thousand of them being equal in value to a shilling), which is a species of currency, yet cannot be said to be an actual one, as there is no fixed standard; the cowrie is a mere token, and the holder of cowries cannot recover the value of them unless he can find others willing to take them. Thus the value of cowries varies each day and in each place, everything depending on whether the particular market happens to be well provided with them,—a state of affairs which, in a country with poor means of communication, is naturally a terrible hindrance to trade. More over, their bulk is an inconvenience to the travelling merchant, who consequently prefers to take with him cotton or other merchandise borne by slaves, whom he can also sell when he has no longer any goods for them to carry.

These cowries are not indigenous to the country, but are imported from Europe and other parts, and their use is not by any means ancient. Prior to their introduction, there were several forms of currency in the different native States; thus, on the Benué river, there were pieces of iron with a fixed value; in Bornu, the rotl (a pound of copper) was the ancient standard, four gabagas (cotton strips) [195/196] going to the roll, and afterwards eight cowries to the gabaga; in Kano, fifty years ago, the dollar had become a standard, with cowries (twenty-five hundred to the dollar) as small change; while in Timbuctoo, the standard consisted of a mithkal of golddust, weighing ninety-six grains of wheat and fixed at four thousand cowries. It is interesting to note these old standards, as it shows that the natives are sufficiently advanced in the scale of civilization to understand the advantages of a portable currency; and probably the only reason that they have not improved in this respect is that the powerful men in the country have complete control over the markets, withholding cowries from circulation, or swamping the markets with them, as occasion suits them. If European money were introduced, and its value guaranteed for a certain number of years, and if all white traders were compelled to accept the money at the fixed value, then the currency question might be finally solved. Unfortunately, how ever, there are reasons for objection on the European trader’s part. As matters stand at present, by watching the cowrie market,—Where the value fluctuates from seven to seventeen pence for two thousand cowries—the Niger Company’s agents are enabled to do business at a very handsome profit; and it is perhaps unreasonable to expect them to give up this profit for the sake of a little philanthropy, though this difficulty might be met by a Government subsidy for a few years.

Railways as a Solution to Slavery

With regard to railway construction, there is nothing impossible in laying a line between Sokoto and Lake Chad, and with a bridge or steam ferry across the Middle Niger, the Lagos-Ilorin line would then run through Nupé to Sokoto. An extension from Lake Chad to El Fascher would doubtless eventually follow, and thence eastward to the Nile. For the present, how ever, this is but building castles in the air. To return to firm ground, the railway should be preceded by good roads, of a moderate width and care fully laid down, so that they could be afterwards used for a permanent way, while rest-camps or caravanserais, with a plentiful supply of water, should be established at convenient distances. All this would, of course, require money, and it is improbable that the Royal Niger Company, or any other company, would see the force of sinking so much capital with no chance of any return for a decade or more. The arguments that gained the vote for the Uganda railway would do equally well here ; but failing Government support, I am afraid that there is little probability of anything being done for many years.

Let us now consider how this con struction of roads and railways would affect slavery. In the first place, it would be essential that only free labour should be used for the work, and it would be necessary to protect the depots and the labourers by a small force of constabulary. The Sultan of Sokoto and the Emirs of the vassal States would have to be persuaded to permit the work; but there is nothing that an African ruler will not do for money, so that is merely a matter of bribery. Now comes the question of labour; would it be forthcoming? Perhaps not at first, but by importing Sierra Leone coolies and Kruboys to make a start, and by offering fair wages and protection, the natives would soon see the advantage of working. I do not imagine that the Mahomedans themselves would ever work; but the pagan villagers are no fools, and they would readin grasp the situation, as they have done in the Congo State. By these means there would be fewer pagans to be raided, since, with a constabulary [196/197] guard, anyone employed on the works would be a British subject, free and protected from attack. It seems to me that the only difficulty would be to find enough work for the applicants. With a good road running east and west through Hausaland, and with branches here and there connecting with the Benué and Middle Niger, communications would be so well established that trade would be at once doubled; the inland parts would become accessible to European traders, the caravanserais would become trading stations, when the Niger Company would be able to actually have a voice in the administration of the country, from which in the course of time would result complete control over the native rulers, and finally the abolition of the status of slavery. This scheme of roads and railways is, it must be acknowledged, rather an extensive one, and possibly may be considered fanciful; yet, compared with what England has already spent on the suppression of the slave—trade in Africa, the cost would be infinitesimal.

The passing of resolutions in London will never abolish the slave-trade in Africa. What is wanted is real systematic action in the country itself; and were missionary and other philanthropic societies to combine, and con sent to be guided by the advice of those who are acquainted with Africa, then the matter might be settled for ever. Ask the average Englishman what European Power has been the champion of the abolition of slavery, and he will readily answer “England.” He will undoubtedly be correct; yet if we look at Africa, now virtually belonging to half a dozen European Powers, what do we find? That England, of all nations, flies her flag over, or, at any rate, has under her protection, thousands of square miles in which no attempt has been made to suppress slavery, and, where indeed she actually recognizes the legal status of slavery. So long as we acknowledge the right of a Mahomedan, or any other African, to hold slaves, we are aiding and abetting the slave-trade; we are practically encouraging the supply by allowing the demand to continue. It will no doubt be contended that the time has not yet come for proclaiming throughout all our African protectorates that the status of slavery is illegal; but, on the other hand, are we honestly doing all we can to hasten the arrival of that time? Are we honestly fulfilling the obligations we undertook, with ten other Great Powers, at the Brussels Conference in 1890? These obligations were as follows :—

The gradual establishment in the interior, by the Powers to which the territories are subject, of strongly occupied stations, in such a way as to make their protective or repressive ac tion ell'cctively felt in the territories devastated by slave-hunting.

The construction of roads, and in particular of railways, connecting the advanced stations with the coast, and permitting easy access to the inland waters and to such of the upper courses of the rivers and streams as are broken by rapids and cataracts, in view of substituting economical and rapid means of transport for the present means of carriage by men.

On the East Coast of Africa we have done and are doing much; but in our sphere of influence in West Central Africa seven years passed with out the least attempt being made to carry out the terms of the Brussels Act, and now, in the eighth year, all that has been done is the abolition of slavery in that part of the country south of the Middle Niger; and this, we must remember, has been effected at the cost of the shareholders of the Royal Niger Company, not of the British nation.

To sum up the situation of slavery in British West Central Africa: there [197/198] exists an ever-increasing internal demand for slaves, which the Fulahs endeavour by every available means to supply; England has pledged herself to the abolition of slavery within her African protectorates (whether under direct or Chartered Company administration) by making roads and railways, and by establishing posts throughout the country, but in the enormous tracts lying to the north of the Benué and the Middle Niger, nothing has been attempted. By opening communications, and by introducing a money currency, it might be possible to decrease the demand for at any rate those slaves now used as carriers; while the establishment of trading stations in the interior, consequent on the better roads, might give us suflicient power in the land to strike the final blow. Enough blood has already been shed in Africa by this accursed traffic. Surely, then, if it be possible by peaceful means to abolish it, it is the moral duty of Great Britain to make an efiort to fulfil the promises that she solemnly made to the world at Brussels, and to endeavour, in this reign of reigns, to ameliorate the condition of the negro, without increasing the bitter ness of which his cup is already full.

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Mockler-Ferryman, A. F. “Slavery in West Central Africa.” Macmillan’s Magazine. 70 (May-October 1897): 190-98. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the Cornell University Library. Web. 14 September 2020.

Last modified 14 September 2020