The actual count taken by the Ashanti raid was 265 Africans. Those lost in transit on the way to Bonny Island were 102. The 163 who survived were immediately sequestered on Bonny Island after their 15-day torturous trek through the jungle quagmire. Combined with the 202 Africans already in the barracoons, this 163 brought the total to 365 men, women and children. A slave ship was reported to be nearing the African coast in a day or so according to a notice given by a supply ship passing through several days prior. It was to be a Portuguese slaver that departed Cuba over two and a half months ago. Its timing should bring her to Bonny Island any day. That assumes, of course, she hadn’t run into any of the 30 ships of the British and American naval blockade that comprised the international fleet attempting to enforce the anti-slavery laws enacted by a growing number of countries. It didn’t really matter which slave ship arrived, except to the brokers who hoped to make a major returns from their ultimate sale. Whichever slave ship turned up first would have first pick to fill its cargo hold.
Even though 36 years had passed since most of the major countries currently active in the West African slave trade began the process of judging the trade to be illegal, not much had changed. Unfortunately, the laws by themselves did little to curtail trading in human flesh. The demand for slaves continued to increase, European colonialism continued to expand and the demand for cheap labor grew along with it. Trying to halt slavery through enforcement wasn’t all that effective either. The 30 assigned naval ships from the U.S. and Britain had over 3000 miles of African coastline and 5000 miles of coast along the Americas, the Caribbean and the West Indies to cover if they were to staunch the seemingly never ending flow of slave ships. Despite that enormous area for the 30 cruisers to try and stop the illegal traffic, some interdiction of slave ships were made and their human cargo was returned to the African coast, principally to Liberia.
The main ports of embarkation for slavers to acquire African slaves were Sierra Leone and the southern Niger River area. A round trip from Cuba to any major slave depot in Africa took between 65 – 90 days, depending on the weather and the size of the sailing ship. The British and American cruisers could begin a chase anywhere along that route. The areas at both ends of the voyage were like giant sieves that most slavers were able to easily slip through, and as many as 30 slave ships of all sizes could be seen docked at Havana Harbor at any one time, having recently offloaded their cargoes of slaves and trading goods. Much more was going to have to ignite the hearts of man to effect real change in the commerce of slavery, a practice as old as mankind.
As the sun came up full over the thick jungles of the interior of the African continent, a Dutchman from a group of businessmen standing near the barracoons, (Spanish for ‘barracks’) could be seen scanning the horizon to the west with his spyglass fully extended. A half hour of scanning finally brought him a reward for his patience. A slowly moving but recognizable spot appeared, coming straight toward Bonny. If it was indeed the Portuguese slaver he hoped for, that spot would soon turn into the familiar silhouette shape of a sailing ship as it tacked into the wind.
He called out to the others who were standing farther back, near to the little hut where coffee was brewing in a steel pot perched on a smoldering fire. The call was their alert to a ship no more than a day’s sail from their shore, dead-heading toward Bonny Island. The Dutchman predicted arrival by nightfall. The notice brought no cheers or cries of excitement, just a quiet acknowledgement by the several white Europeans and black overseers who were conversing and smoking Cuban cigars in the shade of the meager lean-to.
The miserable souls already confined in the barracoons had no way of knowing what horrendous destiny was about to befall them. The image of a sailing vessel approaching along the coastline meant nothing to them. They had never seen a sailing ship let alone been chained to one. Though the concept of slavery was well known throughout the African continent from countless generations of internal fighting and capturing one another, they likely only knew what it meant to be owned by another African tribe, to be forced to do their labor and remain subject to them. Their destiny in such internal conflicts might mean they’d be sacrificed to a foreign god or traded off to yet another tribe in exchange for crops or European materials or weapons.
The market for cheap labor by the European colonialists had become so great, the sale of slaves became the principle export for all of Africa. There were no other exports pursued on such a grand scale as the sale of her people. Slavery had, by default, become Africa’s primary economic output. Despite Africa’s plentiful and rich natural resources, no effort was being made to capitalize on them by the major tribes and kingdoms that ruled the interior. The key tribal leadership of the most powerful tribes on the continent saw the slave trade as their only immediate means of achieving wealth and power. The powerful tribal kingdoms in 1844, were apparently controlling the entire economy of the African continent.
Well before this time, African men, women and children were officially declared commodities with varying degrees of profitability. In the past, and now ongoing, it wasn’t uncommon for entire villages to be taken into slavery by another tribe which would then incorporate those captives into their own tribe. But with the increased value of an African man, woman or child on the slave market, along with the increasing demand among Africans for modern European weapons and rich European goods, it was no wonder the slave trade was blossoming. Survival and competition were powerful driving forces among the tribes. With colonialist countries such as the Dutch (Holland), France, Spain, England, Portugal, and Brazil developing their colonial interests in the Caribbean, the West Indies, and in North and South America, the price in American dollars for a healthy slave could bring $250 to $500 dollars or the equivalent, for fresh slaves in any currency. For the African market, those were huge dollars or pounds, large sums in every currency.
Throughout African history, if an African was captured by another tribe, it simply meant he had become the property of a different group of people. But to disappear into vast waters on a ship of horrors, to in turn be taken to a strange place inhabited by white people or brown people existing beyond the sky, was incomprehensible.
The powerful kingdoms in Africa and even the smaller tribes that only sought to sustain themselves, didn’t really care what happened to others who weren’t their own. Those who were captured, though of the same color and heritage as their captors, had become a form of currency, a means to basic human needs and a growing desire for power and better things to support life. Africa’s people were being reduced even deeper into becoming a mere commodity for peoples of other lands, and for those who traded in their bodies.
In this moment when the spot on the horizon was pointed out as approaching Bonny Island, 365 scared, black-skinned human beings were scrunched together in small groups, sweltering in the heat of equatorial Africa. Those poor souls could think only about water, a cup of simple life-giving water. Their lips and throats were parched beyond normal human endurance but this all-consuming misery was merely the beginning. From their assignment on a slave ship, their merciless saga had not yet begun.
Since the captives in the pens were marketable products, it suddenly became important to the brokers that they should mandate to the overseers that they clean them up before the trading started. The captives hadn’t been fed since late morning the previous day. They were only being fed once a day, about noon, and today’s meal was still an hour away. A typical meal might consist of local dried fruit such as figs, nuts, dried meats from miscellaneous animals and a mixture of cassava and plantains boiled together with various spices in a large cooking pot. No dishes or utensils were available for so many mouths. It had to be finger food. Great gobs of finger food to lick from anxious hands, even from one to another
To clean up their human trading goods, their black captors pulled buckets of water from the Calabar River. It was mostly fresh water but mixed with sea water since the island was situated right where the Calabar River fed into the Atlantic Ocean after trekking its way through the tributaries of the continent. The water was doused on the startled captives as they sat or lay in the snippets of shade such as there was. Thinking it was drinking water, those who could, rushed to the source, crushing against those who carried the buckets, hoping to get even a few drops. It was a shameful attempt to cleanse the dirty and sweaty lot of them in hopes it would help bring a better trading price from the slave traders.
Seeing their reaction, their overseers continued to bring in buckets of pure fresh water. They were set just inside the enclosure gate. Rushing en masse toward the buckets, they climbed and stepped over each other, desperate to get to the life-saving water. Cupping their unwashed hands to collect some water to drink, they unwittingly added to the future health issues that would soon overwhelm them. Just simple drinking water was all they needed. Some of the older ones already seemed near death from thirst, as well as from the harsh treatment during the long passage through the jungle terrain – many wouldn’t have lasted through the day without water. This occasion would be their last remembrance of the Africa they were born to.