*** African Atlantic slave trade -- country traders France

The Atlantic Slave Trade: Individual Country Traders France

slave trader off West Africa
Figure 1.--This painting by Auguste-François Biard depicts slave traders off West Africa. It was painted in 1833. (WSe have noted an 1840 date.) Biard was an abolitionist, but this seems to be an accurate depoiction of slave traders tking captive Africans aboard their ship. (The one obvou inaccuracy is so mny people compressed together, but this sas necessary to create the image of the nby different bprople involved.) We note authors and many websites using this image, but note that few we have found make any effort to describe whst is happeming. Theree is a great deal gong on which we will try to describe. As Biard was French, it is likely that this was a French slaver. Biard traveled widely, including time in Brazil where slavery was still legal. Whether he was actually on a slave vessel to observe this seems unlikely, but the depiction is much more detailed and seemingly accurate than most abolitionist depictions. Of couse this is in part because he was a talented artist. It may also be because he wnted to crete an accurate depiction of the horrors of slavery. We will zoom in on areas of this image to fry to assess it in detail. Here we welcome any insufgrs readers mat have

The painting on the previous page by Auguste-François Biard depicts slave traders off West Africa. We have notyiced various ftes for the painting, but as proiably executted (about 1839, pertaps a little earlier). Biard was an abolitionist, but this seems to be an accurate depiction of slave traders bringing captive Africans aboard their ship. We note authors and many websites using this image, but note few mase any effort to describe what is happening. Theree is a great deal going on which we will try to describe. As Biard was French, it is likely that this was a French slaver. Biard traveled widely, including time in Brazil where slavery was still legal. Whether he was actually on a slave vessel to observe his seems unlikely, but the depiction is much more detailed and seemingly accurate than most abolitionist depictions. Of couse this is in pat because he was a talented artist. It may also be because he wnted to crete an accurate depiction of the horrors of slavery. We cab zoom in on areas of this image to fry to assess it in detail. We understand some of the issues concerning this images, oyther issues are less clear. We encourage readers to send in any insights they might have about this painting.

European Art

European artists did not address African slavery andc the slave trade until after the Napoleoonic Wars well into the 19th century. And even then, there are very few qualkiy works of art. As far as we know, the first such image was a drawing by Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-58), a German artist interested in ethnographic subjects. He traveled extensively in Latin America and depicted African slaves in Brazil, often being accused of sugar cating their conditiuon. He exhibited it in the Paris Salon (1827). As far as we know, this is the firs treal depiction of the nauseating reality of the slave trade, showing conditions on a slaver. And as horrifying as it was, the conditions depicted are surely better than what most captive Africans endured. It attrcted lttle attention, suggesting the weakness of the French Abolitionist Movement. Slavery was still legal in the French Empire and French slavers still active in the Atlntic. A decade later, an important French artist Auguste-François Biard (1798-1882) painted a large, detailed work (mow lost) of slaves being sold when a slver landed some where in the America, probably Brazil (1835). He had trouble selling it. Not to be deterred. He painted another large work, the painting seen here of slaves being assembled somewhere off West Africa. it was exhibitedin the French Salon (1840). Slavery was still mlegal min the Frebch Empire. This time Biard fecided to exhinit in britain which had a powerful Abokitionist Movement whichhad succeeded iun outlaweing the slave trade (1807) and slavery itself (1835). Biard exhibeted in the Royal Accademy's summer exhibituion (1840). This was just before a meeting of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. J.M.W. Turner may be the only master painter to address the subject. Turner's painting, 'The Slave ship', not coincidentally was shown at the same time. It depicted captive Africans overboard with a hurricane (Turner called it a typhoon) approaching. More commonly. captive Africans were thrown overbpard when a Britih Royal Navy anti-slavey patrol spotted a slaver. Why Turner avoid such a depctioin is unknown. Biard's work attracted cinsiderable favorable attention. Viewers praised it for its realism and avoidence of ideelogica postyring often opresent in abolitionist images. One ssessmnt opraised the pinying for 'reoresenting with fearful accuracy the cattricious deeds of the miscreants who traffic in this abominable trade.' Today woke critics do nnot like the depuctiin if the Africns partiipating in the slave trade or the pacivity of the captive Africans. .


We have no idea what the nationality of this slaver is. As the artist, Auguste-François Biard, is French, we suspect it was a French slaver. As far as we know, howeverr, he never traveled to West Africa or boarded a slaver. We are noy sure hiw he could hve boarded such a seeminly accurate depiction. After the final defeat and exile of Napoleon, the restored Royal government banned the slave trade (1818). We do not have any infoirmation on to what extent the laws wwre enforced. Our initial assessment was that it was basically up to the British Royal Navy to stop slaver operations.

Slaver Ship

We at first thought the scene was on bord the slave. But After studying the image, we think the slaver can be seen offshore in the center of the paining. It looks to be a three-masted brig (figure 1). Perhaps readers with more knowlkedgecof shipping will know more. Slavers were armed ships, many with substntial numbers of cannons. We think thiswas because they had to come in close to the coast nd there was danger fromm pirates. The sails we see are for the small boats being used to take the captives from the baracoons to the ship. But we think they are on shore and inspecting the merchndise. Slavers had to be fast sleet vessels to ber sable to outrun Royal Navy anti-slavery patrols. They also needed have nrrow drafts to come close to shore or move into the rivers where after the Royal Navy launched its campaigmn to end the slave trade (1807), that the baracoons were hidden. Cconditions on these ships were appalling, with hundreds of people crammed together with little airflow and apauling sanitation. Often the casptives could mot even sit uopright.


We see a whip being used againsr captive Africans being taken out to to the slaver, the vessel seen off shore (figure 1). This paintging is a little different in that the whip here is in the hands of blacks, presumably men employed by the chief here selling the captives to the Europen slavers. Notice that in the painting there are more black slave driversthan white slavers. This is not in any way to mitigate the evil perpetrated by the Europeans, but it puts to the lie the narative spreas by the 1619 Project and the Blacks Lives Matters movemenbt which focus exclusively on whiteness. They want you to believe that slavery was purely a black/white, or European/African, or Christian-Jewish matter matter which is simply untrue. Many of the slave drivers involved were Arabs/Muslims. In the Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trade, almost all the slave drivers were Arabs/Muslims.

Gender Ratio

The African work force was primrily needed to work on sugar plantastions. Sugar was not the only agricultural operation in the New World, but it was by far the most important and profitable in Brazil and the Caribbean. The Europemn sweet tooth ws unsaiatble. Three were other crops such as coffee. This is the porimary reason why so few captive Africans were transported to the 13 English colonies (the modern United States), neither sugar cane or coffee could ber griwn in North America. There the primsry crop was tobacco (17th anbd 18th century) and cotton (19th century). Sugar production required back-breaking labor. For this adult men were needed. POe source estimates that something like two-thirds of the captive Africabns tranported weere adult males. Most ot of the rest or over aurter were childrem. Only a little over 5 percent were adult women. [Geggus, p. 122.] Women and children could not perform much of thelabor reqwuired on a sugar plabtation. On coffee plnbtations, women and children could be employed. Notice thst in the painting, most of the captives are men, held together with wodden yokes, their hsands tied behind their backs.


There are two children pictured in the painting. One is a white cabnin boy assistuing with the brandinf of a femmale captive. He is holding a latern. He looks very young, proibably bout 10 years ild. He wears a straw hat thsat was common for sailors at the time. It was common for merchbt vesselsto have a few boards aboard, There were a range of dynctions they could dulfil, ruunin rrabds fir the offucers, sreving in the gflly, or helping wih a tnge of activities. Also in the portrait is a black baby. We knoiw that there were children among the caotives sold to the slsvers. We are less sure about babies. Of course caotive women might have babies, but the rigors of driving the captives to the coast suggest that no many babies would have survived. So we are not sure what the baby is doing there or where his mother is. He seems to be locsated in a rather privlidged location, but then again, most babies would wan to be near mother.

Black Slave Drivers

One of the striking features of the Biard paintings is the number of Africans involved in the process. In fact there are more armed African slave drivers depicted than white crew members. The modern concept of the slave trade is that it was perpetrated by white Europeans against Africans. Often ignored or not given much attention is the involvement of Africans. In reality it took significant manpower to capture Africans, drive them to the coast, and hold them in baracoons. Al this was done by Africans (many Arabized/Islamized Africans) and not white Europeans. On fact, more Africans were involved than white crew members on the slavers. Relatively small numbers of white crew members were needed to transport the captive Africans across the Atlantic. Clearly the extensive involvement of Africans was required for the slave trade. Also pat of the modern slave trade narrative is that the Europeans introduced the slave trade to Africa. This is manifest false. Following the Islamic outburst from the from the Arabian Peninsula (7th century AD), Arab merchants moving into Indian Ocean ports initiated the Arab slave trade (8th century). There were at first two routes, the Indian Ocean slave route and the Saharan route. The Arab Indian Ocean slave trade was mostly confined to East Africa. The Saharan route affected West Africa. What changed with arrival of the Europeans is that rather than being driven across the Sahara, captive Africans were driven south to the Gulf of Guinea coast. The Europeans did introduce the slave trade to the western regions of southern Africa that had previously not been significantly affected by the slave trade such as modern Angola and Namibia. The Atlantic slave trade was notable for the large numbers transported for basically three decades (16th - early-19th centuries), but the total numbers seem comparable as the Arab slave trade which was conducted over a much longer time period, a millennium (8th - 19th centuries).

White Crew Members

Another interesting question is who were the white crew members on a slaver. Here the Biard painting provides few clues other than the age range. One fact thst stabds out is the extent to hich the crew wasarmed--simething not to be seen in other ships, except pirate ships. (This was the origin of the Royal Marines--to keep the unarmed sailors under control.) There is much that we do not know. One question of particular interest is if the crew of a slaver was a sailor fundamentally different than that of an ordinary sailing vessel. Te common perception is that he was. We are not sure about that. It must be remembered that the Abolitionist movement did not begin to gain real strength until the very late-18th century. (America was not a significant participant in the slave trade.) And only a few years later, Britain outlawed the slave trade and began to suppress it (1807). So any public moral opprobrium, if nay, only existed in the final years. Further complicating the issue is that Britain was only one of the countries involved and not the most important which was Portugal. And while we know a little about the English crews, we know next to nothing about the Portuguese and other foreign crews. We had assumed that wages were higher for slaver crews, but we cannot yet confirm that. We are somethings we do know about the crews, at least the English crews. First, the crew of an slaver was larger than a normal merchant vessel. This was because they not only had to sail the ship, but had to control the substantial number of captive Africans aboard. Second, it was not only Africans who died aboard the slavers, the Europe crews also died, often in comparable numbers. This was because disease was the primary killer. Africans were exposed to European diseases, but the European crews were like wise exposed to African diseases like malaria. This can be seen in the records of slave voyages. Moralities of 10-20 percent were common with 10 percent becoming more common in the final years of the trade. This is about the same range for crew members. We suspect that the African death rate was somewhat higher, but not hugely so. Third, it was not only Africans who were mistreated, but available records show that plenty of captains also mistreated the crew members. Of course this was nothing like the African experience, but it is worth noting. Fourth, much of the crew was young, commonly in their late-teens or 20s as well as the 30s. Most had cabin boys, usually boys aboyn13-14 years old. There might be several such boys, depending in the size of the slaver. This information can be found in the 'muster rolls' which are available in English archives, usually in port cities like Bristol. We are less sure about other countries. Fifth, as the crews were recruited locally, they were almost all white. There may have been an occasional black, but it was not common. This may have been different on Portuguese slavers. Here we are not sure. Sixth, much of the crew was illiterate, suggesting that at least with English and Dutch slavers that they were not of a religious bent. (Literacy was much higher in Protestant than Catholic countries.) Seventh, English sailors signed a contract -- the 'Articles of Agreement'. This detailed wages, food, and other matters. We believe that the sane was true for other countries involved in the slave trade, but provisions probably varied. How well the captain adhered to these contracts we are uncertain. One interesting provision found in most of these English contracts is that the Africans were not to be mistreated. Enforcement of this provision by the captains seems to have varied widely. Eighth, the slavers often returned home with much smaller crews. This was because of crew mortalities or the crew members remaining in the New World. Here this was sometimes because the crew member voluntarily decided to remain or the captain for various reasons would not allow him to do so. This usually meant staying in Brazil (for the Portuguese) or the Caribbean. Relatively few slavers delivered their human cargo to the 13 English colonies which became the United States.

African Chief

We note large numbers of African slave drivers and they were not employees of Europoean slavers. Until nthe second half of the 9th century, Euuropean control did not extend beyond the coast of Africa and often that only involved tradiung posts. This did not change until the Europeans developed rapid fire weapons as we see in the Zulu War in South Africa and the Scramble for Africa. Throuhghour the African slave trade, the many Africn slave drivers were employees of African chiefs or Arab potentates. By the time of the talktic slve trade, the great African empires had disappeared, local chiefs were often involved although smaller frican kingsoms weere forming. The central figure in the Indian Ocean skave trade was the Sultan of Oman/Zanzibar. The large number of African slave drivers were not agents of any white European power or corporate enterprise. This is commonly ignored by modern authors discussing the slave trade. The Africa political structure spported zbd benefiuted the sklave trade as it was done for centuries. Anbd in the end it was the Europens, primarily Britain, which ended the slave trade, not only the European slave trade, but the Aran slave tradse as well. The Biard paining depicts not only the Frenbch captain, but also the African chief who was selling the captive Africans. We see mucvh less of him than the French captain, he is cib=vered up by his conical hat and other clothing. But he is ckearly in control of all the armed Africabs abd the costal baracoon.

Ship Captain

A ship captain at the time of the slasve trade was an ansolute monasrch. His word was life and death, not only for the captive Africans, but for the crew as well-- every man, woman, abnd child on the ship. The slave ship captains were not rich dilettantes which is suggested by the painting. We are unsure how accurate that depcition was. They were chosen by the investors for their nautical and both command and business competence. Most had years of experience sailing vessels, often beginning at a young age. This alone was a matter of great skill. The captain for the nost part did not own the slaver. Rather he was an employee. Usually a group of investors owned the ship to spred the risk. They commissioned the captain to operate the ship. The slave trade offered the opportunity to make real money, far more than they cold make on normal voyges. And there was no shortage of sea captains intersted in the terrible business. The eranings foir the captain could be very substanial. There weere very real incentives. The contracts included not just wages, but also commissions and bonuses. Often the captains got slaves themselves. The captins could freqwuentlu select a certain number of slaves for themelves, usually based on the number of captives they delivered alive. His captives were converted to cash when the slaver reached the slave markets in Brazil or the Caribben. This of course gave the captain every incentive to transport as many as possible and to keep as maby alive as possible--tragically the two were diamentically opposed. Themore crisdd the slver was, the fewer were likely to survive--something competent captains were fully aware of. (tyhis is why over time an increasing pecentage of the captive Africans were delivered alive.) There was also no shortge of investors. The investors carrfully selected people with nautical skills and someon they could they could trust as well nas like themselves, someone wiyhout moral scruples. The investors unlike the captain did not have to get their hands dirty. He was normally away from the home port for aearorcmore. And had no way oonnunicating with the oeners untilk the shio got back to port. The crew would receive a share of the profits, with the captyain receiving the largest share. One of his many responsdibilities was to hire and manage the crew. He needed to keep deaths to a minimum which required a grim calculation. Cramming as many captives on the ship as possible meant the greatest potential porofits, yet crowding increased deaths. One of the wirst records was reported by a Cpt. Thonas Phillips, a Welshman sailing the Hannibl out of Brecon. It was his first slave-trading command. He was directly responsible for the tragic deaths of 328 (47 percent) of the 700 captive African on board. He also lost 36 of his crew of 70 (1693-95). The captain and his officers had personal cabin space, usually below the raised quarterdeck at the stern of the ships. Ordunary sailors slept on the main deck, often under a tarpaulin or longboat.


Portugal founded the African slave trade. Many of the terms involved in the slave trade were based on the original Pportuguese terms. A barracoon was a the English version 'barracão' bsed on a Catalan loanword -- 'barraca' mening hut. The Spanish form was 'barracón' -- a kind of of barracks usually interning slaves or criminals. For the Atlntic slave trade, captured individuals were concentrated at held at barracoons located along the coast. Here they weere held redy for sale when the dlavers arrived. The barracoons were where the slave traders kept those he cptured alive and casptive. They had to be keppt in good coindution or their market value would decline. They were fed allowed exercise. They varied greatly in size and design, from tiny make-shift enclosures to much more substabtial buildings. As the Royal Navy campaign to end the slave trade, they began attsacking the bracoons. This menat that the larger established baracooms were anandoned or destroyed. The stay at the baracoons varied. There were two factors involved. If their condution was poor, they had to be rehibilitated to get a good price. If their condition was really bad, the slave drivers would kell them while being driven to the coast if judged to be not worth tyhe effort. The majoir factor was the arrival of slavers to purchase them. There were significant fatalities in the baracoons, primrily because of the rugors the caotives were sujected in the capture process and the long trek to the coast. Dense confinement and exposure to Europeam diseeas were other factors. It looks like th captives here re being rowed out to the slavers moored off shore.


Ww initially thought that there was a depiction od a ypung woman captive being branded. We stil think that this was the most other likely explanation that comes to us. The shoulder was one of several common places to place the brand. We are not, however, positive, but there is no glowing red hot brandf, even though it is getting dark. Rather the artist has higlighted it with unexplained light. And there is no brazer vissible to heat up the brands. You get the impression that the woman has been selected for the brand and it is not being dome to the other captives. Perhaps she is one of the captives the captain has chosen to own as part of his payment. What we do not know is how common it was and where the branding took place. The literature on branding suggests that banding took place at various places beginning at the baracoons, but it does not make it very clear how common branding was at each of the major sites (baracoon, slaver, market, or plantation oe other work site). It appears that branding took place at all four, but we do not know how commonly. There seem to be a declining tendency at least by the 19th century, but even this is not well known. The Abolitionist Movement may have been a factor. Abilitionist literature commonly depicts braning, but this does not mean that it was common. Branding was a lurid aspect of slavery, so naturally Abolitionist literature would show it. There were two primasry reason for branding,. First for identification. Second for punishment, especially for running away. Identification was proabsnly the most common reason for branding. Several factors lead us to belierve that it was not very common. First, freedman photogrphs rarely brands. Second, we do not note mention of branding in many of the slave memoirs ans accounts. Whipping accounts on the other hand are common, almost universal. Third, in the many newspaper runaway descriptions, brands are rarely mentioned, yet they would be the easiest way of iudebtifying an individual. .

The Female Experience

Most of the captives transported to the New World were men. Women were a small miority and their experiences were horrifying. There is one African female that had status in the Biard painting. She appears to be the companion of the Capitan, presumably one of the slaves that he was allocatd as part of his compensation. She does not look like she wasrecently capyuted, but rather probably enslaved on an earlier voyage. We do not know what happned to yhese women and the inevitable children once the captain ceased commanding slvers. Notice that the captain is the only crew member allowed to have a female companion. There eere no European women on slavers. Perhaps there was an exception, but we do not know of any. Of course, the crew on most vessels had access to the captive African women who had no way of resisting their unwanted advances. For both the male anmd female captives in was one more way of exerting control and introducing the captives to theur new lives and status. The captives denied all human dignity. The voyage akso began the process of destoying their collective knowledge and engrined cultural of the captured Africans. In ghe Baracoons, the captives were stripped of any of clothes and afirnments that replresented ny physical connections to their African lives. Their heads were shaved. Depriving the captives of these personal and cultural artifacts were the beginning of a process of systematic dehumanization. Once loaded aboard the slaver, the whole process process of dehumanization continued. The women were especially brutal as they were subjected to unrelenting rapes and other forms sexual abuse throughout the the journey. The journey for men and women were different. The men were kept chained and below decks except for periodic exercise in small groups. (This was necessary to limit mortalities.) The much smaller number of women were commonly left unchained and had mnore freedom to move about the ship. Many of the captive woman arrived in the New World slave narkets enpregnated by theier abusers. The nulatto children of plantation slave owners often were cared for by their fathers. This was not the case of the Middle passage pregnancies.

The Male Experience

Baird's painting does not porovided much insightbinto the captive male experience. The males of course were who the slave drivers were after because they were who the Europans needed for the exausting work on sugar plantations. The slaver drivers bound the women notbprimarily out of fear of resustance, but because they might run away. In this painting, howeer, themalev captives are in the background, bound and yoked with little detail so it offers little or no insight into them. Of course they were the greatest threat to the slave traders and the slaver crews as they were the most likely to resist. Thus they were the most likely to be beaten and shackled. This cintinue on the slavers wherevthe vwomen werev less likely to beshackled and vhadmore vfreedom. Thevmen were keptb shgacked and vfor vthe vmiostbpartbbelow decknin horifuic conditions. .


Geggus, David. "The French slave trade: An overview," The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 58, No. 1, New Perspectives on the Transatlantic Slave Trade (January 2001), pp. 119-38.


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Created: 8:44 AM 5/25/2022
Last updated: 3:36 AM 5/28/2022