Academic journal article The Historian

Transatlantic Trade and the Coastal Area of Pre-Liberia

Academic journal article The Historian

Transatlantic Trade and the Coastal Area of Pre-Liberia

Article excerpt

Transatlantic trade affected the coastal area of West Africa that became Liberia in 1822. The impact of that trade has confused historians of the region, particularly the social and economic effects the trade had on the Vai, Kru, Glebo, and other ethnic groups. Before the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century, coastal pre-Liberia had been affected by internal and external social dynamics. The Mande, Mel, and Kwa were the first linguistic groups to reside in the region. The earliest home of the Mande has been traced to the area north of the Niger River, but there is disagreement as to the origins of the Mel and Kwa. All three linguistic groups contributed to population growth. Indeed, such Mel-speaking ethnic groups as the Kissi and Gola, and such Kwa-speakers as the Dei, Bassa, Kran, Kru, and Glebo came to pre-Liberia in about 988 A.D. The Mande-speaking groups, including the Mende, Bandi, Loma, and Vai, settled long after the other two linguistic groups had moved there. The Vai, isolated from other Mande-speakers for over two thousand years, reached the coastal area. in the sixteenth century.(1)

Arriving in pre-Liberia at various times from different directions, the social systems of these ethnic groups interacted with each other because they shared the same geographical surroundings. The social and cultural similarities depended on their proximity to each other and their linguistic backgrounds. The Bandi, Mende, Loma Kpelle, and Vai, who lived in the same region, had much in common. For example, all were governed by indigenous hereditary social and educational institutions known as the poro and the sande. The poro defined and enforced social values and norms for adult men, as the sande did for adult women. Significantly, the poro was affected by the Atlantic trade.

The Bassa, Kru, and Glebo, who lived in the southeastern coastal area, had more in common with each other than with other pre-Liberian ethnic groups. These three groups were more knowledgeable about ocean sailing and fishing than groups from the interior. Kru familiarity with sailing would make them indispensable to transatlantic trade.(2)

With more in common than the Kwa-speakers, the Mel- and Mande-speakers lived in the interior and practiced some forms of poro and sande. The political and other social institutions of the Mel- and Mande-speakers were more centralized than the groups that resided along coastal areas. The forms of poro and sande practiced in the interior were more tyrannically and rigidly enforced than the forms practiced by the coastal ethnic groups such as the Val and the Gola.

Apart from these differences, the groups had much in common: all were gatherers and hunters before the fifteenth century; their religious systems recognized the existence of one supreme being, even though lesser gods such as the spirits of ancestors were invoked; all the groups were familiar with farming and used iron before the arrival of the Europeans; polygamy was practiced by all group leaders. The economic system of the coastal ethnic groups was barter, which was also associated with a communal mode of production.(3)

Nearly all these ethnic groups practiced some form of slavery prior to the arrival of the Europeans. However, their forms of slavery should not be confused with the one introduced by the transatlantic trade or the one that was practiced in the Americas. The indigenous slave systems of the Ashanti and other ethnic groups of West Africa, including those of pre-Liberia, were less oppressive than plantation slavery in the New World. The term dewoi, meaning slave in the language of the Loma of northwestern pre-Liberia, did not mean slavery in the Western sense. While the dewoi was required to work for his superior and to obey the rules of the community where he lived, he was never treated as property to be purchased, marketed, and inherited. The dewoi was permitted to marry someone from the master class and to become the leader of the very community that had enslaved him. …

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