Academic journal article African Economic History

Reexamining the Geography and Merchants of the West Central African Slave Trade: Looking Behind the Numbers

Academic journal article African Economic History

Reexamining the Geography and Merchants of the West Central African Slave Trade: Looking Behind the Numbers

Article excerpt

The Slave Voyages Database is the most significant work on the quantification of the Atlantic slave trade to have appeared since Philip D. Curtin produced his census of the commerce.1 As the first resource of its kind compiled by economic historians of the transatlantic slave trade the authors should be commended for realizing a project of such enormous breadth and vision. Yet due to the innovative nature of the resource, the creators have faced multiple unforeseen issues in the categorization and dissemination of this material. Equally, in light of the overwhelming conclusiveness of the study, economic historians are left asking themselves the question of what is next. Using the West Central African coast as a case study this paper will explore two key areas of the database which, with some modifications, could begin to inform and guide new research directions. First, this article will examine the geographical categorization of West Central Africa and will demonstrate how the flexibility of geographical interpretation in West Central Africa can be problematic. The authors of this article propose a more in depth definition of the geography, paying special attention to Dutch sources on the Loango Coast. Second, this article will discuss inherent problems within the database's categories. Ship captains and ship owners have been categorized according to an English model and are incompatible with the Portuguese and Spanish documentation. This article will conclude with suggestions for uses of the database which move beyond simple enumeration of the slave trade into questions about the formation of merchant communities, the interConnectivity of merchant networks, as well as the process of database creation and how it can inform historians in the creation of future databases.

I: A New Geographical Categorization for West Central Africa and Its Implications

Beginning with the issue of geography, regional definition is a problem that plagues all scholars of the transatlantic slave trade. This difficulty springs from a lack of geographical standardization in European shipping documents throughout the slave trade. This is particularly pronounced in the region of West Central Africa as the Dutch, Portuguese, English and French all possessed differing definitions of the coastal region. Although some scholars including Martin, Postma, and Manning clearly define the Loango Coast as a separate trading region,2 the overwhelming trend is to approach the West Central Coast as one trading community as exhibited by the Shve Voyages Database. Despite the many benefits of having an online resource with a vast amount of information, the formatting of the African Voyages Database results in some significant limits when studying specific regions within the vast definitions of West Central Africa. The current version requires the user to have an intimate knowledge of the sources in order to use the data and assumes that they are able to identify the geographic location of the twenty-three ports listed.3 Even with that level of awareness, the degree of flexibility within interpretations is extremely high. This is exhibited by Roquinado Ferreira's Suppression of the Slave Trade and Shve Departures from Angola, 1830s-1860s, in which he defines the entire West Central African coast as "Angola" suggesting Portuguese dominance in the entire region.4

The category of West Central Africa encompasses a number of geographical regions with conflicting definitions. The primary terms used to describe sections of this coast are Angola, Kongo, and Loango. While Kongo and Loango are fairly linear categories - Kongo being an African community situated to the south of the Congo River and Loango being an African community to the North of the Congo River - the definition of Angola's location and size differs from one group of European traders to the next and shifts significantly over time.

In Warfare in Atlantic Africa 1500-1800, John K. Thornton defines three "military-diplomatic regions" in Atlantic Africa: Upper Guinea, Lower Guinea and Angola. …

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