The Slave Trade from the British Cameroons Area of the Nigerian Hinterland: Some Historical and Historiographical Issues

By Goodridge, Richard A. | The Journal of Caribbean History, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Slave Trade from the British Cameroons Area of the Nigerian Hinterland: Some Historical and Historiographical Issues


Goodridge, Richard A., The Journal of Caribbean History


Introduction

After the mid fifteenth century, transatlantic commerce linked Africa, the Americas and Europe in an economic relationship for more than four centuries. Primarily, it involved the export of human beings from Africa and the importation by societies in that continent of a variety of European goods. The historical writings have given rise to a series of controversies over several issues associated with the transatlantic slave trade, particularly the critical issue of the relationship between the trade and African development. Over the last four decades, there has been a profusion of scholarly studies on the transatlantic slave trade and the related issue of slavery in Africa with several tomes devoted to the demise of both. In this essay we shall attempt to examine the place of slave trading and slavery in southern British Cameroons within the context of the political, economic and social developments engendered by the transatlantic slave trade. The essay is therefore both historical and historiographical in character.

There are several important references to participation of societies in the southern British Cameroons in both the transatlantic trade as well as slavery in the area. There has been little effort, however, to explore the interrelationship or causal relationship between the two. This essay suggests that the transatlantic slave trade was but one factor in the development of traffic in enslaved persons and a system of enslavement in various parts of southern British Cameroons from the middle of the eighteenth century until the early twentieth century. As a consequence, there is a need to pay greater attention to the internal organization and affairs of the numerous polities rather than simply focusing on the impact of the British abolition effort after 1807.

We will first attempt to deal briefly with the pertinent issues in the debate over the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in Africa in order that the ensuing account on Cameroons may be meaningful. We will then introduce southern British Cameroons in terms of its geographical description as well as its historiographical connection to the transatlantic slave trade. Finally, and most importantly, we will present some data on the slave trade of the hinterland of British Cameroons and the presence of a domestic slave system in the region. During this section of the paper, we will provide some explanation for the development of both the Atlantic trade and the internal slave system. The essay is based largely on the use of secondary sources for the first two sections and on primary sources (British documents) for the remainder.

Between 1916 and 1961, Britain administered the area under discussion here as though it formed an integral part of their colony of Nigeria. The area - variously known as "Cameroons Province", "Southern Cameroons" and "West Cameroon" - is coterminous with the presentday North West and South West Provinces of Cameroon. Lying between four and seven degrees latitude north of the equator, and eight and eleven degrees east longitude, southern British Cameroons was just under 250 miles from north to south, and nowhere more than 100 miles wide. The physical features of the territory varied in terms of climate, rainfall, temperature and vegetation cover. Some of its principal geographical features are the important coastal region, including Rio del Rey, the Isuwu territory and the mountainous territory located immediately behind the coast, dominated by Mount Cameroon. Further inland, the regions of Kumba and Mamfe lie in the rain forest, and their climate is characteristic of the West African rain-forest belt. The rain forest gives way to the Bamenda Grassfields, a healthy plateau region mainly around 3,000 feet high. The peoples of the Bamenda Grassfields were, with the exception of the Bali, of Tikar extraction and had little in common (ethnographically speaking) with the forest and coastal dwellers.1

As late as the mid 1950s, Britain asserted, with reference to southern British Cameroons, that "the history of the territory before the beginning of the nineteenth century cannot be recorded with any accuracy. …

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