An episodic journey along the west coast of Africa with my friend Olatunji
Off duty one night in the late Sixties, I started out from West India Dock for dinner at the house of a middle class acquaintance in Blackheath. Ten had been invited. I was the sole African in wholly English company. Unsurprisingly, the subject of slavery and colonisation was soon raised. During the following hackneyed points of view, I kept my eyes on a snooty character I shall call Know-all.
‘I have it on good authority,’ said Know-all, in a grating strangled accent, ‘that slaves preferred life on English plantations.’
‘Why was that?’ I asked.
‘The English were not as brutal as the French, the Portuguese or the Spanish.’
Confrontational individuals like Know-all depended entirely on an unaware audience. How else could he be so assured about the slave’s preference?
‘Who told you slaves preferred English plantations,’ I asked.
A weighty hush settled over the table. It was heavier then the edgy apprehension in the atmosphere. I felt the temperature noticeably fall.
Throwing an imperious glare at me, Know-all’s lips twisted into a rictus grin:
‘How long have you been in England, Remi?’
‘About fifteen or sixteen years…’
‘You must miss your people,’ he said, frowning and shaking his head with bogus empathy. ‘When will you be going home?’
‘After I get my Masters ticket.’
A perceptible sigh of relief flowed around the table.
‘And like the slave’s preferred,’ said Know-all, ‘I bet you’re glad it was Great Britain who colonised Nigeria…’
‘As opposed to…?’
Mocking laughter pacified the unease in the room.
I returned to my ship from the thought-provoking dinner, disturbed by my ignorance about a trade that had played such a pivotal role in British economic history. I had been raised and educated here. But what was evident that evening was that all those around the table also shared my rankling ignorance about the slave trade. When the subject of Abolition was raised, I could feel proud spirits rising around me.
The voice of alarm in the back of my mind said it was my own fault. There and then I decided I would change that. I would find out everything I could about the slave trade. I would begin by rejecting the little I had been taught. In years to come I hoped to write a novel based on my research.
Six weeks from the dinner in Blackheath, I was walking along the shoreline of Badagri. That was when I felt the need to seriously unearth the facts about a trade that won’t go away. On account of the subject matter, I started with tears. Forty years sped by and my eyes still water. And the psychic ache from the memory of slavery never lessens…
Let me proudly declare: I am an Ibadan man. I am Yoruba, by birth, blood and language. Throughout my school years in England, I was taught what I now believe was convenient history. When I was 10, my teacher told me that about 10,000 Africans were enslaved. Over four hundred years? I now believe that that number was in fact convenient history.
In truth, the Atlantic slave trade was the business of rich minorities from nations bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Millions were torn from Africa. Africans were sold by Africans and bought or kidnapped by the English. I felt it was an excellent moment for a closer examination of the mishmash of spurious English accounts. By means of a novel I hoped to bring to life a more accurate portrayal of what actually happened.
Considering the current turmoil about England’s slave plantations, it became clear to me that slave traders had purposefully concocted false histories about their activities. Why? Who could ever easily admit to perpetrating such an offence? Or maybe they did truly forget to keep a tally and lost count for 400 years. Or perhaps it was hoped that time would erase the evidence of such terrible deeds.
We were in Badagri, about 40 miles southeast of Lagos and 30 miles west of Seme, a border town in the Republic of Benin. Down passages of time slave voices have continued to howl. Time cannot kill knowing. On a clear day on a hillside overlooking Badagri, I sat down and began to make notes for my trilogy.
It was all about the sea.
Under blue skies on a hot thirsty day, I strolled over white sands on Nigeria’s southern shore with my friend, Olatunji. For days we had been meeting to talk about the centuries of slave trading on the very ground upon which we trod. Evidence of Britain’s colonial history could be seen in the fortifications strung along the western coast of the continent. Badagri was such a place. Fetters forgotten on the sands of this erstwhile slave embarkation station could still be unearthed by hand. I have in my possession manacles I found on that cherished walk forty years ago. I still wonder who was last confined by them.
Olatunji was a lean warm spirited man. His quarrelsome nature belied his aptitude and resolve and laughter framed his person. I first met him aboard a freighter on which we had both previously served. At that time, he was a 28 year old able seaman on my watch. I was 24 and officer of the watch. Our friendship properly began on the day we agreed that the declared history of England’s slave trade was not credible.
It really was all about the sea. For nigh on 400 years along the English-styled, Slave Coast, millions had poured through many Gates of No Return. Slaves were the currency of the multi-national trade. Sold by caboceers the next rung down, the slaves were trafficked by master mariners and seamen for plantation owners, who had them flogged into compliance by overseers. Thus, free slave-produced sugar enriched the upper-class of an English nation. In addition, the shipped quantities of the sweetener allowed England to steal a march on her competitors, especially the Africans.
While we were using research to unearth the evidence, the slave trader’s tracks continually petered out. Log Books of slave ships were either not kept, or had mysteriously vanished. The lists of the Tally Clerks could not be found. The absence of journals from a diary-keeping class was odd. Answers were certainly needed.
We needed to know how many Africans have been trafficked to the Caribbean. How many had perished in the Middle Passage? How many had been killed on the plantations of how many islands? How many had survived?
Was it true that forty percent of the GDP had been used by HM Treasury to buy the freedom of the slaves from the slave owners, thus bringing an end to the slave trade? Why then had the slaves also not received compensation from HM Treasury for their free labour, the loss of their homeland, the loss of their families and the waste of their lives?
With what we had read about the trade being irreconcilable with what our research was uncovering; we took a closer scrutiny:
We believed England’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade was perpetrated by a rich English and African ruling class, who were not Germanic about record-keeping. It is generally accepted that while transporting millions of prisoners across Europe during World War Two, the German military maintained a chillingly precise record of numbers destined for and inside concentration camps.
Springing from societies with a moral code, that rich English and African minority knew their trade was a crime against humanity. Accordingly, they intended the numbers they trafficked to the Caribbean to be guesswork, both for their own peoples at home and for any investigation from forthcoming generations. With no Ministry of Trade to report to, or statutory obligation to account for the number of slaves they purchased or abducted, I believe they always intended the true numbers to remain forever unknown. Beneath this mystery, the rich appeared to exculpate their kind by inculpating the poor as fellow travellers in the share of responsibility for the trade. Many Africans still mistakenly believe that the English poor bought and sold slaves just like the rich.
We knew too that while populating her own colonies, England held the asiento — the contract for supplying Spain’s vast colonies with slaves. Thus, England acquired the ghastly epithet of being the world’s greatest slave trader — an undeniably indigestible description. It was certainly incompatible with the twentieth century image of her noble self of being the first abolitionist state.
Slavery undoubtedly fills everyone with revulsion. Understandably, English historians were disinclined to tell it as it was. Abolition was thus a godsend. It allowed them to raise honour from a crime against humanity. Composing a more palatable account of England’s slave trade, they simultaneously secured certain upper-crust countrymen with principled reputations. Like politicians before him, William Wilberforce took his opportunity. Historians seemed to bundle aside abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano.
That then was our simple hypothesis. To support our conclusions, we needed evidence, circumstantial, factual or otherwise. During our time at sea, Olatunji and I mused over little else.
It was during one of our walks along Badagri’s shores I first told Olatunji I wanted to write a novel set in England’s slave trade. But I had to know a lot more about a trade whose tracks seemed to constantly vanish into thin air. He offered to help me in the search for documents and the hunt for locations. I said I knew my account would probably take up more than one book.
I ignored the fact that I had never before written a word in a book. Having dismissed the prerequisite of writing experience, I pondered further on the questions surrounding Britain’s account of her slave history.
By the light of a fierce iroko wood fire, over several nights on the crest of the shore our talk wandered far afield into unforeseen areas. Most surprising was the collaboration of some members of the English clergy, who supplied plantation owners with moral justifications for slavery:
‘On the plantations they are fed, clothed and civilised. And through the scriptures we can bring them closer to God.’
From our perspective, historians seemed to vaunt the civilising aspect of abolition both for the slave and plantation owner — an undoubtedly more worthy and creditable exercise. Thus abolition of the slave trade is more keenl-recorded than the actual trade itself.
Given our unfavourable findings, modern eyes were clearly needed along the West African coast. This time, the account would be recorded for a more-questioning generation who demanded more evidence than they who went before. Consequently, we planned to travel along two and a half thousand miles of the coastline, cataloguing and photographing every fort, factory and castle of the English slave trade.
Coupled with our savings, to fund our venture we would sign-on tramp steamers to work our passage — he as an able seaman and I as watch keeper. After a life along the coast, Olatunji was fluent in Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa and Pidgin, as well as a smattering of other coastal dialects. His linguistic fluency was essential for our upgraded venture.
‘Let’s find a tramp on Ubani – Bonny Island,’ I said.
‘Mo yọ pẹlu pe arakunrin mi – I’m happy with that my brother,’ said Olatunji, cheerfully. ‘Idi idi ti Bonny Island? – Why Bonny Island?’
‘Olaudah Equiano was Igbo,’ I said, matter-of-factly. ‘Bonny is part of Igboland, where he was captured and enslaved in the late 1700s.’
Ten days later we arrived by road outside the port of Bonny, the island town on the Bight of Bonny. Rich in maize and rice, it was a region of forests and the capital of the old Kingdom of Bonny.
‘Tramps be bound wi’ cargo in old slave port,’ said Olatunji.
Searching for a vessel our days rolled into weeks. One sultry afternoon we stopped on the potholed road flanking the docks. A passing dockworker said the docked vessels were mostly bound for Lagos; one was sailing on to Lome and two others to Takoradi and Abidjan. Casting our eyes over the berthed rustbuckets, we caught sight of a black hull streaked with thick bubbling orange rust, topped by a salt and rust-caked funnel. Simultaneously, an appetising pungent spicy aroma purled from the galley. Our bellies made the choice. Listing sluggishly to port, the ss Coastal Trader’s fresh black paint was already blistering in the hot sun and her crooked bowstrake endowed her with a strange kind of charisma.
Unaware of watching eyes, Olatunji was disparaging, ‘O ṣoro lati mu fifọ soke – Difficult to smarten up this tramp.’
Gruff laughter fell down from her main deck. Looking up, we saw a line of sweating seamen staring jadedly down at us.
‘To properly survey this coast, Olatunji, we must get to Lagos and pick up another ship from there. Do you think this rickety vessel will make the 400 miles across the Gulf of Guinea to Lagos with a cargo of baled cotton?’
‘An’ then steam wi’ cargo of rice to Lome in Togo,’ said Olatunji. ‘She mek it my brother.’
Spurred on by his sang froid, I smiled at him.
Looking favourably around, Olatunji looked at me and nodded.
With my boxed sextant under my arm, a skin-bound journal, a few pens, a Nautical Almanac, Norie’s Nautical Tables, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and clothes, inside sun-bleached knapsacks between us, a pair of adventurers walked readily up the gangway…
A tun ma a se ni ojo iwaju… (To be continued…)