The 'Diligent': A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade
by Robert Harms
By the late 1700s France had become the third largest participant in the Atlantic slave trade, but the shift in trade from goods to humans was a risky one for all involved. In the latest essay from the London Review of Books, Megan Vaughan explores the daily life of a slave-trading ship, its crew and human cargo, through Robert Harms's history of the voyage of the Diligent
Tuesday December 10, 2002
The 'Diligent': A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade by Robert Harms. Perseus, 466 pp., £17.99, 28 February, 1 903985 18 8
On 1 June 1731, the Billy brothers, Guillaume and François, waved goodbye to their ship, the Diligent, as it set sail from Brittany. It was weighed down with Indian cloth, cowry shells from the Maldives, white linen from Hamburg, guns, ammunition and smoking pipes from Holland, kegs of brandy from the Loire Valley, and with the all-important supplies for the crew: firewood and flour, dry biscuits, fava beans, hams, salt beef, cheese, white wine and water. There was one other item to be loaded: 150 slave irons with their locks and keys, manufactured by the Taquet brothers in Nantes. Each iron could restrain two slaves. The Diligent was setting off on its first slave-trading voyage.
The Africans who would wear these irons were destined for the French West Indian island of Martinique. French development of this and other islands had lagged behind the English. In 1700 there were about 30,000 African slaves in the French colonies, compared with around a 100,000 in the English ones, and sugar exports were correspondingly smaller, but the first decades of the 18th century would see a rapid growth in French involvement in the slave trade and in the development of their colonies. The activities of the Billy brothers were part of a more general trend, as the usually dirigiste French crown gave a greater degree of freedom to merchants and entrepreneurs.
The 1731 voyage was the Billy brothers' first involvement in the slave trade. It demanded a very significant investment: the cost of sending a ship on the African slave run was two or three times that of other branches of commerce. Outfitting the Diligent, including food, loading costs and two months' salary for the crew, came to 80,000 livres - more than four times the price of the ship itself, and this before insurance. The Billy brothers were expecting big profits from the sale of Africans they would never see.
Robert Harms has based his riveting account of the 'worlds of the slave trade' on a journal kept by a young lieutenant on the Diligent, Robert Durand, a document sold in the 1980s to the Beinecke Library at Yale, where Harms teaches. Historians have uncovered records of more than seventeen thousand slaving voyages in the 18th century, but, as Harms points out, only a handful give us any insight into the daily life of the ship, the crew and its human cargo. Most are careful records of the ship's passage, prices, rates of exchange, slaves' vital statistics and deaths. As Robin Blackburn has argued, the slave trade and the slave plantation were run with an instrumental rationality, according to business principles that were ahead of their time, and produced an abundance of statistics. Durand's journal is one of the handful of records that provides more than this, but even so it is characterised as much by its silences as by its evocative descriptions and jaunty drawings. "Curiously," Harms writes, "Robert Durand mentioned the African captives only twice during the entire 66 days of the middle passage, and then only to record deaths."
Harms uses the voyage of the Diligent to take us through the 'worlds' of the Atlantic slave trade in the early 18th century. There are three of them in this case: France, West Africa and Martinique, with a few offshore islands thrown in. Harms's argument is that these worlds are distinct, with their own histories and dynamics, but that during this period the slave trade was beginning to link their fates. Perhaps his most original contribution to the ever increasing scholarship on slavery, however, is his account of the French slave traders and the political and social context of early 18th-century French colonial commerce.
The ships that sailed from Brittany had their backs turned to the impoverished rural economy of the hinterland. The big players in colonial trade were Nantes and later Lorient, and though government-chartered companies had previously exercised near complete monopolies, by this time the merchants of Nantes were proving successful advocates of private enterprise. The development of the French colonies may have been dirigiste in comparison to the English, but the French king could not afford to ignore an increasingly vociferous group of private merchants pressing for reform of the now discredited system of corporate mercantilism. Still, French colonial trade, as Harms makes clear, was relatively unintegrated into the larger economy, which was still predominantly agricultural. In the 18th century, commercial cities like Nantes were a bit like the 'free trade zones' of the 'Third World' today - disconnected from the rest of the country, importing and exporting goods that most people would never own, and perhaps never see. Arriving in Nantes, with its grand merchants' mansions and its opera house, the English traveller Arthur Young found himself in a strikingly different world from the one he had been journeying through: "Mon Dieu! I cried to myself, do all the wastes, the deserts, the heath, ling, furz, broom and bog that I have passed for three hundred miles lead to this spectacle? What a miracle, that all this splendour and wealth of the cities of France should be so unconnected with the country!"
The Billy brothers, like many others, wanted their share of the source of this wealth. Guillaume and François were the younger generation of an upwardly mobile merchant family from the much smaller and sleepier neighbouring port of Vannes - a conventional market town belonging to an older world, a major exporter of grain, deeply embedded in the region's semi-feudal economy and society. Thanks to their father's success in the grain trade, the Billy brothers were wealthy, but not wealthy enough to manoeuvre themselves into the local nobility. A major crisis in grain, and the glittering example of Nantes, encouraged them to move into the exotic world of colonial trade. In 1728, after much lobbying, the King's Council granted the merchants of Vannes permission to participate (in a limited way) in trade with the West Indies. The brothers became minor investors in ships making the transatlantic crossing - transporting manufactured goods from France to the French West Indies and returning with cargoes of sugar and cotton. This was all very well, but no self-respecting entrepreneur could fail to notice that by adding another leg to these voyages, vastly greater profits could be made. Ships arriving in the West Indies from France could trade their load of manufactured cloth, brandy, wine and other goods for enough raw sugar to fill roughly a third of the hold. A load of African slaves, however, was worth nearly twice as much.
Although the French were relative latecomers to the Atlantic slave trade, their involvement grew rapidly in the 1700s, making them the third largest participant (after Britain and Portugal) by the end of the century. As Harms points out, in France in the first half of the century there was barely any recognition that the conduct of the slave trade might be a moral issue, though this would change in the run-up to the revolution. So, when Harms asks rhetorically of Durand's opening sentence "How could [he] outline such an evil mission in such impersonal prose?" one suspects that he knows the answer. For investors like the Billy brothers the existence of the slaves was more virtual than real, but their decision to involve themselves more directly was nevertheless a big one: the risks were great, foremost among them disease and death, both of the human cargo and the crew. On average, slave traders in this period made returns of between 7 and 10 per cent annually - more or less in line with other branches of commerce. But the average clearly disguised huge variations, and huge expectations. The risks were high, but, if you were lucky, so were the profits.
In late 1730, then, the Billy brothers bought the Diligent, a modest grain-ship, and set about refitting and equipping it for the triangular trade. They would soon learn that it was a specialised business: in order to buy slaves on the coast of West Africa they would have to make sure they could supply the right goods to the picky African elite on whom they depended. That it was a global business is demonstrated by the inventory of goods loaded into the hold, only a fraction of which were produced in France. More than 40% came from India and the Indian Ocean, and were purchased by the Billy brothers at the Company of Indies warehouse in Nantes. They included a bewildering variety of Indian cloth (fashions for which changed rapidly on the West African coast) and cowry shells, which served as currency on the slave coast. (So fundamental was the link between slaves, cowry shells and political authority that a Dahomian tradition held that when a king wanted cowry shells his henchmen would tie a rope around the neck of a slave and throw him into the ocean, where the shells would attach to his body like barnacles.) Equally crucial was the choice of a crew. They chose a captain with slaving experience, who then recruited the rest of the crew, from officers to accordion boy. This was Durand's first slaving trip, and the journal would provide evidence of his familiarity with the trade, a valuable addition to his curriculum vitae. Crews on slave ships were well paid in compensation for the risks: four of the Diligent's crew were to die in the course of this voyage.
Harms is a historian of Africa, and the richest section of this book concerns the complex politics of the African slave trade on the continent itself. Two months after leaving Vannes, and three weeks after leaving the 'cultural halfway house' of the Canary Islands, the crew spot first the Grain Coast and then the Gold Coast. The Dutch fort of Elmina on the Gold Coast had originally been built in 1482 by the Portuguese, who had used it as the base for their gold-buying operations. Durand was impressed, and drew a childish picture of the fortifications, the 'pretty houses', and the Dutch flag flapping in the ocean breeze. In fact, 'Gold Coast' was already becoming a misnomer, since Dutch interest in the area was rapidly switching from gold to slaves. Inland, imported guns were fuelling the rise of the great Asante empire and a fierce struggle for control over trade routes. Warfare produced slaves, now more likely than ever to be sold for export. Things had not always been this way, as Harms reminds us: between 1475 and 1540 more than twelve thousand slaves from the Bight of Benin and Sao Tomé had been imported to the Gold Coast by the Portuguese to be purchased by wealthy Africans, who used them as gold-field workers and porters on merchant caravans.
By the early 18th century, however, things had moved on. The sheer numbers involved in the Atlantic slave trade make this clear. In the course of the 16th century around 370,000 people were taken from Africa; in the next century this would rise to nearly two million, and in the 18th to more than six million. It has been estimated that in order to deliver the nine million slaves who arrived at the coast in the period from 1700 to 1850, around 21 million Africans were probably captured; five million of these would have died within a year of capture, and seven million remained in Africa as slaves. The population of certain regions of West and West Central Africa was significantly reduced.
The Diligent sailed on from Elmina, past a succession of English, Dutch and Danish forts, towards its destination: the part of the coast beyond the delta of the Volta river known as the Slave Coast. French slaving operations centred on the tiny kingdom of Whydah, which extended along 40 miles of coastline and stretched 25 miles inland. Whydah was a trading kingdom, at that time exporting between 16 and 20 thousand slaves a year, among whom were representatives of some 30 ethnic groups. King Huffon presided over the trade from his capital city, Savi. All the major European trading companies were represented there - the English, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese - and their compounds were built into the walls of the royal palace. At his coronation ceremony in 1725, Huffon was surrounded not only by his 40 elaborately dressed wives, but also by the representatives of all the trading companies, who were seated to his right on stuffed chairs. Huffon himself sat on a gilded throne decorated with the French coat of arms.
The ostentatious wealth and sophistication of Huffon's kingdom drew admiring descriptions from amazed foreign visitors. The dense population was fed, in part, by an intensive agricultural system based on millet, but incorporating such New World crops as maize and sweet potatoes; within the city walls, a rich variety of both European and African goods could be purchased at a number of daily markets. But by the time of the Diligent's voyage, Whydah was in a state of war. As on the Gold Coast, trade rivalry had resulted in a new, militarised African politics. The cause of the problems in Whydah was the rise of the rival kingdom of Dahomey, some 50 miles inland. Whydah controlled access to the European trading companies and their goods, while Dahomey's King Agaja remained frustratedly dependent on his neighbour. Agaja had ambitions for what had been a small, peaceful kingdom. He built up a formidable professional army and armed his soldiers with imported flintlock muskets rather than the traditional longbows. His fascination with the arts of war was such that he later obtained for himself a French suit of armour which, according to one visitor, made him look like Don Quixote. He used psychology as part of his military strategy, with public sacrifices of captives helping to maintain a state of terror.
In 1724, during a raid on the kingdom of Allada (which lay between Whydah and Dahomey), he had taken captive an English employee of the Royal African Company, Bulfinch Lambe. Agaja had never seen a European before, though he had heard all about them, and for the next two years, with the aid of an interpreter, he held long conversations with Lambe. Agaja was, apparently, fascinated by literacy, and even invented his own script. He wanted to know about the economics of the slave trade and, in particular, what accounted for the Europeans' insatiable appetite for slaves. Lambe explained that they were exported to be used on Caribbean plantations to produce wealth in the form of sugar. Agaja understood immediately, and announced that he would cease to be a mere exporter of slaves and would, instead, set up his own plantations. Lambe, seeing a way out of his captivity, persuaded Agaja that such a scheme should be executed in co-operation with King George I. Agaja dictated a personal letter to the English King and Lambe was released so that he could return to England to negotiate an agreement.
In 1727, Agaja's army attacked Whydah, driving King Huffon and Captain Assou, the main ally of the French in Savi, into exile, and taking prisoners among the crew members guarding the slave ships in port. In 1731, a state of war still prevailed. Captain Assou, infuriated at his betrayal, attacked the Europeans' tents in an attempt to disrupt the trade, which was now in the hands of Agaja. Reluctantly, the captain of the Diligent weighed anchor, and left.
When he arrived at the port of Jakin, there were 15 slave ships in the harbour, events at Whydah having driven everyone in this direction. While the crew set about making final alterations to the ship to prepare it for its cargo, Durand set up a large sail-cloth tent on the beach, from which he would conduct negotiations and make his purchases. With competition so fierce, prices were high and he had to bargain. He also had to be sure to obtain an optimum mix of men, women and children. He was buying slaves in exchange for cotton, firearms and other goods, whose relative values could vary wildly from Vannes to Jakin, making the calculation of profit a tricky business. Durand recorded every detail of his transactions - he knew that later he would have to account for it all. But, as Harms remarks, he gives no hint of how he felt about participating in this activity. Harms's careful historical reconstruction has provided us with a rich description of the worlds of the slave trade, but having reached Jakin we are reminded of its banality, which is simultaneously its tragedy. Gender, age and a supposed 'ethnicity' were recorded, the naked bodies examined for defects, and then branded. Finally, 256 slaves made the terrifying canoe ride across the surf to the waiting ship.
Durand's silence on the subject of his human cargo frustrates Harms, who wants to know whether he felt a sadistic sense of power over these Africans, or whether perhaps he felt compassion. But such self-examination is not the purpose of Durand's journal, even assuming that he engaged in it. In fact he tells us little about the 'middle passage', and Harms uses a compilation of other sources to stop the gap. We gather that from the point of view of the slave trader, the faster this part of the journey was over the better: the quicker the crossing the lower the mortality rate, and the less the likelihood of a slave revolt. It may have been the slaves who were in chains but there was a degree of mutuality in the terror evoked. While Europeans dreamed of African cannibals, many enslaved Africans believed that they were destined to be eaten by their European captors - how else to explain the appetite for slaves that King Agaja had puzzled over? Such a fear could be so overwhelming as to lead them to suicide, or to acts of violence and insurrection against the terrified crew. Diseases spread, inevitably, from the slave deck to the crew quarters. In this atmosphere of terror and despair, Noël Magré, the ship's accordion player, would have been put to work. Slave traders knew very well that melancholy was the enemy of profit, since slaves who were prone to depression were also prone to lie down and die. It was the accordion player's job to 'cheer them up' with some jolly seafaring tunes, and to animate the enforced dancing that was part of the exercise regime.
This section of Harms's account made me uncomfortable. His technique - the use of Durand's journal as a peg on which to hang a revealing narrative - is valid and effective, and he has scoured a multitude of archives to fill out Durand's account. The historian's task of reconstruction seems all the more pressing in the case of slavery, in the course of which so many lives and so many histories were lost. But another of the historian's responsibilities is to confront us with the absences. Toni Morrison has described her reluctance to represent the abjection of the middle passage: Beloved, she says, stands in for 'those black slaves whom we don't know . . . I had to be dragged, I suppose by them, kicking and screaming into this book, because it is just too much.' Perhaps, then, Harms is right to drag us reluctantly into his reconstruction of the Diligent's hold. But a historian is not a novelist, and arguably only a novelist (or a poet) can represent the unrepresentable trauma of the middle passage.
By the time the Diligent reached the harbour of St Pierre on Martinique, nine slaves had died - a relatively low mortality rate for the time. The survivors were bathed, shaved and their skin rubbed with palm oil. Dealers boarded the ship to inspect the human merchandise. The captain named his price - 950 livres each - but no one was offering anywhere near that figure. Just as the war in Whydah had forced up the price of slaves, so recent events had depressed selling prices in Martinique. The opening of the trade to private traders had increased supply, and in addition, the economy of Martinique was in crisis, owing to a combination of the massive earthquake of 1727 and disputes between small planters and the Company of the Indies. The Diligent's captain held out for his price, but within a month the slaves began to die in the slave warehouse of St Pierre. He was forced to sell at less than half his original asking price. Most went to a dealer called Lamy, about whom we know little, except that he was an expert in this business and had calculated the timing of his offer carefully. The rest probably went to local officials and planters. This is the last we know of them.
The Diligent returned to Brittany loaded with cotton, sugar and rocou, a plant substance used in the dyeing process. The long voyage had certainly produced a profit, but not the profit the Billy brothers had dreamed of. They sued the captain, alleging that he had been profligate with supplies and that he had twice switched one of his personally purchased slaves for another belonging to the outfitters. The holding of the trial may well account for the survival of Durand's journal - it was used in evidence. (The verdict, however, has not survived.) No such trace remains of the 242 surviving Africans who had been left on Martinique. Harms describes the enthusiasm with which he took himself off to the archives there in pursuit of the final part of his story. I've been there myself on a similar pursuit. The glistening new departmental archives sit on a hill overlooking Fort-de-France and the ocean. They are meticulously catalogued and the staff are ever helpful. But they yield nothing of the lives of the Africans who survived the experience of the Diligent: no names, no baptismal records, no marriages, no deaths. No trace. This is the end of the journey for both the historian and his readers.
Megan Vaughan is Professor of Commonwealth Studies at the University of Oxford. She is completing a study of slavery and creolisation in 18th-century Mauritius.
The slave trade's wide-ranging web
By James A. Miller, Globe Staff, 3/17/2002
The Diligent: A Voyage Through
the Worlds of the Slave Trade
By Robert Harms
Basic Books, 466 pp., $30
In spite of the literally thousands upon thousands of words that have been dedicated to examining the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on the African continent and the West, it is amazing to realize how much more there is to learn. Visual spectacles like the television miniseries "Roots" (now celebrating its 25th anniversary) and, more recently, Steven Spielberg's film "Amistad" have successfully etched indelible images of the slave trade on the popular imagination, to be sure, but the devil is in the details - as Robert Harms, professor of history and former director of the African Studies Program at Yale University, reminds us.
Terms like the "Atlantic slave trade" or the "slave trade," Harms points out, "can create the impression that it was a monolithic phenomenon with uniform characteristics. A closer look, however, reveals that the slave trade was really a kaleidoscope of diverse national and local endeavors that was constantly changing over time." Harms's emphasis on the complex interplay among local social, economic, and political dynamics and national and international events - and particularly his insistence on the volatile and mutable nature of the slave trade - inform his fascinating and groundbreaking account of the voyage of the French slave ship Diligent in 1731-32.
The French entered the Atlantic slave trade relatively late in its development, and the Diligent was the first slave ship to sail from the port city of Vannes. Twenty-six years old at the time, and a newcomer to the African slave trade, First Lieutenant Robert Durand kept a detailed journal of the Diligent's voyage - including numerous and skillfully drawn sketches of scenes he witnessed. On the basis of Durand's journal - purchased by Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in the mid-1980s - Harms has painstakingly re-created the terms of a world that may seem morally and politically repugnant from the perspective of the early 21st century, but "was distressingly ordinary in its own time and place."
Harms's story begins in Nantes, the city adjoining Vannes on Brittany's southern coast and the leading slaving port in France, with an account of the precedent-setting court case of Pauline Villeneueve, a slave from the French West Indies. Villeneueve successfully sued for her freedom in the early 18th century on the basis of the customary principle in France that any slave who set foot on French soil automatically became free. In this way Harms introduces us to the moral universe of the French slave trade, replete with ambiguities and contradictions. In a similar fashion, Harms's account of the Billy brothers, the owners of the Diligent, provides him the opportunity to explore in intricate detail the battles between state-chartered monopolies and aggressive private entrepreneurs in 18th-century France. Also examined are the deep social fissures between wealthy and socially aspiring merchants like the Billy brothers and the French nobles who disdained commerce and feared losing their privileges if they engaged in trade.
Much like the voyage of the Diligent, Harms's narrative zigzags from one locale to the next, moving backward and forward in time, as the author draws on a wealth of archival research to illuminate the overalpping contexts of the slave trade. Within the rich tapestry of Harms's narrative, a wide range of characters appears. As the Diligent sails toward Whydah on the Guinea coast of West Africa, the single largest slaving port on the African continent in the early 18th century, Harms considerably enriches extracts from Durand's diary with meticulous descriptions of daily life on board the Diligent; an anatomy of the racial and cultural dynamics of the Cape Verde Islands; an account of the notorious pirate Bartholomew Roberts; an absorbing portrayal of the political and economic intrigue among various European countries and Africans on the Gold Coast of West Africa; the rise of the military empire of Dahomey and the rivalry between King Agaja of Dahomey and Captain Assou of Whydah for control of the slave trade in the region - and so on.
The Diligent wends its way down the West African coast, purchases its cargo of Africans, then heads for the Portuguese islands of Principe and Sao Tome to purchase food before making the "middle passage" to Martinique, and simultaneously a compelling picture of the interconnected worlds of the slave trade emerges: "The slave trading activities of Robert Durand and his companions along the West African coast ... were heavily influenced by local events such as the rise of the military empire of Dahomey and the rivalry between King Agaja and Captain Assou of Whydah. ... The crew and captives of the Diligent could never have made it across the Atlantic had not the populations of Principe and Sao Tome specialized in producing food for slave ships after the collapse of their sugar economy. When the Diligent arrived with its cargo of captives in Martinique, the conditions of their sale were shaped by a crisis in the local economy resulting from the destruction of the cocoa trees. In short, a voyage that spanned three continents was largely shaped by local events and local rivalries originating in widely scattered parts of the Atlantic world. There was no overarching `global' context to the voyage, only a series of interesting local contexts."
In the final analysis, Durand's journal provides the springboard for Harms's probing exploration of human enterprise over several continents. At the end of this harrowing - and fascinating - journey, we do not know anything about the lives and fates of the 256 Africans who were the raison d'etre of the Diligent's voyage. But we do know a great deal more about the "dark underside of the Atlantic world during a crucial period of economic and political transformation."
James A. Miller is professor of English and American Studies and director of Africana Studies at George Washington University.
Sunday, April 28, 2002
Eyewitness to the Middle Passage
THE DILIGENT A Voyage Through
the Worlds of the Slave Trade By Robert Harms Basic Books: 466 pp., $30
By ROBIN BLACKBURN
The Atlantic trade in slaves and slave produce in the 18th century is sometimes wrongly associated with the state-organized world of colonial mercantilism rather than with the birth of free trade. The Spanish trade in silver did furnish the basis for a well-organized colonial system. In the early days, royal monopolies played some role in the slave traffic but, before long, "interlopers" proved better able to supply the planters with the captive labor force they craved and Europe with the sugar, tobacco and coffee of the plantations.
The Diligent was a vessel engaged for slave-trading purposes by two French interlopers, the Billy brothers of Vannes. As an independent venture, it illustrates the waning ability of the chartered slave-trading companies to engross the traffic. The Billy brothers were grain merchants who aimed to break into a profitable traffic, one that had already been sanctioned by royal authorities and, on the grounds that it would foster conversion, even by the church.
Robert Harms' account of the voyage is based on the journal of a French mariner, Robert Durand, who took part as first lieutenant aboard the Diligent's first voyage in 1731-32. There are scores of firsthand narratives of slave trading voyages, and Durand's is not particularly vivid. Yet, in the hands of Harms, the laconic entries, the evocative drawings and the records of a court case brought against the captain by the ship's owners furnish a compelling and illuminating narrative.
Harms supplies a context to the voyage and supplements journal entries that carry the story forward and help to explain the workings of the largest and most sustained forced migration in history. The result is an indispensable work of history. Yale University had asked Harms to assess the authenticity of Durand's manuscript. Not only was it genuine but it also concerned a major branch of the slave traffic and many of the issues that it poses. The author's ability to bring out the significance of the story stems, however, from his impressive command of the trade's Atlantic history and skill at opening up the narrative.
None of those directly concerned in this expedition recorded any qualm or doubt. Yet, as Harms explains, the status of slaves in France had recently been tested by Pauline Villeneuve, a young woman who had been taken as a slave servant from the French West Indies by her mistress, then left in a convent in Nantes. Before her mistress could reclaim her, Villeneuve requested acceptance in the order. The nuns and abbot helped her to win the subsequent court case, arguing that though slavery was legal in the colonies, it was incompatible with the free air of France. Freedom suits set limits to the system but didn't give pause to the planters or slave traders.
The Diligent arrived on the West African coast at a time when King Agaja of the kingdom of Dahomey was establishing control of the major slave trading outlets at Whydah and Jakin. The European forts there offered scant protection, so the traders are shown as supplicants, dependent on the favor of intermediaries and monarchs.
Agaja had an English slave, Bullfinche Lambe, whom he had acquired as a captive from another ruler and refused to ransom. Agaja is sometimes seen as an opponent of the slave trade because the effect of his military moves was to interrupt the traffic from Whydah, source of more than half of all the captives carried from West Africa.
From Harms' account, it seems that Agaja was attempting to cut out mercantile middlemen and had framed the plan of establishing sugar plantations in Dahomey. He sent Lambe with a letter to the English king proposing that the Royal Africa Co. join him in setting up plantations and marketing their produce in Europe. The British authorities declined but sought to remain on good terms with the increasingly powerful monarch.
The power behind the throne of Whydah, we learn, was an African commander known as Captain Assou, who successfully imposed a peace agreement on the European forts and traders based in this coastal state. According to this agreement, the Europeans were bound to remain at peace with one another on the African coast at all times. The African rulers were also loath to award special privileges to particular nations or companies. John Konny, the African ruler of Fort Friederichsburg, wished his territory to be a "free port where all nations could trade." The activities of Assou and Agaja showed that free commerce, especially a commerce in captives, required good order and mutual trust. Once they fell out, the trade suffered.
Harms' account shows Africans not simply as victims but also as protagonists of the drama. But the responsibility for what befell the captives once they left Africa lies with the Europeans. At the book's outset, Harms made clear that the impulse to trade slaves was rooted in Europe's consuming passion for exotic plantation goods. Thus Harms supplies a vignette of adventurer John Law's famous attempt to reorganize French finances on the basis of a colonial monopoly. The failure of Law's system was one more proof that pure monopoly did not work. Around this time Legendre, a financier, coined the term "laissez faire" in pleading with authorities to relax the colonial system.
The Diligent with difficulty purchased 256 slaves and lost nine in the course of the "middle passage"--slave deaths were usually much higher. But because of high prices paid on the African coast and low prices received in Martinique at a time of commercial depression, the voyage did not make money for its backers. Harms mentions another voyage involving Durand that made a profit despite eventual loss of the vessel. Slave traffic was highly competitive. To be sure of a profit, a merchant needed to spread his investment over many voyages, a circumstance favoring the larger traders.
Harms has no difficulty establishing the atrocious conditions facing the captives, and Durand sparely records a signal act of resistance on board the Diligent leading to a bloody and ceremonial execution. Harms also mentions several shipboard uprisings that might have been known to Durand, all of which were suppressed with great ferocity. He cautiously speculates about the captives' fears and hopes but there is little to go on. And because of the matter-of-fact nature of Durand's journal, little is known of the inner life even of the protagonist.
Yet the book successfully transports us to another epoch with assumptions we find, by turns, strange and familiar as the ancient institution of human bondage is refashioned to serve modern-seeming entrepreneurs responding to modern-seeming consumers. Harms is not the first to convey the cruelty of the slave traffic, but his vivid re-creation of this period is a remarkable achievement. By all means, read Barry Unsworth's well-researched novel "Sacred Hunger" or Hugh Thomas' compendious history "The Slave Trade." But for a sense of what the trade involved and how it was made possible, Harms' story is unrivaled.
* * *
The air was dank and stifling hot because the refashioned cargo bay of the Diligent had not been built with ventilation in mind. After the women had all been loaded, the men were loaded onto the front part of the slave deck and shackled together two by two. The slave irons carried by the Diligent, which had been manufactured in Nantes, consisted of two U-shaped bars of iron held together by an iron rod that was passed through openings on the ends and locked into place. The slave iron bound the left ankle of one captive to the right ankle of another, making it difficult for either of them to walk unless they moved in perfect harmony. As their eyes grew accustomed to the semidarkness, they began to look around for comrades from the warehouse who had gone out before them.
Robin Blackburn Teaches History at the New School University in New York and Is the Author of "The Making of New World Slavery."
Robert Harms. The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade. New York: Basic Books, 2002. xxv + 466 pp. Illustrations, appendices, notes, index. ISBN 0-465-02871-3.
Thomas N. Ingersoll, Department of History,
Ohio State University,
Published by H-Atlantic (February, 2002)
Into those Waves, Never to Return
At the end of May 1731, a sixty-nine foot, three-masted ship called the Diligent set out from Vannes, France, for West Africa, where its crew purchased 256 slaves, carried them to Martinique, sold them, and returned to Vannes in September 1732 with 251 barrels of sugar and some IOU's. Of the thousands of transatlantic slave voyages, this one was in no way unusual except for the fact that First Lieutenant Robert Durand kept a detailed 113-page private journal describing the trip. Combining evidence from this text with a superb array of other documentary evidence, Africanist Robert Harms provides the most vivid and useful description of a typical slave trading voyage ever written.
The Diligent was a bit player in the early eighteenth-century struggle to determine who in France would have the right to engage in the African trade. Vannes was a minor grain port (the Diligent a converted grain ship), and the trading house of Guillaume and François Billy sought to establish the principle of free trade in defiance of chartered monopolies and richer neighboring ports like Nantes. The contest in France was wrapped up in the larger transatlantic contest of France, Britain, and Holland to break up the old Portuguese monopoly of West African trade. At the highest level of abstraction, the Billys' Diligent was in the vanguard of the early modern development of capitalism. In that regard, it is revealing that, like so many capitalist enterprises, the voyage of the Diligent was a failure because it made no profit, even though it had suffered no important obstacles.
The organization of this book is highly unusual, and may discourage some readers at first. Once I got the hang of it, I let Harms sweep me away with his storytelling. His model is a kind of serial microhistory. At each major staging point of the voyage--Vannes, the Cape Verde Islands, Whydah, Sao Tome, St. Pierre, Vannes again--he focuses his lens tightly on the history and conditions in that port. The major positive advantage of this tactic is that it reveals, as never before in such lush prose, the interpenetration of Africa and the New World, the confused and groping nature of political economy in eighteenth-century France, the distinctiveness of the various African cultures and historic zones, the extremely complicated and volatile conditions in West Africa in the era of Dahomey's rising power, and the many ways in which the slave trade simply was not and probably could not be rational according to any "laws" of capitalism.
Disadvantages of the book's structure are that some readers will be unable to follow all the micro-descriptions of the Dilgent's "worlds." Just to get the ship out of port, the reader must first digest the attempt by mulatto Pauline Villeneuve to gain admission to the Convent of Our Lady of Calvary in Nantes, the defense of the French slave trade by Gerard Mellier, the Code Noir of 1685, the contest between the Jesuits and the Jansenists, conditions in Vannes, the financing of Diligent's voyage, the bureaucrat Count Maurepas, and John Law's scheme and stock "bubble" in 1720. The ship first lurches into the Atlantic only on page eighty-five, and anchors off the port where it buys most of its slaves on page 199. I found this first half of the book very interesting reading because I was familiar with the material, and the book should have appeal to a very broad audience of serious scholars and non-professional readers. It might be necessary, however, to make the first half optional reading if I assigned the book in a course on the history of African Americans.
For it is the second half that most readers will find extraordinary for the way it paints conditions on the Slave Coast and the actual conduct of the trade. What is most remarkable here is the way Harms slips effortlessly back and forth between the specific course of events on the voyage, the general nature of the trade as it was conducted by the Europeans and Africans, and the full range of contingencies faced by individuals who were involved in it. At no point does the reader have the sense of being lectured to or manipulated, but the emotional impact of the details is devastating. The facts of the trade, especially the immense and constant exertion of force and terror required to get the slaves into the ships and keep them in submission, speak quite eloquently for themselves. When Harms finally describes the ordinary slave's state of mind while being rowed through the surf toward the Diligent, "into those waves, never to return" (p. 253), even a reader hardened to history's many crimes will feel the victim's desperation.
Since nothing particularly unusual happened on this voyage, Harms is able to exploit Durand's journal to its best effect, revealing the usual tediousness of the trade. For the crew it meant an endless round of maintaining and sailing the ship (or waiting for a wind), and guarding, feeding, and manhandling captive Africans. For the Africans, it meant being utterly humiliated, very crowded together, over half the time with insufficient air to breathe in a hold reeking with their own filth, waiting for an uncertain fate--some of them for many months.
Harms skillfully weaves into the story descriptions of various perils that could interrupt the monotony, borrowing examples from other voyages. Slave mutinies, pirates, deranged captains, terrible accidents--all of these did happen to these slave ships and could have happened to the Diligent. In these stories, Harms introduces a collection of remarkable African individuals, like Assou or Father Manuel do Rosario Pinto. He also moderates the "French" character of the voyage--to universalize the story--by using much material from English slave trade accounts, especially those by William Smith, William Snelgrave, and Jean Barbot.
Even the best historical writing must have at least one problem. In this book, a notable failing is one most popular readers will not miss, namely a weak thesis and theoretical structure. The author lays out a guiding argument that the voyage was shaped largely by local events, so "there was no overarching 'global' context to the voyage" (p. xix). But that is repeatedly belied by the obviously global, colonial capitalist project in which the Billy brothers are consciously working to make a profit. Perhaps because he hopes to avoid muddying a text that includes so many different subjects, Harms opts to avoid putting any of them into its historiographic framework.
The laconic approach to analysis is also evident, however, in his 737 endnotes, whose rich content is dominated by citations of primary documents, which Harms mined in nineteen archives in Europe and the United States. Although twenty leading historians' books on the slave trade are cited in the notes, it is a comparatively light dressing. One finds no hint of what Harms thinks about some of the big questions, such as the overall effect of the slave trade on Africa. As for France, at one point (p. 82) he notes that the trade goods the ship carried to Africa did little to serve French industry, but he is not interested in the larger significance of that fact. He describes the specific local reasons why Captain Pierre Mary is forced to take such low prices for his slaves in Martinique, but he refuses to explore what that may reveal about the colonial economy as a whole. If it is true that the individual voyage was shaped primarily by local conditions, it is implausible to deny the titanic battle between European ruling classes for world domination, which made the slave trade possible and shaped its basic conditions at any given time.
Because of its comparative detachment from historians' leading debates, this book might be embraced with a special enthusiasm by the general reading public. Confidence in the craft of history has been shaken by a rash of recent scandals in the profession, and a good old-fashioned narrative strongly flavored with interesting and easily verified details may be just the right restorative tonic.
This book simply presents the unmistakable brutality, human waste, and everyday capitalist contradictions of the slave trade in its simplest terms. At the same time, for those with an appetite for the minutia of this particular enterprise--weights and measures, methods of branding slaves, sailing lore, contemporary epidemiological wisdom, and the like--this book is a treasure trove.
The reader who wants more on the African setting of the trade should begin with the author's River of Wealth, River of Sorrow: The Central Zaire Basin in the Era of the Slave and Ivory Trade, 1500-1891 (1981).
Lamentably, the book includes no bibliography, but it does include fifty-eight well-placed illustrations, many of them Durand's own sketches of trading stations. An appendix reconstructs the balance sheet for the voyage.
Imaginatively constructed, deftly and engagingly written, a model of research, the book takes the reader deep into the tragic heart of the eighteenth-century Atlantic.