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African Strategies


Faced with destructive raids, wars and kidnapping, Africans devised numerous strategies to protect and defend themselves from the slave trade, and to attack it. They abandoned vulnerable areas and relocated in hard-to-reach places. They surrounded their towns with ramparts and ditches covered with spikes. They built villages behind dunes or close to the sea or the woods to escape raids more easily. They posted sentinels and organized militias and work teams for protection. Some populations killed indiscriminately anyone who ventured close to their territory so as to discourage any incursion. Young men attacked caravans and slave pens to free the captives; and burned down slave ships and Europeans' warehouses.

In some regions of Africa, as a French trader wrote in 1785, as soon as the locals approached the European boats, "the crew is ordered to take up arms, the cannons are aimed, and the fuses are lighted… One must, without any hesitation, shoot at them and not spare them. The loss of the vessel and the life of the crew are at stake." And when everything else had failed and whenever feasible, relatives pooled resources to buy back the freedom of loved ones held on the coast; and captives revolted in the barracoons (slave pens). The fortification of the forts and barracoons dotting the African coast attested to the Europeans' anxiety. They had to protect themselves, an official explained, "from the foreign vessels and from the Negroes living in the country."

While traders and rulers participated in the slave trade for personal gains, some Africans engaged in it in order to acquire firearms or iron bars with which they forged the weapons and tools necessary to defend themselves -- and sometimes, to attack the raiders and slavers.

Revolt Aboard Slave Ship, 19th century