Seasonality in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Stephen D. Behrendt (Victoria University of Wellington), 2008

Slave-trading seasonality: case studies

To spotlight seasonality in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, consider slaving voyages that departed from New Calabar, Bight of Biafra (Elem Kalabari, Nigeria), and those that arrived in Barbados. New Calabar was a major embarkation point for enslaved Africans from the Bight of Biafra; in 1650-1700 one-third of all Africans shipped from the region passed through the village, located on the New Calabar River. In the 1630s and 1640s, the Dutch were the first Europeans to challenge Portuguese dominance in New Calabar; by the late 1670s, the London-based Royal African Company (RAC) outfitted the majority of slaving ships to this African trading site. Regarding Barbados, the RAC stationed agents in its main port, Bridgetown, and in the late 1600s the island-colony produced more high-quality sugar per acre than any region in the Atlantic world.

Between 1654 and 1851, the Voyages Database documents 315 slaving trips that departed New Calabar for the Americas. Of these, one can estimate months of departure for 257 voyages, and plot departure months against the estimated number of slaves embarked. Results indicate that slave exports from New Calabar dropped during the period of yam planting and weeding (March-June) in the hinterland, and then exports rose sharply in August as workers harvested yams, peaking during the main harvest in October. They then decreased by February-March, a period that coincides with declining yam stocks (Figure 1). In 1677-78, Arthur Doegood captained one of the RAC slaving voyages to New Calabar VoyageID 9990 and his logbook survives in the National Archives in London. Doegood anchored at New Calabar in mid-February 1678, after the optimal fall provisioning-slaving season. Within a week, his supercargo, George Hingston, complained that he was not “free to deale in many [slaves]” because we “have noe provitions for them,” “findeing yames very scarse.” By April many of the yams he bought were “rotten” and he was forced to buy unripe “green plantins.”

Two months after departing New Calabar, Doegood arrived in Carlisle Bay, Barbados when slaves were producing the last barrels of sugar. Agent Hingston’s journal entry on 30-31 May 1678 indicates that he had arrived at the beginning of the out-of-crop rainy season: “the next day rainy weather were not many buyers on board.” The rains would last through early November, followed by drier weather and winter-spring grain and sugar harvests when planters demanded greater numbers of newly enslaved African workers. Information contained in the Voyages Database indicates that slave imports into Barbados began increasing towards the beginning of the “in crop” provisions and sugar season, and then began declining in March after provisions’ harvests and as less and less sugar needed to be cut and processed (Figure 2).

Provisioning-slaving seasons Trans-Atlantic pathways and harvest cycles
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