Category Archives: Africa

Ransom Values of Christians c. 1810

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 147-149:

As Riley was about to discover, a Christian’s value as a ransomable commodity depended on his rank, wealth, health, and location. On the desert, where a tent with a life of four years was worth a camel, and a camel was worth a dozen goats or half a dozen sheep, a Christian’s worth fell somewhere between a tattered blanket and an adult camel, except in rare circumstances. Officers were worth more than seamen, though the Arabs, desperate for practical skills, would hold indefinitely a gunpowder maker, a surgeon, or a smith who naively admitted it. Married men brought more than single men for their perceived added wealth. The Arabs quickly noticed a man’s fine accoutrements. Brisson, who had lavished watches, silver buckles, and money on his first captor to ingratiate himself, was sold from one owner to another for five camels, while the ship’s baker went for one. Ultimately, Brisson regretted the gifts, which served only to inflate his ransom price.

To ransom a Christian, a Sahrawi had to deliver him to the imperial port of Swearah, where foreign merchants or consuls could make the payment. To get there, they had to cross the desert, past hostile bedouin tribes, past the fortified Berber towns of the Souss region, and finally past the operatives of the Sultan of Morocco, where Christian slavery was technically illegal and the sultan was fond of the “gifts” Western nations paid for their citizens’ freedom. All the while, the captor had no guarantee he would actually receive the agreed-upon sum. Instead of making the long, risky journey, a Sahrawi often sold his slave locally at a small but sure profit to a buyer who would sell at a small profit to another buyer.

In this way, in an agonizing peristalsis, the Sahara slowly yielded Christians north one territory at a time, the nearer to Swearah the higher the price, with the medium of exchange switching from bartered goods to cash at Wednoon, on the edge of the desert. On the Sahara, the French merchant Saugnier was traded once for a barrel of meal and a nine-foot bar of iron, and later for two young camels. He was sold twice at Wednoon, first for $150, then for $180. Seamen with him brought $50 to $95. Robert Adams of the Charles went in the latter range, once for $50 worth of blankets and dates and a second time for $70 worth of blankets, dates, and gunpowder.

In 1810, the English merchant and author James Grey Jackson proposed paying a fixed rate for Westerners delivered to Mogadore. “A trifling sum would be sufficient,” he maintained, if it was always on hand and the policy well known. This would eliminate the uncertainty that led to the repeated reselling of Christians and extortionate ransom prices. Jackson estimated that $150 per man would be enough, “a sum rather above the price of a black slave.” The British adopted the practice to the south at Saint-Louis, on the Senegal River, where in 1816 the speedy recovery of some of the passengers of the Méduse proved its soundness, but no such standards existed for Christians being transported north.

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Origin of Camelids

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 127-128:

The nomads owed much to the Arabian camel. By the time their Sanhaja ancestors had acquired the peculiar humped beasts from the east—between the first and fourth centuries A.D.—desertification had long since intensified, clustering people around oases, where they could grow food. As the land grew more arid and infertile, the black tribes migrated south, while the Sanhaja adapted to nomadic life with the camels, living like bedouins long before the first wave of bedouins arrived. Though not considered ruminants, camels, with their complex, three-compartmented stomachs, regurgitate and rechew their forage, turning poor vegetation into protein and energy even better than ruminants do. It was the camel, which could convert scrub brush into nutrient-rich milk, that allowed the Sanhaja to stay on the desert.

Oddly enough, camelids originated not in Africa but in North America. During the Pleistocene epoch, the ancestors of the llama, alpaca, vicuña, and guanaco migrated south to South America, while the ancestors of the camel crossed an erstwhile land bridge at what is now the Bering Strait to Asia. As the camelids were dying out in North America, camels migrated across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. By 3000 B.C., however, wild camels had become extinct in North Africa too. They were reintroduced on the Sahara as desertification increased their utility there, and they quickly became the most important thing a man could own. He who mastered the camel mastered the land.

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Harshness of the Sahara

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 94-95:

What they looked out on, in 1815, had never been scientifically explored and was almost too mind-boggling to imagine. They faced the western edge of the world’s largest desert. Occupying a third of Africa, it stretches more than three thousand miles east to the Red Sea and twelve hundred miles from the Sahel—the fringe of savanna in the south—to the Atlas Mountains in the north, mountains that snare almost all the moisture traveling down on the northeast winds. Relative-humidity levels, rarely above an abrasive 30 percent, are often as low as a lethal 5 percent, dry enough to kill bacteria and mummify corpses. On the coast, the heat of the Sahara clashes with the cold waters of the Atlantic, often creating heavy fogbanks that envelop the shore, and on many days the irifi, a powerful, searing wind, shrouds the region in a melancholy ocher veil of dust.

The Sahara was not always like this. From 5500 to 2500 B.C., it was relatively fertile, wet and inviting. Up until Roman times, antelope, elephants, rhinoceroses, and giraffes roamed a savanna densely studded with acacia, while crocodiles and hippopotamuses wallowed in lush rivers. Ostriches, gazelles, and antelope still persisted in 1815, but by then the Saharan climate was arguably the most extreme on earth. Its temperature could sizzle at more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, the ground temperature soaring 50 degrees higher in the sun; at night, the thermometer could plunge as much as 85 degrees. These conditions, combined with frequent windstorms and less than five inches of average annual rainfall, made sustained life virtually impossible in many parts. As flora and fauna died off or adapted, the land itself deteriorated. While only about a tenth of the Sahara is covered in barren sand dunes, or erg, almost equally formidable are its stepped plains of wind-stripped rock covered in boulders, stones, and dust—the lower elevations generally known as reg and higher ones as hammada.

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Stages of Dehydration

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 77-78:

It is said that to a thirsty man in a boat, sea spray is a constant torment. It taunts him in its plentitude. It beads on his brow and runs down into his mouth, only to make him thirstier. Inevitably, some of the crew began to crack. A couple of them indulged their increasing fascination with death by leaning over the gunwale and submerging their heads, claiming that they wished to taste what was sure to be their fate.

The stages of dehydration would be categorized a century later by W. J. McGee, a notable amateur thirst-researcher and director of the St. Louis Public Museum. His portrait of the process of human dehydration, which has become the sine qua non of the field, shows five distinct phases: clamorous, cotton-mouth, swollen-tongue, shriveled-tongue, and blood-sweat, each roughly equivalent to a 5 percent decrease in body weight. The Commerces [sailors from the shipwrecked Commerce] had long since grown clamorous: uncomfortable, irritable, feverish. Their stale throats cracked when they spoke. Their fat, sore tongues restricted conversation to terse phrases, and they slurred or lost words. Their hearing had grown muffled, due to loss of moisture in the inner ear. In the cotton-mouth stage, the mind increasingly distorts reality and desires. Sufferers rashly toss off clothes or possessions or, in the case of the Commerces, become obsessed with how it would feel to die in the sea. It is normal for spells of feverish dreams to focus on the urge to drink, and the Commerces, parched beyond imagination and penetrated by salt, extolled the lush banks of the Connecticut River and craved a cup—or a barrel—of the delicious mineral water from the freshets that filled it. In his head, Riley built and rebuilt the stately spa he had dreamed of.

That afternoon, Riley gave up any hope of a rescue at sea. To continue on meant certain death, roasting on the woeful collection of planks that formed their boat, now an inhuman prison cell that confined their bodies in cramped agony. They might fight on another handful of days, but they did not have enough food and water to maintain their strength. They would soon lose the power to affect their fate.

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Surviving a Sahara Sandstorm

From Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2004), Kindle pp. 4-6:

Like all successful caravan drivers, Ishrel was tough but just. Imposing and erect of bearing, the Arab leader had flashing eyes beneath an ample turban and a thick beard to his chest. He wore a long white haik of good cloth, befitting his status, drawn tight around his body and crisscrossed by red belts carrying his essentials: a large powder horn, flints, a leather pouch with musket balls, and his scabbard with a broad and burnished scimitar. He carried his musket night and day, always prepared for a sudden attack from the wild bedouins of the desert. His constant nemeses, however, were the terrain and the sun.

For six days, Ishrel’s caravan weltered in the deep drifts, the cameleers alternately singing to their camels and goading them with clubs, constantly dashing on foot here and there to square the loads. They gave violent shoves to bulges in woven sacks and tugged on ropes with the full weight of their bodies. For all their efforts, uneven loads were inevitable, causing strains to the camels’ joints and bones. It did not take long for an inattentive master to lame a camel, and a lame camel was a dead camel, a communal feast. In that way, Allah provided for them all. It was his will, and there was no compensation for the camel’s owner in this world. “We only feed you for Allah’s sake,” says the Quran. “We desire from you neither reward nor thanks.”

On the seventh day, the irifi roared in from the southeast, and the sand swirled. Sidi Ishrel ordered the camels to be unloaded and camp made. In a hurry, the Arabs stacked their goods—iron, lumber, amber, shotguns, knives, scimitars, bundles of haiks, white cloth and blue cloth, blocks of salt, sacks of tobacco and spices—in a great pile. They circled up the camels and made them lie down.

All around them the sand blew so hard that the men could not open their eyes, and if they did, they could not see their companions or their camels even if they were nearly touching them. It was all they could do to breathe. Lying on their stomachs, Hamet and Seid inhaled through the sheshes wrapped around their heads and across their faces, which they pressed into the sand.

They did not fear much for their camels, which have their own defenses: deep-set, hirsute ears and long eyelashes that protect against flying grit, collapsible nostrils that add moisture to the searing air they breathe, and eyes with lids so thin that they can close them during a sandstorm and still see. They did not worry about them overheating either, for camels have a unique ability to absorb heat in their bodies while their brains remain insulated and stable. They conserve their body water by not sweating or panting, instead retaining the heat during the day and releasing it later. On bitterly cold nights, their owners often took refuge in their warmth. As all good cameleers knew, these prized beasts were as impervious to the abuse of the desert as it was possible to be, and they were as long-lived as they were ornery, some reaching half a century in age. Many would outlive their masters.

For two days, sand filled their long-sleeved, hooded wool djellabas and formed piles on their backs until they shifted to ease the weight. Hamet and Seid and the rest of the traders and cameleers beseeched, “Great and merciful Allah, spare our lives!” When the wind at last halted and the sand fell to the ground, three hundred men lay dead on the desert. Hamet and Seid, who were strong, rose and joined the rest of the survivors in prayers of thanksgiving to Allah for saving them. They spent two more days burying the dead men, always on their sides, facing east toward Mecca, and topping their graves with thorny brush to keep the jackals away. All but two hundred of the camels had been spared. As the men dug them out, the beasts rose, grunting and snapping madly, weak-kneed, snorting out the beetlelike parasites that grew in their nostrils. There were no plants for the camels to eat where they had stopped, so the men watered and fed them from the dwindling provisions.

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Slavery in Mauritius and Seychelles

From “Slavery and Indenture in Mauritius and Seychelles” by Burton Benedict, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 136-137:

Mauritius is a volcanic island of some 720 square miles located about 500 miles east of Madagascar and 20 degrees south of the equator. Seychelles is an archipelago of more than 90 islands with a total area of 107 square miles about 1000 miles east of Mombassa and 4 degrees north of the equator. Mauritius includes the dependency of Rodrigues and a few outlying islands. Seychelles comprises two sorts of islands: a compact granitic group with a continental base and a widely scattered coralline group consisting of atolls, reefs and sand cays. The granitic group has 80 per cent of the land area and 99 per cent of the population. The largest island, Mahe, is 56 square miles in area and has 86 per cent of the population. Neither Mauritius nor Seychelles had any indigenous inhabitants when they were first discovered by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. They were not effectively colonised until the French took possession in the eighteenth century. Britain seized the islands in 1810 and they became British colonies in 1814. Today Mauritius has a population of 900,000, of which about two thirds is of Indian descent comprising both Hindus and Muslims from five linguistic stocks. Another 28 per cent is known as Creole and is of mixed African and European ancestry. About 3 per cent is Chinese and a further 2 per cent is European, mostly of French ancestry. Virtually all of the 62,000 inhabitants of Seychelles are Creoles, though there are a few Indian and Chinese merchants and a small number of Europeans, again mostly of French descent. The economy of Mauritius is based almost entirely on the production of cane sugar while that of Seychelles rests precariously on copra and tourism. Both Mauritius and Seychelles have recently become independent nations within the Commonwealth: the former in 1968 and the latter in 1976.

From their inception Mauritius and Seychelles were slave societies. The first colonisers of Mauritius were the Dutch who landed in 1598. They made two attempts to settle the island bringing in slaves from Madagascar to cut down the forests of ebony. They also introduced sugar cane, cotton, tobacco, cattle and deer, but they never imported a labour force sufficient to establish plantations. In over a century of sporadic occupation it is doubtful if there were ever more than about 300 settlers. The Dutch finally abandoned Mauritius in 1710. Five years later the French claimed the island. In 1722 the French East India Company brought colonists from the neighbouring island of Bourbon (now Reunion) which the French had occupied since 1674. Settlers were given tracts of land and slaves, and the plantation economy became well established by 1735. The emphasis was on cash crops beginning with coffee and followed by sugar cane, cotton, indigo, cloves and other spices. Sugar cane best resisted the terrible cyclones which periodically strike Mauritius and became the principal crop by the early nineteenth century.

The islands of Seychelles were colonised from Mauritius in the mid-eighteenth century. They remained dependencies of Mauritius until 1903 when they were constituted a separate colony. A similar system of land grants and slaves was provided to early settlers when cotton and spices and some food crops were grown.

The economy of the islands rested on slave labour. By 1735 slaves constituted 77 per cent of the population, and the percentage remained between 75 and 85 until emancipation in 1835 (Barnwell and Toussaint 1949:225).

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Slaves for Arms in Madagascar

From “Modes of Production and Slavery in Madagascar: Two Case Studies” by Maurice Bloch, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 103-105:

The connection of Madagascar on the one hand, and Mauritius and Reunion on the other, lay in in the fact that the East Coast of the great island was sometimes inhabited by small pirate colonies and sometimes by traders and adventurers who supplied the Mascarenes with rice and cattle but also, increasingly, with slaves to be used on the plantations of these islands (Filliot 1974:113-127). Up to 1770 the trading links between Madagascar, Mauritius and Reunion had been relatively small-scale and fluctuating over time. They had, however, been extremely significant in Madagascar in that they had supplied petty rulers with European weapons for their aggrandizement and slave raiding (Filliot 1974:205-208). Towards the end of the eighteenth century, however, the small but growing central state that was to become Imerina, profiting from the disarray of the Betsimisaraka League, captured most of this trade both canalising its network and reducing rivals. The trader Dumaine wrote in 1790 that Imerina ‘is the part of Madagascar which supplies most of the slaves for our islands’ (Mauritius and Reunion). This process was truly momentous in the history of Madagascar because in return for slaves the Merina obtained armaments of high quality in much greater quantities than had been available to anybody else before, since they were lucky in reaching the coast precisely at the time when the demand for slaves in the Mascarenes had boomed and the prices soared (Curtin 1969:266-269; Filliot 1974:62-65, 216).

The war materials that they obtained were probably the major cause of the continuing expansion of the Merina and their ultimate domination of the islands. This expansion, however, was itself in part necessitated by the need to supply slaves in ever greater numbers in order to obtain the armaments necessary for conquest (Bloch 1977:314). By engaging in this sort of trade in order to acquire political power the Merina were following a long tradition which had dominated the political process of Madagascar perhaps since as far back as the sixteenth century. We know this pattern well in the eighteenth century when the Sakalava and the Betsimisaraka managed to dominate large areas of the island by exporting slaves to various European or Arab traders in return for armaments which enabled them to conquer their neighbours and obtain more slaves. The process in the case of the Merina, however, was even more dramatic. The reason was that they captured the trade at a time when the Mascarene economies were booming and so was the demand for slaves.

Once the Merina kingdom had really become established through this process, the pattern began to change in a way which was particularly significant for the history of slavery. In 1814 Mauritius, as it was renamed, became British and, in taking over Mauritius, the British had also gained vague but promising rights over Madagascar. Farquhar, the Governor of Mauritius, therefore encouraged the trade between his island and Madagascar since he saw the expansion of a kingdom dependent on supplies from Britain as a first step towards conquest, a policy we are familiar with in other parts of Africa. This policy was not without difficulty as it was taking place at a time when public opinion in Britain was moving strongly against the slave trade and slavery. Farquhar at first resisted pressure for the abolition of the slave trade, arguing that, in the first place, it would ruin the economy of Mauritius and make his unruly subjects even more difficult to control and, in the second place, it would end the promising connection with the Merina which he intended to use for ultimate conquest.

By 1817, however, the pressure from Britain had so increased that he had to give way, although by then the two stumbling blocks to ending the slave trade with Madagascar had vanished. The economy of Mauritius had been moving away from its dependence on the importation of slaves. Secondly Farquhar had discovered a way whereby he could keep his Merina contact. He signed with Radama a treaty which in return for the abolition of the slave trade would guarantee Radama a yearly supply of armaments, as well as military assistance. By this treaty the British hoped to continue their influence in Madagascar and to ensure the ever-important supply of rice and cattle to Mauritius. This treaty had its ups and downs and for a significant period was abrogated altogether, but it remained the major template for British Merina relations during the nineteenth century. It also ensured that whenever it was in operation the Merina would be dependent on the British. For the Merina the advantage of this treaty is also obvious. Radama, the Merina King, still retained a steady supply of British armaments but gained as well, and this is probably the most significant point, a monopoly of European weapons in Madagascar, a monopoly which many tried to break but never with complete success. When the treaty was in operation British frigates patrolled Madagascar to stop any signs of the slave trade. In doing so they were stopping any potential rivals of Radama from obtaining arms with which to resist him. They were, so to speak, putting Madagascar in a vacuum in which only one group had access to modem weapons. Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising that nobody could offer any significant resistance to the Merina during their greatest period of expansion.

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Filed under Britain, economics, Madagascar, migration, military, nationalism, slavery