| The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, Second Edition
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An Eyewitness Describes the Slave Trade in Guinea
Captain Willem Bosman
The transatlantic slave trade remains one of the great
tragedies of world history. This horrific trade in human beings is
richly described by the Dutch sea captain Willem Bosman; his
description provides us with a detailed account of how this trade was
conducted in the West African state of Guinea.
Questions to Consider
Not a few in our country fondly imagine that parents
here sell their children, men their wives, and one brother the other.
But those who think so, do deceive themselves; for this never happens
on any other account but that of necessity, or some great crime; but
most of the slaves that are offered to us, are prisoners of war,
which are sold by the victors as their booty.
- From whom did Bosman acquire the slaves he traded for in Guinea? How did the process actually work?
- What were the conditions of those enslaved?
- Why did Bosman maintain that the Dutch slave ships were so much cleaner than those of other European states?
When these slaves come to Fida, they are put in prison all
together; and when we treat concerning buying them, they are all
brought out together in a large plain; where, by our surgeons, whose
province it is, they are thoroughly examined, even to the smallest
member, and that naked both men and women, without the least
distinction or modesty.
The invalids and the maimed being thrown out, as I have told you,
the remainder are numbered, and it is entered who delivered them. In
the meanwhile, a burning iron, with the arms or name of the
companies, lies in the fire, with which ours are marked on the
breast. This is done that we may distinguish them from the slaves of
the English, French, or others (which are also marked with their
mark), and to prevent the Negroes exchanging them for worse, at which
they have a good hand. I doubt not but this trade seems very
barbarous to you, but since it is followed by mere necessity, it must
go on; but we yet take all possible care that they are not burned too
hard, especially the women, who are more tender than the men.
We are seldom long detained in the buying of these slaves, because
their price is established, the women being one fourth or fifth part
cheaper than the men. The disputes which we generally have with the
owners of these slaves are, that we will not give them such goods as
they ask for them, especially the boesies [cowry shells] (as I have
told you, the money of this country) of which they are very fond,
though we generally make a division on this head, in order to make
one part of the goods help off another; because those slaves which
are paid for in boesies, cost the company one half more than those
bought with other goods.
When we have agreed with the owners of the slaves, they are
returned to their prison; where, from that time forwards, they are
kept at our charge, cost us two pence a day a slave; which serves to
subsist them, like our criminals, on bread and water: so that to save
charges, we send them on board our ships with the very first
opportunity, before which their masters strip them of all they have
on their backs; so that they come to us stark-naked, as well women as
men: in which condition they are obliged to continue, if the master
of the ship is not so charitable (which he commonly is) as to bestow
something on them to cover their nakedness.
You would really wonder to see how these slaves live on board; for
though their number sometimes amounts to six or seven hundred, yet by
the careful management of our masters of ships, they are so [well]
regulated, that it seems incredible. And in this particular our
nation exceeds all other Europeans; for as the French, Portuguese,
and English slave-ships are always foul and stinking; on the
contrary, ours are for the most part clean and neat.
The slaves are fed three times a day with indifferent good
victuals, and much better than they eat in their own country. Their
lodging place is divided into two parts; one of which is appointed
for the men, the other for the women, each sex being kept apart. Here
they lie as close together as it is possible for them to be crowded.
Willem Bosman, "A New and Accurate Description" (London: 1721), in David Northrup, ed., The Atlantic Slave Trade (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1994),