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Eyewitness to the Middle Passage

THE DILIGENT A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade By Robert Harms Basic Books: 466 pp., $30

April 28, 2002|ROBIN BLACKBURN | Robin Blackburn teaches history at the New School University in New York and is the author of "The Making of New World Slavery."

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.

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