The Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa, in the Year 1805, by Mungo Park


The following particulars, tending to shew the increase which has taken place in the commerce between Great Britain and Africa since the Abolition of the Slave Trade, have been communicated to the editor by an intelligent friend, who has great knowledge and experience in the African trade, and upon whose accuracy and means of information he has the most perfect reliance.

It appeared from Custom-house returns, officially laid before Parliament, that the average annual value of all imports from Africa into Great Britain for twenty years prior to 1787, fell short of £72,000; and even this small sum included the imports, not only from the whole Western coast of Africa between Cape Negro in latitude 16 deg South and the straits of Gibraltar, but also from some parts bordering on the Mediterranean. The average annual value of these imports, during the last five years of that period, viz. 1783, 4, 5, 6 and 7, appears, from the same official returns, to have been about £90,500. If from this amount be deducted the value of the articles appearing to have been imported from Morocco and other adjoining countries, there will be left somewhat less than £70,000 for the value of all our imports from the Western Coast of Africa; that is, from the country lying between Cape Blanco, latitude 21 deg north, and Cape Negro, latitude 16 deg south, being an extent of 4500 miles of coast. The average annual exports from Great Britain to the Western coast of Africa during the same period (exclusive of the exports connected with the Slave Trade) may be estimated at a sum not materially exceeding £50,000.

The compiler of the present statement possesses no documents or means of information, which enable him to shew what was the extent of the commerce of Great Britain with Africa (unconnected with the Slave Trade) during the period from 1788 to 1807, the year in which the Slave Trade was abolished; but there is good reason to believe that it had not materially increased within that time.

It might be impracticable at present, from the loss of the Custom-house books, to obtain any authentic account of exports and imports during the last seven years. But this defect of official information is in some degree supplied by an authentic statement, made out on a particular occasion by a Committee of the African Company, from accounts with which they were furnished from the Custom-house, through the intervention of Government. The object of the Company in obtaining these accounts was to procure authentic data relative to some public measure which was in agitation, connected with the African trade. The following statement was extracted from the books of the Company.

Imports from Africa into Great Britain.

1808. £374,306
1809. 383,926
1810. 535,577

[Sidenote: exclusive of gold dust, which is not subject to any custom-house entry]

Exports from Great Britain to Africa.

1808. £820,194
1809. 976,872
1810. 693,911

The great difference between the value of the exports and imports in this case was accounted for by an experienced officer of the African Company by supposing that a large proportion (from one third to a half) of the goods exported, was captured by the enemy. If this be the true explanation, the account must have been balanced by the exports of gold dust, and the bills of exchange drawn from the British settlements on the African coast. Another supposition (and perhaps a more probable one) is that a considerable part of the exports found their way into the hands of the contraband slave traders, and was employed in carrying on their illegal speculations.

But, even if we consider the imports alone, the increase in the commerce of Africa during the before mentioned period is altogether astonishing; so much so, as almost to induce a suspicion that there is some fallacy in the statement, although there does not appear to be any specific ground for questioning its correctness. For if to the amount of the imports as above stated, we add the value of the gold dust imported, we shall find that this additional commerce nearly fills up the chasm occasioned by the Abolition of the slave trade, extensively as that trade was carried on by this country.

But considering this statement only as a general proof of a great increase of the African trade, (without attempting to assign the proportion of increase) let us take another view of the same subject.

The Gold Coast is about 250 miles in extent, little more than a twentieth part of the whole coast extending from Cape Blanco to Cape Negro. Previously to the Abolition of the slave trade, the imports into Great Britain from this space of coast used to consist of

about 20 tons of ivory valued at £7500
and about 1000 ounces of gold dust 4000
--- £11500

Since the Abolition of the slave trade the imports from this tract of coast have greatly increased; and it may be stated upon the undoubted authority of intelligent persons, perfectly acquainted with the facts, that the importations have amounted, during the last five or six years, to the annual value of from £120,000. to £180,000. The annual import of gold alone is stated to be about 30,000 ounces.

Thus it appears that the importation from the Gold Coast alone, (a space of 250 miles) into Great Britain since the Abolition of the slave trade, has been double the amount of the importation from the whole slave coast of Africa (an extent of 4500 miles) prior to that event.

A farther example may be taken from the colony of Sierra Leone, where a custom house was first established in May 1812; from whence accounts have been furnished of the imports and exports into and from that colony during the two years ending in May 1814. — The amount of the imports during that period, on which duties were actually paid, was £105,080. 15_s. 3_d. being the alleged prime cost of the goods, even without the cost of packages. In order to obtain the invoice price of the goods, one third at least must be added to the prime cost for necessary charges. The amount will then be about £140,000., or, on an average, £70,000. annually.

The exports from Sierra Leone during the same period have amounted to £91,539. 17_s. 6_d. being on an average £45,000. annually. The remainder of imports may be accounted for by the bills of exchange drawn upon this country for the expenses of the civil establishment and commissariat. Hence it appears that from the single river of Sierra Leone the imports into Great Britain were nearly, and the exports to the same river fully, equal to the imports and exports (exclusive of the slave trade) of the whole extent of the Western Coast of Africa prior to the Abolition.

The facts here stated relative to the extent of our innocent and legitimate commerce with the western coast of Africa, must be considered as highly interesting and important; both as shewing how extremely small that commerce was prior to the Abolition of the slave trade, and how much it has increased during the very few years which have since elapsed. This increase has certainly been much more considerable than there was any good reason for expecting, under the actual circumstances of the case.

If we were told of a country, whose staple article of export trade consisted of its own inhabitants, its men, women and children, who were procured (as must necessarily happen in the case of large and continued exports) by treachery and violence — where the whole population was either living in continual apprehension of captivity and eternal banishment from their native soil, or employed contriving the means of inflicting those evils upon others — we should at once conclude that the very insecurity of person and property, which such a state of society implied, would of itself extinguish all the motives to regular industry, and limit the culture of the soil very nearly to what was required for supplying the immediate wants of nature.

Such in fact were the circumstances of Africa prior to the year 1808; at which time the slave trade carried on by Great Britain, and the United States of North America having been abolished by those respective governments, and the slave trade of France and Holland being virtually abolished by the war, a considerable mitigation of the prevailing evils took place. A farther improvement was effected about three years afterwards, by means of the article in the treaty of amity with Portugal, which bound Portuguese subjects to confine their trading in slaves to places in Africa actually under the possession of that Government. By this arrangement the whole coast of Africa from Cape Blanco to the eastern extremity of the Gold Coast (with the exception of the Portuguese settlement of Bissao) were in a considerable degree liberated from the operation of the slave trade.

The Spaniards indeed claimed a right of trading within those limits; but it was a right which, in its exercise, did not prove so prejudicial as might have been expected. The slave trade carried on under the Spanish flag, has been found in most instances not to be a bona fide Spanish trade, but a British or American slave trade in disguise; and latterly the Portuguese, being excluded by treaty from the whole to the windward coast except Bissao, have begun to avail themselves of the same disguise. Many slave vessels under these circumstances, bearing the Spanish flag, have been captured by the British cruizers: and the condemnations which have taken place, have tended greatly to abridge the extent of this trade. Still however the course of improvement in this part of Africa, has been extremely retarded by the right which Portugal has hitherto retained of carrying on the slave trade from Bissao, and by the trade carried on either by real Spanish ships or by counterfeit Spaniards so well disguised as to escape detection.

Besides the trade thus carried on, cargoes of slaves have frequently been smuggled by English and American traders, availing themselves of the facilities which the creeks and rivers of Africa afford for such transactions, and taking their chance of escaping the cruizers on the coast. A contraband trade of this kind appears to have been carried on to some extent; by means of which various cargoes of slaves have been transported to the Brazils and the Island of Cuba.

These facts are mentioned for the purpose of shewing that considerable obstacles to improvement, arising from the partial continuance of the slave trade, are still experienced, even in that part of Africa which has enjoyed the greatest privileges and exemptions. Under such circumstances it would be most unreasonable to look for that progress in the arts of agriculture and peace-commerce which we should have been entitled to expect, in case the suppression of the slave trade had been complete and universal.

But even under much more favourable circumstances than we have reason at present to expect, it would by no means follow that the mere removal of that great obstacle to regular industry and commerce, would in any very short space of time produce considerable or extensive improvements. The ignorance, the profligacy, the improvidence and the various other moral evils, which necessarily accompany the slave trade, will, it is to be feared, long survive the extinction of that traffic which produced and fostered them. The whole history of mankind shews that the progress of civilization is always extremely slow during its earliest stages; and that the first steps in the career of improvement are constantly the most painful and difficult. Hence, we may be justified in drawing the most favourable conclusions from the comparatively great increase which has already taken place in the commerce of Africa during a very short period, in consequence of a partial removal of those evils, which previously had almost excluded the very possibility of improvement.

* * * * *

The following African Words occurring frequently in the course of the ensuing Journal, it is thought proper to prefix an explanation of them.

Bentang, a sort of stage erected in every town, answering the purpose of a town hall.

Slatees, free black merchants, often traders in slaves.

Caffle, a caravan of slaves or of people travelling with any kind of merchandize.

Dooty, the chief magistrate of a town or province.

Palaver, A court of justice, or public meeting; some times a parly or negociation.

Bar, nominal money; a single bar is equal in value to about two shillings sterling.

Kowries, small shells which pass for money in the Interior of Africa.

Barraloolo, a fowling — piece.

Arrangoes, a large kind of bead.

Baft, blue cloth of East Indian manufacture, much used in the African Trade.

Pagne, a kind of cloth, also much used in the same trade.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24