People & Events
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Africa's west coast was known as the "white man's grave," and for good reason. The slave traders who worked along the coast lived in an inhospitable land. Exposure to the hot, damp climate and to diseases that their bodies had little resistance to resulted in short life expectancies. There was a reason to be there, though, and that reason was money. Every slave trader had the hope of making a quick fortune, and although many would become successful, there were many more -- such as Nicolas Owen -- who wouldn't.
An entry in the journal of Nicolas Owen reads as follows: "I have found no place where I can enlarge my fortune so soon as where I now live, wherefore I entend to stay in order to enlarge my fortune by honest mains." Owen was sincere when he stated that the slave trade was a way to prosper "by honest means" -- nowhere in his journal, which he kept for five years, does he show any compassion for slaves or the least bit of remorse for being involved in the slave trade.
Owen had sailed to Africa with his brother. Once there, they were captured and imprisoned. A slave dealer named Richard Hall rescued the two and offered them jobs as his agents. With no money to return home, the two brothers accepted the offer.
Like all traders at the time, Owen did not capture slaves himself; rather, it was Africans who acquired slaves and traded the captives for various European goods. Sometimes the captives would be prisoners of war. Other times, groups would venture deep into Africa's interior for the sole purpose of capturing slaves.
Passages from the journal reveal that Owen had little respect for the Africans he dealt with. "It seems strange that here in the country you'll find men of ready wit in all things relating to common busness, yet if they are question'd conserning a future state, they give up all pretentions to humanity and wander in absurdities as black as their faces. They laugh at one anothers misfortunes and don't seem to repine their own, given to drunkiness and quarreling, being very cowardly and great boasters, miserably poor in general and live low as to victuals [food supplies], soon provoked to anger and soon made up again if the offender makes an acknowledgement of his crime . . . ."
Other passages illustrate the inherent dangers of being a slave trader. In one account, Owen tells of how some Africans had seized an Englishman who was walking at night on a trail. "As soon as their prize is secure they devour him without mercey along with their ascociates in the bushes, who has prapared a fire for that purpose."
In 1758 Nicolas Owen wrote, ". . . we spend the prime of youth among Negroes, scapeing the world for money, the uneversal god of mankind, untill death overtakes us."
It would not take death long to overtake Owen. He died in Africa the following year.
A View of Calabar
An Englishman Tastes the Sweat of an African
Barry Unsworth on what drew Europeans to be slave traders
Barry Unsworth on how slavers looked upon the Africans
David Blight on the meaning of British participation in the slave trade
Margaret Washington on the relationships between Europeans and Africans
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