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A new general collection of voyages and travels

European sea-traders were initially less interested in Africa than in America and Asia. They sought luxury goods or specialised tropical crops and foodstuffs. Africa could offer gold and ivory, though neither in large quantities, but the African countries, unlike those of Asia, were not organised to produce food crops for export, nor were Europeans able to settle in the densely populated West African kingdoms to grow these crops themselves. Instead the European powers – Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and Britain – began to exploit the potential of their American colonies to provide them with the crops they desired and established plantations, principally to grow sugar.

The European ‘factories’ at Xavier, or Sabi, in the kingdom of Whydah (now Ouidah), Benin, from: A new general collection of voyages and travels: … comprehending every thing remarkable in its kind, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. Volume III. London: printed for Thomas Astley, 1746 [FCO Historical Collection G160 NEW]The European ‘factories’ at Xavier, or Sabi, in the kingdom of Whydah (now Ouidah), Benin, from: A new general collection of voyages and travels: … comprehending every thing remarkable in its kind, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. Volume III. London: printed for Thomas Astley, 1746 [FCO Historical Collection G160 NEW]To compete with one another and meet the continually growing consumer demand for sugar, they needed a huge labour force able to work in a hot climate. The Atlantic slave trade, an unholy alliance of African rulers and middlemen, European traders and plantation owners in the Americas, was born.

In its 350 years of operation the Atlantic slave trade accounted for some ten million Africans being shipped to the Americas as slaves. The Portuguese, largely ousted from West Africa by other powers, drew most of their slaves from their possessions of São Tomé and Angola. British and French traders, meanwhile, competed for access to slaves along the West African coast. While the French focussed their attention on the area bounded by the Senegal and Gambia rivers, British traders chiefly bought slaves in the region - comprising the present-day countries of Benin and Togo, as well as part of Nigeria - that became known as the Slave Coast.

The plate on display shows European ‘factories’ at Xavier, or Sabi, in the kingdom of Whydah (now Ouidah), Benin. A factory was a European company’s coastal trading post, where the factors, or merchants, conducted their business. In 1727 Whydah fell to the kingdom of Dahomey, which thus became, in the words of C. Duncan Rice, ‘one of the greatest slaving machines on the Coast’. The West African rulers charged European traders high rents and customs duties and by firmly preventing access to the interior were able to command high prices for the millions of slaves they sold; in exchange for slaves, they purchased guns (to help capture more slaves) and luxury consumer goods for themselves.

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