"The slaves we saw on board the ship were chained together by the legs below deck, so close they could not move."
—Louis Asa-Asa, in Prince 43
The Narrative of Louis Asa-Asa & the Transatlantic Slave Trade
The transatlantic slave trade spanned the Atlantic Ocean from the 15th to 19th centuries. Depending on the source, between 13 million and 18 million African captives were taken across the Atlantic, where they were then sold into slavery in the Americas. Millions of captives died in the crossing.
It was a “triangular” trade, because it had three legs. The first leg was when Portuguese, French, Spanish, Dutch, and British slave traders sailed from Europe down the west coast of Africa, where they then traded firearms, alcohol, and other goods for captive Africans.
After loading the captives aboard their slave ships, the slave traders crossed the Atlantic to the Americas with their human cargo. In the Americas, the captives were sold into slavery at various island or mainland colonies. The crossing of the Atlantic, and the subsequent selling of the captives, is called the Middle Passage, and this was the second leg.
The third leg was when the slave traders returned to Europe, with their ships full of trade goods, which had been produced by enslaved people in the Americas. These trade goods included sugar, salt, tobacco, cotton, indigo, rum, and timber.
An African slave trade existed before the transatlantic slave trade. It provided slaves to European and Muslim countries. Africans were captured—usually as a result of warfare, but also as a result of kidnapping and raiding—and transported out of Africa through the Sahara Desert, over the Red Sea, and through ports on the Indian Ocean. Some captives were sold within Africa. The transatlantic slave trade provided a new market for an already existing trade.
The British slave trade ended with the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. This meant that the trade of African captives was abolished within the British Empire, but it did not mean the end of slavery. British slave-owners could still claim other people as property, they could pass them along to family members, and they could sell them within British colonies. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire with the passing of the Abolition Act in 1833.
Abolitionists played a large part in both ending the trade in African captives, and in abolishing slavery. Abolition was a step-by-step movement that can be sectioned into two parts. The first is the Abolition Cycle that spanned 20 years, 1787-1807, ending with the Slave Trade Act of 1807. The second is the Emancipation Cycle that spanned 15 years, 1823-1838, ending with, not emancipation from slavery, which is celebrated 1 August 1834, but with the end of the apprenticeship program, which was a stipulation of the Abolition Act of 1833 (Drescher 248).
Although British slaves were technically freed on 1 August 1834, they were still required to work as apprentices to those who had previously claimed others as property for six years. Bermuda and Antigua were exempted from the apprenticeship program. The apprenticeship program was contested, causing it to end two years ahead of schedule, in 1838.
Slave rebellion also played a part in ending slavery. The last large scale British slave rebellion was in Jamaica. On 27 December 1831, approximately 20,000 slaves rebelled in an armed struggle. Jamaican authorities reported the insurrection crushed at the end of January 1832.
The rebels destroyed or damaged 226 properties; 540 Blacks and 14 whites were killed; 175 receiving sentences other than execution were flogged, forced into hard labour, or deported. The rebellion was blamed on missionaries, which resulted in looted and burnt churches, and tarred, feathered, and jailed missionaries (Marques 35).
Mary Prince, Susanna Strickland, and Thomas Pringle, were abolitionists working in the Emancipation Cycle. Another abolitionist in London at this time was George Stephen, a lawyer. He brought The Narrative of Louis Asa-Asa to Thomas’s attention. Thomas included Louis’s narrative with Mary's narrative and with his own supplement.
Louis was a victim of the transatlantic slave trade. At age 12 or 13, he had been captured in a raid on his village. His village was quite large and some way from the sea. Possibly, his village was in Mumbai. He was taken with other captives to the sea, and, once there, he was sold or traded six times for money or trade goods.
After six months, Louis was sold to Frenchmen, who put him aboard a slave ship with 80 other captives. Later, all but five were sent to another ship. Louis was one of the five who stayed aboard the original ship, which was called the Pearl.
He and the other captives were aboard the Pearl for about five or six months, until they reached England. There had been a storm, and the Pearl was driven into St. Ives, Cornwall. It was the legal action of George Stephen that brought Louis to London.
Perhaps Thomas Pringle included The Narrative of Louis Asa-Asa in the project of The History of Mary Prince because it explained the transatlantic slave trade to readers who might not have known how the trade worked. Mary Prince suffered in colonial slavery. Louis Asa-Asa suffered in the transatlantic slave trade. Louis’s story explained how Mary Prince, her family, and other colonial slaves had come to be in the Americas.
Louis’s narrative also showed readers that although British law had shut down the British arm of the transatlantic slave trade, the trade was still flourishing in other European countries.
His story also revealed that British trade goods were being used to procure African captives. Louis reported that English guns were used as trade goods. “[The captives] were sold for cloth or gunpowder, sometimes for salt or guns; sometimes they got four or five guns for a man: they were English guns, made like a master’s that I clean for his shooting” (Asa-Asa, in Prince 42).