In the rapidly advancing scholarship on African coastal societies in the Atlantic slave trade, the Windward Coast remains a much neglected area.2 The only study fully devoted to the slave trade from this region is an article published in 1980 by Adam Jones and Marion Johnson, which critiqued the census data produced by Philip Curtin.3 Jones’s and Johnson’s commentary ended with a warning that, for lack of historical knowledge of the trade from this part of West Africa, it was still far too early for scholars to produce a meaningful census. “What is needed now is not a slanging match over the totals which Curtin proposed, but detailed analysis of individual regions and indeed of individual ships.”4 Using the ship records of the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC), this paper examines regional patterns of trade between Dutch buyers and African suppliers on the Windward Coast in the second half of the eighteenth century. After losing access to West Africa’s more productive slaving zones, around 1740 the Dutch found new markets for slaves on the Windward Coast, where conditions for trade were far less favorable. The archives of the MCC, the largest private slave trading firm in the eighteenth-century Netherlands, document unusual methods of trading in this part of Africa. In most African regions slave trading was concentrated in a limited number of ports, but trade on the Windward Coast was spread out over numerous small embarkation points. Through systematic analysis of the MCC records, this paper highlights the most significant features of this trade and doing so addresses a number of enduring misunderstandings about the economic history of the Windward Coast. First, Kru-speakers formed a considerable part of the slaves the Dutch carried from Africa after 1740, despite the absence of major embarkation points on the Kru Coast. Second, among the Kru slaves were disproportionally high numbers of [End Page 29] women and children, although the overall ratio of children on board Dutch slave ships was drastically reduced by selective purchasing on the Ivory and Gold Coasts. Third, Cape Lahou, on the eastern Ivory Coast, was by far the most important slaving port for Dutch free traders in West Africa and was, in this period, rivaled only by Malembo on the northern Angolan coast.
The significance of the Windward Coast for eighteenth-century slavers from the Netherlands was first acknowledged by Johannes Postma in his pioneering work on the Dutch Atlantic slave trade.5 Postma calculated that after 1740, when the West India Company (WIC) had lost its monopoly on the African trade and disengaged from Atlantic slaving, Dutch free traders on the coast of West Africa obtained roughly 70 percent of their slave cargoes on the Windward Coast, while the remaining purchases were completed on the Gold Coast. He further estimated that, overall, the Dutch colonies in the Americas drew roughly 40 percent of their slave labor force from the Windward Coast. Recent calculations based on Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (TSTD2) as well as the data presented in this paper indicate that Postma’s findings were largely correct.6 However few scholars have thus far recognized the implications of these results for the history of slavery in the Atlantic world, in particular the ascendancy of Kru-speaking groups and Cape Lahou among the African suppliers of slaves to the Dutch Americas.
Postma highlighted the prime position of Lahou on the Windward Coast, an issue taken up by Philip Curtin in his 1975 re-assessment of the volume of the Atlantic slave trade. According to Curtin, the preeminence of Lahou was due, first, to its location at the mouth of the partly navigable Bandama River, which gave local trade brokers access to Juula merchant networks in the interior; and, second, to the eighteenth century migration of the Baule (an Akan sub-group), towards the lower Bandama, which by provoking warfare with established Senufo and Guro [End Page 30] communities created a supply of captives for export.7 In later years, Curtin linked the Akan expansion into modern Ivory Coast to the...