Urbanism on West Africa’s Slave Coast
Archaeology sheds new light on cities in the era of the Atlantic slave trade
Early Trade and Settlement
During the Atlantic Era, the Slave Coast region comprised the area from the mouth of the River Volta in Ghana to the Lagos Channel in Nigeria, or some 300 kilometers of coastline and its hinterland. The region corresponds with today’s Bight of Benin, encompassing the southern regions of southeast Ghana, Togo, Bénin and southwest Nigeria. A pronounced ecological feature commonly referred to as the Dahomey Gap spans the region. The Dahomey Gap belongs to the Guinean transition zone, which is characterized by a mosaic of forest and savanna that effectively interrupts the belt of tropical rainforest that runs along coastal West Africa. The region is crisscrossed with coastal lagoons and with a series of major north-to-south river drainages, both of which provided critical arteries of trade and cultural interaction. These same drainages cut a series of higher plateaus whose cooler temperatures and distance from river-born diseases made them attractive for settlement. These features encouraged the growth of farming and fishing communities, trade, markets and political centralization and provided the foundations for the large urban civilizations encountered by Europeans in the era of the slave trade. The relative openness of the terrain also attracted European traders. In the 16th century, Portuguese merchants seeking supplies of slave laborers began to trade with coastal polities there.
At the dawn of the Atlantic Era, urban polities were distributed across the region. Isaac Adeagbo Akinjogbin of Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria once estimated that as many as 15 kingdoms were located within the Dahomey Gap in this period. Ethnographic and historical sources claim that many of their kings moved across the region in a series of royal migrations from the Yoruba urban centers Ile-Ife, Oyo and later Ketu, subjugating local communities and founding centralized kingdoms as they went. Over the 17th and early 18th centuries, however, as the slave-trade expanded to satisfy European demand for human labor on New World plantations, historical sources identify two primary slave- trade agents on the coast, Allada and its subordinate kingdom Hueda, located in the modern Republic of Bénin.
Founded sometime in the 16th century, Allada was the dominant polity in what is now southern Bénin. Allada expanded through coastal canoe trade with major kingdoms in the forest zone, most notably the Kingdom of Benin in southern Nigeria. By the mid-16th century, however, the Portuguese were actively trading at Allada’s capital, Grand Ardra. Grand Ardra was a city of considerable size, home to approximately 30,000 people; Allada as a whole had a population upwards of 200,000. Dutch physician Olfert Dapper wrote in his Description of Africa in 1668 of the presence of “towns and villages in great number” in Grand Ardra’s countryside. Over the course of the 17th century, Allada emerged as the paramount kingdom in the region, exacting regular tribute from its neighbors and legitimizing these tributary relationships through various ritual obligations.
Hueda, one of a number of kingdoms dominated by Allada, also figures large in 17th-century shipping records and period descriptions. Hueda, a minor kingdom for most of the 17th century, enters the historical record in 1671 with the founding of a French trading lodge in Savi, its royal capital. Like Allada, Hueda was a populous kingdom. Savi was home to at least 30,000 people, and the kingdom as a whole probably reached upward of 100,000. English slave trader Robert Norris wrote in the 18th century:
Sabee, at that period the metropolis of the kingdom, the residence of their monarch, and seat of their commerce, was about four miles in circumference. The houses, constructed with mud walls, were roofed with thatch. The factory houses of the European traders were spacious and airy, distributed into convenient apartments, and surrounded on the outside with a large gallery opening into balconies. The town swarmed with people, insomuch, that it was impossible to pass through the streets without great difficulty. Markets were held every day, at which were exposed to sale all sorts of merchandizes, European and African, besides abundance of provisions of every kind ... the plains embellished with an astonishing multitude of large and small villages, every one of which was enclosed with a low mud wall, and placed in full view of the surrounding district; all this assemblage united to form the most picturesque view imaginable, unobstructed either by mountain or hill.
These cities also provided the primary markets in their territories. The marketplace at Savi drew 5,000 people on market day in its heyday. Rural communities brought goods to the markets of Savi and Grand Ardra every fourth day (the market week) to ply commodities such as salt, textiles, basketry, calabashes, pottery and other products for sale. These polities were thus characterized by regional settlement differentiation, in which urban centers served as political and economic nexuses for smaller settlements across nearby rural areas. Rural communities and urban centers were integrated in terms of production and distribution of everyday domestic products.
Despite the indigenous origins and local orientation of these cities, trans-Atlantic trade emerged as an increasingly significant factor in urban-rural dynamics along the Slave Coast. During this period, human captives—taken in slave raids against weaker neighbors—became the predominant export from the region. Exports from the Slave Coast amounted to 5,000 captives per year in the 1680s, and peaked at 10,000 per year from the 1690s through the 1710s. Goods received in exchange for captives were predominantly textiles and cowry shells (Cypraea moneta), which originated in the Indian Ocean and were the principle currency in the region. However, other goods such as iron and brass bars, beads, guns and spirits are also mentioned in period texts. Additionally, beads, clay tobacco pipes, ceramic vessels, alcohol bottles and various other trinkets are documented at contemporary archaeological sites. The introduction of European and Asian manufactured goods had a significant impact on communities on the Slave Coast.
Although historical sources suggest some of these items entered regional markets for sale, imported trade goods were a closely guarded source of symbolic power for kings. Period accounts describe public ceremonies, including royal coronations and elaborate rituals following the death of a king, in which large quantities of luxuries were displayed and distributed to the general public. Royal power and prestige were intimately tied to the success of these ceremonies. On the one hand, the public display of wealth accumulated in trade reinforced the symbolic power of the king. On the other, the distribution of such goods to loyal followers was a strategy for integrating subjects into a stable political system. Controlling access to Atlantic wealth became a key component of kings’ strategies to instill political order. Whereas local markets economically integrated town and countryside, it was luxuries acquired in trade that served as the political glue binding rural lords to urban royal dynasties.
Trade goods were thus hotly sought after in Allada and Hueda, and their respective kings jockeyed to corner the lion’s share of these new sources of power. For much of the 17th and early 18th centuries, successive kings of Allada sought to monopolize access to the goods, largely through royal- sponsored slave-raiding campaigns against weaker neighbors. Fearing competition from rivals, kings went so far as to require European merchants to trade directly with them at their palaces before trading with others in the kingdom. However, as demand for slaves in the New World picked up toward the end of the century, Allada found it difficult to maintain a trading monopoly, and secondary polities began to get in on the action. The rise of Hueda was a product of Allada’s declining authority. Proximity to coastal ports in an era of expanding demand for human cargo granted the Huedan elite access to vast quantities of Atlantic wealth, resulting in the emergence of a powerful palace-centric polity, which often worked against the interests of its political overlord, Allada.
Alexis B. A. Adandé of the University of Abomey-Calavi in Bénin pioneered archaeological research on the Atlantic Era in Southern Bénin. In the 1980s, Adandé started excavation and oral historical research at Togudo-Awute, the location of Grand Ardra itself. Most of our understanding of the importance of trade for shaping the nature of urban-rural dynamics in these coastal polities is extrapolated from research conducted at Savi by the Savi Archaeological Project under the direction of Kenneth Kelly of the University of South Carolina and, more recently, by Neil Norman of the College of William and Mary. Two decades of archaeological research at Savi has examined the rapid growth and early demise of the Kingdom of Hueda as a result of the Atlantic commercial pressures outlined above.
Kenneth Kelly started archaeological research at Savi in 1991. Kelly’s initial site survey identified a dense concentration of artifacts, local pottery mainly, distributed across a 5 kilometer diameter area (approximately 20 square kilometers). Because such an abundance of artifacts often indicates a settlement site, Kelly interpreted this as the boundaries of an extensive urban settlement at Savi. At its center, Kelly located a series of deep ditches encircling a royal precinct covering an area of 6.5 hectares and centering on the remains of a large palace complex. This area would have served as the primary location for public ceremonies glorifying the king and his dynasty. European traders were required to live in trading lodges that were built near the palace within this royal precinct, and a marketplace was established under the watchful gaze of the king. This was, in all probability, an attempt to control the European merchants, increasingly important sources of wealth—and of potential instability. Kelly’s excavations in the royal palace recovered large quantities of imported trade goods, including Dutch tobacco pipes, Chinese porcelains, wine and liquor bottles, and even Dutch bricks lining the palace floors. Importantly, these objects were recovered in the palace’s most public areas, precisely where the king received guests, indicating the importance of such goods to the symbolic power and authority of the Huedan monarchy.
Building upon Kelly’s research, Neil Norman explored Savi’s countryside. Norman surveyed a 10-kilometer- diameter zone around Savi in 2005, finding widespread distribution of pottery fragments and other artifacts, as well as the collapsed remains of numerous mud-walled buildings. On the basis of this survey, Norman has revealed a three-tier settlement system, supporting historical claims that Savi’s countryside was densely populated and that Savi served as its political and economic center. Savi sat at the top of the pyramid, followed by semi-autonomous provincial towns of a few thousand in the middle, and then by small-scale rural villages with up to a few hundred people. These data allow us to infer that Savi served as a political and economic center for communities in its broader hinterlands.
As was the case in Allada, historical sources indicate that the Huedan king’s power rested largely on how well he was able to funnel Atlantic wealth into the hands of rural chiefs. Excavations conducted by Norman at rural sites reveal hardly any examples of such goods, however, indicating that the provinces and their rural hinterlands were never integrated economically into the circulation of imported commodities. Thus the countryside did not share in the Atlantic wealth that defined court life at Savi. If the concentration of Atlantic wealth in the palace was the source of power and influence for the monarchy, its absence probably produced significant tension with rural lords. The failure of the Hueda monarchy to cultivate loyalty among provincial elites in all probability intensified factional conflicts between provinces and the center and between elites and commoners, opening the door to political collapse.