* Adam Matthew Publications. Imaginative publishers of research collections.
News  |  Orders  |  About Us
*   A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z  


Parts 2 & 3: Slavery Collections from the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool


Introduction by Gordon Reed, MA, Former Keeper of Archives, Merseyside County Museums.

On 25 March 1981 the Keeper of Archives, Merseyside County Museums, gave a talk to the Heswall Council and Voluntary Service. One of the Officers of the Council realised that a friend of hers had records of great interest to the Archive Department, which specialises in the records of maritime and commercial activities.

So in due course, the Keeper paid a number of visits to this lady, Miss Crosbie-Oates, and examined various family documents. These included two journals and a file of letters which provide the matter for this article. He was able to borrow the items, copy them and have them typed fairly quickly. At the same time Mrs Felicity Jones was anxious to try her hand at some archive work so she was given the task of abstracting and indexing the journals and of writing them up in the form of an article. She was able to use the photocopies at home.

In October 1982 the originals were deposited with the County Archives Department, and all the Crosbie-Oates archives are now being catalogued as the D/O series. The County Council is extremely grateful to Miss Crosbie-Oates for depositing these items with the County Council.

By an appropriate coincidence the Ocean Archives, which include reports of the African Steamship Company from 1853, were also deposited in 1982. The department also holds some letters of MacGregor Laird, founder of this Company, dated 1858-9.

A Trading Master in West Africa 1853-1859
William James Oates, a member of a Liverpool family, following in a family tradition as seafarers and merchants in the West African trade, first went to Bonny on the Niger Delta in 1853 at the age of eighteen. Oates's had been sailing to West Africa since the eighteenth century. The "John" commanded by Captain Richard Oates was reported in 'Gore's Advertiser' as sailing from Liverpool to Accra in 1787. Captain Oates died later that year in Bonny from "exposure in open boats to an African sun" and "excessive exertion" which brought a fatal attack of fever. Captain Oates was experienced in the difficulties of navigating the treacherous Bonny River Bar, and was much in demand in assisting less experienced captains in getting their vessels out to sea.

His grandson, William, the second youngest son of the large family of John and Mary Oates, became a trading master operating from an off-shore hulk anchored in the Calabar River. He worked for Horsfall and Sons, the well-known African Merchants of Liverpool. He kept an account of his experiences in the form of two journals which record the two voyages he made to Calabar in the 1850's. William Oates spent fourteen months on his first voyage, three and a half years on the second one, a long time for a European to spend on this inhospitable coast. Several of his letters to his brother, the Rev Richard Oates, also still exist.

His first journal begins with excitement and anticipation of adventure, but ends with disappointment and disillusion when after making a good start in the palm oil trade, he leaves for home early after a disagreement with his superior, Captain Wylie. The second journal has the tone of that of an experienced traveller. However, there are enough exciting and even shocking incidents among the day-to-day accounts of shipping and trade to make the journals and letters a unique record of what it was like to trade in palm oil in Africa in the 1850's. William Oates' journals give detailed accounts of shipping, trade, storms, fevers, drownings, violent deaths, shark attacks, native customs involving cannibalism and juju, and contact with two of the Nigerian Royal Houses, the Pepples of Bonny and Amakiris of Calabar. It is interesting to note that there is still a Chief Amakiri of Calabar, still a businessman, though possibly not in the palm oil trade.
Trade between Liverpool and West Africa had developed in the eighteenth century. After the abolition of the slave trade (1807) Liverpool merchants put their resources into opening up new fields of trade with West Africa. Palm oil was one commodity for which a steady and expanding market existed in Europe and the trade in palm oil, cocoa, timber and groundnuts largely came to replace the earlier trade in ivory, gold and slaves.

The establishment of peaceful trade was beset with obstacles. There were no natural harbours on the West African coast, with the exception of Freetown, so that the normal means of handling cargoes were surf boats operating off the beaches. (There is an example of one of these boats in the Maritime Museum in Liverpool). These boats were operated by the Kru of Liberia, a tribe of boatmen who worked everywhere along the coast manning the canoes which carried the first slaves and later palm oil across the bar to the European ships.

William Oates describes his first encounter with the Kru:

".... when we had got about 5 miles off the shore, we then let go our anchor and the canoes came alongside, after staring and grinning at us, and the different parts of the ship until their curiosity was satisfied, they came leaping up the ship's sides like so many monkeys, and away they came helter skelter up on to the poop and shook us all by the hands as if we were old friends.... they are a strange set of beings and no mistake, all the covering they wear is a piece of Manchester cloth tied around their loins and it is quite amusing to see the way they manage their canoes and with what a rate they propel them with their curiously carved paddles".

Early traders established trading posts along the coasts which they protected with forts or anchored hulks off-shore so that produce could be stored pending the arrival of the next ship. It was a hazardous enterprise and Liverpool merchants had to put their lives at risk in order to trade here. The danger from fever was great; hence the necessity for the trading masters to live off-shore in ships or hulks. William Oates commented in a letter:

"There has lately been a great deal of sickness here and in Bonny, some ships have nearly all had their crews laid up." (1857)

During the 1850's the Niger Delta was pre-eminent in the palm oil trade and Bonny was its richest port. The oil was prepared in the interior by boiling the husks in water and skimming off the resultant oil. In the 1855-56 season the Delta exported 25,060 tons of oil, which was over half the total quantity of oil exported from Africa. Of this quantity, 16,124 tons were sold by Bonny and its river New Calabar; 4,000 by Old Calabar; and 2,280 by Brass. The method of trading is described by William Oates:

"Today is what is called 'Calabar Sunday' being the day before the Fair day of principal day for buying oil, it takes place every 8 days every Captain goes up to town and goes round through all the traders houses trying to agree for any oil they might have and, of course, each one tries to get the most, so I went up to town to agree for all the oil I can, to come to me tomorrow".

He got 28 puncheons, which was considered a good day's trading. Problems of trading are described in letters to his brother:

"A few weeks ago, we lowered the bar or in other words reduced the price we had been paying the natives for their oil, some of them have stopped their trade for a time in consequence, so that the supply of oil is not nearly so good as it was, in Bonny River the trade is entirely stopped for the same reason".

and later:

"The trade in Bonny River is nearly stopped owing to the natives having a disagreement amongst themselves which they intend to settle by fighting .... we are daily expecting the Consul to arrive there with a Man-of-war steamer".

Bonny's pre-eminence in palm oil was brought about by two factors, firstly the steamer service subsidised by the British Government and owned by MacGregor Laird, which was started in 1852 and which made possible an expansion in trade and a faster turn round of ships; secondly, the discovery that regular dosage with quinine made life possible for Europeans in the interior. By 1856 nearly 200 Liverpool firms were operating in the Niger Delta in contrast to about a dozen operating prior to 1850. This led to great rivalry and also to a realisation by Africans that earlier traders, who had had less competition to deal with, had been fobbing them off with shoddy manufactured goods in exchange for their valuable oil. This led to some hostility between Africans and the white traders.

The oil trade was monopolised by the middlemen of the Delta who operated between producers and the white merchants who came from Liverpool, in the main. The merchants provided the middlemen with credit in the form of trade goods, which were taken up to the markets of the interior and exchanged mainly for palm oil, but also for ivory, timber and beeswax. There was no real form of money, a wide range of goods were used as exchange, cloth, guns, beads, lead and copper rods. William Oates bartered a canoe he had found drifting for 'doubloons' and some parrots. The palm oil traders were said to be as rough a lot as the old slave traders, although, on the evidence of his journals, William Oates seemed to have been rather the reverse. He does, however, mention several arguments and violent incidents, though whether these were due to the climate or the type of men attracted to the trade is uncertain. Conditions on the coast were such that most traders were anxious to return to Europe as soon as possible. The African chiefs took advantage of this by imposing a trade bar as a sanction against European traders.

In 1854, Africans and Europeans combined to deal with problems of local trade by setting up a Court of Equity on which both Bonny middlemen and European supercargoes were represented. Traders offending against the regulations of the court, presided over by a different white supercargo in monthly rotation, were subject to fines, which had to have the approval of the king of Bonny. Similar courts were set up at New Calabar, Allasa, Benin River, Old Calabar and Brass. William Oates describes the setting up of the court in a letter to his brother dated 6th July 1856. He also describes his relief at finding Sunday trading banned, rather to the bewilderment of the natives.

William Oates was elected to preside over the Court of Equity at New Calabar on 18th August 1856. On 24th August, he made the following entry in his journal:

"I this day convened a meeting of the Court at King Amachree's (Amakkiri's) house to investigate the charge of assault against War Mate, the assault was fully proved and he is fined five puncheons of good palm oil, to be paid within one month, this has been done more for the sake of an example to the natives that we wont allow them in any way to assault or insult a "white man", and especially now that there are so few of us in the river".

William Oates himself had been gratuitously assaulted in June 1854 when he was kidnapped, beaten and held prisoner by a gang of some 60 natives. He was eventually rescued by his friend, Dr Thompson, and two boat's crews.

The customs of corney (customs dues) and dash (a customary bribe accompanying all trade, still current in Nigeria) were established by the eighteenth century and both are mentioned in the Oates journals, as are the African Royal Houses in Bonny and New Calabar. The royal houses probably dated back to the fifteenth century. William Oates describes his first encounter with a Nigerian monarch thus:

"Rose at 4.15am and about 7 o'clock King Pepple came alongside and was hoisted up the ship's side in an arm chair, he took breakfast with us and then went to look at some goods in the shop .... this black gentleman has a very high opinion of himself and considers himself greatly insulted if a person keeps his hat on while in his presence". (King Pepple was deposed in a power struggle and was deported by the British in 1854, not to return to Africa until 1861).

The power of the various Delta States depended on their large fast war canoes. In fact the canoe was an important indicator of status and power hence King Amakiri's anxiety to retrieve from Oates a canoe which had been found drifting. This is the canoe mentioned earlier which Oates bartered for two doubloons and some parrots.

As well as the royal houses, Oates mentions the juju King (or Jew Jew King). The juju oracle was an important arbiter of disputes and was outside the civil jurisdiction of the royal houses. The juju priests (or Kings), mainly from the Aro tribe, would be regarded as sacred.

However, Oates describes the murder of the juju King in New Calabar. It seemed that the King's brother had "been mad for a day or two", had rushed into the juju hut while the King was making juju with the natives and had inflicted a fearful stomach wound on the King with a knife. Oates and his friend, Dr Saunders, had rushed to help and Dr Saunders had stitched up the wound. Three hundred natives with guns, daggers, spears and knives gathered to hunt the killer. One hundred of them escorted Oates and Saunders back to their ship. However, in spite of their efforts, the juju King died the next day. A party of armed men in pursuit of the murderer found him hiding in a tree and shot him. Fifty persons belonging to the murderer's family were also killed in revenge.

As well as juju, Oates also mentions other native customs, including cannibalism. Practices such as cannibalism and human sacrifice had been taking place along the coast. Old Calabar was destroyed by the British Consul in 1856 because it had broken the law against human sacrifice. A large number of people had been sacrificed, according to previous custom, on the death of the chief of Old Town, William Tom Robins. Oates Journal for 27th August 1858 reads:

"This day will be long remembered by every European at present in this river in consequence of a most horrible loathsome scene - which is the eating by men, women and children of five of their fellow creatures".

It seems that two natives of Calabar on their way to Eaho market had been caught and consumed by some men of the Creek country. The Calabaris had demanded that these murderers should be given up. Accordingly, five men were sent to King Amakiri from the King of Creek country. They were sentenced to the same fate as their victims. They were brought into the market, cut limb from limb and distributed among the natives who roasted or boiled them before eating them. (Although William Oates describes this incident with revulsion, a later entry in his journal describes how he and the crew of the ship taking him home to Liverpool, cook and eat an unfortunate woman killed by the berserk ship's cook).

In contrast to this rather shocking incident, Oates describes Christmas Day in Africa in 1856:

"Christmas Day in Africa, a burning hot day with a sickly land wind blowing the early part of the morning with exhalations or smokes, which resemble thick, heavy fog, at 2.0 pm we went on board the "Sisters" where we found nearly all the Supercargoes and Captains of this and New Calabar River, we soon went below and sat down to dinner - we had all the good old English dishes of Turkey, Goose, Roast Round of Beef, Roast Sucking Pig, accompanied with Ducks, Fowls and Muttons dressed in many different ways, after clearing away all these came our old fashioned Plum pudding with tarts of Gooseberries, Damsons, Currants, Green Gages and several other kinds of tartlets etc, at 11.0 pm we returned on board the "Ambrosine".

Rather a heavy feast for such a steamy climate.

For his stay in this inhospitable climate William Oates received £12 a month, but could also expect commission. He wrote in a letter to his brother, just prior to his return to Liverpool in 1859:

"You know I have a particular object in view of my next visit to Liverpool, viz to get married. I of course cannot tell what Horsfalls will do with me next voyage, but they ought to do something handsome. I have done exceedingly well for them in the last eighteen months. I have bought as much oil as Wylie bought here in twenty six months and yet everybody said he did very well. I fully expect a liberal present from Thompson for this voyage, besides my £12 a month".

Oates married a Miss Jane Clare soon after his return home. He went back to Africa for a third voyage. A letter to his brother dated 24th March 1862, states:

"You are aware that we have a very monotonous life in this country, but I feel exceedingly thankful that I am spared in such good health as I at present enjoy. I never felt in better health in my life, I think. I am also glad to say I have done a very good amount of trade since I arrived here and have no doubt that I shall be able to hold my own against all my opponents in business".

Sadly, William Oates died in New Calabar a month after the letter was written, presumably yet another victim of the climate.

< Back


* * *
* * *

* *© 2024 Adam Matthew Digital Ltd. All Rights Reserved.