Black History Month: Nigeria and The Transatlantic Slave Trade
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
According to some authorities, the transatlantic slave trade started in Nigeria toward the end of the 15th century (Harvard Divinity School, 2020). It has been estimated that approximately 10 million or more Africans were brought to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries (Lewis, 2020). Those brought as slaves were caught during coastal raids by the slave traders. However, this method did not yield the number of slaves wanted. As a result, the slave traders resorted to making business arrangements with a few Nigerian groups such as the Aro (a subgroup of the Igbo people), the Oyo, and the Hausa (Harvard Divinity School, 2020).
There were five main European nations that participated in the slave trade: Portugal, Spain, Netherlands (Dutch), France, and the British Empire (Harvard Divinity School, 2020). It is said that the Dutch were the most prolific of the slave traders. The slave trade skyrocketed during the 17th century because of the sugar, tobacco, and later the cotton markets. A huge portion of the slaves was distributed throughout South, Central, North America, and the Caribbean. Various studies indicate that between 15% and 25% of all slaves never made it across the Atlantic Ocean (Lewis, 2020). In other words, 1,500,00 to 2,500,00 men, women, and children died during these voyages.
A substantial number of Americans can trace their roots to Nigeria and, in many cases, to the Yoruba people. This was due to the fact that a large number of slaves brought to the Americas were Igbo, Yoruba, or Hausa (Wikipedia, 2020). Of these three groups, the Yoruba made the greatest impact in South America, the Caribbean, and North America. Slave traders often mixed the different ethnic groups so that they could not communicate efficiently among themselves, and they would split up families as well as individuals from the same village—a strategy used to prevent uprisings. Of all the slave traders, the Spanish tended to keep the slave groups intact, including family groups. This allowed the Yoruba slaves to keep a large degree of their culture, including their religion and language.
The Yoruba religion not only survived but flourished throughout South America, the Caribbean, and North America (mostly Louisiana). There was one factor that allowed this to happen, and that was the fact that the Yoruba religion had a tremendous amount of parallelism with the Catholic religion. So, while the Spanish slave masters demanded that they convert to Catholicism, the Yoruba were able to fool them by setting up altars with the cross and statues of various Catholic saints whose stories echoed those of the Yoruba pantheon.
The Yoruba religion seems to be more of a henotheistic belief system in which the followers recognize one supreme being or creator while accepting other lesser deities that are often seen as intermediaries between that supreme being and the people. The Yoruba religion recognizes Olorun or Oloddumare as the creator of all things. They also make abeyances to various Orishas the intermediaries between human beings and the creator. The Orishas are also intricately connected to the elemental forces of nature, and this parallels many ancient beliefs practiced in Europe. In fact, the stories told regarding many of the Orishas paralleled those of the Catholic saints.
The Yoruba of Nigeria, as well as many other African ethnic groups, have enriched our culture through music, food, and dance. Much of the music that we enjoy today came about because of African influence.
This is but a small sampling of the incredibly significant contributions made by the slaves and their descendants that were brought to the new world, and a substantial part of the diversity that has made the Americas a unique and culturally rich region of the world.
Harvard Divinity School. (2020). The Transatlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge: Harvard University. Retrieved February 24, 2020, from Harvard Divinity School: https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/transatlantic-slave-trade-nigeria
Lewis, T. (2020, January 3). Transatlantic slave trade. Retrieved February 24, 2020, from Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/transatlantic-slave-trade
Wikipedia. (2020, February 8). Nigerian Americans. Retrieved February 24, 2020, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigerian_Americans
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