ROBIN LAW. First half of Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port,’ 1727-1892. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004. The first half covers the eighteenth century, 1-154.

SILKE STRICKRODT. “In Search of a Moral Community: Little Popo and the Atlantic Trade in the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, New Series, No. 14 (2012): 105-130.


The readings for this week are the third in a series of four case studies about specific regions of West Africa in the eighteenth century. This third case study is on the “Slave Coast,” an area on the Gulf of Guinea that stretched from the River Volta in the west to the Lagos Channel in the east. This area comprised small portions of western Ghana and eastern Nigeria as well as all of modern-day Togo and Benin. The region is often known to historians as the Bight or Gulf of Benin, though sometimes the Slave Coast is described as the Bight’s western half. During the eighteenth century, the Slave Coast hosted a variety of European traders at its many coastal ports, like Jakin or Badagry in the east and Keta in the west. Danish, Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese traders all conducted business here with private individuals and representatives of African kingdoms like Dahomey and Little Popo. The readings assigned for this week are both secondary sources. They discuss two different parts of the coast. One is the first half of Robin Law’s monograph Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port.’ This half surveys the eighteenth-century history of Ouidah, a city near the shore of present-day Benin.[1] The other is an article on African-European trade relations at the port of Little Popo, which is today the town of Aného in the nation of Togo.

Silke Strickrodt’s “In Search of a Moral Community”

In his article, “In Search of a Moral Community,” historian Silke Strickrodt examines trading relations between European and African merchants at the port of Little Popo, which is situated on the Western Slave Coast in what is now the nation of Togo. Strickrodt examines these relations during the reign of Ashampo, who ruled the Ge Kingdom of Little Popo between the years of 1737 and 1767. Strickrodt approaches her subject by using the concept of the “moral community,” which she basically defines as a mutual, cross-cultural system of values that serves to stabilize commerce. In the “moral community,” traders establish a shared system of values, generally around a common binding principle like ethnicity, religion, or political allegiance. This system of values gives traders confidence that their contracts will be honored or guaranteed by the opposing party. It also creates a situation where traders are comfortable taking risks, like extending credit or opening permanent centers (known as “lodges” on the Western Slave Coast).[2] Alternatively, a “moral community” can be established by the presence of a strong and reliable intermediary, such as a centralized state. As Strickrodt explains, this was the case with other areas of West Africa. A notable example is further to the east, where the Kingdoms of Dahomey, Oyo, and eventually Bonny operated.[3]

But Strickrodt argues that Little Popo is a peculiar trading center. She concludes that, even though “there was no effective ‘moral community’ between African and European traders at Little Popo in the period of Ashampo’s reign,” European merchants continued to do business there.[4] Her main research question is, then, how can historians explain the continuance of trade at Little Popo despite the absence of traditional mechanisms for ensuring trust among trading partners? As a king, Ashampo neither guaranteed the sanctity of contract nor cultivated an environment of trust; rather, he engaged in a short-term strategy of ripping-off European traders, playing them off one another, and otherwise deceiving them. Meanwhile, the particular geographic makeup of the Western Slave Coast meant that European traders needed to come on shore to do business. As a result, they were ever at the mercy of the African traders with whom they negotiated. They were periodically taken captive, robbed, killed, or swindled. Nonetheless, Strickrodt argues that European traders continued to do business at Little Popo because it presented a “high-risk – high-reward environment” in an era of heightened demand for slaves, increasing competition among European powers, and new demand for alternative sources of procuring slaves. Despite the myriad difficulties posed by Little Popo, Europeans could occasionally depend on Ashampo for a quick boatload of slaves.[5]

After presenting her answer as to why European merchants continued to conduct their business at Little Popo, Strickrodt moves on to the question of how those traders conducted their business. In the absence of a commercial environment where any one social system played a  dominant role, Europeans drew upon a wide range of strategies that they deployed unevenly and often ineffectively. Those strategies included manipulating prices, denying credit, taking pawns, cultivating personal relationships with Ashampo through gift giving, or accepting Ashampo’s “sons” as “hostages” and taking them to England for a Christian education.[6] What is most notable about Strickrodt’s approach here is how she focuses not only on how European traders employed these tactics, but also how they were misinterpreted and how Ashampo responded with tactics of his own. When Ashampo’s son, Prince Aqua, was not returned to Little Popo after the agreed upon time, Ashampo kidnapped an English trader and held him ransom. This was a local custom called panyarring, in which one individual is seized as collateral to hold an entire trading community responsible for a member’s outstanding debt.[7] In another instance, Ashampo uses the palaver, which was a conference to settle a dispute between traders. At other times, negotiations are misinterpreted. The main example of this is when Europeans extend a gift to gain social capital but Ashampo interprets these presents as part of a compulsory tax payment or a required fee for trading rights.[8]

At the end of the article, Strickrodt suggests that European and African traders’ inability to establish a “moral community” at Little Popo may have contributed to its relatively marginal status as a port for exporting slaves to the Americas.[9] Meanwhile, the fact that European powers continued to see commercial prospects in Little Popo, despite the series of misfortunes they faced there during these years, stands as a true testament to their desperation. As the Transatlantic Slave Trade climbed to unprecedented heights during the middle of the eighteenth-century, the European powers grew increasingly desperate to find new markets for slaves and individual traders, such as those who were either disgraced or ousted from their previous footholds, were looking to find new inroads into these markets as well.[10] Little Popo presented them with an opportunity, provided they were willing to take the risk of working in an area defined by unpredictability and insecurity.

Robin Law’s Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port’

Robin Law’s monograph is a social history of the port city of Ouidah, which is now a part of the Department of Atlantique in the modern Republic of Benin. The book covers Ouidah during the precolonial period, from when it was part of the Kingdom of Heuda before 1727 to its takeover by the French in 1892.[11] For my purposes, I am interested in the first half of the book, which covers Ouidah during the long eighteenth century.[12] This period coincides with Ouidah’s conquest by the Kingdom of Dahomey and its emergence as “the principal commercial center in the region,” notably the largest city on the Slave Coast for exporting people in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.[13] As Law points out, Ouidah was smaller in size during this period only to the hinterland city and Dahomean capital of Abomey.[14] It accounted for 51% of slaves shipped from the Slave Coast, roughly 11% of all slaves shipped from West Africa to the Americas between the 1670s, when it emerged as a primary slaving port, and the 1860s, when the Transatlantic Slave Trade officially came to an end.[15] In this book, Law builds upon both his previous research on the Slave Coast and comparative research by other historians of Africa and the Atlantic World in order to explore the “development and functioning of Ouidah as an urban community” in precolonial West Africa.[16]

Law’s primary interest here is in recreating the social world of Ouidah from the bottom up. However, the nature of his sources means that most of his eighteenth-century material comes from European records. These were produced as a result of English, French, and Portuguese-run factories in the town.[17] The few sources Law has from an African’s perspective, including local histories and oral traditions, come from the upper class of Ouidah’s society and focus on the same few major events. These include Ouidah’s establishment by the Hueda Kings, the coming of European traders to Ouidah, and Ouidah’s conquest by Dahomey in 1727.[18] In addition, many of these sources were made by Dahomean provincial administrators or the descendants of prominent merchant families who ran the slave trade. Crucially, there are no firsthand accounts of slavery dating from the eighteenth century and written by any of the one million enslaved people shipped from the city.[19] While acknowledging this necessary imbalance of perspectives and taking time to address potential criticisms, Law makes an argument for African agency. He concludes that Ouidah served the role of an African “middleman” community during the time of the slave trade.[20] He argues that, although the trade was driven by European demand, it was controlled by African intermediaries. Law’s book is largely the story of these African intermediaries and the community they created.[21]

In his first chapter, “Ouidah before the Dahomean Conquest,” Law summarizes the history of Ouidah during the era of the Heuda Kingdom. The city had origins in Hueda and Hula traditions, and the indigenous quarter of the town, called Tové, predated contact with Europeans. It is unclear when the Portuguese first began trading with Ouidah—probably sometime during the late sixteenth century—but the French were the first power to establish a factory there in 1671. They were followed by the English in 1681 and the Portuguese in 1721. During these decades, Ouidah exceeded Offra in the east as the principal slaving outlet for the inland Allada Kingdom. The early-eighteenth century represented the height of Ouidah’s slave exports, with 15,000 peoples sent into the Atlantic trade each year. The Hueda Kings conducted their business with Europeans as their capital in Savi, and Ouidah existed as more of an “assemblage of discrete settlements” than a “coherent community.”[22] Law takes time in this chapter to discuss the social history of this assemblage, talking about the various residents of Ouidah, the commercial enterprises that emerged there, and the origins of such institutions as the Hunan priesthood and the Yovogan, or “Captain of the White Men.”

In his second chapter, “The Dahomean Conquest of Ouidah,” Law covers the military and political contests that emerged in the five decades following Dahomey’s invasion of Ouidah under King Agaja in 1727. The exiled Hueda people continued to resist Dahomey’s rule over their former home through alliances with various other polities, like Oyo, Little Popo and the European factors. Three significant dates in this narrative are 1743, 1763, and 1775. The first represents the last time that the Hueda kingdom occupied Ouidah and the last time Europeans resisted Dahomean authority. This occurred when Adaja’s successor, Tegbesu, reconquered and burnt the town.[23] The second date represents Hueda’s last try at repossessing Ouidah. And the third date represents the ultimate subjugation of Hueda peoples to Dahomean authority.[24] This occurred when Tegbesu’s successor, Kpengla, broke the resistance of the Hueda King Agbamu. While Little Popo continued to resist Dahomey until 1795, the Kingdom was generally unchallenged from 1775 to 1892.[25] In this chapter, Law also describes the creation of Dahomey’s various provincial posts in Ouidah, and the way the conquest is remembered in local, oral traditions. He concludes that, while Ouidah became predominately Fon-Dahomean in its demographic makeup, Ouidah residents began to distinguish themselves from Dahomey by identifying with the dispossessed Hueda Kingdom.[26]

In his third chapter, “Dahomian Ouidah,” Law paints a sociological portrait of Ouidah during the precolonial period. He draws on sources that span over one-hundred years, regularly citing from writers of the 1780s, such as Robert Norris, and writers of the 1850s and 60s, like F.E. Forbes and Richard Burton, in the same paragraph. The organization here is thematic, with separate sections devoted to “The town and its inhabitants,” “The character of urban life,” “Religious life,” “Administration,” “The emergence of a merchant sector,” and “Ouidah within Dahomey.” Overall, Law concludes that Ouidah was both “predominantly a community of slaves” and “predominantly female,” and also that it was largely defined by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious heterogeneity.[27] An example of the town’s pluralism is demonstrated by the local worship of over a hundred different vodun.[28] Broadly speaking, Law characterizes Ouidah as a relatively secure and cosmopolitan commercial and military outpost of the Dahomean Kingdom. It was home to a robust provincial bureaucracy and it cultivated a growing merchant community. Both of these classes maintained a tense relationship with the Dahomean capital at Abomey in the eighteenth-century. Nonetheless, as a whole Ouidah continued to benefit from Atlantic trade, even though their slave exports never reached the numbers that had been shipped under the previous Hueda Kings.[29]

In his fourth chapter, “The Operation of the Atlantic Slave Trade,” Law takes a closer look at aspects of the relationship between Dahomean Ouidah and the Atlantic Slave Trade. The chapter goes up through the abolition of that trade in 1815, the year the Portuguese Crown ended the slave trade north of the equator. The sections under review here are “The conduct of the European trade,” “The experience of the victims,” “The profits of the slave trade,” “The Atlantic trade and the domestic economy,” and “Local understandings of the slave trade.” To the extent this chapter has a central thesis, it is that “Ouidah lived by the slave trade” and that Ouidah’s “principal function was trade with Europeans.”[30] Law summarizes this trade, explaining that Ouidah operated as a neutral port with fixed prices. Slaves were mostly non-Dahomeans from the interior, typically bought or captured in war. They could only be sold by Dahomean intermediaries, although the King held no royal monopoly. They were sold out of merchants’ houses rather than at auction. They were carefully inspected and prepared before sale, and those who were not sold may have been killed. After sale, enslaved people were ferried across the lagoon and then marched to the shore in small groups as they became available, rather than as a complete load. If they survived the dangerous ordeal of crossing the surf in canoes, they were loaded onto ships, terrified and completely naked.

In this fourth chapter, Law makes the case that the Transatlantic Slave Trade affected Ouidah’s domestic economy to a greater degree than scholars have previously recognized.[31] In drawing upon the contemporary documentary record, he proclaims that “The lifestyle of Ouidah was clearly marked by widespread consumption of imported luxuries.”[32] He also argues that perhaps the most persuasive piece of evidence in regards to the Slave Trade’s impact is the fact that it was an Atlantic import—cowrie shells harvested from the Indian Ocean—which became Ouidah’s base currency. Labor as well as foreign and domestic products were all valued in cowrie shells. Meanwhile, even though Ouidah remained the largest regional slave-port throughout the eighteenth century, it faced increasing competition from Oyo. Traders at Oyo preferred to sell their slaves to ports in the east, such as Ekpe, Porto-Novo or Badagry, to avoid Dahomean intermediaries. Finally, Law demonstrates the impact on the Slave Trade in Ouidah through Dahomean royal policies. The King prohibited both the act of panyarring and fighting among the European factors. Likewise, he forbade the sale of all Dahomean citizens. Times in which this prohibition was disregarded should be “considered aberrant and illegitimate, in effect an index of social breakdown.”[33]

One of the most interesting parts of Law’s analysis is his attempts to sort out the meanings of the slave trade to the peoples involved in the eighteenth century. This often requires scrutinizing the memory of the slave trade in modern Benin. Since the early 1990s, the government has pursued a project of commemoration that has encouraged the creation of new slave-trade sites for the purpose of tourism. Law devotes space throughout his book to evaluating these traditions and discerning which are supported by the historical record. For example, a compelling tradition about a “Tree of Forgetting” and a “Tree of Return” is probably more of “an expression of the need and desire of the modern inhabitants of Ouidah to come to terms with the town’s slave-trading past” than any indicator of what those who facilitated the trade thought about it.[34] Nonetheless, Law gets creative in his attempts to understand what the slave trade meant to both its victims and its benefactors. He interprets contemporary references to witchcraft, cannibalism, and transmigration as evidence for how victims perceived of their fate, and he reads the praise-names of merchant families as evidence for their lack of moral scruples. Names like “Weeping breaks out when the slaves see you visit the prison” suggest the kind of pain local traders routinely brought to their captives.[35]

Concluding Thoughts on Law’s Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port’

What are some of the general takeaways from Law’s discussion of Ouidah in the eighteenth century?  First, I would be remiss in this review if I did not tie Law’s work to Strickrodt’s discussion of the “moral community.” In general, Law agrees with Strickrodt that a strong and centralized state is good for establishing and securing commercial relations. He observes that  the “absence of private-order mechanisms [like panyarring and pawning] for the recovery of debts in Ouidah evidently reflected both the effectiveness of the Dahomean state, which was strong enough to guarantee the policing of credit, and its concern to monopolize coercive power.”[36] And yet, while these strong and centralized states are good for building trust among communities of European and African merchants, we must remember that they are not just integral in building the slave trade. They are also products of the Transatlantic Slave Trade itself. As Boubacar Barry argues in Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, “Internally, the Atlantic trading system everywhere reinforced arbitrary rule and the centralization of monarchical power.”[37] Putting these conclusions together helps us to see the mutually reinforcing connection that existed between Atlantic merchant communities at places like Ouidah and powerful inland kingdoms at places like Abomey. After all, monarchical states protected and preserved “moral communities” because they were profitable.

Overall, Law devotes attention to some interesting themes throughout his text. One of these is his recurring emphasis on the various continuities and disruptions between Ouidah’s administration during the Hueda and the Dahomean periods. It is interesting to hear about, for example, how the Dahomean rulers changed the way that slaves were sold and how they gradually began accepting promissory notes after initially distrusting them. Nonetheless, Law’s text lacks something vital. As a cohesive work, it is missing both the passion of Barry’s book on Senegambia and the purpose of Stahl’s book on Banda. It does not seem to have a consistent thesis, and it seems more descriptive than argumentative. Law often presents his content in an encyclopedic style. His section headings serve to quarantine subjects that are not necessarily distinct. Part of my impression is a product of the fact that Ouidah belongs to a genre; it is a social and a local history. In recreating the social world of Ouidah, Law often devotes space to discussing things that would have an interest only to  a few readers. His references to the city’s modern geography as well as his mentions of prominent merchant families are an example. Overall, he might have made the book more engaging if he had used his research on Ouidah to wade more deeply into the central debates of African History, or if he had interpreted his research with more of a comparative focus. He also may have benefited from doing what Stahl did in Making History in Banda, namely, employing her “sociological imagination” as a tool for fleshing out some of the experiences lost to the historical record.[38]

As always, it is best to end on a positive note. Historians can and should thank Robin Law for producing such a detailed study of a specific locale in Atlantic Africa. Ouidah is a quintessential example of what the historian David Armitage described in 2002 as a cis-Atlantic History—a study that sets a particular place within in its general Atlantic context.[39] While the context here is more African and Atlantic than only Atlantic, readers will get an intimate story of how an individual community was forged in the crucible of Atlantic trade. In the process, they will marvel at how a town with a population of only 8,000 people managed to ship one million slaves.[40]


[1] As Law makes clear in the first chapter of his book, Ouidah is not technically a ‘port’ because it is located 4km inland. Nonetheless, I will use the word the port in this review essay. Robin Law, Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port,’ 1727-1892 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004), 18.

[2] Strickrodt gives the example of a “moral community” in the Calabar region of the Bight of Biafra, where the local African institution of pawning was adapted to create commercial trust between European and African traders. Silke Strickrodt, “In Search of a Moral Community: Little Popo and the Atlantic Trade in the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, New Series, No. 14 (2012): 126.

[3] Strickrodt defines the “moral community” at the beginning of the article, 105-109.

[4] Ibid. 126.

[5] Ibid. 116.

[6] Ibid. 118-124.

[7] Ibid. 124.

[8] Ibid. 124.

[9] Ibid. 126.

[10] On pages 117-118, Strickrodt describes the kind of European traders that were sent to Little Popo during this period. They were often marginal figures, such as former RAC employees who were ousted from Gold Coast factories when the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa took over as the primary chartered company of the British slave trade.

[11] Law, Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port,’ 1.

[12] Ibid. This portion of the book includes the first four chapters, from pages 18 to 154.

[13] Ibid. 1.

[14] Ibid. 1.

[15] Ibid. 2.

[16] Ibid. 5. Here Law provides an excellent list of analogous studies of West African port cities in the precolonial period. About his own work, Law writes that he undertook several research trips to Ouidah between 1992 and 2001 (9).

[17] Ibid. 7. Understandably, Law relies on a much wider range of source materials for the nineteenth century.

[18] Ibid. 9.

[19] Ibid. 15. There are only two such accounts dating from the nineteenth century. They are by Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua and Cudjo Lewis, written in 1845 and 1860 respectively (138).

[20] Ibid. 12.

[21] The following two quotes captures Law’s perspective on this fundamental and controversial question: “In Ouidah, there was never any question that the European establishments were in the final analysis subject to local control, rather than representing independent centers of European power,” (36). “This does not, however, demonstrate the irrelevance of the Atlantic slave trade to questions of military power, since the militarization of Dahomey was itself a consequence of the impact of that trade…” (49). In these two quotes, we see how Law balances African agency in the Atlantic slave trade with an understanding that the trade itself was set in motion by European demand throughout the eighteenth century.

[22] Ibid. 42.

[23] Ibid. 61.

[24] Ibid. 68.

[25] Ibid. 66.

[26] Ibid. 68.

[27] Ibid. 73-77.

[28] Ibid. 89.

[29] Ibid. 96.

[30] Ibid. 146, 123. Also, the slave trade with Europeans “remained the mainstay of Ouidah’s business throughout the eighteenth century,” (125).

[31] Ibid. 147. Law is arguing particularly against Karl Polanyi, Dahomey and the Slave Trade: An Analysis of an Archaic Economy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966).

[32] Ibid. 148.

[33] Ibid. 149.

[34] Ibid. 154.

[35] Ibid. 149.

[36] Ibid. 134.

[37] Boubacar Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 58.

[38] Ann Brower Stahl, Making History in Banda, 180.

[39] David Armitage, “Three Concepts of Atlantic History,” in The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 11-27.

[40] Law, Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port,’ 73. This 8,000 number refers to the eighteenth century.