Thomas Bowrey and the East African Slave Trade

Possibly the hardest aspects of Thomas Bowrey’s life for me to write about was his involvement in the East African slave trade. Except for the recent condemnation of Elihu Yule, much less is known about slaves from this coast of Africa than that of the west. Yet, Bowrey personally transported slaves, the crew of his Prosperous were waiting for slaves to be supplied when they were attacked by pirates  and, later in life, he proposed schemes to profit from them. In my book, I address the question of whether an historical individual can be judged by the values of today.

For many years, all East India Company ships were required to carry a number of slaves to India where they were used to carry out those labouring tasks Europeans were unable to do in the heat. In its early days, the Company would not have been able to function without them. Most of these slaves came from the East African coast and Madagascar where they were less expensive. The established triangular trade between the Gold Coast, the Americas and England ensured prices were higher there.

Despite the Company logic, it was not only adult men capable of heavy labour taken to India as slaves. There was an incident on the Berkeley Castle reported in my book that demonstrates that females were also enslaved.

Knowing this, I questioned what happened to these people and discovered that it is estimated that there are at least 20,000 people of African-ethnic origin living in India and Pakistan today, most of the descendants of slaves. They are known as Siddis and, in addition to ex-Company slaves, their ancestors may have been traders and merchants or enslaved by the Arabs and Portuguese before the arrival of the English.


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