Tools of Empire: Trade, slaves, and the British Forts of West Africa

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9 Scopus citations


The British forts and trade posts of sub-Saharan West Africa afforded Britain the ability to control access to resources-including slaves-and laid the foundation for empire. Between the mid-seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries Britain or British companies established or occupied more than fifty forts and outposts in West Africa stretching from the Senegambia to the Bight of Benin (Fig. 7.1). Their establishment, design, use, and ultimate disuse varied through time, indicating changes in both regional and global political alliances and economic needs. The principal function of the vast majority of these outposts was commercial. They served as bases for trade, providing places to store and gather trade goods, and to exclude other European competitors. The first forts were established to control access to gold, ivory, and raw materials, and trade in these items remained important. However, during the seventeenth century the need for labor on the plantations of the Americas led to an increasing trade in enslaved Africans, and the forts played a key role in this human traffic. With the abolition of the slave trade in the nineteenth century the commercial viability of the forts dramatically decreased and many fell into disuse. Often poorly built, vernacular in plan, and at times ill-suited to the tropics, the British forts and outposts of West Africa nonetheless collectively delineated an expanding sphere of economic influence that ultimately culminated with the imposition of colonial rule in the late nineteenth century. This chapter considers British forts in the wider Atlantic context and how their establishment, construction, and use reflect the varied cultural, political, and economic landscapes of which they were part.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBuilding the British Atlantic World
Subtitle of host publicationSpaces, Places, and Material Culture, 1600-1850
PublisherUniversity of North Carolina Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781469628066
ISBN (Print)9781469626826
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Engineering
  • General Arts and Humanities


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