Unlike other companies of the time, the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie did not purchase enslaved people on contract. There were therefore no previous arrangements with traders along the coast concerning the purchase of a certain number of persons at a set price. Instead, the MCC traded on the go, trying to procure human beings as cheaply as possible. Buying in expensive places like Elmina on the Gold Coast was avoided as much as possible.
The captain of The Unity had received three sets of commands on departure from Middelburg consisting of the instructions, the particular instructions and the further particular instructions. These contained explicit information on trade and destinations along the coast of West Africa, all of which were adhered to carefully by captain Jan Menkenveld.
The Coasts of Guinea
Guinea or Guinea denoted the coasts of present-day Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Ghana in West Africa. The different coastal regions were known as Upper Coast, Grain Coast or Pepper Coast, Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, Slave Coast. This part of Africa borders the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Upper Coast included today’s Sierra Leone and Liberia. The Grain Coast was part of the Upper Coast, roughly equivalent to Liberia. Another name for Grain Coast is Pepper Coast. Grain refers to the grains of the pepper plant “Afromomum melegueta”. The Unity visited the coast here between Robertsport (Caap Monte) and Harper (Caap Palmas) in Liberia.
The Ivory Coast came after the Grain coast and started east of Harper in Liberia and continued to around Beyin (Cape Appolonia) or Cape Three Points in Ghana. The Ivory Coast refers to the trade in teeth of elephants and other wildlife.
According to the instructions of the directors, the Unity had to descend this coast to Grand-Lahou (Cape Lahoe) in what is now the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire.
The Gold Coast was bordered on the west by the Ivory Coast and on the east by the Slave Coast. The Dutch West India Company (WIC) owned several fortresses on this coast, the best known of which was perhaps the fort or castle of Elmina (now Ghana). The Unity was ordered to sail to Cape Three Points (past Axim, also in Ghana) and as much further as needed for the voyage.
Price – Gender – Age
The demand for barter goods and the supply of enslaved Africans varied by area. In general, the Upper Coast (the area similar to Liberia in the case of the Unity) was cheaper than the Gold Coast (Ghana). Furthermore, men were more expensive than women and boys more expensive than girls. The age limit between an adult and a boy or girl was approximately around the age of 17, while that between small children, who remained on board with the mother, and between a boy or girl was around the age of 13.
Trade with the Boat
The Unity ship was equipped with two vessels, a boat and a sloop. The boat had a mast with two sails and even had a boiling kettle. Part of the crew was able to operate independently with the boat for several days. So sometimes trade was conducted simultaneously from both. That happened, for example, in January 1762:
Led by third mate Adriaan de Puijt, the boat first left the ship on January 9, and sailed down the coast towards Settra Kru, while the ship remained at Cess River. A week later, on the 17th of January, The Unity also reached Settra Kru. That evening, at 20:00, De Puijt returned to the ship with his men, bringing 3 enslaved persons: a women, a boy, and a girl. The Unity itself had already purchased 5 persons that morning, including one women with a little child. A few days later, the boat was sent out again.
Gold and Ivory
Ivory and gold were also traded, though neither were as important as the enslaved Africans. Ivory was never mentioned in the instructions of the directors of the MCC to the captain of The Unity. The directions concerning gold only mention the method of transportation – and the wording shows that gold purchase should not be a priority:
“If it happens that on your voyage you will trade for gold, you will take care on the homeward voyage that it will be put in a decent chest or keg. A small buoy should be attached to this, so that in case of an unexpected accident it can salvaged and fished out.”
Ivory could be bought in different shapes and sizes. The largest ivory objects were whole tusks taken from an adult elephant. In the logbook, these were called ‘tusks’. Pieces of large elephant tusks, small tusks, or teeth/tusks of other animals were referred to as scrivellors.
Rice and Water
Except for instruction concerning trade destinations, the directors of the MCC also gave some instructions regarding food supplies. The captain was ordered to purchase rice on reaching Africa, to serve as food for the crew and to enable their stay in Africa. Water was also stocked and regularly re-stocked on board. Both were brought from the coast to the ship using the boat, though sometimes the local inhabitants would row their rice and water to the ship by canoe to sell it to the crew.