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As his biographer, Stanley B. Alpern, recounts, the chances of a European surviving so long on the disease-ridden West African coast during the 18th century were infinitesimal. The principal causes of death among the white population were two mosquito-borne diseases, malaria and yellow fever. Dysentery, known as "the flux", was another major killer of Europeans.

In fact, the death rate among the white slave traders was far higher than among the terrified blacks they shipped chained and cramped across the ocean to the New World. The latest statistics put the death rate for the infamous Middle Passage trans-Atlantic crossing at 14.5 per cent.

Abson arrived at England’s William’s Fort at the major slaving port of Ouidah on the Slave Coast in the kingdom of Dahomey as a trader in 1767. The Slave Coast was the ocean-side fringe of what are nowadays southeastern-most Ghana, Togo, Benin and southwestern-most Nigeria. All the English forts there were run by the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa.

Apart from his against-the-odds survival, Abson was notable for "going native", for having four children with an African woman, for mastering the local language and for eating local foods generally shunned by the Europeans, such as yams and fermented cornmeal dough.

Abson also rarely expressed antagonism towards blacks beyond distaste for such practices as human sacrifice, display of human skulls and unbridled tyranny. Unusually for men choosing to spend their lives away from the safety of their home lands, there is no evidence that he ever returned to England for a break during the 36 years.

Here, with the phrase "there is no evidence", the author Alpern reveals the difficulties in researching Abson from across the centuries. For instance, as head of the fort, Abson had to keep an annual Day Book, and these have only survived from 1791, 1794, 1796, 1799, 1800, 1801 and 1802. Alpern has had to revert sometimes to covering phrases such as "surviving documents", "this suggests", "almost certainly", "which seems dubious" and so on.

Educated guesses had to be made when facts were missing or imprecise. Abson was "about" 32 when he landed at Ouidah, "about" 35 when he took over the fort and "about" 68 when he died and was buried there, in 1803, having spent more than half his life in the Slave Coast emporium.

Many sources of information do exist, though, as evidenced by the 28 pages of Notes and seven pages of Bibliography shown at the end of the book. Many other writers have looked at the peiod, without any emphasis on Abson. Alpern was also assisted by two professional researchers, librarians and archivists, and his own time spent in the UK’s National Archives in Kew.

Nobody could accuse him of inexactitude, for instance he writes that Abson, despite his ambivalence about home leave, was always hungry for news from England and he badgered whoever he could to send him newspapers and magazines. Alpern regrets that he was unable to find any references to exactly which newspapers Abson devoured.

Little is known of Abson’s life before his arrival on the Slave Coast in 1767. Just three years later the English fort chief died a mere six weeks after reaching Oidah, and Abson took over in 1770 until his death. Despite his rather non-European affinity with the native population, for Abson the slave trade was a business like any other.

As his biographer notes: "But this erudite, diplomatic and seemingly good-natured man trafficked in slaves. Not only did he head a trading post that saw off scores of thousands to the New World, but his company allowed him to buy and sell human beings privately to augment his income, and to possess slaves. However, slave-trade facilitators and dealers like Abson – and slave catchers and merchants like the Dahomeans – were products of their time and ought not to be judged by the moral standards of the twenty-first century."

Statistics suggest that from 1670 to 1870, Ouidah shipped well over a million slaves, more than any other African embarkation point apart from Luanda, Angola.

Despite the difficulties in presenting a full narrative, the author has penned a fascinating account. For instance, in 1772 Abson was responsible for a unique achievement by a white in the two-and-a-half-century history of the Dahomean kingdom: negotiating a peace settlement between it and an African enemy. Of the dozens of European fort directors, none but Abson had ever been recruited by a Dahomean monarch for peacekeeping.

Abson had three sons with an African woman, the eldest of whom was partly schooled in England, and a daughter named Sally. When Abson died, royal servants kidnapped his childrem. Sally was put in the king’s harem and the brothers vanished. That particular regent, Adandozan, became so bloodthirsty, criminal and generally loathsome that the people of Dahomey wrote him out of their history. Alpern lists some of his atrocities.

One of the nine illustrations in the book is a drawing of Sally that is the only known portrait of a member of Abson’s family. Other reproductions are a map published in 1789 showing the Slave Coast; a couple of plans of William’s Fort, one of them drawn in 1755; a snake temple; and four plates showing the king’s reception of European visitors, his leading of armed women to war (the first depiction of Dahomean amazons in literature), a parade of the multitude of royal wives and the annual royal customs honouring deceased monarchs.

Perhaps to beef up the book a bit, Alpern concludes with a chapter of mini-biographies of seven European men who were also stationed on the West African coast in the 18th century, and an account of African women known as Signares, who married Europeans in Senegal, took part in the local slave trade and prospered.

The legal end of the Middle Passage was spurred by the French Revolution and sealed by the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, four years after Abson’s death, though violations continued for half a century.


Stanley P. Alpern served in the US Navy from 1944-46, graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1947 and completed a master’s degree at Columbia University. After six years as a New York Herald Tribune copy editor and 22 years with the US Information Agency, including five in Africa, he retired to France in 1977 to write about precolonial West Africa. He also wrote "Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey."


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