Follow us as we explore Bimbia: the slave trade village in oblivion, yet full of staggering memories of a time that changed the history of the world.Paul Njie and Njodzeka Danhatu
Towering above the limits of economic and social progress, the nations of the West are glorified for their state-of-the-art architecture, science, technology, and well, democracies. They are not only known for these wonderful contributions to modern civilization, unfortunately. 400 years ago, a ship, full of the wretched of Africa’s soil, landed the shores of the United States. Broken from fatigue, sagging under the weight of the chains of their captivity, and shaken by the frantic fear of the fate that lay ahead of them, these men and women, once free, would become the slaves whose labor built the America of today.
It is estimated that about 25 million Africans were reportedly sold into slavery and shipped to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. Over the years, the new nations that have emerged on the west coast of Africa, notably Ghana and her adjoining neighors, have witnessed a celebrated surge in the number of African American returnees who hope to find their roots through several doors of no return. Yet, there remains a good number of such doors that sent out their sons and daughters on the perilous journey into slavery, which have not been so well advertised as to attract the return of those who passed through them, centuries ago.
Earlier in September, EboniGram went to one of such gateways through which a great number of slaves left the shores of Africa to the Americas. The Bimbia Slave Trade Village is a historic slave market in Limbe III subdivision, South West Region of Cameroon, which served as a depot for several slave vessels that plied the Gulf of Guinea. The mission was to investigate the nations where slaves were taken from and traded around this region. With the political flux that we have to deal with in today’s Africa, it is important that we clarify a particular usage. The term, nations in the context of this piece refers not necessarily to countries, but to groups of people who share a common culture, language and heritage.
The Bimbia Slave Trade Village
This slave trade site, which is one of the largest in Central Africa, hosted close to 1,000, at a time, slaves from within and out of the region today known as Cameroon. It was the main center where slaves from that part of Africa were held in keeping before being ferried away into the land of no return. The site was created in the mid-15th century, as an avenue to buy, camp and ship human beings abroad to work as slaves for white plantation owners in North and South America, as well as in the Caribbean and Europe.
Today, the slave trade village of Bimbia rests on a piece of land about 1 kilometer away from the Atlantic Ocean. Considered a historical monument, the village yet suffers the enclosure of a lengthy fence, laden with symbolic murals that call the bitter experience of the ancient trade to mind.
Several concrete structures to host slaves from across the Bight of Biafra, right up to the Lake Chad region, were built on this land through the patronage of the European parties that fed from the trade. Cameroon history books mention, as chief protagonists of the inhuman trade, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, France, Germany, and the various coastal and near coastal royalties that ruled over the territories close to the Atlantic.
How Did Slaves Get to the Bimbia Slave Market?
The story of how slaves came to Bimbia is not so different from the ones you may have heard about slavery in other places. We can hardly imagine, for example, that people would freely hand themselves over to be enslaved, although it is not also refutable that such a practice may have existed among the Africans who practiced what may be called domestic slavery even before the arrival of Europeans. While such a practice, widespread as it was, is said to may have involved debtors handing themselves over in servitude to their lenders, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a forceful removal of people from their communities. Local rulers were lured by promises from European slave dealers, to trade their subjects for a token.
Some villagers including women and children were kidnapped from their farmlands or villages, chained and taken on foot to Bimbia.
They were beaten as they went along, until they arrived the main slave depot on the Atlantic coast.
When local rulers made the long journey with slaves to Bimbia, they were received in specially constructed houses, where they were entertained, and would negotiate the terms of exchange for the slaves. In exchange for slaves, European slave buyers coaxed local rulers and other middlemen with gifts such as guns, gunpowder, sugar, beer, whisky, mirrors, shoes, clothes, walking sticks, iron bars, bicycles (Iron horse), ointments, cotton, tobacco, jewelry, among other trinkets.
How were Slaves Treated While in Captivity?
A survey of the Bimbia slave structures gives you an idea of the physical and psychological pain that captured slaves endured prior to their shipment to the West. These people were forced to endure and experience the most dehumanizing treatment one could imagine. Hundreds crammed in small rooms with chains on their necks, wrists and feet. Separate buildings were constructed to host slaves and others for white dealers who lodged to wait for slave consignments from local rulers.
“The white people could not mingle themselves with the slaves,” our guide, Godlove Kawob, a worker with the Limbe III council told EboniGram.
The slaves who were chained could not fight back. They could not resist the brutality of white slave dealers who were armed with guns, whips and all forms of torture implements. Those who tried to resist the vile treatment were taken to a torture chamber several miles from the detention facility, where they were strictly chained on their hands, necks, stomachs and feet; they were left in chains until the arrival of the ships that had to take them away, said our guide.
Other slaves who proved untoward and recalcitrant towards the slave masters were taken far off across the Bimbia waters to an isolated area called “Nicole Island,” where they were further served with even more severe psychological and physical torture. This area being a rare and small island about 800 meters from the mainland, was one of the most vicious of the detention facilities.
The captured humans were fed under unhealthy conditions; they were tightly chained in groups, leaving just their heads free to scoop food off a cemented floor. While at the slave camp, they were subjected to forced labor for long hours. They were forced to produce palm oil at a local oil mill in the slave trade village — oil which was taken to Europe and the Americas by the trade companies that enabled the vicious barter in humans.
Before finally shipping slaves overseas, they were thoroughly inspected and measured on a scale like commodities, to determine whether they were fit for manual labor abroad, or for whatever other purposes they were being taken.
The area where the weight measurement was done was called “Open Air Market of the Enslaved: Weighing and Inspection Section.” Slaves who were deemed unfit were returned to detention centers and kept to mature before being shipped off to western hemisphere. However, some of the resistant slaves who were taken to “Nicole Island” were put aboard the ship directly from there, given that it is centered in the Bimbia waters.
“The Door of No Return”
Arguably the most symbolic of all places at the Bimbia Slave Trade Village, the aptly named “Door of No Return” is the main exit point from where slaves were ferried out of the village. Small boats were sent to this point to carry slaves and transport them to a far-off distance where the main ship was moored, awaiting several consignments of slaves to make the journey to Europe and the Americas.
The exit point has a special significance to the collective memory of Cameroonians. It symbolizes the point at which a great number of the country’s population was sacrificed to the ordeal of a journey that would not only take away their names and the memory of their homeland, but also one that would seek to take away their very humanity. That door signaled the point where families lost loved ones without a clue about where they were being taken to, or how and when they would see their loved ones again. Parents were separated from their children; husbands from their wives, and friends from their companions. Once slaves passed through the symbolic door, little or nothing was ever heard of them again. Over four centuries after, some descendants of these slaves are yet to know their exact roots, ancestry, and home. From this door, humans who had been traded for basic commodities were shipped to work in plantations, industries and homes under the most horrific and unthinkable conditions, the same that would build the edifices of modern America.
During the recent commemorations marking 400 years since the first slaves arrived America, Terry E. Brown, 50, who has traced his ancestry to Cameroon and enslaved people in Virginia and North Carolina said in an interview with The Guardian: “Once I learned that I was from there, it changed something in me.”
“I have a fire in me to just learn about why and who I am. There’s something deep down and spiritual about it and I want to connect to it. I’m American, and I believe in this structure that we have, but I’m emotionally and spiritually tied to Africa now that I know where I came from,” he averred.
Some unfortunate slaves who died en route to their host countries owing to pains and injuries sustained in the packed and crammed ships, or at the slave trade village, were jettisoned overboard the ship.
Nations from Where Slaves Were Whisked
According to figures at the Slave trade center in Bimbia, at least 987 people were transported from several nations within and out of Cameroon. These estimated figures were documented by Sierra Leone Liberated Africans Registers, and referenced by Dr G. Ugo Nwokedji.
This nation is comprised of indigenous people who mainly hail from the Fako division — the area where the slave center was built. At least 66 Bakweri natives were held captive as slaves. They were captured from several villages in Fako, including the host village Bimbia. Owing to the closeness of Bakweri villages to Bimbia, it was relatively easier to get slaves from these areas.
Locals who had their roots from Cameroon’s Francophone Douala, were transported to the Bimbia slave site. Douala is a neighboring nation to Bimbia, and both peoples share similar cultures. About 107 people were taken as slaves from Douala as well as the host nation Bimbia.
About 205 people were whisked away from the Tikari clan to Bimbia and sold like goods. This nation originates from Cameroon’s Anglophone North West region, about 374.7km away from Bimbia. Local chiefs and trade engagers travelled the long distance on foot with slaves.
An estimated 93 people from this clan in the Manyu division of the South West region were sold as slaves to foreign dealers. They were camped at the Bimbia slave center, until they were taken away to serve their foreign masters.
Some 91 people from this nation are believed to have been bought and transported through the Bimbia trade area.
It is believed that 41 captives from this clan were traded as slaves. They all passed through the infamous Bimbia slave trade area before being shipped abroad.
7) Other Nations
Other nations in and out of Cameroon equally had a good number of slaves at the site: Beti, 24; Bafo, 25; Widikum, 30; Wum, 31; Balundo, 36; Ngemba, 47; Minor Nations, 69; Ambiguous nations, 43; Nations from out of the region, 21; Unidentifiable nations, 58.
Vessels on the Atlantic Ocean
According to research findings carried out by Arizona State University’s Dr Lisa Aubrey and her students’ research team, at least 20 ships went to Bimbia and ferried slaves to the West between 1783 and 1844.
Their research reveals that out of the 20, 9 of the ships carried British national flags. Between 1783, and 1788, the following British ships were actively involved in the transatlantic slave business: ANT, 1783; ANT, 1785; MARIA, 1786; SEARLE, 1786; RUBY, 1787; COMET, 1787; YOUNG HERO, 1788; BEATRICE, 1789; MARIA, 1788.
Some of the vessels belonged to other nationals also involved in the business: EXPERIMENT, 1807, Netherlands; GALEO, 1811, Portugal; CONCEICAO de MARIA SANTISSIMA, 1813, Portugal; CONCEICAO de MARIA SANTISSIMA, 1814, Portugal; NINFA (a) MANTANZERA, 1835, Spain; ANTONINA, 1836, Unknown; COBRA da AFRICA, 1837,Portugal; VIBORA de CABO VERGE,1837 Spain; GABRIEL (a) DOIS AMIGOS 1838, Portugal; CAROLITA, 1842, Unknown, CAROLITOS, 1844, Unknown.
The slaves in these ships were disembarked in Grenada, St. Vincent, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Martinique, Caribbean, Brazil, Cuba, Sierra Leone, and other countries which are yet to be determined.
Present State of the Village
The site is almost a shadow of itself now. The structures when compared to other slave trade villages in Africa, might not stand a chance at recognition. Inside the village, some structures are only being recognized based on the visible foundation. The slave trade village which serves as a national monument is now very bushy, unkempt and surrounded by bamboo trees.
Our guide told EboniGram that most of this slave site was destroyed during the abolition of the “inhumane” business, as it was bombarded and demolished by the anti-slavery war ships to dissuade further capture and camping of slaves there. In a very calculated location, a British cannon was strategically placed to bomb ships that were still smuggling the slaves despite its abolition — a residue of this cannon is still visible close to the waters.
The municipalities of Tiko and Limbe III have through the Cameroonian government, constructed fences on the site. Some electric lamps have been planted in the village, with taps built to make movement easy for visitors who go there.
In order to understand how some things functioned around the slave village, the government has installed signposts and documented information to help those who visit the village.
Government Wants Global Recognition for Bimbia
For some years now, the government of Cameroon has been struggling to make this village recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is seemingly unknown to the rest of the world, despite its key role in the development of slave trade in West Africa. It is being used as a touristic and cultural site by the Limbe III municipality to raise funds.
Every year, the Limbe Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC, is being partly celebrated in this village. This is to remember and pay homage to their ancestors who were being violently and inhumanely whisked abroad for slavery. There is always a re-enactment of how the slaves were being chained and taken to the site.
Government’s efforts for the site’s recognition by UNESCO, has yielded no fruits as at yet. The village is somehow neglected and out of mainland. The road leading to this cultural or slave trade village remains untarred and miry, rendering movement difficult especially in the rainy season.