The Slave Connection (Ivory part 5)
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 16, 2012
It’s possible George Read had gone into the ivory business in the first place because he believed it to be free of messy moral complications. He probably knew of his fellow abolitionist Moses Brown, just up the Boston Post Road in Providence, Rhode Island. Brown had denounced his own early involvement in slaving voyages, as a young man in his family’s mercantile firm. But he also made it clear that he regarded ivory as a moral alternative for the Africa trade.
The map of Africa then was a blank, and few Westerners knew where the ivory came from or how it reached the African coast. That began to change only after 1830, when a Salem, Massachusetts, merchant named John Bertram set up a trading station in Zanzibar, which was to supply the bulk of the world’s ivory for the remainder of the century. In 1844, a Bertram employee there noted, without comment: “It is the custom to buy a tooth of ivory and a slave with it to carry it to the sea shore. Then the ivory and slaves are carried to Zanzibar and sold.” The slaves, he added, were “discharged in the same manner as a load of sheep would be, the dead ones thrown overboard to drift down with the tide…the natives come with a pole and push them from the beach.”
The trip from the mainland across to Zanzibar was only about 20 miles, but it came at the end of ivory caravans that had often traveled hundreds of miles from the interior. Arab traders led these caravans deeper and deeper inland, bringing trade goods supplied by the Zanzibar merchants, notably gunpowder and the Massachusetts-made cotton cloth known everywhere as merikani. In 1848, one of the Connecticut River Valley’s own sons went to Zanzibar to trade cloth, gunpowder and kerosene for ivory. George A. Cheney, later employed at Comstock, Cheney in Ivoryton, proudly reported that he once purchased 60,000 pounds of ivory brought in by a single caravan.
Back home in Deep River, George Read was certainly aware of delays in getting the ivory down to the coast, because of the resulting fluctuations in supply and price. But perhaps mercifully, he died in 1859, just as Western explorers in Africa were beginning to reveal the horrific details of the trade. The standard procedure, they reported, was for the Arab trader to befriend tribal chiefs, use their help to empty an area of tusks, then slaughter their former allies, burn their villages, and chain up the survivors to carry tusks down to the coast. A French traveler wrote that caravans abandoned their dead and dying to the hyenas. An English missionary reported that slaves who could no longer carry their tusks were left close to the water so the crocodiles could take them.
In 1882, a missionary met up with the ruthless trader Tippoo Tib as he was leading a caravan down to Zanzibar. Pairs of slaves carrying tusks were fastened at the neck with wooden poles, the missionary wrote, and “the neck is often broken if the slave falls in walking.” Many of the women carried babies on their backs as well as a tusk on their heads, and if a woman became too weak to carry both, a trader told him, “We spear the child and make her burden lighter.”
Tippoo Tib’s caravan took more than a year to force its way down to the coast, because a local chieftain named Mirambo had blockaded all trade at Lake Tanganyika. Ernst Moore, an ivory trader who represented Pratt, Read in Zanzibar, later wrote about the expedition in his 1931 book Ivory–Scourge of Africa: “During this year and more, when no ivory of consequence was arriving at Zanzibar on account of Mirambo’s blockade, the Yankees in the Connecticut ivory-cutting factories were starving for ivory tusks. The arrival of Tippoo, with tons and tons of ivory, and the news that he had arranged peace with Mirambo and that the trade route was again open, were hailed with shouts of joy that reverberated from the eastern coast of Africa to the inner shores of Long Island Sound.”
(to be continued)