Abson & Company

Slave Traders in Eighteenth-Century West Africa

February 2019 9781849049627 224pp


Yorkshireman Lionel Abson was the longest-surviving European stationed in West Africa in the eighteenth century. He reached William’s Fort at Ouidah on the Slave Coast as a trader in 1767, took over the English fort in 1770, and remained in charge until his death in 1803. He avoided the ‘white man’s grave’ for thirty-six years.

Along the way he had three sons with an African woman, the eldest partly schooled in England, and a daughter named Sally. When Abson died, royal lackeys kidnapped his children. Sally was placed in the king’s harem; her brothers vanished. That king became so unpopular as a result that the people of Dahomey disowned him.

Abson also mastered the local language and became an historian. After only two years as fort chief, he was part of the king’s delegation to make peace with an enemy, a unique event in centuries of Dahomean history.

This singular book recounts the remarkable life of a key figure in an ignominious period of European and African history, offering a microcosm of the lives of Europeans in eighteenth-century West Africa, and their relationships with and attitudes towards those they met there.


‘A fascinating account.’ — The Budapest Times

‘This well-researched study tells the intriguing story of an erudite Yorkshireman who “went native” in West Africa and spent thirty-six years organising the export of slaves there — a strange figure but, as Alpern shows, not altogether unique.’ — Adam Jones, Professor of African History and Culture, University of Leipzig

‘A spirited, well-sourced and well-written biography of Yorkshire-born Lionel Abson, who spent years on the West African coast trading in slaves for the Caribbean. The author achieves excellent discussions of the indigenous background, the slave trade itself, the fate of Abson’s children after his death, and much else besides in this commendable book.’ — Deryck Scarr, Emeritus Senior Fellow, Australian National University and author of The Seychelles Since 1770

‘First-rate research.’ — Journal of British Studies


Stanley B. Alpern served in the US Navy in 1944-46, received his bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1947, and completed a master’s degree at Columbia University. After six years as a New York Herald Tribune copy editor and twenty-two years with the US information Agency, including five in Africa, he retired to France in 1977 to write about precolonial West Africa.  He is the author of Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey

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