Millions Become Slaves
BY THE time Olaudah Equiano was born, ships from Europe had carried African slaves across the Atlantic Ocean for two and a half centuries. But slavery was much older than that. The enslavement of humans, usually as a result of warfare, had been widely practiced throughout the world from ancient times.
In Africa too, slavery flourished long before ships from Europe arrived. States The New Encyclopædia Britannica: “Slaves have been owned in black Africa throughout recorded history. . . . Slavery was practiced everywhere even before the rise of Islām, and black slaves exported from Africa were widely traded throughout the Islāmic world.”
What made the transatlantic slave trade different was its scale and duration. According to the best estimates, the number of slaves that crossed the Atlantic Ocean from the 16th to the 19th century was between 10 million and 12 million.
The Triangular Route
Soon after the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, European colonists established mining operations and sugar plantations in the Americas. In addition to enslaving the local people, Europeans began to import slaves from Africa.a The shipping of slaves across the Atlantic began as a trickle in the mid-1500’s, but by Equiano’s day, in the mid-1700’s, it had become a flood—about 60,000 captives each year.
Ships from Europe generally followed a triangular route. First they traveled south from Europe to Africa. Next they sailed the middle passage (the middle link in the triangle) to the Americas. Finally they sailed back to Europe.
At each point of the triangle, captains traded. Ships set out from European ports heavily laden with goods—textiles, iron, guns, and alcohol. Upon reaching the western coast of Africa, captains exchanged these wares for slaves supplied by African dealers. The slaves were crammed into the ships, which then set sail for the Americas. In the Americas, the captains sold the slaves and then loaded goods produced by slave labor—sugar, rum, molasses, tobacco, rice, and, from the 1780’s, cotton. The ships then sailed back to Europe, the final leg of the journey.
For the European and African traders, as well as for colonists in the Americas, the trade in what they called live cargo meant business, a means to make money. For those who were enslaved—husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters—the trade meant brutality and horror.
Where did the slaves come from? Some were kidnapped, as was Olaudah Equiano, but most were captured in wars fought between African states. The suppliers were African. Historian Philip Curtin, a specialist on the slave trade, writes: “Europeans soon learned that Africa was far too dangerous to their own health to make direct slave raiding possible. Enslavement came to be a function performed by Africans alone . . . The stream of people fed into the slave trade at its point of origin were mainly captives.”
The Middle Passage
The journey to the Americas was a terrifying experience. Marched to the coast fettered in groups, Africans languished, sometimes for months, in stone forts or in smaller wooden compounds. By the time a slaving ship arrived bound for the Americas, the captives were often already in poor health from the abuse they had suffered. But worse was to come.
After being dragged aboard ship, stripped naked, and examined by the ship’s surgeon or captain, the men were shackled and taken below deck. Shipmasters packed as many slaves as possible into the hold to maximize their profit. Women and children were given greater freedom of movement, though this also exposed them to sexual abuse from the crew.
The atmosphere of the hold was foul, putrid. Equiano describes his impressions: “The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died . . . The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.” Captives had to endure such conditions throughout the crossing, which took about two months, sometimes longer.
In the appallingly unhygienic conditions, disease flourished. Epidemics of dysentery and smallpox were frequent. Mortality was high. Records suggest that until the 1750’s, 1 in 5 Africans on board ship died. The dead were thrown overboard.
Arrival in the Americas
When the slave ships neared the Americas, the crew prepared the Africans for sale. They loosed the captives from their chains, fattened them up, and rubbed them with palm oil to make them look healthy and to disguise sores and wounds.
The captains usually sold their captives by auction, but sometimes they organized a “scramble,” which required buyers to pay a fixed price beforehand. Equiano writes: “On a signal given, (as the beat of a drum) the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamour with which this is attended and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers serve not a little to increase the apprehensions of the terrified Africans.”
Equiano adds: “In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again.” For families that had somehow managed to stay together through the living nightmare of the previous months, this was a particularly bitter blow.
The Work and the Whip
African slaves worked on plantations to produce coffee, rice, tobacco, cotton, and especially sugar. Others labored at mining operations. Some worked as carpenters, metalworkers, watchmakers, gunsmiths, and sailors. Still others were domestic workers—servants, nurses, dressmakers, and cooks. Slaves cleared land, constructed roads and buildings, and dug canals.
Yet, despite the work that they did, slaves were regarded as property, and by law a master had absolute rights over his property. Slavery, however, did not survive merely by the denial of rights and freedoms. It survived by the lash. The authority of owners and their supervisors depended on their ability to inflict pain. And they inflicted plenty of that.
To discourage rebellion and to keep their slaves in check, owners administered degrading physical punishment for even minor offenses. Equiano writes: “It was very common [in the West Indies] for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master’s name, and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed on the most trifling occasions they were loaded with chains, and often instruments of torture were added. The iron muzzle, thumbscrews, etc. . . . were sometimes applied for the slightest faults. I have seen a negro beaten till some of his bones were broken for even letting a pot boil over.”
Sometimes the slaves chose to revolt. Most revolts, though, were unsuccessful and were punished with ruthless ferocity.
a The main European nations directly involved in the transatlantic trade were Britain, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain.
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The dead were thrown overboard
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As many slaves as possible were packed into the hold
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / The New York Public Library / Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations